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Meditation: The Gate

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 3, 2020, Easter 4A (livestreaming)

John 10:1-10

The Gate

The magazine Newsweek, on April 18, carried a report of a court order issued by a federal judge in Miami, blocking the sale of a so-called “Master Mineral Solution” being touted as a “cure” for the Covid-19 virus.[1] This “solution” apparently consists of sodium chlorite, table salt, and a few other minerals. When combined with an “activator” (sold separately, of course) that consists of hydrochloric acid, the “solution” turns into chlorine dioxide.

Chlorine dioxide is a type of industrial bleach. In other words, that’s stronger than the stuff in your bottle of Clorox at home.

Yes, it’s galling enough that such a hoax is being perpetrated at all; more galling is the fact that the entity behind this hoax calls itself the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing (it’s based in Bradenton). One of the “church” websites offered the claim, both ethically and grammatically flawed, that “this should wipe it out this flu-like virus that many are being scared with its presence in this world.”

It’s not a shock to see a “church” or a “minister” or “evangelist” purport to have a cure that isn’t. There’s a substantial history of exactly that kind of thing, including the  disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker – remember him? – who is now peddling a “Silver Solution” as a potential cure for the coronavirus.[2] Again, it’s not new. But it does make me wonder, after time with today’s reading, about how easily swayed by fear so many people are, and how this passage might suggest that we are actually inferior to sheep when we behave that way.

Today’s teaching is actually a small chunk of a much larger story from John’s gospel, following chapter 9’s account of the healing of a man born blind and a controversy stirred up by a group of religious leaders following that healing, one which had ended with the healed man being thrown out of the synagogue after he had wondered why they had so much trouble with Jesus.

In chapter 10, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples in the wake of the incident, warning them against what he calls “thieves and bandits.” Jesus defines those “thieves and bandits” as “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way.” In the real-life setting that informs this metaphor this is sensible enough; anyone looking to steal one of the sheep isn’t going to walk right up to the gate (and presumably right by the shepherd guarding the gate) and expect to be able to get away with it. Such a thief would need to rely on stealth, sneaking in and climbing over hopefully without the shepherd noticing.

How, then, does that translate to our own hearing and doing?

Part of the answer must necessarily be an accurate understanding of just what it means for Jesus to say (as the does twice in this passage) that he is the “gate” for the sheep. (Some translations may use the word “door” here, which is a good literal reading, but context points to “gate” – sheep don’t generally go through doors out in their fold.) Jesus supplies some of that throughout this reading (and its larger story of the healing of the man born blind), which is fairly detailed thanks to his disciples’ frequent habit of hearing Jesus’s teaching and … not getting it. And getting this right hinges very strongly on exactly what definition one uses for the word “saved” in verse 9, and what one understands of verse 10 and its talk of “abundant life.”

The “gate” of a sheepfold in such a time is, as suggested above, a security measure – a means of protecting one’s sheep from those thieves and bandits. This isn’t about the very common usage of “salvation” language in American Christianity in which being “saved” basically translates into having a “get out of Hell free card.” No, here the concept of being “saved” is much more elemental, as demonstrated in the healing of the man born blind; he was “saved” from his seemingly unending vulnerability to actual thieves and robbers, from the hopelessness visited upon the blind in his time and place.

Rather than being snatched away by thieves and predators, the sheep come through the gate – following the voice of their shepherd – and find safety and security, or good green pasture. Again, they can do this with a lot more confidence than we normally attribute to sheep because of that one attribute – they know their shepherd’s voice.

And that’s where it seems to break down for us. We profess to be followers of the Good Shepherd (that comes later in John 10), we recite that 23rd Psalm like a mantra, but we modern American Christians are too often and too easily swayed by the voices of the thieves and bandits, especially those with churchy-sounding titles. We grab for what looks like a quick fix rather than trusting in the God who has our interests at heart for the long haul.

We also have a skewed definition of “abundant life,” one that looks suspiciously like self-gratification more so than true abundance. We have a tunnel vision about that abundant life too – we make the thoroughly un-Christlike presumption that such abundant life is for me and not for us – singular instead of plural. We’re ready to bolt and run from the herd at the slightest provocation. We forget to be “us.” And in even the slightest time of trial, it’s too easy to slip into “I got mine, to heck with you.” You see that a lot right now.

Knowing the Good Shepherd’s voice comes partly of being together in the body (even in social isolation), hearing what Jesus said and what Jesus did and knowing that the voice of the Good Shepherd won’t lead you toward anything that doesn’t look like or sound like that. And that applies to “we,” not just “me.”

The abundant life of verse 10, then, is not something to be ordered online or downloaded in secret. It’s about being in the body of Christ (yes, even in quarantine), being in the sheepfold, following the shepherd to the good pasture and through the real gate. Our prayer, then, really needs to be as much about listening, and learning to know and to follow, the one true voice that calls us to the gate, and calls us to security, and calls us home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again

 

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[1] Asher Stockler, “Federal Judge halts sale of industrial bleach as Covid-19 cure from South Florida church,” Newsweek, 4/18/20 (accessed 5/2/20), https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-food-drug-administration-bleach-1498751

 

[2] Megan Flynn, “A disgraced televangelist promoted an alleged cure to coronavirus. Missouri is now suing him.” Washington Post, 3/11/20 (accessed 5/2/20), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/11/jim-bakker-coronavirus-cure/


Meditation: Cut to the Heart

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 26, 2020, Easter 3A

Acts 2:36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Cut to the Heart

I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times in reading scripture – whether for sermon preparation or personal study or reflection – when I am basically brought to a halt by a particular use of word or phrase in the passage in question, and my study or reflection ends up getting drawn to that word or phrase.

