Family Values: the Devil is in the Details

Family Values: the Devil is in the Details

Sermon for June 6, 2021, Pentecost +2B

Video is here at the Central Presbyterian Church YouTube channel.

Audio is here at my podcast site.

Mark 3:20-35

and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Jesus of most modern Christians should not really upset anyone.  Certainly, no one would call him crazy or demon-possessed.  No one would want to eliminate him.  He seems harmless enough.  He teaches compassion and forgiveness; those virtues may not be considered practical, but who could find that objectionable in principle?

But that picture of “holy Jesus, meek and mild” must be inaccurate because, as the Gospels report, people did think he was crazy, demon-possessed, and wanted to kill him.  Even the Roman government wanted him dead.  His own family tried unsuccessfully to restrain him, whatever that could possibly mean.  

But he was popular with the masses.  Remember, the masses we are talking about were poor peasants.  In a time when there was no cure for infection, when there were no pain relievers, no sanitation, or running water, disease was rampant.  Jesus had a reputation for healing, and so became quite popular.  So why object to a person with a healing ministry?

Family and Political Conflict

Some have argued that his family was upset that he did not set up a healing center in Nazareth. It could have become a cash cow for the family and the whole village.  But Jesus kept moving, so that opportunity was lost.  Maybe his family believed that you would have to be crazy to blow that kind of opportunity. 

 Clearly, Jesus was not afraid to stand up for what he believed was right, even in the face of family opposition.  In his culture, the family was everything.  But sometimes the family’s interests are outweighed by higher values.  

Neither was Jesus afraid of conflict with the political leaders of his day.  Mark tells us that scribes from the capital, Jerusalem came to confront Jesus.  

Scribes from Jerusalem meant they were part of the Israelite government.   They tried to undermine Jesus because he was a threat to them.  You will recall that the aristocratic families who were the administrators of King Herod’s government and the chief priests who ran the temple were from the same families. 

If Jesus told people that they were forgiven, then why would they need to go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice?  If he could cast out their demons, why would they need a priest?  In fact, if the people followed Jesus’ example, they might never go to Jerusalem’s temple anymore, in which case the whole power structure collapses.  

So Jesus first dealt with the ruling class.  They had accused him of performing exorcisms by the power of the devil.  He made the case that if the devil is casting out the devil, he is self-defeated.  

Rather, the devil is like a strong man.  Jesus’ exorcism ministry is like tying him up.  Once he is tied up, you can rob his house.  

That’s an odd metaphor, but if the strong-man devil is holding people captive, maybe robing his house means setting the captives free.  Setting people free from captivity, whether to the spiritual forces of evil or the oppressive forces of the palace-temple system was exactly what Jesus was doing.  

Next, Jesus dealt with his family.  Family obligations were paramount in his culture.  How was it that he was not helping his family first?  

For Jesus, family obligations went wider than blood relations.  “Who is my family,” Jesus asked?  Everyone who wants to be.  If you are trying to obey God — remember the two commands important to Jesus are love God and love neighbor — then you are part of my family, and I’m obligated to you.  Maybe my flesh-and-blood family don’t like it, but God does.  

Conflicts Came

Let us take a step back from the details for a look at the larger picture.  This text is about conflict.  Jesus had conflicts.  He had detractors.  He had enemies.  He made people angry.  He did not go looking for trouble, but he got into trouble.  

The sources of the conflicts were religious, political, and familial.  These were also the sources of conflict in the early Christian communities.  Religiously, they believed Jesus was Messiah, so if their Jewish community rejected that idea, there would be conflicts.  In the decades after Jesus walked the earth, the Christians were eventually kicked out of the synagogues and persecuted.  

Politically, early Christians would not swear the Roman loyalty oath.  They refused to say “Caesar is Lord,” and so they were suspected of treason and were liable to be punished for it.   And as for family conflicts, trust in Jesus as Messiah did split families.  

What would happen if all three sources of conflict were wrapped up together?  What if the political leadership was supported by the religious leadership, and they were members of your family?  

Christian (sic) Nationalism

That may be happening today.  There is a movement both here and in Europe in which identifies Christianity with the nation.  

Christian nationalism, as it is called, whether in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, or America only differs in how their enemy is defined.  In Europe the enemy is mainly Islam and Muslims.  

In America the enemies are people of color.  But in both Europe and America, the quest of the Christian nationalist is to make the family, that is, the white people in the nation, the sole protectors of “the Christian way of life,” at least as they define it.   And across Europe, many Christian leaders, including some in the Reformed Church, give their support to anti-democratic governments in the name of Christian nationalism.  

There is unmistakable racism involved in these movements.  In Europe, the anti-Muslim rhetoric sometimes is coupled with anti-semitic rhetoric, within earshot of holocaust sites.  

The quest of the Christian nationalists is to return the country to its supposedly former pristine state before all the people from other nations and races came in, whether Muslim or Jew.  

The same is true in America.  In a quest to keep America white, nationalists, in the name of Christianity, have burned crosses, dawned white robes and hoods with crosses on them, and carried signs with Christian symbols as they attack non-whites.  They cry “blood” (meaning family) and “soil” (meaning the white nation) and make stiff-armed salutes, intentionally evoking memories we thought were too horrible to imagine repeating. 

Unbelievable History (known future)

We have been reminded this past week about the extent to which white people have gone in this demonic quest for supremacy.  One hundred years ago, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was demolished and the black residents attacked, and hundreds killed.  

This was not an isolated incident.  Researchers from the Equal Justice Initiative, headed by Bryan Stevenson have documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.  

The Tulsa massacre was preceded here in Arkansas by the Elaine massacre of 1919 and succeeded by the Catcher, massacre of 1923.  Charlottesville was only three years ago.

According to Christianity Today magazine, Christian nationalism 

is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda and the church as the handmaiden and cheerleader of the state.”  

It also points out that

Christian nationalism is an ideology held overwhelmingly by white Americans, and it thus tends to exacerbate racial and ethnic cleavages.” 

No one knows what will happen in the future.  Tulsa was unimaginable, but it happened.  The Holocaust was unimaginable, but it happened.  This is meant to be a call to us to stay awake and to stay true to our deepest commitments.  

Family and nation are precious gifts that we celebrate and love, but they do not claim our highest loyalty.  Like Jesus, we are willing to face pushback, even conflict, when family, nation, and religion coalesce with exclusivist agendas.   

Christianity can never be legitimately pressed into the service of any national agenda, not American, not Hungarian, not Czech, or any other nation.  

If that is what is coming, we will be ready for it.  We will keep telling the true Jesus stories and keep loving the God of Love, whom Jesus taught us to love, even if it gets people upset.

Conversations in the Dark: mysticism and transformation

Conversations in the Dark: mysticism and transformation

Sermon for May 30, 2021, Trinity Sunday year B

Video is here at the Central Presbyterian Church YouTube channel, on the Traditional Services playlist. A new episode is uploaded after the Sunday service. Check out our other videos too, like Circle of Friends Gathering and Thoughts for the Day.

Podcast is at Steven Kurtz’s Podcast

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.

There was a tradition of mysticism in ancient Israel that included rich, almost psychedelic visionary experiences. Isaiah’s vision of God on the throne included fiery angelic creatures, and coals of fire. 

Ezekiel’s vision of God on a mobile throne with wheels within wheels and multiple animal-like faces is even stranger. God, as king, was often described as sitting on a throne. In fact, the arc of the covenant in the holy of holies is itself a throne on which God is invisibly seated between the outstretched wings of two facing angels. 

So they call this ancient mystical practice “Throne Mysticism.” The practice included silent meditation, or contemplative prayer.  

John’s Gospel is the most mystical of our four canonical gospels. It is quite different in many ways from the others. Only in John does Jesus make long speeches and speaks of the mystical unity of himself with God the Father, the Spirit, and the disciples. John embellished the Jesus stories to reflect the growing faith of his Christian community in the second century. He loved metaphor, wordplay, and symbolism.

The Nicodemus Character

If you are watching a film in which it starts to rain, you know something bad is happening to the characters. Rain is a symbol. Similarly, in John’s Gospel, if it’s dark, then someone is in the dark, in desperate need of enlightenment. 

That is the case with the character Nicodemus whom John describes as coming to see Jesus at night.  

John loves to write characters that make the mistake of taking Jesus’ words literally when he means them figuratively. The woman at the well thinks he is talking about literal water when he says he can give living water. 

Jesus says that he will rebuild the temple in three days after it is destroyed, speaking of his body as a temple, but they take him literally and argue that the temple has been under construction for 46 years.  

