Confronting our Inner Pharisees

June 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Lectionary 9 (Proper 4), Year B
Texts: Deut 5.12-15; 2 Cor 4.5-12; Mk 2.23-3.6

As I read this story, the detail that sticks out most to me is not the healing of the withered hand, or the way Jesus interprets the law about keeping the Sabbath, but the very last verse: the Pharisees immediately began plotting with the Herodians to destroy Jesus.

We don’t know exactly who “the Herodians” are, but we know that Herod, their namesake, is the Roman-installed governor of Galilee. Although he claimed Jewish ancestry, he and his family were well known for his importing of Greek customs and practices. This makes the Herodians unlikely political allies for the Pharisees, who as religious purists would have been very resistant to both Greek influence and to Roman rule. While not exactly enemies, these two groups were certainly not friends; the fact that that Pharisees are willing to make what, to them, is such a vulgar compromise speaks to just how much they dislike Jesus and wish to see him destroyed.

Their anger is inspired not so much by Jesus’ challenge to their legal interpretation or their authority as by their own hard-heartedness. Initially, their question to Jesus is probably genuine: “Why are your disciples doing what is not lawful?” They believe that Jesus is disregarding the law, and they want to know why. In his response, Jesus reveals that he and his disciples are not violating the law, not the way they see it. To make his case, he uses a story from scripture: David and Abiathar* broke the law, but it was so that David could fulfill his calling to flee from Saul and become king.

His argument—that human need outweighs the commands of the law—was neither new nor controversial. What perhaps may have been controversial to the Pharisees was Jesus’ claim that he, like David, was on a ‘mission from God,’ as it were, and that his (and his disciples’) need outweighed the Sabbath restrictions.

Whatever it was exactly that angered them, from this point on the Pharisees will not hear what Jesus has to say. They have become convinced that he is wantonly disregarding God’s law as it suits him, and they have branded him their enemy. The confrontation in the synagogue shows us how this is true. Jesus can sense their intention to trap him and calls them out. He asks them an obvious question; their silence betrays the fact that they are not interested in the truth, but only in setting him up.

It isn’t legalism that’s the problem here. As strict as the Pharisees were, the kind of dialogue in which Jesus engages them is simply the normal kind of rabbinic debate that was and still is common regarding the interpretation of the law. What is extraordinary about this passage is how the Pharisees all of a sudden refuse to engage in that debate and so quickly declare Jesus and enemy to be destroyed. This is what grieves and angers Jesus in the synagogue: not that they are so strict in their legal interpretation, but that they have refused to listen and have decided only to entrap and oppose him.

The sad thing is that if they continued to listen, to engage with him and debate, they may not change their minds, but they would still grow and learn. And that is Jesus’ mission, after all: to announce the coming reign of God and to reveal God’s will and work in the world. In closing themselves off to Jesus, the Pharisees didn’t realize they were also closing themselves off to the very God they so deeply tried to serve and honor.

It’s easy for us to criticize the Pharisees for their legalism, to set them up as a straw man to be knocked down so we can congratulate ourselves and say, “Look how unlike them we are!” But it is much harder to condemn their hard-heartedness without also seeing how hard our own hearts can sometimes be. We also harbor prejudices and stereotypes; we also write others off as “opponents” and “enemies,” allowing ourselves to believe they are deficient in some way: stupid, callous, ignorant, selfish or even cruel. We apply these labels liberally to the people who don’t vote for the same candidates we do, or who hold to a different economic theory, or who attend churches that are too different from our own. We let labels keep us from hearing people who think differently than we do, people whose own opinions and experiences might actually teach us something about our own and help us to grow in understanding.

When St. Paul says that he and his fellow apostles “carry in their bodies the death of Jesus,” he is admitting that he and his companions are not perfect. He knows that they do not look successful: they are occasionally run out of town, their message is not as powerful or eloquent as some of the other preachers, they are subject to imprisonment and beatings and persecution; but he also knows that their human frailties and imperfections are themselves a testament to the gospel they preach. “So death is at work in us,” he says, and yet, even in their weakness, the message of the gospel continues to spread and the community of disciples continues to grow—“but life is at work in you.”  The power of God always works to nourish human life and community.