In today’s reading from Acts, the particular arresting phrase is right there in the second verse we read, 2:37. We have just heard the culmination of Peter’s big speech or sermon on the day of Pentecost, and Luke (our author of Acts) is ready to describe the reaction of the crowd to the speech. In that speech Peter has, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, laid out a defense of the disciples – no, we’re not drunk, it’s only 9:00 a.m. – and pointed to the Spirit as the instigator of this day’s outbreak of speech among many nations and languages. From there, he moved towards a tour of scripture history and an evocation of those passages that he interprets as pointing towards Jesus of Nazareth, a man who had been executed a little less than two months before as we would reckon it, as the God-chosen “Lord and Messiah” as verse 36 puts it, despite his own audience’s religious leaders’ complicity in promoting and provoking that execution.

(Necessary clarification: Peter’s calling out his fellow Jewish folk here, his fellow Temple-worshipers and synagogue-gatherers, remember. There’s entirely too long a history of using this and other such passages as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence. That is not tolerable, not excusable, and extremely not Christ-like or Christ-following in any way. So shut any thought like that down now.)

Let’s get real here; a speech such as this could have just as easily started a riot. You’re gonna blame me for some backwater preacher getting crucified by the Romans? Yeah, I’ll show you…. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, we get a reaction that is translated in our NRSV as saying the hearers were “cut to the heart.” That’s about as striking and (sorry) penetrating an image for a reaction that is emotional, yes, but not just; it also carries the weight of knowing one’s own complicity or guilt as well.

The easy explanation for that response is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not as if Peter has suddenly transformed from slightly bumbling and foot-in-mouth-prone disciple to silver-tongued orator in fifty days with no divine intervention. Both in Peter’s speaking and in the hearing of the crowd, the Spirit is moving and being received.

Part of this, it seems, is that this response that comes of being “cut to the heart” is about as direct as a response can be. There’s no bargaining, no “spin,” no trying to explain away or make excuses or plead ignorance or anything else: the response is simply “what should we do?” Seriously, how often do you see that anymore in the world?

Does that even happen anymore in the church? Are we modern Christians capable of being “cut to the heart?” I can’t get away from Thursday evening’s hymn devotion, on the Muscogee Indian hymn “Heleluyan, We Are Singing,” a song born of the experience of forced migration imposed upon the Muscogee and other nations that were removed from the American South to modern-day Oklahoma, with most churches in this country raising no opposition (only one denomination did, and it wasn’t Presbyerian). The frequent use of this scripture and others as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence (referenced earlier) marks another example, as far too many Christian churches, writ large or small, either participated in that hatred with glee or remained silent. (A figure like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, for example, stands out precisely because so much of the German church openly supported the Nazi regime.) One could also look at how little reaction the church as a whole raises to the ongoing ruination of God’s creation, thinking back to last week’s message.

I wonder if part of the secret, if some part of being able to be “cut to the heart,” is found in another striking phrase later in this reading. When Peter and the disciples respond to their hearers with the call to repent and be baptized, the plea ends with this exhortation: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

There is a faint echo of this call in the reading from 1 Peter, when in verse 17 the author exhorts his readers to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” This isn’t the Old Testament; this isn’t the people of Israel and Judah hauled off to Babylon as captives. The “time of your exile” is no less than their current condition of living subject to Christ in a world that clearly does not live in that subjection. It is not to seek to escape from the world, but to know that you live in the world as an alien, a foreigner; to live in such a way that the commonplaces and habits and comforts of the world are as alien and strange to you as the surface of Mars would be. It is to live in the world knowing that the world is not your home, and the world’s ways are not your ways as a follower of Christ.

Only then, it seems, can we truly be open to the Spirit and its propensity to “cut to the heart” in the face of injustice, cruelty, hatred, and numerous other “ways of the world.” Only living as exiles in a land that is not ours, it seems, can the church truly be the church.

It’s a challenge to come to these passages in a time when it seems our most anxious desire is for things to “get back to normal” after the pandemic is done. I don’t know. If “getting back to normal” means no longer respecting or caring about the work of health care workers, supermarket employees, food and farm workers of all kinds and these others whose work is suddenly being called “essential,” maybe getting back to normal is a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to “get back to normal” if that means looking upon the poor, the homeless, the oppressed as dispensable, not important enough to save in a time of pandemic. Maybe the point is to be exiles in the world for whom that kind of “normal” can never be accepted as normal, and to finally be the Church of Jesus Christ in the face of that heartlessness.

Does the Church have the ability at last to lay aside its history of privilege and to take up the call to live as strangers in a strange land? Can we truly live as though these newly-discovered “essential” members of society really are essential? Can we save ourselves from this corrupt generation? Can we regain at last our capacity to be, truly and deeply, “cut to the heart”?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #839, Blessed Assurance! Jesus Is Mine


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Meditation: New Hope for a Broken Planet

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 19, 2020, Easter 2A (Earth Day Sunday)

Genesis 2:4-19; Romans 8:18-25

New Hope for a Broken Planet

This Wednesday, April 22, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the observance of Earth Day, an occasion set aside for remembering the planet on which we live and more specifically remembering not to do it grievous harm with our pollution and general wastefulness. In 1970 pollution was finally gaining traction as an issue that more than just a few could or needed to be concerned about, and as a result the event gained traction and attention enough, well, to have lasted fifty years now.

