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It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am passionate about my family. Always have been. Always will be. I have always had a grasp of the fact that, according to the biblical witness all the way to modern social sciences, we are made for each other. We are meant to be in relationship. We are meant for family.

The earliest witness of our faith from our Jewish roots places the locus for worship squarely in the family. Temple worship is meant for a deeper encounter with the divine, and the synagogue is simply a place where people gather (the literal meaning of synagogue: we gather). The family, however, is the central place of worship and spiritual formation. It is where we tell the story of our family … our values … our people … our faith. In the ancient Jewish tradition, if it didn’t happen in the family, it just didn’t happen.

Jesus took the notion of family and broadened it. He saw everyone as his family. The gospels of Mark and Matthew including an interesting encounter between Jesus and his family. His teaching is getting a bit edgy. He is thought by some to be a little out of control, and his mother and brothers were outside wanting to speak with him … perhaps even to take him home. Jesus apparently did not go outside to speak with them, but instead spoke only to the messenger:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)

Jesus will teach his disciples to call God “Abba!” A childlike name like Dada or Mama. He is redefining the family. The family is still the central place where we deepen our faith, but family is more than just our biological family. It is a series of relationships that connect us in ways that are far more intimate than we normally imagine. This is about a deeper understanding of family, and like siblings in a family, it comes through a connection with a common parent.

This is why I use the term family in talking about church. It is about us being a church family. Having a common God who unites us, we come together, not just as passing acquaintances, but as brothers and sisters.

In our church family at Wellspring, we are spending the Easter Season (the 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday) talking about the Beloved Community proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Dr. King who spoke of a community where ALL were loved and respected. This is a community where justice reigns supreme and where, according to the teachings of Jesus, the last are first and the first are last … where the one who is the servant of all becomes the master of all … where the poorest are the richest. This is a place where we fulfill the greatest calling of our shared humanity.

We live in a world and so often participate in a culture where it is easy to dehumanize others. We dehumanize people whose color or ethnic identity is different from our own. We dehumanize people who speak different languages or who have different customs. We dehumanize people who have a different experience of the divine than we do. And throughout history, the male-dominated cultures have had a horrible tendency to dehumanize women. Sadly, this dehumanization continues today in all its ugly forms.

As a Christian pastor, however, I am calling us to task. If we are TRULY Christian, then dehumanization of the other is not possible. To be truly Christian is to see all others as our brothers and sisters. It is to see that we are all equally part of the human family. It is to see that we are all people deserving of respect and love and justice. It is to understand that, if we are to find ourselves deserving anything, it is because we are those who find our place, not at the head of the table, but in service to those who are the weakest … the ones whose power has been stripped from them.

This is about the rehumanization of our world … a task that requires courage!

This season of Eastertide is very important to me. Interestingly, the number 50 (as in the number of days of the Easter season) is important. In ancient Jewish culture, there was something that was supposed to happen after seven consecutive periods of seven years. After 49 years, during the 50th year, all debts were forgiven, all prisoners were freed, all land returned to its original state. The slate was wiped clean and there was a new start. It was called the Jubilee Year!

The Easter season is the time when we are challenged to realize (to make real) the Jubilee gift of Easter. All debts are freed. Justice is restored. Life is reimagined. Hope is reborn. This is the gift that comes to us when we rehumanize our world … when we discover, to our delight, that we are all part of the same family!

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Just for Today

Today. It was 50 years ago today that the assassin’s bullet found Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to silence him. It was 50 years ago today that those who opposed the civil rights movement and all that it stood for thought it had ended. But it was 50 years ago today that the movement had only just begun.

MLK #!Today … yes, today … justice is still not realized. Today the African American male still walks in fear that they will be gunned down for holding onto their cell phone. Today we still watch the economic injustice that plagues our communities where the African American with a graduate degree will likely earn less than a white high school drop out. Today if we look at leadership in government and church and throughout our culture and, if we look closely, we should be startled by its whiteness … not to mention its maleness.

