“In the wilderness prepare the way” OR “What shall I cry?” | Advent 2 | December 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:46-55

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  

Reflection:

Wilderness, desert, valley, mountain, uneven ground, a plain.  These are the features that inhabit the words of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  And running through it all, a road, a highway straight and level.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For this way to become a way, valleys needed to be lifted up, mountains and hills brought low.  Obstacles would be removed, uneven spots leveled out.

The last time I was on a road in the wilderness was two weeks ago, although it was more a path than a road, and not so much a wilderness as a few acres of woods.  And there were plenty of uneven spots.  But stick with me.

It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, late afternoon, the final daylight hours of our family holiday on the farm in Bellefontaine.  It had been a sunny day, but we’d spent a solid four hours cooped up in the basement by the TV, watching young men collide into each other in an attempt to advance an oblong shaped ball down a field toward a designated zone.  With the game over, victory achieved, a renewed sense that all is well and right with the world, it was time for a walk.

We’d been wanting to do this all weekend.  Children and adults headed out toward the woods, an island of trees surrounded by farmland.

It’s difficult to make one’s way through these woods, even this time of year without the leaves or sprawling undergrowth.  But Dad had hired a friend who owned a large piece of equipment designed just for the task to come and clear out a path.  It had cut and ground its way through the dense thickets, avoiding the larger trees, making a path wide enough for a group of people to walk through comfortably.  It made a way in our little wilderness.

The trees are a mix of species, hickory and oak, black cherry, but the most common is honey locust.  A few years ago we had a forester walk through with us and he estimated the woods were about 50% honey locust.  That’s unusually high.

Honey locust is not a particularly pleasant tree.  Growing up, we just called them thorn trees.  This is because… they’re covered in thorns.  The trunks are covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns.  Even the thorns are covered with thorns.  There is a thornless variety that grows well in cities, but these aint no city trees.  One of my nephews, who goes barefoot just about everywhere, turned back part way into the hike after realizing the odds were not in his favor of returning without a bloody foot.

The woods are also overrun with honey-suckle, not to be confused with honey locust.  In this part of the world bush honeysuckle is known as an invasive.  It out-competes native species with its aggressive growth and prolific seed production.  It spreads fast.  It shades out the forest floor and prevents other seedlings from getting the sunlight they need to grow.  Without some kind of intervention the honey-suckle could keep choking out new generations of trees.  If it keeps doing that until all the other larger trees that got there first die out, it would be all that’s left.

These woods are not particularly healthy.

But they feature some beautiful old trees, including a burr oak that dad estimates is perhaps 200 years old.  It was there long before the honey locust and the honey suckle.  Standing under the extended branches of the burr oak is itself worth the trip back to the woods.  The path strategically goes right by it.

It’s not a perfectly smooth path, and it’s not a healthy woods.  Even in this peaceful corner of the world there are signs that all is not right and well.  But the path opens up a way to move through it all.  To witness and even enjoy it.

We arrive safely back to the house just as the sun is about the set in the west.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x (no refrain)

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 1 (no refrain)

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”  

Reflection

There’s so much that needs said, so much urging us to cry out, or just cry.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Where to even start?

Isaiah starts with a road in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, the way in the wilderness was a message of comfort.  It was good news, spoken to a people living with generational trauma from having been violently uprooted from their homeland.

When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple they claimed not only the land, but also what they considered to be the best of the population, for themselves.  Palestine was on the western tip of the fertile crescent, Babylon on the east.  The captors would have marched their captives up and around that fertile crescent, staying close to water sources and other life support systems as they went.   Below the fertile crescent, directly between Palestine and Babylon, was an infertile desert.

So when Isaiah cries out to prepare a highway in the desert for God, he’s speaking about the most direct path from exile to home.  It’s the shortest distance between two points, and when that line goes through a desert, you better make it a grand highway.  Lift up the valleys, make the mountains low.  Level out that uneven ground.  We’re about to cruise the sandy hypotenuse of the fertile crescent, with the Lord leading the caravan.

All this talk of raising up valleys and bringing the mountains low is also pregnant with signs of a great reckoning.  It was the powerful conquerors who stood tall like mountains, the conquered who were in the valley looking up.  The work of the Lord involves a great leveling.

Mary echoes these words in her magnificat, spoken during her pregnancy with Jesus.  The song “My soul cries out” sets these words to an Irish folk tune.

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And Mary says: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout…”

Vocals: My soul cries out, v. 3, with refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. 

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We are witnessing, in these last weeks, a moral reckoning – the fall of powerful men, kings of cinema and politics and news media, being brought down from their thrones before our eyes.  Survivors of sexual assault are newly emboldened to cry out from the valley and speak the truth they have known for years.  It’s a densely populated valley.  And they’re being heard, and believed.

The prophet speaks of comfort and tender speech to a traumatized people.  It’s the kind of comfort that is good news, accompanied with a difficult reality.  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  A way is opened up through wilderness.  But there’s a long journey ahead.  A collective journey through a desert where there is no guarantee of life support systems at every turn.  It’s a road that demands the valleys be raised up, the mountains be brought low.  It’s the direct route back home.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x + refrain

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

 

Reflection

When John the baptizer cries out, the word on his lips is “Repent.”

In New Testament Greek the word is metanoia.  It literally means to change one’s mind.  In our age of neurological discovery, we can imagine metanoia as an act of literally rewiring the brain, forming new pathways that result in different destinations for how we live.  Repentance is nothing less than a collective change of consciousness.  In the wilderness that is our mind, the Lord prepares a way.  Baptism in the life giving waters of creation declares our intent to live a life of repentance.  To live in right relationship with creation, one another, and ourselves.  To have the high ego-inflated parts within us to be brought low, to raise up the parts of us that have been silenced or beaten down.  To receive the baptism of Holy Spirit that Jesus offers.

In Hebrew the word for repent Shuv.  It means to turn, or return.  Like you’re walking one direction, and then you turn, you repent, and walk another direction.  Or you return to the home you’ve either forsaken or that was taken from you.  The world is about to turn.

If John the Baptist was a tree he might be a honey locust.  Not because of the bizarre coincidence between this tree’s name and the fact that John survived on honey and locusts in the wilderness.  And not just for the fact that John came across as thorny, referring to people who came to him as poisonous snakes, almost provoking them to stay away lest they get punctured by his sharp language.

As unfriendly as the honey locust appears, it’s a tree that’s in the business of preparing the way.  It’s known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, injured land.

It can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil.  It’s heat and drought tolerant.

