april fools: april fools the ways of the world

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photo credit: Don Flowers

Scripture
John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (Psalm 98)
Sing to the Lord a new song,
the Lord of wonderful deeds,
whose right hand and holy arm
brought victory.

God made that victory known,
revealed justice to nations,
remembered a merciful, steadfast love
to the house of Israel.

The ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
Shout to the Lord, you earth,
break into song, into praise!

Sing praise to God with a harp,
with a harp and sound of music.
With sound of trumpet and horn,
shout to the Lord, our king.

Let the sea roar with its creatures,
the world and all that live there!
Let the rivers clap their hands,
the hills ring out their joy!

The Lord, our God, comes,
comes to rule the earth,
justly to rule the world,
to govern the peoples aright.

Hymn
“To God Be the Glory, revised” [TO GOD BE THE GLORY]
To God be the glory*, in love we abide,
which raises our living with each EasterTide.
To incarnate love is our calling each day,
to live and create the truth of God’s own way.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

To love as we’ve been loved is God’s great desire
that our lives the living of others inspires.
To live lives for others as God showed us how,
makes manifest Jesus in the here and now.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

The whole that is holy is God’s great design.
For sharing in caring, our God still does pine.
Creation is waiting, and God’s waiting too,
to see what our faith now will lead us to do.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

And this is redemption, communion with God—
to walk through life gently as Jesus has trod—
to open the life gate that all may come in*
as we look to love more than we do to sin.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

John Ballenger/William H. Doane/*Fanny J. Crosby

Sermon
Previously, Jesus offered his disciples the imagery of the vine.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower (John 15:1).
I am the vine, he said, and you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit (John 15:5).
And he clarified his explicit expectation that the plant bear fruit.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit (John 15:8).

Typically in Scripture, the fruit of the vine refers to grapes—
or wine.
Let that image take root!

Jesus goes on:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
It’s an as/so statement.
As one thing is true, so is another.
And, wonder of wonders, our experience of being loved by God
is no different from Jesus’ experience!
What might seem unique to Jesus, is not.
We’ve been included.
Love and grace grow into and through us,
and we are cultivated in the truth and the presence of God.

Abide in my love.
In Greek, the verb meno, translated “to abide”—
with all those lovely connotations of home—of belonging,
also means “to remain.”
There’s an assurance looking to the future.
It can mean “to remain present”—to stay real, yes?—
grounded, as it were—rooted.
It can also mean “to be kept.”
There’s an initiative toward us.
Interestingly, meno has a secondary meaning of “to await.”
So it’s all of what we so want and need,
and, also, what we await more of—
await in its greater fullness.
It is both assurance and hope—
what we know now, and what, knowing now,
we anticipate in greater fullness and truth.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.
Now that’s an if/then statement—
conditional, but also relational.
We’re given a word of clarification
about what it means to abide in the love of Jesus.
It means following in the way of Jesus.
It means bearing good fruit.

Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
As/so.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of Jesus
keeping God’s commandments, it’s obedience, yes,
but it has more to do with identity and integrity,
and less to do with success at obedience
than joy of being.

And a parallel is established—an implicit as/so:
as we abide in Jesus’ love, so Jesus abides in God’s love.
By the by, to refer to God’s commandments
is to think of the tradition and heritage of Israel, isn’t it? Torah.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you.
As/so. As my joy, so yours too.
And that your joy may be complete.
Think about that.
The completeness of joy is relationally dependent.
But it’s like meno—something we know (in which we abide),
of which we also await more.

Have you noticed that it gets a little complicated
trying to keep track of/distinguishing God and Jesus and us?
Who abides in whom? Whose love are we talking about?
Whose joy? Whose commandments?
We can identify the roots, the trunk, the branches, the leaves
the individual parts of a grape vine, but to look at it,
is to see a grape vine—a whole—
maybe even a vineyard.

Jesus goes on, “This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Elsewhere, Jesus is quoted as responding to a question
about the greatest commandment, saying:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”
(Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).
Here though, Jesus commandment doesn’t seem to be
love God and love others, but rather
as God loves you, so love others.
We are to act as God acts which is to act as Jesus acted.

So a little catch up work here.
Initially, God is the vinegrower; Jesus is the vine;
we’re the branches.
But in the reciprocity and mutuality that unfold,
we all appear to be part of this plant—producing this divine fruit.
Because God’s commandments represent who God is
made incarnate in Jesus’ living
even as love, who God is, is to be made flesh in our living.

And yes, it’s a cliché. Oh, we’re to love?
Of course we are.
But we often miss the corollary that it’s not up to us
who to love—who to include.
And yet what absolutely critical fruit to bear
in a world so lacking in it.

And the demand is explicit.
You’ve no doubt heard some expression of the chorus
that resounds in and through our culture:
do you love me?
Do I belong?
Am I included?

A new study, “published by the global health service company Cigna,
found that 46 percent of U.S. adults report sometimes or always
feeling lonely and 47 percent report feeling left out.
Cigna calls those ‘epidemic levels.’
What’s more, only around half of Americans
say they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis,
such as having an extended conversation with a friend
or spending time with family members.”
Half!

We’ve noted before, with some admiration—at least on my part,
that in January of this year, Great Britain’s prime minister Theresa May
appointed a Minister for Loneliness
after a report last year identified loneliness as a critical problem.
Former United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy,
wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review
arguing that loneliness can be associated “with a greater risk
of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.”

I’ll give our culture a break,
I don’t expect much in the way of love
from a culture fundamentally grounded in
the cult of the individual and the priority of money.

But how is it that the church has evidently
done such a pathetic job of loving people
that they have to ask, do you love me?
Do I belong?
Am I included?
I have tattoos, you know.
Piercings.
I look different than you do—
dress differently.
Do you love me?
Will I know I’m loved here?
God, I hope so.

I’m so confused. I look like a boy and feel like a girl.
I’m coming to understand biology is not as binary as we once thought.
The way I feel doesn’t match up with the way anyone I know
talks about how they feel.
My parents have thrown me out. Society mocks me.
Do you love me?
God, I hope so.

I lie.
I cheat.
I steal.
I bully.
Do you love me?

But that’s abhorrent behavior,
and we want to hold people accountable.
I’m not saying this is easy!
We try to distinguish between who someone is and what they do?
Love the sinner, hate the sin?
But we have to confess, right?—what people do—the way they act—
colors our perception of them as people.
If someone lies all the time, it’s hard not to think of them as a liar.
We love who you are; we evaluate what you do,
only and even as we evaluate what we do.
Do you love me?
I don’t know.

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Okay, and again I point out—some of you are probably expecting this!
I point out how this can be taken two ways.
We are conditioned to hear an obvious reference to Jesus’ death—
to his crucifixion, and there’s no way that’s not meant here.
But laying down your life for others
is also an apt description of the way Jesus chose to live—
the way he expects us to live—love one another.
Abide in God’s love and act out of that love.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.
If/then?
Conditional friendship?
It is hard, if not impossible,
to explain away Jesus’ expectations of us
as other than conditions for Jesus’ friendship with us.
And, if we’re honest, I mean, we’re not just friends with anyone.
We have expectations—conditions.
Right?
I may theoretically accept the call to love everyone,
but I have higher expectations of who will be my friends.
Have we cheapened love by turning it into this spiritual cliché
devoid of the nitty gritty work of friendship?

Yes, we love you. Try to. Commit to. Know we’re supposed to.
But we will also hold you to the same expectations
we try and hold ourselves to.
There’s fruit we’re to bear—particular fruit.
We’re not here to be naive pushovers—to be taken advantage of.
We’re here to celebrate who you are—
who you were created to be—
not to enable all the choices you’ve made—
in truth, to confront some of those choices—in love.

I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.

Maybe the emphasis here is
less on the conditional nature of friendship
than it is on changing the nature of the relationship—
like when you graduate and teachers become friends.
Like when you grow up, and your parents become friends.
Maybe the emphasis here is
less on the conditional nature of friendship
than on an emphasis of choice:
servants have to obey, friends choose to honor.
The power dynamic is taken out of the relationship
as we choose what fruit we want to bear.

You did not choose me but I chose you.
Ah! While the power may be taken out of the equation,
there is still the priority of God’s initiative toward us.
And do notice: God chose us—Jesus chose us—love chose us
before we were even trying to live love.
I lie; I cheat; I bully. I’m so damned lonely. Do you love me?
God does.
And as those who choose God—who choose love,
we are called to—
try to—
know we’re supposed to.

And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
Okay. Okay. Okay.
With this much abused verse, we have to be so careful!
This is not about God giving us whatever we ask for.
This is about what we ask for in Jesus’ name.
And if you abide in the love of Jesus—
if you live in the way of Jesus—
if you incarnate the being of God,
there are things you would not ask for—
priorities you cannot appropriately elevate.

Our culture is one of celebrating upward mobility.
It is no mistake or coincidence
that theologians speak of God’s downward mobility.

Ours is a culture focused on the individual—the self.
We noted this before.
In contrast, the people of God’s way are focused on community.
We prize our independence in this culture,
while interdependence is more God’s truth and priority.

We speak of individual responsibility,
the Bible regularly addresses more corporate responsibility.

Our culture values getting rich—named the individual good
and success is in terms of me,
and justifies lying, stealing, cheating, and bullying
in the name of such success.
I really don’t know how else to say it.
The ends justify the means, don’t you know.
God’s way promotes the health of the whole—the common good
and success is in terms of more than me,
and suggests ends are inseparable from means.

You don’t ask in the name of Jesus for what culture values
that God does not.

Now the values of our culture can be
valuable, important, meaningful, significant, helpful,
but for those of us claiming God’s way,
only if they are subordinate to God’s vision and God’s priorities.

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I’m divorced.
I’m divorced and still feel called to minister.
I’m a woman called to preach.
I’m a man who loves men.
Do you love me
even though your Bible says what I feel is wrong—
inappropriate—unacceptable—pick your word?

You know, we’ve found a lot of what the Bible says—
and even more of what we think it says,
needs to be subordinate—
needs to be subordinated to the greatest commandment,
the one Jesus explicitly gave us, to love.

I have a different story of this culture and this country
than you do
that involves less privilege—
less freedom—
less justice—
in my experience.
Do you love me?
God, I hope so.
Can you understand why I wouldn’t trust you?
Oh, yes.

I voted for … well, I didn’t vote for who you did.
Do you love me?

I come from another culture—another country.
My religion is not understood here by most.
I’m easy to blame.
Do you love me?

I’ve had an abortion.
I’ve been abused.
Do you love me?
I was raped.
I’m addicted.
Do you love me?
I’m addicted to my phone—
to Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter—
to pornography—
to alcohol—
to stuff.
I’m addicted to my image,
I’m addicted to … no, I just can’t tell you, I’m too ashamed.
Do you love me?
Not who you would fix me to be, do you love me?

Sam Wells is the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
He reflects in the Apr 25, 2018 issue of Christian Century
about a funeral he did in which the widower told him
about his wife’s suicide—her pain and despair.
Sam spoke at the funeral about not knowing
what was going through the woman’s head,
but about how we did know that she was loved
and would be missed.
When he later visited the widower, frankly expecting to be praised,
he was confronted by the widower, you didn’t speak the truth.
and Sam learned that his role was not to make things better.
“If you have a choice between giving someone false hope
and giving them the truth,” he writes, “always give them the truth.”
And if they make it through what’s hardest, and you’re still with them,
“they’ll know a love that Song of Songs says ’is strong as death.’
This is the most important line in the whole Bible.
It’s the whole question the Bible is trying to answer:
Is love as strong as death?
People come to church to face this question
about themselves and their loved ones. Is love as strong as death?
And their continuing to show up is their answer: Yes, stronger.
But we can’t say it for people; we can only learn to say it for ourselves.
Coming to worship is a statement and prayer,
that we and those on our hearts, dead or alive,
may come to know the truth of those words.

Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer
for Behavioral Health at Cigna, notes,
you can “have a thousand or ten thousand friends on Facebook
[or hundreds of thousands of followers
on Instagram or Twitter, we might add],
but it’s the meaningful in-person relationships … with other people
that actually keep [you] from becoming lonely.”

Do you love me?

