Feed My Sheep

a reflection on John 21:1-17 for the fifth Sunday of Easter

Do you love me? I can’t think of another gospel story in which Jesus repeats a question three times, even after he gets an answer. I also can’t think of another time when a disciple gets as exasperated with Jesus as Peter does this morning. Lord, You already know everything! You know that I love you! How many times are you going to make me say it?

It’s possible that one of the reasons Peter was so perplexed is that on the surface, “Feed my sheep,” sounds like a pretty simple instruction: if people are hungry, you feed them. Who doesn’t know this? Okay, so maybe it took the disciples a little while to get the hang of multiplying loaves and fishes. But surely by now, they know that even when there doesn’t seem to be enough, all they have to do is share what they have, and let God provide the rest. Surely by this time Jesus doesn’t need to tell the disciples three times that hungry people need to be fed.

I’m pretty sure that the Risen Christ is trying to give Peter a much more subtle instruction this morning–an urgent message about precisely what we need to do if we are going to continue Jesus’ work after he ascends to heaven in just a couple of weeks.

It seems to me that if we want to understand what Jesus has in mind when gives this instruction to feed his sheep, we need to ask ourselves what feeding sheep meant to Jesus. How did Jesus see his own ministry of feeding the ones to came to him?

One possibility is that Jesus might have seen his ministry as providing bread to physically hungry people. This would be a perfectly sensible and merciful thing to do. It also would have made Jesus a very popular guy. Remember that at the very start of his ministry, Jesus goes out to the desert for 40 days to listen for what exactly God is calling him to do. And while he’s out there listening, the devil himself shows up and tries to tempt Jesus with this very idea. Hey you, the devil says, Hey, Miracle Boy! Let’s see you turn this stone into a loaf of bread! The devil knows there are hungry people out there. The devil knows how tempting it is to make a magical career out of satisfying their material, physical needs. But you remember what Jesus famously says to the devil: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Jesus knows that people are hungry. He certainly knows that there will be times when he will feed them the bread that they need. But he also knows that people need much more than bread, and that it’s his job to bring them that something more. The crowds who flocked to Jesus did not leave their homes and walk all those hot, dusty miles to get a loaf of bread. They left their homes and walked those long, hot miles because they were hungry for something else: those people were spiritually hungry. They were longing to feel the very presence of God right here in the body of this beautiful, broken world. And when they stepped into Jesus’ presence, they felt that presence of God in him. People brushed against Jesus’ cloak in a crowd; they climbed a tree to get a glimpse of his face—and just like that, they knew that they were held, now and forever, in the arms of God. And for the first time, they knew what it means to be truly loved, and truly alive.

I am the Bread of Life, Jesus says. Do you love me? he asks. Then I need you to be the same. I need you, too, embody the presence of God for a world that is spiritually starved.  I need you to become, in your own body, spiritual food for a hungry world.

I want to be very clear here: for Jesus, and for us, this is not an either/or proposition—either you feed people’s bodies, OR you feed their souls. Jesus knew that he had to do both. And I believe he calls us to do the same. If Jesus were asking Peter simply to provide loaves and fishes, surely he wouldn’t have to say it three times! Surely, Jesus would never have to ask us three times to feed a hungry person bread! If Jesus were only asking us to feed hungry people bread, he’d only have to say it once for us to understand, and we’d do it in a heartbeat.

But if Jesus is asking for something more subtle, if Jesus is asking Peter, and us, to BECOME the bread of life; to become the kind of spiritual food that he IS—well, then, we might very well need to hear it a few times times before it starts to sink in.

I don’t know how about you, but if I were in Peter’s shoes this morning, I might be thinking that a good, old-fashioned loaves-and-fishes miracle is starting  to sound pretty easy right about now.

Become spiritual food? Easy for Jesus to say. After all, he’s Emmanuel, God-with-Us. But what about the rest of us? How can Jesus possibly be asking US to become this kind of spiritual food for a world of hungry sheep?

I want to suggest to you this morning that this, in fact, is the question of our lives. If you were going to ponder just one question for the rest of your life, it might be this: What particular kind of food am I created to be for a hungry world?

I can’t answer that for you. But I can tell you that the particular kind of spiritual food that you are will never be repeated. And that if you fail to bring that gift to the world,  then the ones who need particular spiritual  food that you are will go hungry.

What I can tell you is that there are three things each of us must do if we are to become the kind of spiritual food that I believe Jesus is asking us to become.

The first thing we have to do is  learn how to feel, and to name, our own soul’s deepest hunger. We live in a culture that does not specialize in the care and feeding of souls. In fact, we live in a culture that encourages us at every turn to ignore our spiritual hunger—our hunger for the felt presence of God. In fact, we live in a culture that encourages us to try and fill that longing for God with other things–with food, with alcohol, with money, with accomplishments and entertainment and frantic activity of every kind. It takes courage, and time, and often help, to name what it is that would make our souls come alive. Part of the reason this is so tricky is that the care and feeding of souls is never a one-size-fits all proposition. If it were that easy, we could just open up a big bag of Purina Sheep Chow and start giving it out! But nobody—not me, not any of the self-help gurus or television holy people–can tell you what particular food will feed your unique, irreplaceable soul. And we cannot feed the world’s spiritual hunger unless we learn to recognize, and name, that hunger in ourselves.

The second thing we need to do, once we have named what our soul is hungry for, is to  actually let ourselves receive the spiritual food we need. This may sound obvious — if you’re hungry, you eat. But I wonder if you have ever gotten a glimpse—maybe just for a moment—of what your soul is deeply hungry for, and then, in the next instant, rushed away to get busy with something else. Maybe because it hurts too much to feel your soul’s hunger. Maybe because you have no idea how you will feed that hunger, or where you will find the time? What would it take to feed your soul what it really longs for? Is it silence? Is it rest? Is it an hour in the ocean at the break of dawn? God will not force these gifts on us. Your soul will crave them. And God will offer them. But no one will force us to take them. And I don’t believe it is possible to feed anybody’s sheep if you are starving your own soul.

The third thing we are called to do–once we have named our soul’s hunger and once we have fed it–is to show up and be the food Jesus calls us to be. You might think that even after naming and feeding your soul’s hunger, you still wouldn’t have any idea how to feed anyone else’s. But this is not true. If you are deeply nourishing your own soul with the particular spiritual food it needs, I promise that you will naturally  be transformed. In your very being you will become that food–the very bread of life for other hungry souls. I can’t explain how this works; you can call it coincidence, or synchronicity, or God. But you can test it out for yourself: when you are feeding the authentic hunger of your own soul, you will begin to find, and you will begin to feed, the ones who are most in need of the particular food that only you can be.

If you ask me, this looks a lot like a plan for salvation. A plan so crazy, and so joyful, that we would never come up with it ourselves. It’s God’s own plan to save the starving soul of this world.