Honey locust is a preparer and a repairer.  Its deep fibrous tap root takes up and removes contaminates out of the soil.  It releases a heavy load of leaf matter each year, replenishing nutrients in the soil and building up biomass.  A recent Yale study showed that the leaf litter of honey locust also replenishes nitrogen in the soil, something few other trees do.  It replenishes what has been depleted.  It does difficult work, and trees in the generations that follow all benefit.  The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree crying out: “Hey, I know it’s not pretty, but we’re doing some healing work here.  Step back and give us some space while we turn this place around.”

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”  Repent.  Change your mind.  Turn.

Flute: My soul cries out, 1x

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 2 (no refrain)

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

Reflection

If 21st century humanity were a tree, or a shrub, we might be honey suckle.  We’re excelled at colonization and conquering territory for ourselves, shading out other life forms, causing them to go into exile, or disappear all-together.  We cast a heavy shadow.  It’s yet to be determined how we might find a balance among the community of life.  Can honey suckle repent?

If Isaiah and Mary were a tree, they might be an old burr oak.  These mother trees not only bear witness to the generations that come and go around them, but they feed the growth of new trees through their roots systems, connected in what’s been called the “wood wide web” through roots and channels of fungi.  They are so established, so certain of themselves, they have such an abundance of life to give that they pour it out beyond themselves.

Mary not only gives birth to Jesus but she accompanies him along the road of life, is by his side during the excruciating hours of crucifixion, and becomes a leader in the community of resurrection.  We share in this community and cry out with her.  This is our Advent prayer and baptismal vow.  It’s the most direct route we know toward home.

Flute + Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 4 + refrain

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

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Awake in the dark: Welcoming the season of Advent  | Advent I | December 3

It’s impossible to know with certainty why the birth of Jesus came to be linked to the date we now celebrate it, December 25.  Early Christians didn’t find it particularly important to celebrate at all.  They focused instead on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospels link those to the Jewish festival of Passover, in the spring.  By the year 200, various writings suggested the date of Jesus’ birth to be January 2, March 25, April 18 or 19, May 20, November 17 or 20.  (Elesha Coffman, “Why December 25?”. Christianitytoday.com. August 8, 2008).

Add in December and you’ve got half the months of the year.

The date of December 25 became more solid in the West in the fourth century, as the church increasingly took on the role of being the glue that held together the Roman world.  December 25 had been the Roman date for the winter solstice, the longest night, shortest day, of the year, when the dwindling sunlight began to reclaim hours of the day.

In the fourth century the North African bishop Augustine said this in his Christmas sermon: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (Augustine, Sermon 192).

Of course, had Augustine been a South African bishop, he would have needed to find a meaningful connection between Christ’s birth and the summer’s longest day, when the most light shines on the earth.

Regardless, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the birth of Christ, and the season of Advent leading up to it, now correspond with the darkest days of the year.

We regularly associate darkness with the bad, and light with the good.  It fills our language, and thus our imagination.  Darkness is something from which to escape, a symbol of evil, or at minimum, something undesirable and incomplete.

This gets deeply problematic when attached to the racial history of our country, whiteness constructed as a form of dominance over blackness and brownness.

This Advent, and this sermon in particular, is an invitation into the darkness of the season.  The darkness of rest.  The darkness that provides a canopy for solitude and the richness of the inner lfe.  The darkness in which our brains consolidate the events of the day and make new pathways, the foundation of creativity. The darkness of the womb, Mary’s womb, which births Christ.  The womb of the Divine Mother, who births new worlds into being.  The darkness which wraps the light in its embrace.

Hear now several brief reflections, paired with music, scripture, and verses from the song “Joyful is the dark,” HWB 233.  Settle in.  Allow yourself to enter the darkness that is God’s gift to us.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 1

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Reading: John 1:1-5, 14

Reflection: “Dark Advent” poem

“Dark Advent,” by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.

First, there’s one word in this poem that needs a brief explanation.  It’s the word tehom.  It’s a Hebrew word that appears in Genesis chapter one.  It refers to the deep, the watery abyss out of which creation emerges.

Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of tehom, the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

“Dark Advent”

In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
She was and is God,
all of life born through her.

She flashes rays of darkness
and the whiteness does not overcome her
because in her is life
and her life is flesh
like midnight.

In the dark
her eyes flicker tehom
and her chest trembles mine
with the quiet of the most high.

We have seen her glory:
a raven’s black sheen,
beauty’s shadow.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 2

Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Reading: Mark 13:24-27

Reflection

Whenever, in the Gospels, Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, my NRSV Study Bible gives the reference in the notes section.  It’s a nice feature, a frequent reminder that Jesus’ speech is peppered with borrowed phrases.  In Mark 13:24-25, when Jesus speaks those ominous words about sun, moon, and stars going dark, the powers in the heavens shaken up, the note section looks like a family reunion of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, even the non-biblical book of 2 Esdras gets an honorable mention.  And here’s why: When Jesus says these words, it’s not so much that he’s quoting any particular one of them.  It’s that he’s piecing them together, evoking the entire apocalyptic stream of the prophetic tradition.  Because if there’s one thing the prophets can agree on besides the importance of doing justice, it’s that the whole system that holds us in its grasp is teetering on the edge of collapse.

So begins the liturgical year in the church.  So begins Advent.

“In the beginning was the end,” a collapse of everything.

Or, not everything.  Just the things that appear to be most stable.  The fixtures that order our days.  The rhythms we set our clocks to.  Like the moon, and the stars, the sun.  The prophets forecast poetic darkness.  Only after this collapse, after the darkness receives all the broken pieces of the day, only after this, will the Human One come and create anew.

For Mark’s original audience, the collapse of their world was the Jewish temple being destroyed by the Romans.  It was part of the Roman strategy, shock and awe to put down the Jewish rebels trying to reclaim their homeland through guerilla style warfare.

The rebellion didn’t work.  When the temple was destroyed, with it went the symbolic universe the structure had upheld.  It was both a crisis of politics, and a crisis of meaning.  The fixture that orders life is no more, the powers in the heavens are shaken, the sun goes dark.  The cell phone battery goes dead and Siri’s voice fades.  You have no map for this road.  You’re driving blind.

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 5

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thunder-cloud of glory, holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.  Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Reading: Mark 13:28-37

Reflection

Here’s the hardest thing: When the sun is darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling from the heavens, and the great powers in the heavens and the earth are shaken – The hardest thing is to keep awake.

Not the kind of awake where you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep., restless because of everything.  That kind of awake is easy, too easy.  That kind of awake is exhausting.

The hardest thing is the kind of awake where you’re alert, paying attention, mindful.  Awake like the Buddha.  Awake like Christ.  Awake, as in woke.

As it goes, apocalyptic moments, apocalyptic times, are not all that rare.  We live through multiple apocalypses.  The world we thought we knew collapses.  The light we thought was guiding our way goes away, and we’re left in the dark.

