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A Sermon For Pride Sunday: Draw The Circle Wide

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Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still…

                                               

They drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.

 ~Edwin Markham

Mark 7:24-30

And from there (at table in Jerusalem) Jesus arose and went away to the region of Tyre [a group of people often in conflict with or at very least strangers to the Jews]. 

And Jesus entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hidden. Immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek (gentile), a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her little daughter. 

And Jesus said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  

But the woman answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

And Jesus said to her, “Because of this word go, the demon has left your little daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.

Sermon: Draw The Circle Wide

Just before where our story for this morning picks up Jesus is at table with his disciples in Jerusalem… after yet another argument with the temple elite and legal experts about what makes something holy, ordinary or unclean… this is a long held debate, in the ancient Jewish tradition and later in our own Christian tradition… what makes something we do sacred, profane or just plain ordinary… The Pharisees Jesus argued with were making a case for their tradition in which it was customary to wash ones hands in a ritual way before sitting down at a meal, they complained that Jesus’ disciples weren’t all following these rules… Jesus didn’t actually take time to argue the merit of the ritual itself… we all know rituals can either be deeply meaningful or they can become meaningless… Jesus pushes the Pharisees to remember why they even participate in these rituals… he says its not about the ritual, its about what’s behind it… is there anything behind it? Any true commitment to God or neighbor in your ritual??

He quotes Isaiah and Moses… reminding them of their common tradition, Judaism. He reminds them that it is not simply about rules that humans make, those rules are only helpful if they point to the commandments that God makes: Love God, love your family, love your neighbor…

Mark’s Jesus is not gentle or polite. He will look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks, and he thinks these folks are misguided… he tells them that God doesn’t care what they put in there bodies… clean or unclean food so much as cares what comes out of their mouths.

When he and the disciples call it a day and are sitting around the table he gets even more graphic. Realizing, with what seems like surprise, that they still don’t understand what he’s saying, he gives them a biology lesson – “Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.” (Luke 7:19)

I know, gross right?!

But Jesus wants to be clear: God does not care what you consume; God cares what it is your heart creates. Its what emerges from our hearts that have the potential to lead us far from God, or near to God. What has the potential to defile or waste or destroy us is when a desire emanates from our hearts to hurt another, to do violence, to use our words or power to diminish or destroy, to be unfaithful or greedy or arrogant… this is the true waste that we are capable of, the wasting of our capacity for love and generosity and freedom. 

This feels like a draw the circle wide moment doesn’t it? Jesus insisting that some things trump the rules – or at the very least won’t be contained by them. Jesus insisting that it’s love, not rules that win.

So this the last conversation Jesus has before the encounter we read this morning. Right before he speaks these horrible words to a desperate woman begging for his help, he speaks these words, these wise and brave words to the disciples.

Don’t you find that a bit unsettling? How do we square these two encounters? One in which he seems so clear, so sure about what boundaries, what rules, are truly important (or aren’t) and in the next seems to build a fence around his compassion? You know, I love it when Jesus is bold and I can even handle crass – it gets my attention – but what’s with the cruelty? How can he be so cruel?

Jesus goes by himself to region of Tyre, he finds a friendly home and hopes to stay there for a bit without being seen. The text doesn’t tell us whether he’s come to rest, or pray, or plan. Simply that he didn’t come to do public ministry and yet Mark tells us, immediately, this woman who has heard of him comes along and throws herself at his feet, begging for his healing help.

Every time I read this story I’m brought up short by the way Jesus behaves here. What is he doing?

I’m not a parent with a lot of rules but the big one at my house is, we don’t hurt one another. Not with words or hands or fists or feet. Causing someone pain on purpose Just. Does. Not. Fly. And when Jesus calls this woman a dog I have to admit I recoil, I am angry and sad and shocked… I’m disappointed – this is the beloved child of God, this is the boundary breaking, in your face for justice version of God walking around with human skin on… And not unlike I would respond to my children I have to ask: what are you doing? What are you thinking Jesus?

This seems so out of character for him, why would Jesus harass this poor woman who simply wanted to save her tiny child. Isn’t this exactly who Jesus most often goes around standing up for, poor defenseless women? Outsiders? The powerless and the oppressed?

But here’s the thing… we don’t, any of us, fit so neatly into such categories do we? It would be so much easier if we did. This is why I think we are so quick to make assumptions about one another. It’s just easier than delving into the complexity. It’s simpler to sort ourselves than to allow ourselves to overlap, collide and impact one another.

I have to admit, in most cases I wouldn’t even stop to consider the assumptions I make about the woman in this story except if they are true then it seems Jesus is using (or not using his power) in an incredibly hurtful way, even if he is tired and just wants a break. This is the one to whom I confess… I need to understand. And so Jesus’ behavior gives me cause for pause, to stop and dig a bit deeper into this story… into the complexity of these characters.