However, Monday is also a round-number anniversary, and a less salutary one at that. Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast (given the lofty-sounding name “Deepwater Horizon”) exploded and caught fire. The explosion also resulted in a massive oil spill, still to this date the largest environmental disaster in American history, contaminating ocean and coastline not just as far as the Florida Panhandle, but all the way to Tampa Bay. Even today, ten years later, the effects of the spill are still present. A recent study of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, just reported this week, found that every sample collected from aquatic life in the Gulf contained some trace of contamination due to oil, contamination likely to have injurious long-term effect on the various species of fish.[i]

One thing, though, about that study: while some of the fish studied, particularly from the north and central Gulf, showed contamination levels clearly attributed to Deepwater Horizon, others were probably contaminated from different causes. One such “hot spot” for contamination was in the area near Tampa Bay, and the oil contamination was found to be not from Deepwater Horizon, but ordinary usage and runoff from land and boat traffic. In other words, ordinary life was contaminating those fish.

How far we are from the call given to the first humans in today’s reading from Genesis. It is a creation story. I know, it’s not the one you expect when you hear “creation story” (it’s hard not to expect “in the beginning…”), but in every way this narrative in Genesis 2 is about creation being, well, created (it does continue beyond verse 19 to include the creation of the woman). It speaks of the heavens and the earth, it lays out the creation of that garden, and tells of how God formed man “from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It will go on to describe the animals and birds all being created (from the ground, just as the man had been) and all of them being paraded before the man to be named.

But there’s a key verse it’s easy to overlook, and it is verse 15. The NRSV renders the command to the man in the garden as “to till it and keep it.” That’s not bad, and it’s better than a lot of translations. (The King James Version’s “dress it and keep it” are of pretty similar force.) Other translation combinations include “cultivate” and “take care of,” to “dress” and to “keep,” and other combinations of such words that do make sense in speaking of what to do with a garden. None of those, however, catch the full force of the Hebrew words used here. Those words, l’avdah ul’shamrah, would in any other context be best translated “to serve and preserve (it, i.e. the garden).”[ii]

For those conditioned by years of the “have dominion” and “subdue” language typically read in chapter one (and those themselves are at best incomplete renderings of the Hebrew), this most likely comes like a splash of cold water on the face. The earth is not ours to run rampant over or exploit to the hilt, as has far too often been human tendency.

If anything, our call is quite the opposite. To “serve” and to “preserve” is language that strongly suggests that our efforts should be far more directed towards the nurturing and enhancing of creation rather than its exploitation and extraction.

One idea that strongly supports such an understanding is that as our degradation of earth has worsened, it isn’t just the plants and animals that have suffered – humans have too. Even under pandemic conditions for example, coronavirus suffers in highly polluted areas suffer even more – not surprising when the virus affects the lungs so badly. Conversely, as major population areas have been shut down due to the pandemic, those areas have seen, for example, strikingly cleaner air and water conditions show up relatively quickly.

Strange to think of the Apostle Paul pointing to this interconnected quality of humanity and creation, but in Romans 8 you get Paul speaking not only of us humans, but all of creation waiting with eager longing; waiting to be set free from its bondage to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” We and creation together “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the resurrection of our bodies.” It makes sense when you remember (as we often don’t) that we humans really are a part of creation, and not some separate entity apart from it.

In the time in which the church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus that makes our lives even worth living, it is past time for us to give care for the creation in which that Resurrection, after all took place; for the creation in which our lives, our hopes, and our futures are inextricably bound; for the creation which we have from the beginning been called to keep, to protect, to care for, to serve and to preserve – and to give thought and prayer to how we might finally live up to that call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Zachary T. Simpson, “USF researchers sampled more than 2000 fish in the Gulf of Mexico. They found oil in every one.” Tampa Bay Times 15 April 2020 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2020/04/15/usf-researchers-sampled-more-than-2000-fish-in-the-gulf-of-mexico-they-found-oil-pollution-in-every-one/?trk_msg=EP8O2UQG3MJK5CU2FBTBS95DB4&trk_contact=MKJ3NR92BNJ26R436KMC00O62G&trk_sid=9O4GRSL9U4ETQ4KA9370O4983G&utm_email=C483D552D4F194793477E5747E&utm_source=The+Buzz&utm_medium=MG2_Newsletter&utm_term=oil+pollution+in+every+one&utm_campaign=times-daily-buzz

[ii] Patricia Tull, “Let’s Discuss Dominion,” Working Preacher, 19 April 2016 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4606


Meditation: Secret Easter

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday A

Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1-14

Secret Easter

This is the day we celebrate that what happened in the tomb didn’t stay in the tomb, right?

Every gospel’s retelling of the resurrection has its own quirks (remember how Mark barely tells you anything at all, and you never even see or hear the resurrected Jesus?), and Matthew’s definitely has its own distinct features, but there is one thing all four of them have in common: in none of the accounts does anyone actually see the resurrection happen. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out in Learning to Wait in the Dark, there is technically no such thing as a “witness to the resurrection.”