After that mashup of the prophets, a dozen dark flavors of apocalypse, Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from collapse and toward a tree.  A fig tree.  When all else fails, find a tree.  Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.  When it’s winter you can’t see the life within it.  You can’t observe the roots weaving through the dark soil, but watch.  Watch for its branches to become tender.  When they do, they’ll put out leaves, as if from nowhere, and you know summer is near.

The key, the hardest thing, is to keep awake in the dark.

Jesus goes on to name the watches of the night through which the disciples must keep awake.  “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep.”

These are the same watches of the night narrated in the following chapter, Mark 14, when Jesus gathers with his disciples for their last supper in the evening, and they go to Gethsemane at midnight, and Peter denies Jesus at the cockcrow, and the chief priests consult on Jesus’ fate at dawn.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again asks the disciples to keep awake.  It’s the hardest thing to do when your world is collapsing.

Sometimes it becomes too much, and we need companions to keep awake for us.

Vocals and Violin: Joyful is the dark, verse 4, verse 3

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning.  Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor; angles flicker, God of earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Reading: Luke 1:46-48

Reflection

In the beginning darkness hovered over the surface of tehom.  This is the foundation of creativity and new life.  The first Sunday of Advent speaks of the end of worlds, the tragedy of collapse, the possibility that the darkness that follows provides the shelter in which the new creation is born.  Like a womb.

And so it’s Mary who serves as our chief guide through this season.  Mary, the unsuspecting Palestinian Jewish teenage peasant girl.  Mary, who said Yes to the divine messenger without fully knowing what she was committing to.  Mary whose body becomes a temple, a sanctuary for God.  Mary, within whom Christ is formed.

The outlines of this story will take on color in front of our eyes this season.  You can take it home and add your own colors.  There is a life growing within Mary.  “In her is life /and her life is flesh / like midnight.”

There is a life growing within us.  Like the fig tree.  The darkness embraces us, like deep down soil around roots.  Like silence.  No one knows the day or the hour of this great birth.  Stay awake in the dark.

Let’s hold silence for one minute, after which we’ll sing together all five verses of “Joyful is the dark.”

Congregational Song: Joyful is the dark, verses 1-5

“Have you not read…” | Sanctuary III | October 15

Texts: 1 Samuel 21:1-6; Mark 2:23-3:6

 

Let’s take a field trip in our imaginations.

On this field trip, we’re heading out of the city.  We’re going away from dense populations of people are toward dense populations of corn and beans.  On this trip we’re traveling not just through space, but also through time.  This is a magic school bus kind of field trip – if anyone’s familiar with those children’s books.  We’re traveling back a couple thousand years to 1st century Palestine.  As we get closer to our destination we notice that the agricultural fields and the places where people live aren’t as segregated as they are now.  There are small fields at the edges of villages and towns, with public paths running through them.  We get out of the bus and start walking.  We find one of these paths and notice that we’ve left behind the crops of the new world and are surrounded by barley and wheat – crops first domesticated in the Ancient Near East.  The wheat is fully mature.  The head of grain is heavy enough that the top of the stalk is bending under its weight.  It’s harvest season.  We veer off the path and head into the field.  We put our arms to our sides, open our hands, and feel the brush of the grains as we walk through them.

This, of all places, will be the site of an important dialogue about ethics, law, and theology.

These first three weeks of October have turned into a sanctuary trilogy.  In my own study I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how common a practice sanctuary has been, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and Israel, and likely before that into pre-history.  The first week focused on what sanctuary looked like before the church, and last week focused on the 1000+ year practice of sanctuary throughout medieval Christian Europe.

Sanctuary in the churches began largely as a form of penance and reconciliation.  The bishops protected and interceded on behalf of the wrong-doer as they sought to make things right with God and the one they harmed.  But it eventually lost its theological grounding.  It became domesticated, a routine function of the legal system.  It still protected one from the death penalty of royal justice, but in its later versions it typically involved a felon reporting in to a church, acknowledging their crime, and agreeing to leave the kingdom.  In England, after a traveling judge would visit the church and hear the case, the felon would be given safe passage to a port and sent on their way, never to return.  In other words, in a tremendous irony alongside what sanctuary in its present form is trying to protect from, sanctuary at the end of the medieval period involved the church serving as a holding cell for someone awaiting deportation.

As church and secular laws changed, sanctuary became more and more restricted until it was essentially outlawed.  Focus on the well-being of the soul, and repair of harm faded.  Focus on punishment as a form of deterrence, for the public good, became prominent.  Restorative justice was swallowed up by punitive justice.   In 1623, King James 1, passed this definitive legislation: “And be it so enacted by the authority of this present parliament, That no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”  If you’re looking for more irony, this is the same King James who commissioned the King James Bible.

Since then sanctuary has again shifted in its function.  It has become a minority practice, sometimes done in the shadows, which puts a new twist on the image from Psalm 91 from last week “In the shadow of the Almighty.”  Sometimes done in the open.  Sometimes done as an act of civil disobedience.  Some of the more prominent and heroic examples include the Underground Railroad, and villages like Le Chambon in southern France that sheltered over 5000 Jews from the Holocaust.  And of course the Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s that gave protection to Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil wars.

The scriptures for this week aren’t concerned with heroics.  We’re in the middle of a wheat field, remember.  But this is a site for a dialogue about the purpose of laws, and the site for Jesus staking out his approach to this.

So we’re in this wheat field, which gives us a front row seat to what’s happening in Mark chapter 2.  Jesus and his newly called disciples are walking through this very field, and they begin to pluck the heads of grain.  They’re spotted by Pharisees, who come over and challenge the lawfulness of this act.

What they don’t challenge might surprise us private property minded folks.  They don’t charge Jesus and his crew with trespassing, and they don’t charge him with stealing.

The Torah was clear that grain fields existed not just for personal profit, but for the public good.  They were part of the social safety net for the poor and the landless, resident aliens.  Landowners were actually restricted from harvesting all of their fields.  They weren’t even allowed to go back and pick up the grain they missed on the first round.  These were known as the gleaning laws.

Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Eight verses later there’s a little saying that may be more familiar to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Give it up for Leviticus!

It was not a problem for Jesus and his new friends to be exercising their gleaning rights in someone else’s field, but it was a potential problem that they were doing this on the Sabbath.  This event is contained within sacred time.  And in sacred time, according the Exodus 34:21, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest (you shall Sabbath).  Even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”

So the question is, Is this a violation of Sabbath law?  What to think of this micro-harvest by Jesus and the gleaners – which is probably what they were planning on calling their new band.  Jesus and the gleaners.