However, if you refuse to nourish your own, precious soul, then all the people who need the particular kind of spiritual food that you are created to be—those people will go hungry.

It takes work, and sometimes painful work, to listen this deeply; to feel, and to name, your own soul’s hunger. It can be especially painful if you’ve been ignoring your soul for a while, because it hurts when your soul starts to come back to life. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Right here, in this very room, you have a community — a spiritual community — that is deep enough and safe enough that we can listen together for the real hunger of our souls. I believe this is exactly what the church was created for. And I want you to know that my door is open, this season and always, if you want help to listen, and to name, your soul’s deepest hunger. If you want help to discover the spiritual food you were made to be, and to bring to a hungry world.

That’s the call that comes to us this morning. Maybe you can hear it: an urgent call from that long-ago lake.

You, too, are made to be the bread of life, Jesus says. Consecrated, broken open in joy, and given to feed a hungry world. Thanks be to God

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“Show Me”

 

risenchrist

a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the Third Sunday of Easter, 2018

Several years ago, I was surprised to learn that during the first few centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was not the season of Advent. Nor was it the season of Lent. During the first centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was the season of Easter—the 50 days between the Day of Resurrection and the day of Pentecost. In the early church, the season of Easter, which we are traveling through right now, was set aside as a sacred season of Joy. Imagine! This entire season of the church year was set aside precisely for the purpose of helping us receive and live into new life, and joy, with the Risen Christ.

I think there is deep wisdom in this understanding that  new life is a process, and that it takes time for us to let go of old habits, old ways of living that stand in the way of new life.

And so, the founders of the early church understood that these 50 days following the astonishing Easter resurrection, are a good time to start living, day by day, into the new life that God promises us. Unless, of course, like Jesus’ friends, you happen to be locked in a room, terrified. Fearing for your life.

And this is exactly where we find our friends this morning. Their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind. So Jesus’ friends are hiding out  in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, there could be a knock on the door. And so, in the wake of the resurrection, in the wake of the first, great Easter — they don’t feel much like spreading the good news! Instead, they are locked in a room together, waiting for the other sandal to drop.

And now, it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe.

Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. He’s down by the river doing his laundry or something.

And so, Thomas has not had   the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas this morning, he’s still terrified, traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been wounded, badly, by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved.

I’m willing to bet that Thomas isn’t the only one among us who has ever felt this way. I find it fascinating that our culture takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him. It’s particularly fascinating because if we look closely at the text, I think what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. If Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could easily have  left him to stew in his own disbelief. Why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus reappears. As if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe. As if Jesus understands completely why Thomas—along with all the other disciples—cannot believe until his sees.

I’m pretty sure  Jesus does understand this. Jesus who, of all people, knows what it is to be wounded by the world. The Latin word for wound is vulnus, which is where we get our word vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows that to love always makes us vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows how terrifying it can be to love; to let your heart be vulnerable in this world.

Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again, afraid to believe in new life, in hope, in the possibility of joy.

“For those of you who can believe without seeing, Well, lucky you.” Jesus says. “You are blessed.” But for Thomas and the other disciples, and for the rest of us ordinary mortals, Jesus shows up to say, “Yes. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded.” To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, “Here I am. I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart. So, I will show you. I will show you exactly what you need to see.”

I suspect that Thomas is not alone this morning. I suspect that there is something in every one of us that hesitates to reach out and take the new life that God extends to us this season. There is a part of us—maybe our heart, maybe our soul –that has been wounded by life. And so it is that even in this season of new life and joy, we find ourselves locked up in a room of fear, unable to trust in the possibility of new life. Like Thomas, we need some help–we need a reassuring sign that God is in this with us—in order to be able to accept the offer of new life.

Lucky for us, and lucky for Thomas, he had the courage to askfor the help he needed. It’s Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what he needs—that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

And I wonder if the same might be true for us. In a minute, I’m going to stop talking and invite you to listen to any part of you that might be having some doubt this morning about all this new life business. Any part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your heart. Maybe it’s your soul. Maybe it’s an inner child? I invite you to let that Thomas part of you finds its voice and ask for whatever it might need from God in order to be willing to trust again.

And as you listen, I invite you to  honor what you hear by writing it down. There’s a piece of paper in your bulletin, and if you are sitting on an aisle, you’ll find a cup with pencils under your chair, which you can pass down the row.  I invite you to write down whatever it is that your doubting, fearful heart needs to ask Jesus. You don’t have to share it with anyone; you don’t have to say it out loud. You can fold it right up and put it in your pocket. But I encourage you to listen to the voice of your own doubt this morning the way Jesus listens to Thomas—as if your own doubt–like Thomas’ doubt– is tender, and holy, and precious to God. Ask your own doubt what kind of a sign it needs. And then write down what you hear. I’ll give you a minute to listen, and to write.

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this morning, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” Maybe you will pray to be shown the particular sign that will help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending to you in this season of resurrection, this season of joy.

Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one.

Because none of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges, and they catch us, and we suffer, and we are afraid. Chances are that if we are truly going to receive new life in this season of joy, and if we are going to carry that new life into the world, we’re going to need help. We’re going to need each other.

If Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us that sign of hope, that sign of new life, if only we will ask.

And so we remember this morning that “Show me” is a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to the ones who show us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

 

With Healing in Our Hands

donkey

A Reflection on Matthew 21:1-9 for the Start of Holy Week

Palm Sunday, 2018

I have to confess that as a writer, I admire the author of this morning’s gospel reading for crafting a really spectacular scene. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job. Even Netflix couldn’t have done a better job than the gospel writer has done of creating an almost unbearable dramatic tension–despite the fact that everyone listening knows exactly how this story is going to end.

Watching Jesus enter into Jerusalem with his ragtag band of followers, we know that just across town, the Roman army is already assembling, preparing to crush any hint of rebellion. From the moment this scene begins, we know, in our bones, that this is going to end very badly. We know that is not going to be possible for Jesus — a Jew living under Roman occupation; a peasant; a guy with no money, no political clout, no army — it is not going to be possible for Jesus to take a stand against the cruelty of the Roman empire without being crucified himself. Even after all these years, this knowledge stirs in our hearts everything that Aristotle says good drama should stir in us: pity, suspense, grief, and maybe even fear as we contemplate what awaits Jesus in the week ahead.

But as difficult as this week is going to be for Jesus, and as painful as this week may be for Christians, the sad truth is that for many centuries now, this week–the one Christians call Holy Week–has been by far the most terrifying week of the year for Jews. And this is a direct result of the the gospel texts that churches traditionally read during their Holy Week liturgies. Before Easter Sunday dawns, churchgoing Christians all over the world will hear again what has come to be known as the passion narrative: a gospel story about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. A story that was created, depending on which gospel we’re using, 70 to 90 years after Jesus died.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves every year that the stories we read in the gospels are not an eyewitness accounts, no matter how convincingly they render the story . None of the gospel writers knew Jesus. They wrote half a century and more after his death, and they were writing for a community that had grown confused and angry. Confused because the Messiah they were waiting for had failed to return as promised. Angry because their fellow Jews were not flocking to join their new religious movement, but were choosing instead to remain in the synagogue and wait there for the Messiah they believed had yet to arrive.

