Sermon: (Dis)Belief (Resurrection of Our Lord C)

John 20:1-18

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

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

Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.


Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, once again things could have happened much quicker if men had simply believed the women when they shared their testimony. This small detail, relegated to a single (verse 11) which reads, “But these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women],” shows one problem humanity has with belief: one of many. Using the excuse of patriarchy, the first believers didn’t believe.

Apart from some frustration with those stubborn, misogynistic disciples, I do find this fact somehow comforting. The first disciples, the ones who got to learn at Christ’s feet, the ones who witnessed him raise Lazarus from the dead, got belief wrong all…the…time! I need this example from the disciples because I know I get belief wrong all the time too. I can find excellent ways to ignore the words and call of Christ. I am a master at distracting myself from what I know is at my core. I am an expert at wandering off from the Way of Christ.

So, I find my own faith journey strengthened by the knowledge that the saints and apostles struggled too. You can sense some of Paul’s struggle in the verses that lead up to our Epistle reading today:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.”[1]

Paul, and the church in Corinth, is struggling with questions about the resurrection. Those early disciples and Christians would have had to defend their belief in Christ’s resurrection from all sides. We read in the book of Acts how the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees were “much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.”[2] When Paul preached about the resurrection of Christ in Athens, we read that some there “sneered”[3] at the message.

And later, during one of his trials, the Roman governor of Judea, called Paul crazy, saying to him, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you mad.”[4]

Disbelief in the resurrection was a huge part of the original story, and we would do well to remember that! Faith, belief, does not always come easy to us. And if anything, that knowledge should make Christians ever more patient and compassionate when sharing the good news of God’s triumph over death. The journey of faith is rarely a simple one.

Perhaps that’s a more important take away from the resurrection accounts than we realize. It’s okay to struggle with faith at times. It’s okay to doubt. If anything, our doubts and struggles force us to acknowledge the complexity of the human experience. And I tend to find that acknowledging complexity is an important step towards deepening and living out our faith.

So, let’s acknowledge complexity! There are a lot of stumbling blocks to belief, some internal and some external. Patriarchy and misogyny reared their ugly heads in the resurrection account and caused the disciples to not hear the resurrection witness of the women, delaying the joy of their belief. Fear of losing of power and control as arbiters of access to God gets in the way for many religious leaders that heard those first resurrection testimonies. Classism plays a part when these “provincial” apostles from an unimportant backwater of the Roman Empire dare to bring their message to the centers of culture and wealth, Rome and Athens.

Those are just a few of the challenges the Gospel faced in the early church! There were others too, persecutions and oppression. Families were split and loyalties tested all because of belief, or disbelief, in Christ’s resurrection. And yet the church endured, it even thrived in the midst of all this complexity. It’s enough to make one wonder, how?

Clearly there is something powerful and compelling about the message of Christ’s triumph over death. We desperately want to believe that death does not have the final say. We, who know the joy of life lived in connection, never want that connection to be severed. So, the good news of Christ’s resurrection becomes all the more appealing because it means that in Christ there is no end to our connection. In Christ we are brought into one. That spark of the divine that rests in us will always rest in God!

But here’s the thing, we’ll never logic our way to belief. Reason and evidence will eventually fail. In the end they are distractions too and can cause us to stumble. Belief, faith, these come from experiences of the divine more than anything else. We grow in faith because we have experienced the love of God in those who walk with us on our journey. We come to believe because we have had some experience of God’s steadfast and unconditional love in our lives. And those experiences speak volumes about the nature of love and the nature of God.

As I have been preaching a lot lately, Christ came to earth to shatter our delusions and to show us the Truth. The Truth that no matter our stumbling, no matter the ways in which we drown out the call, no matter how much or how often we fail; God’s love will overcome. It overcame the multitude of challenges faced by those first disbelieving believers. It overcame persecution and oppression. It overcomes every resistance and barrier that we erect. The message of Easter, the Truth, is that God’s love wins. Even over death. And while it can, at times, be hard to believe, we can believe because we have experienced the Truth of it.

We have experienced the Truth of a comforting embrace when we’re grieving. We have experienced the Truth of unexpected forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged. We have experienced the Truth of being confronted with our own brokenness, yet knowing we are still loved and accepted. And we have the privilege of sharing the Truth of those experiences with others. And when we aren’t believed, we just keep sharing, much like those women returned from the tomb must have kept sharing the Truth: God’s love wins. And then we trust that God’s love will do what it always does…express itself persistently in the lives of those we share it with.

This is the message of resurrection. This is the message we are called to bear into the world. And not just with words, but with actions. Striving to ground all that we do in God’s agape love. Acknowledging that belief can be hard, and life is complex, but in the end…God’s love wins. In the end we know we are on the path of life, living out the Truth, following the Way of Christ, when we are living and sharing the love of God. Love which calls us to solidarity and substitution. Love which knows no conditions. Love which leads us to faith, obedience, connection, and eternal life.

Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:12-18, NRSV

[2] Acts 4:2

[3] Acts 17:32

[4] Acts 25:19-20

Sermon: Obedience (Maundy Thursday C)

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

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

Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.


Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What causes you to obey someone? Why do you follow instructions? Have you ever broken the law? Do you obey traffic signs? Other traffic laws? How about the speed limit, ever go faster than that? And if you have done any of those things, what made you feel as though you didn’t have to obey that particular law or instruction?

In many ways obedience is at the heart of Maundy Thursday. It’s even in the name of the day itself! Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum which we translate into English as “mandate.” Maundy Thursday is less about the washing of feet (though that is important too!) and more about the mandate, or command, that Jesus institutes in the Gospel reading for this sacred day.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[1] Perhaps this “new commandment” sounds familiar. It should…it’s not really all that new after all, is it? We hear it in the Gospels, repeatedly, the command to love God and to love our neighbors. And it’s not just in the Gospels! We can find that same theme in the entirety of Scripture! It’s even found in the opening to the shema, one of the foundational verses of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”[2]

So what makes Christ’s command on the eve of his Passion new or different? Why does Jesus call this new when it seems quite old instead? Well, I think it’s different in two important ways. First, it links our love for each other to God’s love for us. Not only are we to try to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we are to try to love one another with the same sort of love that God loves us with…namely agape love, or the unconditional, unmerited, overabundant, unrelenting, and gracious love of God. The sort of love that accepts people for who they are and also tries to support people in becoming more fully who they are meant to be, blessed and beloved children of God, who bear the image of God and a spark of the divine.

The second difference, and the one I want to focus on now, is that this command is not given with the usual enforcement mechanisms of obedience behind it. Think about the laws and commands of humanity. Reflect back on those opening questions I started with. Why do we obey? What’s the enforcement mechanism? I would argue that for humanity, the way we typically get obedience from others is through coercion and threats. Ultimately, what is the enforcement mechanism behind most of our laws? If you break one you go to prison (though in our justice system, there are plenty of ways to circumvent that…if you’re wealthy enough).

And it’s not just with laws. We humans love to attach coercive and threatening conditions to other things too. And we start young! Be on your best behavior or you’ll get a spanking! That early command lays bare the threat of violence behind much of how humanity deals with obedience. Be obedient to the law…to your boss…to your spouse…your parent…to whomever, or else there will be punishment. Follow the rules or go to prison. Follow the rules or you’re fired. Follow my rules or I’ll leave you. Be obedient or else. That’s how humanity does commands and obedience.

Now, I suspect you can find other reasons people follow the rules…good order, civil society, it’s a part of our culture, whatever. But when all of these fail when a person gets desperate enough, obedience is ultimately demanded through threats of coercion or violence. However, this is not how Jesus operates.

What’s the enforcement mechanism behind this command of Christ? There isn’t one! Jesus isn’t interested in conditional obedience or relationship. Relationship built on threats is no real relationship at all. Obedience based on “or else” is not loving and it is not Christ-like. So how does Jesus make a claim of obedience on the disciples, and on us, if there’s no enforcement? For that we need to jump ahead to the next chapter in John’s Gospel.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[3] “Hey Pastor Jon! That sounds conditional! You see, Jesus is using an “or else” to get obedience!” You might be thinking to yourself.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to interpret that statement as conditional. Now, it can certainly be interpreted that way, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s part of the trickiness of translating Scripture, there are often options to our translating! We can just as easily interpret this statement as causal rather than conditional. The verb translated as “keep my commandments” is in the future, indicative case, which means it is simply a statement of a future fact. Loving Jesus causes one to keep his commands.

Jesus seems to be saying that one simply cannot love Jesus without keeping his commands. And what are Christ’s commands? Love God, love neighbor…that’s pretty much it. Most of Jesus’ actions and teachings serve this one fundamental command (which is more of a statement of fact than anything): one cannot love God if one does not love neighbor, and vice versa.

What strikes me about this reality is how far from it the church, and many Christians, have strayed. We’ve found all sorts of ways to apply conditions to our love for one another (which means we’re also trying to apply conditions to God’s love too). And that is not in keeping with the commands of Christ. It is actively not loving God, which is a pretty bad look for the Church and for Christians!

Looking around our world today there seem to be many Christians who will only love their neighbor if their neighbor looks, acts, speaks, and thinks like they do. Rather than loving our neighbors many Christians seem to be opting for hatred instead. Hatred for neighbors who look different from the majority. Neighbors who might be black or brown-skinned. Neighbors who may be refugees or immigrants. Neighbors who may be Jewish or Muslim. Neighbors who may be conservative or progressive. Neighbors who may be gay or lesbian or asexual. Neighbors who may be non-binary or transgender.

