Into / Out of the labyrinth | Lent 1 | March 5

Texts: Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17;   Matthew 4:1-11

Labyrinth

 

If you’ve read the Lent devotionals, looked at the bulletin cover, or found the pattern in the hanging dots behind me, you’ve likely noticed a visual theme.  We’re using the labyrinth throughout Lent as a symbol of the Inward / Outward journey.

It’s an ancient design.  Not necessarily this particular one, but the labyrinth.  One site in northern India has a labyrinth pattern estimated to be 4500 years old.  A cluster of islands in northwest Russia have over 30 stone labyrinths that may be as old as 3000 years.

Greek mythology includes the story the part human/ part beast minotaur who wreaks havoc on the population until the great architect Daedalus designs and builds a labyrinth whose sole purpose is to contain the minotaur at its center.  The hero Theseus eventually enters the winding labyrinth and slays the minotaur.  Some labyrinths still portray a minotaur at the center.

In later medieval times stone labyrinths show up in regions like Scandinavia, frequently around the coast.  Fishing communities likely built these with the superstitious hopes of trapping harsh winds and trolls that may endanger a successful fishing outing.

Around the same time, the labyrinth was being adopted more fully as a Christian symbol of pilgrimage.  Labyrinths were embedded into the pavement of grand cathedrals.  Worshipers were invited to pray their way along the path, into the center, a place of holy encounter, and pray their way back out.  Some writings suggest that walking the labyrinth was an alternative option for those unable to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Christian crusaders regained and then lost control of the Holy City to the Muslim armies.  There’s a real bright spot in religious history.

In the last few decades the labyrinth has made a resurgence in the Christian imagination.  Labyrinths are popping up in all kinds of places.  Maybe you’ve seen one and wondered what it was.  They’re used frequently at retreats as a more active prayer practice.  During my years at seminary AMBS decided to mow a labyrinth into a large area of native prairie grasses growing on the campus.  The labyrinth is a trending piece of spiritual technology, and we’re riding the wave.

One of the primary differences between a labyrinth and a maze is that the labyrinth has only one path, with no dead ends or false trails.  This is different than, say, the hedge maze at the Triwizard tournament that Harry Potter had to find his way through, the four contestants frantically darting through corridors, trying to avoid wrong turns and blast ended skrewts, and find the Cup.

If you put your finger at the bottom opening of the labyrinth on the bulletin cover, or if you do the same with your eye with the banner, and start to trace the line, you’ll notice there is only one way to go.  In a labyrinth the task is not to avoid getting lost, but simply to keep going.  If you keep going, you will make it into the center.  And after arriving, you will find your way back out, if you only keep going.

So why go on a pilgrimage like this?  Why go through this circuitous route when it would be much easier to walk a straight line into the center?  And, since when did anyone decide that the journey into the labyrinth was a good thing?  Aren’t there harsh winds and a minotaur waiting for you in the center?

The scriptures for the first Sunday of Lent speak about why such a journey may be necessary.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the opening scenes of the Bible.  It’s an origins story about who we are and where we come from.  In Genesis 2, the human is formed from the dust of the ground.  Shaped by the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, breathed into being through the Divine breath of life.  The humans begin life surrounded by everything they need to flourish.  They live in a lush garden.  There are all kinds of trees planted by the very hand of Yahweh Elohim, producing different kinds of edible fruit.  Humanity starts out in a perennial forest garden.  The only hitch is that one tree from which the humans are commanded not to eat.  The tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge of good and evil could have a moral meaning, or it could also be an expression of comprehensiveness.  Like the “heavens and the earth” includes those two things and everything in between.  “Good and evil” could also mean those two things, and everything in between.  The tree of knowledge of the full scope of that which is knowable, all the way from the good, to the evil.

Now if Yahweh Elohim would have had any kind of parenting experience whatsoever, God would have known that as soon as you declare something off limits, you inadvertently and immediately awaken the very desire you are seeking to quelch.  I guess it might add a little extra incentive for obedience if you say, “On the day you do it, you will surely die.” In Genesis, God is learning right along with humanity how to make this whole creation thing work.  And so the stage is set.

We’re so familiar with the general outline of the story of the Garden of Eden that it’s easy to miss how surprising an origins story it is – one in which humanity is surrounded by abundance.  It seems much more intuitive to tell a story of scarcity.  These up and coming humans struggling against all odds in a hostile environment.  Scrounging for food, fending off wild beasts, never more than an annual cycle away from the threat of starvation or annihilation.  Within our own myths of economic competition and perpetual progress, it’s tempting to look back into the mists of pre-history and imagine that kind of continuous struggle for survival in which life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 1651).

But Genesis proposes another scenario, another way to think about our origins, and thus our present predicament.  It’s a story in which the central question is not How will we have enough resources? but rather How will we use the abundance of our resources in a way that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than the destruction of life?  That’s an important enough point that I’m going to say it again.  In the biblical imagination, the defining question of human origins is not How will we get enough food and clothes and resources to survive?  Food is abundant.  Clothes are optional.  The defining question is What will or won’t we do with the many resources we do have?

One of those resources, of course, being the acquisition of god-like knowledge.

The Garden of Eden story famously hinges on the role of the serpent.  In later tradition the serpent  came to be conflated with the devil, but here it is simply described as more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh Elohim had made.  And that word “crafty” doesn’t have to be negative.  That word is elsewhere translated “sensible.”  In Proverbs it is most frequently translated as “prudent.”  Even Jesus said to be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Now the serpent was more “prudent,” “sensible” “shrewd”… “crafty.”  The Jewish Publication Society translates it as “subtle.”  The subtle serpent.

And the subtle/sensible/shrewd serpent says, No, you won’t die, you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil, the full range of knowledge.  And the serpent is right.  When they eat the fruit, they don’t die, at least not that day, as Yahweh Elohim had said.  And they do obtain knowledge.

And they get booted out of the perennial forest garden – and they have to start farming, struggling with the earth.  It’s the agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators and DDT (See last week’s sermon).  Such far ranging knowledge.

And that’s the broad framework in which the drama of human history unfolds.  What will we do with our tremendous knowledge and god-like power?

And it starts to become more evident why a pilgrimage into the center of the labyrinth becomes essential.  Just because we have the basics of what we need to live, doesn’t mean we know how to truly live.  How to live in such a way that glorifies God and resists temptations detrimental to the flourishing of life.

Might this kind of pilgrimage be precisely what Jesus is doing at the onset of his public ministry?

Jesus has just been baptized, he has just been declared the Beloved Son of God, and the first thing to follow, Matthew says, is this: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Congratulations on your baptism.  In case you didn’t read the fine print, we’d like to inform you you’ll be spending the next 40 days in physical and spiritual anguish.

In so many ways, Jesus has all he needs.  He’s got Resources, with a capital R.  But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that before he exercises any of this, he has to go into the wilderness, the place of physical scarcity – led there by the Spirit.  And in the wilderness, the question of the tempter, the devil, is not, do you have the power?  Do you have the ability?  But since you have the knowledge, ability, how are you going to use it?  What kind of power are you going to exercise?  Since you are the Son of God…

Jesus walks into the labyrinth, keeps moving up, down, around that singular path, and arrives in the center, in the wilderness, distant from the outside world but face to face with the most common temptations humanity faces.  In the center there is indeed a minotaur, of sorts, waiting for him.  Jesus faces these temptations in the wilderness so that when he faces them in the land of abundance, he will have already made his decision.

The temptations seem eccentric on the surface, but there is an interpretive tradition that links them very much with the human experience.  If you like alliteration, you can think of them as the temptations of possessions, pride, and power.

The devil first tempts Jesus, who hasn’t eaten for weeks, to turn the desert stones into bread.  In response Jesus says something to the effect of “Even if every single stone in this desert were a steaming hot loaf of bread, it wouldn’t be enough.  We don’t live just on bread, we are sustained by every word and that Breath of life that comes from the mouth of God.”  Even though one might have possessions, they need not define one’s life and worth.