Can we be honest enough to give people the right choice to make?
It’s not up to us who to love.
Because that’s what it means to be a part of the vine—
knowing that love defines you—that love fills you—
and that you are thus expected to love—
not a cheap love,
but a love with the highest of expectations.

April fools—Easter fools the ways of the world that do not prioritize love—
that prioritize selfishness and greed
and call it freedom and capitalism or business as usual.
Easter fools the ways of the world
that undermine and devalue love—
that underestimate love.
It’s the world that fools you into thinking
the way things have been is all there is—
and all there ever will be.
Take great care not to be fooled back into that old story,
when there’s a new story to tell and live—
to be a part of the answer, oh yes,
love is stronger—
than death—than sin—than loneliness.
This I know. This we know.
Let us love each other into knowing more.
And let us love others into assurance and hope—
honest enough to admit it can be uncomfortable
manifesting who God is—incarnating love so consistently.
Let’s also be honest, that the world knows enough
to expect us to be different.
The world knows enough to expect us to love.
May we do so.

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april fools: april fools taken for granted distinctions

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photo credit: Don Flowers

Scripture
John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (Psalm 23)
The Lord is my shepherd,
I need nothing more.
You give me rest in green meadows,
setting me near calm waters,
where you revive my spirit.

You guide me along sure paths,
you are true to your name,
Though I should walk in death’s dark valley,
I fear no evil with you by my side,
your shepherd’s staff to comfort me.

You spread a table before me
as my foes look on.
You soothe my head with oil;
my cup is more than full.

Goodness and love will tend me
every day of my life.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord
as long as I shall live.

Sermon
I am regularly grateful for my friend and colleague Amy Jacks Dean,
co-pastor with her husband Russ of Park Road Baptist
in Charlotte, NC, who joins me in the pulpit this morning.
You’ve met Russ. You’ll love Amy.

This past Monday morning I went to see my brother
who flew in from Germany for some training
down in Beltsville, Maryland.
You may remember we had a lot of rain Sunday night/Monday.
Storm clouds hung heavy across the horizon.
The beltway was a mess,
so my map app rerouted me
down the Jones Fall Expressway to Cold Spring—
down Greenspring to Liberty Heights to Monroe.
Y’all know Monroe?
Some of you know Monroe.
It’s one of those Baltimore streets
in which homes alternate with empty houses
with boarded up doors and windows
and fairly consistently, also, hollow shells of houses—
burned out—overgrown.

Some words I’ve learned in the past few years apply:
redlining, blockbusting,
predatory lending—
the tactics and policies and economics of systemic racism—
enough to call into question any innate goodness
you might ascribe to people or to our culture.

From the perspective of privilege,
one might wonder
why has this happened—been allowed to happen?
Why has no one fixed this—come up with a plan—a vision?
We need—they need a good leader
to shepherd them through this.
But the privilege that presumes something can be fixed
tends to come from those for whom it’s not a given—
a day-in-and-day-out taken-for-granted.
And, of course, we might wonder, where’s God in all this?

And I passed churches—a lot of churches:
New Shiloh Baptist Church,
Faith Empowered Ministries,
New Union Baptist Church,
Monroe Street Church of God,
Saint James United Methodist Church,
Mt Nebo Baptist Church,
New Carmel Star Baptist Church,
West Baltimore Baptist Church,
Greater Refuge Temple,
Monroe Street United Methodist Church.

And driving down Monroe, passing these churches,
as I imagined people from these neighborhoods
gathering for worship—gathering to share a meal—
to read the same stories we read—
to sing together as we do—
some of the same songs we do—
to pray together,
I wondered if they needed more than we do—
expected more—got more—
not necessarily something different—
maybe not different at all.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus to us and to them.
“I am the good shepherd (as opposed to the bad shepherd;
there are bad shepherds!).
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Now that does sound like John’s Jesus.
That sounds like John writing about Jesus
looking back on the crucifixion
writing about the one looking ahead to it.

But this is also imagery that fits
into the story and faith tradition of Israel—
so much a part of the Davidic tradition.
David, who was shepherd of sheep
before Samuel plucked him out to be king,
and who, as a shepherd of sheep,
risked his life in confrontation
with lion and bear (1 Samuel 17:34-36)—
who as shepherd of Israel,
risked his life facing Goliath in the assurance of his faith—
David, who gave his life (the good and the bad!) to the story of Israel,
and who consistently reoriented himself,
even after the worst of sins, back to God (see Psalm 51).
The beloved twenty-third psalm we read as our call to worship
is one of the psalms attributed to David,

Shepherd imagery is also part of the prophetic tradition—
both remembering (looking back) and anticipating (looking ahead).
Not to escape the present,
but to ever orient the present to the best of what’s been
and the best of what can be—
an orientation that is always a judgment
on any other orientation.

And we’re mindful of the word of Ezekiel:
“The word of the Lord came to me:
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:
prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord God:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!
Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,
you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.
You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick,
you have not bound up the injured,
you have not brought back the strayed,
you have not sought the lost,
but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

There is criteria by which leaders are judged
that has nothing to do with polls or political parties
or the coffers of any lobbyists.

Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds .…
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,
says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:10a, 15-16).

Remember Ezekiel wrote to the community in exile
about their leaders—political and religious, kings and priests.

“I am the good shepherd.”
At its core, it’s a very physical image
dealing with the physical needs of a flock—
food, water, rest, protection from physical threats—
which is to say we have greatly spiritualized
a very physical image.

Amy Jacks Dean is keeping vigil by her mom’s bed.
Nita is dying—has been since Tuesday.
Amy’s been posting 3 a.m. updates.
Her mom’s Catholic—the only Catholic in the family,
and she and her siblings found a prayer book
dating back to 1925, that her grandmother gave her mother,
some resources on line,
so she and her brother and sister have been taking turns
reading words of ritual unfamiliar to them,
comforting to their mom—
taking turns at bedside all the hours of the days.
We, as a congregation, know this holy place and time, do we not?
We have kept vigil over bedsides.
We have been invited into liminal time and space
with John Duvall, Sonya Park, Margaret Oshida.
Do you remember how we passed out cards
and wrote down our favorite Bible verses
to share with Margaret?

“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

To be hired to watch the sheep—
to be elected to watch the sheep
does not make you a good shepherd.
I’d say that’s an explicit warning
about those who take leadership positions or responsibility
but for their own economic benefit, right?—
with less investment in the sheep than their own gain.

It’s also a warning about how we are in our world.
Many of us have a fix-it mentality,
though I do think it’s a largely male perspective—
largely white perspective.
So a largely privileged perspective.
And it has its appeal. There’s a sense to it.
What’s wrong? Fix it.

The problem is some things don’t get fixed.
The problem is we’re not talking about one wolf.
Ours is a world of wolves,
and that requires a life—
not a one time heroic act,
but an ongoing commitment.
The shepherd expends a life taking care of sheep
who are threatened on a regular basis.

So let’s be honest,
we spiritualize a physical image,
because physically we don’t believe it.
We don’t trust it.
Monroe Street remains Monroe Street.
We live in a world of us and them,
and they are dangerous.
They pose a threat—a risk,
and where’s God when we face that?

If I do not believe I am protected—
that there is no hedge prayed around me and mine
that keeps the threats away,
then of course I spiritualize the affirmation
and when it comes right down to it
trust my bank account and the neighborhood
I can buy my way into, my gun, the police,
and whatever politicians promise what I most want—
what makes me feel most secure.

“She’s on morphine, and, for the most part, just resting.
We count the beats of her heart per minute over and over
hoping for an indicator. We watch her chest rise and fall,
counting the number of breaths per minute
as if knowing that number will solve this problem of not being able to die.
We do all of this counting because we want to know.
When? How much longer? All in her good time. Just as it should be.
And so in the peaceful quiet of this night as I take my turn keeping watch,
I’m spending some of the minutes counting the memories
of a mother’s quiet living trying to turn to a quiet dying.
She and Daddy taught us how to keep watch. So we keep watching.
And waiting. And counting the blessings of being Raised Right.”

Now some of you have told me,
“I need what I get here, to get through my week and my work—
what I get here in worship—what I get here in fellowship.”
That’s pretty significant.
But it does seem to me like there would be another level,
up and down Monroe Street,
of needing to know I’m beloved—
I’m valued—I’m important,
when the world—the culture—
undermines that affirmation so consistently.

I’m not saying life’s not hard for us—
not challenging.
I am saying the decks not stacked against us.
I am saying we are not undermined and devalued at every turn.
We can sit at a Starbucks without getting arrested.
We can be stopped and even arrested without getting shot.
It’s not that physical for us.

I remember at a gathering in Austin,
sponsored by the Texas Christian Life Commission
(Susie was on some board or committee),
an African American pastor talking about how long
African American worship services lasted—
their (what we white folk might call) disregard of time,
which I might suggest is rather a priority in time.
And y’all are actually really good about that!
We sometimes go over—11:40 sometimes
11:50 even, without a word. Maybe a few thoughts?!
But nothing like two-and-a-half hour services.
Her comment on the length of African American worship services?
She said this, “I don’t know about y’all,
but to balance what we experience all week,
we need more than an hour!”

And in their more than an hour of worship,
it’s not a new reality promised them,
but the assurance that they are worthy of a different reality—
the promise that the long arc of history
bends away from where we are into better
into more just—more righteous.

Do we underestimate and undervalue just how physical
such assurance can be?
And how necessary?

“Mama chooses to die just as she has lived: quiet and slow.
She is so peaceful and so we keep her pace.
And count her breaths within a minute and we continue our faithful watch.
It is an privilege. It is holy. We are grateful.
And tired. But mostly we are honored.”

The need to know I’m beloved—
the need to know I am part of an alternative story.
Not just a different story—
not just a contrast to our culture,
but an alternative—in opposition—
an antidote.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

And within this relational web of truth,
as Jesus knows us and we know Jesus,
God knows us, and we know God.
We are inter-connected
in reciprocity and mutuality.
We are both known and knowing.

I live on Hopkins Rd. in Rodgers Forge.
The broken homes, the hollow shells of families
aren’t as obvious to the eye,
but who would presume to think they’re not there?
Part of privilege is the ability to hide
some parts of truth better, don’t you think?

There are the privileged and the oppressed.
I do not presume to know what those who suffer the lack of privilege know.
But there is, also, the truth that we are no different—
that we have manufactured justifications for division—
to keep people in their place—to protect privilege and power,
and that April fools—Easter fools taken for granted distinctions
and divisions and justifications.
If resurrection explodes the limitation of death,
should we not question other limits we take for granted?
other divisions? and distinctions? and justifications?

“My own know me,” says Jesus.
And people everywhere—all people—
living in and through any and every imaginable circumstance
recognize love and grace—
need love and grace.

“And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
There’s something about being a good shepherd—
about Jesus being a good shepherd
that involves the laying down of his life.
There’s no way not to read this
as not referring to the crucifixion and the resurrection,
but it is also truly about Jesus giving his life
in relationship with and service to others.
There’s no way not to read that too.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The imagery here again goes back to Ezekiel, who wrote:
“I will make them one nation in the land …;
and one king shall be king over them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:22).
In John, Jesus seems to expand the conversation
beyond the reunification of the northern and southern kingdoms—
to Gentiles and Jews, maybe?
I have many sheep of different folds.

Or, more radically maybe, to whatever criteria we use
to separate each other—to reject and exclude some.
There are many sheep of different folds,
who hear my voice and recognize it—
who hear my stories and need them—
who hear of love and grace and justice
and mutual responsibility and need all of that.
There is one flock.

“For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
It’s the third time this laying down of life is referenced.
You think maybe it’s important?!

I have a lot of problems (this will come as no surprise to you)
with God loving Jesus because Jesus died.
It is a typical way of reading this—
though I’m not sure people have necessarily thought
through exactly what it means—
for this reason God loves Jesus because Jesus laid down his life—
because Jesus died.

No. God loves Jesus because Jesus was the incarnation of God’s word—
the incarnation of God’s will—God’s grace and God’s love.
God loves Jesus because of the life lived—
laid down to the priorities of God.
Yes, God loves Jesus because Jesus honored those commitments to death.
But God fundamentally loves Jesus because God doesn’t not love.
And a life given to God, we believe, is received back
as abundant gift.
I lay down my life in order to take it up again,
and I lay it down in hope of the possibility of a greater communion.