In fact, by the time our passion narratives were written, the followers of Jesus, who made up what we might call the very early church, were in the midst of an excruciatingly painful divorce from the synagogue. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has witnessed this kind of painful divorce. Some of us have surely experienced one firsthand.  We know that in the midst of divorce, as a couple slogs through thickets of grief and disappointment, one partner or another is likely to say things about the other that are gravely distorted, that are sometimes untrue, and that should never be repeated, much less captured in writing. Imagine what would happen if, during a painful divorce, our most bitter, hateful words were not only written down as gospel truth (so to speak), but also passed on to our children, and to their children, on down through the generations. Imagine the hateful words that would poison the hearts of those generations toward their ancestors forever.  

This, sadly, is what happened during those first difficult centuries of the church’s life. By the time the gospels were written, a generation and more after Jesus’ death, the community of Jesus followers was baffled by the fact that the risen Christ had not yet returned, and bitterly disappointed that their fellow Jews were not rushing to join them as they continued to wait and hope for Jesus’ return.

And so ensued terrible, bitter divorce. If ever there was a poison pen, it was the pen that wrote the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, such as the one we read in book of Matthew, which tells us that it was the chief priests of Israel and a crowd of angry Jews who convinced Pontius Pilate to release a different political prisoner and to crucify the innocent Jesus. Now, one might think  this would be poison enough: laying the blame for Jesus’ death at the feet of his own people.

But there’s more! In the next scene, Pilate ceremonially washes his hands of the whole affair, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” To which the assembled crowd of Jewish onlookers, with one voice, declares, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

This is the story that has been handed down to us as gospel truth, despite the fact that historical evidence argues against any such event. Biblical scholars know that Rome was not in the habit of releasing political prisoners. Scholars also assure us that the chief priests of occupied Israel and the assembled crowds of Jewish peasants had no power to influence the decisions of a Roman governor. This is poisonous falsehood, penned in the heat of a terrible divorce.

At first, the damage was merely rhetorical. After all, at the time the gospels were written, the fledgling Christian community had no real power to harm its Jewish neighbors. But just a few centuries later, when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman empire, these gospel stories become the sacred texts of the church of Rome. And this is the moment when the anti-Jewish embedded in these early Christian stories suddenly acquires the power to kill.

And kill they did. Forced conversions at the point of a sword. Denial of Jewish civil rights by Christian bishops. Medieval crusades and expulsions. More forced conversions. Deep, church-sanctioned anti-Semitism that spreads throughout Europe and proceeds to genocide. Even today, the number of attacks against Jewish communities worldwide rises this week, as Christians continue to hear, from their pulpits, the gospels’ distorted and slanderous accounts of Jesus’ death.  

It is disturbing and perplexing to me that the worldwide church continues to use these texts in worship. In a classroom or in a Bible study, where we have time to unpack their historical context, we should certainly be studying these texts for the lessons they can teach us. But to continue to read them uncritically in worship–this is baffling to me. I find it particularly perplexing here in what we like to think of as the progressive wing of the church, where we often renounce other gospel texts that we view as dangerous to life and health and freedom.

Take first Corinthians, for example, in which the apostle Paul states that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

Or take Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, in which he urges slaves to “obey your earthly masters.”

Knowing, as we do, how much damage these texts have done; knowing how many people have been enslaved, oppressed, and diminished because of these texts, I’m pretty sure we would be astonished if anyone stood in the pulpit and simply read them aloud uncritically. If we ever use these texts in worship, we do so in order to very explicitly, very publicly, renounce them.  If we read them in Bible study, it is so that we can unpack their historical context and work to undo the enormous damage they have done.

But somehow, this is not the case for the texts that speak of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. During Holy Week, the church continues to read these texts in worship, usually without unpacking them, and without renouncing them. And every time the church does this, we reinscribe upon our own souls, and upon souls of our children, the centuries of hatred, terror, and bloodshed that the church has inflicted upon its Jewish neighbors.

Why the church continues to use these texts uncritically, I can only guess.

What I know for sure is that to cast “the Jews” (as the angry crowd is named in the gospel of John) as the agents of Jesus’ death is to dramatically distort history and to fatally scapegoat the most powerless players in this first-century drama.

I also know that even today, it can be very difficult for our Jewish neighbors to feel safe inside any church. Even a church that intends no harm toward anyone. Even a church that spends its days trying to make amends and working to making peace. Both psychologists and neurobiologists tell us that if our Jewish neighbors still feel afraid in our presence, it is not paranoia but deep memory–the memory of trauma that we now know lives not only in our minds and hearts but quite possibly also in our cells, passed down from generation to generation. If our Jewish neighbors feel a tremor of fear during Holy Week, it is not because they have failed to forgive, but because they cannot forget the historical terrors the church has perpetrated this very week in the name of the crucified Jesus.

What this means is that as members of the church, we continue to embody this bloody history for our Jewish neighbors. Whether we are aware of it or not, as members of the church, we continue to represent the face of terrifying persecution to our Jewish friends.

So. How in the world are we to proceed? A couple of thoughts…

First, I believe that the least we can do is to explicitly name the harm that the church has done: to learn about the hatred our sacred texts have sewn, and about the violence our Holy Week liturgies have incited against Jewish communities. It is only by becoming aware of this history that we give ourselves the option to try and repair the damage.

Of course, one way to repair that damage might be to simply stop reading these texts altogether, just as we have largely stopped reading the other texts of terror that have caused so much pain for enslaved peoples, for women, and for all those who are marginalized and oppressed. I believe this would in fact be a better choice than to continue to use these texts uncritically.

But I think we can do even better. Because if we merely ignore these harmful texts and pretend they don’t exist, then we fail to grapple with–and we fail to heal–the harm they have done.

I want to suggest that if we are courageous enough to face the church’s painful history, then Holy Week might actually become a week of deep healing. A week in which we intentionally atone for the Jewish blood that has been shed in the name of Christ. And this would be a great gift to the world.

In Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of atonement. If we have done something to harm our relationship with God, then the way to atone is to to ask God for forgiveness. On the other hand, if our actions have harmed another human being, then simply praying to God cannot bring atonement. If we have harmed another, then we must go to that person directly and ask forgiveness. Only then can real atonement take place.

If this is true, then Holy Week, with all its terrible historical baggage, begins to look like an opportunity. An opportunity for great healing. An opportunity for reconciliation with our closest spiritual relations.