And when the devil suggests that Jesus might leap from the pinnacle of the temple because he’s so special that there’s no way God would let him get hurt, Jesus rejects  that kind of prideful thinking.   Years later, back in a garden setting, he will pray that if it be possible for his life to be spared, that God would do so.  But not my will, but yours be done.  And there are no angels who intervene to stop the whole procession that leads to his state execution on the cross.

And when the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world which he will gladly hand over if Jesus will only genuflect before the altar of power dominance,  Jesus again rejects this offer.  He sends the devil away, angels come and attend to him, and he soon makes his way out of the wilderness, out of the labyrinth, back into the land of abundance.  Now finally ready to do his work.

The early church father Irenaeus wrote that the “The glory of God is humanity full alive.”

Lent is a time when we confess that we don’t know how to be fully alive.  We think we have some ideas, but we know enough to know we’re likely screwing it up.  We live in the land of abundance, we have tremendous knowledge, but it doesn’t fill out the full picture of how to live lives that bring glory to the Creator and add to the flourishing of life.

So we head into the labyrinth.  We take the inward journey, assured that this is not a trick.  There are no dead ends or false paths.  There is simply the road that leads to the center where we will encounter what and who we need to encounter.  What we need to encounter in order to come back out with a renewed sense of who we are, and the small part we play in the abundance of creation.  It’s a journey we take multiple times throughout life.

Let me end by saying that this journey can take many forms, but if you want a way to get together to pray with others, we will be meeting every Wednesday of Lent here in the sanctuary.  We’ll be teaching and practicing Centering prayer, a simple form of silent prayer.  And we’ll be praying from the Anabaptist Prayer Book which includes open spaces for voicing our concerns and intersessions.  We’re having these at 5:30pm with the hopes this can assist some folks in joining in route to their way home from work, and still have most of the evening to be home.

May you know that the Breath of Life, the Christ of Love, accompanies and sustains you on your journey, and may you be led by the Spirit to go where you need to go.

 

 

 

 

Surveying the land from eight angles | Lent 2 | 1 March 2015

Texts: Genesis 17:1-8; Mark 8:31-38

1.)  Promised land

When Abram was 99 years old, he was old.  The first time Al Bauman had a birthday when I was in Columbus I asked him how old he was, and he said, “Almost 100,” after which he went off somewhere to climb a ladder and fix something.  Al was joking, of course, but for Abram, this was no joke.  He was almost 100, the end more in sight than it had ever been.

You learn to let go of a lot of things by that age, I suppose.  A lot of friends and family you’ve outlived.  A lot of unfulfilled hopes.  If you don’t learn to let go, likely you don’t reach that age.  But Abram still hung on to one haunting concern, unresolved and now all but impossible to be fulfilled.  At a time when children, and sons specifically, were how you lived on after death – not just in perpetuating your own DNA but in whether or not your name was remembered and honored and carried forward – Abram and his wife Sarai were childless.  The entire story of the Jewish people, the foundation of the Christian narrative, is initiated by an impossible promise made to an aging couple – a covenant between Yahweh,  Abram and Sarai, who are renamed Abraham and Sarah to reflect the new future opening up in front of them.  They will have a son.  And not only that, but they will have land on which to grow.  God Almighty says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now a migrant, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).

2.) Our land

There’s something empowering about having access to land, even in small amounts.  Recently my mom noted to me how expensive land is getting to be, selling in their part of Ohio for around $6000 an acre.  I replied that this still sounds like a pretty good deal seeing as how we paid 10’s of thousands of dollars for the 50×150 ft. plot of land our house sits on.

As much as we shelled out for that, I seem to have a major internal hang-up for paying for much of anything when it comes to caring for our little piece of land.  Trying to convert a patch of yard into a garden takes lots of extra nutrients.  Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by an excess of cow manure, I still can’t bring myself to buy the stuff dried and neatly packaged at Lowes.  On more than one occasion we have sacrificed our vehicles smelling poorly for several days by hauling the stuff in garbage bags back from Mom and Dad’s.  This past fall I gathered about 30 bags of leaves from neighbors’ curbs to mulch and spread over the garden space.  Supposedly, under the snow, the soil is slowly getting richer as we speak, which is a nice thought on a winter day.  For a while in the fall we extended the area that our backyard chickens could roam and forage so they could tear up some of the sod where the bigger garden will be.  Not only is this a free service, but it’s better than free, since the grass and bugs they eat reduce the amount of supplemental grain they need.  Leaving little nitrogen droppings wherever they roam is another bonus.  But this meant we had to come up with a bigger fence to contain them.  Seeing no other way around it, we paid money for some fencing.  For someone who grew up with a big barn full of all kinds of discarded wonders, it seems like anything you need should just be lying around somewhere, or growing on trees, which, as it turns out, in some cases, it is.

3.) Not your land

There’s no direct reference to land in the Mark 8 reading, but it’s right there, just behind the text.  Jesus tells those around him that if they want to be his followers, they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross.  This must have been a startling thing to hear.  Crucifixion was a common – and public – spectacle in the Roman world.  Various ancient historians record incidents of mass crucifixions before and after the time of Jesus around Rome and Jerusalem.  It was so common and widespread that the vertical part of the crosses were almost certainly permanent fixtures planted in the ground.  The one carrying their cross on their way to that site would have carried the horizontal beam.  To say that crucifixion was excruciating would be redundant as that very word derives from the practice.  Dying on a cross was usually a matter of days rather than hours.  But the real purpose of the practice wasn’t for the one on the cross, but for those who witnessed it.  It was explicitly designed as a public deterrent against anyone who might be entertaining thoughts of following in the same way as the one up there.  It was visible and publicly known.  Its message was clear.  “Don’t let this happen to you.”  Rome had amazing accomplishments in architecture and culture and connecting disparate parts of the world through its roads, but it maintained control of the land by this reign of terror.  Every cross that lined those roads sang the same song: “This land is our land.  This land aint your land.  Don’t cause us problems.  And all will be grand.”

4.) Promised land II + a cute kitten

One can now hardly hear the story of Abraham being promised the land as a perpetual holding without pondering the turmoil of the last century that has taken place on that land.  It is now occupied by two peoples, both carrying deep wounds and trauma from violence directed against them:  The Holocaust for the Jews, with centuries of marginalization and oppression before that.  And for the Palestinian Arabs, the forced evacuation and continued occupation and destruction of ancestral land.

This past week a pastor friend who recently visited Israel/Palestine posted a picture on Facebook by the artist Banksy.  Banksy is a mysterious British graffiti artist, whose work has shown up in various public spaces, usually using dark humor to make a political point.  This particular image shows a neighborhood in Gaza reduced to rubble by Israeli bombing.  One of the few standing walls has a huge graffiti painting of a cute kitten with a pink bow around its neck, giving an adorable gaze to onlookers.  Banksy’s caption to the image says, “I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza–but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”  Maybe it will take the creativity of playful artists to redeem our lands.

Banksy Gaza kitten

5) You are land

Along with water, which we considered last week, the Hebrews considered earth itself to be an essential part of what makes us human.  In Genesis 2 it is the ground, the Adamah in Hebrew, that is the raw material out of which the Creator forms the human, the Adam.  Adam, comes from, is inseparable from, the Adamah.  Lest humans ever think too highly of themselves, this reminds us that we are nothing more than a Hebrew pun.  Latin keeps the same connection.  “Humus” is rich earth, and we are humanus, human ones.  And we’re not the only dust creatures.  Animals of the field and birds of the air are also formed out of the same ground.  Lest we forget, our Ash Wednesday liturgy is an annual reminded to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The mythologist Joseph Campbell has said, “If we think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, we see that we are the earth; we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.”

6)  Not your land II – the cross as a rope

Three weeks ago the Dispatch carried an article with this opening sentence: “The number of African-Americans lynched in Southern states in the 19th and 20th centuries is significantly higher than previously detailed, according to a new report.”