Even God’s laws—the very laws that we sometimes consider too restrictive or needlessly complicated—are designed to help human life together flourish. That is one of the grand ironies of this story: the Sabbath was originally instated to give people who used to work as slaves a time specifically to rest—something they never got in Egypt—and to recognize that rest as a gift from God. Paul recognizes that his weakness is not a bug, but a feature: it reminds him and his audience that the message he proclaims is not his own invention, and therefore not reliant upon his success as a public speaker. Our own weakness is a reminder to all of us that the power we proclaim is not is not ours, but God’s, just like the Sabbath rest is itself a reminder that it was God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

One of the things this story shows us is how relying too heavily on our own convictions—even religious convictions—can actually prevent us from knowing God more fully. When we rely too heavily on our own ability to reason or follow or intuit God’s will, we may miss how other people—people with different opinions and different interpretations—might help us learn more about ourselves and about God.

It is remarkable that, this early in Mark’s gospel—barely three chapters in—Jesus’ work of revealing the truth of God is already pointing him to the cross. One of the messages of Mark’s gospel is that it is only in his death that Jesus can really be known, and only by following him to death can we know God. Perhaps this is one way in which we are put to death in our baptism: our certainty, our superiority, our sense of self-reliance must die if we are to be able to follow him as we ought. We die in baptism and are brought to new life by constantly being reminded of how frail and weak and wrong we so often are, and how much we need to rely on God for true strength and rest.

That is one of the reasons we come together as a community for worship. There is no community in existence that is completely homogenous in its membership; no community is full of people who all believe exactly the same things, practice exactly the same things, or confess the same things. Our diversity is often cause for conflict, but it is also a means by which God helps us to grow into fuller understanding of how God is at work among us.

If that is true of God’s Church, how can it not also be true of God’s world? The world is fully of people that God has made, people who have experienced (or not experienced) God in different ways, through different means. As part of our call to spread the gospel, we come into contact with many different people of different political and religious beliefs, any of whom may help us to better understand our own—but not unless we are able to die to our own desire to be correct and listen for how God might be speaking to us through them.

We can steadfastly follow Jesus while at the same time remaining open to the possibility that we have more to learn. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples are always falling short of Jesus’ expectations of them, constantly misunderstanding and misapplying his teaching. He occasionally rebukes, but never abandons. Even with Jesus himself to lead them, they are not great at following; so what makes us think we could do any better?

In spite of all of this, Jesus never rejects them, never despises them. He continues to patiently teach and guide, trusting that as they continue to grow in faith, they will come to fuller understanding. Our journey of faith continues in their footsteps. We are still becoming the disciples Jesus calls us to be, and we always will be. And like those first disciples, Jesus remains with us, teaching us, feeding us, and bringing us to new life.

*Either Mark or Jesus incorrectly identifies the high priest from the story as Abiathar instead of Ahimelech. The story to which Jesus refers can be found in 1 Samuel 21.1-6.


Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

May 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks” recorded in worship (14:20)
Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B
Texts: Isa 6.1-8; Rom 8.12-17; Jn 3.1-18

It’s awfully tempting to laugh at Nicodemus’ question. The poor guy just doesn’t seem to get what Jesus is saying. Of course we know that being born again is not about physically climbing back up into your (very surprised and concerned) mother’s womb and being born a second time. Nicodemus knows that, too. His question may seem silly, but what he’s really asking isn’t. Nicodemus wants to know what we all want to know: “Can you really teach an old dog new tricks?”

Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop. Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

We all know that there are certain hard truths about how the world works. Just because we want something doesn’t mean we’ll get it. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. We know this because everyone in this room has spent their entire life learning those rules the hard way.

What we gradually begin to see as we grow older is that the rules of the world don’t always apply equally to everyone. Some people are set up to succeed, while others are held back by their race, their class, where they were born, or the mistakes their parents or grandparents made. We are beginning to take notice that people of color are disproportionately punished by our criminal justice system. We know that the sexual orientation of some people has kept them from enjoying the same legal freedoms and privileges of others. We can see how the zip code in which a person lives can dramatically change their education level, income and even their health. We are hearing how people whose gender expression falls outside of our expected norms have a much lower life expectancy due to higher rates of violence and suicide.

This is the world in which we live. We may be appalled, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t really say we are surprised. For those of us lucky enough to pass for what we call “normal,” the world can be an easy, pleasant place to live; but in order to be “normal,” we have all learned to hide and change those things about ourselves that are different or “wrong;” we have to suck them in and tuck them away like we tuck in our bellies at the beach to look more like the people in the magazines.

Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone can hide what is different or “wrong” about themselves. Not everyone has the right color skin, the right spouse, the right job. Not everyone can afford to live in the right school district or have the right body or drive the right car. Not everyone has the privilege to be the kind of person the world considers “normal;” some of us will forever be called “tranny” or “thug” or “white trash” or “illegal.” For those among us who can never pass as normal, the world is a much harsher place.