I wonder what this kind of atonement and reconciliation might look like for us this week?

Maybe you’ll feel called to do some reading about what scholars think really happened to Jesus that week in Jerusalem so long ago. If you’d like to do this, there are books here that you are more than welcome to take with you today.

Maybe you’ll want to reach out to a Jewish friend and invite them to have coffee or take a walk, and talk together about the pain that each of you brings to this complicated week.


Maybe you’ll want to spend some time in prayer this week, asking God for guidance about what particular act of healing and atonement might be yours to make. And then perhaps you’ll go out and undertake that act of healing.

What I know for sure is that if there is any congregation in the world that can muster the courage to confront the church’s history and go into this week as healers and peacemakers, it is this one.

This morning, as we step together into this holy and terrible week, we seek to follow, day by day, the one we call Teacher: the one who rides into Jerusalem today on the back of a donkey, the  very symbol of humility and patience. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Healer: the one who, on Thursday night, will kneel to gently wash the dusty feet of his friends. This week, day by day, we seek to follow the one we call Savior: the one who on Friday will choose death on a cross rather than let anyone–anyone–shed blood in his name.

Together, this week and always, we follow the one we call Prince: the Prince…of Peace. Thanks be to God.

 

Fish Kisses and Wild Justice

whale

A Reflection for All Ages for the Third Sunday in the Wilderness of Lent 

March 4, 2018

Once upon a time, there lived a man named John. Maybe you’ve heard of him. John lived all alone out in the wilderness, in the hills outside Jerusalem. Some people thought John was a little weird. Maybe it was the clothes he wore. Do you remember what John liked to wear? Camel hair! Or maybe it was what he ate. Do you remember what John ate out there in the wilderness? Locusts and wild honey! So the people back in the city, wearing their city clothes and eating their city food…they didn’t always understand John.

But they knew John was out there in the wilderness. And they were glad. Because every now and then, those people in the city forgot who they really were, as people often do. Deep in the city, away from the river and the trees, away from the bears and the ravens, the people forgot who they were and who their relations were. And they began to feel very alone, as if they were somehow separate from the rest of creation, and separate from the God of all creation.

And when that happened, when the people felt lost and alone, do you know what they did? They left their homes and walked out to the wilderness to find John. Restore us to wholeness! they cried out to John. Help us remember who we really are!

And do you know what John did? John took a deep breath and nodded. I think he may even have rolled his eyes a little. Because the people were always forgetting! Then…John took them by the hand and led the people into the river Jordan and told them to fall in — all the way in! And just like that, the river welcomed them.  No matter how long they had been away, no matter what they had done, the river welcomed them home like a long lost friend.

And the people felt the joy of the river as it laughed and swirled around them. They felt the soft sand between their toes. They felt the kiss of tiny fish nibbling on their hands. And the people laughed with their own joy, because they knew they were home again: home in the body of the world; home in the heart of God; home in the community–in the deep communion–of all creation. Which is where they had always belonged.

And so it came to pass that one day, when the people were out there at the river, remembering themselves back into communion with the world, Jesus came walking toward the riverbank. Now, John was a little surprised to see Jesus. After all, John was pretty sure that Jesus, of all people, hadn’t forgotten who he was. But Jesus had some work of his own to do. Some teaching work. Some healing work. And before he could do that work, Jesus needed to remember, in his heart and in his bones, who he really was.

So you know what Jesus did? He fell into the river, too! The beautiful, laughing river of God’s life that runs through the body of the world. And when Jesus came up out of that river, he heard God’s voice telling him exactly who he was, and that voice of God came to him from a giant…bird. Yep. It was a bird.

The people were a little surprised at that. But John wasn’t surprised at all. John knew that birds carry messages from God all the time. John also knew that when a fish nibbles on your toes, it’s a blessing from God, every time.  And he taught all these things to Jesus, and a thousand more things, too.

And when Jesus had learned everything John had to teach him, Jesus set off into the wilderness all by himself for 40 days, river water still dripping from his hair; the voice of that bird still ringing in his ears; the wisdom of John settling into his heart.

I wonder if there ever was someone like John in your life? Someone who taught you how to be at home in the wilderness? Someone who taught you that you belong to the communion of all creation? Someone who helped your soul find its home in the forests and fields, the mountains and sea? Someone who taught you that you belong to the wild ones, as they belong to you…

Can you remember who that was, and where they took you?

(The congregation shares memories here, of the ones who took them into wilderness…)

Once upon a time, not very long ago, I knew a boy named MIguel. MIguel was a second grader at an elementary school in Watsonville, and he was just learning how to read. And I was trying to help him. Miguel was a smart kid. But he wasn’t sure this whole reading thing was worthwhile. He thought maybe he’d rather be outside playing soccer than inside reading a book. So one day, as we stepped into the school library together, I asked Miguel if he’d like to pick his own book. I figured that if he picked a book about soccer, he might get excited about reading. But when I set Miguel loose in the library, Miguel did not go to the sports section. Nope. He made beeline for the animal books. And once he got there, Miguel picked up a huge book about…whales. Now, I was a little worried, because this was not a book for a second grader. It was a book written for an eighth grader, and Miguel was barely reading. But Miguel and I sat down on the library floor, and right there, that very day — Miguel read that whole book to me. Perfectly. Fluently. Miguel’s eyes lit up and his voice quivered with excitement as he whispered to me, I love whales!  More than anything in the world. Whales are my favorite thing.  

Did you ever get to see one? I asked him.

Miguel looked a bit confused, as if we were having a translation problem, which we sometimes did. He pointed to a whale in the book.

I mean, have you ever seen one out on the water? I asked.

Miguel shook his head, still not quite sure what I was getting at.

Miguel, I said, leading him to the window and pointing out at the bay. There are whales swimming right out there.

MIguel did not believe me.

It took me 20 minutes and a map of the Monterey bay to convince him. This child, this lover of whales, had lived his whole life in Watsonville–a stone’s throw from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary–and never knew that the creature of his dreams, the love of his life, was at that very moment swimming past his elementary school.

That day, Miguel’s love for whales made him a reader.

That day, I drove home wondering how in the world I could take him out on the bay.

That day, I drove home wondering how it is that a child who has never seen a real, live whale, comes into this world with a heart that is MADE  to love this creature?

How is it that a child can know, beyond any doubt, that his soul — his very soul — depends on the existence of a wild creature he has never seen?

This is the mystery of our life on earth.. This is the deep mystery of our communion–our essential communion–with all creation.

What I know for sure is that Miguel’s relationship,  his communion, with those whales is every bit as essential to his soul as any human relationship he will ever have.

What I know is that some children have access to the wild places and wild creatures their souls desperately need and others do not — and that this is unjust.