Other excerpts from the article: “Researchers said they determined that 3,959 black people were killed in ‘racial terror lynchings’ in the 12 Southern states with the most reported incidents between 1877 and 1950. The new number includes 700 people who were not named in previous works seeking to comprehensively document the toll, the authors wrote.”

“To be an effective mechanism for social control, lynchings had to be visible, with the killing being publicly known, especially to the target population.”

“It took little more than an allegation or a perceived insult to spark a lynching in some cases…and the lynchings themselves drew large crowds. James Cameron, who survived being lynched as a teenager and later founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, said he remembered seeing 2,000 white people gathered at his lynching, some with their children.”

7.)  This land is your land, this land is my land

In Mark 8, Jesus claims for himself the title of Son of Man, better translated The Human One.  The Human One invites those who would follow to carry their cross.  There’s a way of reading this that can lead to a form of self-annihilation.  Reducing one’s worth and value to nothing, forfeiting the goodness of life for some kind of sacrificial ideal.  But what is said alongside this seems to indicate that Jesus isn’t so much interested in those who die for their faith as those who live for their faith.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for the sake of the Human One will save it.”  The point is to save life.  To move beyond an existence centered on self-preservation.  To finally come to see oneself as a part of something much bigger than oneself, caught up not in the ways of Rome or ethnic or national supremacy, but caught up in the very public and visible process of humanity, the earth-creatures – becoming more fully human through the way of the Human One.

Old Abraham knows he is about to return to the dust, and so becomes free to be utterly dependent on the promises of the Holy One, who declares that there will be a future.  Life and generations will go on, even if it is in a way the he can’t envision or imagine.

8.) Promised land III; Our land II; Not your land III; You are land II; This land is your land, this land is my land II

One of the most important things the Bible says about land occurs in one of the least read books, Leviticus.  There in the mix of instructions for ritual purity and priestly process, it has these words, proclaimed from the mouth of the Lord: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but migrants and tenants.”  This occurs within the laws of the Jubilee, designed to prevent land from becoming concentrated in the hands of too few, commanding that the land be redistributed every 50 years.  It would certainly be an interesting experiment in biblical literalism.  Simply put, the land belonging to the Lord means it doesn’t belong to us.  We can care for it, but, in the long view, we are migratory.  Jesus alluded to Jubilee multiple times in his ministry.  The underlying message is that the land is too valuable, too rich, too much a vessel of the kingdom of God, to be in the hands of only a few, whether defended by crosses or nooses or economic policy.  The land is the basis of wealth, and it continually produces things outside of the money economy.  Free leaves, and grass for grazing, that becomes manure that becomes all variety of trees and plants for food, and beauty, and the unmeasurable enjoyment of life for the human ones, the birds, and other creatures.

Taking the plunge | Lent 1 | 22 February 2015

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17;  Mark 1:9-15

Two weeks ago Katie G ended her sermon by introducing us to a phrase that comes out of music theory: “Participatory discrepancies.”  Participatory discrepancies are the human element  in community and specifically, singing and music making, when each voice participates through the same score on the page, but adds its own variance and unscripted nuances.  When we do it well, Katie noted, it can produce a meaningful disunity, which actually turns out to be a pretty good basis for community.

As someone not raised singing four part harmony, but who has spent much of my adult life only somewhat successfully trying to get up to speed on such things, I’m keenly aware of the participatory discrepancies I contribute to any song we sing, and am always a little surprised and grateful that the disunity turns out to be meaningful nonetheless.

And since we are in the mode of learning new vocabulary, I thought we could start the season of Lent off with another contribution, a phrase not completely unrelated to the previous one.  Ready for it?  Hermeneutical community.  The word “hermeneutics” contains the name of the Greek god Hermes who was a messenger between the divine and human realms.  Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, how a text or story from the past carries its meaning, its message, into the present.  Since its beginnings, a stream of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has placed great significance on the hermeneutical community – the gathered body of believers who, together, do the work of interpretation in how we understand scripture and the life of faith.  The hermeneutical community seeks to avoid the danger of surrendering interpretation to a group of elites who declare truth from on high, to be accepted by all.  It also seeks to avoid the opposite danger of the private, isolated individual deciding for themselves what is right.

In the hermeneutical community it is understood that no one has the full truth, and that we arrive at a closer picture of the truth only by being open to the insights and counsel of others.  This shows up in our baptismal vows with a pledge to “give and receive counsel within the congregation.”  And within the hermeneutical community, there will always be participatory discrepancies.  Hermes runs back and forth between gods and mortals and it is up to all of us, together, to decipher his messages.

We, Columbus Mennonite Church, are a hermeneutical community, an interpreting community.  So I guess that means that if you ever take anything the preacher says as 100% pure truth, then you’re missing the point.  It’s a privilege to be able to help frame the conversation, but then it’s up to all of us to keep talking.

I introduce this phrase because throughout Lent we will be guided by the theme of Praying with Creation.  As it turns out, each of the weeks of Lent contain a reference to some non-human aspect of creation: Water, Land, Cattle, Serpents, Seeds, and Branches.  And we thought it might be fruitful to bring these things into the center of our Lenten worship.  So I suppose another name for the theme could be “Expanding the hermeneutical community.”  In other words, what does it look like when we invite water, and cattle, and seeds into the room with us to help us interpret what the Spirit might be saying to us?  Or, since they’re already in our lives whether we invite them or not, what does it look like when we acknowledge their presence and listen to what they have to teach us?

In today’s readings it is water that plays a prominent role.  In the Genesis flood story, it is water, water everywhere.  In the Hebrews’ mind, water was so essential to life that the beginning of Genesis doesn’t even bother including it among that things God creates.  It is there, pre-existent, before creation even begins.  “In the beginning, when Elohim created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim swept over the face of the waters.”  Then God said ‘Let there be light.’  Ancient Hebrew poets and modern evolutionary biologists don’t always jive in their respective pronouncements, but they both seem to agree that water is something of a precondition for the existence of life on this planet.

We emerge from the primordial watery abyss, our bodies still 2/3rd water, still utterly dependent on 2 Hs + 1 O for our existence.

And Genesis 1 soon leads into Genesis 6-9.  Genesis 6:11 says that the earth had become corrupt, and filled with violence.  This makes God sorry for having made humankind, it says.  God’s heart is grieved.  Divine mistakes were made.  Homo sapiens are a failed experiment in self-reflective consciousness and free will.  They have abused their power and their knowledge and turned against one another, conquering and enslaving and murdering one another.  Violence and corruption fill the earth.

And so Elohim takes executive action and decides to answer with an even more violent act, the almost-nuclear option, using water now as a weapon against creation, tearing open the heavens and flooding the whole world, wiping out everything that breathes – almost – being careful to cause no extinctions, but quickly making every creature an endangered species, saved only by a massive boat, an ark built by Noah and his family, who are the only human survivors.

At the end of the rains, when the waters subside and the ark comes to a rest on a mountain, Noah sends out a dove, like a spy drone, to investigate this inundated earth to see if the ground is ready for them to leave the ark.  He sends out the dove the first time and it returns with nothing.  Noah waits seven days and sends out the dove again, and it returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign that the olive trees are no longer under water, a sign of creation extending the olive branch to humanity.  Noah waits another seven days and sends out the dove again, and it doesn’t return.  It has found a new home in this new world where all of the creatures will begin again attempting to live in balance with one another, and with the waters.

When they come out of the ark God forms a covenant not only with humanity, but, as Genesis 9:10 says, “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”  God’s promise is to never again destroy the earth with a flood.  And the sign of the covenant, the reminder, is the bow in the clouds that appears at the end of a rainstorm when the sun comes out.  More than just a colorful decoration, the bow refers to that weapon, so common for all those conquering armies enslaving and murdering, slinging arrows at their enemies.  Even ancient deities were depicted holding a bow, ready to shoot any time, a sign of power.  But after the flood, God, Elohim, gives up the war bow, gives up using water as a weapon, and hangs the bow, unstrung, without arrows, in the air, pointed away from the earth.  It is a sign of the covenant of peace between the Creator and creation.