 So, first let us understand the geography of where Jesus has arrived… the region of Tyre has an urban center almost entirely filled with gentiles (or Greeks). They are the wealthy class at the center of the region but along the rural borderlands, probably where Jesus was visiting and hoping to remain hidden, there is a large and ethnically diverse community that included Jews, these folks farmed and raised livestock, and were most likely quite poor and would often go hungry in order to supply the urban center’s population with resources. Tensions were likely high between these communities. Urban and rural, Greek and Jews, rich and poor, the power flowed from the center and rarely reached the edges. In some ways it mirrors the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine.

When we read this story, we often make some serious assumptions about the woman that Mark tells us is Greek… from Syria. He says gentile and we read outsider. He tells us she is a woman and we assume poor. He tells us she throws herself at the feet of Jesus and we think powerless.

But it’s more complicated than that. As a gentile woman she is likely from the urban center. Likely she has resources and clout in her community. She is an outsider in this Jewish household, she has crossed a boundary to come to Jesus but in the larger scheme of things it is Jesus who is an outsider in the Region of Tyre.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m trying to simply flip this story, I’m not interested in painting Jesus as a victim here any more than I liked this woman being treated as one. I’m making it complicated because it is complicated. Jesus is a Jew, and even causing trouble within his own Jewish communities.  This will put him at odds with those in political and religious power throughout his entire ministry. But Jesus is also a teacher, a Rabbi, a man deserving respect and a man who has the ability to heal the sick, sometimes, with a simple word.

The fact that Mark doesn’t even give us a name for this woman indicates her value to some extent. Women are so often left unnamed, it makes it easier to dismiss them, which Jesus has all of the power to do. And in her suffering and pain, in her driven desire to do what ever it takes to save her child she makes herself incredibly vulnerable no matter how wealthy she might or not be.

And here’s what I think happens. Jesus sees this woman, and he sees the antithesis of everything he’s preaching. He’s just come from Jerusalem where he’s trying to shift the politics and the economic powers in his community towards justice instead of being a slave to greed, he comes to Tyre to be among his own community, to take refuge in his own people, faithful and hardworking Jews, and this woman who represents yet another powerful system that crushes the folks he loves comes asking him for his help and he calls her a dog.

 A dog. This was not a term used to describe all gentiles; and Jesus has already shown kindness to other gentiles in his ministry. The word dog was used by Jews in this time period to describe those who hounded them, who scavenged from their work and resources, who used their power and strength to take what wasn’t theirs, and to benefit from their loss. Like the dogs who lived off on the edges of their farms and villages, that indiscriminately took what they could without concern about who it impacted.

Jesus called the woman a dog because this is what he saw when he looked at her; he saw a scavenger and an outsider. But in that moment she was more than the categories and assumptions and stories he knows about people from the city of Tyre. She was a fellow human in pain, she was a parent who would do anything to recover her child, she was in deep need and she knew, she knew that Jesus was her answer.

In that moment, in which many of us, if we were met with anger, whether deserved or undeserved, would turn away. In that moment, when most of us, if called names, or treated with cruelty would hide our faces, would give up and walk away, the woman insists. She stands her ground, and I imagine her looking Jesus in the eyes when she asks him to consider the plight of even the little dogsshe has the wit to take him in, to encircle his system, his beliefs, his mission with her own need, and I think Jesus sees her. He suddenly sees her, not her Gentile-ness, not her woman-ness, not her rich or poor or greediness… he sees her humanness. And he hears her pain and it changes him. He changes his mind because of her words. He tells her this himself, “because of your words your little daughter has been healed.”

What’s amazing about this story is that this woman could feel the promise pulsating off of Jesus. She could smell the new life on him and she was willing to wrestle it from him if necessary… I love that Jesus was walking around exuding a story more promising than he even realized… and so are we. We hold a promise bigger than we can imagine, we have good news that’s so big we will never be able to tell the whole story, and we have endless, endless love to spare. Wouldn’t it be amazing if folks didn’t have to throw themselves at our feet and beg to be healed? Cry out to be seen? Wait, and wait and wait to be included?

Our ideas about status and the categories we create that divide us are our own inventions, we do this sometimes to create order, to divide things up so we can attend to them effectively and appropriately… sometimes we develop identities that are a rich celebration of our particular experiences, cultures, ethnicities and familial stories but other times we create or use these categories to diminish and control people… Even Jesus did it, you are not a Jew… you are not a human… you are a dog.

Think about how race and ethnicity have been used as categories to diminish some folks while elevating others. Consider how we misuse male words or female words to describe whether something is strong or weak, whether someone is smart or dumb. And consider how narrow of a story we tell about what constitutes normal or acceptable when it comes to how we define our relationships and our families, when we know, in this community, so many beautiful variations of family?