What I know is that it is an act of deep social justice to protect the wilderness itself–for the sake of every soul and for every body, human and otherwise, whose life depends on it.

It is the work of deep social justice to ensure that every child has access to the wild places that their souls require, whether that child lives in Watsonville, Live Oak, or here on the westside of Santa Cruz.

This season, we remember that Jesus headed out to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to restore his communion with God, and with the world. And we remember that he had a teacher out there to guide him.

I’m pretty sure Jesus never could have imagined a world in which every child, every soul, does not have the opportunity to do the same.

And so we pray…for our wild relations, who welcome us back into the communion of all creation, no matter how long we’ve been away. And for the wise ones, the teachers and guides, who show us how to get there. Thanks be to God.

Tempted, Tested, Tried

a reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 for the first Sunday in Lent

February 18, 2018

 

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Can we talk about the devil? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up in congregations that ever talked about the devil. So as a kid, the only thing I knew about the devil was what I learned from 1970’s Saturday morning  cartoons. Maybe you know that devil? The little red guy with a pointy tail who sits on a character’s shoulder, urging him to do something very wrong. Meanwhile, perched on the other shoulder, there was always a miniature angel, urging the character to do the right thing. Of course, there was never any doubt about which shoulder held the voice of good and which held the voice of evil: moral ambiguity is not a hallmark of Saturday morning cartoons.

Things get a bit more complicated when you grow up, of course.  As our gospel reading suggests, the devil Jesus wrestles with is a much more subtle creature. In the Hebrew scriptures, this force that tempts Jesus, this force that tempts us, is known as the Hinderer. Which I think is a pretty helpful way to think about the devil: a force that seeks to hinder us from becoming who God is calling us to be; who God made us to be. The hinderer is the force within each human being that Resists the truth of who we really are and seeks to hinder us from living into that truth by doing the thing we were put on earth to do — the particular work God needs us to do, for the healing, and blessing, of the world.

It turns out that all humans seem to have this hindering, resisting force within us. It seems to be the way we are wired. Even Jesus, when we meet him in our gospel reading this morning, is struggling with the Hinderer. Surely, Jesus must know by now that God is calling him, and that God made him to bring a particular gift to a suffering world. Surely by now, Jesus has heard what people are saying about him. Jesus has seen the heavens break open above the river on the day of his baptism and heard the voice of God calling  him “beloved.” By the time he comes up out of that river and heads into the wilderness, Jesus, along with everyone else, surely realizes that God has a purpose for him, just as we, too, know that God must have a purpose for us. We know this in the deepest part of our souls! But how many of us know from the get-go what that purpose is? How long does it take us to let go of our own ideas about who we are (not to mention other people’s ideas about who we should be), and finally realize whom God is calling us to be? Is there any greater joy in life than the joy of  realizing what you were put on earth to do? Is there any greater pain than barreling through our lives without stopping to listen  long enough to find out who we really are?

Jesus seems to know that every one of us–even Jesus himself!–needs a time of listening for God’s call. And so, before Jesus does anything else at all–before he performs a single miracle, before he heals or teaches anybody–Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness of silent communion with God, so that when he does return to community, he will be able to fully embody God’s purpose for him.

And we are called to follow, so that we might do the same. Over these next 40 days, we are called to follow Jesus into the deep silence of self-reflection where, because we are fully human, we too, just like Jesus, are certain to meet the Hinderer in us: the reactive patterns of our conditioned mind. The reactive patterns of mind that keep us from becoming who God intends for us to be.

Turn this stone into bread! says the Hinderer. Talk about a real temptation! This is not  a cartoon devil, urging Jesus to do something clearly evil or harmful. Jesus is starving, after all. He’s been out in the wilderness fasting for 40 days! Surely God doesn’t want Jesus to starve. Surely no one would be harmed if Jesus turned a couple of rocks into loaves of bread. And not only for himself!  Imagine how much good Jesus could do in the world if he learned this great trick. Poor people are starving in the streets every day. How much suffering might Jesus alleviate if he could feed them all with a wave of his hand?

I don’t know about you, but I think that if I were in Jesus’ sandals, I would have been sorely tempted to take matters into my own hands, not only for my own sake but for the sake of a suffering world. I would have been tempted to use this great party trick — stones into bread! — to end hunger forever. For everyone. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

What our gospel reading suggests, however, is that if Jesus had listened to the Hinderer out there in the wilderness, if he had decided to serve the world by being a magic bread-maker (which is not a bad thing to be; it’s a great thing for someone else to be!)…he never would have become Jesus. Even feeding people–as important as this is–is not Jesus’ sole purpose. Out here in the wilderness, Jesus cultivates, he learns, the very difficult spiritual discipline of waiting and listening for God to reveal Jesus’ true call, which is to teach the world how to find its way back to God.

Clearly, this is not our ordinary cartoon devil, offering Jesus, and us, a clear, easy choice between right and wrong. In fact I don’t believe that our own greatest temptation is to do things that are truly evil. I’m looking out at all of you this morning and I don’t see a single one of you whom I believe could be tempted, even by the devil, to do something truly evil. That’s not what you and I are wrestling with this season. But I am pretty sure that every one of us, maybe every day, is tempted by the Hinderer in us, just like Jesus was. Tempted to do something–possibly something good, something helpful, something noble, even!–that even so, will hinder us from becoming who God is really calling us to be.

Well, since it didn’t work the first time, the Hinderer tries again. Be safe! the Hinderer says to Jesus. Use your magical powers to keep yourself safe and nothing will ever harm you! Which I think might have been a pretty tempting offer for someone like Jesus, who had some dangerous work ahead of him. Aren’t we, also, tempted to play it safe? To follow in others’ footsteps, or to keep doing the safe things we’ve always done, rather than heading into the wilderness this season and asking who God might be calling us to be, and what new thing God might be inviting us to try?

Out there in the vast and lonely silence, Jesus cultivates the discipline it takes to hear God’s difficult call to him: a call to be not a magician, not a superhero with super powers, but a different kind of savior: one who demonstrates, day by day, what it means to rely on God’s power. A savior who walks the dusty roads of his homeland, teaching and healing; a human being who walks into every life and every home carrying, in his body, the very presence of the living God. So that every other body who meets him can fall through the trap door of their own mind and keep falling — into God’s presence, and power, and peace. A savior whose job is to help every body fall back into God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus out in the wilderness is not willing to trade that purpose, the real purpose of his life, for anything. And that is real discipline in the face of real temptation.

Power. Popularity. Safety. Control. We all crave these. The conditioned human mind is wired to crave these. Even Jesus! If we watch what happens next, when Jesus goes back to town to start his ministry, we see that even  Jesus is tripped up at times by his mind’s conditioning: he doesn’t respond with perfect freedom every time. But what Jesus has cultivated out in the wilderness is the spiritual discipline of entering deep silence to witness his his own temptations, his own conditioned desires, and then let them go. What Jesus has cultivated is the ability to sit still as these habitual temptations arise, and to wait for God to call him. Without this discipline, Jesus’ own habits of mind will hinder him, just as they hinder us. And the stakes are pretty high, for all of us. If Jesus allows his conditioned mind to hinder him, then the particular gift he was made to offer —  gift that only he can bring–that gift goes ungiven for all time.