Of course none of this actually happened.

It’s just a story.  A story with so many impossibilities we can’t honestly take it seriously.  It’s a myth.  And not even an original myth.  The Babylonians, who the Jews lived among after they were exiled from their own land, had an even older flood myth that they told, which was adopted and adapted by the hermeneutical community of Jewish elders and editors composing their Scriptures – which, for us, is just the Old Testament.

Besides, there’s all kinds of loopholes in that Genesis covenant that aren’t exactly comforting.  Elohim won’t destroy the earth with water, but it never mentions anything about a meteor, intensive volcanic activity, or a pandemic.  Or even if the retired bow means that the Divine relates utterly peacefully with us, and that natural disasters are no longer to be seen as agents of heavenly wrath, the covenant doesn’t rule out us destroying the earth ourselves with whatever massive disaster we happen to trigger first.  A new book by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History attempts to popularize what many scientists have been saying for decades, which is that we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event in the history of life on earth, and that unlike the previous five, this one has the fingerprints of homo sapiens all over it.

My hunch is that rather than being culturally irrelevant, we will continue hearing more and more references to the biblical flood story as a myth that speaks to us in new and pertinent ways, adopted and adapted to the reality of our present situation, searching for an ark, a vessel of salvation, to keep the pulse of diverse life alive and thriving.  And no, I’m not just referring to Hollywood’s recent efforts to reimagine Noah through Russell Crowe – which I haven’t brought myself to watching yet.  Like any good myth, the important question is not whether or not it actually happened, but where and how it is actually happening, and how the hermeneutical community interprets what it sees and hears in light of the collective stories and wisdom we have inherited.

If we do allow water into our hermeneutical community, to speak its message and help interpret our present condition, we might have to confess that it is giving us all kinds of warning signs.     It could very well be saying the same message that John the Baptist was saying by the Jordan River – “Repent!  Change your ways.  Warning, warning.  Toxins.  Depletion.  Melting Ice.  The direction you’re headed leads to destruction.”

We come from the waters, are made mostly of water, need water to remain alive, and so it should come as no surprise that the main mark of our identity – the ritual act which tells us who we are – happens in the water.  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We cannot escape the waters, and so the waters become a place, an opportunity, for us to discover our identity.  We have forgotten who we are, that we are Beloved children of God, that we are a species gifted with divine attributes of creativity which can aid in the flourishing of life.  We have forgotten that the ancient dove has extended the olive branch and that there can be a fresh beginning.

Within our baptism, all of this is present.  The water, the dove, the Christ, the Lover and the Beloved.  It’s all there.  And we are there.  And we are claimed by the waters and the Divine Source of the waters.  And we give our vows, we make our covenant, to consciously live a life of peace and reconciliation within a community.  A community seeking to live out its calling of becoming the Beloved Community.  After his baptism the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where, as Mark says, he is among the wild beasts.  As if Jesus, now away from “civilization,” is re-learning the ways of the wild, listening for God amid the wildness of rock and wind and undomesticated animal.  It is only after this experience that Jesus begins his ministry, with the message, as translated by the Common English Version: “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! (Mark 1:15)

There is the possibility of baptism going the way of the Old Testament, something that probably meant something a long time ago but no longer speaks to us in the same way.  I would like to suggest that the opposite could be true.  We need to know who we are, to be reminded of where we come from, to be marked and called and claimed as Beloved children of God.  To have an event that we point back to and say “that’s who I am,” and to have that event take on more and more meaning as we walk down the path that it sets us on.

We are children of the water, children of the Source of water and all life, invited to live as if Now is the time, the kin-dom of God is here.  Good news.

Soul work | 14 September 2014

Texts: Matthew 18:21-22; Genesis 50:15-21

On Thursday I was part of a group of clergy who got together at First Congregational Church downtown to meet with four leaders from the Sandy Hook Promise organization.  There have been enough violent events in the last couple years to lose track of which was which, but you may remember that Sandy Hook is the name of the Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where an awful and senseless act of violence was committed in December of 2012 by a troubled 20 year old young man.  To date, it remains the deadliest of all the school shootings in our country, and was targeted at the youngest kids.  From that tragedy formed the Sandy Hook Promise, a group of parents and concerned people who are mounting a national campaign to help prevent gun violence.  The executive director is a former employee of Proctor and Gamble.  He had a child at Sandy Hook who was not injured, but he personally felt a draw to redirect his vocation toward this work.  Their advocacy director told us briefly about his son Daniel, a first grader, who was killed that day – a compassionate little boy who would go sit by kids at lunch who were by themselves and who would pick up worms from the sidewalk and put them back in the grass.  The pain of the loss filled his voice as he spoke.

They are attempting to help lead a national conversation with what they call “the sensible center,” telling their stories and listening to others; taking a holistic, even generational approach addressing awareness and education, mental health, community connections, and ultimately, some policy changes.  In their research on social change, from civil rights to marriage equality, the common factor they have found is what they call “mainstream engagement.”  They believe policy is important but it starts with changes in mindset.  They noted that the biggest obstacle they face is people’s feeling of being “hopeless and helpless” in how to respond, something they openly admit they felt when they observed this happening in other communities, before it happened to their own.

They plan to have organizers based in Ohio for the next number of years.  The Sandy Hook Promise itself, which you can go online and sign is simply, “I promise to join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country.”  One small thing they will be promoting that caught my attention, to give you an idea of how sensible their approach is, is a program they learned about in a Los Angeles neighborhood called “Know me, know my name.”  The idea is that when kids are surrounded by a community of people who know and call them by name it promotes community cohesion and mental wellness.  Pre-empting social isolation also pre-empts violence.  I know that the congregation where our Conference Minister, Lois Kaufmann attends, Assembly Mennonite, in Goshen, made a commitment many years ago that children deserve to be called by name and that adults would be intentional about learning the names of all the children in the congregation.  They have over 100 youth and children.  Maybe there’s someone here who wants to champion that at Columbus Mennonite.  Perhaps we’ve never thought of calling a child by name as an act of peacemaking, but the folks of Sandy Hook Promise would have us believe it is.

There’s a phrase one of my undergrad sociology professors introduced me to that has stayed with me: “Soul work.”  Soul work is the work we do within the lively ecosphere of our inner selves.  Soul work is what we do with our desires, our aspirations, our disappointments.  What we do with our pain.  Soul work is how our fears and our grief are transformed into something that is ultimately life-affirming.  Soul work takes place over a life-time.  It is good work and sometimes it feels like play and sometimes it feels like work.  It is the kind of work I observed in Daniel’s father and these folks of the Sandy Hook Promise.

Peter once came to Jesus and offered what he most likely believed to be a generous proposal.  “Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”

Occasionally we have a worship service focused on healing, with the opportunity to receive prayer and anointing with oil for yourself or on behalf of another person.  Our texts, drawn from the lectionary, speak specifically about forgiveness, but I invite us to consider this in the broadest sense as it relates to healing.  Forgiveness can include a situation of being wronged by another person, but forgiveness is also closely related to all the soul work we must do with what life brings our way in order to face others and ourselves in a way that is ultimately life-affirming.  Forgiveness has a similar pattern as grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  They both loop around among all these responses.  Forgiveness and grieving arise in situations as basic as life simply not working out the way we imagined it.

“Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, if life disappoints me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”

Let’s acknowledge up front that the concept of forgiveness comes with some baggage, an example being that most unhelpful phrase, “Forgive and forget.’  If forgiveness is equal to forgetting, then the degree to which we have successfully stopped remembering a painful incident is the degree to which we have forgiven.  The stronger that deadbolt is holding up in the compartment of our brain where we have put up a sign “Do not enter,” then the stronger our forgiveness.  Whenever we have thoughts of anger or depression or a sense of injustice about the situation then we have relapsed in our forgiveness.  If this were what forgiveness were all about it could be easily calculated and measured.