“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
That is so John.
So John’s refusal to let Jesus be the victim—
to be anything but in charge of his destiny.
It’s also very Baptist, don’t you think?
What I do with my life is not anyone else’s decision,
not even God’s.
It is my choice, my commitment.

“I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”
It’s the word used of the Mosaic law. This commandment.
What commandment? That’s a bit odd, don’t you think?
“I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this commandment from my Father.”
I have received the commandment to have this power,
or to lay down my life?
But if it’s in obedience that Jesus does this,
that minimizes the choice this story’s been emphasizing.

I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
If Jesus is talking about laying down his life in death,
then having the power to take it up again would mean resurrection,
and while most Scripture is pretty careful to affirm
the resurrection was not anything Jesus did,
the gospel of John blurs the lines between God and Jesus.
But if we go with the choice Jesus has—we have—always,
then the life lived is the life laid down.
I can give my life to God and I can take it back.
We’re talking free will. I’m not locked into this way of being.

Can we learn from those facing the greater challenges
to take what we’ve spiritualized
and make it physical again?
Can we take words—
God’s words of justice and grace and care
and give them flesh—
give them our flesh?
Can we incarnate them amongst us
realizing how profoundly important they are?
This our choice; this our commitment.

Sometimes all you need to do to see God is look around—
at deathbeds and birthing beds and weddings and meals—
at communities gathered to weep together and to laugh—
to sing and pray—
at communities gathered to worship—
at one flock—
and at those in the flock insisting on their equality and dignity—
on justice for all.
The Lord is my shepherd, and so I will follow grace.
I will follow the examples of grace I see in my living.
I will trust love to meet my most fundamental needs.
I choose love and grace to balance what the world prioritizes.
And if I walk through the darkest valley,
it’s not the valley or the darkness that is taken from me,
but rather light I take with me—
down Hopkins Road and Monroe Street—
into the holy experiences here and there of love and death—
of families gathered to get through both—
through profound grief and deep hope
into the ever-renewed commitment
to be a part of the arc into better—
into the awareness of privilege—into the work of justice—
into more like God.

“Last night we had to call in the reinforcements.
The next generation had to spell us a bit.
The granddaughters stepped up to the plate.
Three grown granddaughters set alarms, kept the watch,
and served up the morphine every hour.
We worked like a not so well oiled machine to reposition her several times.
But we were gentle and kind and the sheer beauty
of the moment of women tending the one that gave us all life
overwhelmed me to tears. Which come easy
when you are a solid combination of sad and tired.
But the time remains holy. We’ve pulled out the old photos
and retold the old stories. And we have laughed and laughed
except when we have cried and cried.
And that is just as it should be. Now the sun is up
and it’s a Resurrection Day.
Maybe today. Maybe not. In … good time.”

May it be so.

april fools: april fools fear

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 2.34.44 PM
photo credit: Don Flowers

Scripture
Luke 24:36b-48
While they were talking about this,
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
They were startled and terrified,
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you frightened,
and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Touch me and see; for a ghost
does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
And when he had said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,
he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words
that I spoke to you while I was still with you—
that everything written about me in the law of Moses,
the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
and he said to them, “Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed
in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

We have been consistently calling into question
some traditional expressions and assumptions of faith—
some traditional Baptist and evangelical theology.
So much so that I have thought
a good and appropriate subtitle for our worship recently
might be Baptist nightmares!
So much so that one former Baptist minister confessed to me,
he woke up in cold sweat thinking about some things we were questioning!
So much so that a mom leaned over to her son and said,
“If he had said that in the Middle Ages,
he would have been burned at the stake!”

But, given where traditional Baptist evangelical theology has gotten us,
it is in need of a few nightmares!
and, I hope and pray, you always hear my deep and profound
respect and appreciation for a tradition
that has transmitted a conversation to this point,
and a tradition that, at its best,
does not determine where that conversation will lead tomorrow.

I am actually so hopeful, most of the time,
about where a conversation set free to follow the Spirit
will take us.

And I hope and pray that in whatever no’s you hear here—
no’s to familiar Scripture interpretation—
no’s to traditional theology—
no’s to beloved hymn lyrics—
in whatever anger and frustration you hear in those no’s,
you always hear the excitement and joy and potential
of a much bigger yes!

Sermon
While they were talking about this—
that’s how our text starts.
It’s another one of those stories that starts before we get started with it.
While they were talking about this—
this being what?
Well, we join our story this morning, right after the story
of the Emmaus road encounter, the dinner in Emmaus, the Bible study—
right after the two disciple’s after-dinner heartburn—
right after those two disciples hustled back to Jerusalem
to tell the disciples about their experience—
where they were told that Peter had experienced the same thing.
While they were talking about this—
and maybe not so much about what had happened,
as can you believe we’re saying this?
I can’t believe it.
It’s incredible (as in unbelievable).
And there was shock and disbelief—
and a wild fragile hope—an incredulous joy.

While all this was going on, Jesus himself stood among them.
So while they were talking about something
some of them had experienced,
they all then experienced it!
Their words, in other words, were made flesh
in God’s word made flesh!

And not unrecognized (as in the previous story)—
recognized as Jesus from the get-go,
Jesus the crucified one, the dead and buried one,
standing among them.
And standing among them,
Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.”

It was a standard thing to say upon entering a house—
still is in many Middle Eastern cultures.
But it’s also roughly equivalent to “Don’t be afraid!”
For they were startled and terrified—
which when you read in order,
makes you wonder, “How’s that for obedience?”
He said, “Peace be with you,”
and they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

They did believe “in the life of the spirit after the death of the body.
At least the Pharisees and the common people did …”
(Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke
[Waco: Word, 1972] 331),
but not as part of the material world.
So, they recognized Jesus,
but did not assume him to be as they had known him—
as they had experienced him—
did not assume him to be like the one they had seen and heard and touched—
with whom they had walked and eaten.

So the peace Jesus commands comes amidst fear,
not instead of it.
And he said to them, “Why are you frightened,
and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
Which is to say, if you’re keeping track, the disciples are cumulatively described
as startled, terrified, frightened and doubting in their hearts!

And which is also to say, think about this,
that seeing is not believing, right?
“Here I am standing in front of you, and what I’m saying is:
Why are you frightened and why are you doubting?”
Because seeing is not believing.

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Literally “that I myself am myself” (Summers, 332).
Reminiscent of God’s naming of self (Exodus 3:14),
“See that I myself am myself”—
except, wait a minute, seeing isn’t believing!

“Touch me and see; for a ghost
does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Okay. It’s an escalation. Touch and see.
Let’s address these spirit—apparition—ghost concerns.
And when he had said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet—
presumably his scars—
the marks of his suffering—
the consequences of his life.
That’s the second reference to his hands and feet, by the way.
They’re important.
You’re known by your scars—
what you’ve paid for your priorities and values.

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering …
so they saw him;
they touched him;
they recognized him,
and were still disbelieving and wondering!
I love that!
I think Scripture says here it’s okay not to believe,
as long as you keep wondering—
as long as you don’t convince yourself you absolutely know—or don’t.

He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”—
which constitutes further escalation of assurance.
Everyone in the Jewish culture knew that spirits didn’t eat.
So they gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it and ate in their presence—
which suggests they were eating.
Why else would they have had broiled fish available?

Then he said to them, “These are my words
that I spoke to you while I was still with you—
that everything written about me in the law of Moses,
the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”—
all three parts of Scripture—the law, the prophets and the writings.
It’s just like he did in Emmaus,
where, beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them the things about himself
in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).

It is obviously very important to Luke
to contextualize Jesus within Scripture,
and we have to be careful here.
You can look for the truth of God consistent before, in, and after Jesus.
And that’s great.
But you can also go looking for the details of Jesus
in the writings of long before Jesus in a way
that’s dismissive of the older texts—
as if they can only be understood in light of Jesus—
which makes what of Judaism? Jesus’ own faith tradition!
I celebrate the consistency of Scripture—
who God is and what God does are consistent.

Do I consider Jesus unique?
No. Actually not.
Because Jesus is consistent with God
who has been and is known through all history.

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
So according to this, Scripture is not obvious—self-evident.
He’s been teaching them for what? three years?
and now he showed them a different way to understand Scripture
than the way they’d been taught?
Some suggest the resurrection changes everything.
Yes
Some mean by that that everything points to
and emanates from the resurrection.
No.
Everything points to and emanates from God,
and as Christians, the crucifixion and the resurrection
provide some of our clearest insight into who God is
and inform the way we understand God and Scripture
in the consistency of steadfast love through all time
(see this refrain in Psalms 36, 118, and, especially,136).

And he said to them, “Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day—”
which again, makes the story God’s word made flesh!
God’s word made flesh is consistent with God’s word,
not different—not unique.
“Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed
in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

Resurrection happens. More than that it happens,
it is experienced. You are witnesses of these things.
But it’s repentance and forgiveness that should be proclaimed.
To preach resurrection is to preach
what’s supposed to undergird preaching—
not what’s supposed to be the focus of preaching!
Especially when you consider that resurrection,
the way it’s too often preached (maybe especially in our tradition)
has the effect of short-circuiting
the transformed living required by repentance.
Right? We’re supposed to preach repentance (according to Luke).
Get your life back on track—back in line with God’s way.
We preach resurrection, which too often means,
don’t worry about getting your life on track. Jesus paid it all.

Along lines we’ve mentioned before,
Jesus never preached resurrection.
I’m not saying he didn’t indicate his awareness
of exactly where his living would take him,
but his teaching was about living in a different way—God’s way.

“April fools you—Easter fools you into thinking
it’s a story about what did happen
instead of about what is happening
a story you’re supposed to believe is true
instead of one you know to be—
a story about what happened to Jesus
instead of the stories that are happening to you.
April fools you—Easter fools you into thinking Jesus does it all—
into thinking that emphasizing grace takes away responsibility.
But at a deeper level, do you have yet eyes to see?
April fools—Easter fools fear. Easter fools those who promote fear—
those who live afraid that their story is not real
and true and important enough.

On rare occasions, I’ll quote a writer more extensively
than just by a sentence or a paragraph.
That’s usually because they’ve written something I wish I had—
something true and insightful and beautiful and relevant—
something I think you should hear
better than I can say it—or different than I would.
Brian Doyle was a catholic, a writer, editor of Portland Magazine.
He died last year of a brain tumor.
Susie was reading his posthumously published book
Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace
and asked me to read one chapter called “Is That Your Real Nose?”
I did. Then I ordered the book. Here’s that chapter:

Best questions I have been asked? As a writer? …
The best ever: Is that your real nose? Asked of me by a moppet in kindergarten ….
I said yes, it was my real nose, why did she ask? And she said Because it’s really big, and there’s a bend or a hump or something in it, and I explained that the Coherent Mercy had granted me many brothers in this wild and lovely life, which explained what happened to my nose.
Next best: Why in all of your work is there no mention whatsoever of the radical lesbian community in Australia? Asked of me by a woman in Australia, who was sitting in the front row and glaring at me with a ferocious and inarguable glare. For an instant I thought of making some snide comic retort, like well, there are no sunbeams or hockey players in my work either, but then I snapped awake and felt a hint of her pain, and a shred, perhaps, of the bruised life she had lived, being sneered at by society because of the gender of the people she loved. Who cares about the gender of the people you love? Isn’t loving and being loved the point? Isn’t that what we talk about when we talk about religion and community? I didn’t answer her question. I felt helpless and sad and there wasn’t anything to say so I didn’t say anything and then someone asked me about my hilarious headlong serpentine riverine sinuous sprinting prose style, and the conversation went in a different direction. I still think about that woman, though, and hope she found some sort of peace in her life. Rage burns you out.
Next best: asked of me recently by a high-school girl so far in the back of the dark auditorium that I could not see her but only heard her voice emerging from the dark like a sudden nighthawk: How do you retain your dignity when you know and we know that most of the kids in this auditorium are not paying any attention to what you are saying at all? This one I hit out of the park. This one I was ready for. This one I have been waiting to be asked for years. First of all, I said, I have three children, and they are teenagers, so I am very familiar and comfortable with not being listened to.
Second, I was a teenager once, and believe me I was more sneery and rude and dismissive and snotty than any ten of you collectively, so I know how you feel. Third, and not to be rude, but I don’t care if you have the guts to drop your masks and listen to what I have to say. You want to hide behind the wall of ostensible cool, be my guest. You want to live in the world of pretend where you perform some role all day rather than try to dig other people’s joy and pain and courage, swell. Best of luck.
Not me. It took me the longest damned time to come out from behind my masks, it took me deep into my twenties, and if you want to be as stupid as me, swell. It’s your life you are wasting. Too bad. Me, personally, I think you might find one or two tiny things to think about, listening to old bumbling shaggy me up on this stage. You might be moved a little, or at least giggle, or hear something you open up shyly later and ponder for yourself. Maybe not. I make no promises. I am just an aging idiot addicted to stories, because stories matter, my friend, and if you do not catch and share stories that matter, you will have nothing but lies and sales pitches in your life, and shame on you if that’s the case. But it’s your life. One thing I have learned as a dad and a husband is that no one listens to me, and they ought not to, either. You ought to listen to your own true self. I can maybe help you tiptoe a little closer to that self by sharing stories that matter, but if you are too cool to play today, swell. Me, personally, I can tell you that either you eventually take those masks off or they will damn well be kicked off by life, but I suspect that’s a lesson you have to learn for yourself. Me, I suggest that the sooner you wake up and get it that there actually is a wild grace and defiant courage in people, and there actually are stories that save and change lives, and that there is a lot more going on here than we can ever find words for, and that love and attentiveness and creativity are real and wild and immanent, the cooler and wilder a life you will enjoy while you have such a priceless and inexplicable thing as a life, which goes by awfully fast, my friend. Believe me, I know. Does that answer your question at all?
Yes, sir, she said. Yes, sir, it surely does.
(Brian Doyle, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace [Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2017] 14-16).

We are so overly invested in answers—
in having answers—in being right
(almost as much as we are in them being wrong!),
that we miss out on just being.

Another favorite author of mine is the German poet and writer and thinker,
Rainer Maria Rilke, in his book Letters to a Young Poet, wrote this:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books
that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
live along some distant day into the answer.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
[New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1934] 27).

We were talking the other Wednesday night.
What’s true for me, looking back on my faith conversations—
with y’all, some colleagues, myself:
it’s not a development into answers,
but a progression of questions.

So keep wondering, my friends.
We’re not here with answers for you.
We’re here to keep asking questions with you—
through each new set of circumstances—
in the midst of all that changes—
in truth, to foster the holy uncertainties!
Because it’s not just that wondering doesn’t have answers,
it’s also that answers undermine wonder.

So amidst it all, not instead of any of it,
peace be with you in the wondering.
Peace be with you in the complications.
Peace be with you in the struggling; peace be with you in the doubts.
Peace be with you in the anger and frustration and stress.
Peace be with you in the grief; peace be with you in the fear.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
Yes, you might say, but how? That all sounds great. But how?

So I want to put this another way.
According to Scripture, in the context of a meal together—
in the context of a consideration of scripture—
in the context of remembering Jesus,
Jesus was present.
Right? They ate together in Emmaus—
in fact, Jesus was recognized in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-31).
They ate together in Jerusalem.
In both cases though, they were not just eating,
but also thinking through Scripture in light of Jesus.
And maybe we think back to the Passover meal—
their last supper with Jesus, at which, in this gospel,
Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, remember me” (Luke 22:19)—
not just recall me, but re-member me—put me back together.

Frankly, honestly … and now, in the moment,
I find, somewhat more timidly than I was anticipating,
I confess to you that I am an agnostic
when it comes to the physical resurrection.
That doesn’t mean I say it didn’t happen.
That means I say I don’t know what happened.
I do know, beyond any shadow of doubt, something happened—
something profound and vital and mysterious and wonderful—
something not only transformative, but transforming.

Am I contradicting traditional Scripture interpretation and theology?
Yes.
But nothing I’ve said is a no.
All I’ve said is yes, and I don’t know—I wonder—
which we’ve seen is scriptural!
And I’ll gladly add that I have experienced this truth—
I know this to be true:
in our gathering, in our communion, in our Bible study, in our service,
there is the reality and the truth of the presence of Jesus amongst us,
and we are sustained in our faith, our fellowship
and our call to transform creation.

Have I experienced the truth of a physical presence?
Well, among those invited in from the margins—
in the voice of the other.
Jesus said he was present to us—physically present to us
in the least of these.
But that’s not what you meant, is it?
Doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I wonder.

I don’t think an Easter faith is supposed to be about
any willing suspension of disbelief,
nor about some propositional affirmation.
It’s rather to be about celebration and witness:
this I know to be true!

When the presence of Jesus is with you—
in your service and community and communion,
you don’t need to worry about justifying a propositional belief.
You know what you know, don’t you?
In light of what we said Easter Sunday morning,
let’s maintain this season as not about trying
to explain, defend, or justify what’s hard to believe,
but as about celebrating what we know to be true.
And my friends, I have no doubts about resurrection truth.
that the living that led to what it led to
would be made incarnate again and again—by choice
that people, having seen what happened,
would choose this life—choose this way,
that’s enough for me.
And I experience that truth and celebrate it in, with, and through you—
Jesus in, with, and through you—indubitably. It’s incredible!
Can you believe I’m saying this?
Grace and kindness and joy and service—
we are the hands and feet of Jesus,
and Jesus is made physically present to our world
in and through us—or not—
living a story that matters—
full of that wild grace and defiant courage
that saves and changes lives—
that transforms reality
with love and attentiveness and creativity—
an untamed yet fragile hope—an incredulous joy—
real and wild and immanent—
so much more going on than we can ever find words for
because we risk being real—
we risk being honest—vulnerable.
We risk living a story we have found
to be more true than any other story we know.
Thanks be to God! Jesus lives!

april fools: april fools death

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Scripture
John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (Isaiah 25:1, 6-9a)
O Lord, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure. 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

And God will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
God will swallow up death for ever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of God’s people
God will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for God,
so that God might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in divine salvation.

Meditation
All time is resurrection.
All time is the persistent, indomitable resurrection
of God into time—into circumstance—into our experience.
Death is oh so real, but it is not ultimate.

All time teeters on the precipice of life and death,
and hope hangs in the balance.
All time is triumph being redefined.

All time is holy and thin with
God being persistent being God.
All time is resurrection.

Sermon
Like last week, no surprises today.
We all know the story.
Today is Easter Sunday morning, after all,
arguably the highest and holiest day of the entire Christian year.
We all know what happened.
We all know why we’re here.

Except, of course, it’s also April Fool’s Day!
“Oh John. You’re not going to mess with Easter, are you?
We need Easter.”
No worries.
He is risen! (“He is risen indeed!”)

But before we get to the story everyone knows though,
a quick comment or two about April Fools.
There’s actually a lot of debate about the origin of April Fools.
A convincing case can be made for considering the calendar.

A little history.
January 1 was actually celebrated as the first of the new year
for the first time, in 45 BC or BCE.
The Emperor Julian, in consultation with his astronomer Sosigenes,
recommended switching from a lunar calendar to a solar one.
Now in time, their work ran into some inconsistencies—some problems—
because they were slightly off in their calculations of a solar year.
So by the Middle Ages, New Year’s was celebrated in the West
in conjunction with Easter toward the end of March, culminating on April 1.
Pope Gregory XIII though, in consultation with another astronomer,
Christopher Clavius, recalculated—recalibrated,
and introduced a new calendar, the Gregorian calendar, in October of 1582.
Most of Europe fell in line, but as protestant countries,
Britain and the US resisted the pope’s declaration,
and continued celebrating New Years on March 25 until …
anyone know? until 1752!

After the switch, those who continued to celebrate New Year’s on April 1
were called April Fools.
Protestants and our country
have foolishness written into almost two centuries of our history!

Because there was a new way of marking time we resisted.
Things changed, and we weren’t ready.
We didn’t want to support an inconvenient truth.
We didn’t want them to be right.
Fake news, we called it—foolishly.

Since we’re talking about calendar,
let’s consider our configuration of time around the birth of Jesus
(and notice it’s the birth of Jesus that changed time,
not the death and resurrection—wonder about that)
our configuration of time around the birth of Jesus—
dividing time into BC (or Before Christ)
and AD (in the year of our Lord).
That division of time only goes back to AD 582.
So AD 581 was never named AD581 in AD581—
not until AD582!
As a curiosity (you may know this), there is no year 0.
We go from 1 BC to AD1.
Jesus messes with time!
Nowadays, many will use BCE (before the common or current era)
and CE (the common or current era)
to be more respectful for those to whom Christ is not central.

I have had preaching professors and colleagues
all say you have only one job on Easter Sunday morning.
You say, “He is risen!” (“He is risen indeed!”)

But it’s not just time, of course, we would say, changed by the story of Jesus.
It is reality itself,
and reality changed, in particular, by the “foolishness” of the story of Jesus—
God’s foolishness, wiser than human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:25).
So we have set before us this day,
the foolishness of people who buy into the way things are,
and then we have the foolishness of God,
that trusts and lives into
a truth other than just the way things are.

Early on the first day of the week,
while it was still dark—
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness cannot—what? overcome or comprehend it.
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb,
and saw that the stone had been removed.

There are significantly different facts to the way John tells this story
and the way all three other gospels do.
That’s nothing to ignore or dismiss. Wonder about it!

Mary ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple,
the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them,
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,
and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Interesting “we”—first person plural pronoun.
We do not know where they have laid him.”
Because it’s not Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple.
Those two hadn’t known they didn’t know where the body was
until Mary told them.
And who’s “they”?
We have an unknown us and them—in opposition—in conflict.

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb.
The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter
and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in
and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.
He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head,
not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.

It’s like those children’s songs—
you know, “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea,”
and then, “There’s a log in the hole in the bottom of the sea,”
and then, “There’s a knot on the log in the hole
at the bottom of the sea,”
and so on.
There’s an empty tomb at the bottom of the truth.
There are linen wrappings right inside the empty tomb
at the bottom of the truth.
There’s the cloth that was on Jesus’ head rolled up
right beyond the linen wrappings just inside the empty tomb
at the bottom of the truth.
The deeper you get into this story, the more there is—always.

Looking back, the details about the grave cloths
call to mind the story of Lazarus,
who came out of his tomb still wrapped up—
of whom Jesus had to say “Unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44).
This is different.

Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first,
also went in, and he saw and believed.
Looking ahead, this comment “he saw and believed”
resonates with Jesus’ words to Thomas,
“Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen
and yet come to be believe” (John 20:29).
This is different. The beloved disciple saw, but did not see him,
for as yet they did not understand the scripture,
that he must rise from the dead.

This is important.
Remember this is a story being told—written down—
by someone who knew the whole story.
But within the story, as it unfolds, here’s a character,
the beloved disciple, who, we are told, believed,
without understanding the scripture that he must rise from the dead—
believed, without knowing about the resurrection—
believed, without knowing the risen Jesus.

Remember Marcus Borg tracing the etymology of the word “believe”
back to “belove”—
making the distinction between believing in
and believing that?
The beloved disciple believed in Jesus,
but not that the resurrection happened—
not that Jesus rose from the dead.
Right? That’s what it says here in our Scripture.
Or that’s one way to read what we have here in Scripture.
Some scholars call it a scribal gloss.
That’s too easy.
Some say it means there was resurrection faith,
just not the sensitivity to know Scriptural indications.
That’s a stretch.
Why would the writer, who knew the whole story, do that?—
given a writer who thinks so profoundly
and writes so smoothly, carefully, articulately—
who put together John 1.
It has to be intentional—
because it’s problematic.
People will notice that.
They’ll wonder.

Then the disciples returned to their homes,
and evidently left Mary weeping outside the tomb.
They were really preoccupied with themselves!
They were men.

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;
and she saw two angels in white,
sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying,
one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Which sounds a little cold—
at a graveside.
But if you want to give angels the benefit of the doubt,
maybe they’re asking her to be specific.
What is it specifically you grieve? What is it for which you grieve?
Or who is it you grieve?