When I was in seminary I remember reading a theologian who was discussing how we participate in conversations about pluralism and interfaith relationships. And he used an illustration that I’ve always remembered and I think can apply to so many of the ways we categorize ourselves. He suggested that most often we create spectrums… spectrums of belief, spectrums of political or social perspective, spectrums of sexual orientation and personality. Instead of locating ourselves on a long line, he says we might think instead of locating ourselves inside of circles. The smallest circle is personal, it tells your story… mine says I am a woman, a daughter, a mother, a Midwesterner, an American, queer, white etc… but eventually I move outward drawing wider circles to include communities of which I’m a part, to include ways I’m connected to others until I finally arrive at some very large circles, the circle of humanness, the circle of all that is created life…

The categories we create are only helpful if they enliven us and help us to understand one another, to draw closer together and create meaning for ourselves and for all people, just like the rules Jesus argues with the temple leaders, they are only good if used for growing closer to God, not if they are used to divide or diminish us or to exclude one another.

One of the most poignant moments in the lgbtq workshops I’ve been teaching is when one young man, a member of a youth group, listening to the story of how the categories in the lgbtqia family have continued to grow and be defined in order to make sure no one is left out, he raised his hand and said “wouldn’t it be amazing if we all just identified with the category of human being?” Yes. Wouldn’t it?

And so we live in an imperfect world, where part of our story, part of our call is trusting that we hold more promise than we can imagine, enough to continue to draw the circle, wider, and then, wider still.

Words of commissions for Pride Walkers:

Today we walk with openness and in solidarity with LGBTQ folks in particular because no one should stand alone, no one should be drawn outside our circle of love. No matter their orientation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or straight. And its not just these few that are walking, we carry a sign that says Friendship Presbyterian Church, and this identity belongs to ALL of us. We all walk together today.

Our circle will continue to expand beyond today, we will draw it wider and wider still so that no one is excluded, so that no one stands alone, no matter how rich or poor, how brown or black or white they are, or how old or young they are, no matter what makes their family: One person or two, many children or none, grandchildren or nieces or nephews, we will draw this circle together until we can celebrate the beauty in the diversity of all of our identities and until we can recognize one another first as human beings. Amen.

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Dreaming God’s Dream (a sermon for pentecost)

1st Reading: Genesis 11:1-9  (translated by Theodore Hiebert)

All the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled toward the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and let us fire them.” The bricks were stones for them, and asphalt was mortar for them. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth.” Then God came down to see the city and the tower which the human race built. And God said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” Then God dispersed them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, God named it Babel, for there God mixed the language of all the earth, and from there God dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.

2nd Reading: Acts 2:1-18 

When the day of Pentecost (Shavuot) had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’

Sermon: Dreaming God’s Dreams…

So here we are in Jerusalem for another festival. You know It’s a wonder Jesus’ followers would be willing to pile into Jerusalem for another festival after what happened the last time they set foot in the city on a festival day. Don’t you suppose they came through the door of their probably hesitant host with some amount of trepidation? I wonder if the sounds and color of that Palm Sunday parade or the memory of Jesus around that table, or the fear of the guards who arrested him mixed in with the strange experience of the empty tomb washed over them? Did they gather around tables and exchange notes on who had seen Jesus where? What had he said and done in secret rooms and on the beach? Were they excited? Afraid? Triumphant?

When I was little I remember hearing this story and imagining a secret gathering… sort of like a special agent planning kind of meeting where they discussed their Jesus sightings and decided what their next move would be.

That’s what I pictured because most pictures and Sunday school lessons of this day imply or teach that there were just a few straggly disciples hunkered down together that day.  But the story written here in Acts 2 tells us that they all gathered… and earlier in Acts (1:15) we read that all of these early Christ followers have grown in number to “about one hundred and twenty persons”.

And so here they all are. It is the joyful festival of Shavuot… the celebration of first fruits, when the first fruits of harvest are given to God. Can you see them crowding into a house together? Passing the peace and wondering what might happen this time…

And of course, God doesn’t disappoint!

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)

This all “would have included the women and the men, the Twelve, and the many other unnamed, faithful followers of Jesus. All of these receive the Holy Spirit; all are given the gifts of speaking in other languages. This follows a pattern that will reoccur again and again in Acts, the Holy Spirit has a tendency not to discriminate based on human standards.”[i]

All of this commotion, the loud winds and strange flickering fire and the cacophony of over one hundred voices drew a crowd… can you imagine it? The neighbors poured out of their houses and the street filled with people…

The story describes those “living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5, 14) as devout Jews from every nation – “these were immigrants, not pilgrims as we often imagine, but those who had emigrated from areas of the Roman Empire to the north, east, south, and west of Jerusalem. As subjects of Rome, all of them would have spoken Greek, the language of the Roman military and of commerce for much of the early imperial period. But they were also multilingual, speaking languages of their natal lands also.”[ii]

It’s almost as if God’s holy winds had blown the walls of the house clean off, because suddenly there are throngs of people and there are the disciples right in the midst of them… And as they pour into the streets the disciples are speaking in the natal languages of all of these immigrant peoples; not in the language of the empire, but in the languages of the people. Can you imagine that? Have you ever been lost in a foreign land, unable to communicate and suddenly heard your native tongue? Have you ever gotten lost or confused and then discovered just one familiar landmark or seen just one familiar face in the chaos?