So, Nicodemus falls into the same mistake. Jesus speaks of spiritual rebirth but Nicodemus thinks he means literally being born all over again. 

I do not think anyone would be that dense, but I believe Nicodemus, like many of the characters in John’s Gospel, are fictional. Nicodemus stands for a way of thinking about God and the spiritual life that is cluelessly in the dark. In this story, Jesus attempts to enlighten him.

Un-transforming Religion: A Conundrum

There is a conundrum about religion and religious people that Nicodemus illustrates. It is possible — maybe even likely — to be active in a religion without being transformed by it. 

In fact, as Richard Rohr likes to point out, religion, at immature levels, can impede transformation. If people use religious acts, even prayer, as a way of bolstering their egos, by thinking their acts make them good, or even “better than” others, then they remain spiritually immature. 

Being in religious leadership, as Nicodemus is, can be an even greater obstacle to spiritual growth because of the way being in leadership strokes the ego.  

Here is the problem: when religion is reduced to a set of moral rules or practices to perform plus a set of ideas to believe in, no transformation of the ego happens. 

Keeping moral rules and performing rituals have their place, but they do nothing to transform the ego. Believing in the right doctrines does not transform the ego. 

If attending church is only a duty to be performed, the positive benefits of it dissipate at the door. Every religion is full of unenlightened Nicodemus-es that have never been reborn spiritually. Just look at how easy it is to get religious people whipped into a violent mob. 

If you think Christians or even Reformed people like us are an exception, read some church history; we are not. Protestants and Catholics burned each other’s churches to the ground in the post-Reformation conflicts. It was ugly.

Flesh and Blood and the Ego

The problem is the human ego. We are all born as our flesh-and-blood selves. This comes with all kinds of complications. We start life totally ego-centric. As infants, we cried when we needed food, and expected to receive it. As children, we experienced frustration and failures. People disappointed us. Even the perfect parent could not always meet every need. Nor could she prevent nightmares or school bullies.  

So we learned strategies to defend ourselves from hurt. These defense strategies become our personalities. At some level, they worked for us, but they also deceived us, because we came to believe that they are our essential selves. “I am my personality.” 

But that is not true. In your essence, you are a beloved child of God. And so is everyone else. Understanding that insight is like a re-birth; it changes everything. It is transformative. 

Our essential beloved-ness is an insight common to mystics who, by the practice of meditation, have been able to deconstruct their ego-fixations.

Salvation as Transformation 

In this text from John’s gospel, we learn that God, according to Jesus, loves the world so much that he wants everyone in it to experience that kind of transformation. That is salvation. John also calls it “eternal life.” Most people think eternal life means heaven. It does include life beyond this world, but eternal life is meant to be a quality of life that starts now. 

John’s Gospel says that eternal life is to know Jesus. To be saved by Jesus. Being saved means being rescued from the self-absorbed life, the ego-obsessed life, the self-focused life. Living that kind of ego-based life is best described as “perishing.”  

This is not to be judgmental; Jesus did not come to condemn us for being ego-driven, but to save us from perishing that way. He came to save us from all the conflicts and catastrophes that accompany an ego-driven life.

Facing What’s Killing Us

There is an odd story that Jesus alludes to in his conversation with Nicodemus. It is from Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew people are in the wilderness. Poisonous snakes are attacking them; people are dying. So Moses makes a bronze pole with a bronze serpent on it. When people look at it, they are saved from the venomous bites. 

Looking at what is killing you somehow heals you. Looking at our little defensive egos and understanding them as little defensive egos sets us free from their power over us. But it often requires the mystical practice of meditation over time to figure this out.

John uses that allusion to that story of the serpent on the pole as a foreshadowing of Jesus being lifted up on a cross. For John, Jesus is enthroned, not in a temple, but on that cross. That cross-moment becomes, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ moment of glorification. 

Why? Because Jesus was so non-ego centered he would rather die than kill. He accepted suffering and sacrifice because he was, as theologians have said, completely “a man for others.”  

That is how Jesus can be, as John’s Gospel reports him saying he is: “the light of the world, the door, the way, the truth, and the life.” The Jesus-shaped life is a life born again, born anew, born from above (all of those are implied in the original meaning of being born again) because it is a life in the Spirit. 

The Spirit, like the wind, is invisible, but it is known by its effects. The effect of the Spirit is spiritual transformation from selfishness to selflessness.  

Our challenge is to put ourselves in this story in Nicodemus’ shoes. We are religious people, but we know that there is more than moral rules and rituals. 

We are invited to know in our bones that we are beloved children of a loving God who made us for connection. 

We are invited to know ourselves as a beloved community on a mission of compassion. 

We are invited to be mystics whose practices help us to be, like Jesus, people for others.  

Rejoicing in the Spirit

Rejoicing in the Spirit

Sermon for May 23, 2021, Pentecost Sunday, Year B

Video is here.

Podcast is here.

 John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15

John 15:26-27

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

John 16:4b-15

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

An off-hand comment by a professor of theology caught my attention and has stayed with me ever since. He said,   

You know, of course, that the work of the Spirit is wider than the church.”  

That is a beautiful way to think about the Spirit. On Pentecost, we celebrate the work the Spirit does in and through us. 

We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because according to the story, the promise that Jesus made to the disciples came true that day: the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples and they started proclaiming the good news; the gospel.  

But the Spirit was present from the beginning of Creation, according to the biblical story. And it is right to think of the Spirit that way: always and everywhere active, because the Spirit is the Spirit of God who is always and everywhere present.  

In All Traditions

The work of the Spirit is much wider than the church. We worship in the Christian tradition, but we also recognize that the Spirit is active in all religions as people seek God in different ways. 

When Jesus met the woman at the well in Samaria, she wanted to have a theological discussion with him about who had the right temple, and therefore, the right worship: Jews or Samaritans? 

Jesus’ answer was interesting. On the one hand, he told her that the Jews had the right temple. But maybe that didn’t matter because, as he said,   

the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4

When Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, brought God’s healing to people, whether they were Romans or Cyro-Phonecians, he did not ask them to convert as a condition for receiving God’s care. The work of the Spirit is much wider than the church.  

Naming the Spirit

What do we call the Spirit? In John’s gospel, Jesus calls the Spirit the Advocate. Older translations used the words Counselor and Comforter. The Spirit’s role is to be helpful to us. 

In John’s gospel, Jesus calls Spirit the Spirit of truth who leads us to discover the truth. Paul calls the Spirit the Spirit of Christ. This is the spirit of the risen Christ that appears to Paul in a vision when he was on the road to Damascus.  

The Parable of Pentecost

Luke wanted his community of Christians to understand how the Spirit was supposed to help them, so he told a story that I take as a parable, to teach them what to believe. So let us look at this story together.

It starts with the community of Jesus-followers gathered together. This is significant. They are not isolated individuals, but a community. Eventually, Paul will call this community the Body of Christ, bound together by the Spirit of Christ.

Then, in the story, they hear loud sounds and see flames of fire. These are symbols of the powerful presence of God, just like the sounds and fire on Mt. Sinai that made all the people afraid as Moses went up to meet God, according to the Exodus story. 

Then all of them were suddenly given the ability to speak in other languages. The good news that Jesus taught, of the Kingdom of God, the good news that God was good, compassionate, and forgiving, was never meant to be good news for one nation alone. It is good news for everyone, so of course, they needed to be able to speak to everyone in their own languages to proclaim the good news effectively.

But then, like the way in dreams, the storyline changes without logic or explanation. Suddenly a crowd of people appears. Without the need to explain how something happening indoors could draw a large crowd, nevertheless, it does. 

This story is driving home the point that the Spirit’s effect is to break down walls that divide people. The story belabors the point by naming the long list of nationalities present to hear the message. 

The focus of attention stays on the international group by reporting that conversation about whether or not the disciples are drunk. It gives Peter the chance to explain that it was God’s will all along that the Spirit would be available to “all flesh” as the prophet Joel said. Men and women, the young and the old, even slaves as well as citizens could receive the Spirit.  

Peter says that this is the prediction of Joel coming true,  which is interesting because Joel said that the Spirit would be accompanied by cosmological signs:   

“blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.”

And although Peter said that this was all being fulfilled, no one in the story looked up and waited for it to happen. Of course not; again, it is symbolic language. This thing that is happening is earthshaking, we would say. It changes everything.

It Should Change Everything

Or at least it ought to change everything. It ought to be the case that people who have the Spirit of God know that the old divisions of race and ethnicity no longer matter. 

It ought to be the case that the way people identify themselves in groups that are then are hostile to other groups is a thing of the past. 