When John talks about the world, this is the place he’s talking about; not the whole earth at large, not creation as we know it, but specifically the world that we have created and segregated by race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability level and gender expression. According to Jesus, God looked down on this world—and God loved it. God loved it so much, that God sent God’s only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

John 3.16 is perhaps the best known verse in the entire bible, which makes it all the more tragic that we have so completely misunderstood it. We think that to “believe” in Jesus means to hold a certain opinion about who he is. We think that this verse is a kind of litmus test, separating those individuals who hold this opinion from those who do not. What we fail to understand is that Jesus is not using any singular pronouns here: belief is not about religious affiliation, but about whether we trust the world’s vision for reality, or God’s.

It becomes clearer if we listen to the next two verses. Jesus continues his thought by saying, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Jesus was not sent to separate the Christians from the Heathens, but so that this whole, broken world of ours might be saved together. Neither God nor any other divine power condemns us for our belief or lack thereof: there is no need to condemn us because we have already condemned ourselves by offering our allegiance to the world and its divided, polarized, bigoted system of isolating and dehumanizing people rather than following God and living as we were always intended to live.

Jesus comes to show us another way, to introduce us to the Trinity. “Trinity” is the mysterious and incomprehensible concept we get from experiencing God as three persons—Father, Son and Spirit—and yet one being. We can’t begin to comprehend what it is, but what it means is that community is a fundamental aspect of God’s identity—it is so fundamental to who God is that we see God in community with God’s own self. God chooses to be known through community. God enters into understand with us and with creation, and creates community among us. By entering into community with us, God draws us into the divine community among God’s own self—the community we call Trinity. God invites us into that divine state of loving relationship shared among the Father, the Son and the Spirit; or perhaps shared between the Father and the Son in the Spirit… how it all works is a little fuzzy.

Holy Trinity. Andreĭ Rublev, d. ca. 1430. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

In any case, Nicodemus sees God as the one who sits atop the hierarchy of the world, not the one who is trying to save us from it. That is why he cannot understand what Jesus is talking about. As long as he and his Pharisee friends do not believe what Jesus is saying about who God is, unless he trusts Jesus’ testimony about God—who God is and what God is doing—nothing Jesus does will make any sense to him or his colleagues. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to give up everything he thinks he knows about God and the way the world works and to entrust his safety and wellbeing to Jesus’ radical message—which brings us back to Nicodemus’ question.

Like I said, we’ve all been being taught how to survive in the world since the moment we were born. Those lessons are ingrained in us; they have made us who we are: what is born of the flesh is flesh. The only way to begin to imagine the world any other way and living according that reality is to die and be reborn; to give up goods, honor, child and spouse, even life itself to begin again. Now Nicodemus’ question doesn’t seem so silly. How are we supposed to do this? Is it possible for any of us to completely unlearn what we have been taught our entire lives? When every fiber of our being is telling us that “those people” are dangerous, that we must protect ourselves from them, make them “normal” and “acceptable” like us before we can safely love them, how can we overcome our nature? Can these old dogs really be taught new tricks?

That’s precisely what Jesus does. Anybody here can tell you that one of the fundamental rules of the world is not to mess with somebody who is carrying a bigger stick than you are. In Jesus’ day, nobody carried a bigger stick than Rome, and he went toe-to-toe with the Empire and was killed—exactly as we’ve been taught to expect. What happened next, though, was completely unexpected: even though he died, he still won. We created this world of ours to protect us from death—from scarcity, from powerlessness, and from being forgotten—and we trapped ourselves in a system that works great for some but that eats others alive. By submitting himself to the rules of our world—by being lifted up—he shows us that this whole system is a farce: our rules don’t protect us, they only condemn us. He also shows us that the only way to escape this hell of our own creation is to die—die and be reborn of the Spirit.

Illustration by Charles Cullen. Frontispiece to Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ and Other Poems, 1929.

What is born of the Spirit is Spirit; when we are baptized into Jesus’ death, we receive, as Paul says, the spirit of adoption—we are freed from the mess of the world and born into the community of God. For us to keep on living by the ways of the world—to keep on participating in and perpetuating the systems that are choking our planet and enslaving and dividing us—is not only laughable, it’s pathetic. Jesus has pulled us out of that world and adopted us into a new one—why should we keep living according to those old rules that we died to escape?

