Nice People and Organ Music

There’s a little ordeal we clergy persons go through every year as we prepare for Easter—well many of us do, anyway.  Every year, as Easter approaches, we make ourselves a little bit crazy by submitting to a completely unnecessary and utterly self-imposed state of anxiety over the Easter Sermon.  For some, the anxiety doesn’t get to them until Holy Week, but many have been anxious for the whole preceding month.  Some started to feel the stress  right after Ash Wednesday and embraced it as a useful way to keep from being inappropriately happy during Lent.  Some started fretting about their Easter sermon the day after Christmas.  Those preachers will start worrying about their Christmas sermon tomorrow morning.

See, the thing is, we want the Easter Sermon to be perfect.  We want it to be so persuasive and so eloquent that those of you who came to church believing that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead will have your faith renewed, and that those of you who came in doubting the resurrection will be moved to rethink your doubts.  In short, we want it to do the impossible, and we want it so badly that sometimes all our words get in the way of the only One who cando the impossible.  We forget sometimes that our main job is to stand to the side and say, “Oh, hey!  Look what God just did!  I thought that was impossible, but there it is!  Christ is risen!”

Ted Peters, one of my favorite seminary professors, once told us that a pastor really only has two jobs: proclaim the gospel and love the people.  I think he’s absolutely right about that, but it doesn’t apply just to pastors.  Every friend of Jesus has those same two jobs:  proclaim the good news and love the people.  And you can’t really do one without the other.  Not well, anyway.  If you want to proclaim God’s Good News in any truly meaningful way, you have to love those who will be hearing it.  You have to have some idea of what, exactly, will be good news for them in their lives.  

We don’t all come to church on Easter morning for the same reason or in the same state of mind and heart.  All kinds of things happen in the world that can afflict us and affect us in different ways, and even the most devoutly faithful persons might show up to church on Easter morning in a less than fervent state of faith.

In 2008, Garrison Keillor wrote about an Easter Sunday when he arrived at church in a less than fervent state of faith.  He wrote:

“I came to church as a pagan this year, though wearing a Christian suit and white shirt, and sat in a rear pew with my sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter whom I would like to see grow up in the love of the Lord, and there I was, a skeptic in the henhouse, thinking weaselish thoughts.

“This often happens around Easter. God, in His humorous way, sometimes schedules high holy days for a time when your faith is at low tide, a mud flat strewn with newspapers and children’s beach toys, and while everyone else is all joyful and shiny among the lilies and praising up a storm, there you are, snarfling and grumbling. Which happened to me this year. God knows all about it so I may as well tell you.

“Holy Week is a good time to face up to the question: Do we really believe in that story or do we just like to hang out with nice people and listen to organ music? There are advantages, after all, to being in the neighborhood of people who love their neighbors. If your car won’t start on a cold morning, you’ve got friends.”

I’m happy to say that Garrison Keillor decided that he really does believe in the story.  It happens that he also likes to hang out with nice people and listen to organ music, so it’s a win-win for him.  And for me, too.  I have, in the past, had that Easter Sunday morning when I showed up for church asking myself if I really believed in the story.  And, though I wasn’t quite feeling it on that one Easter Sunday, I came through that time on the other side of the question, quite clear in my own mind that, yes, I do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  

Now I could give you all kinds of reasons why I think the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact—why I think that it really happened.  I could take you through all four gospel accounts and point out how, despite all their differences, they are amazingly consistent in the main points of the story.  I could take you to chapter 15 of First Corinthians, the earliest written testimony to the resurrection, where St. Paul points out that the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time plus all the disciples and even to Paul, himself.  I could point out that during centuries of sometimes vicious persecution, the followers of Jesus were stubbornly consistent in asserting that Jesus had been raised even when making that claim could get them imprisoned, tortured and executed.  I have preached that Easter sermon before, and while it’s good for getting discussion started and might encourage someone to reexamine and even trust the historical evidence, in the end, believing the historical evidence is not quite the same as believing in the risen Christ.

In the end, I have to tell you that I believe that Christ is risen because I, too, have seen the living Christ.  No, I have not had a visionary experience like the one that converted Persecutor Saul into Apostle Paul.  I have not experienced the risen Jesus the same way Mary Magdalen did when she mistook him for the gardener outside the empty tomb on that first Easter morning, or like Thomas did when Jesus invited him to touch his wounded hands and feet and side.  Nevertheless, I have met the resurrected, living Christ.

I have felt Christ’s presence in prayer and worship and meditation.  I have encountered the risen Christ in unexpected moments of generosity with people on the street or in the parking lot of a convenience store.  I have felt Christ guiding me as I studied the scriptures, history, and even psychology.  Most frequently, though, I have experienced the presence of the risen Christ in the community of faith.  I have experienced the love of Jesus, the peace of Jesus, the profound presence of Jesus through living many years among faithful friends who cared for me and prayed for me and opened their hearts and lives to me. 

N.T. Wright wrote, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.  The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”

You may not have realized it, but when you walked through the church doors this morning, you were walking into an outpost of God’s kingdom, a place—a community—where we are doing our best to bring heaven to earth and show each other God’s love in Christ.  God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and you’re invited to belong to it.

So if you came to church on this Easter morning with some doubt or skepticism, you came to the right place.  You will be surrounded here by nice people who will respect your uncertainty, because we’ve all felt it at one time or another.  These nice people really do want to show you and the rest of the world the love and presence of the living Christ.  Some may even use words.  Also, there’s organ music!

Welcome to the kingdom of God.  The door is open.  And we’re all invited because…

Christ is risen.

Christ in the Seed

There was a seed that lay asleep under a thin blanket of soil until one day when the rains had softened the earth and the sun had warmed it, the shell of the seed cracked. It sent out slender roots to anchor itself firmly in the ground, then sent a green spike rising  up out of the dirt, unfolding its grassy blades as its transformed heart stretched upward, reaching for the sun.  And when it had reached just the right height, it crowned itself with a cluster of kernels, 30, 40, 50 seeds huddled together in a head of wheat, seeds identical to what the seed, itself, had been before it had been laid to sleep beneath the soil.  With nothing more than water, soil, sunshine and the imperative to grow, the seed reproduced itself fifty times over. 

Christ is in the seed.  Christ is in the soil.  Christ is in the rain.  Christ is in the sunshine.  Christ is in the growing.  Christ is in the roots and blades of the stalk, and in the nutrients gathered from soil and sun.  Christ is in the clustered seeds that crown the stalk.  And on that warm day when the sun turns the green to gold, Christ is in the harvesting and the threshing.  

Christ is in the crushing when the amber grains are ground to powdery flour.  Christ is in the transformation when the flour is mixed with water then kneaded into dough.  Christ is in the heat of the baking.  Christ is in the bread, in the breaking, in the sharing, in the eating.  

Christ is in the invitation to the table.  Christ is in the gathering itself.  Christ is in the crossing of all the social boundaries that so often keep us apart. 

Christ is in the gathering.

Christ’s table is for everyone.  On the night Jesus was betrayed even Judas was at the table with Christ.  Even his betrayer received the bread and wine.  Levi the tax collector was there.  So were the Galilean fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the sons of thunder. Simon the Zealot was there.  Mary Magdalen and Joanna and Mary, his mother were there.  People who would not have known each other except that he brought them together were gathered as companions, sharing bread, sharing his presence, trying to understand things they didn’t know how to hear.  

When Jesus, the Christ, broke the bread and began to pass it around the table he looked deeply into the faces of his friends and family and said, “This is my body.”  He was telling him that he was in the wheat and the grape and the rich earth which brought them to life.  He was telling them that he was in the transformation that turned seeds in the earth into bread and wine.  He was telling them that the life they were taking into themselves to sustain their own lives was life that had flowed from him.  

He was telling them that they were being filled with his life so that they could now  be his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears, his voice, and his heart to carry his love and forgiveness and message to the world.  He was telling them that they were assembled, united in him, as a body.  He was telling them that now they would be his body.  

He is still saying all of that to all of us.  When we hear the words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” he is telling us that we are the new covenant that carries his presence and forgiveness and love as an antidote to all the pain that’s forever being inflicted in the world.  Jesus is uniting us to be Christ in the world, to bring life and light into a world overwhelmed with death and shadow.

In him was life and that life is the light of all people.  