Jesus placed no conditions on God’s love and then grounded our loving of God in loving our neighbors in the same way that we have been loved…unconditionally. The heart of Christianity is agape love, extravagant and unconditional. And any attempt by Christians to apply conditions to our love, or to God’s love, is an act of disobedience towards Christ. It is an expression of “un-love” towards God.

This day is marked by the command of Christ to love one another as Christ loves us. In a few moments we will participate in an intimate act of love, the foot washing. I pray that this loving act tonight, the love of God shown forth in the entirety of this Holy Week, and of Easter, be one in which you know, deep in your very bones, God’s all-encompassing love for you. And I pray that out of this amazing experience of God’s agape love, we can truly live out our obedience to God by loving our neighbors with that same agape love.

I do not wish to deceive you about this though. It is NOT easy to love as Christ loves. It means loving even those whom you detest, those who are absolutely your enemies. Scripture makes it obvious that despite God’s desires, the cosmos has placed itself in opposition to God. Our world as it is now does not want to love unconditionally. I know I struggle with the command, the reality, that to love God means loving those I’d really rather not love. It’s hard and we fail at it again and again.

So if our inability to love our neighbors as Christ loves them means we are not obedient to Christ’s command. If our actions say that we do not love God because we are not loving our neighbors the way God loves them, then what hope do have we? All the hope!

Christ does not leave us to this work, this obedience, alone. Christ promises us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit which Christ sends to abide in us is the Spirit of God’s love. When we’re bogged down by the brokenness of the world and the brokenness within ourselves, there is the Spirit reminding us that we are loved, always and forever, no matter what. When we find it difficult, or even impossible, to love someone the way Christ wants us to, there is the Spirit with all the power and resources of God, drawing us back to loving obedience; even loving others when we are struggling to.

It can be quite the paradox. We love best when we get out of the Spirit’s way. We can be obedient best when we merely rest in the loving embrace of God. When we remember the love with which we have been loved, then we can share it. When we remember that Christ is in us and we are in Him, then maybe, just maybe, we can do the obedient thing, the real thing, only thing that truly matters…love.

Amen.


[1] John 13:34 (NRSV)

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4

[3] John 14:15

Sermon: Actions Speak (Palm Sunday C)

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

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


Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We don’t know that it happened every year, but if he followed the usual Roman traditions we can assume that at some point during his time as governor Pontius Pilate rode into Jerusalem in a victory parade, likely more than just once. These would have been ostentatious occasions. Such a parade was intended to be a statement of Rome’s power and might. Pilate would likely have been seated atop a warhorse, in beautiful clothing or armor, and accompanied by a small army of soldiers. He may have been joined by the puppet kings of Israel, but perhaps not if he wanted them to know their place too. Crowds would have likely gathered to see the unusual sight on their own, but if not soldiers would have ensured that the people of Jerusalem were in attendance. The whole parade was intended to send a message to the rebellious Israelites: do NOT mess with Rome. Some in the crowds may have cheered, but I imagine most would have rather jeered (if they dared).

And if Pilate had chosen to conduct such a parade, what better time than at Passover? Jerusalem would have been chock full of pilgrims from all over Palestine and beyond; what a great big audience! Plus, there’s the bonus of the history of Passover. It was, essentially, the celebration of when God rescued Israel from the mighty Egyptian Empire. What a perfect moment for Pilate to arrive and impress upon Israel that Rome is not Egypt, and as a matter of fact, Rome ruled Egypt by this point in history. So go ahead and celebrate escaping the Egyptian Empire, but just in case you’re thinking of trying to escape the Roman Empire, here is a reminder of what you would be up against.

The huge spectacle of such a parade is all about sending a message. Jesus, in his entry into Jerusalem, was also sending a message. He was sending a message to the people of Israel, to the people of Rome, to all people. True kingship and power are not exercised in the way that humans love to exercise them. Military might and power amount to a hill of beans in the face of Christ’s message. The message, the Gospel, was one of pure Truth.

And the truth is this, Jesus. Jesus who took on human flesh and limitation to show us what a sham our world is. Jesus who died on the cross, not to satisfy God’s desire to punish humanity; but rather to open our eyes to the delusions we live under. Like the delusion that power is useless unless exercised over others. The delusion that there are arbiters of access to God’s love and grace. Or, perhaps the greatest delusion, that we are in control.

The message of this Truth is embedded everywhere in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem: he enters on a colt instead of a warhorse, he sits on a dirty, ragged cloak instead of an expensive saddle, he’s wearing everyday clothes instead of finery, and he’s accompanied by ragtag crowds full of unimportant pilgrims instead of soldiers and the wealthy. This message will continue as we make our way through Christ’s Passion. His throne will be a cross. His crown, a wreath of thorns. And the scarlet he will wear will be the red of his spilled blood instead of a scarlet, ermine robe.