Often times we read this story along side the story we heard this morning from Genesis about the city of Babel and we think oh… this is God putting things back together. At Babel God stirs things up, scattering folks and giving them different languages and here, finally, at Pentecost, God is putting things back together. Some scholars have even called this day a reversal of Babel. But think about it. The Genesis story of Babel explains the creation of multiple languages; and its reversal would be the creation of one unifying language. But that’s not what happens here at all, rather than requiring of all of the people to speak one language, Pentecost gives power to the band of Jesus followers to speak all the languages of the world.

At Babel God leans in and notices that folks are beginning to look and sound an awfully lot alike. And God says aloud (seems like he’s talking to mother wisdom again) “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” (Genesis 11)

God mixes language and dispersed people at Babel because it’s God’s unfolding dream for the world that the world is filled to the brim with a beautiful collage of diversity, color, language and culture. The story doesn’t tell us God is angry or punishing the people, but it does tell us that God’s spirit will sweep in and stir up some new life and some difference where things are getting stale.

The Spirit blows in and mixes things up… in the city of babel it mixed up the language and sent the people out… out of complacency and safety and into the world.

In Jerusalem it causes confusion, which is pretty hilarious given that everyone actually understood the words coming out of the mouths of the disciples. The confusion of the Jewish community is in trying to piece together what on earth is happening, Suddenly God is speaking in and through this band of Galilean Jesus followers. They’re not in a synagogue or temple. This isn’t a voice of authority. Not a rabbi or temple elite, not a roman official or imperial guard, but in their own voices, in the words of each of their ancestors and in the words of their mothers.

In Jerusalem Peter quotes the prophet Joel, declaring that this Holy Wind will make prophets of our children, infuse us with the dreams and visions of God. If only we can hear them… if only we can see them…

Turning in your Easter Homework – finding evidence of resurrection, of new life…

On Easter Sunday you recieved this homework:

Pay Attention

Look for signs of resurrection – of new life

Report Back – Tell about it

(We did this as a congregation, taking a moment to record signs of resurrection and new life that we’d witnessed over the last 7 weeks. Then we turned and shared these with our neighbors, then we reported back to the larger group.)

Pentecost is another birthing moment… it marks the birth or beginning of the Church but how does this birth continue to happening in us? In the life of our church and in our own lives?

How is God’s dream being born through us?

The Holy Spirit Turns the house inside out… how are we getting outside our own house?

How are we getting outside of our own train station?

What Holy Spirit wind will blow our walls down? What commotion are we creating? Where are we seeking new life?

We too, are the prophets and the dreamers… God’s vision for the world becomes our vision, when we are looking at the world like God does. God’s dream for the world becomes our dream when we see God’s new life springing forth and we become the prophets we are called to be when we witness to what we’ve seen. When we report back and tell our stories to others.

Recently on a Tennessee gas station bathroom wall I saw evidence of our need to connect to one another, to share a common story. The walls were covered with folks penning hello from all over, giving their names and their home states, even their home cities. We have a deep human need to connect, a need to be in common, a need to tell our story and hear from one another. The folks working hard to build the tower in Babel make total sense to me. Of course we want to gather with others like us, how often do you find yourself in conversation trying to find out everything you don’t have in common with another? Never.  Even when we gather with those who are different we begin to come together, with common language, values and ideas, we are changed by one another and we move closer to one another…

It’s not bad or good, the desire for sameness. But our differences are often what create the spaces for growth, in our relationships and in our communities. It’s often, here in our community  around these very tables, that I hear someone say, I just don’t know if I’m the right fit for this work group… I am not all that sure I belong in leadership, what I’m bringing is different than what others bring to the table…

What if, instead of imagining that our differences keep us out or are reason to exclude ourselves…  what if we imagined that our differences were exactly what was needed? What if these differences, our different ideas and perspectives, our different stories and gifts, each given to all of us were the very dreams and prophesies that God is pouring into us? What if the differences we encounter in the world are what we most need to pay attention too? To see God working in all things?

Our biblical stories today in Babel and Jerusalem are not the antithesis of one another… one doesn’t break us and the other fix us.

Instead they invite us into the ebb and flow of the work of the Holy Spirit. Like our breath, inhaling and exhaling, the Spirit moves us into communities of comfort and back out into the world. The Spirit blows through our midst shaping our visions and dreams for the future – sometimes asking us to take dramatic risks and make mighty changes but then… then she reforms and remakes us, comforts and encourages us, moving us ever closer into the new life God’s dreaming for us. Amen.