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  Life is in the bread and the wine.  The call to serve each other is in the bread and the wine.  Grace and forgiveness are in the bread and the wine, reminding us that goodness and transformation can come even from things that have been crushed. Companionship is in the bread and the wine.  Love is in the bread and the wine, nurturing us and sustaining us and empowering us to be Christ in the world…

in Jesus’ name.

The Words of Jesus from the Cross

Luke 23:34

Jesus is the soul of forgiveness.  He teaches us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  When he healed the paralytic, he told him his sins were forgiven.  He tells us, “Do not judge so you will not be judged; do not condemn so you will not be condemned, but forgive and you will be forgiven.”  Seventy times seven he told us to forgive.  But he, himself, has nothing to be forgiven for, except, perhaps for telling the truth in a world where truth is a very dangerous thing.  And on this dark afternoon, when they have humiliated him in a kangaroo court,  when they have condemned him with lies and false accusations,  when they have paraded him before puppet magistrates who washed their hands of his fate, when soldiers have spat in his face, beat him with their fists, whipped him within an inch of death, forced him to carry the instrument of his own torture up the hill, then driven iron spikes into his wrists and feet to fasten him to the cross… when they have done all this and hung him out to die in an agony of slow suffocation, the first words he utters from the cross are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  It is a fitting motto for our human race.  It is a prayer that should always be on our lips.  “Father, forgive us.  We know not what we do.”

Luke 23:43

Two thieves are being crucified with Jesus, one on either side of him.  One of them mocks him saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.”  The other, with a finer sense of justice, rebukes the first thief.  “We’re here because we’re guilty,” he says.  “But this man has done nothing to deserve this.”  Then, perhaps sensing that some deeper power is at work in this dark moment, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  We cannot guess what it costs Jesus to reply.  We cannot begin to imagine what kind of pain he endures as he pushes all his weight against the spike in his feet so that he might raise himself enough to gather his breath and speak.  But that’s what he does.  And when he speaks, he speaks a promise.  Could there be any greater grace than this?  Could there be any greater grace than for a condemned, dying person to hear him say, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

John 19:26

Jesus did not begin his ministry of preaching and teaching until he was 30 years old.   It has been suggested that this is may have been because Joseph had died, and Jewish custom would have expected that Jesus should provide for his widowed mother until his thirtieth birthday.  After that, he was free to pursue his own way.  He had probably taken care of her for years.  And now, from the cross, as he gasps for every breath and slowly bleeds out his life, he takes care of her again.  Seeing his disciple, John, standing next to his mother he creates for them both a new relationship.  He makes John his mother’s guardian and protector.   Tradition tells us that Mary stayed with John until she died some years later in John’s house in Ephesus.  John and Mary cared for each other faithfully the rest of their earthly days because, from the cross, Jesus now says, “Woman, behold your son.  John, behold your mother.”

Mark 15:34

We say that God is omniscient–– that God knows everything.  And why not?  God made the heavens and the earth–– the cosmos, the universe.  God made human beings.  God knows us inside and out, for in some mysterious way, we are made in God’s own image.  God reads the human heart and knows all its longings and desires, its pain and fear.  God is the supreme psychologist.  But there was one thing God did not know.  God did not know what it felt like to be human.  God did not know what it felt like to experience human frailty, human hunger, human stress and tension, human depression, human joys, human warmth, human fear––the whole gamut of human feelings as we experience them in our sensitive human bodies.  God understood all these things, but God had not felt them.  That is why God became human in Jesus Christ; so that God might truly know everything.  In Jesus, God experienced every human emotion and feeling as humans experience them, and one of the darkest things that God learned, one of the most painful things that Jesus experienced, is what it feels like to be utterly alone–– what it feels like when all your friends have deserted.  Jesus learned, God learned, what it feels like when it seems that even God has abandoned you.   

Here is a great and powerful mystery:  Because of this moment on the cross, God is with us even when we feel utterly Godforsaken.  At some time in each of our lives we have cried out in anguish–– because, at some dark moment in every human life we have, every one of us, felt utterly abandoned and hung out to dry.   The words of the Psalmist have echoed in our souls through all the centuries of our existence.  Anyone who doubts that Jesus was fully human, anyone who wants to think of him as a purely spiritual being somehow removed from human pain needs only listen to these words to see how wrong that picture is.  Jesus knows the darkest fear that lurks in every human breast.  Jesus knows despair.  He cries out the eternal question in a voice so loud it reverberates and bounces  through all of heaven and earth, through all of human history, and in our own fearful hearts:   “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?”  My God, My God… why have you forsaken me?   And now, there is only one thing left for God to learn, and that lesson is very near.  Now God will learn what it feels like to die.

John 19:28

He has been bleeding for hours.  The fluids in his body are rampaging in a frenzied attempt to cushion deep bruises and clot gaping wounds.  The scourging, alone–– being whipped with a barbed flail that has made the white of his ribs visible through his back–– the scourging alone is enough to make serious demands on his body’s reserves of water.  And now there are the nails and the fight against gravity, and his body’s valiant attempt to protect his heart, liver and kidneys.  And now, the one who told the woman at the well that he was living water–– that no one who drank of that living water would ever thirst, the one who transformed the waters of chaos into waters of adoption in his baptism, the one who changed water into wine so his friends would not be embarrassed at their wedding, the one who spoke all water into existence–– he begs for a single drink.  They bring him vinegar on a sponge when he whispers, “I thirst.”

Luke 23:46

It’s nearly over now.  Jesus is a strong man.  A carpenter.  A construction worker.  He is a strong-spirited man, filled, in fact, with the Holy Spirit.  But his human spirit can only endure so much.  It is time to give up the ghost.  Time to let go.  There is only one person in the universe whom he can trust with his very life as he lets that life go.  And so he gives himself up to that One, saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

John 19:30

It’s over now.  There is no fight left in him.  No will to survive.  No will at all, except the will to complete his mission.  To suffer, and in his suffering to absorb all suffering.  To die, and in his death, to absorb all death.  And now that is done.  The light of the world is extinguished.  And in the eerie darkness that has descended over him, over everyone and everything, he finds the strength to whisper three last words as his life bleeds away:  “It is finished.”

Extravagant Love

John 12:1-8

Shah Jahan, the Fifth Mughal emperor of India, was so deeply in love with his 3rd wife, that when she died in 1631 he spent the equivalent of a billion dollars to create a final resting place for her, an exquisite mausoleum that would speak to the world of the grace and beauty of the woman who was laid to rest within its walls.  He called it the Taj Mahal, naming it after his beloved wife. It has inspired lovers for centuries and is now designated as a world heritage site.  

When Amytis, the daughter of the king of Media, was sent to the flat and arid desert kingdom of Babylon to cement the political alliance between the two kingdoms, she became terribly homesick for the mountains and forests of her homeland.  Her husband, Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of Babylon, thought she might feel more at home if she had a garden.  So he created one for her, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Out of love for her, he created a place in the desert where she could be surrounded by lush greenery, and his extravagant monument to his love for her came to be revered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

History is filled with extravagant acts of love and devotion—Queen Victoria’s legendary decades of mourning for Prince Albert; Lucille Ball refusing to be part of  I Love Lucy, a show named for her, unless her husband Desi Arnaz played her husband on the show; Joe DiMaggio sending roses to adorn the grave of Marilyn Monroe several times a week for decades—those were all inspiring and extravagant acts of love.  But the most famous act of devotion in history happened one night at a private dinner in the little town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. 

Six days before the Passover, Jesus and his disciples came to Bethany to dine at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.  While they were dining, Mary began to anoint Jesus’s feet with a very expensive aromatic oil made from spikenard.  She not only massaged the ointment into his tired feet, she dried them with her hair. 

This has to be one of the most evocative and sensual moments in the whole Bible.  This scene in the Gospel of John engages all our senses.  The soothing balm of the ointment being lovingly and gently massaged into the skin of Jesus’s feet by tender and sensitive hands. The silken touch of Mary’s long, dark hair caressing his feet as she dries them.  And the aroma.  The fragrance, John tells us, filled the house—the fragrance of spikenard.  Earthy.  Spicy.  Musky.  Soothing.  Hypnotic. Even in ancient times, the scent of spikenard was used as aromatherapy to dispel anxiety and stress.  It was even used to treat melancholia—what we call depression.  The ancients believed that it’s scent could transport you out of your thoughts or worries or sadness into a state of tranquility, peace and well-being.

