“At the Feet of the Master”

tree

a reflection on Luke 10:38-42

We’ve been talking this summer about spiritual practice: all the things we can do in order to open ourselves to the presence of God that is always with us, always offering to heal and transform our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world.

As we’ve moved through this summer together, we’ve been exploring different kinds of spiritual practices: praying in silence; praying with the news; praying with our bodies so that we might keep our hearts open.

As a new school year begins, and as we give thanks for the teachers among us it seems to me that this is a perfect time to talk about the spiritual practice of finding, and apprenticing ourselves to, a spiritual teacher. This is a very ancient practice, of course. It’s the way spiritual insights have been transmitted for many thousands of years. When Jesus was alive, he passed on his teachings directly, to his disciples: Martha, her sister Mary, their brother Lazarus, and others. After Jesus leaves them, these disciples pass on his teachings, as they understand them. And on through the ages, in every spiritual tradition. It is our job, as the spiritual beings that we are, to allow God to transform us, and to transform — to heal — the world, through us. Clearly, this is not an overnight process. It’s the work of our life! But every spiritual tradition in the world teaches that this process, this slow transformation of human consciousness, is precisely why we’re here. It’s why we’re here on earth. And I believe it’s why we show up here on Sunday mornings.

“One thing only is needed,” Jesus warns. “And Mary has chosen it—it will not be taken from her.”

Mary has chosen, it seems, to spend her time sitting at the feet of the master, absorbing the spiritual lessons he has come to impart. And this can be our choice as well. We are free every day to choose, to practice, the path of transformation. We are also free to choose, just as our friend Martha chooses, to be too busy. Too busy doing chores, too busy putting food on the table. It’s not that these things are unimportant, of course. It’s hard to imagine Jesus, of all people, saying that feeding others, or offering hospitality, is not important. It’s just that the busy work of our lives will always be there–it never ends! And that busy work will not transform our consciousness. Unless…we also attend to the spiritual discipline of stillness: the discipline of taking time to learn from, and practice with, the masters who have already transformed themselves.

What I want to say this morning is that the stakes are very, very high right now. The consequences of neglecting our spiritual transformation are dire. Next time you read the newspaper or watch the news, I invite you to take a close look at the most horrific and discouraging situations in the world today. And then ask yourself which human mindset created those situations. I think you’ll find that at root, these painful circumstances are created by why is known as the egoic mind, which is the mind of separation: a mind that is always watching for anything or anyone who seems a little too different from ourselves. A mind that is determined to exclude or dishonor that difference. It’s a mind that makes us cling desperately to what we have, that makes us refuse to share, and urges us to continue extracting more resources from a planet we believe was created to serve our needs.  This is the egoic mind at work: always, and only, looking out for Number One.

The good news is that the egoic mind can be transformed. The bad news is that this transformation takes discipline, and time. And I believe that only a transformation of human consciousness will allow us to change our ways in time — in time to save the world we love. A transformation of human consciousness that takes us from a mind of separation and division to a mind of sacred union with all creation. I would not be standing here this morning unless I believed that Christian tradition actually offers us a way—a spiritual path—to bring about this transformation of consciousness. And I wouldn’t ask you to be here, either. The stakes are far too high to waste our time with any tradition that does not heal our relationship with one another and with all of creation.

And yet, these spiritual practices, these spiritual technologies for human transformation, are not something we learn in school, or even in Sunday school.

In most churches, we don’t even learn these practices in worship. That’s because these teachings about spiritual transformation were largely lost by the institutional church very shortly after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire: an empire that was more interested in preserving its own wealth and power than in bringing about the justice and the healing that spiritual transformation offers. And so, as the early church went from being a radical movement for spiritual and social change to a state-sponsored religious institution– very different things!–the church’s transformative spiritual teachings were largely pushed out to the margins. And out there on the margins of the church, these teachings were preserved by monastic communities: men and women who were trained in meditation and spiritual disciplines; men and women who intentionally removed themselves from the mainstream church and from mainstream society in order to put on, and live into, what Paul calls the Mind of Christ.