And that would please the Hinderer very much. And so it is that if we ourselves allow our own reactive patterns, our conditioned, habitual mind, to run our lives, then the particular gift that God created us to offer also goes ungiven. And the world desperately needs your gift: the particular flavor of God’s healing love that only you can bring.

This season, the Holy Spirit drives us, calls us, to follow  Jesus into the wilderness once again: the wilderness of uncertainty and openness; the wilderness of listening for our true call. This week, we head into the sacred, silent wilderness to listen for who in all the world God is calling us to be and what gift God has made us to offer. We were made to offer it. And that is a beautiful and wondrous thing! This week, we head into the wilderness to say a holy yes to offering the gift we were made to bring. Maybe (very probably!) a gift the world has never seen before, and will never see again. A gift the world desperately needs right now: your own particular gift of healing, and blessing…for the sake of this beautiful, broken, always holy world that God so loves.

Amen.

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

A reflection on Luke 1:26-56 for the last Sunday in Advent

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December 24, 2018
I have to admit that this is one of my all-time favorite Bible stories. Partly because it’s just so astonishing. And also because it paints such a vivid picture of who we ourselves are called to be, and what we are called to do –as people of God–during this Advent and Christmas season, and beyond.

The other reason I love this story is that it reminds me of my neighbor, Marty.

Marty died a few years ago, while I was away serving a church in Maine. But I still run past Marty’s house almost every morning, and as I run by, I think of him, especially at this time of year. Marty’s house is just up the road from me, in a part of the neighborhood that has more horses and sheep and apple trees than people. Which means that very early in the morning, it’s rare to run into another human up there. I meet coyotes and deer all the time, but at that hour, especially on cold, dark, winter mornings, most of the human neighbors are tucked into their warm beds. But not Marty. Marty was almost always out in his garden or his orchard when I would run by at dawn. We’d wish each other good morning. Sometimes we’d chat a bit– about the weather, about the farm dogs, about whatever crops were coming in. Then we’d wave goodbye and I’d be on my way, running up the road.

But one late November day, at the very beginning of Advent, I was running up the road when Marty called to me from the top of a ladder that he had propped against an apple tree. “Hold on a minute!” Marty called. “I have something for you.” So I stopped and walked back to where Marty was making his way down the ladder with a huge grin on his face.

“I picked these for you,” he said. Then he handed me an enormous cardboard box filled with the most beautiful little yellow apples I’ve ever seen. “Thank you,” I said. “But really, this is too many. We’ll never be able to eat all of these!” But Marty just grinned and held up his hand in a way that made it perfectly clear that this gift was not returnable. Then he told me that the apples came from the oldest trees in his orchard, so old that no one in his family could even remember what variety they were. I hate to admit it, but I tried several more times to refuse that gift. It felt like too much, too many, more gift than I could accept. But Marty wasn’t taking no for an answer. He stood there grinning at me until there was nothing left to do but thank him again and begin my slow walk home.

Now, what I actually wanted to do was run home–fast! Partly because slowing down has never been my strong suit. But mostly because I was so uncomfortable about receiving that gift. It was totally unearned. It was entirely undeserved. And, worse, I had nothing to give in return. That gift made me so uncomfortable that all I wanted was to run away so that the discomfort would be over as soon as possible. Maybe this has happened to you, too. We’re right in the middle of the season of gifts, and I wonder if anyone else has how much more comfortable it can feel to give a gift than to receive one with grace?

But there I was. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried running with a huge box of apples in your arms, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a box of rolling apples to force you to slow down and fully receive — as pure, undeserved gift–the fruits of the earth and the joy of friendship and the sweet scent of late autumn rising from your arms as you slowly make your way home, thinking about all the apple butter you’re going to give away as Christmas gifts this year.

Stephen MItchell, one of my favorite translators of sacred texts, has a very interesting definition of prayer. He says that “prayer is a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.”  A quality of attention that makes so much room for the given–for whatever is given–that it can appear as what it really is: a gift.

That box of apples taught me something about this quality of attention, and about the practice of slowing down to pay that kind of attention–a practice that is  required of us if we are to fully receive a gift. This time of year, as we run around giving and receiving gifts, I find myself thinking about that box of apples and also about today’s scripture reading, in which we discover what our foremother Mary does when she herself is asked, out of the blue (by and angel, no less!) to receive — in her very body, with her whole being — a gift that is a lot bigger than a box of apples. A gift that is almost bigger than we can imagine. A gift that she must fully receive not only for herself, but for the whole world.

So I thought we might take a closer look this morning at exactly how Mary does this — how it is that she manages to receive this gift. Because it’s Christmas eve, and that very gift is arriving again tonight. The Promised One is arriving to be born new in us, and through us, for all the world. And maybe, just maybe, everything hinges on this gift. Everything:  the hopes and fears of all the years. I think maybe everything hinges on whether we learn from Mary how to fully receive the gift of God’s presence that we ourselves are called to bear into the world.

So how does Mary do it, anyway? To answer that question, we need to go back to the story we heard on the first Sunday of Advent: the one where Mary is at home, minding her own business, when an angel appears, out of the blue. Now I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder if I would have even stuck around long enough to hear that angel’s news. I think it would have been entirely reasonable to run out of the room right there.

But Mary does not run. Mary stays right where she is and holds still long enough to hear that angel out. And that’s when she receives the first gift: an amazing, unbelievable bit of news. The Promised One, the Savior her people have been waiting for–for as long as anyone can remember–the Promised One is finally going to arrive, and through her! Pretty astonishing news, not just for Mary, but for the world.

But that’s not all the angel tells her. The angel goes on to say that Mary’s cousin,  Elizabeth, even though she’s very old, is pregnant with a child.  For nothing is impossible with God.

This is a pretty smart angel. This angel knows that if we humans are going to receive a gift from God, we first have to be stopped in our tracks. And then, it helps to have a friend! It’s hard to do this alone. Left to my own devices, I would have raced right out of that apple-tree morning and on into my busy day. But Marty needed me to receive his gift. And because I cared about Marty, I somehow mustered the grace to do it.  