Aside from Mark’s aforementioned gospel, all of the others show us the already-resurrected Jesus, some quite extensively such as Luke’s several encounters seemingly all on the same day, and John’s extensive retelling of Thomas’s particular encounter in Chapter 20 and that breakfast scene on the lakeshore in chapter 21. Matthew’s account is a bit more terse, and appearances of the risen Christ only add up to two – the encounter with the two Marys in today’s reading, and the Galilee appearance to the disciples that culminates in possibly the most famous verses in this gospel, the ones at the very end that constitute what we have come to call the Great Commission – “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” for those of you who have it memorized still in the King James Version.

The odd thing about Matthew’s account is that even though the two Marys witness quite a spectacle when they arrive at the tomb – an earthquake, a lightning-like angel descending from heaven and rolling back the stone, the guards becoming “like dead men” – all of this spectacle is prelude to the announcement that “he is not here.”

Somehow, Jesus is already gone from a tomb that had (presumably) been sealed before the angel rolled it back, if 27:66 is to be believed. So for all we talk about the resurrection on Easter Sunday, we never see it. We might be witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, but there are, as far as the scripture account goes, no actual witnesses to the resurrection itself. Somehow, before the dawn at which the two Marys arrived, Jesus was raised up out of that tomb and set free. All out of sight, in secret.

That’s not the only thing that happens in secret in Matthew’s account. The incident in verses 10-14 follows after a curious insertion at the end of chapter 27, in which a handful of religious authority figures get all conspiracy theory-minded and pester Pilate into adding extra security around the tomb. This is why those guards – the ones who “became like dead men” in verse 4 – are there at all, ending up as an added bit of spectacle to the grand scene. Once their contrivance has totally gone south, these religious authorities resort to bribery to keep any contrary narrative (besides their “disciples stole the body” story) from getting any traction. Of course, how they ever figured that a bunch of disciples who fled all the way back in chapter 26 were ever going to pull off such a feat is beyond me, but I guess the one point we can take from this is that there will always, always be those who will never believe no matter what happens. There are segments of the church today who are convinced that if we’re just nice enough and say our little spiel the right way then the whole world will say “of course!” and all get saved instantaneously, or something like that. It just isn’t so. There will always be those who will not believe, and they will always be capable of going to great lengths to preserve that non-belief.

Meanwhile, what the two Marys get is not to bear witness to a miracle. Instead, they get a job to do.

First the angel gives them the word to go find those other disciples and get them headed towards Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. While they were headed off to do just that, with the curious mixture of “fear and great joy” Matthew describes, Jesus himself makes his appearance – just as in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to the women first – and basically gives them the same message: go tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee.

Somehow it feels appropriate that Matthew’s account is the one that rolls around this particular awkward and constricted year. The great spectacle doesn’t happen in front of great crowds, but only to two women, isolated from the rest of the world that was going on as if nothing had happened. No great crowds, no great gathering: just the two Marys. Later the disciples get their turn. As far as Matthew’s gospel goes, that is maybe thirteen witnesses to the resurrected Christ?  It’s almost as if it’s a secret.

The brief excerpt from Acts also seems to play upon this idea. Peter, in his speech, makes the point that the risen Christ did not make large-scale public appearances, but showed himself to those “who were chosen as witnesses,” suggesting it was a relatively small number. The witnesses are few, it seems, and – as in Matthew so also here – those witnesses have a job to do; to preach and to testify to who Jesus is.

Our isolation, on this day normally given to large gatherings, might just be a lesson or a reminder for us of this task. Maybe we can stand to be reminded that the point of Easter isn’t necessarily about great big gatherings with big orchestras of trumpets and lilies all over the place, but it’s about our job: to bear witness, to testify. And we can receive that commission no matter where we are, even socially isolated as we are today. Whether anybody saw it or not, Christ is still risen, and still calls us to bear witness.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today


Meditation: The Saddest and Holiest Joke

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday A (livestreaming)

Matthew 21:1-11

The Saddest and Holiest Joke

The novelist, spiritual writer, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner made, in his collection Telling the Truth, a rather challenging observation about Jesus’s parables. Instead of the grave Repositories of Inviolable Sacred Truth we tend to make of them, Buechner wonders if they might have been something else, something much more bracing and vivid:

 

I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath. I don’t mean jokes for the joke’s sake, of course. I don’t mean the kind of godly jest the preacher starts his sermon with to warm people up and show them that despite his Geneva tabs or cassock he can laugh with the rest of them and is as human as everybody else. I mean the kind of joke Jesus told when he said it is harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door, harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank. And then added that though for man it is impossible, for God all things are possible because God is the master of the impossible, and [God] is a master of the impossible because in terms of what man thinks possible [God] is in the end a wild and impossible god. It seems to me that more often than not the parables can be read as high and holy jokes about God and about man and about the Gospel itself as the highest and holiest joke of them all. 

 

I hope that Rev. Buechner will forgive me for borrowing and extending his metaphor beyond its original context. Actually, I hope he might agree that given such a setup, perhaps the saddest and holiest joke of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the one with the most outlandish setup and the most tragic punchline, is the event being commemorated today on the church’s calendar, the one known as Palm Sunday.

That’s hard for us to grasp; most years we turned it into something quite different, after all, with our waving palms and big processionals and putting the children all out front. But when you get right down to it, this was a pretty meager affair, especially considered against the spectacles promoted and perfected by the occupiers of Judea at this time, the Romans.