What a disappointment this message must have been to the people gathered there. Sure, they start off on board with what Christ is saying; but it doesn’t last. And out of their disappointment their cries of “Hosanna” will turn into cries of “Crucify him!” in just a matter of days. We don’t like our delusions being unmasked! We cannot stand that God will not conform to our expectations!

I shared with you a few weeks ago my frustration with substitutionary atonement theory. As a quick reminder, that’s the idea that Jesus came to earth in order to take humanity’s place in the face of God’s wrath. Or divine “child abuse” if you recall my complaint about that atonement theory. I believe this message of Truth is the real reason Christ took on human flesh and form. It didn’t have anything to do with God’s wrath or punishing humanity or any of that stuff. When you really examine those reasons and theories, they are exactly in line with the human delusion that Christ is rejecting, aren’t they?

All of those atonement theories have to do with human preoccupations and not the self-identified preoccupations of Jesus Christ. God’s wrath, divine punishment, retribution, all of that stuff is exactly what humanity would do with God’s power. Who wouldn’t love to divinely smite their enemies? I’d wager those Israelites in Jerusalem would be quite happy to smite down Pilate and the Roman Emperor and all the rest. Power is meant to be exercised over others after all!

Except, that’s not the Way of Christ. The Way of Christ lies in giving up power and control. The Way of Christ is oriented towards humility, not power; towards meekness, not pride; and towards trust in God, not trust in might or wealth. The Way of Christ holds up a mirror to humanity so we can see ourselves more clearly. A mirror that lets us part the veil of our shared delusions and see the extreme damage we do to one another (and ourselves!!) because of them.

There are likely many reasons for the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. But I think there is no more important a reason for humanity than this one. We need to be confronted with the Truth: we are not in control, none of the things we pursue on our own can fulfill us, and all people are made in God’s image. The Truth forces us to see how broken we are. How broken we have made the world. The Truth confronts us with our complicity in the damage done to ourselves, to others and to creation. The Truth is enough to make us despair!

But the Truth doesn’t end there. While it pierces our delusions and confronts us with our brokenness; it also shows us a different way, the Way of Christ. A Way that leads to God’s realm, a place of abundant love and grace, mercy and forgiveness. A Way that teaches us to accept others and love them as they are, knowing that it is only when encircled by safe and loving arms that change is even possible. A Way that leads us to connection with God, and through that connection, connection with all of creation.

The Truth holds up a mirror to show us our brokenness, but it also shows us that we are made in God’s image. The Truth shows us that we are connected to, even grounded in, the sacred, the holy, the divine. The Truth shows us that we are not whole or well; but it also shows us exactly what we need to be whole and well…connection. Connection to God, and through that connection, connection one another and to all of creation. The Truth shows us God’s love for us and for the cosmos. Amen.

Sermon: Meeting Needs (Lent 5c)

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’


Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“You always have the poor with you…” (John 12:8a, NRSV). These words of Christ have been much debated and, at times, ill-used by theologians and the church universal. It almost sounds hopeless, right? There will always be poor people. That’s a pretty pessimistic assessment; I, for one, dream of a world where poverty no longer exists. I dream of a society where every person’s needs are met. And I would hope you would have similar dreams!

So what is going on here? Why does Jesus make this statement? As can often be the case in the words of Jesus, this statement may be a reference to the Torah. We certainly experience how well versed Jesus is in the Law numerous times in John’s Gospel.[1] So let me read you a verse from Deuteronomy 15 that may be what Jesus is referencing. Deuteronomy 15 is laying out the rules regarding a “year of jubilee” every seven years in which debts are cancelled and slaves are freed. After outlining the process for this special year (a process which we have no evidence of ever being followed), Moses relates these words from Yahweh, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deut. 15:11, NRSV).

Oh! That reference may change how we hear these words of Christ. Rather than hearing them as hopeless, that the plight of the poor will never be remedied. Perhaps this is an invitation to focus on the poor right in front of the disciples’ eyes. Especially since the poor person in front of them, unlike the poor in general, will not be with them always. Yes, I am calling Jesus poor.

Now, I don’t mean that Jesus was poor in terms of material means, though that would not surprise me. We do not hear much about Jesus’ possessions in scripture. There are all of two possible references to Jesus having a home (one in Mark 2 and one in John 1), but that’s about it. When it comes to other material possessions…there’s not much mentioned. As a matter of fact, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Jesus was materially poor. Why else would Luke mention this in reference to several of his female disciples: “they provided financial support for Jesus and his disciples” (Luke 8:3c, NRSV)?

That being said, I don’t believe that it is material poverty that is being addressed by Mary in our text for today. After all, there are other kinds of poverty. Which begs the question, what is poverty? That can be a difficult question to answer, but I would argue that, fundamentally, poverty is an experience of lacking some basic necessity.