This is how God is saving the world—not by promising us a sweet by-and-by, but by pulling us out of the harsh system we created and teaching us to live a new way: a way that does not separate us or dehumanize us or label us as “less than” or “wrong.” Instead of assigning worth based on our income or our life choices or how well we fit with some imagined “normal,” God chooses to assign worth based on the fact that God has called us each “Beloved Child,” and teaches us to love one another in the same way.

We celebrate the idea of Trinity today because that is how God is saving us: by entering into holy community—into Holy Communion—with us. In becoming flesh, God’s experience is enriched; by being among us, Jesus experiences our lives in a new way. If that is true for God, it is most certainly true for us as God’s beloved children. In God’s community—God’s kingdom—our lives will be enriched by being in communion with the very people the world teaches us to hate and revile and fear. God is teaching us to willingly and joyfully give up our goods, honor, child or spouse to, to lay down even our lives to join in this communion of saints. Turns out, God can teach an old dog new tricks.

Never Alone

May 13, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Never Alone” recorded in worship (12:08)
Seventh Sunday in Easter, Year B
Texts: Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; 1 Jn 5.9-13; Jn 17.6-19

Pretty much every Sunday for the last 3 years, we’ve opened our time of worship together by sharing prayer concerns. Some days, we don’t have any, some days we have a lot, and every once in a while we end up taking entirely more time than your pastors were planning on spending on it! But, we keep doing it. We keep doing it because it is important. To be in need, to be anxious over the care of a loved one or frightened about something in our future or facing deep grief is isolating; those things make us feel alone, and sometimes we’re not prepared to face the cares of the world by ourselves.

You may have noticed this single, unlit candle here today. This candle—the Paschal candle—represents the risen Christ. We light it in the gathering dark at the Vigil of Easter as a hopeful and anticipatory sign of the resurrection. We keep it lit throughout Easter as a reminder that Christ’s life triumphs over death, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. We light it at baptisms and funerals as a sign that, in baptism, we are joined to that resurrected life and that at the moment of death we rest in the promise of that resurrection.

But, at the Feast of the Ascension (which we celebrated Thursday), we snuff the candle out. We extinguish the it because, even though Christ is risen, and even though Christ has promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” (Matt 18.20) Jesus isn’t here in the way we want him to be. This candle stands here unlit during these last 10 days of Easter as a silent witness to the feeling of loneliness that we sometimes feel at having been left here in the world.

In times of loneliness, we need to be reminded that, though Christ may be absent, he is not gone. This is one of the reasons we lift up prayer concerns at the beginning of each worship service; in the isolating grip of worry or pain, it is good to know that we are surrounded by people who love us and care for us, people who, though they may not be able to help us, can at least walk with us.

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles. 16th century icon of Pskov school. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

This is precisely what Christ prays for us on the night of his arrest. After he had washed his disciples’ feet and shared a meal with them, before they went together to the garden to face Judas and the soldiers, Jesus gave his friends some final words of preparation, advice, and comfort. He assured them that he would return and bring them to where he was, he encouraged them to love one another, he promised them that he would send an Advocate to be with them in his absence, and then he prayed for them. He prayed that they would be one with each other as Jesus himself was one with God.

As we read the words of this prayer, millennia after they were supposed to have been prayed, we know that John is not just telling us about something that happened once. John is not interested in letting us eavesdrop on a private moment between Jesus and his disciples in that upper room so that we might know how dearly he loved those eleven men. As we read this prayer, John wants us to know that Jesus is praying this prayer—even now—for us. We are the ones whom Jesus loves, the ones for whom Jesus prays for protection and sanctification. Jesus wants his joy to be made complete in us; Jesus wants us to know that, though he may not be here beside us in the way he would like, he is with us, and he is praying with us.

The Ascension is a funny holiday because it is both a feast and a fast, both a celebration and a lament. We grieve that our Lord and friend has been taken from us, but at the same time, we also rejoice in Jesus’ entry into heaven to be seated at God’s right hand. The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as a great high priest, one who enters fully into God’s presence and intercedes eternally on our behalf; in other words, who sits next to God and constantly prays for us. Although he can’t be fully here with us, his heart is with us as he offers up this eternal prayer for us, for our protection and wellbeing.

Martin Luther wrote of prayer, “Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone; rather think that the whole of Christendom—all devout Christians—are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well. God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.” This prayer of Jesus’ reassures us that not only is the whole Church joining with us when we pray, so is Jesus himself.