And this is where the teachings remained for many centuries. In those early years of the church, if you wanted to study the Christian path of spiritual transformation, you had to leave your home and family and travel out to the desert to sit at the feet of a master. Or, in later centuries, you entered a monastery to absorb and live out the teachings in spiritual community.

Neither of which is a bad idea. Some days, in fact it sounds like a pretty great idea! But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have grown up in the institutional church without learning this kind of spiritual discipline—the one thing thing that is essential, as Jesus says, to the transformation of consciousness? Do we have to leave our homes and jobs and enter a monastery in order to sit, as Mary does, at the feet of a master?

That’s always an option, of course, and if you feel called to that path, I won’t talk you out of it. But for most of us, this is not a likely scenario.

So, what can we do? The first thing we must do, if we want to sit at the feet of a spiritual master, is to actually learn how to sit. And by that I do not mean just sitting in a chair, but sitting in meditation. In many spiritual traditions, “sitting” is another word for meditation, for learning to open our mind to the presence and action of God. Every spiritual tradition teaches that our ordinary, everyday mind is too attached to its own thoughts to be open to God. Meditating doesn’t mean that we still the mind or stop the thoughts — that’s impossible. It simply means that when thoughts arise, we don’t chase after them. And with practice, this opens a space for the presence of God to get in and change us. The Mind of Christ, the mind that is open to God, is like a muscle: we are all born with it, but in order to use it, we have to develop and strengthen it. This is why I am committed to teaching the discipline of meditation every week, in some form, at church. These days, we have a meditation circle every Sunday morning at 9 am in the Upper Room, and you are invited to drop in and join us anytime.

Another thing we can all do, even without running off to a monastery, is to take up a practice of spiritual reading. Once our mind is open, we are ready to absorb the teachings–sometimes directly from a teacher, but often these days, though reading that teacher’s words. Spiritual reading is not quite the same kind of reading that happens in school. Often, in school, the goal of reading is to gather information. Spiritual reading is less about information and more about transformation: taking in spiritual insights little by little, drop by drop — sort of like a slow pour-over coffee– so that the teachings can soak deeply into our consciousness. I won’t say that this is a substitute for finding a living spiritual master to learn with. But for most of us, spiritual reading is as close as we can get to sitting at the feet of a spiritual teacher every day, as Mary does in our gospel this morning. And I believe that this kind of reading can take us a long way on the path of transformation.

Out in the narthex, near our spiritual practice library, I’ve left a list of suggested books that you can use to take up a practice of daily spiritual reading. Each of these books is written by a spiritual teacher, and each one offers a small daily dose of reading that you can absorb throughout the day. All the books on the list, and more, can be ordered from your local independent bookstore.

But before you do that, I encourage you to look up their authors online, to learn what you can about these spiritual teachers, and to see which ones resonate with your own soul. Spiritual teachers come in different personalities, and their teachings come in all different flavors. Which is a beautiful thing, because we each learn differently: we need as many different teachers as we can get, for the different students that we are. So I encourage you to keep looking until you find one that speaks to you.

As we begin this beautiful new school year, I invite you to consider apprenticing yourself to a spiritual teacher. Because as far as we know, and as Jesus’ friend Mary knows, this is the way human consciousness is transformed. Person by person, heart by heart, mind by mind. Daily, slowly, we are called to put on the Mind of Christ. Daily, slowly, one by one, as we are transformed, so is the consciousness, the collective mind, of the human race, transformed. From separation to oneness. From fear  to love. From greed to the care of all creation. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher than they are right now. Everything depends now upon the learning we might yet choose. May we choose well.

