Making Room for Joy

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Last Sunday at just about this time, the Church as a whole body stepped across a threshold into the season of Pentecost, which stretches from the beginning of June all the way to the start of Advent in late November. That’s a pretty long season, which I think is lucky for us. Because the spiritual work of this season, the work of the holy spirit in us, takes time–at least a whole season, if not a whole lifetime!–to unfold.

At first glance, it might look as if the Holy Spirit swoops in on that long-ago Pentecost morning  and instantly overturns everybody’s ideas about what it means to be spiritual community, and what it means to answer the call of God. But in fact, while the holy spirit arrives early in the book of Acts, right here in chapter 2, it takes the rest of the book–28 chapters–for the followers of Jesus to wrestle with the changes that the arrival of the holy spirit sets in motion this season. And the reason it takes so long is that above all, the holy spirit arrives to sweep out what is no longer life giving — in order to make room for the new life that God is imagining for us. And so, all through the book of Acts, we find the apostles wrestling with change: what traditions to keep; what religious laws to observe; which cultural structures to keep in place and which old ways must be released and surrendered to the cleansing action of the wild, holy spirit that sweeps into the room this morning: more like a violent wind than a gentle breath of fresh air.

When the holy spirit arrives, it can feel like no structure is safe. When the holy spirit blows into the room, it can feel like the only smart thing to do is find a storm shelter and hide out until it passes by.

But that’s not what the apostles do this morning. Even as that gathered crowd swirls in confusion and protest, we see Peter and the apostles leaning in, remembering the Hebrew prophets, drawing on their prophetic tradition in order to make sense of sweeping change. And I’m pretty sure we’re called to do the same. Because as uncomfortable as the swirling, wild winds of change can be, some part of us knows that new life, and new joy, cannot arrive until we’re willing to let go of what we no longer need. In fact, I think it’s pretty convenient that this season of Pentecost, this season of the cleansing, life-changing holy spirit, also happens to coincide with yard sale season! Ever notice that? Just as soon the holy spirit arrives, the whole town starts clearing out  garages and closets and attics, piling stuff onto their lawns. Not because this is easy or fun, but because we understand that until we let go of what we no longer need, there will be no room in our lives for new energy, and new joy. 

So I want to talk about joy for a moment. You may recall that the apostle Paul says that joy is one of the gifts–sometimes a hard-won gift–of the Holy Spirit.  And I think this is exactly what’s at stake for us in this season of Pentecost. It is my experience that if we want to discover where God is leading us, it helps to pay very close attention to our felt sense of  joy. I believe that we human beings are made for joy, and that we have within us a reliable inner compass by which God is always leading us into a more expansive life. And this inner compass is made of joy. Our inner compass of joy points us toward God’s will, God’s dream, for our lives. I want to be clear that this compass of joy is not the same as pleasure. Take our yard sale, for example. It is not always pleasurable to go through your stuff room by room and haggle with your partner or your kids about what to save and what to keep. This is not pleasure! Pleasure is more like the cheap wine folks are talking about  in our scripture reading this morning: a source of instant and very temporary gratification. Getting drunk on cheap wine might bring a bit of pleasure in the moment, but very soon, it’s going to feel really lousy. Joy, on the other hand — the kind of joy that the Spirit promises — often requires discipline and hard work and time. In the end, though, the reward is the deep and abiding joy of a new and expansive life in God.

One person who knows a lot about this kind of deep joy is a woman named Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve seen her Netflix series or read her book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Don’t let the title fool you: the phrase “tidying up” is far too tame to describe the kind of radical, holy-spirit hurricane that Marie Kondo brings when she comes into your home. If you want to unclutter your life in Marie Kondo fashion, the first thing you have to do is  to take everything out of, say, your closet — everything — and pile it all in the middle of the room. If you Google Marie Kondo, you’ll see that she looks like the epitome of polite and mild-mannered gentleness. But the truth is that she’s a holy-spirit hurricane! Whoosh! Just like that, everything in your closet is suddenly in the middle of the floor. Here’s what Marie Kondo insists you must do next. Slowly, carefully, painstakingly, you must pick up each  item — every sweater, every sock — and one by one, you must hold each one to your cheek. No kidding. And while you are holding it there, you must tune into your body and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” And if the answer is no, if you can’t feel a tingle of joy when you hold that sweatshirt up to your cheek —  even if you just bought it, even if it’s the one you wear every day — if it doesn’t spark joy, you must let it go. Marie Kondo is ruthless when it comes to clearing out your life. And the people she’s helped will tell you that when they were willing to let go of that which does not spark joy, that’s the moment when their lives began to change. That’s when the spirit of new life was finally free to sweep in. As Kondo herself says, clearing out in this way will turn your home into: “a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” Sound a little like that long-ago Pentecost morning?