Left to her own devices, who knows whether Mary would have believed that angel, or whether she would have told herself it was all just a dream? Mary needs a friend to help her figure out whether she can even trust this gift. And so, when the angel departs, Mary sets off for the home of her cousin Elizabeth. And no sooner has she stepped across the threshold and called out to say hello than Elizabeth appears, pregnant–just as the angel said! Which is already pretty amazing. But more amazing still is the first thing Elizabeth says when she sees Mary on her doorstep:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”

Okay, here’s where things get really crazy. How does Elizabeth know about the child Mary is carrying? Because the child in Elizabeth’s womb has just leaped for joy! And that child is none other than John the Baptist, who is the first person–the very first, before he’s even born!–to recognize the arriving Jesus.

At that moment, if Mary had any doubt about the angel’s message, that doubt is erased.

And in that moment, Mary does an extraordinary thing: she stops. She holds still. She doesn’t even walk into the house. Right there in the doorway, Mary brings Luke’s gospel to a screeching halt, as if the whole world were holding its breath, waiting to see what Mary will do with the astonishing gift that is arriving. And here’s what she does. She sings out:

“My soul magnifies the Lord!”

My soul magnifies the Lord? What does that even mean? God is already about the biggest thing we can imagine. How is it possible to magnify God, to make God appear even bigger?

By slowing down, says Mary. By slowing down and  paying attention: “a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.” Right here in this season of God’s arriving, Mary says to us, Stop and make so much ROOM in yourself that you too are filled to overflowing with God’s presence.

Can we even stand it? Can we stand to receive such a gift? It’s not easy to believe God wants to love you that much. Especially if, like Mary, you are feeling small, insignificant, lowly. Believe it, Mary says. And then–and here’s the key–you have to hold still long enough for God to fill you all the way up, until you are overflowing with that love.

If you can do that, says Mary, then, you too will you be able to carry, to bear, that gift of God to a world that needs you. A gift by which, she tell us:

The lowly will be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.

This beautiful, broken world is being filled and healed by God’s own love—not in some distant future but right here, right now, in the poor, lowly flesh of an ordinary human being. This is what it means for us to magnify the Lord. This, says Mary, is what it means to fully receive, and to fully offer the world, the gift of God’s healing presence and power that is arriving in us, and through us, tonight.

I think it’s safe to say that here in our familiar corner of the church, we don’t spend a lot of time with Mary.  We listen to her story on Christmas eve.  But then Christmas morning arrives and somewhere in all the chaotic joy of herald angels and presents and wrapping paper, Mary gets lost, and we don’t see her again until next year.

But I think we need Mary. I think Mary, standing on the doorstep this morning, is the one who can teach us what the world needs us to do with the great gift that is arriving tonight.  

And I wonder if we’ll do it. I wonder if together, in this season of Christmas that begins tonight, we’ll consent to slow down long enough to fully receive the gift of God’s presence and love? To be filled all the way up with the joy of this gift, so that when we go out from this dark and holy season, we too will be shining with the Light of the World.

Tonight, as we stand together on the threshold of God’s arriving, the world is holding its breath, waiting to see what we will do.

Waiting to see if we will linger awhile, making so much room in ourselves that we, like Mary, become magnifiers of the Lord.

I’m pretty sure God is praying that we will.

God who even now is whispering to you:

Beloved, don’t go yet.

It’s still early and your box isn’t even half full.

Stay with me a while, God whispers.

Stay.

This is the God who is longing, even now, to fill your arms with apples and hope.

This is the God who is longing to fill us all the way up until we are overflowing with joy…with joy to this world that God so loves. Amen.

 

“Hosanna! Save us, Please!”

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a reflection for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

It was noisy in Jerusalem that morning long ago. Maybe the stones weren’t shouting yet, but the gospel accounts tell us that the people were making a lot of noise as Jesus rode into town. Reading the English translation of these Palm Sunday gospel stories, it’s hard to get a sense of what all that shouting might have actually sounded like. Even if you look at the New Testament Greek, you read that the people were shouting Hosanna! Which still doesn’t quite capture the spirit of that morning, since Jesus and his people didn’t go around shouting things in New Testament Greek. The crowds that day would have been shouting out to Jesus in their native Aramaic or the even the original Hebrew of the word, which they knew from their scripture, and which sounded more like Hoshiah-na, and meant Save us! Hoshiah-na! they call out to Jesus. Son of David, Help us, please!

Hoshiah-na! It’s the sound of a people crying out to God in desperation. It’s the cry of a people being crushed by an occupying army, a people unable to claim authority over their own lives; a people whose meager income is handed over as taxes to fund the armies and the building projects and the ravenous engine of Roman progress, leaving ordinary people to fend for themselves in poverty and hopelessness. Three times a year, these ordinary people from all over the land make pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. And when these crowds arrive in Jerusalem, the Roman governor sends in his army—just to send a message. Just to make sure those gathering Jewish folk don’t get any big any ideas about rising up in revolt.

The scripture reading we hear this morning marks the start of the Passover pilgrimage festival; the day when all of Israel makes the journey up to Jerusalem to remember, together, the moment when, in the heart of their deepest despair, God raised a mighty hand on the people’s behalf. It’s the festival when the people remember the miracle by which God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, sustained them the wilderness, and led them into this beautiful land that is holy to God—and that is now being chewed up and spit out by the voracious empire of Rome.

And it’s at exactly this moment—when the people are arriving for their festival of freedom, when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is arriving with the imperial army on magnificent horseback—this is the precisely the moment that Jesus chooses to stage a counter-demonstration by riding into Jerusalem…on the back of a donkey. And Jesus rides into town, his own people—his own desperate and daily crucified people—cry out to God for freedom. This world has become unbearable to us, they call to him. Tell us, please, that this is going to end. Tell us that this broken world is going up in flames at last, because we are burning for justice; we are burning for dignity and hope. We’re burning for a way to end crucifixions forever.

And so we find the assembled people of Israel on this Palm Sunday morning, crying out to Jesus, Hosanna! Hoshiah-na! Help us, please! Son of David, Save us!

In church tradition, of course, Palm Sunday is also known as “Passion Sunday,” the word “passion” referring to the suffering that Jesus is heading into at the end of this week.

A number of years ago, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote a remarkable book, The Last Week, which reconstructs the events that took place during Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. In the book, Borg and Crossan remind us that the word passion has another, more obvious meaning: Jesus’ demonstration this Palm and Passion Sunday is meant to show us us exactly what Jesus is passionate about.

Jesus is so singularly passionate about the Kingdom of God—the community of justice and care for the weakest and most vulnerable—that he’s willing to ride into town, unarmed, to stand in radical solidarity with the ones who have been excluded from that kingdom, even if it costs him his life.

And this fiery passion of Jesus, this burning love for the world, reveals to us God’s own passionate love—for the poor, for the outcast, for the earth, for whoever or whatever is currently being crucified by the powers that be.

Now, you and I, and Jesus himself, all know that it is not going to be possible for Jesus—a Jew, a peasant, a guy with no money or political clout, and certainly no army—we know it is not going to be possible for Jesus to stand up against the cruelty of the Roman empire without being crucified himself.