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“On Holy Ground”

bush

a reflection on Exodus 3:1-12

July 15, 2018

Early this month, I drove out visit my family in the Central Valley. It was early evening when I stopped to stretch my legs just east of Sacramento. Standing there beside the car, catching my first welcome whiff of hot summer air mixed with a breeze off the river, I noticed a strange thing. There were no bugs on my windshield. This is not exactly a complaint; I spent my entire childhood picking moths out of the car grill after weekend trips to the Delta. It must be the time of day, I thought. Maybe the evening bugs haven’t come out yet. I got back into my car and didn’t think much more about it until this past week, when I read a remarkable book by a naturalist named Michael McCarthy, who has spent much of his life paying very close attention to the insects and birds that other folks find ordinary, studying the habits of butterflies, and trying to figure out where all of London’s once-abundant starlings have gone. The title of his book is The Moth Snowstorm, and it turns out that McCarthy and I share a similar childhood memory of riding in a car at night while the headlights illuminated a virtual snowstorm of moths.

Reading McCarthy’s book, I learned that finding yourself with a clean windshield after a long drive is an actual thing–not only here in northern California’s central valley but in the farmlands of England as well.  As I followed this tale, I wondered who else, besides a guy like Michael McCarthy would even notice such a thing? Certainly not the hoards of summer tourists who are more than happy to be wearing less bug spray. Not the real estate developers who are busy selling off bugless tracts of land. The person who noticed and wrote about the strange absence of insects is the person who spent his childhood summers turning aside to look more closely at the holy ground he loved: peering at mosquito larvae; marveling at stonefly cases; paying attention to things other people walked right by. Michael McCarthy–the one who turned aside to look–is the one who saw the truth and who is now trying to tell the world. The bugs are gone, he says. Farmers are spraying insecticides all over the land, and the teeming life that once creeped over the earth and hatched from this patch of holy ground…is gone.

This is not the kind of thing we tend to notice when we’re speeding down the interstate.  This is the kind of holiness, the kind of wholeness, that we only notice if we stop and turn aside to watch, very closely, the places that we love.

Which is precisely what happens to Moses this morning as he leads his flocks through the most ordinary of places: a vast wilderness so dry that even a brushfire is really nothing to write home about–brushfires happen all the time! But Moses, like our friend Michael McCarthy, is the kind of person who pays attention. And as Moses walks by, he notices that although that bush is on fire, it is not being consumed by the flames.

Can we stop right here and think together about this for a minute?  How long do you suppose a person would have to stare at a burning bush in order to realize that it is not being consumed? You’d have to be looking into the fire, mentally measuring the size of the branches and leaves, noticing that they aren’t getting any smaller, that they aren’t falling off and turning to ash. That’s already some pretty close attention to be paying to a brush fire—more attention than most of us ever give to anything we see. But even this is not enough for Moses. The story tells us that even after he notices that the bush is not being consumed, Moses then decides that he’s going to turn aside and look even more closely, to see if he can figure out WHY it’s not being consumed. And that’s when the really big event happens:

When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answered, “Here I  am.”

I think this is a very interesting sequence of events. If God really wanted to make sure that Moses stopped and paid attention, it sure seems like God could have just called out from the bush in the first place. “Moses! Yo! Over here! It’s me, God!” That would get your attention, right? But that’s not what happens. Instead, God waits until Moses—of his own free will—comes over to take a closer look. And then, only after God sees that Moses has turned aside, does God make the big announcement: “THE PLACE ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING IS HOLY GROUND.

And this is where Moses’ experience, and Jodi’s experience, and ours, all come together. Because for us human beings, attention—the discipline, the spiritual practice, of paying attention—must come first. Close attention to the details of a burning bush; close attention to a place we have loved since childhood; close attention to a planet that is even now burning—cities all over the country breaking their record high temperatures; wildfires burning in western forests; ice caps melting—this is the spiritual practice of paying close attention to a planet that even now is burning, and suffering. And then, only after we’ve paid close and painful attention—only then does the holy reveal itself to us.

And that’s the moment — after we’ve begun to pay close attention—when everything begins to change, for Moses, and for us. Because this revelation of holiness has a purpose. The sudden realization that the ground we are standing on is both holy and vulnerable–this realization is not the end of the story: it’s only the beginning! And that’s because the holy ground we discover always contains a call. Just as it did for Moses.