Now, the Romans knew from spectacle. Rank upon rank of Roman horsemen, riding the finest steeds that could be procured; banners flying, making absolutely clear you knew who was in power here (them) and who was not (you); a great place of honor for the chief figure of the procession, whether the commander of this unit or the political figure being honored, as one might be upon entering Jerusalem from Caesarea Philippi, the principal seat of Roman governance for the region. As Caesarea Philippi was nearer to the coast, such processions would have entered Jerusalem from its western-facing gate, where this impromptu processional likely came from its eastern-facing gate.

Had any Roman been sent out to investigate this suspicious activity, it is hard to imagine he’d have been all that impressed. The assembled crowd very likely did not consist of any “important” people, some of whom apparently didn’t have a cloak to spread out and were therefore committing vandalism to cut branches to spread on the road; the apparent guest of honor was some anonymous-looking rustic riding not on a fine horse, but a donkey (and apparently a borrowed donkey at that). The shouting of the crowd, about some “son of David” person, probably didn’t make much sense to our random Roman investigator (though a Jewish observer would have been much more intrigued by the claim of this man as “son of David”). Likely this hypothetical Roman would have reported back to his superiors that it was a pretty pathetic display.

The city of Jerusalem did have a bit more reaction, though, as Matthew describes Jerusalem as being “in turmoil.” Again, though, it’s not clear just how impressive the little parade was to them; a bunch of unsavory characters shouting about this prophet what’s-his-name from the backwater province of Galilee, as they might have described it.

If this is a sad and holy joke, to return to Frederick Buechner’s image, we’re still waiting for the punchline, and that might be the saddest and holiest part. By the end of the week, after a series of sometimes-provocative events to be recalled in our midday services this week, this backwater prophet would be nailed to a cross, and quite likely at least some of this same crowd shouting “hosanna” at his entry to the city would be part of the party shouting “crucify!” at his ultimate (or so they thought) end.

By our time, of course, this Palm Sunday procession has acquired a very different sheen, mostly because we can’t help but read ahead and view this parade not from the point of view of the sad and holy punchline to the sad and holy joke, but to the surprise plot twist that follows what was supposed to be the end of the story. For today, perhaps, it is enough to see this parade as it is, a little bit shabby-looking and kind of strange, and yet to hold in mind those words of the prophet that Matthew so loves to quote – in this case the prophet Zechariah speaking of your King “coming to you, humble, riding on a donkey.” It is in this humility that the joke turns out to be on that hypothetical Roman observer, so caught up in his world’s way of seeing power that the greatest power of all slipped by him completely unnoticed. We’d do well not to fall into his trap, and not to be deluded by the displays of power and authority being paraded before us daily, and instead to remember where, and with whom, ultimate authority lies.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #198, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

 

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Meditation: Can These Bones Live?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 29,2020, Lent 5A (livestreaming)

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

Can These Bones Live?

I don’t know about you, but this necessity of social distancing and quarantine and staying out of reach of one another has really driven home for me the, well, Lent-ness of this particular Lent.

I mean, I’m an introvert, but not the “burrow in at home and never leave the house” type. You know how I like to start my days off on Fridays? Grab a book I’m working on – one for my enjoyment and edification, not job-related – it could be a novel or biography or anything but a biblical commentary. Go find someplace – a coffee shop, a café, whatever – where I can get breakfast or a decaf mocha or something. Settle in with whatever I get, and alternate between reading and watching the other folks. Not interacting any more than necessary, mind you, just being by myself out there. Key word: out there. So despite my introverted-ness this isolation thing is causing major stress.

Given this state of being, these two scriptures offered up for the church on this fifth Sunday of Lent come a little bit like a slap in the face (or maybe a slap in the faith). Both of them have the temerity to offer up, two solid weeks before the observance of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, stories of new life being brought to that which was dead.

Perhaps the obvious move would be to go to John’s account of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus. After all, that’s a whopper of a reading, both in terms of its sheer length (forty-five verses!) and the impact it has on the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Honestly, one of these years I might be tempted to take this story and break it up over the first five weeks of Lent; I honestly think there might be about five sermons in there.

You get Jesus dawdling about going to see Lazarus. You get both of the sisters, Martha and Mary, kind of giving him what-for over that. You get what was in the KJV the shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept.” You get Martha warning Jesus that if they really go through with opening the tomb after four days, it would, well, smell, as unembalmed bodies do. You get, above all, Lazarus coming out of the tomb. So much possibility.

But in this time, I can’t look away from Ezekiel’s story.

Ezekiel is, to put it in modern vernacular, messed up. He was a priest in Jerusalem who got carried away in the first wave of exile to Babylon, when the occupying forces chose only to “cut off the head” of Jerusalem – that is, take away its leaders, including its religious leaders. The puppet king installed after this turned out not to be quite a puppet after all, and when he stopped paying tribute the Babylonians returned and destroyed the city.

This experience seems to have taken a particular toll on Ezekiel. Biblical scholars have increasingly begun to consider that Ezekiel might, in modern terms, have been a victim of psychological trauma. The outlandish nature of some of his visions (including this one), some of his behaviors that make even Jeremiah look tame by comparison, and his sometimes extreme tone in calling out his people and their kings for their sinfulness and rebellion suggest a man who would at minimum be deep into therapy in modern times, if not something more intense.