What is interesting is that, in my devotional reading for today, the scripture text was based on Acts 4:32-35 (CEB):

The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

Sadly, the writer failed to catch that today is the day to talk about the Beloved Community, the community of Dr. King dreams. The beloved community is the place where people are not judged by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or anything else that would sort us into any “us and them” relationship. The community of Dr. King’s dreams is a community like the one described in Acts. Those who have resources are not considered better or more privileged than those who do not have resources. The beloved community is the place where we live out such radical notions that the greatest are made the least and the least are made the greatest and where the master becomes the slave and the slave becomes the master. It is a community where we celebrate all contributions, no matter how small, as authentic gifts that build up our shared community.

It is so hard right now not to rail against our culture … our leaders … our church … THE church … for failing to create this community. I’ve said it before that the church comprised of people of privilege will tend to misread Matthew 25:40:

Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

When I ask, “Who is Christ in this story?” the answer I invariably get is the people who are doing the good things are being the “hands and feet of Christ.” The problem here, you see, is that I tend to be a bit more of a literalist than most people imagine.The text literally says that when you have done these things, you have done them to Jesus. The “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” … those devoid of privilege … those who we so easily cast aside … those who are invisible to us … those who we justify as being somehow “bad” when they are subjected to racial profiling … THESE PEOPLE ARE CHRIST TO US! Not the other way around..

So friends, if we want unity with Jesus … if we want Jesus to be in our churches or in our neighborhoods or in our homes … then perhaps we should find the people whom Jesus describes and invite Jesus to be with us. And maybe instead of dragging them into our places of comfort and privilege, what would happen if we just went to where they were?

The beloved community is found down the streets that scare us. It is found in the schools our state wants to forget. It is found in the faces of those who struggle daily to make ends meet. And it isn’t as far from you as you think.

So today I will open my eyes. Today I will make every effort to honor the legacy of Dr. King by owning my own complicity for injustice. Today I will be honest about my own privilege and seek in every way possible to let it go. Today I will ask God to lead me to the promised land … to show me just one thing I can do to help create and live into the beloved community.

Today!

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I have been reflecting upon Holy Week. I am a pastor, so that’s what I do.

This week, I have been specifically reflecting on Judas and his betrayal. To start, I think we are pretty hard on Judas. While the author of John’s Gospel sees him as just plain bad (he used to steal from the common purse, he was evil, etc), the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say that Judas was influenced by the devil.

As I have described before, I’m not so sure the devil, as described in the Synoptics, is the dark god of our nightmares. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, as is Christianity, so we are cautioned to be careful of dualities that bring us to the conclusion that the devil is the god of the underworld. The devil … the satan …  is best described by the Greek word diabolos. The diabolos is the distractor … the one who uses my distractibility … my attention deficit … to pull me off the path. The devil is the “ooh, shiny” among those who follow Jesus.

And Judas is someone who is off track.

Some authorities suggest that perhaps he was a zealot who wanted nothing more than to throw off Roman oppression. Some have also suggested that perhaps he believed in Jesus, but what he believed about Jesus was wrong. If he was looking for the Military Messiah to restore the reign of King David to Israel and bring it into a power unlike the world had ever seen, he had the wrong person in Jesus of Nazareth. In that scenario, it may well be that his “betrayal” was because he believed that Jesus, if backed into a corner, would finally become the Military Messiah Judas thought he was.

Then there are those who suggest that Judas might have simply given up on Jesus. Jesus was not meeting Judas’s expectations. The ministry of Jesus was destined to fail. Especially with his eyes set on Jerusalem, the most dangerous place to be, Jesus was doomed, and Judas just wanted to let it end. There is a hint of this among the disciples in John 11, when Jesus begins his journey toward the tomb of Lazarus. In that story, it is Thomas that says (despondently, sarcastically, or perhaps even with some derision), “Let us go with Jesus to Jerusalem that we may die with him.” (I know some think that sounds noble, but I hear it differently.)

Regardless of what is behind Judas’s action, he betrays Jesus. We are told he betrayed him with a kiss. What an image. An act of love and devotion that leads to death.