At Holy Communion, we ask that God would “gather our prayers with those of the apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the faithful who have gone before us, and unite them with the unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ…” Just as we are united when we pray for one another, our prayers also join us together with all Christians in every time and place and with Jesus himself, seated at God’s right hand and praying even now for us. We see this prayer answered as our bodies are united with his at this table: we take his body and blood into us, and we become his Body ourselves, broken to feed the world. Seeing his prayer answered in this way, we trust that in the same way, our prayers are united with his and with all the prayers of every Christian.

In this truth, Christ hopes that we may find God’s support and encouragement in whatever is happening in our lives. Through good or ill, through celebration or sorrow, God’s heart is with us, God’s Spirit is among us, God’s Son is praying for us. If we trust in Jesus’ love for us and believe in God’s ability and desire to answer our prayers, then we have the assurance that we never pray alone.

This is an important message of encouragement as we go out from this place. We remain in the world, sent out by our friend and Lord to continue his work of revealing God’s love to a love-starved world. I don’t need to tell you about the darkness into which we are sent: mass shootings, racism, oppression, violence, addiction, poverty, climate change—all of it the result of the corrupting stain of human sin on God’s good creation. Jesus has sent us out into that darkness to be bearers of hope, the messengers of good news, but this task is not easy in a world that is so often wary of that hope and dismissive of that good news. Jesus does not pray for us that our work will be easy, but he prays that we will endure, and that as we continue that work, God will be with us and protect us.

This is the eternal life that we share with Christ: even in his absence, we are joined to him by the divine love that he shares with God and with us, the love that he enables us to share with one another. When we share that love with one another—when we pray together, when we are vulnerable with each other, when we serve one another and accept each other without judgement or fear—we experience that eternal life. When we step out boldly into the darkness to live out our baptismal calling—to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth—we experience that eternal life. To have that eternal life is to know resurrection borne of the divine love that Jesus shares with us.

Today, Jesus invites us again to dine with him in preparation to step once more out into the darkness to share the light of eternal life with the world. Just as on that night in which he was betrayed, he asks us to come to this table with him, to recline with him and lay our heads upon his breast. Just as on that night, he prays for us.

Word of Life. Millard Sheets, 1907-1989. Mural. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

You should each have found a small slip of paper on your chair. As we prepare to eat with Jesus, I would like to invite you to think about what you would like Jesus to pray for you right now. Is it patience? To be a better parent or friend? Is it encouragement through difficulty? Courage to stand up to injustice? Is it comfort at loss or hope when you feel like you are out of options? Whatever it is, Jesus knows that prayer; but sometimes we need to be reminded that he is praying that prayer for us. I invite you to write down a single word of that prayer on this slip of paper and to keep that paper in your pocket or purse or wallet this week. Whenever you find it—whenever your fingers bump against it as you are fishing for your keys, or it falls out when you go to pay a bill—take it and read it and remember that right now, Jesus is praying for you—and so is this community.

This is what it means to be one in Christ—not that we all think or act or believe the same, but that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are, we are the ones whom Jesus loves. In that love, we are one: one with each other, one with Jesus, and one with God. Because God has made us one, we are never alone.

The Eunuch

April 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Eunuch” recorded in worship (12:31)
Fifth Sunday in Easter, Year B
Texts: Acts 8.26-40; 1 Jn 4.7-21; Jn 15.1-8

“No one whose genitals have been crushed or cut off shall be admitted to the congregation of the LORD.” (Deut 23.1) The eunuch knew this. And yet, knowing this had not prevented him from making the weeks-long journey from his home in the kingdom of Cush to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.

There was a sizable minority in Cush who worshiped the God of Jacob, owing to a long history of diplomacy and trade with and through Israel. Growing up, he had learned the stories of Abraham and Sarah’s long-awaited son, of Jacob wrestling with God, of Joseph and his beautiful coat, of Moses leading God’s people through the Red Sea. He used to dream of one day traveling to Jerusalem to see the great temple that Herod had rebuilt and to finally stand in the presence of the God he had so long worshiped.

Francis Smith. “Kisler Aga, Chief of the Black Eunuchs and First Keeper of the Serraglio.” ca 1770. Yale Center for British Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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I Have Seen the Lord

April 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Second Sunday in Easter, Year B
Texts: Acts 4.32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1.1-2.2; Jn 20.19-31

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! For there the LORD ordained his blessing: life forevermore.

We read today about the early community of the Church. In Acts, the believers gather around the apostle’s testimony to Jesus’ resurrection and that good news of God’s unconquered love touches them, changes them from a bunch of loosely connected individuals into a group, a community that cares for one another and sees to the needs of all. In the 1st letter of John, we read how one community is testifying—bearing witness—to what they themselves have seen and heard concerning the word of life. They share this testimony so that others will be joined in community with them, and through them will be joined in community even with God’s own self. They share this testimony so that their joy will be complete.