So, is Jesus poor? Materially? Perhaps. But in this scene from John 12, is Jesus poor? I would argue yes, but his poverty is not material. I believe his poverty is spiritual. What is the basic need that is not being met for Jesus here in John 12? Understanding and compassion.

Think about his situation. It is six days before the Passover, the Passover that Jesus knew would mark his execution. Jesus is staying in Bethany, which is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem, where he will be abandoned and die. He is on the verge of drinking the cup that he would rather not drink. And who is his support network in the midst of all of this distress and anxiety? Clueless disciples who will abandon him when the going gets tough.

By this time in John’s Gospel Jesus has told the disciples, three different times, that he will die: John 2:13-22; John 3:13-21; John 10:7-8. And what’s the reaction from the disciples? Complete misunderstanding! In John 2 we read that the disciples will not understand what Jesus meant about rebuilding the Temple (of his body) until after his death and resurrection. Nicodemus will miss the point completely of Jesus’ needing to be lifted up to save others like Moses’ snake on a stick. His prediction in John 10 is met with derision by the crowds, some even calling him a raving lunatic.

There’s not much understanding here, is there? Not much compassion either! We will watch these disciples, Jesus’ supposed support network, as they repeatedly let Jesus down during his arrest, trial, torture, and execution. By their words and actions prior to this point we know that, like Nicodemus, the other disciples are trapped by their expectations of the Messiah which lead them misunderstanding and indifference.

So yes, I believe Jesus was quite poor when Mary entered the room of that house in Bethany and saw something in Jesus that clued her in to his needs. I suspect she ran out of the room to go find something to try to help him as his time of trial began. I imagine her rushing to the marketplace and casting about for something that might express her love and concern for Jesus. She may not fully understand what’s going on, but she clearly sees some need in Jesus.

Who knows how she arrives at nard for a gift. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit. But in the scene I’m crafting in my imagination I see her moving through various stalls until the scent of perfume wafts buy. She moves closer to the source of the scent and starts to look through the various jars and vials. Perhaps again guided by the Spirit, she sees the nard and something triggers in her mind. Maybe she remembers one or two of those passion predictions she’s heard from Jesus. Or perhaps she is thinking about the spices she purchased recently for her dear brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead not that long ago. Whatever the reason, she grabs the bottle and approaches the vendor.

300 denarii?? That’s a lot of money! One denarius was considered a day’s wage for the typical laborer. Three hundred denarii then, represents almost a full year’s worth of time and energy expended. I wonder if the price caught Mary off guard, or if she hesitated at all. It’s a lot of money after all! But perhaps Mary’s thoughts turned instead to the teachings of Christ. The repeated messages about the abundance of God’s love and grace. Or maybe she thought back to the time by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus took “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (John 6:9a) and provided more than enough to feed five thousand men, plus the thousands of women and children that were gathered there too. In the face of such generosity it’s hard not to respond in kind!

I picture Mary emptying her purse out into the vendor’s hands and rushing back to where Jesus and the others were gathered. She throws open the door and hurries to the feet of Christ where she uncorks the jar, letting the odor fill the room, and thus identifying the perfume as the pricey burial spice, nard. She pours the costly ointment over her Rabbi’s feet then realizes that in her rush she didn’t grab a towel to work the perfume into his skin. So, without hesitation or even a second thought, she uncovers her hair and draws it down to his feet and in act of intimate love, works the burial oil into his skin.

Mary saw the poverty of compassion and understanding that Jesus was experiencing. She saw something in Jesus that spoke to her of what he needed most, and she responded to it. She met the needs of Jesus; he lacked love and support for what he was about to endure, and she somehow saw that poverty. And, being a better disciple than most, she sought to meet the need of that poverty. She saw need and worked to meet it. There is no quicker summation of discipleship than that.

I believe that is why Jesus references Deuteronomy 15 and adds on that bit about the disciples not always having him. I don’t believe Jesus is trying to teach us to not prioritize the needs of the poor; rather he is teaching the disciples to respond to the needs that are right in front of them. He wants them, and us too, to open our eyes to different sorts of poverty and need that exist right around us. And, seeing the needs of those around us, Christ wants us to follow Mary’s example and serve those needs!

In a world full of brokenness and poverty we can become blind to the needs of those around us. The amount of work ahead of us can feel overwhelming too. But the plain truth of the matter is that Jesus is trying to get us to see that unmet needs are everywhere and we are called to be generous or openhanded, in meeting those needs. We can’t change the world, but we can change our little corner of it. And that change seems to come first through truly seeing the people around us; seeing their needs and trying to meet them. That is the Way of Christ. That is the way of love. May we follow Mary’s example in walking it! Amen.