Before we get any further down this path let’s abolish any thought of this being a case of Christian freedom and liberty versus Jewish legalism.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Pharisees, as portrayed within the New Testament, are often caricatured to represent an extreme branch of the Jewish family tree.  The Pharisees were the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism which emerged later, and would come to teach unequivocally that “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not slaves of the Sabbath.  We should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person, so that person may observe many Sabbaths.” (Mechilta Shabbata 1, in Sabbath and Jubilee, by Richard Lowery, p. 124)

What was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath was a lively topic of discussion within first century Judaism, so when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he stays within the tradition.  He anchors his response within the scriptures in order to claim that what he’s doing is within, rather than outside, their common tradition.

The Pharisees implicitly cite Exodus 34 about keeping Sabbath even during the harvest, and Jesus cites another passage.

If you’ve ever been in one of these scripture-versus-scripture conversations, you know they can be exhausting and not a little bit frustrating.  Sometimes they’re important, sometimes it’s better to just let go, or walk away.

Of all the angles Jesus could have taken in the wheat field on the Sabbath, he does some creative interpretation of a story about David and the priest of Nob found in 1 Samuel 21.   “Have you not read…?” Jesus begins.  Well, of course they’d read the story.  They probably had it memorized.  But they probably had never seen it with the spin Jesus puts on it.

We have received overwhelming support for our decision to be a sanctuary church, but within the first couple days, we did get several emails and a voicemail into the office that had a similar message.  Each time the person said they were a Christian, but thought what we were doing was wrong because Romans 13 says we are to obey the governing authorities.  So who’s within the tradition and who isn’t?  Or, to ask it a different way, which part of the tradition are we using to interpret that part of the tradition?  Have you not read…  How would you fill in the blank to respond?   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or the command throughout the Torah to provide for the resident alien?  Or Jesus’ practice of aligning himself with outcasts?

Jesus references the story of David and the priest at Nob.  Rather than being about sacred time, Sabbath, it’s a story about sacred space and sacred objects.  It takes place in a temple rather than a field, and involves wheat in its value-added form, a loaf of bread.  And not just any loaf of bread, but the Bread of the Presence, which was set on the table in the temple and replaced every week, a sign of Divine hospitality.  But here’s the catch: according to the Torah, the Bread of the Presence that was replaced with a fresh loaf, was only to be eaten by the priest – also in Leviticus (Leviticus 24:5-9).

In this story, David comes into the temple and meets the priest Ahimelech.  David is not yet king, but has made quite a name for himself as a warrior.  He’s so popular, that King Saul is consumed with jealousy and has been trying to kill him.  David is now on the run, which explains why the text says Ahimelech is trembling when he speaks to David.  The priest is aware that if he gives aid to this upstart former-shepherd, he could be charged with harboring a fugitive.  This, too, is a story of sanctuary.  His fears come true in the following chapter.  A loyal follower of Saul – who had been in the temple during David’s stay – becomes an informer.  And Saul comes to Nob and kills the priests, including Ahimelech, for giving assistance to his enemy.

But Jesus doesn’t get that deep into the story.  He zeroes in on the fact that David is hungry, there is a pressing human need, and there’s no other bread in the temple except the Bread of the Presence, the holy bread.  Hunger, urgency, and mercy, take precedent over the Levitical holiness code, and priest Ahimelech gives the bread to David to eat.

Quoting from Mark: “’Have you not read,’” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’what David and his companions did when (they) were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’  Then he said to them, the Sabbath is made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

Jesus and his companions continue through that wheat field and walk right into a synagogue where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Before he does this, he poses this question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”  In this context, doing harm means doing nothing.  Which is more lawful?  To do good, or to do nothing, and thus do harm?

Maybe these are examples of civil disobedience.  Or maybe these are examples of Jesus claiming the compassionate stream of his tradition and inviting others to step into the stream with him.  Whatever it is, it’s an example within our tradition that poses important questions about the hierarchy of values that we live out.  Especially in an age in which sanctuary is in friction with the law of the land.

What is especially beautiful about these stories of Jesus and the gleaners and David and the holy bread eaters is that they affirm something that the Christian tradition has too easily discounted.  Rather than doing away with the Sabbath, and rather than doing away with the idea of holy space and holy bread, they affirm and expand holiness.  To offer bread to a hungry person is what makes bread holy.  To do good and heal and protect makes the Sabbath and all days holy.  It’s not that Sabbath disappears into the ordinariness of the rest of the week.  It’s that the holiness of Sabbath infiltrates the rest of the week.  The holiness of the house of God infiltrates ordinary space.

As we keep working at this thing called Sanctuary, my prayer for us is that we not view it merely as an exception for exceptional times.  Sanctuary is the norm that filters its way out into other parts of our lives, and transform us into the likeness of Christ.

Reaching for the cloak | 28 June 2015 | Mental health focus

Text: Mark 5:21-43

There’s a quote, sometimes attributed to Plato and other times attributed to Philo of Alexandria, which goes like this: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Sometimes I wonder, when sayings like this are assigned to multiple big names of history, if it’s more likely it was first spoken between two farmers out in some remote field, who repeated it to their neighbors and on down the road it went – people thinking it so profound that it must have been said by the greatest philosopher of the Western world.

A bit of web research indicated that the oldest known appearance of these words in print was in the 1897 Christmas edition of The British Weekly. 

No matter its origin, it’s a line I came across a number of years back and have taken to heart as a pastor and as a human being.  Mostly because the second part has proven itself to be true over and over again.  As far as I can tell, even people who most appear to have their stuff together are, in some aspect life, fighting a great battle.  Whether the first part, Be kind, is something I and we actually do well is another challenge in itself.

We are a congregation that mostly has our stuff together.  We are made up of persons serving the community in all kinds of vital ways, we own and worship in a pleasant building in a desirable neighborhood, we are fiscally sound, and mission oriented.  Yet, I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that we all, in our own way, are fighting a great battle.

And one of these great battles is the struggle for mental wellness, whether it be personally or someone we live with.  Some of you have been more public with your struggles, others more private.  As someone raised in a family not dominated by mental illness, learning about this reality has been a significant part of my adult life.  The first major wake up call came when one of my closest friends from college died by suicide in his mid 20’s after several years of veering between mania and depression.  Another close friend, from seminary, who had lived with depression and an alcohol addiction, also intentionally ended his own life, soon after we both had graduated from AMBS.  As a pastor I have been made aware of just how prevalent a struggle is people’s mental health – to the point of stepping back several times and blurting the question – What is going on in this world?

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.7 million – experiences mental illness in a given year.  Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 have experienced a severe mental disorder at some point in their life.

I consider myself very much in learning mode about all this, including how to even talk about it.  Sometimes images can help give expression to things when we don’t yet have the words.