The ground we stand upon is holy, and there is something we have to do about it. “Moses!” God calls from the bush, “I have observed the misery of my people, and I have a job for you.” And Moses answers, “Here I am.”

“Here I am.” Once Moses has uttered those fateful words, there’s no going back. I’m pretty sure Moses wished he could go back—he’s not exactly thrilled about having a chat with Pharaoh. But once Moses hears God calling to him out of that bush, he knows there is work in this world that only he—only Moses—can do. And that’s his call.

And I want to suggest that right here, in this burning summer; this summer of our awakening to the holiness of a planet that needs us, that if we want to know how God is calling us—if we want to know what work in all the world God might have in mind for us, then it is a good idea to take a cue from Moses, and McCarthy, and turn aside. To pay some close attention to the places and things that might seem ordinary or unimportant, but that are just waiting to reveal their holiness, if only someone—if only we—would turn aside and notice it.

The ground you are spraying is holy, the naturalist says. And it is dying. And right there lies his own, particular call—a call to save a piece of this holy, burning world that McCarthy actually has a chance of saving, but only because he’s the one who turned aside long enough for its holiness to reveal itself to him. “Michael!” calls the Lord of hosts. And Michael answers: “Here I am.”

And I wonder if we ourselves have done the same. I wonder if we have turned aside long enough—if we have stared at the rivers, and the forests, and the fish that our own souls love–I wonder if we have stared  at them long enough—to hear their particular call to us.

Because here’s the thing. I can’t tell you what your own, particular call might be. But if you want to hear it, if you believe that the God who called Moses has not yet finished calling God’s people to recognize and to save—to save—what is holy in this world; if you believe that the God who called Moses has not yet finished calling God’s people to do justice (both ecological and social justice, which, we are now learning, cannot be separated) — if you believe that the God who called Moses has not yet finished calling God’s people to justice in the name of all that is holy in this world—then I think it’s worth taking some time every day to turn aside. To stop and to listen for the call of the thing that is longing to reveal its secret holiness to you.

It might not be a flashy or famous holy thing. In fact, there is a good chance that what longs to reveal its holiness to you is an ordinary thing that no one else seems to notice; a thing that others take for granted. Like those moth snowstorms you saw as a child. Like that ordinary, stubborn people of Israel that God loved; an immigrant people that Pharaoh was using up and throwing away as an exploited, expendable labor force. A people nobody else noticed, but that God called holy.

Moses was the only one who turned aside to watch that burning bush and to hear its call. McCarthy is the one who heard the call of the beloved, dying land of his childhood. And I’m willing to bet that there is something in this world–a place, a people, a creature–something holy that you yourself cannot bear to see destroyed; something you cannot bear to see lost to the fires of human selfishness and greed. I’m willing to bet that there is some secret holiness burning in the body of the world that only you can turn aside and see–and save—because it’s burning for you.

And you can be sure that when you turn aside to answer that call, you will not be alone.Because if Moses has anything to tell us, it is that God would never issue a call and then leave us all alone to do something about it. I will be with you, God tells Moses. If anybody asks who sent you, tell them it is I—the one who made this world and called it holy and good. The God who loves this world too much to let it burn.

Turn aside, says the Lord of hosts. Take off your shoes, and together—together—we will save the ones nobody notices. The ones who have no vote, and no voice. The ones who are always holy to God.  Amen.

 

 

Call of the Wild Goose

geesea meditation on Acts 2:1-21  for the season after Pentecost

I wonder if you can imagine this with me. You can close your eyes if it helps…

Imagine that just like those folks in Jerusalem long ago, we are gathered here today in this very room, as we gather every Sunday. Maybe, as we do every Sunday, we’ve just invoked — called in — the Holy  Spirit: “Come, Spirit. Come, Spirit. Come, Spirit, Come…” Only this time, as our song trails off, instead of polite silence, something ARRIVES! And you say to yourself, “Holy  Ghost, Batman! It’s the Holy Spirit!” You know for sure it’s the none other than the Holy Spirit, because…how do you recognize it? When the Holy Spirit rushes into the room this morning, what do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel?