[i] Aymer, Margaret. Edited by, Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 782-784). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] ibid

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Students of Life (a sermon for easter sunday)

Students of Life

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.” 

~Mary Oliver

Luke 24:1-12
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [women who followed him from galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
24:2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.
24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
24:7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
24:8 Then they remembered his words,
24:9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.             

Who are these crazy women?

We’ve got some unlikely witnesses here… today’s scripture tells us that it is “Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James”, and then adds “and other women”. Earlier in chapter 23 Luke tells us that these women are the ones who followed Jesus from galilee (Luke 23:55) and earlier in chapter 8 he describes them in this way, “there were women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: [that was] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:2-4)

These women from Galilee, have been with Jesus for the long haul, they fed and followed him, sat like students at his feet and prepared for his death.  They witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:49) – and remained at Jesus’ side when everyone else had fled, Among the “other women” I imagine Martha and her sister Mary walking together and Mary, Jesus’ own mother who ushered him into the world at birth and sat at the foot of the cross when he was crucified, surely, she was there too… All of them climbing the hill to the tomb – a community of women, ready to do the burial work, the grief work – ready with their spices and their oils – to lovingly say goodbye.

But when they arrived at the tomb it was open… can’t you imagine them peering in – too many to all look in at once, they crowd the opening and take turns gaping at what appears to be an empty tomb. But their confusion turns quickly to fear when two men appear… dazzling white like that messenger Mary must remember from so many years ago who brought the first rumor of incarnation…

Can you imagine them dropping together to the ground – in terror and amazement…

And this is my favorite part – according to Luke, these men don’t even bother with trying to calm them, there’s no “don’t be afraid” or “do not fear” like we’ve heard from such gospel messengers before. Instead they ask the women whose heads are on the floor,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

Now, all the gospel accounts of these days are rich in their variety and each offers a unique interpretation of the events leading to Jesus death and resurrection but one detail they share is utter silence on the part of the disciples and followers of Jesus in those hours and days between his death and sunrise on the third day… its almost as if the whole community dies with Christ on the cross… after a blow by blow account of the days and hours from Palm Sunday till Jesus last breath and final word from the cross the silence of the following hours and days is deafening.

The gospel of Luke tells us these same women saw his body from the cross to the tomb. and then we get nothing until the sound of their footsteps fall on the sunlit path to the tomb. There is not one account – not in Luke or any other gospel – of a disciple, man or woman, who said “wait a minute, Jesus said this would happen, Jesus is not dead, I know it!” There was silence and there was sorrow, there was disappointment and disbelief – in the face of such trauma, such violence and loss how could they possibly remember…  how could they even think straight, they must have been overwhelmed with such grief. How could they have thought to look for Christ anywhere but the grave?

But when the dazzling men said to them,

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

They remembered his words and turned back towards Jerusalem at once to tell the others.

This is what a witness does – they see or experience something – something that moves them or marks them or terrifies them and they can’t help but tell about it.
Can you imagine how their sorrow began to ebb making space for curiosity? For joy as they moved, in mass, back to Jerusalem? Can you imagine how what had been a quiet moving vigil towards the tomb transformed into a noisy procession as this crazy news bubbled up from inside them on their way back?

When they return to the disciples still huddled in grief they all crowd in and tell them everything they had seen. I imagine them all speaking at once, telling one another, confirming and affirming their stories – an unlikely bunch of witnesses, chosen to be the bearers of terrifying and exhilarating news.

The gospel of Luke tells us that the story fell on deaf ears, that these words seemed, to the apostles gathered there, an idle tale, and they did not believe them. The words: idle tale are a kind translation, “the greek word here is lēros, (it’s only appearance in the New Testament), is usually reserved to describe the ranting of a person suffering from delirium.”[i]

Which is ironic given that for many of these women such as Mary Magdalene, this is just what Jesus rescued them from in the midst of his ministry and now as the witnesses of his resurrection our thought to be mad. Once again Jesus turns everything we think we understand upside down…

Martin Marty says that “Sometimes stories are too weird to be taken seriously, and sometimes the tellers of the stories are weirder yet.” And this is a weird story – really the whole story of Jesus from beginning to end – like an sixth grader I met recently said, “first God gets born to this random woman and then grows up and does all kinds of weird stuff, healing folks and loving folks… how does that work?” And then instead of loving him back he gets rejected, then  he ends up dying a scandalous death of an outlaw, crucified on the cross… and now… and now, he’s not dead? He’s alive? It’s an unbelievable story told by this crazy community of women,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

This news the community of women bring is perplexing, and disconcerting… if there’s anything we can count on in the human experience it’s that generally dead people stay dead… we face these losses and we struggle with the grief and we turn to our memories for comfort – but it’s a story we know how to do. We know how to gather together for comfort and burial preparations. We know how to tell stories and reach back into the past to canonize and eulogize…

But Jesus is restless in the grave… Can’t you imagine that skin and boned Christ digging his feet into the ground and getting ready to rise? Thinking, “I’m not leaving this world yet…” I love that the incarnation doesn’t end on Good Friday, no, this is just the beginning – Life wins, love wins… it stubbornly pushes up out of the dirty ground of our grief and says,

The tomb is empty – Jesus is not there, Jesus has risen – he is among the living.