We even read about this community at the very beginning, almost before it was a community. In John’s gospel, on Easter evening, Jesus’ friends are gathered behind locked doors. John means more than that the key had been turned. He means that the people gathered in that room were defensive and shut down, that their grief and their pain is impenetrable. While none of Jesus’ disciples were crucified, a part of each of them has died with him on the cross.

When Jesus appears to them, showing them his hands and side, they are united not only in their sorrow over his death, but also by their joy in his return—but not all of them. When Thomas joins them, he alone has not seen the Crucified and Resurrected One. The others, in their love for him, forgive him, embrace him, and bear witness to him; in their love and fellowship with him, they ensure that he is there the following week when Jesus returns to experience the risen Christ for himself.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

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We Learn to Love by Being Loved

March 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Maundy Thursday
Texts: Ex 12.1-14; 1 Cor 11.23-26; Jn 13.1-17, 31-35

This celebration—beginning with this meal—is the core of our identity as Christians. The love of Jesus lived out in these three days is what defines us as a people, just as the festival of unleavened bread and the exodus from Egypt define the Jews as a people. The love of God that Jesus showed in washing the feet of his disciples, in dying for them on the cross, and in walking out of the tomb is the love that makes us who we are.

This is why we call this day Maundy—from the Latin word mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment—because it is Jesus’s commandment that we should love one another as he loves us that makes us who we are, that sets our course in life. In commanding us to love one another, Jesus isn’t telling us to have warm, fuzzy feelings toward each other; he is telling us to wash one another’s feet and to let others wash ours, to live out the love of God no matter the consequences, to give all we have—even our lives—for one another, to entrust ourselves into God’s care so that we may be free to proclaim the gospel at all times in both word and deed.

When we call ourselves Christians, we are calling ourselves by the name of One whose love was so strong and so deep that he gave his life for us. By taking his name and choosing to be identified by him, we are saying that we, too, are a people of that love; a people who will follow in his path and love so strongly, so deeply, that we, too, will give up everything—goods, honor, child or spouse, even our lives—to show God’s love to the world and make it the place God has dreamed of from the beginning. That is what it means to be called a Christian, a disciple of Christ.

To have this kind of love for one another is almost impossible for us; we are too broken, too suspicious, too fearful. We can gaze lovingly at Christ on the cross with gratitude and adoration, but we cannot so easily translate that gratitude and adoration to the people around us who annoy and threaten and harm us. Our hearts are too hard to give ourselves in service to those who hate us, as Jesus did.

For that we need to repent. Each year on Ash Wednesday, we repent of our hard-heartedness and we confess our brokenness, our inability to love as we ought. Throughout the season of Lent, we meditate on the ways that our brokenness harms us and the world around us, but we do so remembering that what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. In God’s mercy, Jesus Christ became human to redeem a fallen humanity, and to save creation from the caustic effect of our sin. Tonight we begin our three-day journey with Christ from death into life by receiving our long-awaited absolution.

Outside this room, the darkness of sin and death gathers. While we snuggle safely into our warm beds in our safe homes in our quiet cul-de-sacs, others sleep under freeways, in refugee camps, and in abuse shelters. Our world is falling apart because of the fear and pain caused by our inability to love one another with our whole selves, because of our hard hearts. God’s response is not to punish or shame or threaten us, but to show us love: love that is embarrassing in its opulence, love that is so powerful it transforms us, love that does nothing less than save us.

During the meal tonight, as we will soon hear once again, Jesus gets up, takes off his dinner jacket, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet. Foot washing has never been very popular here, and Jesus’ disciples were probably just as uncomfortable with it as we are. Feet are dirty; they are smelly. Peter and the others squirmed at the thought of anyone—especially somebody whom they loved and respected—having their dirty, smelly, ugly feet in his face. It is embarrassing that one who is called Lord and Master should do a job that not even a slave should be made to do.

And yet, this is just what Jesus does, because it is only by this extravagant show of love that Jesus can teach his disciples what it means to love. As disciples of this Christ ourselves, we are generally comfortable with loving and serving others, but just like those first disciples, When it comes to the idea that anyone should wash our feet, when anyone should offer us their assistance or support, we are sometimes too embarrassed to accept it. “I don’t want to be a bother,” we say. “I don’t want to put you out.” “I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.” “I can handle myself.”