(Sharing here…A wave crashing; people filled with light; a warmth…)

So many different ways of experiencing the Holy Spirit — no two people have the same experience! Which makes sense. Because the Holy Spirit is not an easy thing to pin down with words. Even the people who were in the room that morning long ago couldn’t quite agree about what happened when the Spirit arrived. “It was a mighty wind!” somebody says. “No, no—it was fire! I saw little tongues of flame on top of everybody’s head!” As long as human beings have been trying to find ways to describe the presence and action of God in the world, we’ve never been able to agree on just one image, one word, to describe how the Holy Spirit works. Sometimes it’s a rushing wind. Sometimes it looks like tongues of fire. Sometimes it’s a bird, like the one that appears in those paintings of Jesus’ baptism, where the clouds part and the God-rays of the sun come streaming down—and there’s the Holy Spirit, this time in the shape of a dove.

My own favorite image of the Holy Spirit comes from the Celtic Christians of Britain and Ireland, who experienced the Holy Spirit as a wild goose: an, untamable wild bird that lands with a splash and takes off again whenever it pleases, flapping and honking and calling us to follow —a bird who knows about wide-open spaces and long journeys to faraway lands; the kind of bird whose life crosses every border we humans draw across God’s creation; a bird that just might have something to teach us about what it means to be a citizen of the world on a beautiful, unpredictable adventure with God.

A spirit like this can take you some pretty weird places. An invisible spirit that blows into the room and makes everybody start speaking languages they never knew before?! This is not your normal, everyday church gathering—and it doesn’t always set too well with us, rational, logical folks who tend to hang out in UCC congregations. We like to be able to explain things. We like to know where we’re going how we’re going to get there. Here in the United Church of Christ, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the first and second persons of the Trinity: God the creator who calls us to justice and love; and God the Christ who walks God’s love out into a broken world and who calls  us to do the same. And these are not small things. We take them very seriously, these first two persons of the Trinity. We love and we follow them with all our hearts. And maybe that ought to be enough. After all, two out of three isn’t so bad.

But then…along comes this strange season of Pentecost, with this weird tale that tells us the church is not born — the church cannot not even exist — until the Holy Spirit shows up. Pentecost says that the church does not come into being until this mysterious third person of the Trinity swoops into the room and astonishes the feathers off everybody’s back. People from every nation in the world are suddenly speaking one another’s languages? Impossible! So impossible that no one could have planned it; no human agency could have done it. Only God could have imagined such a cross-cultural communion.

THIS, says Pentecost, is what it means to be the Church: to be willing to let God astonish us with possibilities that we have never even dreamed of. Why? Because, just like those first disciples of Jesus, without the Holy Spirit, we humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about what is possible and what is not. We humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about whose language we can speak and whose we do not; we humans get comfortable with our own ideas about who is welcome within our borders and who is not; with who is worthy and who is not. This is human nature, friends. This is the human ego at work in the world, drawing borders between us and them. Left to our own devices, we human beings draw more lines, chart more borders, build higher walls. It would really not surprise me if tomorrow, we hear a politician suggesting that we build a roof over the whole country. Sure, we’d never see the sky again, but at least no immigrants would be able to get in.

But I can tell you this. There was a roof over that room in Jerusalem on that long ago Pentecost morning. There was a roof on that room and the Holy Spirit broke in anyway. On that morning long ago in Jerusalem, God’s wild, Holy Spirit broke into that room and blew the roof clear off the place. That’s what Pentecost is about. And I say: Thanks be to God.

Thanks be to God. Because, as Peter tells that skeptical crowd, the way of the Holy Spirit is precisely the way of limitless hope: the hope of the Hebrew prophets whom Peter quotes today; the hope of God for all the world—slaves and free, women and men; adult and child; comfortable and desperate alike. What the Holy Spirit offers is a wild, expansive, liberating realm of possibility. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “We have a call,” he says. “A stunning vocation, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful…and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.”