Regardless of what Judas might have expected, Jesus gave in. He did not resist. He was arrested, tortured and killed. And Judas was despondent. One text tells us that he hung himself and the chief priests used the silver to buy Potter’s Field (see Matthew 27:3-10), while another says Judas bought the field himself and then fell headlong into it and “spilled his guts” (sorry for the grossness, folks, but that’s the image we find in Acts 1:18-19). Mark and John do not mention anything about Judas following his betrayal. What we can assume, however, is that Judas found himself in a hell of his own making, and many have assumed that, because of his acts, he is the one disciple who is spending eternity in hell. But are we really sure?

Jan Richardson is the writer of devotions in the Upper Room Disciplines (the devotional guide I use) for this week, and she spoke the greatest truth for me in Tuesday’s devotional reading. She reflects  on John 12, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These are her thoughts:

We sometimes make letting go such a hard thing. We resist giving up. But what if it is not about giving up but giving in? Falling into dirt, as Jesus says here. Going where grain is supposed to go; following the spiral within the seed that takes it deeper into the dark but also – finally, fruitfully – out of it. (Disciplines 2018, pg. 111)

When we find ourselves in darkness and despair … often because of the very things we have done (sometimes with very good intentions), we fear there is no way out. When we can embrace the wilderness of conflict and seek neither to dehumanize nor be dehumanized by those who disagree (sometimes sharply) with us, we find ourselves in the dark. Sometimes owning up to our own demons, our addictions, our overwhelming fears gives us a feeling of what hell is like.

The good news is that Jesus is unafraid to storm hell’s gates. Jesus is unafraid to reach boldly into our darkness.

The Roman Catholic version of the Apostles Creed has an interesting addition that we Protestants don’t use. The creed says that Jesus …

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Judas found himself in hell (no matter how we define hell). I wonder what this affirmation might mean for Judas (and all of us who are prone to Judas-like behavior). This Saturday, we celebrate what is called Holy Saturday. At Wellspring, we have probably more than a hundred kids and their parents hunting Easter eggs and enjoying our Easter Eggstravaganza. We celebrate Easter fully … one day early.

But in the ancient church, this Saturday is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Jesus is giving hell … well, hell … to use our modern vernacular. The gates of hell are broken down. Jesus is claiming that there is no place that is beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God, and there is no one … NO ONE … who is beyond the reach of grace. So I wonder if Jesus went there perhaps because Judas was there, and perhaps Judas and the criminal to whom Jesus promised salvation and maybe even the one who scorned Jesus are with him.

Now that I think about it, I think there was a word of forgiveness for those who were the architects of hell … the Romans who abused their victims and subjected them to the horrible effects of unrestrained power (see Luke 23:34). And surely this was the same forgiveness offered to the religious leaders who were complicit in his execution.

Maybe even they are not beyond the reach of Jesus. Maybe Jesus is coming to offer a new life to EVERYONE whose life is pretty hellacious right now.

So are you beyond Jesus’s grasp? What about me? Sometimes I find myself in that place that feels like hell. Nothing is going right. I feel cut off and “blessed assurance” is but a fleeting dream.

Try this. When you find yourself in whatever hell you are experiencing, don’t be frantic about it. Stop and listen! Jesus is breaking down the gates. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, just reach out your hand. Do you feel it? It is the hand of the crucified reaching for you!

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Thinking a lot about orthodoxy these days. Orthodoxy literally means “right belief” or “right opinion.” In church life, we talk about orthodox theology as that thinking about God considered by the church to be correct and true. The problem is that our God is not a static God. The notion that God is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” implies that we have a static, unchanging God.

In reading those who are, in my mind, sages or mystics, I have come to see God as One whose nature is perpetual motion. An ever-expanding God even as the universe is an ever-expanding universe. I see God as one who does not let me get to one place and stand still … in my thinking, in my relationships, as a pastor and, perhaps most especially, in my own understanding of God.

I decided early in my life that I was going to be a lifelong student. Always learning. Always growing. There have been times when I was tempted to think I “had arrived” … that I finally knew everything there was to know … about life … about God … about relationships … about me. Man, was I wrong!

When I opened myself up to the “ever-expanding God,” I began to learn things I never before had dreamt. I learned of a God who is so much more compassionate and loving than I ever thought possible. I learned of a Jesus who practices justice in new and evolving ways. I learned of ways to think about social justice and how to create space for human dignity that I simply had not considered before.