When I first read Marie Kondo’s book a few years ago, I recognized her as a kindred spirit. Not just because we both love cleaning out closets, but because I think she and I do similar types of work. One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to encourage all of you to hold parts of your lives up to your cheek and ask, “Does this spark joy?” In committee meetings, in council meetings, at the Ike box over a cup of tea, my work is to say to you, “I see how you light up when you talk about this new project. How can we help you make it happen?” And when I see you looking weary at the mention your job, or looking defeated and exhausted at the mention of the church committee you’ve been chairing for five years, it is my job to say, “I wonder if this is still bringing you joy.” And if the answer is no…then it is our holy work to gently remind each other to let go of that thing. Because only when we let go is there room for God’s holy spirit to move in and carry us into all kinds of new places, and all kinds of new joy in our collective life.

So here we are. Stepping into the season of Pentecost, the season of the life-changing Holy Spirit. Are you ready? This season, we are going to engage in a very careful process of discernment. We’ll be holding up pieces of our shared life: structures, committees, priorities, and asking ourselves to get very honest about whether these are serving, or stifling, the congregation God is calling us to become. The invitation this season, as Pentecost arrives, is to listen and watch together for the stirrings of the holy spirit. A season for noticing what structures and processes no longer spark joy for us. A season in which we summon the courage to let go of that which is no longer life-giving for us, and for the world. This is what the holy spirit asks of us this morning: that we spend this season patiently, faithfully noticing the spark of joy in one another’s eyes as we imagine new things together. A whole season to clear out enough space, enough room, for joy and new life to fill us once again — more than enough joy, and more than enough life, to spill out from here into this world God so loves.

What a joy it is this morning, and always, to be gathered together in this place as the holy spirit sweeps in to once again make us new. Thanks be to God. 

 

 

Show Me

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a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

I was surprised some years ago when I learned that during the first few centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was not the season of Advent, not the season of Lent. For the early church, the most important season of the year was the season of Easter—the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. This season, in the early church, the season we’re moving through right now, was set aside as a season of Joy. It was set aside precisely for the purpose of helping us receive and live into new life with the Risen Christ.

There is deep wisdom, I think, in the understanding that this new life is a process,–it’s not instantaneous — 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. Afraid for your life.

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 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 that he’s really there.

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.

So it is that Thomas does not get 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 church tradition 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, 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 have just 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 appears yet again. 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 that Jesus does understand what Thomas needs, what we need, to see. Because Jesus, 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 rest of us, Jesus shows up this morning 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, “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 there is something in every one of us that hesitates to reach out and claim 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. Maybe even wounded by the church. And so, even in this season of new life and joy, we find ourselves still 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—in order to be able to accept the offer of new life.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask—the chutzpah, really!–to ask for the help he needs. No shame that he can’t believe. He simply asks to see. And it’s Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is 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. A wounded inner child? I invite you to let that Thomas part of you finds its voice and ASK for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again…

And as you listen, I invite you to really honor what you hear by writing it down. There’s a piece of paper in your bulletin. And there should be a pencil or pen in the pew in front of you.  I invite you to write down whatever it is that your doubting, fearful heart needs to ask for this morning. 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 very own doubt, just like Thomas’ doubt, is tender, and holy, and precious to God. Ask your own precious, vulnerable doubt what kind of a sign it needs. And then write down what you hear. I’ll give you a minute to listen, and 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.” The sign you need to 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.