Want to hear that again? “We have a call,” says Walter Brueggemann. “A stunning vocation, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful. A stunning vocation to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.”

A future that God will yet enact. In a world — this world — that has gone crazy. Friends, this world has gone crazy, with fear.

What Pentecost says is that we ourselves, on our own, cannot envision a sane future—not for ourselves, not for our children, not for the children at the border—unless we make room for God to break us wide open and act on us in ways we humans have never even imagined.

This is not easy thing to do. We humans like our cozy borders. We like to decide who is in and who is out. And not only that. Just like that crowd in ancient Jerusalem, we have been taught to be skeptical and practical. Haven’t we been cautioned all our lives to beware the wild goose chase? “Wild goose chase” is our code for wasting our time, for being conned into following an impossible dream.

But what if breaking our lives open to God isn’t a wild goose chase after all? What if, in fact, that wild goose of God has been chasing us all along? What if that wild, holy spirit of God has never given up on us? What if it’s calling to us right now, longing to be invited to land in the middle of this very room, longing to break our hearts wide open to unimagined possibility?

Here we are, in the midst of this season of Pentecost, here in the midst of this heartbreaking summer. And I wonder if today, together, we might decide to make this a season of the Holy Spirit: a season in which we help one another say a holy YES to the one who has been chasing us–chasing u!s–all our lives. What might happen for us and for the world, if we were to make  enough time to look up at the sky this summer and listen for the call of the Holy Spirit? I wonder if there enough clear, silent, open space in our life together—in our worship, in our meetings, in our conversations—for that wild goose to touch down among us? What practices help us become a wide-open space where the Spirit can land? What habits and comforts are keeping us closed off? How might we help one another, and the world, listen for the surprising call–that wild, lonesome call–of the still-speaking God?

I’m pretty sure that the Holy Spirit—God’s own wild, beautiful goose—is calling: to you, and to me, and to the Church that was founded that long-ago day so that we might carry, on our own wings, God’s wild, healing hope for the world.

My prayer for us this season is that together, we will clear a space for the wild goose to land among us. And that when it does land, we will spend these long summer days together watching that goose very carefully—finding ways to feed it; finding ways to listen for its soft murmurings and loud honkings—so that when that wild spirit signals to us that it’s time to fly again…when that day comes, we will answer with a holy YES, even if we have no idea in the world where that bird might take us.

Because when we say that yes—when we climb onto the back of that beautiful, wild bird—we can be sure that it is into God’s own future that we fly, with healing, and blessing, on our wings. Amen.

“You Must Love the Immigrant”

A reflection on Deuteronomy 10:12-19

If you’re anything like me, it’s probably been a  while since you’ve cracked the book of Deuteronomy. The senior youth group cracked it a few weeks ago, with myself and Jack Michael, and I’ll tell you what I told youth group that night: I like to think of the book of Deuteronomy as the longest sermon in the history of the world. Yep. 253 pages in the version I have right here.  

That’s a pretty long sermon! So the next time you think Dave and I are standing here, going on just a little too long….be glad you weren’t down there on the plain listening as Moses gave his final address to his people!

That’s what the book of Deuteronomy is: Moses’ final instruction to his people as they are about to enter the promised land — without him! This is Moses’ very last chance to tell his people everything he’s learned from God. It’s his last chance to remind the people about everything they have learned about being the people of God. Yes, says Moses. God has promised that you will be as numerous as the stars of heaven, and has given you this beautiful land to live in for generations to come. But this remarkable gift requires something in return. God requires that you live according to the ways of God, Moses says. Otherwise, the whole plan will all fall apart.

So Moses lays it all out for them. He reviews their whole history with God. He reminds them about everything that God expects of them, all in the one long sermon that is the book of Deuteronomy.

And this is where the youth group dove in a couple of weeks ago, with this passage that has so much to say about how the people of God, once they finally arrive in the promised land, are to treat the newcomers,  the immigrants, who will come to live among them.