It ought to be that all the bloodshed in all the wars between nations can come to an end. It ought to be the case that phrases like  “Christian nationalism” were simply oxymoronic and unimaginable. 

But this is a hard lesson to learn. Paul told his young Christian communities that in Christ there was 

no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female.”  

Gal. 3

But shortly after he was executed, people wrote letters in his name telling masters to be good masters, slaves to be good slaves, and women to be silently obedient. 

The Spirit can be resisted. The Spirit can be ignored. The Spirit of God does not force or control people, and so divisions and nationalisms remain, even among Christians. 

But the Spirit never tires of luring us to goodness. The Spirit never gives upon us. The Advocate, the Comforter, the Counselor, is present in every moment, coaxing us to the next right thing, presenting us with opportunities to look past our own ego boundaries and to see everyone as a child of God.  

Tangible Help

To help us in our human weakness, we have been given a marvelous practice that concretely illustrates what we believe. Jesus told us that we are to take one loaf of bread, symbolizing one united community, and break it so that each one can receive it. 

And we are to take one cup and offer it to each one so that we can share a common cup, symbolizing our unity. And these gifts of bread and cup, taken together, help us to see, and feel and even taste the truth that we are one body.  

In his instructions to the church in Corinth, Paul assumes that their gatherings will include the Lord’s Supper. He says,   “when you come together as the church” and then he tells them how to share the Lord’s Supper properly, meaning without distinctions between rich and poor.  (I Cor. 11)

The point is, he assumed they would celebrate the Lord’s supper whenever they came together, and at that sacred meal, it was crucial that former walls of separation should be dismantled. The Spirit is the Spirit of unity. The fruit of the Spirit, he said, includes love, joy, and peace.  

It is a great sadness that our churches are divided racially. We would love to have a multi-cultural congregation; that would show to the world that the Spirit was truly present. 

Maybe that day will come for us. In the meantime, we do all we can to fulfill the mission of the Spirit to bridge chasms of separation. We join in the quest to be anti-racists in our personal lives, in our community, and our nation. This is our joy, as we celebrate the beautiful ministry of the Holy Spirit.  

Oneing

Oneing

Sermon for May 16, 2021

video is here

Podcast is here

John 17:6–19

 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;  for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

There is a statue of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, sitting on a throne, holding an orb in one hand, representing the earth, and a scepter in the other, symbolizing his status as monarch; he is, therefore, being shown as the ruler of the world.  

Nearby in the same museum, as professor Crossan informed us, is another statue. It too has a man seated on a throne, holding the orb of the world in one hand and a scepter of authority in the other. That one is Jupiter, king of the gods in Roman mythology. The two statues are nearly identical except in size, and that Jupiter has a full beard, unlike the clean-shaven Caesar. 

The imagery says it all. Caesar is a human, but more than merely human. Perhaps he is Jupiter in human form. Perhaps he has the spirit of Jupiter. 

The Romans offered no theological explanation for how Caesar could be both human and divine at the same time. Crossan observes that the Romans never had a council to try to come up with a philosophical explanation, as the church did at Nicaea to explain Christ’s relationship with God. But even without an explanation, the message was clear. Caesar was one with Jupiter.  

Unlike the Romans, the early church, however, did feel the need for an explanation for Christ. The man Jesus was, as everyone knew, a deeply spiritual person. People felt close to God when they were in his presence. People sought him out for their spiritual needs. Jesus taught about God with the confidence of someone who knew God intimately. 

So how did Jesus relate to God? Was Jesus really divine, and only appeared to be human? Or was he human but full of divine power? Or was Jesus both human and divine? 

There were differing opinions in the early years. The church council at Nicaea in 325 worked out a consensus view on the matter, but it was not unanimous. Some walked away from that council with alternative views intact. Today we call them heretics. That’s what the winners get to call the losers in theological sports. 

The Gospel of John was the favorite of the winning side at Nicaea. It is easy to see why. The language with which John’s gospel describes Jesus as the Christ is the loftiest of all the gospels. It starts with Christ, not as a baby in a manger, but as the Logos, the Divine Word who was responsible for all creation, becoming part of creation by taking on human flesh. In John’s gospel, we hear Christ in prayer to God. In prayer, Christ gives thanks to God for the unity they share.  

Mystical Union 

It is here that we see so clearly that this gospel is mystical. Ideas float in and out of view like figures in a dream, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing within long, winding paragraphs. Christ is present, but in prayer, says that he is no longer in the world. He speaks of having protected his disciples while he was in the world (past tense), but he is still right there, with them. The language is mystical; chronological time is replaced by cosmic timelessness.  

At Nicaea, and then later at other church councils, they worked out the theology that God was three in one: the Trinity. Jesus, the Spirit, and God the Father are all equally, all eternally God. 

They read the language from John’s gospel which spoke of how Christ was “glorified” — a word that means Christ was radiating God-ness. So it is not hard to see how a concept like the Trinity was needed to explain how Christ could be God, while God the Father is still God, both at the same time, along with the Spirit who is also God.  

Unity “As”

But one idea that was embedded in this language of exalted Christology got left behind. Like a scene cut from a movie that ends up on the cutting room floor, one concept from this proclamation of mystical union between Christ and God was neglected in the Western church and functionally forgotten. 

It is that not only is Christ one with God, but that followers of Christ are also one with God and with each other. The oneness of disciples with God is not a secondary, derivative unity, it is on the same level as the unity between Christ and God. It almost sounds heretical to say it that way, but listen again. Christ prays, 

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

This, he prayed, having just said earlier, 

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:21-23)

As we are one” — not similarly, but “as”. The Eastern Orthodox church has done a better job of teaching this, but the West has let it fade away, except for the mystics. To be fair, you can find teaching on our union with God in Augustine and other Western theologians, but the emphasis is not there.

The Meaning of Oneness with God

What could it mean to be one with God? What could it mean, as Second Peter says, that we can become 

participants of the divine nature” ? 

(2 Peter 1:4)

The answer, for me, is not found in the philosophical explanations of Nicaea or any other formulation, but in experience. It is more like the result of seeing the two statues of Caesar and Jupiter: we experience oneness with God without having to explain it. 

Some of us have had powerful mystical experiences of oneness with God. Others of us have more fleeting, momentary experiences of awe or wonder that come out of nowhere and then vanish.  In either case, we have experienced union with God.

The people we call mystics in the Christian tradition have written of their experiences. One is Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century writer (the first woman writer in English). Living in the time of the plague, or Black Death, she wrote of her experiences, that she called “showings” of God. She used the old English word “Oneing” to describe the oneness she experienced.  

In Showings Julian says, “By myself, I am nothing at all, but in general, I AM the oneing of love. For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists” (Chapter 9). She continues: “The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person” (Chapter 65), and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person” (Chapter 51).

Richard Rohr, who introduced me to Julian says of her thoughts, 

This is not some 21st-century leap of logic. This is not pantheism or mere “New Age” optimism. This is the whole point.” 

(https://cac.org/julian-of-norwich-part-ii-2015-07-21/)

One, but Distant

And yet, is it not the experience of each of us that we are also not one with God? We feel the distance. We feel it when we are not our best selves; when we do or say or think things we know we should not. We feel the distance when we are feeling down or depressed. We feel the distance when we are upset, and when we grieve an important loss. We feel the distance when our egos are in charge, when we are self-focused and entitled. 

Reflecting on this sense of separateness, theologians like Augustine taught that our original condition is that we are born sinners. He taught that we inherit the original sin of Adam, and pass it on to our descendants. 

Does that doctrine of original sin square with the teaching in Christ’s prayer that we are one with God “as” Christ is? 

Other theologians, like Pelagius, pointed out that in the biblical Creation story, the original condition of humans was beloved and blessed. Sin is a fact, but a secondary fact according to the story. Originally, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and pronounced “good.” Alienation came later.  

As Richard Rohr said, oneness with God is the whole point. It is not a state to be wished for or achieved, it is a fact. That means that the sense of alienation or separateness we feel, is the illusion. 

Paul, according to the story in the book of Acts, affirmed to the people gathered there that their poets got it right when they said that 

“In him, we live and move and have our being”. 

(Acts 17:28)

We exist in God because, as Theologian Paul Tillich taught, God is the ground of all existence.  

In this mystical Gospel, did you notice how two kinds of oneness weave in and out together: we are One with God, and we are one with each other. Hear it again: Christ prayed 

so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

That too sounds almost heretical to imagine. How could we humans be one with each other as Christ, God the Father and the Spirit are one with each other? This too, is not to be a goal we aim for or an achievement, but a fact. We are one with each other as we are one with God.  