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 Easter joy; if we are going to carry that new life into the world, then we’re going to need help, friends. 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 the words, “Show me” are a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

 

I Took Them Up in My Arms

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A reflection on Hosea 11:1-4 and God the Mother 

Mother’s Day, 2019

I wonder if you can remember a moment when you happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a very small child, maybe only nine or ten months old, take his or her very first steps. Can you remember that moment? Maybe it was your own child, a niece or a nephew, maybe a grandchild. I wonder if there’s anything more thrilling, more remarkable, than an infant who is determined to walk; a child who is compelled by the very force of life itself to pull herself up on the edge of a coffee table and see if her own two legs will hold her. Maybe you were there at the moment when she let go of that table and took two, maybe three steps before she fell, laughing, into your waiting arms. I wonder if there is anything in the world more tender than the arms that catch a child as he takes a step and falls, takes another step and falls again.

When we witness this moment, when we are lucky enough to be right there for a child’s first steps, we know that something has changed forever. Not only for that newly walking baby. And not only for her parents, who have probably just raced off to Target to buy a baby gate for the top of the stairs: their lives have definitely changed forever. But they aren’t the only ones whose lives have changed. If you are there to witness those first steps, your life is different, too. Because when we catch that baby after his first, faltering steps, when we rejoice with that tiny girl after her first solo walk across the living room, the bonds of love are cemented between us. The shared experience of that much hope, that much love, joins our hearts and our souls in wild joy and in reverence for the milestone we’ve just shared. We’re linked forever. At least, that’s how it seems to work for us human beings.

For God, it seems that things don’t always turn out so well.

It was I, says God in our scripture reading this morning. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (In this instance, the tribe of Ephraim stands for all of Israel.) I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

I wonder if we can even begin to imagine the pain God is speaking about through the prophet Hosea this morning. It might be something like the pain we would feel if, as we watched that child take her first steps, we suddenly realized that when she grows up, she’s not even going to remember who we are.

I was to them, says God, Like those who lift infants to their cheeks. And still, God laments, they do not know me.

This is a heartbroken God we encounter this morning. A God who so gently, like the most tender parent, feeds and lifts and loves Her people, and yet remains invisible to them.

See if you can imagine the pain God speaks of here:  

I bent down to them and fed them, says God. And still they do not know me.

I bent down to them and fed them like a mother, says God, And still, they call me only “Lord,” only “Father,” only “Rock.”

This is not often what we think of when we picture God in our minds: a God whose heart is breaking because Her people have failed to see, have refused to recognize, God’s most tender love and care.

Instead, what we often imagine is a God who might accept our praise on Sunday mornings, but who certainly doesn’t need our understanding or our attention. Somehow, we  modern people, so independent, so technologically advanced, so able to manipulate our world and take care of ourselves in so many ways – we have created God in our own image. We have fashioning a God who is as self sufficient and independent as we imagine ourselves to be.

Not so, says the prophet Hosea. God is mother to us. God is even now bending all the way down to earth to feed us, the prophet cries. God is a mother whose heart is breaking because Her children do not recognize her for who she really is: the One who lifts each soul like a child to Her cheek and who longs for us to know Her in the fullness, in the mothering mercy, of Her love.

All through the long line of Hebrew prophets, all the way up to and including Jesus himself, what we see is a God who longs to be in intimate, loving relationship with all of creation, and with human creatures. And this morning, this Mother’s Day morning, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is difficult to be in real relationship with anyone if we are determined to see only a small part of who they are. What I want to suggest is that the part of God we see, the side of God we are willing to recognize, has everything to do with how we treat one another and the other creatures with whom we share this world. The God we imagine—the image of God we offer to our children—has everything to do with the kind of world we leave our children and the kind of God they will find.

So I want to offer a mother’s day thank you, a mother’s day shout-out, to the prophet Hosea, who was writing in the middle of the 8th century BCE, which was a very, very dark time in his people’s history. A time when the Assyrian army was breathing down Israel’s neck, about to destroy the northern kingdom; a fearful time when any prophet could be forgiven for calling upon a vengeful, martial, punishing God. I want to give a shout-out to Hosea and to every prophet who has the courage, even in the most dangerous of times, to speak of the wholeness, and the tenderness of God. To offer us a God who is more loving, more merciful, more forgiving—and much more complete—than the judging, punishing, distant God we so often carry in our minds.