But if forgiveness has more to do with a new way of remembering, a different way of seeing a person or a situation, it puts it in a new light.  Rather than trying to forget, or focusing all our energy on changing the other, we first focus on changing our relationship to the situation.  This is soul work.  Our congregational Reconciliation Covenant has some helpful language here:  “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, it simply means letting go of the desire that the person who has harmed us suffers.  This is the pathway to reconciliation, healing and return to right relationship.”  By the way, the Reconciliation Covenant can be found on our new church website.

Peter appears to be trying to quantify forgiveness.  How many times should I let a person off the hook before I really start counting it against them?  He has a pretty generous offer.  Seven times!  This is far more lenient than the three- strikes- and- you’re- out rule.  If we would take the three strikes, then double that, and then add one more for good measure then surely we are being merciful people.  Jesus answers with another figure.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  There’s a translation issue where this could just as easily read seven times seventy, but the point isn’t to try and figure about whether Jesus meant we should forgive 77 or 490 times.  The point is to stop counting.  The problem isn’t that Peter has selected too low of a number, it’s that he’s chosen a number in the first place.  Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not a calculation.  It’s not a matter of quantifying mercy.  It has no end.  Soul work goes on and on.

There is another story behind Peter’s seven and Jesus’ seventy seven that gives this conversation greater weight.  The story behind the story that Jesus might have been referencing here helps fill out how big a role forgiveness plays in the way that Jesus is offering.  Something fundamental to the coming about of a new creation, a new way of being human that begins to unwind the tangle of sin and wrongs that have accumulated over the millennia.  The story behind this story happens just after the creation and sets the stage for human history and putting it on a certain trajectory.  It’s a story we could call, “A brief introduction to vengeance, according to Genesis.”

Here’s how it goes:  After the human creatures leave the garden of Eden, there is immediate conflict between the two brothers Cain and Abel.  In Genesis 4, Cain, the older, brings his younger brother Abel out into a field, and murders him.  The portrayal of the first murder as a brother killing a brother is a way of showing that all murder is fratricide.  To kill another human being is to kill a brother or a sister.  God hears the innocent blood of Abel crying out from the ground and comes down to have a talk with Cain.  God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain answers, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” to which God could have answered, “Uhh..Yeah!”

At the beginning of Genesis, God seems to be learning right along with humanity about how all of this is going to work out.  These creatures God has created are turning on each other.  Now that Abel is gone and Cain is a known murderer, how can Cain be protected against those who want to take his life in avenging Abel’s death?  God’s idea is that Cain will be protected through the mark of increased vengeance.  God says, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.”  So now the person who would kill Cain must recognize that the stakes have been raised.  None of this one life for one life business.  Cain’s potential murderer is putting himself and seven of his family members at risk of being avenged.  At first it appears that this deterent is working well.  Maybe the humans will realize that the cost of violence is too great and will live peacefully.  Cain marries, has children, and grandchildren, and there is no report of his life being sought by others.  But several generations down the road, just several verses after the declaration of seven-fold vengeance for Cain, we get an update on the direction things are going.  A descendent of Cain’s named Lamech, says this.  This is 4:23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me, If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”  Not seven I tell you, but seventy-seven times.  The logic of vengeance gets taken one step further in Lamech seeking to protect his own life.  If anyone were to seek his life, he essentially declares all out war on their family.  If seven-fold vengeance wasn’t enough of a deterent, then surely vengeance times seventy-seven is.  But as the story goes, soon the whole earth is filled with violence and God is sorry to have begun this whole humanity project in the first place.  The mark of Cain has failed to protect the human family from each other and has actually served to exponentially increase violence.  The story of vengeance seven times and then seventy seven times sets in motion one trajectory of human history.  A trajectory that is inherently self-destructive.  Soon enough God starts a parallel story with the calling of Abraham and Sarah.  Their mark, their mission, is to be one of exponential blessing.  Through this one family, all peoples of the earth will be blessed.  The story that was read about Joseph and his brothers, the last words of Genesis, provides something of an alternative ending to the logic of Cain and Lamech.  Despite the harm that has been done against him, Joseph releases any wish to harm his brothers, and instead accepts that he is his brothers and sisters keeper, inviting them to stay with him in Egypt.

So when Peter and Jesus converse about forgiveness seven times and then seventy seven times, we could read it as a commentary on Cain and Lamech.  One that stands in direct contrast to the logic of vengeance.  As if Jesus would like us to think of forgiveness as revenge in reverse.  One unending practice of seventy seven to undo the other seemingly unending practice of seventy-seven that has been passed down through generations.

We can think of what these parents of Sandy Hook are doing also as an act of reverse revenge.  It’s noble and incredibly brave, but my guess is that there’s also an element of them doing this for their own well-being and sanity, for the survival and healing of their own souls.  This is what their soul work looks like.  They are not forgetting, but just the opposite.  They are using the moral energy built up from a tragic event to respond in a way that is life affirming.

When I was looking ahead to this Sunday a few weeks ago I had no intention of it being so violent.  Sandy Hook and Cain and Lamech are extreme examples of the depths of pain humanity can inflict on itself.  I don’t share these to try and be overly dramatic or seek a cheap emotional response.  It was what this past week held, and it fit with the texts.

As we ponder our own soul work and the pains that we carry, and our desire for healing, I encourage us to consider these two different paths of 77 times.  Pain can have a way of compiling, accumulating, multiplying itself.  For some it builds up and explodes out as rage.  For others it builds up and gets smothered in as a form of depression.  Either way it can get passed along to others, even passed along generationally.  But there is another way.  It is the way of living Christ, Jesus alive as a healing presence who brings an entirely different kind of energy to our pain and disappointments and grief.  Christians have called it the power of resurrection, life springing up from death, and it a most holy Divine gift.  It is soul work, but it’s not the kind of work where you just grit your teeth and be stronger and try harder.  It’s much more akin to accepting that something dear to you has died, and then, when you are ready, being open to whatever new life comes your way.  The site of resurrection is not just a grave in Jerusalem.  Our lives, and our hearts become a site of resurrection.  This is a hope we carry with us, even if we only see it dimly.

Starting at the beginning | 22 June 2014

 

Twelve Scriptures project

Text #1: Genesis 1

 

The Hebrew Scriptures, and our Christian Bible, begin this way:

In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.

And the earth, it was welter and waste,

And darkness was on the face of the deep,

And a wind from Elohim hovered on the face of the waters.

And Elohim said: “Let there be light.”  And there was light.

—  Genesis 1:1-2

 

The selection round for our Twelve Scriptures project has come to a close, and we have our finalists.  Unlike reality TV, we will not be forced to eliminate one of these scriptures each week until we arrive at a singular favorite.  Playing CMC Idol with passages from a book that isn’t too keen on idolatry doesn’t seem like all that good of an idea.  So unlike that and the World Cup, these scriptures get to enjoy group play all summer without having to worry about who is in and who is out of the final tournament.

This summer we’ll be walking through these twelve scriptures – beautifully displayed here – thanks Adam Ruggles and Seth Trance – and pondering what they have to say to us as a congregation and as individuals.  After each sermon time, we’ll hear a short reflection from one person on the significance of that scripture for them.  You’ll notice that the passages are grouped by theme rather than the order that they appear in the Bible.  But with Genesis 1 as one of the scriptures, it only feels right that we start there, at the beginning.  “In the beginning,” as Genesis, and the entire Bible, begins.