This unity is the basis for our community. We care for one another and serve one another not because we are blood-related, not beaus we all went to the same school together, not because we worked at the same firm; not even because we are all on the same political team. Rather, our unity is deeper; our unity is based in God’s loving embrace of all of us, and therefore we embrace each other. 

That is why exclusion and discrimination are such a scandal to us. It is inconceivable that people who are one in God should not treat each other with the utmost respect and dignity.

This is also the basis for mission. We are the sent-ones, as John’s Gospel teaches. Just as Jesus was sent on a mission to announce God’s love and forgiveness to the world, so Jesus sent his disciples on the same mission. That is our mission. 

Sometimes it requires words, but sometimes only actions. Sometimes our mission involves muffin making. Sometimes it includes sign making. Sometimes it is direct assistance. At other times it is advocacy and allyship. But it is always based on our union with God, and therefore with every person made in God’s image and likeness. 

The goal is to realize in practice what is true in fact: that we may be one, as Christ and God are One.

Love in Action

Love in Action

Sermon for May 9, 2021

Video is here.

Podcast is here.

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.

Have you ever noticed how often love is connected with death? Poets and singers frequently proclaim that love will last until death. The Song of Solomon says that

love is as strong as death” . 

(Song of Solomon, 8:6)

This text from John’s gospel connects love with death as well. Jesus says, 

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

Everyone knows that true love is far deeper than sentimentality. True love involves action, not just emotion. True love, as every mother can tell you, gets out of bed in the middle of the night because someone needs you. 

True love works as many hours or as many jobs as it takes to keep the family together. True love confronts the bully; even the group bullies.

So when, in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you

he is telling them that their love must look like his. Their love must involve action. Their love may include risk — even the risk of facing mortal danger. 

So, whatever Jesus is thinking about love, it is certainly far deeper than having positive regard towards others. No one ever died by positive regard. 

But Jesus did end up dying for the people he called his “friends.” He considered it an act born out of love; love that could not simply stay quiet. Love that did not look away. Love that did not do a risk analysis and take the safe road.  

I remember when it struck me that when the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable stopped to help the victim of the robber’s attack, he had no guarantee that the robbers had left. By stopping to help, he was putting himself at risk. 

If you want to obey the commands love the Lord your God and love your neighbor, you take the risk.  

The Good Samaritan is an example of love in action, but it is a case of personal, private action. Is that where it stops? Is the command to love to the point of risk simply a matter of personal piety? 

No. It may start there, but it cannot stop there. Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you.” The “as I have loved you” part is important. How did Jesus show love in action? It wasn’t just by healing. Nor just by providing food for the hungry crowds and sight for a couple of blind people. It was also by public action.

Jesus’ Public Action of Love

According to the gospels, Jesus took his ministry a long way from his home in Galilee all the way to Jerusalem, on foot, 80 miles away. 

Why? It was not just to attend the great Passover festival. He did not go to the temple to buy and offer sacrifice. He did what no one else attending the festival did. He went to the temple to shut it down, at least symbolically for several hours.  

Why did he do that? The answer is love. Jesus so loved his people that he could not stand idly by while they were being abused. Abuse is all you can call it. 

The temple in those days was the administrative center of the nation. It is where all the records of debts were stored, which was why, when the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 the first thing the rebels did was break into the temple and burn those records.  

The temple was under the control of Roman-collaborating Israelite aristocrats, the chief priests, and Sadducees, who were skinning the hides off of the peasant population with fees, driving them into debt, driving them off their family land, creating miserable poverty. 

Poverty, at that level, is the condition that creates banditry — which is what the two criminals crucified along with Jesus were allegedly guilty of doing. Desperate people do desperate things.  

You may be asking why haven’t you heard the story told as a public political act of resistance? Because the story was about a Jewish man, Jesus, written by Jewish followers of his, during a time in which their nation had recently revolted from Rome. They were a rebellious nation, in Rome’s eyes. The Roman army needed four years of battle to crush it. 

So the story, although important enough to be recorded in all four canonical gospels, was toned down to make the subversive elements less obvious. 

The idea that Jesus was enough of a threat to warrant execution simply because he preached sermons on the hillsides about a non-violent invisible kingdom of God is preposterous, in my opinion.  

So, Jesus went beyond the personally pious acts of healing individuals and acted publicly. His action at the temple was public and political; it was politically threatening to both King Herod and to Rome, which is why they executed him for it. But it was motivated by love. Love, in the public sphere, is justice.  

As Thomas Merton wrote,

A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental… A theology of Love is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to…desperation.” 

(Merton: Essential Writings, p. 121, cited at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/socialjesus/2021/05/inherent-relationship-love-justice-part2/)

Presbyterians On the Side of Love

We can be proud of the fact that our Presbyterian predecessors here in Arkansas listened to the words, of Jesus, “as I have loved you,” and put them into action. 

In 1958, Governor Faubus was fighting school integration, instructing Arkansas high schools not to open for the Fall term. The Presbytery of Washburn, as it was configured in those days, which included Fort Smith, at its meeting in Little Rock adopted a resolution urging Faubus to countermand his anti-integration order. 

Faubus did not take that rebuke lightly. According to the Presbyterian Historical Society, Faubus “spoke out against the presbytery, stating that the Presbyterian clergy in Little Rock, Arkansas, was comprised of “left-wingers” and “Communists.” 

The presbytery, including Reverend James A. Mahon, Jr., of Second Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, responded to the Governor with the following resolution:

…In the stand we have taken in this Presbytery on these grave matters we are reflecting the repeatedly affirmed convictions of the General Assembly of our denomination. Our Church has historically stood for the principles of democracy, free education, and the right of every individual to express his honest convictions. We believe that these principles derive directly from the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. These principles we propose to maintain and uphold.” Signed Moderator, James Mahon Jr. of Fort Smith, and Jan Riffin, Stated Clerk, Sept. 16, 1958. 

(https://www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/exhibits/church-and-segregation-page-5)

Like the prophet Elijah, who confronted King Ahab, 

like Isaiah, who confronted King Ahaz, 

like Jeremiah who confronted king Zedekiah, 

like Amos who confronted king 

Jeroboam, like Jesus who confronted king Herod, continuing that long tradition of biblical prophets, 

so the Presbytery confronted the racism of the Governor, out of love for the people who were being oppressed. 

Love “as I have loved you,” as Jesus said, is love in action. Love, in the public sphere, is justice.  

The Belhar Confession

This was most recently re-affirmed in the Belhar Confession. Born out of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Reformed Church produced a confession which was added to our Book of Confessions in 2016 by the 222nd General Assembly. The confession says:

“We believe 

  • that God has revealed God’s self as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people; 
  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged 
  • that God calls the church to follow God in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; 
  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; 
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; 
  • that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”  

— The Confession of Belhar 10.7

Note those powerful verbs: the church must “stand by…witness against … strive against…and stand with.” Those are verbs of action. Those are verbs of love “as I have loved you.” 

Those are the actions we take because, as it says, “God calls the church to follow God in this.” 

May we be the people who answer that call, to that kind of love in action.

Fruitfulness or Firewood

Fruitfulness or Firewood

Sermon for May 2, 2021, Easter 5B

Video is here.

Podcast is here.

John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

They say that one of the differences between a cheap wine and a fine wine is the amount of pruning done.  The more a vine is pruned, the more the energy of the plant is concentrated in the  remaining clusters.  Of course that means less total volume from the vineyard, which is one of the reasons why fine wines cost more.  Pruning is essential.

In John’s gospel the metaphor of a well-pruned, fruitful vine is employed to help us understand the process of living the life of a follower of Jesus, or “disciple” as Jesus calls us.  The goal is fruitfulness.  

People grow plants for different reasons.  Some plants are grown for shade, others, like flowers, just for the pleasure we get looking at them.  And some are grown to produce consumable fruit.  

This metaphor of the vine teaches us that we are not meant to be passive shade-providers, nor are we passive nice-to-look-at people.  We have a mission; we are to produce fruit.  We are here, not for ourselves, but to make life better than it would have been had we not been here producing fruit for others.  

John’s gospel is the most mystical of our four canonical gospels, which is why the theme of union with God is so prominent.  John’s gospel expresses the understandings of a community of Christians who are seeking to be fruitful and faithful and to the gospel, that is, to the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught.  

This community learned that the way to be successful at bearing fruit is found in a solid, enduring connection with God.  In the metaphor, the branch that wants to bear fruit has to be connected solidly and continually to the vine.  