And so I think it’s worth asking, now that we’ve been following Jesus through these 40 days of Lent, whether he’s actually expecting us to keep following him, to be as passionate as he is—even now, when the stakes are about to get very, very high; when the road is about to get more dangerous than we ever bargained for.

I think that’s the question before us as we stand here on the threshold of this terrible, holy week. What does it mean for us to keep following Jesus all the way into the passion and the suffering of God, and out the other side? I want to be very clear that I don’t believe there is one ever be one right answer to this question. This is the heart of the mystery itself—the mystery of the cross, the mystery of God’s infinite, vulnerable love for a broken world. But I do believe that we need to grapple with this question. Because here we are on the threshold of Holy Week, and before this week is over, we ourselves—just like Jesus’ first disciples—will have to decide whether we’re staying with him, or not.

If you’ve ever spent time with someone who is in the process of dying, you’ll know that very often, in those last days, everything unimportant drops away. And in those precious last days, the person who shares the dying process with us can teach us what it means to be fully alive. And so it is with Jesus making his theatrical entry into Jerusalem this morning. As this coming week unfolds, this last week of Jesus’ life on earth, we are invited to watch him very carefully as shows us how to live.

And so everyone watches. The Roman soldiers watch him. The citizens of Jerusalem watch him. The ordinary folks who have left traveled far from home line up along the roadside and watch Jesus as he rides into town. And we do, too.  The whole crowd of us gathers to watch the final days of a man who has lived all his days for the sake of the Kingdom of God—the community of radical inclusion, radical justice, radical blessing for all of creation.

And I believe that Jesus, during his last, terrible, holy week, shows us how to do the same.

Jesus, as he makes his final journey to the cross, is showing us how to be fully human: created in the image of God and called to love this world as passionately as God does. In your passion, Jesus says, Be as I am. In your passionate love for this burning world, come, Jesus says. Take up the cross of your own passion and follow me.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think Jesus was just possibly exaggerating when he tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him—taking a little poetic license for the sake of literary effect. I used to think it wasn’t really possible for an ordinary, everyday human being like me to follow Jesus all the way, to love the world as the Christ of God loves the world.

But every year about this time, when I start to wonder again about whether Jesus is serious about taking up our cross and living with this kind of passion, I hear from someone who has learned far better than I have how to follow Jesus all the way into the passion of God. It’s like clockwork, the way the news comes to me every year right about this time.

Just a few days ago, I received an email telling me that on the morning of March 3rd, world-renowned environmental activist Berta Caceres had been murdered, in her sleep, by the government of her own country—the government of Honduras. The email came from a close friend of Berta, a friend who had in fact been composing Berta’s obituary for years, knowing that this day would come. Knowing that because Berta spent all her days fighting to protect the lands and waters of rural communities in Honduras, this day would certainly come.

Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve been receiving emails with Berta’s picture in them. Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve been praying for Berta’s children. Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve been praying for the Gualcarque river that holds the guiding spirit of Berta’s people, the Lenca people; a river that multinational corporations are trying to dam so they can generate energy for their mining operations on indigenous lands. I’ve been praying for that mighty river that just lost its best friend.

Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve been staring at Berta’s photograph and seeing the face of the Christ: the human face of God at work in the world; the passion of God enfleshed in the beautiful, vulnerable, human body of a woman who gave her life to save a people, and a land, that she passionately loves. A land whose forests are being burned to make way for palm oil plantations. A people whose ancient way of life is disappearing. A people who even now is crying out, Hoshiah-na! Save us, please!

You want to know how to live? Jesus asks. Do you want to be my disciples? Then take up your cross, he says, And follow me.

And so Berta Caceres followed. Wading out into the current of that mighty river and pledging her life to save it. Listening to the sounds of a sleeping Honduran forest as the assassins make their way toward her camp. These are not the ordinary circumstances of life for most of us. For Berta Caceres, there was no other choice. Her people had no vote, no voice, no avenue to justice for the land that holds their guiding spirits. Like Jesus, Berta and her people had nothing to give but their lives.

I can’t promise you that you that if we decide to follow Jesus all the way into God’s passionate love for the world, we won’t be asked to do the same. I can’t promise you that won’t happen, because—God knows—sometimes, that moment of ultimate sacrifice comes without warning.

But so far, you and I have not been asked to die for the sake of the world God loves. Because of our relative wealth, because of all kinds of privilege, because of the origin of our passports or the color of our skin—at this moment, most of us are not being asked to die to save this world that God so loves.

And yet. There is a cross to face at the end of this week. A cross that says it costs something—it always costs something—to live in passionate love for a world that is crying out to be saved. Jesus didn’t have money. Berta Caceres didn’t have political power or social standing. The only currency they had to spend in radical solidarity with the world was their lives.

You and I have other gifts we can give. And I believe that the least we can do, in the face of the cross and Jesus’ passionate love, is to live—maybe not to die, but certainly to live—as Jesus did, willing to offer anything we have to save the ones who are crying out to us: Hoshiah-na! Save us! Help us, please!

That’s a tall order. And while it’s true that we, ourselves, in our finite, humble lives, will not be able to answer every single cry for help, I believe it is also true that every single one of us, just like Berta Caceres, is called to love some particular part of this world with the radical, extravagant love of God. I believe that there is one particular piece of this holy, burning, desperate world whose cry you were made to hear above all other cries—your ears and your heart were made to hear it. And that cry—the cry of that place, that people, that creature—is yours, with God’s help, to answer.

And I believe this is what Jesus means when he says, Take up your cross and follow me. Take up your own cross and listen—as if it were a seashell—for the whisper of the one thing in all the world that you are called to live for, and to save.

There are lot of people out there who will try to tell you what that is. A lot of people would love to tell you to what or to whom you should give your days and your power and your money to save. But I don’t believe anyone can tell you what that is. Because God calls each of us to a very particular work of love.

But do I believe that we can help each other listen. And I wonder this morning if maybe you already know. Maybe you already know what it is that you are called to save because all your life, there has been one thing that cracks your heart wide open with love or grief every time you see it or hear it. And I believe that once you can name this thing—this passion of your very own—then every power on earth and in heaven will come pouring in to help you save it.

This is what we’ve been listening for, all through this season of Lent. This is what we will be listening for this week as we follow Jesus all the way through his passionate love for the world. What is it that he—and we—are called to live for? Who needs us to stand up for them? What is the great, passionate love that will carry us through all the days of our lives and into the new life that God has planned for the world?

I hope you’ll take up a palm leaf this today. Maybe wave it around and hear it whisper the name of Berta Caceres. Maybe carry your palm out onto the body of the earth and listen for who, or what, in this beautiful, broken world is calling out to you, even now. Hosanna! it cries. Sons and daughters of God, Hosiah-na! Help us. Save us, please!

Amen.