True as they may be, those statements sometimes belie a subconscious belief that we are not worth the love or consideration of another. In our culture, dependence is a vice; self-reliance is the virtue. We are afraid that if we accept gracefully the loving acts of others, we will lose their respect; they will come to resent us for our insipid feebleness. Perhaps, deep down, we do not believe that we are worthy of such attentions.

This is why it is so hard for us to love each other as Jesus does: if we cannot believe that we are worthy of Jesus’ immoderate love, neither can we truly believe that others are any more worthy. When we see in others the worst parts of ourselves, we can no more believe that God loves them than we can that God really loves us. That is why Jesus washes his disciples’ feet: it is only in understanding their own worth to him that they can begin to understand the worth of the people around them. Jesus teaches us to love by first loving us.

That is how this love saves us. In a world that is beset and divided by anger and hatred and mistrust, Jesus teaches us to love one another as he loves us. He loves us “to the end”—the end of his power, the end of his strength, even the end of his life. That love is what makes us his disciples, what makes us able to give our lives to make this world the place that God has always dreamed it would be. Once we truly get how much God loves us—loves the world—we cannot help but feel that same love for one another, and that love makes its way from our minds to our hearts and finally to our bodies, allowing us to live fully for the sake of others.

Tonight, as we begin our three-day Triduum worship service, we will come again to the table so that we may receive the body and blood of Jesus himself, the love of God made flesh and given for us. But before we receive the meal, Pr. Stephanie and I will wash your feet. We do this at the command of our Lord Jesus, but also because of our love for you. This community continues to amaze us with your passion, your concern for the world, your generosity, and your care for us. One of the gifts of God’s great love is to form us into this community of the Church, and we are grateful to have been called by God and this congregation to serve as your pastors. It is with deep joy and heartfelt gratitude that we kneel to wash your feet so that you may know how much we love you, and how much God loves you.

Our Triduum worship service this week reminds us that the love of God we celebrate and share is not without cost. After the meal tonight, the table where Jesus meets us will be stripped of its paraments, just as he was stripped and beaten before his execution. We will leave in silence, remembering the price he paid for loving us so dearly—the price we, too, will pay for loving the world as he does.

But the story does not end there, and neither does our worship. We will pause, we will go to our homes and our families, but we will return tomorrow night to meditate upon his crucifixion, and again on Saturday to remember our baptism into his death and await his resurrection. As we journey through this story together, we hold in our hearts the conviction of faith that just as we know this story will end in the joy of new life on Easter morning, so too does the story of our lives, and the story of all creation.

Freed from the Fear of Death

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Freed from the Fear of Death” recorded in worship (13:46)
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Texts: Jer 31.31-34; Heb 5.5-10; Jn 12.20-33

Everybody dies from something. We know this, and yet death is something we refuse to talk about. We insulate ourselves from it and ignore it, as if pretending it doesn’t exist will keep it away just a little longer. When I say death, I don’t just mean the end of our lives, but all the ways we encounter death: grief, pain, sadness, loss, anxiety. We spend an enormous amount of energy—both as individuals and collectively as communities and nations—to protect ourselves from death.

Although it is healthy, our fear of death can become toxic. It is our fear of death can make us greedy as we look to our own wellbeing at the expense of others; it can create war and violence as we perceive others to be a threat to us; it can create xenophobia and hate when we fear that the inclusion of others will cause us to lose our own collective identity. Our fear of death in all its forms ironically does not prevent death, but only drives us to create more death.

This is the problem of death that God first sought to correct with the covenant to Israel forged on Sinai. God saw Israel languishing in slavery and rescued them, reformed them from a bunch of slaves into a faithful nation, bringing them into a new homeland so they could establish a society where everyone would know and trust God, and no one would have to fear death. In order to do that, God brought them empty-handed into the wilderness and gave them everything—even manna and quail for food and water from a dry rock—so that they would know that God would provide for them. The power God displayed in the 10 plagues and at the Red Sea proved that God was more powerful than the Pharaoh, the mighty Egyptian army, all the myriad gods of Egypt, and even Mother Nature herself—a promise that God could defend them from anyone who would do them harm.

In short, God showed the Israelites the incredible power and strength at God’s disposal to reassure them that, no matter what, God would protect them. In spite of the unbelievable power God showed to protect and sustain Israel, they turned away from God to worship the Ba’als, these other gods who promised to bring rain, to increase wealth, to give them children, and other things they didn’t trust God enough to do alone.