When Mary rubbed this exotic, expensive ointment onto Jesus’s feet, her lovely, extravagant act of devotion, kindness and love was probably exactly what Jesus needed at that moment.  The tender massaging of his feet after so many, many months of walking the stony and dusty roads of Galilee, the Decapolis, and Judah probably felt like a little bit of heaven.  After all the road-weary days and nights surrounded by sweaty disciples and jostling crowds the soothing fragrance that was filling every corner of the house was probably the nicest aroma he had smelled in a very long time.  That moment of just plain niceness as Mary focused all her attention on doing something pleasant for him, something that would speak her love for him better than any words—that moment would be his last moment of peace, intimacy and tenderness before his crucifixion.

Sadly, that moment was interrupted.  

“Why wasn’t this ointment sold and the money given to the poor?” asked Judas.  “This stuff is worth what…three hundred denarii?  That’s the better part of a year’s wages for a laborer.  There are better ways to use that much money than slathering it on his feet.”

The Gospel of John tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor at all but was angling for a way to get some of that cash into his own pockets.  And maybe that’s true.  But to be fair, spikenard ointment really was very, very expensive.  It’s made from a plant in the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China.  It was costly to make it and even more costly to transport it.

All four gospels tell the story of this deeply personal encounter, but they tell it in different ways.  In Matthew and Mark the dinner is held at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman who lavishes both expensive ointment and intimate attention on Jesus is not named.  In Luke the dinner is held at a Pharisee’s house.  Once again the woman is not named, but then neither is their host, the Pharisee.  One thing that all versions of this story have in common, though, is that someone is indignant about the attention and the expense being lavished on Jesus.  In Matthew and Mark, it’s all the disciples who complain about the expense of the ointment.  All of them chime in about how the money could have been given to the poor.  “Why was this ointment wasted in this way?” they say in Mark.  “Why this waste?” in Matthew.

Waste.  Her extravagant care for Jesus, her loving attention—they see it as wasteful.    

Why is it that some of us are so uncomfortable with extravagant expressions of love and devotion? What is it about moments of intimate caring that get some of us up on our high horse and turns us into critics?  What is it about lavish gestures of affection that suddenly turns some of us into outspoken proponents of philanthropy for the anonymous poor?  

I don’t usually quote Friedrich Nietzsche, but there is something he wrote that seems particularly appropriate here.  He said, “The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity—and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.”

Mary had bought this expensive ointment to anoint Jesus’s body after his death.  But she loved him so much that she couldn’t bear the thought that he wouldn’t get to experience its healing and soothing properties while he was still alive. So she opened the alabaster jar and anointed Jesus with it while he was still alive to sweeten his last hours and days “with a precious and fragrant drop of levity.”  She brought lightness to counter the heaviness of those final days.

Life is both precious and precarious.  Death is a foregone conclusion; it’s only the timing that’s uncertain.  So why do we not live every moment of every day with “a precious and fragrant drop of levity?”  Why do we not find more ways to express our love for each other?

Why do we back away from extravagance?  We should be accustomed to it.  At least, we should be if we’re paying attention.  “If the landscape reveals one certainty,” wrote Annie Dillard, “it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.  After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go.”

Mary was extravagant in her love for Jesus.  Jesus was extravagant in his love for the world.  And God has been extravagant in love poured out into all of creation.  

“There is a time for risky love,” said Max Lucado.  There is a time for extravagant gestures.  There is a time to pour out your affections on one you love.  And when it comes—seize it, don’t miss it.” 

May the extravagant love of Christ fill our hearts and give us courage to extravagantly love each other.  In Jesus’ name.

Unresolved Melody

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When I was seven years old, not long after we moved to California from Kansas City, a little black dog showed up at our door one night, whimpering on the front porch and scratching on the door to be let inside.  This adorable and pugnacious little Pekingese/Cocker mix of a dog didn’t have a collar or tags, and this was decades before microchips, so we had no idea where he came from or who his people might be.  We ran an ad in the paper and I went door-to-door for several blocks asking if anyone had lost their little black dog, but nobody claimed him. 

So we did.  We named him Barney. We got him his shots and tags, and he officially became our dog.

We loved Barney, and I’m pretty sure he loved us, too.  He would sleep curled up next to me in my bed.  He would snuggle up next to us on the couch when we were reading or watching TV.  He gave us lots of little dog kisses.  He loved to pull my sister and me up and down the sidewalk on our roller skates.  And he rode patiently in the car with us as we made the long car trip every summer back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see family.  He was in almost every way a perfect family dog.  But Barney had one bad habit.  An impulse, really.  If anyone left the back gate or the screen door open, he would be off like a shot, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, launching himself out into the world to have an adventure.  A few times he was gone for several days before some kind soul took him in and then called us to come pick him up.  

When Barney took off on one of his adventures, I’m sure it never crossed his little canine mind that we were heartbroken and worried sick about him.  And when he came home nothing was ever really resolved.  Dogs are very capable of showing regret, but Barney never did.  There was always a risk that he would take off and go exploring again.  It was just in his nature.  Some dogs are like that.  And so are some people.

We are all happier when people—and dogs—color within the lines.  We all secretly think that the world would be a better, happier place if everyone stayed in their lane and lived by the rules and boundaries as we know and understand them.  But the plain truth is that not everyone does.  Some people have different, looser ideas of what is acceptable and what is not.  Some dogs just want to see what else is out there.

Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with and sharing meals with “tax collectors and sinners.”  They didn’t think it was appropriate for Jesus to be making friends with people who were not socially acceptable by their standards, and they told him so.  But Jesus didn’t respond directly to their criticism.  Instead, he told them a story.

“There was a man,” he said, “who had two sons.”  We all know this story.  We call it The Prodigal Son, although a better title might be The Two Brothers, or even The Over-Indulgent Father.  Amy-Jill Levine suggests that it could be called The Parable of the Absent Mother.  That puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?   And it fits, since this is really a story about family dynamics.

Whatever title we use, we know this story so well that I wonder if we really listen to it.  There is a lot going on in this parable that could, maybe should, make us uneasy.  We assume that it’s about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  Or are we imposing our traditional understanding and ideas on this story and ignoring the ancient culture that heard it first, a culture that saw things very differently?

Was it a great sin for the younger son to ask his father for his inheritance?  Jewish law did not prohibit asking for your inheritance, so while it might have been considered foolish, it wouldn’t have been seen as a sin—at least not by the first century Jews who were listening to Jesus as he told this story.

Does the father sin by giving away half of his estate to the younger son?  Deuteronomy 21 says that the oldest son should inherit a double portion, but by the first century it was considered perfectly allowable for a man to divide his estate any way he saw fit.  So while the father’s actions in this parable could also be seen as prodigious foolishness, no one would think he was sinning.  In some circumstances he might even have been seen as prudent.  In The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Ben Sirach counseled, “When the days of your life reach their end, at the time of your death distribute your property.”  Is the father in this parable, perhaps, nearing the end of his days?  Would that explain why he so readily indulges his son’s unusual request?  The wording in the New Revised Standard Version says that the father “divided his property,” but the wording in the original Greek text says that he “divided his life.”  How should we hear that—not that he is giving half his money or property, but half his life to this younger son?

After asking for his inheritance, the prodigal son doesn’t leave immediately.  “A few days later” he gathers up his things and leaves.  Jesus doesn’t say what happened during those few days.  Did the father try to talk his son out of leaving?  Did the older brother step in and try to talk some sense into him?  The story doesn’t say.  We don’t even know if he said goodbye.  

What the story does tell us is that he went far away—to a far country—somewhere out beyond the boundaries of Jewish law, somewhere far beyond the boundaries and expectations of the home and community he grew up in.  In that far-away place, out beyond the familiar restrictions of home and community, he squandered his wealth with reckless living.  When his money was gone and famine hit the land, nobody helped him.  He managed to find a job feeding pigs, but it didn’t pay anything and he was so hungry that he thought about eating the seed pods that he was feeding to the pigs.  Amy-Jill Levine points out that there’s a proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbahthat says, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.”