And it is to this broken, traumatized old priest that God brings this deeply creepy, and yet deeply hopeful, vision of death being raised up into new life. Actually, that’s not totally right. This isn’t Lazarus still more or less in one piece just waiting for the call. This is not mere death but destruction, dessication, disassembling, dehydration kind of death. And God asks old messed-up Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

There’s a lot to be said for Ezekiel’s answer: “O Lord God, you know.” God was clearly up to something, and Ezekiel had the wit not to get in the way. God gives Ezekiel the command to “prophesy to these bones,” and maybe only someone who had seen too much, someone as broken and hurting as Ezekiel could take such a command seriously enough to carry it out. He does, and behold, the bones find their way back to each other, they take on all the tissue and flesh that had long ago dried up and rotted away, and there are…bodies.

Not people, not yet: bodies were reconstructed and whole, but “there was no breath in them” – no wind, no spirit. It’s not quite like in the account from John, in which after Jesus called to Lazarus he was indeed alive, but still all bound up in the burial cloths in which he had been wrapped. Lazarus needed release; he still needed to be cut loose from the old trappings of death that still clung to him. These bodies in front of Ezekiel still needed breath, spirit, life itself.

So, of course, God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel obeyed, and from “the four winds” came the breath that breathed life into these lifeless bodies. As Ezekiel recounts it, they stood up, a “vast multitude,” waiting.

Where are we?

Are we Lazarus, newly alive again but waiting to be freed from the bonds of death? Are we the dried old bones, without hope? Are we the reassembled bodies made whole, but without breath, without spirit? Are we the newly living, standing ready, waiting for whatever God calls us to do?

Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God unless otherwise indicated): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #—, Rise Up

 

Lazarus


Meditation: The Center of It All

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 22, 2020, Lent 4A (livestreaming)

Psalm 23

The Center of It All

The Revised Common Lectionary has this amazing knack for offering up a strangely appropriate scripture for particular unexpected occasions and situations. It doesn’t always happen this way, but just often enough to keep me freaked out.

For this fourth Sunday of Lent, on an occasion when the very idea of leaving the house becomes not only unthinkable but undesirable and when the basic act of a handshake or hug can be hazardous to somebody’s health, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up…the twenty-third Psalm. And as much as I might try to avoid it most years for the sheer unlikelihood of having anything useful to say about it, for this particular occasion it works, and it works because of one of the less eminently quotable parts of the psalm.

I very well know that, even while I was reading the psalm from the New Revised Standard Version that would be in our pews were we in the sanctuary, a very large number of you were totally tuning me out and reciting it to yourself in the old King James Version. The shame, though, is that we can’t read it in the original Hebrew.

Even in English, though, there is a key to this psalm that is easy to overlook, once it has become entrenched in our brains. Notice how the psalm starts: “The Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures; heleads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” Leaving aside the idea that God can be reduced to “he,” notice that all of this speaks of God the shepherd in the third person. Like many of the psalms this one is attributing to God, in this case speaking of God as the one who guides the psalmist’s life.

Also note that this is the imagery that we tend to think of as characteristic of the psalm: shepherd, green pastures, still waters, restoring my soul, right paths. These are images of safety and reassurance, but like so many such images in scripture they can be sentimentalized to the point of meaninglessness. We can get numbed to the idea of this psalm having anything to say about the darker times of life.

That’s a particularly bad trap to fall into, because this psalm is actually a product of those darker times, as the next section makes clear. Suddenly the psalmist is talking about walking through the “darkest valley.” Where did that come from? In fact Psalm 23 and others like it are actually products of those darker times. They are known as “trust psalms” or “dependence psalms” precisely because of their experience of the dark times and places, and the realization gained in those dark valleys that God can still be trusted and relied upon.

There’s another turn that happens in this middle section of the psalm. Notice what comes after that line about the darkest valley and fearing no evil: “for you are with me…”. Suddenly the psalmist is no longer speaking in the third person about God; his address is direct; the psalmist is speaking directly to God now. No longer is talking about God good enough: the psalmist talks to God.

Of course the very content of that short clause is all about how that’s even possible – “for you are with me,” the psalmist says, and such statement wouldn’t make any sense in the case of an absent God. Whatever the darkest valley was, the psalmist is now more convinced and assured of God’s presence than perhaps ever before.

For all of the lovely images and mellifluous phrases that abound in this psalm, it is this particular clause is central to everything that comes before and after. The presence of God the shepherd is implied in those first verses, and is made more explicit in the verses that follow, about preparing a table before the psalmist even with enemies all around and anointing the head with oil as a sign of hospitality and care. The psalm is, in short, dependent upon and centered on the presence of God.

As if that all weren’t clear enough, the psalmist has one more trick up his (or her?) sleeve to make that fact all the more decisively clear. Remember that wisecrack about reading the psalm in the original Hebrew? If you had the original Hebrew in front of you, you’d be able, with some care, to discover something about just how central this phrase is. You could even count the number of Hebrew words before this phrase, and then count the words after “you are with me,” and you know what? They’d be almost exactly the same. The psalmist has gone so far as to embed “you are with me” as the literally central statement of the psalm. Everything that comes before and after hinges on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the hard time, and it all balances on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the darkest valley.