And I wonder this morning whether your own relationship with God might feel just a bit easier, maybe even more possible, if you knew for sure that ours is a mothering God. A God who even now is bending, kneeling, reaching, to gather you in. I think Mother’s Day might be the perfect day to give this God a try.

I wonder how we all might change—as a people, as a nation—if we knew for sure that God is mother to every single being. How might our criminal justice system change? How likely would we be to continue throwing errant 14-year-olds into juvenile hall if we knew that God loves those children more like a mother than like a punishing lord?

If we knew for sure that God is mother to every being, how likely would we be to continue incarcerating immigrant children and their families as they flee for their lives? It’s hard for me to imagine American corporations profiting from the incarceration of children and their families in a country whose people know, in their hearts, the tender mercy of a mothering God.

It’s hard to imagine the earth itself being plundered and poisoned for profit by a people who knows that God is even now lifting every leaf, every wing, every creature, to Her cheek with a mother’s tender love.

It was I, says God. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

What might it mean for you to know the God who is longing to heal us all? What might it mean to remember the God who even now is loving you into being moment by moment, breath by breath, Her own heart leaping with joy as you learn to trust the legs of your own life? What might it mean to remember the One whose arms are reaching, even now, to catch you, to forgive you, to offer you abundant life again and again?

This day, this Mother’s Day, may we hear the cry of the God who longs to be seen in Her wholeness. A God who is as merciful, as tender, as life-giving, as the people She created us to be. Amen.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

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a reflection on Mark 16:1-8

Easter Sunday 2019

I brought a little book to share with you this morning, and I’m guessing that even from far away, some of you might be able to recognize it, just by its cover. If you have been a kid recently, or if you’ve been reading with kids recently, you may know this series, which is called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” This particular adventure is The Abominable Snowman, but there are lots of different books in this series: adventures in outer space, adventures under the sea, all kinds of adventures! These books have been popular for a long time, and I think it’s because they do two very unusual things. First, they are written in the second person, directly the reader. So that as you read along, you can imagine that this great adventure is happening not to a character in the book, but to you.

The second thing that makes these books unusual is that whenever something interesting happens in the story, the narrative suddenly comes to a complete stop. And that’s when you, the reader, have to choose what happens next. You come upon an abandoned well? You have to decide whether you want to stick your head in and see what’s down there, or walk right by. You meet a wolf on the road? You get to decide whether to run the other way, or sit down and offer it some of your lunch.

As you might imagine, the way the story turns out depends on what you decide to do at each juncture. This particular book promises 28 different possible endings, depending on what kind of choices you make all along the way.

Which is not unlike what happens in the gospel of Mark this morning. Very early in the morning, the women make their way to the tomb. And to their great surprise, they find that not only has the stone been rolled away, but the tomb is empty! And there before them sits a figure in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has been raised: he’s already gone. And the women are overcome, speechless with terror and amazement. And that’s it! That’s all the gospel writer wrote.

Of course, if you are reading along in your Bible, you will see that there are two more endings after this one, a shorter one and a longer one. It’s not quite the 28 endings you can get with The Abominable Snowman, but still, two extras is pretty good! But because neither of these two additional endings appears in the earliest known manuscripts, scholars agree that these extra endings were added on during the 2nd and 3rd centuries by folks who perhaps weren’t so happy with the way the original story screeches to a halt at the first news of the resurrection: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

We can probably understand why folks would want to elaborate a bit, because this ending isn’t all that satisfying — especially if you read it on Easter morning! After everything Jesus and his friends have been through; after watching Jesus feed the people bread and fish; after watching him heal the sick and invite everybody—every body—into the kingdom of God; after watching Jesus feed the people so much HOPE—so much hope for new life, so much hope for God’s justice to come on earth—this is how it all ends? With silence and fear? Really? Somebody who seems to be an angel sits in the tomb and says, “Guess what? Christ is Risen!” And do the disciples whip out their banners and shout Alleluia! No, they do not. In the gospel of Mark, the angel announces, Christ is Risen! And the disciples reply, No Way! Imagine if we did that on Easter morning! The minister says, Christ is Risen! And the congregation responds: No way!