This is the point in the story where this reckless young man decided that it was better to go home and eat crow than to starve to death in a pig stye.  Jesus, telling the story, says he came to himself.  He admitted to himself that he was not living the dream, having his best life.  He also seemed to realize that if he was going to go home, some sort of apology might be in order.  So as he walked the long way home, he rehearsed a little speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Now this might sound like he’s repenting, but is it real repentance or is it conniving?  He already knows that his dad is inclined to be extravagantly generous.  And notice this:  he not going to ask to be restored to the full status of being a son, but he’s not volunteering to be a slave, either.  He’s planning to ask his dad to treat him like one of the hired laborers.  They get paid.  When you read his little speech carefully, he still sounds pretty self-absorbed.  There’s no remorse for how he has treated his dad or his brother.  His confession that he has sinned is generic at best.  Basically, as David Buttrick put it, what the prodigal is really saying to himself is, “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”

He has rehearsed his little speech, but he never got to deliver all of it.  Before he even got all the way home, “while he was still far off” his father saw him and was filled with compassion.  His father ran to him, put his arms around him, kissed him, then started issuing orders.  “Get him some clean clothes!  Put a signet ring on his finger!  Get the barbeque going, and let’s celebrate!  My son was dead and is alive again!  He was lost and is found!”

And now the story shifts focus.  The older brother comes in from mowing hay all day in the hot sun and is surprised to find that there is a party going on because his younger brother has returned home.  This makes him mad, so angry that he refuses to go in the house.  His father comes out to plead with him, to beg him to come in and join the party.  And that’s when we learn that the relationship that is most damaged in this story is the connection between the father and the elder brother.  The older brother unleashes a tirade of pent-up resentment, and as he spews out his bitterness over years of being neglected and overlooked, the father realizes that it’s his older son who is truly “lost” to him.   For years the older brother has worked hard to be “the good son.”  For years he has been faithful to the family values.  For years he has faithfully contributed to the success and wealth of the family.  It’s clear from his outburst that he has a pretty low opinion of his younger brother, but it’s even more clear that his anger is directed primarily at his father.

In response to this flood of anger, all the father can do is try to reassure his eldest son that their bond endures.  “Child,” he says, “you are always with me.  All that I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  And that’s where Jesus ends the story.

As I said earlier, we have a long tradition of assuming that this parable is about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  As I read it again, I can’t help but notice that nothing in this story gets resolved.  It’s like a melody in the key of C that ends with a G7 chord.  Everything feels suspended.  The younger son never really expresses any remorse or sorrow, in fact no one in this family expresses any regret for the ways they’ve hurt each other.  The father gins up a party to celebrate the return of his younger son, but did you notice that he never actually speaks to him?  He does speak to his oldest son, but the story ends with the two of them still standing outside the house, outside the celebration.  

This parable leaves us with questions hanging in the air.  Will the two brothers reconcile?  Can the father repair his relationship with his oldest, neglected son?  Can he even persuade him to come into the house, to join the party?  Will the prodigal son stay and work for the good of the family, or will he be out the door again when someone leaves the gate or the screen door open?

When all is said and done, if it’s not about repentance and forgiveness, then what is Jesus trying to teach us with this parable?

In Short Stories by Jesus, her outstanding book on the parables, Amy-Jill Levine says that this parable actually guides us with straightforward advice: “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household.  Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share their joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again.  Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one.  Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it.  Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

“Instead, go have lunch.  Go celebrate and invite others to join you.  If the repenting and forgiving come later, so much the better.  And if not, you still will have done what is necessary.  You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation.  You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”[1]


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.69

Who Are You in the Story?

Luke 13:1-9

A 7.4 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan killed four people on Wednesday.  

In Florida wildfires damaged more than a dozen homes.  

Sixty homes were buried in a mudslide in northern Peru.  

Wildfires in Eastland, Texas destroyed a church and killed a sheriff’s deputy who was attempting to rescue a family trapped by the blaze.  

Two people were hospitalized after nine mobile homes were destroyed by a tornado in southern Alabama. 

Nine people were killed on a rural road in West Texas on Tuesday when a pickup truck driven by a 13-year-old boy blew a tire, crossed the center line and crashed head-on into a van carrying members of the University of the Southwest Golf Team.

Ten people were killed when a tropical cyclone hit Mozambique with sustained winds up to 118 miles per hour.

Eight people have died as a result of extensive flooding in and around Sydney, Australia and throughout New South Wales. 

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed in Ukraine so far, but the New York Times estimated that more than 7,000 Russian soldiers have died and more than a million Ukrainians have been displaced.

On top of all that, Covid is still sending an estimated 2,000 people a day to hospitals here in the United States.

There is no shortage of tragedy in our world.  On any given day, any given week, horrible things happen to people.  And when horrible things happen, one of our first instincts is to look for somewhere to lay the blame.

Sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint the source of the tragedy and fix the blame on the responsible party or parties.  I think we could all agree on who is primarily culpable for the slaughter and destruction in Ukraine.  But knowing who to blame and knowing the motives behind their aggression only makes the carnage more horrible.

It isn’t always easy to decide who or what is to blame for a tragedy.  Sometimes—far too often—we blame the victims.  What were those people in Peru thinking when they built their houses on an unstable hillside?  People in Alabama know they live in tornado alley so why would any of them choose to live in a mobile home park?

Some people blame God when horrible things happen.  When a horrendous earthquake killed more than 100,000 people in Haiti in 2010, Evangelist Pat Robertson said that God was punishing the people of Haiti because in 1804 they had made a deal with the devil to drive out their French colonial overlords.  He didn’t say why God waited 106 years to exact this punishment.  Robertson also claimed that Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and killed more than 1800 people, was God’s punishment for allowing abortion, gay rights, and other liberal policies to continue in the U.S. 

We might think Robertson’s ideas are Loony Tunes, but a surprising number of people still see the world that way.  The idea that calamity is God’s punishment for sin is as old as humanity.  In the Book of Job, when Job is afflicted with one heartbreak after another, the three friends who come to offer him moral support yammer on for days insisting that Job must have offended God in some way.  When Job resolutely insists that he is innocent, their response is pretty much, “Well you must have done something!”  In the end, though, God puts an end to their speculation about what Job might or might not have done. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” says God. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Go on, tell me if you’re so smart.”   The message in the end is that, while God may have allowed Job to suffer, God didn’t cause Job’s troubles.

While Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, some people brought up the issue of some Galileans whom Pilate had killed mingling their blood with their sacrifices.   Why were they talking to Jesus about this?  Were they thinking he would be scandalized by it?  Did they think he would be shocked that Pilate would not only kill these Galileans but would also profane their sacrifice?  Did they think that maybe, since he was also a Galilean, he might be angry enough to join the zealots who were fighting against Rome?   Or did they simply want him to share his thoughts on why God would do this or allow it to happen?  Was God punishing those Galileans for some reason?  Was their sin really so awful that they deserved to die that way?  

So Jesus asks them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Do you think God or Karma or the universe was punishing these Galileans because they were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee?  No.  That’s not how it works.  And those eighteen who were killed when the tower collapsed—do you think they were snuffed out because they were the most awful people in Jerusalem?  No.  God doesn’t work that way.  But… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.  

What did he mean by that?  Repent is such a ponderous and dreary word. It’s all about regret and contrition. The Greek word, though, metanoia, is full of possibility.  It means a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of viewpoint, a change of direction.  Metanoia might start with contrition, but it doesn’t end there.  Metanoia is a way forward.  

Jesus is telling them, “Unless you change the way you see and understand life, unless you change the way you see and understand God and how God works, you’re all going to be lost the same as they were.  Death can sneak up on you or catch you by surprise, and when it does, you’ve lost your opportunity to embrace the life and love of God and for that matter, the life and love of humanity.  You’ve lost your opportunity to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God and humankind and the rest of creation.  You’ve lost your opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

To bring home the point, he told them a parable.  A story.  “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘Look,  for three years now I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  The gardener replied, “Sir, leave it alone for another year.  I’ll dig around it and put manure on it.  Maybe it will bear fruit next year.  But if not, then you can cut it down.’”

A lot of us were taught in Sunday School to read parables as allegories.  So if we did that with this parable, the land owner would be God the Father and the tree would be some unproductive person who is not doing anything to improve the world, and the gardener who wants to spare the tree and work with it would be Jesus.

Reading the parable that way has some merit, but it also has some problems.  “Allegorical readings,” wrote Amy-Jill Levine, “can speak to eternal truths and ultimate longings.  Yet…such readings rarely produce a challenge and rarely offer a surprise; rather, they confirm standard Christian views.  A second problem with the traditional allegories…is that they cannot convey what a parable would have meant to its original audience.  Allegories require keys, so that readers know that the elements given in the tale correspond to very particular elements on the outside.  As these allegories were developed much later, that original audience would not have had the key.”[1]

How would you hear this parable if, instead of treating it as an allegory, you put yourself into the story?  What would you hear if you were to sit inside the parable, put on its characters for a moment and let them speak to you and through you?  What questions would this parable prompt you to ask yourself if you let it be more than a simple morality tale?  