God is the vine.  God is our source.  God’s Spirit is the energy within us that produces the fruit that we bear that makes a difference in the world.  

Staying connected, or as it says in our version, “abiding” is what we seek to do. Staying connected is the reason for the spiritual disciplines we engage in.  As we meditate, as we pray, as we gather for worship and study, as we practice generosity and service, we are strengthening our connection to the Source.   

John uses the langue of hyperbole as Jesus says,

apart from me you can do nothing.”  

There is a profound depth of truth here.  We admit that there is a lot of good done by many groups that have no connection with Christianity or even with God.  But the point of the exaggeration is that staying connected to God is crucial for us.

We also know that even in groups that are Christian, fruitfulness depends on being deeply connected to the Source.   Even groups with high ideals like feeding the poor or peacemaking can become toxic if the individuals within the group have unchecked egos.  

But where groups practice the spiritual disciplines of staying connected, great work can be done; work that makes a difference.

However, we are human.  We are prone to falling into unhelpful patterns of living.  We are prone to passively accepting the status quo.  We are prone to judging.  We are prone to withholding forgiveness.  We are prone to scape-boating, and all kinds of unhelpful behaviors.  Even while trying to stay connected to the vine, we can develop dead wood.  

So, the pruning process is important.  John uses the exaggerated metaphor of burning to describe what happens to the dead wood.  It is simply not useful, so it gets disposed in the fire and forgotten.  

The Pruning Process

Life itself often involves a pruning process.  Many people have noticed that we tend to cycle through three stages in life. Rohr calls them: Order, Disorder, and Reorder.  Theologian Walter Brueggemann names them orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  

First things seem to be going okay, then a change comes.  Our plans get upset by unforeseen circumstances.  We become disordered or disoriented by a calamity in our jobs, or health, or our relationships.  Our worlds fall apart.  Maybe the pandemic has been a disordering, disorienting time for you.  

These are the pruning times.  They are the times for reassessment.  They are times to awaken from slumber and become newly aware of what is happening.  We ask, “How did I/we get here?  We ask ourselves, “how did I contribute to this?”  What dead wood do I need to have pruned? What dead ends do I need to examine?

This process of Order, Disorder, and Reorder is a continual cycle for each individual. It is also a cycle that groups go through.  The church goes through cycles like this, both the church as a whole and individual congregations.  Nations go through these cycles too.  The disorienting pruning process is not easy, but it is necessary if we are to bear fruit.  

Rev. John Rankin

As I was considering this process I was reminded of the story of Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian Minister at the Jefferson County Presbyterian Church in Tennessee.  Rev. Rankin’s life bore great fruit that made life better for countless people.  

But he also knew times of pruning disorientation. He was a strong abolitionist.  He spoke against “all forms of oppression” and, specifically, against slavery. His bio. Says that 

“He was one of the founders of the Tennessee Manumission Society, in 1815. He was shocked when his elders responded by telling him that he should consider leaving Tennessee if he intended ever to oppose slavery from the pulpit again.” 

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rankin_(abolitionist) ).  

So he left Tennessee for the Riply, Ohio, a town on the  banks of the Ohio River.  From there he preached against the evils of slavery.  

But he did more than preach.  His brother Thomas was a merchant in Virginia.  Rev. Rankin learned that Thomas  had purchased some slaves.  So he wrote a series of letters to his brother, arguing point by point why slavery was immoral and unacceptable for Christians, and must be abolished nationally.  

His letters were published in a local paper and influenced many, including his brother, to free their slaves and join the anti-slavery movement.  

Rev. Rankin endured much opposition.  His house became the target of attacks; rocks were thrown though the windows.  So Rev. Rankin moved his wife and 13 children to a house on the top of a hill overlooking the Ohio River.  He did more than merely preach and write against the immorality of slavery.  At the top of that hill they erected a flag pole on which, at night, they hoisted a lantern.  It helped guide the many runaway slaves across the river from Kentucky.  

He was, in other words, an early station on the underground railroad.  There were times in which he had ten runaway slaves along with his thirteen children in his home for the night.  It was difficult.  It required sacrifice.  It produced opposition.  But the fruit that he bore changed lives.  

In one of his letters to his brother he recounts one of those changed lives. 

“The Reverend John Gloucester…pastor of an African church in the city of Philadelphia…passed a considerable part of his life in slavery, yet after his liberation he became an able and useful minister of the gospel. His piety and talents recommended him to the benevolence of Union Presbytery, East Tennessee, by whose generous exertions, he, with his wife and children, were liberated from bondage; and he, educated, and afterwords set a part to the gospel ministry. And though he spent, in servitude, the part of life, in which the powers of the mind are most susceptible of improvement, yet the strength of his mind was such as enabled him to soon acquire so considerable a fund of knowledge as rendered him an useful and acceptable preacher both to the white and black inhabitants of Philadelphia. He possessed, as we believe, the confidence and esteem of his brethren in the ministry, some of whom were among the most eminent in our nation, for piety, talents, and literature. Had it not been for the benevolence of the union Presbytery, this man, amiable as he was, in the possession of the strongest powers of mind, and all the fine sensibilities of our nature, ornamented and improved by the renovating influence of divine grace, must have worn throughout life the iron yolk of cruel and unjust bondage! He is now released from all his labors and suffering; and though here he was covered with a sable skin, and was once a poor, dejected and despised slave, we have reason to believe he will shine forever as a bright star in the firmament of eternal glory! Who would not [remove] the chains that bound such a man!” 

(Letters on Slavery, Letter IV)

It was the Union Presbytery of East Tennessee, in spite of being in a slave state, whose exertions emancipated from Slavery Rev. Gloucester and his family.  They,  and faithful people like Reverend Rankin, will be remembered for the good fruit they bore, even as others resisted.   

Reorder

The third step in the cycle, after order and disorder, is Reorder.  With the experience and wisdom gained in the pruning process of disorder, a new time of Reordered fruitfulness can emerge.  You have probably seen this play out in your own life.  After the calamity, some new opportunity is born.  A new time of fruitfulness blossoms.  

The question for us is, What is the fruit that is needed in our times?  What conditions of disorder do we observe?  Who are the people who are suffering, hoping someone’s fruitfulness will bless them, as Rev. Rankin blessed so many?  What will history remember us for?  

Let us be remembered for being people who stayed connected to the true vine;  people committed to the mission and ministry of Jesus.  People empowered by the Spirit to bear the fruit of that vine for the hunger of our world.   

Good Shepherding

Good Shepherding

Reflections on our Wisdom Tradtion for April 25, 2021, Easter 4B

Video is here at the YouTube channel of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR. A welcoming, affirming community.

Podcast is here.

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.”

There is an ancient Roman myth that credited a god, eventually identified as Hermes, with saving a city in a time of plague, by carrying a ram on his shoulders as he walked around the city’s walls. 

That image was taken up by ancient Christians and deployed on the walls of the catacombs in Rome to depict Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb (instead of a ram) on his shoulders. 

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd became the most common of the symbolic representations of Christ found in early Christian art in the Catacombs.  

Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd. Of course, he did. Jesus was Jewish. His Hebrew Bible had depicted God as the Shepherd who guides his people, like sheep, through “the valley of the shadow of death” into “green pastures beside still waters” as the 23rd Psalm says. 

The prophet Ezekiel took up the image of the shepherd and applied it to the human leadership of Israel. Ezekiel imagined a future day in which a good shepherd-leader, or king, would arrive; one who had the interests of the sheep at heart, unlike the shepherd-kings of old, who served only their own interests.

Shepherds, because Wolves

So Jesus and his people were familiar with the shepherd image. But I wonder if we see it the way they did. We see it as peaceful and reassuring. 

Maybe the lamb on the shepherd’s shoulders in those catacomb paintings is the one out of 100 that got lost. The shepherd is bringing it back to the fold safely; we imagine a happy moment. We usually don’t think about wolves.

But Jesus and the people of his day had to think about wolves. That was one of the reasons a shepherd was required: if you want the sheep to survive, you need someone to start swinging his staff and yelling bloody murder when the wolves arrive. It was serious business. It was dangerous. 

If the wolf won, it would not be a good day for sheep or shepherd. It was an existential question as to whether or not a hired hand would be up to the task when the snarling started and the wolf crouched down into pre-attack position.

There is only one kind of shepherd that will do: one willing to put his life on the line; one not afraid to take on the wolf.  

Jesus as Shepherd: Opposition

If that is how Jesus imagined his role, what does that mean? It meant that he understood his role as both leader and guide for his people, and as to-the-death protector. 

He was a leader and guide because he knew how to take his people to the green pastures and still waters of spiritual union with God. 