I learned that people … regardless of how God created them to be … regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their language or their income levels … bear the image of the creator in them. I learned from Jesus that when I care for the poor, it is not because I am being Christ to them … it is because THEY ARE CHRIST TO ME! I don’t bear the face of Jesus in my encounter with the poor. They bear the face of Jesus to me. I invite you to read Matthew 25 more closely!

Orthodoxy tends to freeze us in time. We are caught up in attributes of God only as described by Christians who went before us. I fully respect the traditions, creeds, and affirmations of my spiritual ancestors, but I also absolutely will not give up the notion that God is speaking to me and my contemporaries. Our contemporary experience of the divine also counts as we live into our faith today!

So instead of orthodoxy, I tend more toward orthopraxis. Orthopraxis literally means “right practice.” It means that, regardless of what creeds or affirmations I inherited from my spiritual ancestors, I am called to do good … to love God and neighbor … in increasingly creative ways.

We, who are heirs of this strange practice known as Methodism, are all about praxis. There are those who claim what they call “Wesleyan Orthodoxy,” but I don’t think such a thing exists. If John Wesley had been truly orthodox (adhering strictly to the rules and teachings of his Anglican Church), he certainly would not have ordained people when he was not a bishop. If John Wesley had submitted himself to the restraint of those in authority over him, he would have stayed within his own parish (a strict geographical boundary of who “belonged” to your own local church). He preached everywhere, especially where he found the poor, the hard-living people, and those for whom the church was irrelevant or dangerous.

Last year, I attended the gathering of Uniting Methodists, and Dr. David N. Field was a keynote presenter. During one of his presentations, he noted that many across the theological spectrum in our United Methodist Church often quote Mr. Wesley’s famous line: ““I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” (from his Journal Entry, June 11, 1739). Yet, according to Dr. Field, what we don’t grasp is that the statement is itself an act of ecclesial disobedience (think civil disobedience but in opposition to church law).

In other words, Wesley was not orthodox. He did, however, know fully what orthopraxis was about. He did not care as much for the talk, but he cared deeply (and devoted his entire life) to the walk.

So today, I am committing myself to orthopraxis. Living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way possible. Reaching the poor, making disciples, inviting people to follow this one who taught us about a new way that was so much more than “right thinking” or “right opinion.” Let’s follow the one who taught us about the love of God and all of our neighbors. At Wellspring, we just say “all means all”.

I invite you to join me in this walk of faith … praxis … that leads us straight to the heart of God.

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To say that Rabbi Irwin Kula has become an influence in my life would be an understatement. I have been tutored by this rabbi through his book, Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. Rabbi Kula, in his chapter on Inspiration and Illumination shares insight about the first story of creation, found in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a. Of this story, he says,

The world began with an act of supreme creativity. Something was made out of nothing, and life began its glorious unfolding. There’s such a wonderful order to it all: each day yielding a new form of life; every day seeming to reach such a satisfying conclusion; then humankind created “in the image of the Creator.” … How marvelous to imagine that humankind was made in the image of an artistic genius worthy of being named the Creator, God, or all that is. St. Thomas Aquinas called God “Artist of Artists.” … The world was left unfinished so that humans could have a part in creation. (Yearnings, pp. 183-184)

As I read and reflected on this, something significant hit me about the opening stories of Genesis. The section of the Bible generally known as the primeval story is contained in Genesis 1-11, and they start with this beautiful story of creation and then end with the unfolding of the judgment on the people who built the tower commonly known as the Tower of Babel. What interests me here is that the opening story, as Rabbi Kula so well describes it, is a story where people are invited into the creative process. It is godlike for us to engage in the creative process and thereby reflect our creator as we engage in the very act of creation.

But the conclusion of the primeval story ends with humans wishing to engage in a different creative process. Combined with our yearning to share in this creative process is the longing to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Then further mix it with the judgment that befalls the man and the woman described in the second creation story (starting in Genesis 2:4b) because they longed to “be like God,” and we have an interesting story that unfolds.

What interests me here is that we are people who are invited into the creative process, yet we suffer from this tendency to lose our way in the partnership. We want to go it alone … to make a name for ourselves … to cut God out of the deal because, quite frankly, we are pretty sure we can do it better ourselves.