When Israel broke the Sinai covenant, instead of abandoning them, God remained faithful. It was clear that while a show of power and strength is what we want, it will not teach us to trust God; so God decided to try something else, to take a new approach. God decided to make a new covenant. “’It will not be like the covenant they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the LORD. ‘They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.’” God’s new covenant is not based on the use of force or the demonstration of power, but on simple love and forgiveness.

In our experience, these are not the kinds of things that inspire confidence; instead, these are the kinds of things that display weakness, that allow others to take advantage of us. Nonetheless, this is the promise God makes to us: not to destroy the armies that threaten us or punish the disobedient with eternal hellfire, but rather to allow Godself to be abandoned and abused again and again, responding to every insult and injury with mercy.

To us, this is not strength, but weakness. We have seen firsthand too many times that such behavior only invites death; and so our fear of death compels us to reject this new covenant. A God who would offer love and forgiveness to the worst of the worst is a God who is too naïve, too weak to protect us from the power of death.

And yet this God is anything but naïve; this God has taken on flesh and lived among us. As a human being, pain and suffering and loss have taught Jesus the same lessons we all learn: that if we don’t look out for ourselves, nobody will; that only the strong survive; that the early bird gets the worm. He has also graduated from the school of hard knocks, and he has the scars to prove it. What sets him apart, what allows him to recognize these lies for what they are, is that while he is fully human, he is also the Son of God. He knows God’s mind and God’s heart in a way that we never have; he knows what God has intended for us from the very beginning and what God has planned for the rest of history. He is the perfect intermediary between God and us—the Great High Priest, as it were—the only one who is able to bridge the gap between God and humanity so that each may fully know the other.

As the Great High Priest, he is able to fully know both the anxieties of humankind and the promises of the Most High God, and his experience of each allows him to speak with confidence the reassurances of the one into the fears of the other. As the Great High Priest, he alone is able to save us. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “having been made whole through his experience of human suffering, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who follow him.”

If all you get out of this is that God will always love you, no matter what, fine. That’s good news, and good enough to walk away with; but there’s more. Jesus didn’t die to say “God loves you,” Jesus died to give us eternal life, and as Pr. Stephanie said last week, eternal life is not life after death; or if it is, that’s not all it is—that’s just the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae. Eternal life is life as God always intended it to be. It is life free from violence and fear, life which builds itself up rather than tearing itself apart. It is the life that God offers to us here and now, because eternal life can’t be eternal if it doesn’t also include the present.

Eternal salvation means being rescued here and now and for all time from the fear of death that causes us to grasp and cling to life. Eternal salvation is the realization that what we call life is no life at all, but merely the absence of death. Our struggle to protect ourselves and our tribe from death is as silly as if a grain of wheat were to fight and claw its way out of the earth. Unless the grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. The grain is designed (for lack of a better word) to die, and in so dying it experiences life which has no beginning and no end—life that is truly eternal.

Just as the purpose of the grain is to die and produce a new stalk of wheat, we, too have a purpose: to do the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand. (Eph 2.10) When we allow our fear of death to keep us from fulfilling our purpose, we are already dead; but when we reverently submit to the will of God as Jesus did, we will find that we have already been given eternal life through Christ. Eternal life cannot be ended, it can only be changed. Following Jesus will change our lives: sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but always for God’s purposes and always to help establish God’s reign on earth.

Following Jesus and living lives ruled by love and forgiveness does make us more vulnerable; it makes us less safe and easier to abuse. The world sees mercy and compromise as a sign of weakness, but these things are how God has chosen to be made known to us. Jesus’ love for us and for God got him killed, but instead of death being his ending, it ended up being his glorification. In his love and forgiveness, he became the embodiment of God’s new covenant, so that through him we can have a full relationship with God. This is what we mean when we lift up the cup at the table and say that this cup is the new covenant in his blood. The sign of the old covenant was the blood of soldiers spilled in the sand far away in Egypt, but the sign of this new covenant is the blood of God’s own son, poured out willingly for us. It is not somewhere far away, but ever near. We drink it every week; it is a part of us.

Everybody dies from something, but if by dying we can bring the world into relationship with God like he did, then death is not death at all—death becomes just another part of eternal life. Because of the love and forgiveness of our Great High Priest, we, too, can help others to know God—not through strength and fear, but through love and forgiveness. Even in death, Christ lives; and baptized into his death and fed on his life, we live with him eternally. “Where I am, there my servant will be also,” Jesus says. That is a promise not just for someday when we die, but for right here, right now.