I don’t know about you, but after a week of isolation this is a useful thing to remember. It can be incredibly difficult to keep in mind that even if we are holed up in our homes and cut off from most all human contact, we are not ever alone; we can with the psalmist say “you are with me.” It can be terribly difficult to feel, I know that much; it’s hard to know that reassurance in isolation or solitude or especially quarantine. But that truth never goes away. God is with you. God is with you, and you, and you, and all of you. All of us.

And that never changes.

God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #803, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; #188, Jesus Loves Me!; —, When Hands Can No More Reach and Hold

 

 

Image: James Gilmour, Dark Valley


Sermon: The Prayers We Make

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2020, Lent 2A

2 Chronicles 6:12-17; Matthew 6:5-15

The Prayers We Make

The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed if Thou the Spirit give by which I pray;

My unassisted heart is barren clay, which of its native self can nothing feed…[i]

The words of today’s anthem were penned originally by Michaelangelo Buonarrati (yes, that Michelangelo, a poet as well as a painter), and translated into English by William Wordsworth. They speak to a most basic fact about prayers and praying that we are deeply prone to forget or overlook. Prayer, when prayed with any kind of effectiveness, comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit more than from us. As Jesus’s instruction wrapped around this terribly familiar prayer shows, prayers coming from our own motivation – the “barren clay” of the “unassisted heart” of Michelangelo’s poem – can be far worse than merely shallow or meaningless. They can be exercises in vanity and self-righteousness.

Take the guy out on the street corner, probably with his own entourage of trumpets heralding his every utterance. There’s a reason that Jesus turns to that phrase “truly I tell you, they have received their award”; the gesture has no other purpose than to draw the attention of passerby to the overwhelming “righteousness” of the one doing the praying. If even one person is so moved in the crowd, the venture is a success.

One of my former hometowns had an occasional issue with street-corner preachers setting up shop on its highly popular downtown street to chastise the town for its loose morals and “unchristian ways.” As a university town it did have a lot of diversity going on in its borders, far more than other cities and towns in the state. This diversity did include religious diversity, both in terms of the number of different religious practiced (or not practiced) and in the number of different Christian traditions expressed there. At first this performance raised some hackles among the locals (the street preacher and his entourage were from a notorious church about a half hour away), but folks figured out the solution quickly: don’t pay them any attention, no matter what they say. Just walk by on your way to the restaurant. Soon enough, when the preacher and his entourage were no longer receiving their reward, they moved on.

Where, exactly, is the Holy Spirit in such a performance? Far better to go find a closet, as Jesus says, and forego the attention of adoring crowds. Attention-seeking prayers form attention-seeking pray-ers, and the guiding of the Spirit isn’t going to cut through all the noise. Quite likely, the one praying is all about showing off to others, with absolutely no concern for hearing a word from God – after all, why do you need to hear a word from God when you’ve got God all figured out enough to show it off on the street corners? It’s not prayer, when it comes down to it.

Or how about the guy with all the words? Jesus makes reference to not praying “like the Gentiles” with lots of words piling up, but such a phenomenon wasn’t completely alien to the Jewish tradition either. Check out that prayer Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple, a small portion of which we heard in the day’s first reading. Yes, it’s a celebratory occasion and all that, but is the prayer really the place to pile up the word count? As Jesus puts it, you’re not telling God anything new; your needs are already known before you open your mouth. I suppose the challenge might be that what you need (that God already knows) might not exactly coincide with what you want, but perhaps that’s another reason not to be quite so verbose.

Then comes the prayer itself.

Now notice how Jesus introduces the prayer. He doesn’t say “pray these words” or “pray this prayer”; his instructions are “pray then in this way,” or other translations might say “pray like this.” There’s really no evidence that Jesus was trying to give the disciples some exact prayer to repeat by rote, any more than Jesus meant for the words he spoke at the Last Supper to be repeated exactly by rote every time the disciples broke the bread and partook of the cup.

It isn’t necessarily that it’s wrong to use the prayer in such a way, but there are definite risks to doing so. What happens to things we say by rote? Well, we remember the words pretty well – the same holds true for repeated sung responses like the Gloria Patri and the Doxology in the service. But no matter how many times we say them, how much do we hear them? Or do they become, well, empty words, drained of meaning or even basic comprehension in the act of repetition?

At any rate, after all the years of repetition the words are at least familiar to us. We can note that it is Matthew’s version of the prayer that uses the words we use – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We should understand that the reference here really is a financial one; we are to forgive the debts of those who owe us money. It was a radical enough message in Jesus’s time, when being owed by others was a tremendous source of power in the Roman Empire. It’s an echo of the “year of Jubilee” evoked in the Torah, in which such debts were forgiven under the instruction of the Law every seven years. So here’s a pretty strong example of how the repetition of the prayer over the centuries has numbed us to the rather radical notions it espouses for us to live up to, isn’t it? Honestly, if we’re under God’s instruction to forgive the debts of others, we might as well really not engage in loaning money to others. Just give it to them with no expectation of reward. Again, pretty radical implications of this prayer.

There is one more little tag-on after the prayer, and it’s a bit chilling – if you don’t forgive (as the prayer promises that we will do), the consequences are cosmic and devastating. Again, a deeply uncomfortable thought.

Here’s the thing about this prayer, whether we take it as a literal prayer to be repeated exactly or as an instruction to “pray this way”; far from being about getting what we want from God, it is so much more about being formed into followers of Christ – forgiving those debts; forgiving even more generally; relying on God to know our needs daily and beyond; seeking after God’s guidance to stay away from evil and to conform to the good.