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.”
This in spite of the grave cloths she would have seen
which certainly wouldn’t have been left, let alone rolled up,
by grave robbers.

You’ll notice it’s still “them,” who took Jesus’ body,
but first person singular now, “I do not know where.”
But here’s the thing we know, as readers:
there are no conspiracies here.
There is no “them”—
no “them” to fear—no “them” with whom to be in conflict.
There is the work of the divine,
and there is you.

And again. No expectation of resurrection.
Just the reality of grief.
“All I have left are my memories and his body,
and I know that’s not him,
but if I know where his body’s in the ground,
then it’s a place to ground my memories,
but now his body’s gone and is who knows where.”

The angels offer no words of comfort—
no words of assurance (unlike the other three gospels),
but maybe they were smiling,
because when she had said this, she turned round
and saw Jesus standing there.
He is risen! (“He is risen indeed!”)
But she did not know that it was Jesus—
which made maybe the angels smile all the bigger!

He asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?
For whom are you looking?”

That’s Jesus repeating the question the angels just asked
(for what or whom are you grieving?)
and also repeating his first words in this gospel—
the question he asked the first disciples he called,
“for what or for whom are you looking?” (John 1:38)

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him,
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him,
and I will take him away.”

If you were the agent in all this, she says to Jesus
(which is more than a bit ironic!),
then let me be the agent.
If you took him, give him back, and let me take him.
This is where faith goes all wrong, by the way—
in the human predisposition to say to the divine—to the holy,
let me be in charge.

Whereupon Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!”
(which means Teacher).

Okay, now this is interesting,
because Scripture explicitly tells us Mary called Jesus by a Hebrew name,
but does not explicitly tell us that Jesus did not first say to her “Mary,”
as we have it translated, but called her by her Hebrew name too—
saying to her “Mariam.”
She’s been referred to in this story up until now by her Greek name, “Maria,”
but here, on the lips of Jesus, the Hebrew, “Mariam.”
(Thanks to Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville for sharing this insight.)
And she responds “Rabbouni.”
So amidst the Greek of the story being told,
two names in Hebrew—almost as if there’s a touch of:
recall the truth of a story not Greek,
but Hebrew,
written in this way to remind us the story is not of our world—
not of our context.

And Jesus said to her, (it’s not recorded in our Scripture, but still!)
“April fools you, Mariam—wants to fool you—
tried to fool you—into thinking it’s just another month—
that time just rolls right on—same old, same old.
April fools you into thinking
that the way things have been is all there is—
all that there ever will be. Take great care, Mariam.
Don’t be fooled back into the old story.

But at a deeper level, do you have yet eyes to see?
April fools the way things have been—the way things are—
April fools the same old same old.
April fools death.
Don’t be fooled back into the old story,
when you can be fooled into a new story to tell and live.”

And it’s not about the deeper magic from before the dawn of time
(that’s a Narnian, CS Lewis reference for those of you not familiar
with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
This is not a deeper magic known to the Great Emperor Beyond the Sea.
This is rather the deeper truth, known to all who risk it.
Set before you this and every day, life and death:
the foolishness of the human wanting to be God
and participating in death,
and the foolishness of God wanting to partner with humans
in the co-creation of abundant life.

Jesus went on to say to her, “Do not hold on to me,
because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Now that’s symmetry, in part.
The story began, in John, with Jesus who was the Word of God,
preexistent, who became flesh.
It can’t end until Jesus ascends back to God.
Don’t hold on to what’s not the end of the story,
and this story? It’s still going on!
For even longer than as the story we choose to live—
in which we place our hope and trust,
this story goes on.
Don’t hold on to what’s not the end of the story.
There is profound truth here.
Don’t hold on to me.
Don’t hold on to my presence.
Don’t hold on to what you think is my truth.
Don’t hold on to me while the story continues.

Do hold on to your own experience of me.
Do hold on to our relationship.
Do hold on to what you have learned—
the affirmations only you can make.

So when he called out to her “Mariam!” in Hebrew—
when she responded, calling him “teacher,”
it was not because this was just a wonderful miraculous
redemptive salvific encounter with Jesus who paid it all—
marvelous grace—what love is this,
and what a friend I have with whom I walk in the garden.
No, this was another lesson of the teacher, Rabbouni.
“It is not your place to be in charge of the holy.
Do not hold on.

But go to my brothers and say to them,
‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God.’ ”

Are you noticing the relationships drawn here?
Go to my brothers.
My Father and yours.
My God and yours.
What is most true for me is most true for you too.
That’s what that means, right?

Mariam Magdalene went, reminded of what was most true—
reminded of who she most truly was,
and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”;
and she told them that he had said these things to her.
What things?
Probably not the “Why are you weeping?”
Probably not the “Mariam!”
Though maybe “He knew me!”
He said, “Don’t hold on to me.”
He said he was ascending to his Father and ours—
to his God and ours.
He is risen! (“He is risen indeed!”)

Now we’ve noted it before—every year, actually.
We note it again.
It’s important to say these days.
It’s important to say amidst all those who get it wrong in our tradition—
our baptist, evangelical tradition.
The first ever recorded preacher—
the first person recorded speaking the good news—was a woman.

Don’t mess with Easter indeed!
He is risen! (“He is risen indeed!”)

People may be here, having come needing to hear just that—
having come feeling like they’re in a hole
with the weight of the world pressing down on them—
feeling overwhelmed, scared, stressed, depressed—
sick, dying, grieving.
Almost every week, we get a new prayer request
from someone connected to our congregation
who’s been diagnosed with cancer—
who’s facing some medical—some physical—
some emotional crisis.
Politics is a mess. As is the environment.
Racial injustice is systemic—
as is the objectification of primarily women.
Patriarchy and oligarch continue to justify
the exploitation of many for some.

Today, we just need the assurance of good news.
We came just to hear the resurrection news.
We need to believe in the resurrection.

And like last week, no surprises today.
We all know the story.
Today is Easter Sunday morning, after all,
arguably the highest and holiest day of the entire Christian year.
We all know what happened.
We all know why we’re here.

But our tradition focuses Jesus through the events of this week
instead of allowing the events of this week
to give us insight into who he was—and is.
Our tradition wants you to say this is what you have to believe to be saved,
instead of this is a life lived in the way of God
which you can choose and are then to live—to trust.
Our tradition has substituted intellectual assent
to what we say God did for Jesus—
we have substituted that,
for committing our own lives to the way of God
in trust that God will do the same for us.
There is the work of the divine,
and there is you, and there is me.
It is not our place to be in charge of the holy.
Do not hold on.

Don’t try and be cute on Easter Sunday morning.
Just preach the resurrection
Just tell them what happened.

I’m sorry.
You deserve more than that.

Today is not a day on which to get bogged down
defending what’s hard to believe,
but on which to celebrate what we know to be true.
More than what happened—
what is happening.

Don’t hold on to what’s not the end of the story,

God knows we have the foolishness of the way things are.
But that deeper truth is that April does fool even death—
what we think of as the inevitable end—
the ultimate fate.
There is transcendent truth beyond the limitations with which we live
and into which we die.
Attuned to God, partnering with God,
we live into that deeper truth.

We have this foolishness written into our very identity.
What does it even say about our culture—
what does it say about our culture,
that we’re the foolish ones
for pointing to the foolishness of the way things are, that people buy into.

I’m not messing with Easter.
That’s the last thing I would want to do.
Neither am I limiting it to one part of a story
that extends from the very beginning to the very end.
Have you noticed that the traditional Easter morning affirmation
is an archaic present perfect construction
that functions more as a present tense verb and an adjective?
Should I repeat that?
The traditional Easter morning affirmation
is an archaic present perfect construction
that functions more as a present tense verb and an adjective.
He is risen. “He is risen indeed!
Not he rose. Not he has risen.
Today is about what’s true today—for us—
in our own lived experience.
You don’t need a story of long ago
when you’re in your hole in the ground
with the weight of the world pressing down.
You need a truth that’s true for you.
You need the assurance that
what happened long ago
in another hole in the ground
is still true,
because more than what happened to Jesus—
more than what God did,
that’s who God is,
and so what God does—
what God is doing

I am that am and who I will be—
come what may.
Hold on to that.

Happy Easter, my sisters and brothers!
He is risen. (“He is risen indeed!”)
And so are you—so will you—
from death into the life that truly is life
eternal and abundant
in the knowledge and presence of God
because that, thank God, is who God is.

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: transforming the rules/conflicting rules

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Scripture
Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem,
at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village ahead of you,
and immediately as you enter it,
you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden;
untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this,
‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ”
They went away and found a colt tied near a door,
outside in the street. As they were untying it,
some of the bystanders said to them,
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They told them what Jesus had said;
and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus
and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches that they had cut
in the fields. Then those who went ahead
and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple;
and when he had looked around at everything,
as it was already late,
he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God and has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever (Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29).

Meditations
All time is the triumphal entry of God into our lives.
All time is the persistent entry of God into our experience.
All time is recognition of God’s presence amongst us always—
entry,
an illusion.
All time is praise and excitement;
all time is song and celebration.
All time is holy,
full of hope and possibility—
full of the dream long cherished,
now, finally, taking shape.

All time is the superficial response of uncommitted rhetoric.
All time is hard—full of rejection and betrayal—
full of not just misunderstanding,
but also of intentional distortion and manipulation.
All time is a time of being let down and disappointed.
All time is time alone and lonely.
All time is thick with excuses and obstacles,
resistance and hindrance to truth.
All time is full of scapegoats it’s easier to blame
than take responsibility.
All time is injustice.
All time is pain and suffering and death.

All time is God present to and with us.
All time is God confronting our expectations
of how God will enter our lives and experience.
All time teeters on the precipice of what is and what might be
and hope hangs in the balance.
All time is triumph being redefined—
God being redefined.
All time is thin with
God being persistent being God.

Pastoral Prayer
Hear now our confession of sin—
our confusion of priorities:
we have become too comfortable
with too small a vision of who we can be.
Pray with me.
I was part of a great throng of people entering a city yesterday.

I saw one little girl
on her daddy’s shoulders holding a sign
that had on one side,
the cover of the children’s magazine Highlights,
and on the other, the words “only this high capacity magazine.”

And I saw
“blessed are the peacemakers.”

I saw and so appreciated several signs
that were variations on:
“gun owners for responsible gun regulations.”

And I’m personally partial to this one:
“18th century laws for 21st century weapons.”

There was this:
“darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

And this:
“who would Jesus shoot?”

This one I believe:
“public interest trumps special interests”
is not true in our culture,
and I wish it were.

I saw:
“the beloved community is the framework for the future,”

and:
“non-violence is the way of life for a courageous people.”

I saw a lot of signs rejecting thoughts and prayers,
and as a thinking and a praying people,
I celebrated the nuance I heard from many of the speakers
and saw incorporated into some of those signs
not actually rejecting thoughts and prayers,
just the assurance of thoughts and prayers
as a way of not taking any further responsibility.

A faith that is an excuse for not working for good change
is not a faith worth the validation of the God I know.

I am mindful of these words of Oscar Romero
recorded in his aptly named book, The Violence of Love:
“The church must suffer for speaking the truth,
for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin.
No one wants to have a sore spot touched,
and therefore a society with so many sores
twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say:
‘You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.’ ”

There were a lot of signs about guns.
And we have a gun problem.
There need to be some changes made.

But there is an emptiness within our culture.
It is not mental illness. It is not terrorists from somewhere else.
We can call it sin or the human condition,
but it’s aggravated by our own peculiarly toxic combination
of capitalism, with its fundamental attitude of ever more,
and materialism’s implicit claim that anything important
(which is, of course, whatever you want at the moment)
can be bought — as can anyone for that matter.
There’s individualism’s focus away from the common good—the public good,
and oligarchy’s division of people into us and them—
those who are in and those who are left out—
the included and the excluded.
There’s violence’s persistent justifications in our conversation, our relationships—
our entertainment and our policies,
and there’s the profound fear such priorities generate,
sustain and exploit.
You have to treat all that.
You have to get rid of it.