One of the common languages we have is the language of scripture: The stories, the characters, the images of life we encounter there.  Today’s gospel reading is not specifically about mental illness, but provides multiple inroads into the conversation.  It’s a passage that contains two different stories, told in such a way that we are invited to make connections between them.  One is about a little girl who is on the brink of death.  Her father, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue and the only character outside of Jesus and his disciples given a name, begs for Jesus to come and heal the girl.  Jesus agrees to go – and on the way, surrounded by a large crowd, is touched by a woman, herself desperate for healing.  Despite the demands of the crowd, the protest of the disciples, and the urgency of Jairus’ daughter’s situation, Jesus stops and talks and listens with the woman, telling her that her faith has made her well, and to go in peace.  Jesus then arrives at Jairus’ home, clears out the crowd, and goes in to the child’s bedside, taking her by the hand and helping her stand, revived.

These two stories are organized like a sandwich, a common style of Mark, with Jairus and his daughter providing the top and bottom layer, the encounter with the hemorrhaging woman sandwiched in between.  Mark also uses other signals to weave these stories together.  The crowds are prevalent in both and fade silently into the background as woman and girl are encountered by Jesus in their individuality.  The woman has been bleeding for 12 years, the entire lifetime of the girl who is twelve years old.  They are both referred to as “daughter.”  Jairus says, “My little daughter is at the point of death.”  Jesus says to the grown woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Even the fact that they are both females stands out as a connecting point in a narrative dominated by males.  A bleeding person and a corpse, which people believed the girl to be, were both considered ritually unclean in the Torah, yet Jesus is willing to touch and be touched by the “unclean,” and offers healing in doing so.

These two stories are really a part of one larger story, and invite us to consider how our personal stories are sandwiched between and intersected with other stories, each other’s stories, which are a part of one greater story that is in the process of being woven together, separate scraps brought together to form something meaningful.

A month ago I got together with several households from the congregation walking through very live struggles with mental illness.  We used the first part of the time to look at this passage, reading it through three different times out loud, speaking about where each person saw themselves in the story.  Reactions ranged from expressing how insightful and helpful this story is, to frustration and anger about why this story where everything seems to turn out A-OK for everyone would be used to talk about the ongoing and no-end-in-sight presence of mental illness.  Lines like “your faith has made you well” were received both as a source of great comfort, and salt in the wound that is not well.

Like that group that evening, I invite you to bring your whole self to this passage, and to see where it meets you.  I wonder if there is a certain character, or a certain phrase, which helps you tell your story.  The passage is printed in the bulletins and I’d like to walk through it in a little more detail with a focus on the main characters.

Jairus is a person not suffering from an illness himself, but deeply affected by the illness of someone he loves.  His life is woven together with someone who is suffering, even near death, and he is compelled to do whatever he can do to help her.  He is an advocate.  He is an activist.  He is a parent, a father.  He is a person of privilege, a community leader with connections, a leader of the synagogue, and he uses his status as an asset to break out of the crowd and grab the attention of someone who may be able to help him.  In an act of humility and desperation, he falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him.  Not just begs him.  Begs him repeatedly, Mark says.  Begs, and begs, and begs, and begs, and begs, repeatedly.   “My daughter is at the point of death.  My daughter.   My daughter is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.  Come.  Come, you must see if you can heal her.

How many times did Jairus the synagogue leader have to beg before Jesus went with him?  Jairus is an advocate.  He’s a parent, a persistent father, and he wants what’s best for his child.

I see our work with the BREAD organization as being in the spirit of Jairus.  For the last two years we’ve been petitioning and urging and even begging the mental health board of Franklin County to implement a clubhouse model that looks beyond individual crisis care for mental health needs and establishes a center for friendship, education, advocacy, and employment, along with access to ongoing medical care.   The most recent update is that they are willing to draw up a plan for this if they can pass a levy in the fall.

Jairus is not ill himself, but his life is woven together with someone who is.  He is the one who kickstarts this whole sequence of events and without his voice one wonders if any of what follows would have come to pass.

And then there is this woman.  The way Mark introduces her, even in his brief, pithy language, each phrase reveals more of the depth of her struggle.  Verse 25.  Now there was woman…who had been suffering from hemorrhages…for twelve years….She had endured much…under many physicians…and had spent all that she had…and she was no better…but rather grew worse.”  We can almost imagine this woman going from doctor to doctor, traveling far, taking advice from neighbor and stranger about who to try next, hoping each time that this one might have the solution, each time being disappointed, each time shelling out some of her dwindling money supply until it was gone and her problem persisted.  Doing this for twelve years.  Doctors of the ancient world were not always the kindest or most competent of people and were often criticized.  But what else are you going to do?  Where else are you going to go?

Ritually unclean for twelve years, growing accustomed to not being touched – she hears about another possibility for healing and lets herself get her hopes up enough to at least blend in anonymously with the crowd, strategically working her way closer to this healer who seems to be on his way somewhere important.  She has no intention of making herself known.  She has no wish to become the public face of a miraculous healing.  She was advocating for no one but herself.  She wanted to be made well.  Mark even gives us a window into her thoughts: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  This is either great faith, or desperate magical thinking.

What happens is both wonderful and terrifying.  She is made well, but she is stopped from retreating back into the crowd.  Jesus outs hers in front of everyone and she comes in fear and trembling and, like Jairus, falls before him, and, in the words of Mark, “told him the whole truth.”  I wonder what her “whole truth” was and why Mark felt the need to include that phrase.  Whatever it was, she tells her whole story to Jesus.  And Jesus calls her “Daughter,” and assures her that she has great faith, and sends her on her way with a blessing of peace.  I wonder if the hemorrhaging ever came back, and if it did, if she was able to have a different kind of relationship with it in light of her encounter with that wandering rabbi who did not reject her touch, and told her that her faith makes her well.

The young girl is in such a state that she can’t advocate for others, or even herself.  She is incapacitated and, as the story progresses, declared to be dead.  She is at the point of needing others to do for her what she is unable to do for herself.  Different cultures professionalize different aspects of the dying process, and as was the custom in this case, professional mourners would have been hired, giving voice to the despair of the family.  Jesus approaches this “commotion” as Mark calls it, and puts them all outside.  The commotion is unhelpful.  Not even the 12 disciples can be in the house.  Only Jesus, his inner circle of three disciples, the parents, and girl.  It’s an intimate setting that only a few witness.  The woman had extended   her hand to touch Jesus, and now it’s Jesus who extends his hand to this girl, and beckons her, “Little girl, get up.”  The word used for “get up” is one of the words that Christians would later use to refer to resurrection.  This girl experiences a resurrection, and celebrates by doing what living people do, she gets something to eat.

And Jesus doesn’t ask them to become the poster family for healing and resurrection.  He tells them that nobody has to know about this, at least not now.  This experience was for them.  It was a gift, and they can hold it as closely to their hearts as they need to.  It seems strange for Jesus to give this order, especially since he’s in the business of spreading a world-altering message to anyone who would listen – but how very kind of him, to give this family permission to keep this private for this time and simply enjoy what they’d been given The fact that we’re talking about it right now means that somebody went public  with it at some point.