As I reflect upon my life, I think I see the truth in this. I am a native Texan, and with that comes a bit of an attitude and a belief that I can actually pull myself up by my own bootstraps. An image that brings a smile, if you think about it a minute. There are times in my life when I have acted impulsively. I have acted according to my own interests and pretended that it was for the good of others … the church … the community … the world. There are times when I have acted out of fear … as though I might be forgotten, or worse, irrelevant … if I didn’t take decisive action myself.

In the opening story of creation, we are invited to be co-creators with God … those who tend the creation that God provided. But we are prone to distrust, and we give up on the partnership. Then it all falls apart.

So where does this lead us? Ultimately, this becomes for me another facet of my central theme: “Let go and let God.” It doesn’t mean that I am passive and simply sit by letting God do all the work. It does mean that I am actively engaged in helping create a world like God intended it to be. I seek to create a world where justice is the norm. I seek a world where, as we at Wellspring put it, all are welcome and all are accepted! I want a world that is a reflection of our expansive creation born of an ever-expanding, all-consuming God. That means that I want a world where there is no “us versus them” thinking and where we all seek a common unity born amidst our diversity and inclusivity.

But that doesn’t happen without trust. I have said before that there is a difference between what we consider belief and what we consider faith. Belief is, for many of us, an effort to get our heads around something … to give acclamation to a principle or person or deity. We tend to associate belief with an act of ascent.

Faith, on the other hand, is about trust. It means that I am fully incapable of getting my head around who God is, but I am confident that God can get God’s arms around me. It is that notion that, no matter what I face, God’s got this. When I then move through life and ministry with that kind of trust, I am available for reflection, reproof and appropriate change. It is this faith that has led me to a greater level of inclusiveness and given me a voice on such matters when I previously had a far softer voice.

Today I received an email from a reader. Someone who has been cut off from the church … by the church. She had read my blog titled “Feeling Unmoored,” and described how her life felt unmoored after having been cut off from the church because of who God created her to be. It was then that my reading of both an email and an incredible book came together for me. I am called to partner with God in creating a world where people like this child of God are given a place among the people of God.

So you are invited. You are invited to be partners with God as we seek a world like the one described in the opening passages of Genesis. You are invited to create a world that the creator, the “Artist of Artists” might well call very good!

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Noise

Noise. It is almost like there is a perpetual disturbance around me these days. Like waters that will not stay still. A moment’s peace and then more noise. The To-Do List stays long. There are not enough hours in a day. The time for creative writing and sermon planning seem to grow shorter. Even when that time comes, the noise in my own mind becomes so loud that creativity is shut out.

Our denomination is full of noise. We are trying to decide if we United Methodists might be able to figure out how to stay united. Groups who want control are tightening up and becoming more organized (perhaps “galvanized” might be the better word here). Tensions are growing in the debate over who gets included and who doesn’t. Whose theology rules over others. It is noisy in my beloved church right now.

But the church is also full of noise as the children of God raise their voice and hands in song. The noise of fellowship and hospitality. The noise of people building community.

Our culture is full of noise. Political noise. Violent noise. The noise of racism, sexism and white supremacy. The noise of children being shot. The noise of blame and hatred.

But the noise of hope is also heard as people care for one another, reaching beyond their own prejudices, walls and city limits to share the limitless power of love.

As I reflect on these noises, a song comes to mind. It is sung by one of my favorite singers, Neil Diamond. The song is Beautiful Noise. In it, I am reminded that those things I count as noise come together to create a symphony. Even the hard parts … especially the hard parts … are where God intends to make music.

In music, harmony and dissonance combine to create color and tone. Having listened to a great deal of music, I know this truth: the symphony is boring and lacks movement if it is ALL harmony, and the symphony is unbearable if it is ALL dissonant.

Listen closely, and you will hear it. Listen and perhaps you will hear God speaking through the noise to create beauty and movement. Beauty in our diversity and a movement that takes us ever closer to the heart of God. Somewhere in all of this noise, God is seeking to let a symphony of heavenly proportions emerge.

What do you hear in the noise around you?

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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!”

_______________________

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 —— “

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.

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