For instance:  Am I like the absentee landowner?  Have I kept my distance from those places and moments where life and death actually happen and avoided getting my hands dirty?  Have I been pronouncing judgment from the sidelines?  Have I been seeing the value of things only in terms of whether or not they are productive in some measurable, consumable, marketable way?  Have I been looking a life through the lens of cost/benefit analysis, weighing how people and other living things consume resources and take up time and space?  Do I need to be persuaded to see possibilities, to extend a little patience and grace?  

Am I like the tree?  Am I failing in some way to nurture and nourish others?  Am I holding on to space and resources that could be used more productively to sustain others?  Am I willing to change or let myself be changed, to “repent,” to take the path of metanoia so I can learn to bring more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness into the world around me?  Am I taking life—being alive—for granted and neglecting the gift that God has given me to be present and aware and alive in this world?

Am I like the gardener?  Am I willing to get my hands deep into the dirt and manure of life if it will bring someone else some grace, give someone else a chance to grow and bloom and become what they were made to be?   Am I willing to give time and energy and love and hope to help someone else thrive?

Why do horrible things happen?  Jesus is not going to answer that question…  because “Why?” is not a life-giving question.  Jesus is not going to play the blame game, because placing blame doesn’t heal anyone or help the survivors.  Instead, Jesus tells us a story to remind us that life is both precious and precarious, and time is not on our side.  He reminds us that there are forces at work in the world which, like the land owner, would cuts us down without  hesitation or remorse.  But his story also reminds us that the force of love and life is also in the world, a force that is willing to go elbow deep in manure to give us a chance to grow and thrive and bear good fruit.  

Fred Rogers once said to his television friends in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been disheartening and depressing.  Hearing Vladimir Putin talk openly of using nuclear weapons is too scary to think about.  So this week I’ve been taking Mr. Rogers’ advice.  I’ve been looking for the helpers.  This week I’ve noticed some extraordinary things people have done to help the people of Ukraine survive their nightmare.  

  • Border guards, volunteers and ordinary people have lined the sides of the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Tisza river with stuffed animals and toys so that refugee children crossing from Ukraine into Romania could, as one volunteer put it, “enter the country with a nice thought.” 
  • An organization called Deaf Bridge, which had been working in Ukraine to help establish church ministries for deaf and hearing impaired, has quickly shifted to helping deaf people in Ukraine find shelter and escape routes.  Also, since deaf people can’t hear air raid sirens, they been teaching them to look for visual cues and paring them with hearing persons so that they can know when danger is imminent.
  • Polish parents have been leaving baby strollers in Poland’s railway stations for refugee parents to use when they arrive with their babies in their arms and their childcare necessities in a backpack.
  • Volunteers are arriving in Poland from all over the world to work with World Central Kitchen which is not only providing food for refugees but also for Ukrainian cities where food is in short supply.  In his nightly post on Facebook, Steve Givot, an American volunteer, wrote, “Today, my little group from Ohio, Idaho, Portugal, Canada, and the UK peeled an enormous quantity of potatoes and cored/sliced an ungodly amount of apples (for baby food).  I won’t go into details, but we were told that we fed 7000 people in Przemsyl and at the border, and we prepped food to be cooked in Lviv, Ukraine for another 30,000 people. Not a typo: 30,000.  The volunteers are from everywhere in Europe, the US/Canada, and one from Japan. They show up, and they work. Some for a few days, some for longer.” 

Life is both precious and precarious.  Horrible things do happen.  There is always someone who is ready to cut down the tree.  But there is also always someone who is ready to try to save it, someone who is willing to dig around the roots and even sink their hands into the muck to give it another chance at life.  So… who are you in the story?


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.128

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Luke 13:31-35

When some Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he should get outta Dodge because Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t going to let the Pharisees or Herod disrupt his mission.  “Go and tell that fox for me,” said Jesus,  “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Then I’ll be on my way.”  I wonder if those Pharisees were brave enough to actually go back to Herod with what Jesus had said. 

Calling someone a fox was not a compliment.  Today if you call someone a fox you usually mean they’re pretty good looking, but it meant something very different in those days.  A fox, in both Greek and rabbinic literature, was what you called someone who was crafty, sinister,  dishonest. Herod would not like being called a fox, and we should remember here that Herod was dangerous.  He had already killed Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist.   The Pharisees were saying that he wanted to kill Jesus, too.  So maybe calling him unflattering names wasn’t the safest thing to do. 

But Jesus had even more to say in his message for Herod.  “Tell that fox I’m casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  On the third day I’ll be on my way to Jerusalem because it’s unthinkable for a prophet to be killed anywhere else.”  

Maybe it’s just me, but I hear Jesus being a little bit snide here.  Just a little.  Getting in a dig. “Hey Herod, come see me, buddy.  Those demons that have been making you act like such a putz?   I can get rid of those for you and heal your shrunken heart at the same time.  But don’t think about it too long.  I’ll only around for a couple of days, then I’m on my way to Jerusalem because that’s where prophets go to be killed.  Sorry, I know you wanted to murder me here, but that job has been reserved for someone higher up the food chain.” 

Well, maybe that’s not the tone of voice Jesus was using, but he was making it clear that he was not afraid of Herod, the man who had killed his cousin.  He wasn’t going to let a threat from Herod stop him from healing people and freeing them from whatever was bedeviling them.  

So, Jesus sent the Pharisees back with a message.  And because he had mentioned Jerusalem, it got him thinking about where he was headed and what was waiting for him there.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I wanted to gather your children together like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings.  And you were not willing.”  

I hear such sadness in these words.  A lament.  It’s heartbreaking to hear the yearning in the heart of God expressed this way.  It’s painful to think of all the times God has reached out in love to gather and guide and protect, but like rebellious adolescents (which is a pretty apt description of humanity on the whole) we have turned away.  

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, The city that kills the prophets.  The city that stones the messenger.  Jesus calls out Jerusalem, but his words apply to any place, every place where people refuse to hear plain-spoken truth if it isn’t the “truth” they want to hear.    “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  Long Beach, Long Beach.  America, America.  Russia, Russia.  Humanity, Humanity.  How many times have I wanted to pull you all together in one protective and loving embrace, but you would not let me.” 

Like a hen gathering her chicks when danger threatens, when a hawk is circling overhead, when a fox or weasel is slinking around nearby—this is how God has yearned to protect us from all the craziness that we throw at each other in this world.  

Like a mother hen.  

When we talk about God helping and protecting us, I don’t think the go-to animal image for most of us would be a chicken.  When the prophet Hosea was telling the people how angry God was with them, he said God was going to come at them like a lion or a leopard.  God, he said, was going to come down on them like an enraged mother bear who’s been robbed of her cubs. (Hosea 13:7-8)  Yeah!  Hosea is talking about Angry God, here, but I think that’s what most of us want Protective God to be like, too.  When we feel threatened, I think most of us want Angry Bear God to show up.  But no, says Jesus.  That’s not how God does things.  God will not be a predator on our behalf.  But God, Jesus, will put himself between us and whatever predatory trouble is coming at us.  God, Jesus, will take the first and hardest hit.

Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story.  What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm.  She has no fangs, no claws, no ripping muscles.  All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body.  If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

Mother Hen God is no chicken.  When the fangs and claws come after her defenseless brood, she doesn’t run away.  She puts her whole self between the danger and her babies.  That, said Jesus, is what I’ve wanted to do for you always and everywhere.

But we won’t let him.  

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that there are really only two essential forces at work in this world:  fear and love.  That’s it.  They come in a lot of different guises, but it’s really only the two.  Fear, forever resisting the full, transformative power of love.  Love, forever trying to mitigate the destructive power of fear. 

Greed, lust, rage, hate, violence, blind ambition, exclusion, a thirst for power—those things are all born in fear.  Grace, forgiveness, courage, generosity, helping, healing, peacemaking, goodness—those things are all rooted in love.  

The militant Jesus imagined by Christian Nationalism, the Jesus who looks like Rambo, is an expression of fear.  But that’s not the Jesus of the gospels.