The shadow side of who we are as a country—
the shadow side of what is so full of good potential—
is defining who we are
in a national Peter Pan nightmare of a story
that’s killing us.
And we have to grow up.

As too many of our leaders act like children,
our eleven year olds—our nine year olds—
our children and youth stand before us as living
walking breathing reminders
that it’s up to us all to make sure
they have the opportunity to grow up
to keep living walking breathing
to keep reminding us
that we all have to grow up

in the name of God,
amen.

And hear now these words of assurance:
God calls us into God’s own dream of beloved community
that will always expand far beyond what makes us comfortable
into what will make us whole.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon
So. No surprises today, right?
We all know the story today.
Jesus is entering Jerusalem.
It’s Palm Sunday, after all.
We all know what’s coming.

Jesus and his disciples were coming from Jericho.
They left Jericho, we read, with a large crowd.
It doesn’t say they were all following him.
More likely they were pilgrims
headed into Jerusalem for the festival.
They were early.
Passover wasn’t for anther week.
But “Josephus speaks of almost three million pilgrims”
in Jerusalem for Passover
(Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 659),
so maybe these were the ones smart enough—
surely Jesus wasn’t the only one who knew to get there
before there was no room left at the inn!

In the crowd, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, right?
The formerly blind man, former beggar,
who had been sitting by the roadside outside Jericho,
who had, when he realized it was Jesus passing by,
begged Jesus to heal him.
And Jesus did, saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
Whereupon he followed Jesus
up the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

They were now several miles outside Jerusalem,
near the Mount of Olives,
“a place associated in the early apocalyptic tradition
with the final battle against the enemies of Israel in defense of Jerusalem”
(Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man
[Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988] 294; and see Zechariah 14:2-4)—
where after military defeat actually, God would step in to save.
So they were at the site of the “future eschatological revelation
of God’s glory” (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 309).

Apocalyptic associations always also create a now and then dimension.
Jesus and the pilgrims were, at that moment, on the Mount of Olives,
the site of God’s glory to come.

Jesus sent a couple of disciples ahead
to get a colt.
You know there’s a lot of focus on this colt.
Seven of our eleven verses—
leaving only four verses for the whole rest of the story—
for the whole so-called Triumphal Entry! Four verses!
We notice that. We wonder about it.

And maybe what strikes us is that Jesus knew about this colt.
And maybe we read that as indication
of Jesus’ divine omniscience and then his divine authority,
as his word was immediately accepted and obeyed,
not just by his disciples, but by the bystanders,
who saw the two disciples taking the colt
and were understandably worried
about these strangers taking their friend’s colt.

Of course, we could note—should note, that what we read as
“The Lord (ie/ Jesus Christ—the Lord God our Savior) requires this colt of you,”
we could just as well read—the Greek can just as well mean:
“The master (ie/ the owner of this colt) requires this of you”—
you know, if the master of the horse was in the procession—
one of the pilgrims, or a follower of Jesus—

in which case, the associations would all be less
with Jesus’ divine omniscience and authority,
and more with Jesus who, like a king,
had the right to requisition—
to commandeer what he needed.

Now there is a little bit of a twist to those expectations,
in that Jesus promises to return the animal.
“We’ll make sure you get it back.”

There are additional royal associations
in that the colt Jesus rode had never been ridden—
and a king’s mount was never to be ridden
by anyone other than the king.

Matthew, in his account—when he tells this story,
quotes the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
But Matthew twists royal expectations
in emphasizing the humility of Jesus.
Mark doesn’t have an humble Jesus.
Mark reminds us that a colt was an appropriate mount for a king.
Mark’s twist lies in the fact that Jesus,
who walked everywhere, rode here—
rode elevated above everyone us,
with an inherent, undeniable royal authority.

Mark doesn’t quote Zechariah,
but it is interesting how the Zechariah passage goes on,
as it’s definitely in the background of our text.
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Okay, there’s another twist to expectations here.
Notice it’s the weapons of war of God’s own country that are destroyed,
in order to command peace.
Notice that. Wonder about that.

The disciples spread their garments on the colt—
as a kind of saddle.
Then many people spread their garments
and branches they cut from the fields (not palms—not in Mark).

Again, Mark makes no direct quote,
but for Scripture nerds,
there are more royal associations here—from 2 Kings,
when Jehu was proclaimed king, we read,
“Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks
and spread them for him on the bare steps;
and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’ ”
(2 Kings 9:13), and yes, Jehu and Jesus sound similar.
Notice that.

Those who went ahead,
and those who followed behind,
were shouting, “Hosanna”—
which comes to us from the Aramaic,
meaning “Save we pray. Save now.”
Traditionally and appropriately a petition
directed to a king or to God,
the expectations of which had become a little twisted—
as Hosanna “had become something of a standard praise word
(as it still is today) used in glorifying God” (Witherington, 309).

The crowd is also quoted as shouting
a combination of two festival psalms (Psalm 118 and Psalm 148):
“Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
More royal and messianic associations,
and again, that now and later dimension
(the one who comes and the coming kingdom).

For the early readers of our gospel,
the procession would surely have recalled “the military entry
of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem
with [wait for it] praise and palm branches …
and with hymns and songs” (Myers, 294)—
this some 100/130 years before Jesus.

Josephus also writes of “the Sicarius leader Menahem,
who during the first few months of the revolt
led a kingly procession into Jerusalem” (Myers, 294)—
this some 30 years after Jesus,
but before this gospel was written.
So we add revolutionary associations to our collection—
revolutionaries seeking the authority
and validation of royalty.

There’s a twist to expectations here too though,
to revolutionary associations—military revolutions,
because there is absolutely nothing military about Jesus—
absolutely nothing violent.

I like, you know I do, Borg and Crossan’s claim
that Jesus’ entry into the city constitutes
a counter-parade from the east
to the grand entrance of Pilate and his soldiers from the west
(Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan,
The Last Week [New York: HarperCollins, 2006] 2-5)—
an explicit non-violent counter to military and political power.

And it is interesting to consider
with all these royal, messianic, military, revolutionary associations
that none of this is brought up in the account of his trial—
either before the council or before Pilate.
This entire story is never mentioned again.

We all know the story today.
Jesus is entering Jerusalem.
It’s Palm Sunday, after all.
We all know what’s coming.
But the whole story, we have seen,
is loaded—loaded with so many different associations.
There’s the pilgrimage and so,
associations with the Jewish faith tradition and story.
There are the associations of Jesus with miracles and with healing.
There are apocalyptic—there are military—there are divine associations.
There are royal associations—
messianic associations—
revolutionary associations—
political associations—
all interwoven.
And we’re not necessarily supposed to reject some
to choose one.

Notice there’s nothing—nothing, amidst all these associations.
about any kind of private, personal, spiritual salvation.
Wonder about that.

All these associations though are a part of this story.
They’re all a part of how we’re to think of and understand Jesus—
each association another dimension of Jesus—
each dimension of Jesus
leading to different particular hopes and expectations—
though, as we’ve also seen,
there are unexpected twists to many of these expectations.

So we imagine today,
all the different hopes invested in—
all the different associations we have with Jesus:

hopes for healing,
hopes for miracles,
hope for an end to the way things are,
hope for change,
political hopes,
revolutionary hopes,
religious hopes,
hopes for change both societal and personal.
And amidst those hopes, there’s Jesus.

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple;
and when he had looked around at everything,
as it was already late,
he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Nothing happened.
Nothing happened!

More than a sense of a story unfinished,
there’s a half-hearted sense.
There’s a let-down.
All these expectations—all this build-up
(because that’s what an entry is, right?),
and then nothing happens.

So I don’t know what to expect—
what to count on—
what to lean into.
It is an unsettling story—
who Jesus is
running into all that’s expected of him.

Now remember—I want to go back to what we noticed earlier—
remember how the bulk of the story—seven of the eleven verses
are about that colt—the acquiring of it, the preparation of it.
And, symbolically speaking,
riding a colt that’s never been ridden before is one thing—
the royal associations that go along with that.
But practically speaking, realistically speaking,
riding a horse that had never ever before been ridden—
that can be a dicey thing.
You never know what’s going to happen.
That’s not a mount you can count on; it’s not reliable.

Now, if you want to claim that it’s the authority of God—
that this is another miracle story—
a colt not requiring any taming and training—
never before ridden, and still taken out into a crowd of people—
with all that noise and movement, that’s one thing. That’s fine.

But in keeping with my experience,
there’s an uncertainty to a ride like that—
not being sure what to expect—
what to count on—
what to lean into.
It’s an unsettling mount that could run away with you.
You don’t risk other people that way.

So here’s what I think … this year … today!
Jesus left Jericho with other pilgrims
and a formerly blind man who now sees—
a character who tends to serve in the gospels as a reminder and a caution
to those who see (and those who think they see)
but are, in truth, blind.

And as the pilgrims approached the holy city,
they did things pilgrims do at the great festivals—
festival customs, we might say.
They cut and they waved branches.
They shouted that generic word of praise “Hosanna!”
They sang the festival psalms that were sung at the festivals.
And Jesus was just one of many going into the city.
Maybe one of few riding,
but not leading a procession—
there were those ahead and those behind.
There were those all around.
He was part of the throng,
and no one paid him any attention at all.
Maybe the disciples,
but I’m guessing even they were distracted
by the people the crowds the city
the story the energy the spectacle.

Maybe some people there that day
caught a glimpse of truth.
But most of them did not know
as they shouted “Hosanna!”
(most of them not knowing what they were saying when they said it—
save us now)—
most of them did not know what they were saying—
did not even necessarily mean what they did not know they were saying,
and did not know that the answer to their prayer was among them.
They walked into the city singing songs of hope—
of anticipation—of expectation,
not knowing what it was they longed for,
and not knowing that what they didn’t know they longed for
was being fulfilled in their midst.

In spite of the way we traditionally tell the story—
as the triumphal entry required by a people so invested in triumphalism,
that actually sounds most real to me.
Because that’s how the story goes on.
I mean people continue not to notice Jesus in their midst—
in our midst.
We still notice him looking back,
and totally miss him now here among us.

Jesus entered the holy city, we believe,
and still enters our stories,
as the holy one.
He entered and he enters
to redefine what religion becomes—
less in rejection of one religion,
than in affirmation of God
and mystery and love and grace—
less to start a new or a different religion,
than to point beyond what had become too small—
not wrong—
small.

So what’s the affirmation? What’s the good news?
Amidst all that we think about Jesus (and don’t)—
amidst all our different hopes and expectations,
that we do know and don’t know to name,
there is Jesus.
There is always Jesus.
Even unknown amongst us—unrecognized amongst us,
yet still amongst us

These days, there’s something powerfully affirming to me
to think of Jesus in our midst
unrecognized.

Even as we pray—
even as we sing—
even as we tell Jesus stories,
there is Jesus—
always reminding us of the expanse of grace—
the depth of love and mystery
that transcend any story we tell of them.
The incarnation of God’s way amidst us—
the way always opening up before us
from where we are—
from where Jesus is with us where we are.

Jesus is among us,
and the way that opens up because of that
can change everything.
That is good news, people.
That is good news.
Thanks be to God.

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: the ancient rule/following the rule

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Scripture
John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival
were some Greeks. They came to Philip,
who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him,
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “The hour has come
for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life
in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.
Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
Now is the judgement of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.

I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word (from Psalm 119).

Sermon
Our story takes place soon after Jesus left Bethany—
a small community some two miles outside Jerusalem,
where he raised Lazarus from the dead—
where Mary, Lazarus’ sister anointed him with nard,
which he interpreted as preparation for his burial—
right after his entry into Jerusalem.
In fact, in John’s gospel,
Lazarus is the reason offered for all the crowds showing up
to see Jesus enter the city.
And the authorities were saying to each other,
“Look, the whole world has gone after him” (John 12: 19).

Now among those who went up to worship
at the Passover festival were some Greeks.
This, right after the religious authorities were worrying
about the whole world going after him!

Presumably God-fearers, those who valued Judaism
without wanting to be proselytes, they came to Philip,
who was from Bethsaida in Galilee—
so a man with a Greek name from a Gentile friendly area,
and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
We wish to see Jesus.”
Maybe they were interested in following Jesus
in seeing what he had to show them.
Maybe they were interested in discipleship.
“We wish to see Jesus.”