It doesn’t quite have the same ring! So we can imagine why people felt the need to change the ending of this gospel. The author must have made a mistake, they said. The real ending must have gotten lost. The writer couldn’t possibly have meant to end the story here.

Unless, of course, the author of the gospel of Mark was a writer who knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story. A writer who knew how to get us to put ourselves into the story. What would you do? the gospel of Mark asks us this morning. The angel has spoken. You’ve seen the empty tomb. Now you have to decide. Which adventure will you choose?

The ending of this story, says the gospel of Mark, is up to us. By leaving the ending wide open, by leaving us staring at the empty tomb while the disciples run away, the gospel of Mark suggests that what happens next, what happens to the good news of the resurrection, what happens to the good news that God is offering us new life beyond every tomb we can imagine or invent—what we do with this news is entirely up to us.

And so, on this Easter morning, we stand with the disciples at a crossroad, facing a choice. A choice we always have to make at every crossroad: will we step into new life, or will we let fear keep us right where we are? Which is probably why the first thing the angel says this morning is: Do not be alarmed. Do not be afraid.

This is what angels in the Bible always say just before they tell us something impossibly good. Something we can hardly believe.It must be in the angel instruction manual. When an angel shows up and says, Do not be afraid, you can be sure he’s about to tell you something so great, so new, that it’s terrifying.

Terrifying enough to make us ordinary mortals want to run back to our old lives and hide, just like the disciples do this morning. This is human nature, friends, and angels seem to understand it very well. It is human nature to be afraid of stepping into the new life that God offers. Even an angel knows that a new thing, a brand-new way of living, can be scary to us humans, no matter how good that new life promises to be.

And so the gospel of Mark asks us to do some soul searching this morning. Will we choose to believe in the possibility of new life? In the possibility of resurrection? Or will we, too, run away and hide?

As far as we know, God will not choose for us. As far as we know, the Divine Presence is too gentle, too respectful of our free will to choose our adventure for us. This is the great paradox at the heart of our faith: the God of all creation is also the One who is humble enough to empty God’s self on the cross; humble enough to allow us to do what we will—with God, with our lives, with all life on earth. God will even allow us to continue to crucify one another, to continue to crucify the planet itself, if we insist. God will allow us, if we choose, to refuse the offer of new life when it does not match up with our old, comfortable ways of living. This is free will, friends, and it is a gift from God: choose your own adventure.

And yet, the angel makes it very clear this morning that while the choice is ultimately ours, God is still calling to us. The Lord is going on ahead of you, says the angel. Which is true, even now! God is always just a step ahead of us, trying to lure us along: inviting us, praying for us, to follow, if we dare. And I wonder if, even now, there might be an angel, an Easter angel, holding its breath for all of humanity, waiting to see which adventure we will choose for ourselves and for the world that God loves. Will we remain set in our ways, out of habit, out of fear? Or will we accept the invitation to new life?

And I wonder if there is part of you this morning that is longing to accept the invitation to new life? Can you feel the faint stirrings of hope? Can you feel a flutter of wings urging you to believe that new life is possible, even now? Urging you not to be afraid?

I wonder what kind of support might you need in order to say a holy yes to this offer of new life? Maybe a community of friends, companions for the journey? Maybe a community where it is safe, right here, to be vulnerable in our hope and in our fear? A community where it is safe enough to take a risk—the risk of hope, the risk of believing again in new life even though our hearts have been broken so many times before?

You know, and I know, that new life does not come without risk. We know that new life comes with sacrifice and sometimes painful change. New life requires that we let go of the old life we have come to know and love. New life requires that we sacrifice our old ways of living in order to heal and care for all life on this earth. New life requires the courage to build, even now, a world where no one goes hungry, where no one grows up in fear. Hope like that is a dangerous thing. Hope like that can break your heart. A heart that has already lost so much, and so many. A heart that has already been broken at the foot of the cross.