We will never be done with fighting and war until we conquer our fear.  We won’t be able to get on with the practical work of building a sustainable and peaceful humanity until we rid ourselves of the fear that spawns violence.  “Violence,” said Martin Luther King, “is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win their understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said. “Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”  Fear cannot drive out fear.  Only love can do that, too.

“There is no fear in love,” says 1 John 18, “but perfect love casts out fear.”  

When fear starts to stalk us like a fox, when pain or disruption seem to be aimed right at us, Jesus wants us to know that there is a safe place under the shelter of God’s wings where we can catch our breath and be still while we wait for trouble to pass.

“In you my soul takes refuge;” said the Psalmist.  “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until the storms pass by.”  May we all learn to be willing to place ourselves under the protecting wings of Christ.  May we all learn to embody Christ’s love that lifts us up and out of fear.  And just as we have found shelter under metaphorical wings of Jesus, when trouble threatens may we be loving enough and brave enough to spread out our wings to shelter others.  May we all be as brave as a mother hen.

That Reasonable Voice

Luke 4:1-13;  Matthew 4:1-11

————-

By the end of the third day his hunger pangs began to fade.  He had fasted before and expected this, and thanked God for this small blessing that made the discipline easier.  A little easier.  But he knew, too, that his craving for food could come roaring back unexpectedly, that his body’s impulse to survive would mean that no stray lizard or bug or mouse or even scorpion would be safe from his appetite unless he harnessed his will and tuned his physical hunger to the feast of his spirit. 

He had fasted many times for a day, several times for three days, and once even for seven days.  He knew what to expect and how to prepare for such fasts.  But this time was different.  Very different.  He had not prepared for this fast.  He had been led to it… led here, to this parched, eerie, yet providential place in the wilderness.  Led by a dove.  A snow-white dove who had fluttered down out of nowhere, out of everywhere, out of heaven to land on his dripping, baptized shoulder and nuzzle his cheek, then raised its face to the sunlight, eyes closed, head cocked and listening for a moment before taking wing and beckoning him to follow. 

            By the fourth day he had realized that here in the wilderness it would be very easy to lose track of the days, so every morning when the first light began to tinge the sky he made a mark on the sandstone face of the wadi with a sharp stone to count the days.  Then he would splash water on his face and his head and drink a sip from the small, clear pool that seemed to almost miraculously refill itself every night from a tiny trickle of stream.  He supposed there must be a spring somewhere uphill or, perhaps a larger oasis.  But this place and this water were enough for him, this small gash in the hillside with its pool and its single scrub tree and its long view across the desert.  

            And the days went by, each one like the day before.  Every morning the splash of water on his face—and with each splash hearing again, so fresh in his memory, that voice he had heard from heaven at his baptism:  “You are my son. The beloved.  I am well pleased with you.”  And he would stop and raise his wet face to the sky as the water from the pool mingled with his tears of joy.  And he would stand still like that until he felt the sunlight on his face.

He would recite the morning prayer as the sun crested the horizon.  Then he would sit, lean back against the canyon wall,  and pray.  And meditate.  And listen.  Listening to his body.  Listening to his breath.  Listening to the sounds of the wilderness.  Listening to the earth.  Listening to the night sky.  Listening for God.  And he would watch.  Watching the dust devils dance across the desert.  Watching the plants sway and bend in the wind.  Watching, sometimes, the endless dance of predator and prey, things hunting and things hunted.  Watching things rest.  Watching the stars move across the night.  Watching the moon slip through its phases.  Watching his own dreams.

            By the tenth day he would have had no clear idea of how long he had been there if it had not been for the marks he made on the wadi wall.  By the twentieth day he hardly moved.

He had vivid dreams when he slept and vivid visions when he meditated so that day and night began to blend together.   He began to slip fluidly from one state of consciousness to another with little or no space in between, from wakeful alertness to vision to dream so that it all seemed as one to him.  His thoughts and his prayers blended into a single thing, a constant conversation with God who had affirmed him at the Jordan.   He thought, he prayed about creation.  He thought, he prayed about humanity.  He thought, he prayed about his mission.  He prayed for clarity.  And when clarity came to him he sat with it and examined it, too, in his thoughts, his prayers.

            And often, often the devil would come to him.  To test.  To tempt.  To assault with phantasms of the imagination.  To ask leading questions.  To challenge.

            On the very first night he heard the maniacal gibbering of hungry hyenas prowling through the darkness not far from him and a great shadow of fear came moving up the wadi toward him.  But he just kept gazing at the stars and sang aloud from Isaiah, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.  Whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?”  And in the face of his smile and his song,  the fear evaporated.  And as the hyenas moved off into the darkness their gibbering sounded more like laughter.  But the devil didn’t give up

            Often the devil would come with questions.  Usually the same questions or accusations or challenges repeated ad nauseum…  

     Are you really the Son of God?  What does that even mean?  

     This mission of yours, is it really worth it?  

     Are they even worth saving?  And what makes you think you can do it?  

     You don’t think people are really going to understand what you’re trying to teach them, do you? 

     You know how this turns out, don’t you?

     Why are you even doing this…this fasting, this mission… any of it?   

Constant seeds of doubt insinuated, whispered in the spaces between his own thoughts in a voice that sounded almost like his own or like the Spirit.  Almost, but not quite.  

            He would sit and listen, sometimes marveling at the devil’s persistence but in the end he would tire of it and simply say, quoting Isaiah again, “The Lord called me before I was born.  In my mother’s womb he named me. The Lord said I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  And then the devil would leave him for a while. 

            On the fortieth day his body’s reserves were utterly spent.  He knew that one way or another this day would be the end of his fast.  He had seen angels in the night.  Or had he dreamed them?  He had often sensed them nearby like the hyenas.

            As the first light of morning seeped into the sky he had no strength to move the few steps to the pool for a splash of water and a drink.  Still, when the edge of the sun blushed across the horizon he managed to croak out the morning prayer of his people:

Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is the One!

Blessed is the One who continually authors creation.  Blessed is the One whose word is deed:  blessed is the One who is compassionate towards the world; blessed is the One who is compassionate toward all creatures. Blessed is the One who rewards the reverent.  Blessed is the One who exists for all time.  Blessed is the One who redeems and saves.

As he finished the prayer a large dust devil came spiraling lazily toward him and as it reached the apron of the hill released a tendril to blow its hot, gritty breath into his canyon, into his face.   And in that tendril of wind came the voice.  That voice so much like his own, so much like the Spirit, but not, insinuating itself between his thoughts. That voice with its poisonous seeds of doubt.  That horrible voice.  That reasonable voice.  

Why are you starving yourself?  You’ve fasted for forty days.  You’ve made your point.  You can’t do anyone any good if you die of starvation out here in the wilderness.  If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.

And there it is, he thought.  Two things.  Three things.  But so cleverly hidden in that reasonable little speech.  If you are the Son of God… this evil wants me to doubt not just myself, but God.  God who proclaimed me the beloved Son.  And then this evil suggests that I should prove my identity.  Prove it to whom?  To myself? To God?  To this voice of evil, this hot wind blowing through the canyon, through the delirium of my hunger?  And it would have me deny my humanity.  Hunger is part of being human.  Yes, I could change the stone to bread, but others cannot.  Others must make do with the resources at hand or go without.  So the last thing evil suggests might be the worst. Command the stone to become bread.  Turn your back on your humanity.  And make the stone something it is not.  Refuse to see it for what it is.  Ignore its worth and value and history as a stone.  Coerce creation to satisfy my hunger.  Do violence to this thing God has made and to the workings and patterns God set at work in the world so that I can take a shortcut to feeding myself?  Simply because I can?  No.

And then, because it would not do to simply say it in his thoughts, because, oddly, he wanted the stone to hear it, too, he said it aloud in his starved, parched voice…  

“One does not live by bread alone.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he slipped into a vision.  He was floating high above the world looking down on all its gleaming cities, its mountains and valleys, forests, farms and deserts and seas.  An angel of light was beside him but there was something not quite right about either the angel or the light.  It was a dark kind of light.  And the angel wore a mask.  And from behind the mask came the voice.  To the ears of his spirit it still sounded reasonable, but it also sounded imperious.  And hollow.

“Look at this world, these kingdoms.  This is what you came for, isn’t it?  Isn’t that the promise?  That you will be king of kings and lord of lords, that your kingdom will rule over all others?  Well,  I will give you authority over all of them right now, all the glory that comes from them, because it has all been given over to me and I can give it to anyone I choose.  All you have to do is worship me.  Bow down to me and it’s all yours.”