Philip’s the disciple who, when called as a disciple,
went to Nathanael and said, “Come see this Jesus” (John 1:46).
Philip went and told Andrew,
who was one of the two disciples,
who following Jesus, queried Jesus,
and to whom Jesus said,
“Come and see” (John 1:37-39).

Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
“There are some Greeks, who want to see you.”
This, less indicative of some chain of command,
than a network of conversation, experience and relationships—
except, we notice, they didn’t just bring the Greeks with them.
That would have seemed natural,
“You want to see Jesus? Come on.”
So there would seem to be some question here—
some reservation—some doubt—
some sense of possible impropriety, maybe?
What are the right rules here?
“This seems like the right thing, but I want to make sure.”
“Yeah, me too. Let’s go ask Jesus.”
“Hey, Jesus, there are some Greeks here who want to see you.”
And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come
for the Son of Man to be glorified.
That’s his response to being told some Greeks want to see him.

So, the hour has come?
At Cana, Jesus said to Mary,
“My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4).
After teaching at the temple at the festival of booths,
there were those in Jerusalem who sought to arrest him,
but no one laid hands on him,
because his hour had not yet come (John 7:30).
Again, after confronting the authorities seeking to stone
the woman caught in adultery,
and teaching in the treasury of the temple,
no one arrested him because his hour had not yet come (John 8:20).
Now—now the hour has come?

There is a tension here between hour understood
as a time frame and the hour as a particular time.
The sentence, in the Greek, is in the perfect tense:
“The hour has come and stays with us”
(Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971] 593),
which would seem to indicate a specific, particular time—
now that the Greeks wanted to see him.

Everything I read indicates this hour refers to Jesus’ death,
but if so, the writer’s off in terms of a specific time
by a matter not just of a few minutes or hours,
but by up to as much as five days!
I’m noticing that; I’m wondering about it.

And the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
The verb “glorified” goes back to a root, doxa,
associated through the New Testament with the being of God.
It’s one of the two Greek words from which we get our word “doxology”
(the other being logos).
The verb, “to be glorified” then, has to do with participating
in the very being of God
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 232-255).

In the synoptic gospels “the application of the word [doxa]
to the incarnate Jesus is strictly limited” (Kittel, 248)
to the risen Jesus and, in Luke,
to the birth and transfiguration accounts.
John, making a theological point,
uses it of Jesus during his ministry (Kittel, 249.)

So there’s something powerfully significant about this moment.
And Jesus moves forthwith into story and parable:
Very truly, I tell you,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

And again, there must be something about the hour at hand
that has to do with this observation—
something about Jesus’ glorification
that has to do with this observation and this particular time.
For Greeks and disciples, this is what there is to see.

And it has something to do with bearing fruit—
a common theme in the gospels and in Jesus’ stories and teachings—
often bearing fruit that are works of righteousness,
but here, also, bearing fruit that is community—
and community that includes the excluded.

And all somehow tied to Jesus’ death and the cross?
It is the death and resurrection, most say,
that create the community of faith.
And I’m not saying that’s not the case, but as we’ve seen,
we can’t dismiss the immediate circumstances either.
There is a particular story unfolding here,
and it’s not the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

The hour has come here and now
in which outsiders want to see Jesus—
in which we see the desire of those excluded to be included—
in an appeal that transcends ethnicity and language,
country of origin and religion—
in a radically, inclusive and graceful vision of community
because of who he was—because of how he lived—
because of what he said and the way he said it.
All before he died.

And while a seed dying works alright as a metaphor—
to point to the death of Jesus,
I would point out that anyone close to nature
(which Jesus was—look at all the agricultural stories he told)—
anyone familiar with agriculture would know a seed doesn’t die.
It changes. Its outer shell is shattered—its boundaries extended.
It grows beyond itself and becomes a tree.

Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.

Again, scholars point our text to Jesus’ death. Sure.
But why not also to the implicit question:
are you happy with and invested in the way things are?
Last week, we were talking about the present tense
of eternal life—
how that related to knowing God and Jesus—
how the presence of God with us in time
opens up that time into eternity—
literally the life of the age to come.
So, are you living into the life of our age,
or the life of the age to come?
Right?

Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Now we’re not to follow Jesus to death,
and that isn’t where Jesus is—at this hour.
To suggest we’re to follow Jesus to a cross is not just silly.
That’s sick.
We are to follow Jesus in a way of life
that is astonishingly welcoming. That’s where Jesus is at this hour—
always willing to break the rules that are wrong.
Some Greeks want to see you at this Passover celebration.
We’re to follow Jesus into the grace that challenges the powers that be
enough that we risk our lives—our reputations—our jobs.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—
“Father, save me from this hour”?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
This is John’s version of Gethsemane, right?
But here in the immediate context of inclusion
and the costs of including.

And while you might could point to an apparent distance
created by having it be a prayer Jesus considered
instead of one he prayed,
that is doing the text a disservice.

In Johannine theology—Johannine Christology,
the cross was not anything anyone did to Jesus.
It was chosen by Jesus.
He was not sacrificed. He gave himself.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard—
that there weren’t very real temptations.
This is not what I would choose,
if it were up to me to do the choosing.
But I have chosen God.
And so, my choices are made.
Sure it would be easier just to play nice
within the cultural and religious expectations,
rather than riling everyone up
by calling so much into question—
by valuing people—all people over accepted rules
of who’s in and who’s out.
But there are consequences to crossing boundaries—
to inviting in to the party those who’ve been left out—
to rearranging the borders that kept them out—
and breaking down the walls
and changing your identity as so apparently homogenous.
There’s a risk. Do you accept the cost?

Jesus goes on, “Father, glorify your name.”
Now that’s struck me as a bit strange as I thought about it.
For something to be glorified
is for that something to participate in the being of God,
but here the prayer is “God, glorify your name,”
which is a way of saying, “God glorify yourself.”
“God let yourself participate in your being.”
Right?
Which makes no sense—
unless God’s name can go unrecognized—as truly God—
unless it can exist unknown—anonymously.
Glorify your name in this hour—in these circumstances.
And sure, it works to emphasize the unexpected
truth of God manifest in Jesus’ commitment
unto an ignominious, painful death,
but why not in this immediate, unexpected circumstance
of risking inclusion and welcome?

Then a voice came from heaven,
“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
First, there’s this separation of time
into what has been done/accomplished and what is yet to be.
I have glorified it, and I will again.
Something has already happened in keeping with the being of God,
and there’s more to come.

So this is either a post Easter comment—
resurrection has happened, and judgment day is coming—
the second coming is coming,
or, as the story is unfolding, something has already happened
in this appearance and inclusion of the Greeks,
and there is yet more to come—
maybe pointing to the death and resurrection—
or to the ongoing inclusion of the community of faith.

Second, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again”
reads our translation, but there’s no “it” in Greek.
It’s assumed.
The Greek actually reads “I have glorified and I will glorify again.”
And if there is no designated object, then the object is open—
to what? The unexpected … unrecognized.

There’s another kind of a kick here
that we’re going to consider before we try and put it all together.
The word doxa, in all non-biblical Greek,
coming from the verb “to think” or “to count,”
means either the opinion I have—what I think,
or the opinion others have of me—what they think.
It can be translated “expectation,”
and it’s typically favorable—to hold in esteem (Kittel, 234-5).
So in addition to the root from which we get “doxology,”
it’s also the root from which we get our word “paradox”—
contrary to expectation/thought/appearance.

The word doxa transitions from what people think or count as significant
to the being of God through the translation of an OT Hebrew word
in the Septuagint, meaning the honor or power of God
(Kittel, 238-245).

We all clear here?
A verb meaning “to think” or “to count”
spawned a word meaning “what I think or am thought of”—
usually positively, that came to be used in the Greek version
of the Hebrew Bible to translate the “honor” or “power” of God,
subsequently becoming a New Testament word
representing the very being of God.

Now a quick side note: the Greek of the gospel of John
is deceptively simple—elegantly so.
In its straightforward beauty, scholars point
to the influence of both Greek philosophy and Greek literature.
They by no means limit influences on the gospel to Greek ones,
but they certainly include them.
And surely the kind of thinker and writer we come to know in this gospel,
would have known the different meanings of doxa,
and would have played with them—intentionally.

This past week, I came across a presidential quote
that I very much appreciated—
a tweet-able comment well within the 140 character limit.
President John F. Kennedy said,
“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion
without the discomfort of thought.”

How much of our understanding of the Bible—
how much of our theology—
how much of the way we understand our faith,
is comforting opinion
for which we have assumed there was sufficient thought?
Or for which we thought (or assumed),
once thought through, always thought through?
Either way, of course, relegating any discomfort
with Bible study, theology, or our faith
to the distant past.

Here’s to reclaiming the discomfort of really working it through,
to hopefully achieve a comfort with integrity.

The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.
Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
It’s as if the crowds knew there had been an epiphany—
these are signs—but weren’t clear on who and what was revealed.

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
Now is the judgment of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”

Again, some separation in time and accomplishment.
Now is the judgment, and when I am lifted up (not now—later),
I will draw up all people.
All people.
All people.

He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
There can be no doubt that this story is interpreted
through the death and resurrection of Jesus,
but there can also be no doubt that that is,
as one scholar points out,
looking at it with the eyes of faith—
the eyes of a believer (Kittel, 249).
To glorify doxa you have to know what counts doxa.
To see glorification (participation in the being of God),
is dependent on your perspective—what you think—
what counts for you—on what you expect to see.
But the being of God is always there to be seen
in those unexpected ways and places.

I was telling someone recently about how I alternate
between dismay, anger, and embarrassment, on the one hand,
and surprise, wonder, and joy on the other,
that folk music writers and singers
seem to be more consistently honest with people than preachers.
I have glorified and will glorify again.

Some of you may remember my list of Marvel movies
that I suggested, in their storytelling,
were moving closer to the truth of God
even as churches seem to be moving away from it
(and that was before Black Panther came out!).
I have glorified and will glorify again.

There was another thing I saw on-line in the past few weeks.
Someone observed
how in a certain kind of science fiction or fantasy story,
the time traveler is always warned before going back in time
not to make the slightest change—the most insignificant seeming change,
because of the potential for profound effects on the future.
This warning was then juxtaposed with our tendency
to dismiss the small seemingly insignificant things we can do—
every act of kindness—every act of decency—every act of respect—
every act of fairness—every act of justice—every act of grace.
I have glorified and will glorify again.

God is always at work outside the boundaries
within which people think God works—
which some would presume contain
God’s grace—God’s work—God’s love.
Because for John, what you see of God in the world
will change what you think—will change what counts—
will change where you look to see God.
Because it’s not about affirming who we are,
but who we are becoming—
as we welcome and include—
as we grow into an identity (as a tree)
we couldn’t have imagined (as a seed).

So if it makes you nervous—
this grace of God outside the boundaries
you thought defined you—in which you are comfortable—
including people who don’t look like you
(if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who don’t sound like you—who speak another language
(if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who don’t identify themselves as you do—
by gender or sexuality (if that makes you uncomfortable)—
by religion (if that makes you uncomfortable)—
who push your boundaries and make you feel uncomfortable,
then choose the discomfort of celebrating
changing your opinion of what it means to participate
in the ever surprising grace of God!

On this fifth Sunday of Lent,
I confess to you I heard Jesus this past week.
This is what I heard him saying:
“If you’ve been welcomed and included
then get beyond needing that constantly affirmed,
and get to welcoming and including
those who don’t expect it.
I am so much less concerned with who you think you are
than with who you don’t know you can be.
And I will always be where you least expect me.
Count on it.”

the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: the basic rule?

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Scripture
John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already,
because they have not believed
in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world,
and people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed.
But those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen
that their deeds have been done in God.’

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship (from Psalm 107)
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good;
for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,

from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and God saved them from their distress;

God sent out the word of God and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love,
for wonderful works to humankind.
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good
and God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Pastoral Prayer
Hear now our Confession of Sin:
We too much divide into us and them.
In our politics and culture, yes,
but also as followers of God in the way of Jesus.

Would you pray with me?