Now, I will admit that at that youth group meeting, we first had to spend some time trying to get our minds around Moses’ instruction to “circumcise your heart!”  But that’s a topic for another sermon. Or, if you want, you could just join us in  youth group, where we have seem to have infallible radar for finding the most quirky, puzzling metaphors in the Bible.

But once we got that all figured out, we moved on to this part of the passage, where Moses tells his people: God loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. This means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.

This, friends, is where a great prophet is born. It takes an extraordinary prophet to speak the word of God in a way that is as relevant, and as urgent, in the year 2018 as it was on the day that prophet stood on a mountain looking down on the promised land.

Imagine who we ourselves might become — as a people, and as a nation — if we were to heed the prophet’s words: You must love the immigrant, because you, too, were immigrants once upon a time.  

Imagine who we might become if we were to remember that every single one of us–no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived–every single one of us bears the memory, in our cells and in our souls, of what it means to arrive as an immigrant and to depend for our survival on the generosity of our hosts. I will venture to say that even those among us who identify as native Americans — especially those who are native Americans — remember, in their cells and in their souls, what it means to be uprooted: to be forcibly removed from the land of one’s ancestors and required to make a new home in a new part of this very continent. Native Americans know all too well what it means to be an unwilling immigrant, a refugee, in your people’s own land.

You must love the immigrant, says the prophet, because every one of you was once an immigrant in the land of Egypt.

I think it’s pretty clear that as a nation, we have grown forgetful. As a nation, we have failed to love the immigrant as God loves the immigrant. And I often find myself praying that somehow, our children will do a better job than we have.  

Our own youth group dove into this passage a few weeks ago because today, they are leaving on a mission trip to the central valley of California, where they will spend a whole week working with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries — an organization that does thoughtful, healing, empowering work with refugees from southeast Asia and Africa.

This is a big deal for our senior youth group — to go off on a mission trip of their very own, without their families and without the rest of the congregation. Of course, it is a lovely thing to travel with your family —  there is nothing wrong with that!

But here in the church, it is our tradition that when our youth are old enough, we very intentionally send them off on their own. This is a rite of passage. It’s the moment when, after years of teaching and guiding and watching them mature, we say to our youth: We see who you have become. We see you, Kumalo and Ella, Eli and Hannah — we see your compassionate hearts, we see your beautiful minds, we see your wise souls. And we know that it is time for you to teach us. This is what we say to these beloved souls today: It is time for you to go out into the world to see things we have never seen, to learn things we do not know, and then to come home and teach us. This is the moment when we empower our youth to become our teachers and our leaders.

It has been quite a long time since this congregation has been able to send its youth off on their very own week-long mission trip. This trip, today,  is as much a rite of passage for us as it is for our youth, and it is worth celebrating. When I first met this particular group of young people, they were five and six years old, and I was their Sunday school teacher. So, it is a particular joy for me, as I’m sure it is for you, so bless them as they depart today on this mission trip.

In a moment, you’ll have a chance to lay hands on all these youth and bless them, along with their leaders, Lilly Thomas and Jamie Langley. But before we do that, I invite you to take moment and listen in your own heart for what you are wishing for these beloved youth as they set off on their journey What are you wishing and hoping they will experience this week?

In your bulletin, you’ll find a little piece of paper, and on the floor at the end of each row, you’ll find a cup of pens that you can pass along. On one side of the paper, I invite you to write a blessing or a wish for these dear ones to take with them. And on the other side of the paper, you might write a question for them to ponder this week.  Maybe something you’re wondering about refugees here in California, or something you’d like to hear from the youth group when they get back. I’ll give you some time to think and write: a wish or a blessing on one side, and on the other side, a question for our youth to take with them.

Silence…

Next Sunday in worship, our youth will spend some time reflecting on their experience in Fresno. Maybe they’ll even answer some of the questions you’ve sent with them.

They are leaving today right after church, while it’s still light out, so we’re pretty sure the road won’t be rocky or dark. But as the choir sings in this beautiful African song about a long road, we too are praying that as our youth and their leaders make their sacred journey, God will grant them courage, and that they will be makers of peace. Amen.

 

 

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

“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.