He looked down at the world for a long moment and thought of the difficult, painful path that lay ahead of him if he stayed obedient to the plan.  He knew there was some truth in what the devil said.  This malevolence did seem to have sway over so much of what happened in the world and for a moment the devil’s caustic words echoed in his soul.  “It’s all been given over to me.”  But then he thought, By whom?  Who gave it over to you?  People gave it over to you.  People you tricked.  People you seduced with your reasonable, poisonous premises and your false promises.  I’m here to win it back one person at a time because it was never rightfully yours to begin with.  And again you try to tempt me with a shortcut.  But it only shows how much you misunderstand.  I did not come to seize power.  I came to give love.  And you can’t order people to love.  You can’t coerce love.  If I took your path I would be just another dictator.  And worship you?  As we stand in this place between heaven and earth in your sickly, false light?  You clearly do not know me.  And then, to bring the vision back to earth, he said aloud…

“It is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

And again his words, the words of Scripture, broke the spell and the scene shifted.  But instead of bringing him back to the reality of the canyon, he found himself standing on the highest point of the temple with the devil standing beside him robed like a priest, his face behind a veil.  And from behind the veil came that voice, that reasonable voice.

“I don’t know why you insist on making things so difficult for yourself.  I’m not clear on what your plan is, holy man, but whatever you’re trying to accomplish, you’re going to need followers.   You’re going to have to persuade a lot of people to believe in you, to trust you.  You seem to believe that you’re the Son of God, so you’re going to need them to believe it, too.  I suppose you could do a miracle here and there,  turn up your charisma a bit, impress a few people at a time.  But why not just do something big and dramatic?  There is a scriptural warrant for it, too.  If you are the Son of God, just throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’  And it’s also written, ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not so much as bruise your foot against a stone.’”

And there it is again, he thought.  That challenge.  If you are the Son of God.  Prove it.  And it occurred to him that he was making the devil uneasy.  No, he thought, I don’t need to prove anything.  God doesn’t need to prove anything.  You are my son.  You are beloved.  I am well pleased.  I did hear God’s voice.  I did follow the Spirit.  And I did it out of love.  And those who follow me will do so out of love.  And yes, it will be hard.  And yes, they will miss the point, over and over again.  They will get it wrong.  They will make mistakes.  But that’s what forgiveness is for.  And impressing people, even with angels catching me in midair, won’t convince them to keep following when things get really difficult.  Only love can carry them through those dark valleys, those dark days, and admiration and astonishment are not the same thing as love.  No, this is just another shortcut and one that would be short lived, at that.   And then, as he stood atop the temple, without looking at the thing in the priest’s robes, he said aloud…

“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

And as he said it, he suddenly realized why the Spirit had led him out here into the wilderness to be tested in the first place.  The challenge, he realized, was not to see if he was capable of being the Son of God.  That was a given.  The challenge was to see if he was able to also be fully human.  The challenge was to see if he was able to experience and feel and endure in the same way as those he had come to save.

The hot wind stopped.  There was a moment, a breath, a hesitation, and then a cool breeze filled the canyon.  He opened his eyes and saw angels regarding him with that odd mix of concern and joy and wonder that seems to be their perpetual expression.  He closed his eyes, he wasn’t sure for how long, and when he opened them again, a traveling merchant was beside him, urging him to take some bread.  He smiled and laid his hand fondly on the warm stone beside him as he said a prayer of thanks.

When you hear that reasonable voice that insinuates itself between your thoughts, that entices you to take the shortcut, the easy way, remember to listen not just to what it offers, but to what it asks for in return… and most importantly, what it asks you to deny.

A Failure of Faithfulness

On Thursday the world stood aghast as Russia attacked Ukraine.  Over the past several weeks, as the rhetoric of war increased and Russian troop numbers grew along Ukraine’s borders, commentators speculated on what Putin’s motives might be for imposing the horror of war on the world yet again. Most have noted that Putin sees Ukraine’s alliance with NATO and the United States as a threat to Russia.  Some have flagged Putin’s bizarre comments about cleansing Ukraine of Nazis.  Almost no one, however, has mentioned that Putin is driven, at least in part, by a religious motive that he sees as a mandate from history.

In the late 10th century, more than a thousand years ago, the pagan Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv united the Kyiv Rus peoples of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine into a single nation.  Believing that a single religion would help unite the people, in 987 he sent emissaries to observe all the major religions of the countries that bordered on his territory.  His emissaries found Islam, as practiced by the Bulgar Muslims, distasteful and joyless.  They also noted that Islam prohibited both alcohol and pork which made it a non-starter.  As Vladimir, himself, said, “Drinking is the joy of all the Rus!”  The envoys found Judaism interesting but Vladimir was troubled by the fact that the Jews had lost possession of their homeland.  The emissaries returning from Germany reported that the Roman Catholic worship they had witnessed was boring, unintelligible, and uninspiring.  But the emissaries returning from Constantinople had a different impression of Christianity altogether.  They had witnessed the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia in all its splendor, and they reported to Vladimir that the worship they had experienced was so beautiful and impressive that they couldn’t tell if they were in heaven or on earth.  

Based on their reports, Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity and was baptized in 988, after which he brought his people into the Byzantine church through a mass baptism.  He then married a Christian imperial princess to help secure peaceful relations with other Orthodox countries.  Under Vladimir’s leadership, Kyiv not only became a prosperous and peaceful city and trade center, it also became the heart of a new Christian empire.   Working outward from Kyiv, Vladimir established churches, monasteries, courts, schools,  and civic programs to care for the poor.  In his lifetime he came to be known as Vladimir the Great.  When he died he was canonized as Saint Vladimir, his memory celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Byzantine Rite Lutherans.  

Kyiv grew and prospered until the mid-13th century when repeated attacks from Mongols and rival Rus princes began to splinter the entire region.  Many of the Rus people of Ukraine fled north and east, taking their Orthodox faith with them, notably to Moscow, where they established a Russian Orthodox Church.  Under the Czars, the Russian Orthodox church became enormously wealthy and powerful,  so much so that the Patriarch of Constantinople authorized a Patriarch for Moscow.  While the Ukrainian faithful of the Orthodox church were now under the religious authority of the Patriarch of Moscow, they never forgot that their Orthodox Church originated in Kyiv.  Kyiv was, in a sense, their Jerusalem.

The establishment of a Patriarch in Moscow led to centuries of political and religious tension between Ukraine and Russia.  That tension became acute during the Soviet era when Politburo restrictions on religious practices were not applied evenly from region to region.  Rival Orthodox church bodies sprang up in Ukraine, some choosing to resist Communism while others chose to cooperate with Moscow.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, several different Orthodox church bodies existed in Ukraine but only one of them was closely tied to Moscow.

In 2018, two of those Ukrainian churches and a few of the Moscow-leaning Orthodox parishes joined to create a newly unified Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a fully independent church body that is not under the authority of Moscow.  Since then the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been firmly established in the ancient seat of Orthodoxy in Kyiv.

Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church hierarchy were not happy about this.  They had appropriated a thousand years of Kyiv’s church history as their own, even going so far as to erect a gigantic statue of Vladimir the Great—Saint Vladimir—outside the Kremlin.  They vigorously protested the re-establishment of the Ukraine Orthodox Church, but they became absolutely incensed when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an independent body. 

Putin has closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodox church, painting himself as one of that church’s staunchest proponents.  Under Putin’s leadership the religious and civil freedoms of non-Orthodox Christians and people of other faiths have been seriously restricted.  On the flip side, the Russian Orthodox church has been unabashedly pro Putin, standing by him as he enhanced his power, stifled opposition, revised the constitution, and curtailed the freedoms and civil liberties of the Russian people.  The Russian Orthodox Church, including close deputies of the Patriarch were involved in crafting the 2017 law that decriminalized domestic violence in Russia.  The Church was also instrumental in the creation of the 2013 “gay propaganda” law that has been used to persecute LGBTQ persons in Russia.  

Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have both indicated that they think the Patriarch of Constantinople has moved too much toward the West and many of its values.  They have also accused the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of being too Western and “liberal” and have hinted that Russia will lead the Orthodox world in a “correction.”