Perhaps moreso than most parts of the Bible, what we bring to this Genesis 1 text by way of personal background and experience affects how we read it.  Some may feel that their primary relationship with this passage is the need to escape from a literal reading they have been taught and now find unhelpful or even oppressive.  If this is you, you may feel disoriented when hearing this passage and perhaps even alienated from the rest of the Bible in general because of this.  If this is you, Genesis 1 is most likely not a part of your personal top 12 scriptures.  For some the primary interest might be whether or not we can synchronize Genesis into the scientific evolutionary narrative that has been expounded in the last century and a half.  It kind of works, but not very well, especially when you get into Genesis 2.  Abbie and I enjoyed watching the new COSMOS series that has been showing Sunday evenings and just wrapped up, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He was eager, a little too eager sometimes, it felt, to point out any time he got the chance that science can now do what religion failed to do in giving an accurate account of the material evolution of the universe.  One wonders if this is what the Hebrew mystics were really going for in the first place when they were putting these words into script.

Some may find the most helpful way to approach Genesis 1 is to hold it up alongside creation myths from cultures around the world, noticing similarities and differences, looking for the unique insights this one provides into who we are and the nature of the Divine.  Some may find deep meaning and beauty in a particular part of the passage – God speaking the world into being, the goodness of creation, the poetic structure of the verses; humanity, male and female, created in the image of God.  We come to this passage in different ways, depending on where we are at in life and where we have been in life.  And our perspective changes over time.

Being positioned at the beginning of the Bible gives this chapter a unique and privileged place.  Like other pieces of literature, or story forms of art, what happens first sets the stage for everything that follows.  The opening scene of a film is often a metaphor that propels the viewer into the rest of the story, its significance only becoming apparent in that story’s unfolding.

We may not look to Genesis to answer all of our scientific questions about material reality, but it sure would be nice if it could give some insight into what in the world it means to participate in material reality.

We can refer to Genesis 1 as myth, not in the sense that it is not true – an unfortunate connotation the word “myth” has taken in our language.  It is myth in the sense that it is more than merely true.  It speaks of more than simply an event, a particular happening in a particular time and place that one can believe either did or didn’t happen.  Rather, as good myths do, it tells a story which speaks to the pattern of reality itself, the ongoing and continuous nature of the world.  It has its imprint on every time and every place.  It speaks to our basic assumptions regarding meaning.

How would you tell a creation myth to introduce humanity to the meaning of its existence?

Perhaps, you could try this:

Use poetry. Use repetition.  Create a rhythm, and allow for endless variation within the structure of that rhythm.  Like Jazz.  Start with the drums – and there was evening, and there was morning, a first day.  And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.  Keep that going, then add a bass line.  And God spoke, and it was so.  And God spoke, and it was so.  And it was good.  And it was good.  Keep that going in step with the drums, now bring in the melody. And there was light.  And there was sky.  And it was good.  And it was good.  A third day, a fourth day.  Trees, shrubs, seeds, and fruit.  Sun, moon and stars.  And it was good.  And God spoke, and it was so.  And it was good.  Fish and water creatures.  A fifth day.

Make it like a liturgy, a call and response.  One speaks – “Light!” The other joyfully responds “Yes, light.”  Make it beautiful.  Send it all the way up to a seventh day, a week, so we know it doesn’t stop at the end of the story, but keeps on cycling and growing through the calendar, keeps on creating. And there was evening and there was morning.  And there was evening and there was morning.  And behold, it was very good.

Although you have your own name for God, use a universal name.  You call God Yahweh, a special name revealed to your people, your tribe, but this is a universal story, and it includes everyone.  So use Elohim, the name that the nations surrounding you use for the Most High God.  What’s important is that everyone who hears it knows that they too are a part of this story.  This is not about a tribe, a sect, a nation, this belongs to all of us.  In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.

Remind the people of the power of language.  The creative, evocative force of a word.  Remember Leonard Cohen’s line in his ballad, Hallelujah: “There’s a blaze of light in every word.” Have Elohim create the world not through slaying the dragon or conquering another god, not through hammering or fashioning or forging, but by speaking it into being.  Make them ponder what it might mean for all of this, all of us, to be the speech of the God.  That creature by your side, or outside the window, is a word from Elohim, just like you.  Don’t explain what all this could mean.

Use repetition in case they didn’t get it the first time.  Keep repeating the astonishing refrain:  And it was good.  And it was good.  They have heard of original sin, that things were broken from the very beginning, fractured and fragmented.  Now tell them of original blessing.  When you get to tell the first story, you get to set the stage for all the other stories.  Before sin comes on the scene, say as often as you can, And it was good.  And Elohim blessed the creatures.  And Elohim blessed the humans.  And Elohim blessed the Sabbath.  When they look back, before the wounds, before the upheaval, before the wars, show them what they will find in the inner most depths of their being.  Blessing.  And it was very good.

Lest they take the story too literally, throw in something impossible.  Have the earth, hovering and chaotic, existing before light.  Have the trees and vegetation and all their photosynthesizing cousins (day three) existing before the sun (day four).  Have your story end with humanity created very last, and follow it up with another story (Genesis 2) in which humanity is created first, before there are any plants and animals.  These impossibilities might make them laugh, and this is very good.

Tell the people that they are created in the image of Elohim.  They have a tendency to create a god in their own image, make their god a larger version of their own personal aspirations.  Their god ends up liking the same people they like and hating the same people they hate (Thank you Anne Lamott).  They tend to make god a projection of themselves.  Turn this around on them and tell them that they are a projection of God.  A divine dream that takes form amidst the water and clay.  Remind the women that they are just as much a reflection of the Divine as the men.  They both tend to forget this.  Male and female in the image of Elohim they were created.  They will look at each other in wonder.  You also, an image of God?

Let these human creatures know that they have responsibility.  They are created in order to create.  In order to keep, and guard, and tend creation.  They are creation become conscious of itself, evolution become aware of its own unfolding – free to learn, and explore, and influence its direction, making choices that matter and impact the whole.

 

End with something that is the most funny and the most serious of all.  Finally, after all this creating, have Elohim, the Almighty, take a rest.  On the seventh day, Elohim ceased from work, kicked back, and took a Sabbath.  And Elohim blessed and hallowed this day.  Perhaps they will get the message that the purpose of creation, of existence, is not merely to create more things, to produce more products, to work more hours.  The culminating act of creation, the climax of creativity, is pure enjoyment of what has been created.  A reveling in the reality of reality.  A long, intentional, regularly scheduled pause, to enjoy the abundance and goodness of this world.  Take a breath,

take a walk; have a party, have a life; make up, make love; call a friend, turn off your device and don’t call anyone.  Get up early and watch the sunrise.  Sleep in late.  Rest weekly.  Repetition not merely as a literary device, but as a way of life.  Holy Sabbath.  If Elohim can do it and still keep the universe running and in good order, then perhaps the people will be enticed to give it a try.  It could be good.  It could be so very good.

Lent 2 | New perceptions in familiar places: Darkness

 

Texts: John 3:1-10, Genesis 12:1-4

 

One of the advantages of having a sanctuary with very little natural light is that we can make it unnaturally dark in broad daylight.  It can actually get quite a bit darker than this, but we decided to make it a little more user friendly for kids who like to draw or anyone who needs to move around.

It’s dark, (ish), because we are dealing with a text containing a conversation that happened in darkness.  In John chapter three, we are introduced to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to ask him questions.  That “by night” part is fairly easy to miss and might not seem all that important.  But John’s is a highly symbolic gospel, and giving these kinds of details is one of the ways he shapes the meaning of these stories.  You may call to mind certain conversations you’ve had in the late evening and night hours, and how the tone and the content differed from daytime conversation.

Knowing that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and that he comes to Jesus “by night” means he already has two strikes against him.  Even though Pharisees shared much in common with the Jesus movement, they are one of Jesus’ chief opponents in the gospels.  Nicodemus is one of them, even a leader.  And in the realm of spiritual symbolism, “night” and darkness aren’t exactly known for their positive connotations.  Psalm 27 declares, “The Lord is my light, and salvation, whom shall I fear?”

If Nicodemus doesn’t have anything to hide, why not speak with Jesus in the light of day?  Who should he fear?  The fact that Nicodemus doesn’t seem to quite get anything Jesus is saying seems to further his identity as a not-quite disciple.