He was to-the-death protector because he was willing to confront the powers of oppression head-on, and take the fall, if necessary.  

The fact that there was opposition to Jesus was always going to be potentially true, and quickly became true. Why else do you begin your ministry, as Jesus did, saying, 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?  

If you didn’t expect opposition, why would you say to your followers, 

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”? 

(Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:10-12) 

The real Jesus never called his people to seek security at any cost. 

The real Jesus did not imagine that his people would find the fluffiest pillow to rest on while the boot of oppression was on the necks of their neighbors. 

Nor did the real Jesus permit violence to be their salvation. In the end, Jesus was a person who would rather die than kill. That is the kind of shepherd he was.

Shepherding as Itinerant Healing

Scholars of the historical Jesus are nearly unanimous that he gained a reputation as a profound teacher and healer. 

Whether or not you understand or accept the idea of faith-healing today, in the ancient world healing was sought-after and accepted as possible. 

The Greek myths tell of the god Asclepius, son of Apollo, who had healing powers. Temples to Asclepius were scattered throughout ancient Greece. 

Hippocrates, the legendary “father of medicine”, the one for whom the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals take, may have begun his career at one of those Asclepeion. People who experienced healing at them offered sacrifices and paid for their treatment.  

So Jesus was a noted healer, but never set up shop in one location. He kept moving. He kept going to where the people were, instead of making them come to him. 

Scholars suggest that this was completely radical. His family would have expected him to use his extraordinary gifts to produce income for them. But no, he kept moving.  

John’s gospel captures this strategy when he gives Jesus the line 

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” 

The sheep of other folds most likely refers to people outside the fold of Judaism, in other words, gentiles. By John’s time, many gentiles had started listing to the voice of Jesus and following him as their shepherd.  

There were still wolves around. In fact opposition to the early Christian movement that started as sporadic and local eventually became systemic and widespread. Many people died for their faith, receiving the benediction Jesus had pronounced for those who are “reviled and persecuted” for standing up for what is right.

Three Take-aways for us

So what can we take from this message? What wisdom can we find that applies to our times?  

First, everything we do as followers of Jesus, we do with the confidence that we are being shepherded by a God who loves us, cares for us, and has our best interest at heart. 

We do not fear God, we do not fear judgment, we do not believe in a karma-like, “you get what you deserve” world. 

We believe in mercy. We believe in grace. We believe that we are beloved by God, just as a good shepherd loves her sheep. 

That is the underlying confidence with which we approach life, and that is the confidence with which we will face death.  

Second, we expect opposition. We expect to be misunderstood. We expect to be disrespected by some. We do not believe we are in a popularity contest. We do not believe that the essence of life consists in not making waves. 

Rather we believe the command implicit in the Jesus-shaped life is “Thou shalt not stand idly by.” Thou shalt not seek the personal purity of the priest and the Levite while the robber’s victim lies dying on the Jericho road, even if it puts you at risk.  

That is why we are so involved. That is why we support the Sack Lunch program; that is why we make suppers for the Salvation Army. That is why we collect canned goods. That is why we are active in our community in so many ways, like Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Police and Community Engagement, the Bail Project and others.  And that is why we are as generous as we can be with our national offerings. 

Besides being loved by God and expecting opposition, the third takeaway from this story is that like Jesus, the church must be missional rather than invitational. Jesus did not just invite people to a shrine in Nazareth, he went out to their villages; he went into their homes; he met them where they were and offered God’s grace to them there.

Every book and article I have read in the last decade that talks about the future of the church is unanimous: what used to work in the past is not working now, and will not work in the future. 

The church that has existed for so long expecting people to come into our doors and do it our way is getting smaller every year. 

The future of the church, they all agree, is that instead of being invitational, we become missional. Instead of focusing our energy inside our walls, we move out.  

In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, the good shepherd ends his ministry saying to his followers, 

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 

So we get involved, taking up where the shepherd left off, following his lead, offering the healing power of inclusion, advocacy, ally-ship, and direct action.  

Before I went overseas I was in missionary training which took us to a church at the foot of the towers of the Cabrini Green housing complex in Chicago. The pastor said something I will never forget. He said when he gets volunteers to come and help with the many programs they ran for the residents of Cabrini Green, he tells them: 

Your job is not to come here as a friend. Poor people don’t need more friends. Your job is to help shepherd these people through the systems of our society: the medical system, the criminal justice system, the housing system, the welfare system, and all the others. Your job is to shepherd them.”  

Rev. Chuck Enfield

That is a beautiful image. It can be taken too far, as in, being patronizing, but that’s not what he meant. He meant that in the same way Jesus offered shepherding-love and healing, so we can be shepherds to the hurting sheep of our context by offering compassion and the healing power of allies, using our white, middle-class privilege for good. 

But to do this, we must, like Jesus, go out to where the people are. As one person said it, “the church has left the building.” At least the authentic church has.  

So, we gather in the building that is as pretty and gracious as we can make it, to be encouraged, strengthened, reminded, and motivated to go out of the building into mission. 

We gather around the table to break bread and pour out wine, remembering Jesus’ life and teaching to be renewed to leave the building as activist-shepherds. We realize that we may face opposition, misunderstanding, disrespect, or maybe worse, but that is a small price to pay for doing something significant with our short lives on this planet. 

We will not stand idly by. We will listen to the Shepherd’s voice, and go out where he leads us, ready for the wolves. 

A Parable of Presence

A Parable of Presence

Sermon for April 18, 2021, Easter 3B

Video is here.

Luke 24:36-48

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.

I had the opportunity several years ago to hear Bryan Stevenson in person. He had just written his book, “Just Mercy” in which he detailed his experiences as a newly minted, Harvard Law School graduate. 

The main story in the book is about a horrible miscarriage of justice in which a black man was framed for the murder of a white woman. He had been incarcerated for decades before Brian was able to get him exonerated.  

Anyway, Brian described being at his grandmother’s house during a visit by Rosa Parks. Rosa asked him to explain who he was, and what was the Equal Justice Initiative he had started.   

Brian explained how they were working to free people who had been falsely incarcerated, confront racial bias in sentencing, address prison conditions, and other initiatives. 

After hearing all of this Rosa Parks leaned back in her chair and said, “Ooo, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired tired.” Everyone laughed, and then she added, “that’s why you have to be brave, brave, brave.

I remembered Brian sharing that story because I think it fits us to a tee. With everything going on, we are tempted to throw up our hands and say, “I’m just tired, tired, tired.” 

Tired of the pandemic, even though the pandemic is again surging; tired of waking up to the news of another mass shooting. This last one at FedEx in Indiana is the 45th mass shooting since the Atlanta Spa murders one just month ago, on March 16. 

We are tired of trying to wrap our heads around the casual fact that another black man, really a 13-year-old boy, was shot dead by police with his hands up in the air, after throwing away his gun. 

We are tired of the fact that this country is so awash in guns that a 13-year-old has easy access to one. 

We are tired of the the string of terrible events and conditions that had to transpire to produce a society in which a 13-year-old is out at night carrying a gun. 

We are probably only days away from the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial and whatever aftermath may follow, depending on the verdict. Yes, we are, by now, tired, tired, tired.  

So we come to (or tune into) church. I’m sure some of us are so tired that we hope church is the one place we can leave all this trauma behind and escape. 

If so, I’m sorry to have brought it up, but our faith calls us to be people of action, not people who passively accept things as they are. 

Our faith calls us to be people making a difference, not people of indifference.

So we come together looking for wisdom, seeking a reason for hope, and needing encouragement to be “brave, brave, brave.” We come to our wisdom tradition asking of it a word for our times. So let us look at the text before us. 

An Appearance Parable

I take this story as a parable.  The gospels tell us many parables of Jesus, and then tell us parables about Jesus. We read the parables that Jesus told, and then read the parables that the followers of Jesus wrote about him after his earthly life. 

So, as a parable, what is Luke trying to say to his community of Jesus-followers, several decades after Jesus’ bodily presence?  

We pick up the story as the disciples are in Jerusalem, on Easter evening talking about something strange that had just happened. 

Two disciples had just told them that they had met the risen Jesus. They had been walking towards the village of Emmaus, when Jesus met them, though oddly, they did not at first recognize him. He opened their minds to the scriptures, that is the works attributed to “Moses and all the prophets,” 

about how Messiah had to suffer. 

Then, when they invited him in for supper, and 

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.” . 

(Luke 24:30)

That was what they were discussing when suddenly, our text says, 

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

There is an unsolvable tension running through these dream-like parables of the appearances of Jesus after his crucifixion. 