And yet, here we are, standing with the first disciples, staring at an empty tomb. This morning, we begin the adventure known as the season of Easter: the great 50 days of Easter—a whole season in which we are invited, if we dare, to listen for the stirrings of new life, to follow the Risen One who is going on ahead of us. No matter how long we’ve been hiding, no matter how long we’ve been hurting, no matter how long we’ve been afraid to hope—we are invited this morning not to run away but to stay, and to choose new life beyond anything we’ve known before.

That’s the invitation this morning: for us, and for the world. And so, on this beautiful day of resurrection, may we find the courage we need, may we look around this room and find the brave companions we need, to help us say a holy yes to God’s own adventure. May we choose this day the adventure of truly new and abundant life—for ourselves, for our children, and for this world that God so loves. Amen. And Alleluia.

With Healing in Our Hands

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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 the Prince…of Peace. Thanks be to God.

 

At the Feet of the Master

maryandmartha

 

a reflection on Luke 10:48 – 42

We’ve been talking this season about spiritual practice: all the things we ordinary humans can do to open ourselves to the divine presence that is always in us and with us, always longing to heal and transform our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world.

As we’ve moved through this season together, we’ve been exploring different kinds of spiritual practices, both here in worship and in our 9 o’clock practice hour: praying in silence; praying with sacred texts; praying with our imaginations so that the Spirit might open our hearts. I hope that you’ve picked up a spiritual practice to try out during this season.

But now that we’re halfway through the season of Lent, I think it’s the right time to talk about what is possibly the most important spiritual practice of all, the practice that makes all the others possible: the spiritual practice of letting something go. All the spiritual teachings in the world are not going to help us–even a personal invitation from the spiritual master himself is not going to help us–if we keep ourselves too busy to show up for him. Thanks for coming over, Martha says to Jesus this morning. But you know, I really don’t have time for this stuff!

Sound familiar? On the surface, it looks perfectly logical. After all, somebody has to clean the house and cook the meals and welcome the guests, right?

But Jesus isn’t buying it. Possibly because Jesus himself has wrestled with his own demons, his own resistance, out there in the desert, he knows how to recognize resistance when he sees it in his friends.

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

Mary has chosen to let go–to let go–of the never-ending household chores and take a retreat day instead: sitting at the feet of the master, absorbing the spiritual lessons he has come to impart.

What Mary knows, and what Jesus knows, is that the busy work of our lives–our home lives, our church lives–will always be there. It literally has no end! And that busy work will not transform our consciousness. And that transformation of human consciousness is why Jesus is here. I believe it’s why we’re here on earth, and why we’re here every Sunday morning.

Beloved, the stakes could not be higher than they are right now. Only a transformation of human consciousness will allow us, as a species, to change our ways in time to save the world we love. A transformation of human consciousness that takes us from a mind of separation and division and returns us to a mind of sacred union with God and 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 for us to waste our time with any tradition that does not heal our relationship with God, with one another, and with all of creation.

And yet, here we are. Halfway through the season of Lent, arguing, like Martha, that we are too busy. That our to-do lists are more important than our spiritual transformation.

You can almost see Jesus shaking his head, with compassion, and sorrow. It’s your choice, he says. What will it be? Here I am.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of you over the past few weeks, about the spiritual practices you want to take up, and about how hard it is to actually do them. And I will confess that it’s hard for me, too. I have enough Martha in me that I struggle every day to make time for the spiritual practices I know are essential for me.

The mind of Martha, the mind of Martha in us– this is what spiritual teachers call the egoic mind. This mind always tries to convince us that we are indispensable; that God cannot possibly take care of the world, or our loved ones, unless we are there to supervise. The egoic mind loves to feel needed and important. And its job is to distract us from the inner work that will free us to actually answer God’s real call.

And God — for better or worse — has gifted us with free will. God will not force us to change our ways. 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 distracted by our many tasks: taking care of loved ones, making a living, putting food on the table. It’s not that these things are trivial, of course. It’s hard to imagine Jesus, of all people, saying that feeding others, or offering hospitality, is unimportant. As you will recall, Jesus himself was a pretty busy guy — feeding, healing, teaching desperate, hungry crowds wherever he goes.