[1] (cf John 1:1-18; John 8:12-13, 17-18; John 10:34-36; John 13:18; John 15:25)

SERMON: Are you home? (Lent 4C)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV): Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable:

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘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.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Yay! A Sunday where I get to complain! What am I complaining about? The Revised Common Lectionary! I simply do not understand why on earth we get the parable of the prodigal son here in Lent 4, but the introductory parables about the lost sheep and coin don’t come until the end of the summer. These three parables are intimately related, they share a similar structure and language, and they are clearly intended to reinforce each other; they belong together!

So, just a quick reminder! You heard the first few verses of Luke 15, which gives us the setting and audience hearing these parables: the tax collectors and sinners as well as the grumbling Pharisees. Then Jesus relates two parables that share the exact same literary structure, along with very similar language. The first parable is about a lost sheep and a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go find the lost one in the wilderness. The second parable is about a lost coin and the woman who turns her house upside down to find it. In both parables there is much rejoicing when what was lost is found.

Now, while these two parables are very similar to one another, I believe it is in the only major difference between the two that Jesus’ point is really being made. And it is that difference that is preparing us for the third parable, the one I read just a few moments ago. That difference has to do with what is lost and how it may have been lost.

In the first parable we have a lost sheep. Sheep aren’t the brightest creatures and can be prone to wandering off from the flock in search of food or water or what have you. In the second parable we have a lost coin; unlike the sheep, coins are inanimate objects and completely unable to wander off on their own (although it can sure feel as though my keys wander off sometimes). Why is that difference important? I believe it highlights the different sorts of “lost-ness” we can find ourselves in. Sometimes we are lost through our own actions, wandering off to find…something. And sometimes we are lost in place, somehow at “home” and yet not where we are supposed to be, at home yet not really.

Perhaps you can see now where I am going with this. These introductory parables are preparing us for the third parable, the prodigal son. Although I would like to suggest a different title. Let’s call it the parable of the two lost sons, because, of course, both of them are lost! One is lost like the sheep, wandering off far from home; and the other is lost like the coin, still home but not really.

This begs the question, then, where is home for the sheep and the coin? Where is home for these two lost sons? Where is your home? What defines home for a sheep? Or a coin? Or a wastrel? Or a stickler? What defines home for you? Perhaps the best question to throw all of this into clarity is this: where are you when you’re NOT lost? Where are you when you feel as though you belong completely?

A sheep is not lost when they are in the flock, under the care of a shepherd. A coin belongs when it is where its owner wants it to be. Those are easy answers, it gets harder in the third parable because the sons can conceptualize and pursue their own “home” in a way coins and sheep cannot. So, a wastrel would think that their home is wherever they are surrounded by friends and food and drink. A stickler would think that their home is where they know and can follow the rules. But all of that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The point of this parable, the point of all three of these parables is the same. The variety of “lost-ness” expressed in them may be different, but where we are lost from…that’s the same. We’re lost from our true home. Where’s that? Well, I believe that our truest home is wherever we are when we are resting in God. Whether sheep, coin, wastrel, or stickler, home is the tender embrace of a loving and gracious God. Ultimately, we are lost when we are not resting in God. And wow are we good at getting lost!

We get lost looking for things that don’t satisfy, food, fun, wealth, power, popularity. We get lost trying to live up to rules and standards that we (largely) inflict on ourselves. We get lost in comparing and judging. We get lost in doing everything for everyone. We get lost in ever greater achievements. We get lost in our emotions. We get lost in sterile objectivity. We get lost in our anxieties and fears. We get lost in pursuing the latest shiny objects. We get lost in trying to prove ourselves to others. We get lost in pleasing people. We get lost in envying the “home” others seem to find.

See, we’re experts at getting lost; we’re pros at leaving the presence of God, that warm embrace which is our surest rest. We have found a multitude of ways to get away from God, sometimes wandering off, and sometimes standing still. We can even turn the gifts of God in to ways to get lost from God’s presence.

There is an old Jewish story that goes like this: “The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating Gods goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling envious and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.”[1]

What if I told you, you don’t need to be lost any more? Could you believe that? I mean, really believe it? Could you dare to believe that you don’t have to wander off in search of home? Could you believe that you don’t have to be a stickler for some set of rules that too easily become substitutes for God’s presence? Could you believe that you need not do a single thing to be welcomed home to God’s embrace?

The fact of the matter is this: anywhere that is not God is not our home. So, my siblings in Christ, let’s go home. Let’s turn to God, trusting that God forgives even before we can finish our confession. Let’s turn to God, trusting that how we got lost, or where we wandered off to are irrelevant to God. Let’s turn to God trusting that all God cares about is that we are home now. And when we wander off again, or get lost standing still; God rushes to embrace us in the most undignified, joyous, exuberant and prodigal manner…again and again and again! What good news!