Don’t look for him among the dead.

My dear students of God, resurrection insists on three things:

Resurrection insists that we turn our attention from death to life…

Where are you holding onto that which is no longer life giving? What do you cling to that keeps you from knowing amazement? From experiencing joy? What makes you surge with energy and what fills you to the brim? Have you noticed how much better we do death than life? How much more comfortable we are there?

Jennie and I are getting married in June and it’s gonna be a rockin party – almost everyone we love is genuinely excited. We’ve gotten tons of support, great response from friends, family, communities… so much love. There have been just a few folks who have responded in the negative, and wow how I lived into their rejection. Gone days worrying and despairing over an unkind word. Why? Why do we do that? Why are we so easily overcome with despair when God is pouring delight into our lives?

God is present in our pain but is ever inviting us into the open spaces where the light will nurture in us the story of resurrection… the story of new life.

Resurrection insists that we remember…

Just like the messengers remind the women to remember, we too are invited to remember the ancient story of one who would not be moved, who would not be swayed from the path of love. The one who insisted that a trip to the cross would wound him but could not defeat him, this is not a static put it in a keepsake box kind of remembering, no this is a dig it out and wear it – let it change you again and again memory made new each time we tell it, it is a embodied and reimagined re-membering that will put us back together each time we fall apart.

Resurrection insists that we turn back with joy… this isn’t new we can simply sit on… resurrection insists that we too witness to the this amazing news… that we tell this weird story of love and life winning out over death… of God showing up in human flesh, vulnerable and tiny, the story of how God gets good and dirty, digging into the hardest things that humans face:

Greed, loss, suffering, illness, rejection, insecurity, poverty, relinquishing their power when we really really want to hang onto it.

Again and again offering love in the face of our fears and grace every time we fall short.

Resurrection insists we tell this story even though it makes us sound crazy… just like those women who found the empty tomb… delirious with delight.

Mary Oliver writes this poem: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” 

And this is your Easter homework friends. We’ve been students of God all through Lent but we haven’t had a lot of homework… but this is your takehome assignment for the Easter season that begins today and doesn’t end till Pentecost Sunday (you get awhile).

Pay attention – seek out the resurrection… look for signs of life!

Be astonished and amazed… even terrified!

Then report back… tell about it. Tell me. Tell one another. Tell everyone you meet.

Amen


[i]
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 12519-12523). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Palm Sunday: Take it to the streets.

Sermon: Students of Possibility

Palm Sunday

Luke 19: 28-40

Trying out the human mic… the human mic is a process used by protesters, demonstrators or occupiers… it’s used when a crowd gathers with out permit or permission to use sound equipment in order to be heard. And so they use their voices to amplify the message… let’s try it. I say something and the few people who hear me repeat it – then it gets repeated again until the crowd picks it up.

Mic check… mic check…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

This is the story of Palm Sunday as told by Luke… it’s the story of a community organizer… Jesus, organizing his people and staging a demonstration – This day we’ve come to call Palm Sunday – although no palms appear in our Luke text – is a staged move. It’s intentional and particular, an on-purpose, enactment of the words familiar to his own tradition found in Zechariah chapter 9… Jesus sends his disciples on a mission to get not just any animal but a donkey – and not for just anyone but for the Lord – words echoed in the song of Zechariah:

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus could have ridden into the city on any day and attracted attention. There was already talk of his arrest, he had been driven into hiding and had just resurface the day before at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha where many had heard of his return and had gathered to see not only him but the resurrected Lazarus as well…

But Jesus chooses this day, this time – this is beyond a public demonstration – this is a particular time set aside for the celebration of Passover – when thousands of Jews from far and wide are entering the gates of Jerusalem – the very home of God – the place in which heaven touches the earth – and they enter in a way that symbolizes the exodus of their people – this a time already steeped in the memory of how God rescued their people from the hands of a powerful oppressor.

This is a time in which emotions are running high. Imagine the atmosphere – the fervor of celebration – and in remembering an exodus of old there is a longing to be free again. Free of the Roman occupation, free of the rules, regulations and taxes, free from poverty, free from the violence they’ve encountered each time they’ve risen up – for generations they had been conquered, oppressed and even exiled by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after so many years of exile; but freedom had never arrived; just a new kind of exile.

So even in the midst of this ‘celebration’ there is an ingrained hope that a “new exodus” would free God’s people from the “oppressive weight of empire.”