Jairus, the woman, and the girl give us different facets of this story that we’re all living in.

And sometimes we find ourselves just a part of the crowd, mostly oblivious to what’s really going on.  Standing on our tip toes to see if we can catch a glimpse, or wondering if we should be doing something more to help, or just accepting that sometimes the best thing we can do is get out of the way and do no harm.

And then there’s Jesus, who, depending on what you bring to the story, comes off as being perhaps the most comforting, or perhaps the most frustrating character of all.  He allows himself to be inconvenienced, he ignores customs and stigmas, he allows himself to be touched, and he reaches out with a touch.  He is a successful healer, a problem solver, it all looks so…simple.  Maybe too simple.

Christ can now be the community of faith, that holds us up in prayer – that circle at the bottom of the board that welcomes us out of isolation, into relationship.  But we also know that community can and will fail us at times.  Christ can be the face of any person who decides that they will be kind, because everyone they meet is fighting a great battle.  But this is unpredictable.

We want to have faith, that beyond our struggles we are held up in the Divine arms whose embrace no part of reality can escape.  We want to have faith that seemingly random scraps of existence can be gathered and pieced together into something meaningful and beautiful, even if we can’t see the whole picture.  We want to be made well.

“Take nothing except…” | 21 June 2015

Text: Mark 6:6b-13

Whenever someone visits our church website, the first picture they see is one of hands knotting a colorful comforter.  We got the new website up and running about a year ago, and we did so with the understanding the websites are pretty much the new front door for congregations.  Before most people walk through the actual front door of a building, they walk through a website.  So, the question was, how do we want to introduce ourselves when people come to visit?  Is there an image that expresses who we have been called to be as a community that lives in the Spirit of Christ?  It wasn’t all that hard of a decision.

There are so many dimensions to how these comforters represent our mission and life together that it would take many sermons to unpack it all.  Which is a good thing, because we do this comforter blessing every year.

One of the beautiful aspects of these comforters is how the core group of Piecemakers invites the rest of us to participate in their creation – especially through the spring knotting party.  I consider that one of the high holy weekends of the year.  We get stuff done, like knotting 52comforters in an evening and a morning a few months ago, but there’s a lot more going on than just an assemblage of cheap laborers lured by amazing food.  I love how this event involves giving and receiving by all that participate. The Piecemakers create a space to offer something that the rest of us need and desire: good food, meaningful work, joyful fellowship.  The rest of us have something that the Piecemakers need: time, willing hands, funds to support the cause.

This image of mission as giving and receiving is also reflected in Mark chapter 6 when Jesus gives instructions to his followers for how to go about their mission.  For those of you who pay attention to these kinds of things, this passage is technically the lectionary reading for two weeks from now, but we poached it for this week because it fits.  Yet another benefit of being in the free church tradition.

Jesus had already been going among the villages of Galilee, teaching, driving out harmful spirits, and healing the sick.  As he did this he gathered a core group of followers who became his disciples, who also became agents of the same ministry.  This passage in Mark tells of the time when Jesus first sent them out on their own, in pairs, to do what he had been doing.  Mark’s description of what they actually do is surprisingly brief.  “So they went out, and proclaimed that all should repent (have a new mind).  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  Teaching, driving out harmful spirits, and healing the sick.  Not a whole lot more details.

What Mark does go into detail about is not what they do on their mission, but the way in which they go it.  They are to take nothing on their journey except a staff, and sandals, and fortunately, a piece of clothing.  It’s a very short packing list.  What they aren’t supposed to take is bread, which is just another way of saying food.  No bag, which was a way of storing and transporting food and other necessities; and no money, which was and is this liquid asset that can be converted into anything one might need along the way.  Also, just the tunic they were wearing.  No food or snacks, no backpack, no cash or credit cards, no change of clothes.

Lacking these key items, they were to stay at a home that welcomed them in a village, and stay at that home until they moved on to another village.  If no home extended them hospitality they were to simply move on, shaking the dust from their feet as they left – as if to say “you refuse to offer us anything, fine, you can keep your dust too.”

This method of missionary travel feels austere to us, but Mark is actually the most generous in his account of what the disciples could take with them.  In Matthew and Luke Jesus asks that they even leave the staff and sandals behind.  This is indeed traveling light.  Barefoot, with nothing to lean on or ward off wild animals along the path.

As odd as all this sounds to us, Jesus’ followers would not have been alone in this kind of endeavor.  Greek cynic philosophers of the time had a similar practice of going from village to village carrying very little with them, although they regularly carried bags and bread to have some independence.  Even though cynicism has come to mean something negative, cynic philosophers emphasized a life of virtue and simplicity.  Some scholars have even suggested that Jesus was a Jewish cynic, or at least influenced by this school of thought.

The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus records another group of Jews, known as the Essenes, who also had a similar practice.  Josephus writes, “They have no certain city but many of them dwell in every city; and if any of their sect comes from another place, what they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own…for which reason they carry nothing with them when travel into remote parts, though still they take their weapons with them, for fear of thieves.  Accordingly there is, in every city where they live, one appointed particularly to take care of strangers, and to provide garments and other necessaries for them.”  (Wars of the Jews 2:124-125)

All this has overtones of a prototypical Mennonite- your- way of the ancient world.  For those of you new to the tribe, Mennonite-your-way is both a semi-formal or completely informal way of traveling around the country and the world.  Formally, it’s a network of registered households of the Mennonite or Anabaptist persuasion who agree to host others passing through their area.  This network was started in 1976 by a married couple and involves a print directory that includes registered hosts and basic agreements for using the network.  Now www.mennoniteyourway.com gives information about how the network functions.  The website says, “Mennonite Your Way revives an old Anabaptist tradition by organizing a hospitality network so travelers can share fellowship and travel more economically…  To work, Mennonite Your Way needs hosts who share hospitality and travelers seeking fellowship, all in a spirit of Christian courtesy.”  It notes that it is “A listing of over 1700 hosts who offer lodging in their homes in over 60 countries.”

Informally, Mennonite-your-way involves calling up your Mennonite friends living in the general area you wish to travel and seeing if you can crash on their couch – or their guest bedroom, if it be the case.  Mennonite-your-way is especially helpful if you can’t much afford the bread, the bag, and the money that you aren’t supposed to take in the first place.