And yet Jesus urges his followers to do as he does: to regularly step away from the clamoring crowds and sit in silence, in solitude. Even for 40 days! Because to neglect the practice of silence is to ignore God’s call to us. To neglect the practice of stillness is to refuse God’s transformative work in us. Martha, Martha, Jesus says. The stakes are simply too high.   

My job, always, is to reflect back to you, as honestly as I can, what I see when I look into your eyes. Some days, that’s easy and fun: when I see excitement and joy in your eyes, I get to say, “I see how you light up when you talk about this new idea that’s calling you. How can this church help you say a holy yes to that call?” Other days, I see you looking weary at the mention of your weekday job, or at the mention of a task you do here at church, or a committee (or three) that you lead here at church. At those times, it’s my job to say, “It looks like this is not bringing you joy. I wonder if it’s time to let it go. I wonder if you need to make some time to sit at the feet of the master, in silence, and let God whisper in your ear.”

Here’s the good news. When we stop acting out of obligation and guilt, when we let go of our need to be busy, and needed, then make time to nurture the unique gifts that God is calling us to offer the world.

Beloved, remember that Jesus himself gives up food and water and friends and all kinds of good work–Jesus let go of important, healing work he could be doing–to go into the wilderness of silence for 40 days. We have 20 days left in this season of Lent. And I wonder what it would take for us to answer the call of the master this season. What will it take for you to answer the call of your own soul? Will you give up something that is draining your soul’s life? Will you give up the excuse of busyness?

As Jesus knows, and as his good 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. Out of separation and into oneness. Out of fear and into love. Out of greed and into care for all creation. The stakes could not possibly be higher than they are right now. Everything depends now upon the path we might yet choose. May we choose bravely, and well. Amen.

 

The Other Nine

A Meditation on Luke 17:11-19

for the Third Sunday in Lent

I have to confess that of all the commentaries I’ve ever read on this particular scripture, my favorite comes from Kate Braestrup, chaplain for the Maine Warden service. In her book, Here if You Need Me, she writes about reading this story aloud to her kids when she was in seminary. As Jesus entered a village, she reads aloud. Ten lepers approached him. At this point, the kids really perk up: finally, something exciting is actually going to happen in the Bible. What will happen to Jesus when he meets ten leopards? Will he run? Will they eat him?

Needless to say, the kids are a little disappointed when Kate explains that they were lepers, not leopards. But I still think this is a pretty exciting story. An amazing story, in fact: almost as amazing as leopards. First of all, this group of ten men who call out to Jesus, desperate for help, includes not only Jews but at least one Samaritan—a tribe of people with whom Jews almost never associated. In Jesus’ time, there was bad, bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. But these weren’t ordinary, everyday Samaritans and Jews. They were lepers, in a day when leprosy cast you out from your community: in addition to being physically afflicted, people with leprosy were considered ritually unclean. Which meant that they were cast out from their religious communities. I wonder if we can even imagine this: What might it feel like to come down with an illness, and then, because of this illness, to be thrown out of our religious community—at the very moment we need God, and our community, the most. It’s hard to even imagine, isn’t it?

But this is where we find our friends this morning. And it turns out that in their outcast status, they have found a common bond and formed a mixed company of Samaritans and Jews. Which is almost as surprising as ten leopards!

But that’s not all. Seeing Jesus in the distance, these people call out to him in desperation, begging to be healed. And just like that, Jesus complies. Go and show yourselves to the priests, he says. This instruction was not just for show. The priests, in this case, are the equivalent of health officers who would have to pronounce these men clean before they would be allowed to return to their community. Imagine for a minute that you are one of these men, suddenly cured of the disease that has separated you from everyone you love. Imagine how anxious you’d be to rush back to your family and friends! Who could blame them for running, for rushing, back to the bright, busy communal life from which they have been excluded—for God only knows how long—because of their disease?

And not only that. Who could blame them for not wanting to hang out too long on that holy, terrifying threshold where God’s love arrives to heal us—even though we’ve done nothing at all to earn or deserve that amazing grace?