Imagine the hope of celebration mixed in with the fear and discontent. Imagine this swelling crowd pushing it’s way into the city. Imagine the fear in the hearts of the temple officials and the Pharisees that had been forced to collaborate with Rome and were now expected to control this crowd.

And here comes Jesus and his multitude of disciples… (cue the human mic)

Blessed is the king…

Who comes in the name of the Lord…

Peace in heaven…

Glory in the highest heaven…

It’s a movement… a street theatre and a political action… Jesus touches on the crowds longing for deep change, for something to hope for, for the promise of a revolution.

But what kind of change is Jesus really offering?

A regime change? Just a change in political party? A hostile take over?

Some who were gathered there – some of Jesus’ own disciples truly did believe Jesus was there to execute a hostile take-over of the Temple, even of all of Jerusalem, that he would in fact become their King on earth

There were also some who were just thrilled to finally see this Jesus in person… the one who crosses all kinds of boundaries… they have heard the stories of teaching and helping, of Lazarus’ Resurrection, the blind man’s tale, the mothers’ whose children were healed and the teaching about a God who has come near to hear, see and feel the pain of the people.

And this is the key– all kinds of boundaries – remember at the beginning of Luke when Jesus first claims his role in fulfilling the prophecies? Remember when his hometown nearly throws him over the cliff because he suggests that God’s dream for the world includes more than just the folks sitting in the temple? Jesus doesn’t just touch the lepers and feed the hungry… he also sits at table with tax collectors, Pharisees and other collaborators of Rome. Jesus offers a vision… a possibility greater than the multitude of disciples, the crowd, the Jewish or the Roman officials, and even we… all these generations later can quite imagine.

Jesus takes it to the streets as an agitator for peace… Yes – to offer an alternative to Roman Rule and Rome’s collaborators… but not an alternative that simply means flipping the power structure – it’s an alternative that means abolishing it completely.

And yet, again and again it is so difficult – almost impossible to see another way – a truly new way. So the crowd – while some of them might say yes! Here comes the one who will make for peace! Others might be saying, hooray! Here comes the one who will not simply save us but will cut down our enemies…

 And how often do our cries for peace turn to cries for revenge?

How often do our cries for justice (getting what we need, what is enough and sustains us, what gives us meaning and preserves our integrity, our humanity) turn to cries for retributive ‘justice’ instead (a desire for punishment, eye-for-an-eye, by any means necessary ‘equal treatment’ and violence)?

Let’s go back to Zechariah for a moment, after he sings about one who will enter both triumphant and humble he sings this:

  and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

Jesus takes steps on this day that mean no going back – he offers a possibility that he know will not be understood – that continues to be so very difficult for us to hear, to embody.

Just after our scripture reading for today ends Jesus stops at the edge of the city, takes a long look at Jerusalem and then weeps. He says aloud, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”

Jesus is telling the people – all of them, his disciples and the Jews gathered from near and far, the Pharisees and officials, the Roman guards… your thirst for power, your anger, your desire to push another down and to trample those whom you hate will destroy you.

 How hard this must have been to hear for the most oppressed? Where was their ruler and King? Where was their savior? What do we do when our leadership disappoints us?

How often is that our salvation doesn’t come in the way we are looking for? How often do we confuse success… and coming out on top with being rescued by God?

As I was finishing my sermon yesterday I kept thinking about how we took to the streets for the CROSSwalk on Friday night (protest and solidarity with those who are being overwhelmed and oppressed by gun violence in chicago’s streets)…

There were several things the crowd heard chanted and chanted back in return… We walk… Let justice roll down…

Many people, parents, siblings, community members spoke that had lost a loved one – often a child to gun violence. I imagine – like the community of folks who couldn’t escape the oppression of the Roman empire they were tired, and angry and sad – and yet the gathering gave them hope – the people who were willing to take to the streets created a sense, however small, of possibility.

But really it wasn’t enough… I think of how many folks turned out into the very same streets to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day last weekend… and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way at all – celebration is good. But what does it mean when we turn out in the millions for celebration but only a in the hundreds to stand for peace? To offer solidarity to those that are suffering so immensely?

As we walked another member of my church asked me, “You’re queen for a day, how would you fix it?”

And I really don’t know. I know there are deep and troubling issues at the intersection of poverty, racism and cycles and cycles of violence and hopelessness… but I don’t know and this unknowing makes me angry… how I wonder can we make for peace in the streets? How is it fair that at my kids school every third grader has an ipad and in other neighborhoods students don’t have notepads? How is it that we build things like Trump Towers downtown where we walked and there are kids without homes to go to in neighborhoods all over the city? I encountered an artist this week who each year recreates the stations of cross around the story of a different marginalized people. She suggests that the face of the crucified Jesus is their face. If these communities are where Christ Crucified lives then how do we respond?