Do you think there might be one or two others in the world that could use some directions on how to get home? Do you think you could show them the way to their true home? I think we can! I think we do that by being loving and accepting people, just as God loves and accepts them. I think we do that by wrapping others in that same loving embrace which we know as our home too. So, let’s walk the Way of Christ, knowing that it will take us, and all people, home. Let’s walk the Way of Christ, straight into the tender and loving embrace of God. Amen.


[1] R. Alan Culpepper. Luke 15:1-32, Parables of the Joy of Recovery and Return. (1995). In The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX: The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John (p. 298). Abingdon Press.

A New Direction

I have found myself blessed to have had the opportunity lately to do a lot of work on my spirituality in the last year or so. I have been guided in this by some beautiful mentors including Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Dorothy Day, Ian Cron, Suzanne Stabile, Joan Chittister, and many others. I have grown in my relationship with my wife in deep and powerful ways. I have become a far better father than I even thought I’d be capable of; certainly more patient and loving then I ever knew how to be before. I owe much of this growth in spirituality and self understanding to the Enneagram and would welcome any and all inquiries you might have about that tool. As my spirituality and theology have grown so too has my political understanding as well. I find myself increasingly radicalized. My faith can allow no less than a complete overhaul of most of our political and economic systems. I understand the USA to be a captured political system that is essentially an oligarchy. The only way to fix this is to undo Citizens United and get all money out of politics. I also understand both the Democratic and Republican parties to captured by neoliberal/neoconservative right-wing interests whose primary purpose is to distract the population with culture wars while ensuring the wealthy, landed (frankly, nobility) class remains in power.

I have also come to understand that one of the ways my “personality” (I am an ONE on the Enneagram) exerts itself is in a desire to understand problems in order to fix them and then share that understanding/solution with others. Guess what the new direction this blog is going to be going in is? 🙂 Going forward, this will be a place for me to share what I am learning about the Enneagram, theology, parenting, relationships, pastoring, politics, economics, and the intersection of these things. I will, at some point, better organize the Narrative Lectionary resources in a clearly labeled section of this site. I will also try to clearly organize and label the topics of my various posts so you can peruse what you might be more interested in and ignore other things (though if I challenge you, don’t ignore that!).

My Apologies

The last few weeks have been rather tough in the life of our parish here in central MN. The busy-ness of Holy Week was followed by the death of a 16 year old member, followed by the death of an 82 year old member. Things are starting to settle down again here and life moves on (which feels wrong somehow). I will begin crafting and posting worship helps again this week. By way of apology, I am including the sermon I wrote for the 16 year old’s death (with names changed), hoping that it might be a help to someone struggling to offer the Gospel in a similar circumstance. I found the book, “This Incomplete One” to be a wonderful resources in crafting this difficult sermon.

Gospel Reading: John 11:21-27

[Greeting]

I have been very blessed to know Christopher. I arrived here in this parish in the summer of 2013, and got to know Christopher pretty quickly in LYO and in confirmation. He was a reliable participant in both. As we made our way through the stories of the Old Testament that year, I grew to appreciate his willingness to talk and his honesty in the face of difficult questions.

His friendliness was readily apparent too. He was the one texting and calling others to make sure they’d be at LYO for some kickball or a round of thing-in-the-dark or whatever activity we had planned. I’ll never quite understand his desire to play kickball in work boots though…he may have gotten more distance on his kicks, but they couldn’t have been easy to run in!

I had fun with him on our trip to the National Youth Gathering in Detroit too. He was a blessing to the group that went. Ready and willing to participate in the Gathering activities, service work, and group bible studies; whatever the plan was he ready to be a part of it. Although my tradition of making my LYO groups try new foods didn’t go over that well with him. I could not get him to try Thai food for the life of me! I have been blessed to know Christopher.

I have many memories of Christopher from LYO, from confirmation, from our trip to Detroit, from church, from potlucks, from service work, from board game nights, from Camp House, and many other circumstances and situations. But some of my favorite memories are probably from VBS. My very first experience with this parish was VBS in 2013, I hadn’t actually started yet, but I brought my daughter by to participate. Funnily enough, I don’t think Christopher was there that year, I believe he was up at Camp House helping to get it ready for camp.

But in the next two years he was there (at least for part of it). He worked alongside an adult leader in the games station of VBS. And I can still clearly remember watching him helping to herd those bible schoolers through all sorts of games and activities. And what struck me the most about Christopher was his desire to see everyone participate. That would become something of a theme with Christopher. He wanted the kids to feel included and welcome. I distinctly remember watching him working so hard to get one of the younger kids, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who didn’t want to join the others in playing on the playground, to play Frisbee with him…to have fun and feel welcomed. I have been blessed to know Christopher.