With the Jesus-followers, the cynics, and the Essenes, and maybe others, we get the sense that the first century was populated with wondering preachers and healers, and Jesus is inviting his followers to join in this kind of pattern of ministry with perhaps a few distinctives: Greater dependence on the hospitality of strangers.  They also didn’t have weapons to ward off thieves, but when you travel that light, there’s not a whole lot for thieves to take.  There is that pacifist-befuddling passage at the end of Luke when Jesus says they might need a sword after all, but he doesn’t seem all that enthused when they pull a couple out.

One of my personal experiences resembling all this was when I spent two months in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico the summer after my sophomore year of college.  I went with an organization called Youth With A Mission and our mission was to save poor Mexicans from going to hell by having them accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  We would do this by lugging large battery powered speakers out to villages, blasting Christian rock music with English lyrics in order to attract a crowd, and then put on skits with no words about Jesus sacrificing himself for their sins, offering to pray for them afterwards before we moved on to the next place.

As you may imagine, this was a different era of my theological journey, and one that I chose not to emphasize during my candidating weekend here two years ago just in case anyone might get the wrong idea.  When I disclosed all this on a long car ride up to a Central District Conference gathering with Phil Hart – someone who has done his fair share of Christian ministry in Latin America, his response was, “Wow, I hated you guys.”

Fair enough.  But I loved God and loved the Bible and when I read through the organization’s materials getting ready for the trip it said that all our basic needs, like meals and lodging, would be provided.  So, without thinking about it further, I got my passport, packed some clothes, and flew off to Mexico for two months of holy adventure.  It didn’t dawn on me until the first time a few members of our team invited me to go out with them for some late night eating, and we were at the café sitting down to order, that I realized they brought money and I didn’t.  It’s not that I had intentionally decided not to take extra money, it’s that the thought had never entered my mind.  All of our basic needs were covered, and we were on a mission.

Needless to say, that wasn’t the only time in which I could have spent money but didn’t.  And needless to say, I had a different experience during those two months than my teammates.  Not having money to go out with my fellow Americans freed up time to hang out with more Mexicans and start to have my own ideology transformed through the beauty of relationships – their gift to me.

What draws me now to this passage in Mark and this method of ministry, isn’t so much the austerity of it all, what all you must leave behind, as it is the spirit out of which Jesus invited his companions to minister.  They were instructed to put themselves in a position of being utterly dependent on those with whom they were ministering.  In other words, rather than arriving at a place with the attitude that they were bringing everything that these strangers needed, it was they, the ministers, who were in the position of need.  They didn’t have anything.  Their need invited their hosts to extend hospitality and generosity to them, already an act of Christ-like kindness.  The disciples do have something to offer, but only as a response to having first received.  Ministry is an act of giving and receiving in which both parties need one another to grow.

Imagine how different that classic story of stone soup would have gone if those wandering visitors had brought with them the pot, the wood, and all the ingredients to make stone soup.  They could have set up camp in the middle of the village, perhaps played some hip music to attract a crowd, and cooked up a big meal for everyone to eat.  People might have come out of their homes to eat it, but when the visitors left the villagers would have retreated right back into their old patterns and ways of relating.

Instead, the visitors came empty handed, with nothing but their wisdom and compassion, and gently invited the villagers to give toward the creation of this meal.  In doing so, they left the village with a great gift.  They cast out the evil spirits of fear of one’s neighbors, and hoarding one’s resources.  They healed the isolation that had separated the villagers from each other.  They helped the kingdom of God come near.

Imagine how the history of Christian mission would be different if this were the pattern that was followed.

There’s a lovely quote being used by the planners of the inclusive worship service at Kansas City that comes from an Aboriginal activists group at a gathering in Queensland, Australia in 1970.  It says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We’re blessing these comforters today and I’m aware that the connection with Mark 6 might feel a little stretched since we are sending these as finished products to wherever they are most needed in the world.  We are not dependent on those who receive them in the same way that Jesus’ disciples were dependent on those with whom they were ministering.  But here’s another way of thinking about it – and again, this is just one dimension of all this:  The making of these comforters is just as much a mission to ourselves as it is a mission to others.  In assembling these comforters and making themselves dependent on the generosity of the congregation to assist in their completion, the Piecemakers are operating in the spirit of Jesus in which the lines between hosts and guests, mission workers and mission receiver, get blurred and mixed around.  What if, instead of going about the work in the way we do, several people would simply donate a bunch of money that would enable us to buy 150 comforters from a factory, drape them over our benches, and send them off?  It would certainly be more efficient.  But what would be lost?  What gifts of fellowship, and laughter, and shared meals, would disappear?  How much ownership would any of us feel in this?

Instead, these comforters have been a great gift to us, each square thoughtfully place cut and arranged, the intersections of square meeting square knotted by 100 different hands.  Each comforter invested with the time and the love that makes life rich and meaningful.  Take nothing with you except the hope that people will come together to create what is needed, and bring about an image of the kin-dom of God that abides long after we have done our work.

 

 

 

Leafy branches | Lent 6| 29 March 2015

Text: Mark 11:1-11

There’s something wonderfully anticlimactic about Mark’s telling of Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem.  It all begins about two miles outside the city, in the town of Bethany, where Jesus and his companions will be staying throughout the week of Passover.  It was a time when the city was flooded with pilgrims, all the homes and hotels in the city at full capacity.  Jesus and his crew had neglected to meet the online early register deadline, so they’re stuck at one of those outlier hotels that some youth end up in at Mennonite conventions, when they have to take the shuttle back and forth to the convention center.  But it’s all good.  They’ve got friends in Bethany – hanging out in the home of a guy named Simon the Leper.  Maybe catching up with Mary and Martha and Lazarus who also lived in town.  And given all that’s going to go down in the city in the coming week, it will be nice to have a quieter -and safer – place to escape to at the end of each day.

Pilate had perhaps already made his dramatic entry into the city, coming down from his headquarters on the Mediterranean in Caesarea as he did every Passover.  Not because he was interested in celebrating the festival of the Jews liberation from slavery out of the Egyptian empire.  He was there as a not-so-subtle reminder that they were firmly back under the watchful eye of a larger, more powerful empire, the Romans.  Not quite slaves, but not quite free.  Like other leading figures of the time, governors and generals, he would have received quite a ceremonial greeting, which could have included the waving of branches and the spreading of cloaks along the path for him and his entourage.  Pilate was doing the people a favor, really, by being there.  They needed him, and the peacekeepers accompanying him, to keep things…orderly.

There were so many people funneling in to Jerusalem it’s hard to know if the little piece of street theater Jesus had orchestrated for his own entry even registered.  After getting on a borrowed colt and winding his way down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, Mark does say that many people became involved, spreading their cloaks on the colt Jesus is riding, on the road, and cutting leafy branches from the fields and bringing them to spread along the road as well – a locally grown, organic, green version of the red carpet treatment.