Putin sees himself as not merely a political leader, but also a renewer of true Orthodoxy.  By erecting the statue of Saint Vladimir outside the Kremlin, Putin was laying claim to the weight of Eastern Orthodox tradition and assuming validation for both his political and religious aspirations.  As church historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass said, “There should be no doubt that Putin sees himself as a kind of Vladimir the Great II, a candidate for sainthood who is restoring the soul of Holy Mother Russia.  The Ukrainians, on the other hand, would like to remind the Russians that they were the birthplace of both Orthodoxy and political unity in Eastern Europe.”

“The Conflict in Ukraine,” says Bass, “is all about religion and what kind of Orthodoxy will shape Eastern Europe and other Orthodox communities around the world (especially in Africa).  Religion. This is a crusade, recapturing the Holy Land of Russian Orthodoxy, and defeating the westernized (and decadent) heretics who do not bend the knee to Moscow’s spiritual authority.”   This is a conflict over who is going to control the geographical home, the “Jerusalem” of the Eastern Orthodox church—Moscow or Constantinople.

In Putin’s eyes, this is a Holy War—which is such an oxymoron.  There has never in the history of the world been anything holy about any war.  Ever.  

This attack against Ukraine is just another bloody, stupid, heartbreaking, destructive example of humans dressing up their anger, bloodlust, greed and ambition in robes of piety and pretended righteousness.  

This is just another example of humanity utterly failing to learn from our mistakes.  This is just another example of people who call themselves Christian utterly failing to get the point of who Jesus is and what he is about.

When Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain with the shining glory of his divinity radiating from him as he stood between Moses and Elijah, God spoke directly to them from the cloud that surrounded them.  Things might have looked foggy, standing there in the cloud of God, but the words God spoke were crystal clear.  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

Listen to him.

Three words.  A clear and simple instruction.  

Listen to him.

So much of the world’s history is a story of conflict, devastation and bloodshed because far too often ambitious people who have claimed to be Christian, who have claimed to be followers of Jesus, have failed in the one task that is central, that is most important for every Christian.  They have failed to listen to Jesus.

We all fail to do that from time to time—all of us to one degree or another.  We put our own agendas and ambitions, even our religious affiliation ahead of the words and calling of Christ.  The most arrogant even go so far as to think we can make God’s reign come on earth as it is in heaven by using the tools of politics and violence when Jesus called us to always pursue the path of love, non-violence and peace.  

And now war has come to the world once again.  

War has come to the world because once again a man who claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, has refused to listen to Jesus.

And when we fail to listen to Jesus, we also tend to fail in respecting each other’s boundaries.  

May God forgive us for our failure to listen.  May God remind us that, as the book of James says, our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Most of all, may God teach us to listen to Jesus and find our way back to the path of peace, the place of shalom.

In Jesus’ name.

While There Is Still Time

1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 9:36-42; Luke 7:11-17

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid?  It’s going to break your heart.”  That arresting thought is from Anne Lamott who has an uncanny way of getting right to the heart of things.

In our traditional Confession of Sin we confess that we have sinned by things we’ve done and by things left undone.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about things left undone.  I’ve got a list as long as my arm.  I’ve been thinking about things undone because it was brought home to me this week in the starkest way possible that we have no guarantees about being able to get to it later—that thing we really want or need to do or say.

When I opened A Women’s Lectionary on Monday morning to take my first look at the texts assigned for today, the 7th Sunday after Epiphany,  my heart sank a little.  I suppose that’s a strange reaction to three stories about resurrection, three stories about someone being raised from the dead, but honestly, it just felt like the Holy Spirit was getting all up in my face.  Mocking me a little, even.  

Here’s the thing—I had just learned on Saturday that Joe, one of my oldest and closest friends, was on hospice care.  His Significant Other, Allison, had contacted me with this news, and asked me if I could come see him and pray with him while there was still time. 

While there was still time.

On Monday morning Allison suggested that 3 o’clock would be a good time to come see Joe.   That left me with several hours to fill so I turned my attention back to the texts for Sunday.  But I couldn’t concentrate.  It felt so incongruous to be thinking about biblical accounts of resurrection while at the same time trying to prepare myself mentally and spiritually to anoint my friend and pray for him as he passed from life into life.  

Over the years, I have stood in the room with Death more times than I can remember.  It’s part of what we do as pastors.  We accompany people to the door between this life and life eternal.  We give them a last anointing to remind them that they are in God’s protective care and if they’re able to receive it, one last taste of the eucharist to remind them that they are part of the communion of saints on both sides of that door.  More often than you might think, we give them permission to let go, to fall upward and outward into the grace of God and the beauty of what comes next.  

I deeply trust the promises of our faith.  I deeply trust that, as St. Paul said, if we have been united with Jesus Christ in a death like his then we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:2).  I trust what Paul says in Romans 8—that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I believe that life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon at the limit of our sight.  I believe that death is not the end of the story, but rather the opening of a new chapter in a far more amazing story.  I deeply believe these things, so I’ve always been able to stand in the presence of death with my pastoral tools and a certain degree of confidence.

This time, though, was different.  This time it was Joe, my long-time friend who was dying, my friend with whom I had worked in the recording studio as we produced commercials and jingles and even a recorded version of the Bible in those years before I became a pastor.  This time it was Joe who, because he was my friend, drove long miles from Huntington Beach to Riverside every Sunday for four years to play keyboards for our little start-up congregation.  This time it was Joe, who had performed with me and others in our impromptu band and with whom I had had deeply personal conversations over the course of decades.  

As I stood there beside his bed and anointed him for the journey we will all eventually take, I felt the poverty of my words and a profound sense of loss.  I began to realize that, while Joe was about to enter another dimension of life altogether, I was about to enter a world without him in it.  He wouldn’t be there for long lunches of fish tacos and conversation.  He wouldn’t be only a phone call away anymore.  I began to feel the space of him, the shape of the place he held in my life, and I know it was like that for everyone else who was in the room as he died.

Richard Rohr has said that “to hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt.  To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable.”  I could tell you that after forty plus years as friends I knew Joe well, but honestly, there is always more to know.  There is always more to know about each and every one of us.  We participate in the life and love of God, so there is no bottom to that well that is Joe.  Or you.  Or me.

We place so much emphasis on trying to understand things…and people.  It’s one way we try to protect ourselves from pain and disruption.  The truth is, though, that some of the most important things in life are mysterious and unknowable.  They can only be experienced.  The great mysteries—life, death, love, God, our own souls, friendship—these are things that go beyond understanding.  They are mysteries that must be entered into, embraced, endured, journeyed through, carried, danced with, and wrestled with, all the while knowing that our understanding of these things will always be partial at best.  Now we see dimly. 

These mysteries are our teachers.  Death, in particular, can teach us more about the value of life and love and our need for each other than anything else. 

And in an odd way, that brings us back to the three resurrection stories in this week’s readings.  The thing each of these resurrection stories have in common is that the dead person was raised back to life for the benefit of someone else.  That applies to every resurrection story in the Bible, by the way, including the resurrection of Jesus.  The dead person is raised for the benefit of others.  That means that these stories are all about God’s compassion for those who are left behind. 

For the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings who had been allowing the prophet Elijah to stay in her home, her son was her social security.  It would be his duty to provide for her in her old age, and without him she might become destitute.  That’s just how the world worked in those days.  The same thing holds true for the widow in Nain in the gospel of Luke.  When Jesus raised her dead son to life, he was actually saving two lives.   

The raising of Tabitha in the Book of Acts is a little different, but it’s still a story of someone being raised for the benefit of others.  The text tells us that Tabitha “was abundant in good works and benevolent giving.”  She was a woman of means and her little Christian community in Joppa depended on her generosity.  When Peter restored her to life, he was also restoring the community that depended on her.

We don’t always realize how dependent we are on each other.  “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken,” said Anne Lamott, “and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.  But this is also the good news.  They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.  And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never completely heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”  

We all will go through that kind of loss at one time or another if we haven’t already.  We all, if we’ve loved at all well, learn to dance with a limp.  But more importantly, we learn to lean on each other and support each other as we walk each other home.  

Death is never very far away.  But God’s compassion is always right there embracing us.  If we’re even half awake, Death teaches us to really appreciate life—our own lives and everyone else’s.  That’s grace.  Death tells us to use the time while we have it,  to go ahead and go swimming in warm pools and oceans, to dive in and have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space.  Death reminds us that Christ has given us life in all its fullness and the promise of resurrection.  And each other.  Christ has given us each other.  Death is telling us to do the loving things not yet done and say the loving things not yet said.  While there is still time.