As my mind turned to VBS and Christopher, I thought of one of the lessons we taught at VBS last year. Our theme verse was Micah 6:8, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” But the lesson I’ve been thinking of in particular was on our third day that week, we focused on the portion of the verse that talks about “love kindness.” The word for kindness there is one of those tricky, but fun Hebrew words you find in the Old Testament. It’s the word hesed. It’s tricky and fun because it’s one of those words that are really hard to translate into English because it has so many possibilities.

In Scripture it is often translated as kindness, or mercy, or loyalty, or even love; in the Psalms it is often rendered as “steadfast love.” It’s a tricky and fun word because it conveys a powerful concept: the deep, abiding, eternal, and undeserved love that God has for us (and we sometimes have for each other). In thinking about Christopher my mind has returned again and again to that concept of hesed.

And it is no wonder that it has! Christopher has certainly known hesed, steadfast love. He knew it from his family. The love and support they have showered him with over these last two years (and before), has been a powerful example of hesed. In his faith statement for confirmation he wrote that his faith began around the dinner table at grandma and grandpa’s house with saying grace before meals. I’ve heard from his cousins about games of hide and seek played at dusk, and board games (some friendly, and some perhaps overly competitive) enjoyed on weekends. Christopher knew hesed from his family. Christopher knew steadfast love from his family.

Christopher knew hesed from his friends. I have seen, again and again, Christopher’s openness and friendliness lead to powerful relationships. Was he friends with everyone? Perhaps not, who is? But he was open to everyone and willing to try to have relationships with others. And others responded to that. Christopher showed hesed to others and others responded with hesed of their own. I watched deep relationships being formed on our trip to Detroit. I know several of his friends in particular showed hesed to Christopher and I’m sure many others of you did as well. Christopher knew hesed from his friends. Christopher knew steadfast love from his friends.

Christopher knew hesed from his community; all of his various communities: his neighbors, his church, his school. You all have showered him and his family with support, with prayer, and with hesed, with steadfast love. In these recent weeks I know they have received more food than a family 10 times their size could eat! They have received countless cards and gifts. Christopher knew hesed from his community. Christopher knew steadfast love from his community.

And most of all, Christopher knew hesed from God. He wrote that faith statement for confirmation a few months after his first surgery, the one to remove the tumor from his brain. And in it he wrote that the experience of cancer and surgery had shown him how important his faith is and how it drove his attitude (that kind, open, welcoming attitude of his) towards others and his own challenges. Christopher knew hesed from God. Christopher knew steadfast love from God.

But as I have been thinking about hesed these last few days I have come to a new understanding of it. In accompanying Christopher and his family through this hard, hard, time; I have been amazed to see, again and again, how they have endured through it all. And so, I think, maybe there’s another translation of hesed we could consider. “Steadfast love,” certainly! “Loving-kindness” or “loving-loyalty,” yes. “Mercy,” sure. But I think it could also be “enduring grace.”

Christopher certainly endured. He endured surgery, and pain, and weakness. But he never stopped caring, and he never turned bitter. We had a hard talk a couple of weeks ago; and he admitted to me that as he faced death he was mostly worried about his Mom (sorry [Dad], he worried about you too, but he obviously trusted your strength). And isn’t that just like Christopher? He endured and still cared, still loved.

[Mom] and [Dad] have certainly endured as well. I have watched as they have done everything in their power to support, care for, and love Christopher. I have seen the tender kisses from his mom. I have watched as his father carried Christopher and helped him get to wherever he needed to go. And you two have endured. You’ve been angry with God, I know. And that’s ok, I have been angry with God too. But you have not turned bitter…you have endured.

[Sister], and the rest of the family have endured as well. I have watched as you have hovered around Christopher for these last weeks in particular. Doing all that you can to love and support him, and his parents. [Sister], I have watched you reach out to your cousins in love and support, even while this burden weighs you down too. You all have endured.

By the grace of God you all have endured. And that’s the thing of it. We have at times wondered where God is in the midst of this cancer and death. We have at times felt abandoned and alone. But we have endured. By the grace of God we have endured. We have at times hoped and prayed and looked for a miracle; a miracle that did not come. We have joined with Martha in saying, “Lord, if you had been here, [Christopher] would not have died.”  And we have endured. That’s where God has been in the midst of this terrible journey.

And maybe that is the miracle. That by the hesed of God we have endured. By enduring grace we have walked this journey. By enduring grace we shall continue to walk it. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane prayed that the cup might pass from him. But he endured. He endured betrayal, arrest, and abandonment. He endured insults, and torture, and cruelty. He endured the cross. He endured all of this for our sake. And he did not endure in vain. For the story does not end with the enduring of all that tragedy. It ends with relief. It ends with resurrection. It ends with life.

And so we too can endure. By God’s grace we can endure. Until we too find that relief. The relief of resurrection and life. The relief that is now, already and forever, Christopher’s. Amen.