He has a body, even crucifixion scars, but he can pass through the walls of locked rooms. 

He is the same, and yet sometimes unrecognized at first. 

He can eat broiled fish, but disappear and appear at will, even transporting himself over significant distances instantly. 

What could all of this mean? Luke wants to tell a story in which Jesus is present, but not entirely human anymore. 

In other words, Jesus is present, but not because he somehow recovered from his injuries, escaped a tomb, overcame a guard, and is now out and about, a resuscitated mortal. Jesus’ presence is real, but different. 

Jesus is present to the disciples as Buddha is a present reality for Buddhists. When we gather to break bread in memory of him, we actualize that memory. When the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given, we continue to see Jesus. 

Here is what this scene is doing:  The hopes of the disciples of Jesus had been raised that maybe Jesus was the Messiah they had been longing for; the hero who would lead them in victorious confrontation with their Roman oppressors, just as Joshua had led the armies of Israel to conquer the Promised Land centuries earlier. But their hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  

For people who are “tired, tired, tired” of having their hopes raised, only to be dashed, this parable says that Jesus is present to give them a reason to be “brave, brave, brave.”

So Luke pointedly writes that Jesus opened their minds to a new, reading of their Hebrew Bibles, the stories attributed to “Moses and the prophets, and the Psalms” with attention to the way suffering itself can be redemptive. 

A person who is willing to suffer everything that the powers of the Empire can throw at him, even suffering death, can become the catalyst for a movement of people who use non-violence to do far more than violence could ever accomplish. 

But the only way they will be brave enough to experience the “peace” that Jesus blessed them with, as he greeted them, was to be assured that he was still with them. 

So, decades after anyone has had a visionary experience of Jesus, as many reported having in the days after his death, Luke assures us that Jesus is still powerfully present. 

Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God  is still alive. Jesus’ gift to us of a new paradigm for understanding God as love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, instead of anger and judgment, is still alive.  

Acknowledging Doubt

But is presence in memory enough?  It is not easy to keep the vision of the Kingdom of God alive when everything we are dealing with makes us “tired, tired, tired.” It is easy to lose faith.

That’s why, when writing this parable, Luke acknowledges that fact by expressing doubt on the part of the disciples, even while they see and speak with Jesus. Luke says,

he showed them his hands and his feet…. [but] in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….

Doubt is normal; it is baked into the cake when we are following one who felt abandoned by God on the cross.  Nevertheless, even in the midst of doubt, Jesus is present.

Repentance and Forgiveness

Luke’s parable moves on from doubt to a commissioning scene.  Luke has Jesus making this final point:

“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…”

First, the mission of the Messiah is not a violent victory, but a non-violent embrace of suffering. 

The strategy is being willing to receive the blows, the lashes, the pepper spray, and the bullets, instead of returning them, thus stopping the cycle of violence.  The world 

has been drowning in the blood of vengeance since Cain and Able.  

But if there are people who are brave enough to receive violence without returning it, the cycle can stop.  Messiah suffered, without retaliation; so must we.

Second, there is a message that must be proclaimed. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins” sums it up. Repentance is necessary because what is going on is unacceptable. It  must stop. 

What is going on in our times that needs to be repented of?   The selfish and morally bankrupt idea that my personal liberty is the highest ethical value, even when it comes at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, has to be exposed as unjustifiable and anti-Christian. 

There is more that must be repented of. Discriminatory violence against people of color is wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Systems that create enormous disparities of opportunity and vast disparities of outcomes must be systematically dismantled. Therefore, “repentance,” that is, deciding that the status quo must end, is required.  

But repentance is not the end of the story. Forgiveness of sins is also part of the message. Forgiveness means that our goal is not vengeance, but restoration. We are not seeking blood for blood, but equity and justice. 

As God is forgiving, and because Jesus taught us to forgive even our enemies, we strive for distributive justice, not for retributive justice. 

We believe in redemption. 

We believe in restitution. 

We believe in rehabilitation. 

And therefore, we believe in expungement and sealing of records after incarceration where appropriate.  

Let us finally notice that this message of repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed, “to all nations.” This is not just for white people, as if it ever was. 

It should be ridiculously obvious, since Jesus himself was a person of color who probably looked more like Yasser Arafat than George Cluny, but in today’s cultural context, it must be said. 

Jesus had a vision of a reconciled humanity. No one is excluded. No discrimination is tolerable. So when groups have been singled out for oppression, discrimination, or violence, like people of color or Asians, or gender-non-binary people, we are called to stand with them and be allies for them.  

Yes, it is true that by now, many of us are “tired, tired, tired.” But Jesus is still present among us. 

Let that give us the impetus to be “brave, brave, brave” as we answer his call to keep proclaiming the message of repentance and forgiveness, until this State, this country all the nations of the world find reasons to lay down their precious guns, their conspiracy theories, their voter suppression tactics and their fear of others, and let love win.

The Necessity of Doubt

The Necessity of Doubt

Sermon for April 11, 2021, Easter 2B

video is here.

Podcast is here.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I often begin the welcome to our worship service saying that you are in god company here whether you have strong faith or lots of doubts and questions, or are somewhere in between. 

I wonder where you put yourself on that continuum? Do you feel settled and at ease when it comes to faith or do you feel like it’s a toss-up? 

This story from John’s gospel allows us to address the topic of doubt head-on. In some faith communities, doubt is frowned upon as if it represented a deficiency of character. Nobody wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.” 

But I believe that is a gross misunderstanding. I believe that this story exists to acknowledge the fact that doubt is part of the experience of everyone who is trying to be a follower of Jesus, especially those of us living in the years after his earthly life and physical presence.  

Jesus’ Doubt

I want to begin, not by looking at Thomas’ doubt in this story, which, by the way, I take as a parable, but rather at Jesus’ doubt. Yes, Jesus experienced doubt. There are at least three indications we have of Jesus’ doubt. 

First, Jesus came to doubt what everyone else around him believed about God. Jesus came to doubt what his Hebrew Bible said about God. 

In what way? They call it the doctrine of retribution, meaning you get what is coming to you. The Hebrew Bible teaches that if you do right if you are faithful to obey, you will be blessed by God. 

Alternatively, if you are unfaithful and disobedient, God will curse you. Many people still believe that today. Maybe you are one of them. I hope not.

Now, I want to acknowledge that this is not the only view expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The whole book of Job is about how that karma-like theology doesn’t always work out. Good people like Job should have been blessed, but he suffered horribly, so his friends believed he was being cursed by God for some secret disobedience. 

They were wrong. Job was righteous but suffered. So the book of Job represents an alternative view. But that is the minority voice that did not win the debate. Overwhelmingly, the Hebrew Bible proclaims blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. That is what God is like, or so it said.

Doubting Retribution

At some point in his life, Jesus started doubting if that were true. Why? The indication we have from the gospels is that Jesus concluded that that view of God simply did not match his experience of the world. 

When asked about whose fault it was that a man was born blind, the disciples assume there are two options: either it was the blind man’s fault — although that’s hard to believe since he was blind from birth, before he ever had a chance to do anything wrong. Or, it was his parent’s fault, although that too seems unfair. That’s why they asked Jesus the question: it was a puzzle for them.  

Suffering blindness must be a curse, so someone’s sin was the basis for it, but whose? Jesus’ answer reveals that he had doubted the doctrine of retribution to the point of rejecting it. Who sinned that the man was born blind? Jesus said, 

Neither” . 

(John 9:1)

He said it doesn’t work that way. Jesus said, 

[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” . 

(Matt. 5:44)

He also said, “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” . 

(Luke 6:35)

So Jesus doubted what everyone taught him about God, and came to a different conclusion based on his experience. 

Doubt in the Garden

The second occasion of Jesus’ doubt was more existential than theological. It was in the garden of the Mount of Olives on the night of his arrest. This is subtle, but I think we can see the doubt in Jesus’ mind and heart as he prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from him. 

Maybe he was only doubting his own courage, but I think it went beyond simple fear. I believe he doubted whether God would be there for him. He overcame that doubt, but he experienced it. 

Doubt from the Cross

The third case is the most intense and unmistakable. The gospels report that on the cross, Jesus cried out,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

(Mark 15:34)

That is doubt, pure and simple. Yes, even Jesus doubted God. Jesus felt literally God-forsaken. If Jesus himself doubted God, then doubt is baked into the cake of Christianity.  

Suffering and Doubt

Of course, it is. Suffering is horrible. We don’t understand it. We ask why? and look for reasons. But sometimes there are no reasons, like when someone is born blind, or dies of Covid, or cancer. Who can explain why some people have mental illness or are the victims of gun violence? 