When I got together with the group of people presenting the scriptures during Lent to discuss the passages, Berit J. brought up something related to Nicodemus that I hadn’t been aware of.  During the 16th century, when the Reformers were making their critiques of the Catholic church, there were people who sympathized with the Protestant churches but chose to remain in the Roman Catholic church.  They were called Nicodemites.  A full conversion could have included moving away from a territory, separating from family, even risking one’s life.  So they stayed within the mother church, some of them trying to make small reforms from within.  John Calvin especially had it out for the Nicodemites and wrote and spoke against those who would privately believe one thing but not stand up for it publicly.

Since we are inheritors of the Radical Reformation, those who openly critiqued the Catholic church and the Reformers, we might also be inclined to set ourselves against those Nicodemites, and maybe Nicodemus himself.

But I’d like to invite us to take a sympathetic look at Nicodemus as one who journeyed into the darkness with Jesus and eventually journeyed through the darkness with Jesus.

John’s gospel is the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, and we meet him on three different occasions.

We don’t know what motivated him to initiate this first contact with Jesus at night, but it’s fairly safe to say that if he had the intention of picking a verbal fight and trying to win an argument, he would have brought a few of his friends with him, as so often happened with the Pharisees.  The fact that he came alone speaks to other motivations.  That, and the cover of darkness, also highlight that he most likely didn’t want anyone else to know what he was doing, perhaps especially those friends of his.  Nicodemus was being a Nicodemite.

He is a trained, educated religious leader, but he is also a seeker.  He refers to Jesus as Teacher.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  After these words of greeting, Nicodemus has nothing but questions.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?”  “How can these things be?”

Jesus is not exactly helping him out with concrete language.  “You must be born from above, born again.”  “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It is dark, and Jesus is offering no easy way into the light.  No set, defined, clear path to follow toward this Kingdom of God Jesus has been speaking of.  In fact, being born of Spirit, Jesus says, makes life all the more unpredictable.  If you yield to the Spirit it is like yielding to the wind.  You don’t know where you’ll be going next, or what will blow your way.  Almost as if you’re walking blind, in the darkness.

For this well-trained leader, these are new thoughts.

The words from Jesus hang in the night air, “Born anew,” “Spirit,” “Wind,”along with that final question from Nicodemus:  “How can these things be?”

The conversation is soon over, and the gospel shifts focus, and we don’t meet up again with Nicodemus until four chapters later, in 7:45-52, when this Galilean named Jesus is causing some trouble in Jerusalem because of his teachings.  John tells it this way:  “The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest him?’  The guards answered, ‘No one has ever spoken the way he does.’   The Pharisees replied, ‘Have you too been deceived?  Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee?  No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!’  Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?’   They answered him, ‘You are not from Galilee too, are you?’”

In other words, “You’re not sticking up for this guy, are you Nicodemus?”  Another question, unresolved.

If you’ve been reading denominational news you know that these are difficult times for Mennonite Church USA.  The credentialing of an openly lesbian pastor in Colorado has resurfaced some of the divisions within the church.  Several of us who are a part of this congregation who are ordained signed a letter to denominational leadership a couple months back asking that there be space in the church for those of us who are ready to bless and be blessed by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons who wish to marry and minister in the church.   There were over 150 signers and, of course, it would always be nice if there were more, but living with Nicodemus this week has given me more understanding for those who may sympathize with this perspective but who may not be as free to speak as publicly as others of us on this matter – the Nicodemites in the era of the LGBT debates.  The Nicodemus of the first encounter with Jesus is confronted with new ideas of what it means to be a spiritual person.  The Nicodemus of the second mention in John stays within the framework of his group, but appeals to its best self – even the law of the Pharisees doesn’t judge someone before hearing from her and learning about her, right?  It’s not an easy statement to make surrounded by a seemingly unanimous group against him, but Nicodemus speaks up.  In that moment, he yields, if even just a little, to the wind, and the Spirit speaks a word through him.  Where could the wind be blowing next?  We’re all on a journey in the dark.

The Genesis passage for today testifies that it is never too late to start a journey, whatever that journey may be.  Abram is 75 years old, making Sarai 66, and I’m not saying that’s really old, I’m just saying it’s not exactly young.  They hear a word from God, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”  We can read this as either a journey on foot or a journey of the soul, or both.  Though you are no longer young, leave the familiar, even though you have no idea where you are going, though you will be walking in the dark, go, and you will be a blessing.

They head out, destination unknown, and this act of obedience, this trek, is the hinge of history that leads to the creation of the Jewish people.

This week I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance, more like a mini essay, that was not meant to have anything to do with these lectionary passages, but connects, and I want to share it.  It is from Richard Kauffman, who has spent much of his professional life in church publishing, so he has a knack for good writing.  He has given me permission to share it, and this is what he wrote:

“Years ago when we lived in Scottdale, PA we had a rather large yard. The kids in the neighborhood would convene in our yard with our kids and play whatever sport was in season. In the summer they wore base paths in the lawn from playing baseball. I said then, ‘We’re growing children now. We’ll grow grass later.’

“Many years have passed since then. Indeed, we’ve had lots of opportunities to grow grass…Now we live in a condo community and other people take care of the lawn.  I neither have to grow nor cut grass.

“So what are we growing now?  I guess you could say we’re growing old.  Don’t you like the figure (of speech)?  – Growing old.  Not winding down or going over the hill.  Growth signifies something natural, something that must be nurtured and attended to.  We have to work at it.  In my old age I hope to keep growing.  That’s both a challenging and a pleasant thought, wouldn’t you say?”  (Richard A. Kauffman, 3/11/14 FB status post)

Another question.

In research this week, it appears that even though John Calvin abhorred the Nicodemites, he didn’t like the term, because Calvin had a rather high view of Nicodemus.  Calvin once wrote: “Here then is the true way of Nicodemising. It is to grow stronger with time, advancing daily to the glory of God.” (Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin p. 119).

The gospel of John does not cover a long enough span of time for Nicodemus to grow old, but it does allow us to meet Nicodemus for a third and final time.  Jesus has just been crucified under the command of Pilate and is now dead on that Roman instrument of capital punishment and torture, the cross.  Toward the end of chapter 19, John writes:: “After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus.  Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away.  Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe.  Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths.  There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.”

What began as an invitation into the symbolic world of rebirth and wind and Spirit, what continued as being the only voice in a hostile group to speak up for a hated man, continues again a little further down the road.  All of those official disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and the crew – have fled and are nowhere to be found, for fear that they will meet the same fate as their master.  And so Nicodemus takes one more step forward in the darkness, and joins one who himself had been a secret disciple, to perform this risky but necessary and holy act of caring for a bruised and tormented body.  He and Joseph of Arimathea would have grasped and carried this body, held it, felt its dead weight, laid it down on level place, and begun the work of touching the spices to the arms, to the legs, to the face.  Gently but firmly wrapping the linens, according to the burial customs of their people.  Jesus’ people.  How long did it take?  Who was watching?  Were they looking over their back the whole time or had they stopped caring what others thought?  They laid him in his tomb and left the scene.  Did they feel love, relief, or a heavier kind of darkness than they’d ever known?

I won’t give the spoiler here at the end, we’ll save that for Easter, but after they leave the very next verse says this, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb…”

While it was still dark…

 

 

Lent 1 | New perceptions in familiar place: Wilderness

Texts: Genesis 2:7-9; 15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape, and a reality of the soul.

If you’ve ever visited a place considered wilderness, you most likely have some distinct memory of that place:  The towering trees of an old growth forest; the long expanses of sands in a desert; the almost unfathomable layers of geological history in the faces of rock formations.  The wilderness has a way of confronting the human ego and putting our small lives in perspective.  The wilderness is so different than our human shaped environment.  The wilderness is wild.  The wilderness can be dangerous.