Again, like the poem and anthem has already taught us, “of good and pious works thou [God] art the seed…unless thou [God again] show us then thine own true way, no one can find it! Father, thou must lead.” We rely on God to be able even to offer up the words to pray, and then those words in turn form us into those followers of God,  into the body of Christ even, by their unceasing call upon us and our choices and actions.

In short, it is a deeply important call to be very discerning and obedient to the Holy Spirit even in the act of praying, for whether it is this model prayer or any other, the prayers we make…make us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #465, What a Friend We Have in Jesus; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #—-, Our Father In Heaven, All Glorious Above; #543, God Be the Love to Search and Keep Me

 

[i] Michelangelo Buonarroti, “To the Supreme Being,” trans. William Wordsworth; set by Jane Marshall in the anthem “The Prayers I Make.”


Sermon: It Is Written…

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 1, 2020, Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

It Is Written…

When was the last time anyone dared you to go up on top of the tallest building in town and throw yourself off to prove that God loves you so much – that you are #blessed, so to speak – that God wouldn’t possibly let you get hurt?

Has anyone ever challenged you to turn a bunch of decorative garden stones at Home Depot or Lowe’s into bread to feed all the people at St. Francis House or Family Promise or Grace Marketplace?

Or have you ever been tempted to sell your soul to some billionaire in order to get bankrolled for a run at public office – maybe even the highest office in the land?

As familiar as this story is – we do read it once a year from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke – one of the things we often don’t think about is that the particular temptations Jesus faces here are not really that relatable for most of us, even in more modern equivalents. And truth be told, it’s just as well. We struggle enough with the far more mundane temptations with which we are confronted on a regular basis.

I could go through a whole laundry list of temptations any one of us might face on a regular basis. A typical preacher might toss out some manner of temptation to some financial misdeed, possibly, or a more sexual temptation perhaps, or the temptation to make like the Houston Astros and cheat our way to whatever “victory” we desire.

I wonder, though, if the most insidious temptation we face on a regular basis – so common, in fact, that we probably don’t even recognize it as a temptation – is what might be called the temptation to ‘let it slide.’ It’s the temptation that comes of seeing a thing that is wrong, and knowing that it is wrong, but choosing, for whatever reason, to ‘let it slide.’

This temptation works a lot of ways. Let’s take what we might call a global example. The world’s economic food system is in many ways riddled with all manner of corruption, abusive or exploitative practices towards workers in the supply down to and including slavery, widely unethical pay practices, environmentally degrading agricultural practices, and a whole load of other such wrongdoing. The practices in question implicate an awful lot of the favorite food brands people, particularly in the USA, buy most often. Now there are in some cases particular brands or companies that take into account and seek to avoid or eliminate such practices; you might see labels such as “fair trade certified” or “rainforest-safe” or something like that on the packaging of such foods or goods. Still, you know, those brands tend to be a bit more expensive and harder to find. And, you know, you really like that particular chocolate bar, or can’t function at all without that particular cup of coffee in the morning. And then comes the defeatist argument: what difference can one person make, anyway?

And so, we … let it slide.

But let’s get more immediate, or more personal. You know something is wrong with the couple next door. You don’t see him, unless he comes tearing in late at night, often with a lot of noisy shouting or arguing. She’s turning much more withdrawn, less approachable, and when you see her she’s clearly trying to hide something and is clearly more fearful and on edge. You have suspicions. You know something is wrong but you don’t know anything. And you can already hear the voices telling you to ‘mind your own business.’ And after all, if he’s willing to be that violent to her, who’s to say he won’t be that violent towards you?

And so, we…let it slide.

All creation suffers, peoples around the world are ground into dust by unrelenting poverty, women are abused constantly and even killed, and we…let it slide.

Perhaps this is where Jesus’s temptation meets ours after all. The Tempter’s challenges to Jesus are a direct attack on Jesus’s relationship to God the Father. Who does Jesus serve with his power for miracles? Does Jesus glorify God, or himself? Who is worthy of worship? Jesus lets none of these challenges slide, to say the least.

And also, Jesus doesn’t get into great theological arguments with the Tempter either. Each temptation is swatted aside, you’ll note, with a statement that either begins with or includes the phrase “It is written…” In this case, all three of these answers are written in the book of Deuteronomy, that great recapitulation of the Law that finishes the Torah.

We do have that resource at hand, you know. We also have a lot more “it is written” resources as well, law and prophets and writings and psalms and poetry and letters and apocalyptic visions and most of all the very acts and deeds of Jesus himself, written that we might have Jesus’s witness in our minds, our hearts, and our lives, that we might know temptation when we see it and might be prepared to rebuff it at every turn. As it is written in John 20:31, “these are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

See, not giving into temptation isn’t about the do’s and don’ts, the “gotcha”s and the finger-pointers. It’s about life; life in Jesus’s name, life in God’s good created world, life in the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It’s about the choice, again and again, to live into our baptisms and our confirmation promises and the commitment we express every time we come to this table. It’s about life in the Jesus who chooses again and again to live for God and for us.

For all this, we have to say Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #167            Forty Days and Forty Nights; #—, God, You Wrap Your Love Around Us; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

 

Matthew04v01to11_2014

Credit: agnusday.org