The explanation cannot be that God simply lets suffering, that could have been prevented, happen. That kind of God would not be good. That kind of God would not be love. That kind of God would not be the kind Jesus taught us to trust.  

God, I have come to understand, is not a being at all. God is the ground of being, that which makes existence possible.  God is Spirit. God is present always, everywhere, and to everyone. God is not controlling, because love would never seek to control the loved one. 

God is present spiritually, luring us, coaxing us, encouraging us to goodness, even after we have experienced suffering or evil. 

The name we give to this spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Some theologians call him the Cosmic Christ, because the Christ-Spirit is present throughout the world and throughout time. 

But because God’s spiritual presence is invisible and because suffering does happen, it is impossible to avoid times of doubt. It was impossible even for Jesus to avoid times of doubt. But doubt does not change anything. God did not abandon Jesus, and does not abandon us.  

John’s Dream-like Parable 

So John told a dream-like story, a parable, about Jesus appearing twice, inside a locked room after his crucifixion. Each time his message is “peace.” He commissions his fearful followers, sending them, just as he had been sent, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. 

He breathed on them, symbolically conferring the invisible Spirit of God into them, just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam, according to the Creation story. And doubting Thomas is part of the story because all of this can be hard to believe.  

But we can do hard things. We can believe things we cannot see. We can affirm that even despite local setbacks, 

the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Dr. King said. 

MLK

We can believe in the power of love to conquer evil, even though there are still mass shootings, even though people in this state refuse to pass hate-crime legislation, even when, for now, transgendered people are trampled upon and minority votes are cleverly suppressed. The struggle continues, and we believe that justice, equity, and inclusion will prevail. 

We have not seen Jesus with our own eyes or heard him pronounce his blessings on the meek, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice, but we have read and believe the blessing Jesus gave all of us when he said, 

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 Not that you will avoid all moments of doubt, but that you will take the risk that it’s worth believing, meaning trusting, even through times of doubt, just as Jesus did.

The Final Question

The Final Question

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

Video is here

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Many years passed after Jesus’ earthly life before the celebration of Easter became an annual event. In the early days of the church, every Sunday was meant as a celebration of the presence of the risen Christ. 

Luke’s gospel tells us that when followers of Jesus gathered around a table, the risen Christ was made known to them “in the breaking of the bread.” So every Sunday’s Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper service was a celebration of the resurrection.  

So, by the time Mark wrote the story we read of the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning, probably around thirty or more years after Jesus’ earthly life, he was writing to followers of Jesus who had celebrated Christ’s risen presence hundreds of times. 

He wrote the story, not to people who needed information, but to people who needed to know how they were going to get through the next week.  

Somber Times for Mark’s Community

Mark wrote the story of Jesus in complicated and dangerous times. A Jewish revolt against the oppressive Roman Empire was either brewing and nearly boiling over, or had perhaps already started. 

Most of the early Christians were Jews, so now they were considered a rebel nation, subject to Roman retaliation. Hundreds of thousands died in that failed revolt, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.  

During that time, Nero, emperor of Rome, had begun a persecution of Jesus’ followers (they were not yet called Christians). Peter and Paul both died during Nero’s reign of terror. Followers of Jesus had previously been shielded because the Romans had considered them a sect of Judaism.  

But their lack of attention to Kosher laws and Saturday Sabbath observance led to a complete rupture, and the Jesus followers had been kicked out of the synagogues. Now they were exposed as an illegal religion, which was getting a reputation for refusing to call the Emperor “lord.” Mark was writing to Jesus-followers who were living in double jeopardy and fear. 

Mark ended this story and his whole gospel with the words “terror, amazement and afraid.” 

“[the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Our Sober Times

The somber emotional tone of the story matches the emotional tone of the early Jesus-followers Mark was writing for. It is the right tone for us as well. We have endured a whole year of a global pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans, some from among us. 

It has been a year of watching and rewatching the video of the slow-motion murder of a black man by a white policeman.  Ironically, today we celebrate Easter Sunday on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. 

It has been a year in which we have witnessed worldwide protest of the systemic racism in our country and around the world, which the murder of George Floyd emblemized. 

And now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds, we see that video again.  We hear testimony from the people who watched the murder, filmed it, begged Chauvin to desist, even after Floyd had no pulse, and in the end, saw his lifeless body being removed. 

The mood today is somber. It is made all the more so by the fear of what will erupt in this country if Chauvin is not convicted — knowing that convictions of white officers who kill black men are rare in our America. 

So, the tone of the story is somber, but not hopeless.  Notice that Mark does not set this story in pre-dawn darkness as John’s gospel did.  Instead, the women set out early, but not too early. The sun has already risen. The problems they will face and the decisions they are going to have to make are made in the clear light of day. 

Remember, the Jesus-followers hearing this story read to them have celebrated the resurrection on hundreds of Sundays. It is not a question of whether or not Jesus is present to them, it is a question of what they are going to do about it. 

So, in the story, now that the Sabbath is over, on which they, being observant Jews, cannot work, the women go to the tomb. They take with them with anointing spices, expecting to find a corpse. 

But how will they get to the body? They wonder who will help them roll the stone from the entrance? They think the stone is their problem. Soon they will realize that they have misidentified the problem.  

The Messenger and the Task

When they get to the tomb, they see that the problem they thought they were going to have to deal with was not a problem. The stone had been removed. The real problem was coming. 

There is a mysterious “young man, dressed in a white robe” sitting there in the tomb. He is not explained and does not explain himself. He simply functions in the story as a messenger from another realm. Perhaps he is supposed to be an angel, although we are not told. 

All of the gospel stories of Easter morning have strange, dreamlike elements in them, though no two of them are identical. 

Anyway, the message he reports has two parts. First, it is a reminder of something Jesus told them already, and second it a simple task they must accomplish. 

The reminder is that Jesus said that after his death, he would be raised and would meet his followers back in Galilee, where they were from. The simple task is that they should report this reminder to Jesus’ disciples, and specifically to Peter.  

Now, this is the ultimate question. Will they do it? Will they believe the reminder and report it to the male disciples? Or will they let their fear stop them? In other words, will they act as if they believe the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee, or is it all just too good to be true? This problem is bigger than the stone in front of the tomb.

The Ambiguous Conclusion

How did they do? The way Mark tells the story, it’s ambiguous. It looks as though the women’s fear was overwhelming. It looks like they went away and told no one. It looks like they did not expect to have the risen Christ with them as they went back home to Galilee to resume their lives, post-crucifixion.  

But of course, Mark’s audience, the Jesus-followers hearing this story, know that somehow the disciples did hear the message. So maybe the women found their courage. 

But as we hear the story, we imagine ourselves there, identifying with the women, asking ourselves: what am I prepared to believe, and how am I prepared to act?  

Denying or Affirming the Resurrection 

In Mark’s gospel, we hear the reminder from that mysterious young man in the empty tomb that Jesus said he would be found, after his death, back home in Galilee. How would they find the risen Christ there? Mark does not get specific. 

Fortunately, Matthew did. In his famous parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells people how to find him. He says that whenever we see someone hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, or in prison, we are seeing Jesus. And every time we provide food for the hungry, water to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing for the naked, and provide for the incarcerated, we are serving Jesus. The risen Christ is not only present by his Spirit, and made known to us “in the breaking of the bread,” he is also present in our own Galilee hometowns in the guise of the “least of these” as Jesus calls them.  

Irish author, philosopher, and Christian theologian, Peter Rollins, has famously said this:

 “Without equivocation or hesitation, I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. …

“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

“However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

So the ultimate question on Easter Sunday is will we affirm or deny the resurrection? It is the question the women on that first Easter had to face. It is the question we face every day. 

Will we affirm the risen Christ as advocates for the George Floyds of the world? 

Will we be allies for the Asian community? 

Will we resist voter suppression laws? Will we speak out against discrimination of the LGBTQ and transgendered communities? 

Will we demand action to stop climate change? Will we work to end cash bail? 

Will we organize efforts to expunge and seal the records of people who have paid their debts to society so that they can work, find housing and get educations? 

Here in predominantly Christian Arkansas the resurrection is being denied constantly.  A mockery is being made of the message of Jesus.   

Let it not be so among us!   There are so many ways in which to affirm the resurrection; to act on the basis that Christ is a living presence in us, and among us. 

So let us answer the ultimate question with courage. Let us take the risk that Christ is risen indeed, and he has gone ahead of us, and will meet us right here in the River Valley of Arkansas!