If you have ever been in a wilderness of the soul, it too has no doubt left its mark.  A wilderness time of life can be highly disorienting.  One can feel overwhelmed by the immensity of what one does not comprehend and cannot control.  One might not feel safe or secure and certainly not savvy for finding the way through.  This kind of wilderness may be a place you have been before.  You may be in the wilderness right now.

Experiences of wilderness are woven throughout scripture, and Lent is intentionally structured to be a wilderness – like the 40 years of the Israelites and the 40 days of Jesus after his baptism.  The season of Lent spans from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, 40 days, not including Sundays, which are meant to be observed as little Easters, signs of resurrection, within the context of wilderness.

Lent is a built in feature of our liturgical calendar such that every year, if you are so inclined to keep hanging around the church, you will be invited back into the wilderness.  You will be reminded and invited to again visit this geography of the soul.  And, if you have already been dwelling in the wilderness and need no reminder of its existence, you will be reminded that you are not alone, you are accompanied by a community, and the church universal, practicing wilderness living.  As with Jesus at the end of his wilderness time, there are angels, seen and unseen, caring for us.

If I were to personally choose the kind of wilderness I’d like to hang out in, I think I’d choose something close to the wilderness of Genesis 2.  It’s kind of a wilderness.  Genesis prefers to call it a garden, planted by the very hand of God.  But for the human being placed there, it’s a place of wildness, and it’s up to the humans to navigate their way through it, and to begin to cultivate it and, in the process, to cultivate themselves.

In this primordial garden/wilderness, there are many trees, but two are in a species of their own:  the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Any tree is fair game for food, except for one.  The tree of knowledge is explicitly off limits.

We might as well say here that when we are in the early chapters of Genesis we are in the world of Hebrew myth.  “Myth” is a word that has not fared well in the last several hundred years.  In our rational/scientific mentality, it has come to be synonymous with “not true.”  To say, “That’s a myth,” is to say, “that’s something many people believe to be true but is actually verifiably false.”  Myths are meant to be busted.

If this is one of the definitions “myth” needs to have in our time, then so be it – as long as we can also retain the more ancient notion of myth.  When we are dealing with biblical myth and myths of other cultures, the appropriate question to ask is not “Did it really happen?” at some specific place at a particular point in time.  What makes a myth true and powerful is not whether or not it describes a one time event, but whether or not it illuminates a particular aspect of reality that is true throughout time.

There’s an Iroquois story about how death came to be:  The Great Spirit spoke to the first people and gave them a choice – they could either have immortality, or they could have children.  All of the people huddled together and unanimously decided that they would rather have children.  And so it have been.  (Told HERE, scroll down, in the 6th video)

Did it really happen?  But is it true?

It gets at the heart of an ongoing reality we continue to experience.

These two trees of Genesis are one of the ways our Scriptures set up the human condition.  I have a dream still in its beginning stages of designing an overnight retreat in the forests of Southern Ohio and using the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil as a framework for pondering our place in the biosphere.  It would have something to do with the Tree of Life having received a new lease on life outside the realm of myth when Charles Darwin found it to be a perfect metaphor for his theory of the origin of the species by means of natural selection.  The reimagined Tree of Life is composed of all life forms that have ever existed, branching off in different families and species, some with dead ends and some still thriving.  How healthy is the Tree of Life and how are we learning to honor it, and enjoy it?  It seems like the kind of conversation that should happen in a forest.

After Genesis, the Tree of Life disappears from the biblical narrative until the very, very end, the last chapter of the book of Revelation, when it shows up again in the redeemed earth, the New Jerusalem, with the river of life flowing through it.  Revelation says, “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).  Healed by the tree of life.

 

Our relationship to the Tree of life is complicated by our having eaten from that other tree –  the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.  The presence of this tree in the Garden of Eden provokes a couple questions worth asking.  First of all, what’s so bad about having knowledge of good and evil?  This sounds like an important kind of knowledge to have, perhaps a knowledge that marks the transition from animal to human consciousness.

One of the possible interpretations of this phrase is that it presents a pair of opposites in order to mean that if you know those, you also know everything in between.  To have knowledge of the good and the evil is to know everything.  This would be the reverse of the expression of not knowing your right hand from you left hand.  If you don’t know your right from your left, you don’t know anything.  If you know the good and the evil, you know everything.

In Genesis God doesn’t want humans to eat this fruit.  If you do, God says, “the day that you eat of it, you will die.”  Ah, not true, says the clever serpent.  You won’t die, your eyes will be open.  You’ll be like a god, knowing good from evil.  Knowing, everything?  It looks really good, it tastes really good, and the woman and the man eat it, and, their eyes are opened.  They don’t die that day.  So who told the truth, God, or the serpent?  Maybe both, in some way.  The humans get their desired knowledge, but become alienated from the wilderness garden, from themselves, from God, a certain kind of death to be sure.

Another question worth asking of this story is Why would God create this tree that we’re not allowed to eat from, placing it in the center of the garden?  It sounds kind of like baking a really tasty dessert, putting it in the middle of the table, and telling your kids not to eat it.  I’m pretty sure this would not work at all.  It didn’t work for God either.

It’s strange, but is it true? Do we find ourselves in a world in which we actually have options of doing things that might be harmful to ourselves and others?  Just because we can eat the fruit, should we?  Just because we have enough knowledge to do something, should we do it?  Just because we can build the bomb, Just because we can fly the drone, Just because we can frack the gas, Should we?  Or, much more ambiguously, Just because we can alter and patent the gene, just because we can create artificial intelligence, make and buy lots of stuff, Should we?  I don’t know.  Probably Yes in some cases, no in other cases.  Congratulations to us.  We have great knowledge, and with it, great power.  We are Homo sapiens sapiens.  Clever, clever humans.

But in the wilderness, we confront our vulnerability.  We cannot help but be humbled.  We cannot help but pay attention to these larger forces around us.  In the wilderness we receive the invitation to tune our souls with the larger mind, metanoia.  Repentence.

The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape.  It is also a reality of the soul.

It is this physical and soul journey into the wilderness that Jesus makes after his baptism but before the beginning of his ministry.  It is the Spirit who drives him there, Matthew says, and it is the devil who becomes his conversation partner during those hungry and lonely days.

Just because you can, should you?

Turn stones into bread.  Think of all the hungry people you could feed.

Believe you’re immortal and untouchable to suffering and throw yourself off a great height.  Surely God won’t let you get hurt.

You see this world?  It could all be yours.

John’s gospel does not include the story of the temptations in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism, but it does include this story.  In his version of the feeding of the five thousand, after the hungry crowds eat their fill from the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, after the disciples gather up the twelve baskets, bread for everyone with plenty left over, it says this: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.’  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

What does it mean that we call Messiah, Lord, and Savior, a figure who refused to live out those titles as they have always been imagined and hoped for by us?  Who refused the devil’s, and the people’s enticing offers, and instead presented us with a whole different model of what it means to be human.

What does it mean that what Jesus wanted us to remember about him was not that he turned stones into bread, or even fed a large hungry crowd with a few initial scraps of food?  But what he wanted us to remember about him in relation to bread, was what he offered his disciples during the final meal together.  This bread is my body, this wine is my blood.  Whenever you gather at table, remember me.  Rather than turn stones into bread, Jesus invested his spiritual energies into turning himself into bread.   Rather than simply hand out bread to people, a pretty heroic solution, he taught people to share their bread among themselves, which can get you in trouble.

We have the knowledge and the technologies to make bread for lots of people.  It’s a good thing, because there’re a lot of people who need bread.  Seven billion and counting, I believe.  But the harder task, and one of the major tasks of Lent, is to ourselves become bread.  To do the kind of soul work such that our lives themselves become a source of life in this world.  We are very clever, and there is no going back to life before we partook from the tree of knowledge, but that tree of life is still there, offering healing to the nations.

In the wilderness we are stripped of all our false pretensions, and we listen to the Spirit.  Our lives are available to become truly human, like Christ, and what that will look like in our time is still on its way into being.  And, by the grace of God, it is coming into being through you.  Through us.