Our God,
Into the smallness of so much of our day-to-day,
breathe your love and grace.
Expand our minds and hearts
that we might remember,
when we’re full of you,
what’s small is big,
what’s last is first,
what’s unnoticed is valued,
what’s ignored is treasured,
what’s them is us,
what’s us is them,
and what we thought was small and day-to-day
turns out to be the vast eternity of Immanuel—
God-with-us.
Thanks be to you,
in Jesus’ name,
Amen.

And here, our Words of Assurance:
God so loves the world … everything and everyone in it,
and so, grace is the deepest truth.

Sermon
Let’s start with some context for our text
from John’s gospel this morning.
It’s taken from a longer conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus,
the Pharisee, who visited Jesus in the night
to ask about some of his teachings.

As the story is known and told,
Jesus told Nicodemus about the need to be born again.
That’s the way I learned it.
That’s the language of my faith tradition.
It created a lot of stress for me, growing up.
You have to be born again.
Oh, I didn’t struggle conceptually, like Nicodemus,
with what exactly being born again means.
I got that that was symbolic.
But I struggled with what seemed required in order to be born again—
the intellectual consent to certain affirmations:
that Jesus died for my sins, that Jesus was raised from the dead,
that believing these affirmations assures my eternal salvation.

The Greek is actually literally you must be born from above (John 3:3),
not again—
be born from water and Spirit (John 3:5)—
which goes back to creation imagery, right?—
the Spirit/wind hovering over the waters of chaos and turmoil.

“Are you a teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” asks Jesus.
I mean, this is what Immanuel means, isn’t it? always?
The restless energy of creation hovering over every chaos—
including the chaos of the status quo we take for granted—
including the chaos of our own rituals and traditions.
And commitment to Immanuel requires us
to persistently hold even reality accountable to the vision and call of God.

Jesus goes on, “We speak of what we know
and testify to what we have seen,
yet you do not receive our testimony.”
Now that is an interesting “we”!
We speak of what we know. Who is that?
Jesus and John the Baptist and the disciples?
Is it a shout out to the early church
which wouldn’t have been a part of the story unfolding,
but the context in which the story was told?

And the “y’all” when Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus
(because that’s a plural pronoun too),
indicates this conversation is bigger than both its participants.
There are those of us who have seen Immanuel—
God with us—amidst us, and then, there’s all y’all who have not.

Literally—grammatically, this testimony
(we testify to what we have seen)—it’s not about Jesus,
because Jesus is included in the “we”.
Notice that! Wonder about that!
Because wondering’s good for you.
The conversation is always bigger than the ways we talk about it.

Again, Jesus goes on, “No one has ascended into heaven
except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
That’s pretty exclusive—
especially since we started with a plural pronoun.
We speak of what we know.
And he was just talking about the need to be born from above, right?
And if you’re born from above, wouldn’t that have something to do
at least with descending?

And let’s not forget, he was talking to a Pharisee!
someone who knew the sacred stories of their shared tradition.
No one has ascended into heaven? What about Elijah?
In fact, let me read to you 2 Kings 2:
“As they continued walking and talking (this was Elijah and Elisha),
a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them,
and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Enoch and Moses, as the stories are told.
Jacob’s ladder is an image of beings
ascending and descending from heaven to earth.

So at a couple of different levels, Jesus was just flat out wrong.
At another level though, what he says makes us wonder
what is it about Jesus that’s different?
In this gospel in particular, ascending and descending
have more to do with naming the distinctiveness of Jesus
than a distinction—a separation between heaven and earth.
Somehow, in Jesus, there is a unique connection between heaven and earth.
Jesus is a thin place made flesh.

Then, having dismissed several Old Testament stories,
John offers us another Old Testament reference:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness—
so, an Exodus reference, more specifically,
from the book of Numbers, recounting a story of the early days
in the wilderness wandering. You may know it.
It was one of those times the people spoke against God and Moses—
murmuring—grumbling, and God sent poisonous snakes among them,
which bit the people so that many died.
this prompted repentance
(or generated fear expressed as repentance, you decide):
“We have sinned against God and you,
pray to God to take these things away.”
Whereupon God had Moses make a poisonous snake
and set it on a pole and whenever a serpent bit someone
that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Numbers 21:4-9).

It’s a strange passage.
From the initial complaint:
“There is no food and we hate this miserable food!”
Let that sink in!
Then we have an apparently petty God
responding to an admittedly immature people—
a people who followed God into the wilderness—
for whom God has provided,
who are just getting tired of it.
Then we have Moses making a poisonous snake—
that’s what it says first.
And we assume that means crafting the image of one
(which is what it says the second time),
but remember his staff turned into one—twice (Exodus 4:3; 7:10).

And the snakes remained!
The people prayed for God to take these things away.
Instead, amidst poisonous snakes that remained, an antidote of sorts was given.
Weirdly, it’s an image of what caused the problem that’s the solution.
And snake venom is part of the antidote to snake bite.

So we have a story of a people being saved—
being made well—being made whole
in the face of an ongoing dis-ease—a persistent threat.
No once saved, always saved.
Not when there are poisonous snakes around.

There is another scriptural reference to the snake lifted up,
and in 2 Kings, we read about Hezekiah, who
“did what was right in the sight of the Lord
just as his ancestor David had done.
He removed the high places, broke down the pillars,
and cut down the sacred pole.
He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made,
for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it;
it was called Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:3-4)—
which means a brazen thing—
which no longer means made of brass, but that is its etymology!
So it is what it used to mean (made of brass),
and also what it came to mean, brazen,
boldly and without shame—
given more power and authority than it deserved.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
John writes, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
and whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Let me start with the last line there.
Whoever believes in him may have eternal life,
and first, let’s consider eternal life.
“The Greek words translated into English as eternal life
mean ‘the life of the age to come.’ ”
(Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian [New York: HarperCollins, 2001] 163)—
the truth of God now.
“ ‘Eternal’ does not mean mere endless duration of human existence,
but is a way of describing life
as lived in the unending presence of God”
(Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 552).
Both “judgement and eternal life as present tense
are at the theological heart of this gospel” (O’Day, 553).
And in the farewell discourse, Jesus will say
“This is eternal life, that they may know you,
the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Note the present tense!
Eternal life is knowing God now
and knowing that relationship is all and all.

Second, consider the verb “to believe.”
Marcus Borg, in his wonderful book Speaking Christian
suggest the etymology of the verb goes back to being loved—
and is more a matter of believing in than in believing that (Borg, 118).
He points out that “[e]ven the two most frequently heard Christian creeds,
the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding.
They both being with the Latin word credo,
most commonly translated into English as ‘I believe.’
But the Latin roots of credo mean ‘I give my heart to.’ …
Moreover, [he goes on,] believing ‘as believing the right things’ does not
intrinsically lead to a changed life.
It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs,
and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned,
angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent….
But Christianity is not about ‘right beliefs.’ It is about a change of heart.”
(http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2013/11/what-is-a-christian/).

And yet, in our tradition, predominantly,
salvation and eternal life and faith and Christianity—
are all taken to mean
you have affirmed the crucifixion and the bodily resurrection
as God’s plan for your salvation.

Our friend, Don Flowers, though, had classes with James Fowler,
who wrote the seminal book, Stages of Faith.
Don remembers Dr. Fowler, on several occasions,
speaking of faith as “where you rest your soul.”
I do not rest my soul in propositions,
but in trusted relationship.

As Nehushtan is lifted up, so too, must Jesus be—
on a pole—on a cross—
in order to give life.
As image of the very thing that created the problem?
Uhhh. No?
As a symbol invested inappropriately with authority and power
needing to be destroyed?
Uhhh. No?

My impression of the writer of John is
of someone who certainly would have known the context of an allusion made,
not someone just thumbing through Old Testament imagery.
“Oh, look! Something being lifted up to save people.
I can use that.”

There are, of course, different ways the cross can be understood.
Traditionally, it’s presented as what Jesus suffered for us,
in his commitment to God, that is salvific, for us.
But there is also a scriptural tradition of the cross as expectation of us.

I find I am more often a both/and kind of person,
instead of an either/or.
So I do believe, absolutely,
that the grace of God manifest in Jesus’ commitment unto death
is, in truth, what saves us,
but that it also sets the level of expectation
for what a life lived following God in the way of Jesus can be.
And when we make the cross all about Jesus and not about us,
we make our offering to it and create a symbol better destroyed.

Hear these words by the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Little does contemporary religion ask of [men and women].
It is ready to offer comfort; it has not courage to challenge.
It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break the idols,
to shatter callousness. The trouble is that religion has become ‘religion’—
institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event.
Its acceptance involves neither risk nor strain.
Religion has achieved respectability by the grace of society ….”
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy
for the eclipse of religion in modern society.
It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.
Religion declined not because it was refuted,
but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
When faith is completely replaced by creed,
worship by discipline, love by habit;
when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past;
when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain;
when religion speaks only in the name of authority
rather than with the voice of compassion,
its message becomes meaningless”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom
[London: Macmillan, 1963] 3).

Which brings us to,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.

One of our best known
and most beloved (believed?)
and … misunderstood? texts.

Again, let’s start with the last part.
Notice that the qualification is those who believe in him—
not in his death—not in his resurrection—in him—
in who he was not in what happened to him.
Why would we make the story smaller than it is?
Other, of course, than to make things easier for us—
to require less of us.

So when God gave Jesus in love,
(for the world may so reject God,
but God will always love the world)—
when God gave Jesus in love,
it was not to die.
God did not give Jesus to be known only,
or mainly,
for one part of the story.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Last week, I suggested we ponder Jesus not having come to save us,
but to love the world.
And if the church focused more on loving than saving,
more would be saved.

Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already,
because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Remember Nehushtan, who was the image of the problem?
And we wondered how Jesus could possibly create the problem he saves.
What if Jesus coming creates a problem for us—
the problem of a life lived in the image of God.

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world,
and people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed.

So there’s something profoundly important
about exposure and hiddenness.

I have wondered before
if one part of growing up consists of the accumulating of secrets held.
That’s less a result of reflection,
than observation—
of two girls who used to tell us everything—
share everything,
but who now have secrets.
And some of that is good—normal—
part of maturing.
But some of it is isolating.
And the more of your life you feel like you have to keep secret,
the more you absolutely need to consider why.

But those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Matthew and Luke both put it this way:
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,
and nothing secret that will not become known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed from the housetops
(Matthew 10:26-27; Luke 12:2-3).

It’s good advice.
It’s good advice online.
It’s good advice for life.
Don’t be one way with someone—anyone—or alone,
that you won’t be proud of with those you love most.

Please hear this not as threat of punishment,
but as warning of consequence—
advice for a better, richer, more abundant life.

And remember, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus,
who came to see him under the cover of darkness!
Amidst the deep symbolism of John,
we sometimes risk losing the obvious, concrete meaning.
“Do you value what I say—who I am,
enough to come talk to me in daylight,
when others can see?”

Nicodemus, interestingly, appears three times in the gospel of John!
This conversation marks the first time.
Second, we will find him advocating for Jesus before the Sanhedrin,
reminding them that someone must be heard before being judged (John 7:50-51).
Finally, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings embalming spices
and helps Simon of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42).
In the arc of their relationship and conversation,
Nicodemus comes out of the darkness into the light.

There is a duality to John’s gospel and thought—
there is an either/or—that frustrates this both/and person—
challenges me—
reminds me that while I believe (ha!)
that life is both/and,
there is an either/or truth.
Jesus is the crux of our living—
the choice we face and make one way or the other.
Set before you, life and death.

We’ve talked before about the two wolves
wrestling for your soul.
One that stands for everything good,
one that stands for everything bad.
How’s that for dualistic?!
“Which one wins?” asks the disciple.
Responds the master, “The one you feed.”

It probably won’t come as a shock to you
on this fourth Sunday of Lent,
that I heard Jesus this past week.
And this is what I heard him say:
“Rest in the grace of God’s eternal love.
Let that transform your living and being.
Do not live in fear. Do not live out of anger.
Remember always that the love that washes over you—
baptizes you,
washes over every other person too,
and their stories, like yours,
are intertwined with the story—
the presence, the truth, and the love of God.”