Who among us can really stand to hold still in that place…so open, so vulnerable, so utterly dependent on the love of God…and really let ourselves be filled, and healed, and changed beyond recognition?

I don’t know about you, but I know how hard it is for me to truly receive the love, the healing, the grace, that God is always offering.

I, for one, can’t blame those men for rushing away.

What’s astonishing, I think, is that under the circumstances, even one of these men makes a u-turn and walks back to Jesus. One man turns around to prostrate himself in thanksgiving; to speak out loud, in public, the miracle of his gratefulness—his great fullness—and his joy.

And I’m pretty sure that this man’s life was never the same.

Lying there on that mysterious threshold where the holy pours into the body of the world, this one man becomes, in his very flesh, the embodiment of thanksgiving, which I want to define as our willingness to give thanks by speaking out loud about the gifts God has given us and dedicating a portion of that gift back to its source. I’ll say that again. Thanksgiving is an act—a spiritual practice—by which we give thanks to God by naming out loud the gifts God has given us, and dedicating a portion of those gifts back to their source, so that more and more people may be included in the divine flow of abundance and healing and grace.  

“Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asks, “What about the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus is worried about those other nine. Jesus is worried about whether they, and we, are willing to fully embody the gratefulness we say we feel. Not because Jesus needs to hear it. I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus needs to feed his ego with other people’s tales of gratitude.

I believe Jesus wants us to speak our gratefulness out loud not because he needs to hear it, but because we need to do it.

I want to be clear that this can be very a difficult practice. According to this story, nine out of ten people, are not able do it! But Jesus wants us to take up this practice because this discipline of speaking our gratefulness out loud changes us. It opens us to the stream of abundant blessing that is already flowing from the heart of God, and invites others to open themselves to that stream as well.

In his extraordinary book,Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast suggests that every prayer is, in one way or another, a form of thanksgiving. He also points out that thanksgiving always has two components: the thanks, and the giving. In other words, full participation in the flow of the divine life requires not only that we open ourselves to receive God’s abundant gifts, but that we continue that flow of abundance by giving something in return. This man, who has received the gift of healing for his body, returns to Jesus and throws his healed body—he throws the gift!—at Jesus’ feet. The story doesn’t say that the other men weren’t grateful. What it does say is that if these other nine men were grateful, they kept their gratefulness private: they didn’t go out of their way to speak their thanks aloud in public, or to return a portion of their gift to its Source. What Jesus teaches here is that gratefulness is meant to be more than a state of mind, more than a prayer whispered in the privacy of our own hearts. What Jesus suggests is that gratefulness is meant to be spoken out loud: we are called to DO something about it.

Seen in this light, gratefulness becomes a communal spiritual practice. A practice we undertake together in order to open ourselves to the presence of God. And like any kind of practice, it is likely to stretch us beyond our present comfort zone, into new places where God is longing to meet and transform us.

This Lenten season at First Congregational, we’re talking a lot about spiritual practice. And I want to offer us an opportunity to take up gratefulness as shared, communal, spiritual practice. Because I believe that what Jesus teaches us is that there is no spiritual practice that is more important, or more powerful. So here’s the invitation. Starting next week,we’ll take some time here in worship to speak our gratefulness out loud. If you receive a blessing during the week, you’re invited to name that blessing out loud: a birthday, an anniversary, a clean-and-sober milestone—you’ll be invited to tell us about it. You’ll also be invited, if you wish, to make a monetary gift in any amount. We’ll call these gratefulness gifts, and we’ll make sure this money goes to support folks in the wider community who are in need of blessing, and hope. In this way, we’ll do as Jesus asks and return a portion of our many gifts to their Source, so that we may become a channel of God’s blessing for the world.

Here’s what that one man, that Samaritan, has to say to us: When we are in need, and sometimes desperate need–of companionship, of support, of healing—it is an extraordinary gift to call out to God, and to our community, and to know that we will be heard.

And…it is an equally important gift, at the most joyful moments of our lives, to be able to call out to God, and to our community, and to know our joy will be shared. And that that through the gifts of our gratefulness, that joy will grow. Thanks be to God.