Some of the crowd was following Jesus and some were out in front of him and they were reciting that familiar Psalm that had become so closely associated with the Passover festival, Psalm 118.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna, which means, “Save now.”  “Save us now” they would recite every year.  “We are coming in the name of YHWH.”

No matter how large or small this alternative parade was, it all seems to be going well.  Seems to be going somewhere.  To have purpose and direction, headed toward some kind of eventful climax as they finally reach the city.  So it comes as a surprise when Mark says: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  Wait. What?

There’s all this momentum, all this expectation, all this coalesced energy that can only happen when a crowd is united in its focus and passion.  Jesus enters the capital city, heads straight for the temple, the building which carries the most symbolic weight –  marches right past security into the Pentagon, or walks right up the steps into the Capitol building.  All eyes are on him.  What’s he going to do?  He stops, looks around at everything, looks down at his watch, says “Whoa, look at the time,” and turns around and walks back to Bethany where he came from to hit the sack.

He will, after what was hopefully a good night’s sleep, return to the temple the next day, and there will indeed be drama that day and that week, but the way Mark tells the story, the way Mark tells many of his stories, it leaves us wondering what’s really going on here.

This anticlimactic climax is also the climax of our Sundays of Lent.  And it’s a good thing because our worship banner is full and I noticed the worship table has been simplified to make space for all the elements that have carried us through this season.  That odd term that was introduced the first week of Lent, the ‘hermeneutical community’ has been filled out with water, land, cattle, serpents, seeds, and now leafy branches.  A hermeneutical community is a group that does the work of interpretation, of listening for messages.  Looking out for Hermes, the messenger god, who links the realms of the divine and the human.  And in our Praying with Creation, we’ve suggested, that we need more than just ourselves in this hermeneutical community.  We need the presence of the creation to offer its counsel on how to understand the present moment and our place in it.  A seed, a cow, even a snake, can be a messenger.

And so can a palm branch.

Palms play a pretty minor role in Mark’s story.  Extremely minor if we count that he doesn’t even refer to specifically to palms, only John’s gospel does that, but instead speaks of leafy branches.  Leafy branches cut from the field, brought and spread in front of Jesus, pressed down into the rocky Judean pathway under the weight of that borrowed colt, already becoming compost by the time Jesus and the twelve unceremoniously trudge back over them as the sun sets on their way back up the hill to Bethany.  In this piece of public theater, the leafy branches hardly even qualify for a role of supporting actor.

Since you all were such good sports in receiving the new phrase ‘hermeneutical community,’ I thought we could close Lent with one more vocabulary word, although this isn’t a word they teach you at seminary.  It’s one I came across a few years ago in a book about trees titled, appropriately, The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter.  So I’m clearly outside of my specialty here, as I have been for most of Lent, but this is a word that stuck with me.  The word is autotroph.  Let’s say that together…. !    Auto-troph, the tree book told me, means “self-feeders.”  In other words, autotrophs are living organisms which are able to make their own food.  The key to autotropy is the fantastic practice/process of photosynthesis which takes place in the leaves of leafy branches all over the world.  I think they tried to teach me this in high school, or middle school, but only in the last five years or so have I come to better appreciate how marvelous a process this is.  The chlorophyll in leaves is able to receive water drawn up from the ground, or absorbed out of the air, hold it together with carbon dioxide gathered out of the air, and then catch a photon of light hurled at it from the sun, whose energy it uses to slice and dice and rearrange the bonds of the three distinct elements in H2O and CO2, to make a simple sugar, food.  A leaf is a little solar powered sugar maker, creating food for itself out of thin air, which can then become more complex carbohydrates and food for other life forms, like insects, and the creatures that eat them.

Humans and all other animals are heterotrophs, other feeders, which means no matter how good a cook you are, you still don’t technically make your own food.  We are utterly and absolutely dependent on those little solar powered sugar makers, the leafy branches, for our existence, as is every other non-plant.

To take it one level further, the waste product, if you want to call it that, of photosynthesis is oxygen – kind of a cool thing to have coming out your exhaust pipe.  And there was a time early in the earth’s history when there was hardly any oxygen in the atmosphere.  But once the first photosynthesizers started doing their thing, after thousands and millions of years, they split apart enough oxygen from water and carbon dioxide, slowly upping the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, to enable creatures like us to eventually come into existence.

It’s a whole different time scale than a human life, certainly different than expecting all the drama to happen on one triumphal day.  It’s an unhurried revolution.  The leafy branches make their cameo appearance in Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem, and we are doubly dependent on the leaves and their quiet, persistent life, in our eating and our breathing.

So the leafy branches, and the leaves that are about to burst out of autotrophs everywhere in Central Ohio, fill out our earthy hermeneutical community.  They serve as an icon of our dependence.  We are dependent.  We can’t make our own food, and need our nourishment to come from a source outside ourselves.

It’s nice to generally think of myself as an independent person.  I know I need food and the love of family and friendships, but it’s still kind of satisfying to think that I’m mostly independent.   We spend a lot of early adulthood working at becoming independent.  But after pondering the world of the autotrophs, and finding myself clearly in the world of the heterotrophs, this goal starts to feel silly and misguided.  The question isn’t so much how do we become more independent, but how will we live with our dependence in a way that nurtures the healthy interdependence of all we’re a part of.

Giving up the illusion of independence can make us ponder what we allow ourselves to become dependent on, where we direct our Hosannas.  Save us now.  Save us guns and drones.  Hosanna.  Save us technology.  Hosanna.  Save me substance of choice.  Hosanna.  We need you.  I need you.  Hosanna.  Save me.

We’re dependent on Pilate and all that he represents, who gives us a clear and easy place to direct our allegiance and devotion, who keeps the present order of things intact, who doesn’t much care what we do with our religious festivals as long as we don’t ask too many questions.

We can even be dependent on a type of Messiah whose grand entrance instantly sets everything in its proper place…sometimes we like to think of ourselves as that kind of Messiah…rather than one who looks around and decides that the work of the day, incomplete as it is, is enough, and it’s time to get some rest.

One of the ways of interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, and certainly the events of this final week of his life that we observe during Holy Week, is that he continually unveils our dependence on things which ultimately destroy life rather than support it:  The Pharisees’ dependence on sharp religious boundaries; others’ over-dependence on wealth; the disciples’ dependence on images of greatness and power rather than humility and servanthood.  And, as if to make the point once and for all for all of history to see and consider, Jesus reveals that the ways of Pilate and the system he helped maintain is always willing to destroy innocent life in order to preserve itself.  The icon of the cross is the ultimate judgment against Pilate.  Rather than Jesus being on trial, the cross puts Pilate on trial.

So what should we be dependent on?  What should we be interdependent with?  When it comes right down to it, What do we really need?  What truly saves?  These are some of the great questions that Jesus leaves us with.

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.