I’d certainly like a Jesus figure to come in and lay down the law… I’d like a powerful Jesus person to come in and redistribute the wealth… and yet here comes Jesus and he says yes, of course you’re right Shawna. Every single one of these kids, the ones who are getting shot and the ones carrying guns, and their folks and their families, they are welcome at the table. But then so are you Shawna and right next to you is going to sit Donald Trump, and I’ll give you Anne Lamott (I mean as long as we’re dreaming) across the way but then you can’t just talk to her,  you’ve got to make friends with Donald too. You’ve got to lay down all the prejudice and anger and assumptions and pull up to the table and work out your plan for peace together.

What are the things that make for peace?

Luke tells us that the crowd laid down their cloaks in order to make way for Jesus… to clear the path and make his way down the Mount of Olives and across the valley towards the gates of Jerusalem easy –

What will we lay down in order to make a way for peace?

Can we lay down our own coats? Our own protective garments – the ones that we wear to protect us from strangers? The ones built of armor to protect us from being hurt or broken-hearted? The ones that cover our heads and faces, keeping us from seeing the how systems of poverty and oppression continue to flourish when our eyes our covered?

How far are we willing to go to make for peace?

Most of the crowd that gathered this day couldn’t stay with him all the way to the cross, the journey became too dangerous, too fearful, too painful – some even turned against him.

In my pastoral care training I encountered the phrase, lead from behind… it always stuck with me. I like the idea that a person can lead the way to their own wholeness, to their own recovery. That one-way of ministering to another is to listen to their story and their cues. To lead them by following them… to stay with them. And as holy week unfolds, we are charged with staying awake – staying with Jesus.

But Luke’s Jesus is a prophet and prophecy is all about getting out front not following behind, and that’s what Jesus teaches us on this Palm Sunday. He gets out front and cast a vision that more than a thousand years later we’re still catching on and catching up to.

What is Jesus’ vision? Is it a hostile take-over? Is it a revenge or retribution? No… no it’s not. It’s this crazy idea that every single person… the tax collector who collaborates with the enemy and the crazy folks possessed by demons and the unclean folks and the blind folks and the once dead folks are all welcome to participate… they are all a part of this kin-dom vision…this heaven meets earth, and peace engulfs them both vision.

Can you imagine it? It sounds risky and foolish really…  Can you imagine the possibilities if we took to the streets and invited them all in? Every person we encountered? If we continue to take our tables out to the streets and feed all kinds of people, even the ones you don’t think deserve it?  If we truly welcomed not only the poor but the rich? The really smart and the ones that seem a little crazy? The kind and the unkind? The lost kids like that prodigal son and the know-it-all been around forever folks like that annoying older brother? Argh…. Don’t you hate this vision?

And yet we’re invited to follow – to follow in Jesus’ prophetic footsteps. What will make for peace? What will bring us to the streets? How will we agitate for peace?

It could get us in trouble… it certainly did Jesus. This is the time of year you really start questioning the choice of following him isn’t? I mean all the way to the cross? It could get you killed –

But… it might also get you resurrected.

AMEN

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Repairers of the breach…

WPGrace Space

Wicker Park Grace is a community that is close to my heart and a vital part of my own life. Wicker Park Grace is a pcusa new church development in Chicago that values hospitality, justice and an inclusive theological perspective. We dig into biblical texts and ask questions in the midst of our worship space and experience, inviting everyone to be part of the ‘proclamation’. Tonight at Wicker Park Grace we discussed a text from Isaiah (58:1-12)…

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

As we sat, and sang and discussed together I began thinking about this breach… the breach between who we are and who it is we’re called to be. The breach between what we claim to believe and value and honor and how it does or doesn’t manifest itself in our lives in day by day and hour by hour. The breach in our relationships to one another, in our families and in our communities, between our rights and lefts and our privileged and poor. There is indeed a wide and long breach between us.

There’s a part of me that cries out to God like the voices lifted up in the passage… I’m doing everything right… why don’t I get wholeness, abundance, vindication? But as I read and talked it through with the folks gathered around me I began to see the challenge Isaiah spoke… it’s on us isn’t it? To stand in the breach and do the work of repair and restoration, the light is already with in us, waiting to break forth. The breach between the Church and world is the place in which I hope this blog will stand. That it will lift up the places where the hungry and tired, the powerless, disenfranchised, hurting and harmed are being invited, and attended by faithful folks and communities that understand that each of our healing, as individuals and communities is dependent on one another’s.

I am part of the community of Wicker Park Grace because this is one place where presbyterians along with many others from various faith backgrounds and traditions and lived experiences are working together to offer such a place of hospitality and invitation. Where mutual teaching, learning and loving is the basis of our community’s movement in the world. We’re a small community and we’re still changing and growing into our call to be a force for justice in our community and in the world but there are certainly repairers of the breach at work in this place.

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