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 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.

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.

A beginning without an ending | 7 December 2014 | Advent 2

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-11  

One of the things I like to notice when I read a book is the opening lines.  I’m interested in how writers choose to introduce what they have to say.  How does it set up the rest of the story?  How does it draw us in as a reader and make us a part of what follows?  What clues does it give about what we’re about to read?

One of the books that will forever be on my ‘pick up anytime and be delighted’ list is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s one of the few books I’ve handled so much that the cover has torn off.   It’s best read in small portions and digested over long periods of time.  It starts this way:  “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.  I’d half awaken.  He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood.  Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk.  And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.  It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm.  I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp.  What blood was this, and what roses?  It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.  This sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain.  I never knew.  I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the Passover.  We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…”   (pp. 1,2)

Annie Dillard goes on to write about her experiences and observations of the natural world around her house by Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.  In an early chapter she talks about the act of seeing, about what we notice and what we don’t notice.  What we let come through our open window, so to speak.  She sees in her surroundings untamed beauty, as well as devastating violence.  She feels an awareness of “something powerful playing over me,” all the while being baffled by its elusive presence.  In other words, her opening description of the tom cat and the blood that found its way on her body serves as a metaphor for the rest of what she has to say.

A book that I read a few years back but was reminded of this week when a friend mentioned it in a post is Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead.  This is written as a reflection of an aging Midwestern pastor.  The pastor, John Ames, had married a younger woman and they had a son together and these reflections are written as if from this elderly father to his young son.  It begins this way: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.  And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.  I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.  And you said, Mama already told me that.  And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you.  You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s.  It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern.  I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks.  I will miss them.  It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything.  If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time.  I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself.  That seems to be the way of things.” (p. 3)

The rest of the book is a monologue of this elderly fictitious Reverend John Ames telling stories from his life.  But the way the book opens reminds the reader that this is more like a dialogue, with the son always present, listening, as if he were still sitting on his father’s lap, or they were at the bedside together.  It is a book full of life, and full of words, but also overshadowed by impending death and the silence that follows.

Both of these books drew me in from the very beginning, with their opening setting the tone for what was to come, helping define just what kind of story this was going to be.

Today’s scriptures in this second Sunday of Advent are also beginnings.

You can’t tell it at first glance, but Isaiah chapter 40 is the start of a new story, opening words for a new narrative that is taking shape.  In its finished form, Isaiah comes to us as one book, but contains within it multiple books from multiple Isaiahs.  Scholars believe that there are three distinct voices in the book of Isaiah, each speaking from a different time period, a different location, into different sets of circumstances.  Rather than a single person, Isaiah is more like a prophetic tradition, a school of multiple generations of prophets.  We could think of the final product of Isaiah as something like a trilogy, packaged together in one box set, so one can watch the whole thing unfold from beginning to end.

After chapter 39, when the first Isaiah has said all he has to say, there is a long pause.  150 years, or so, of silence.  During this silence the nation of Judah is destroyed, invaded and conquered by the Babylonians.  Many of its people are exiled, into Babylon — living as disoriented, displaced persons — grieving over what has been destroyed, longing for God to work salvation for them.  Out of this silence, the Second Isaiah speaks, in exile, from Babylon.  Book two begins, and its opening words set the course for where the story is headed.  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak 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.  A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the Presence of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

‘Comfort, comfort my people’ begins this story.  Comfort plus comfort.  Comfort squared.  Extra fortified double strength comfort to meet the need of the double devastation the people have experienced.  These are welcome words for exiles.  They had fallen onto the hard, inflexible, unforgiving solidity of forces greater than themselves.  The aspirations of an invading empire, points of spears leading them away from their homes, forging a new life in a foreign land — the harsh realities of the world that many people continue to experience who are displaced by violence.  And now they are hearing words of comfort.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Words of tender speech.  Like a parent speaking gently to a child at bedtime.  Like life partners comforting each other.  The hard edges are softened.  The inhuman situation suddenly has a touch of humanity.  The prophet speaks words of assurance and consolation.  A way is being made for them.  They’re not stuck where they are.  There is a way being prepared that they will be able to walk.  They haven’t been forgotten here or abandoned in exile.  This is how this story begins.

I image we can each think of times when we have experienced words of comfort as having the power to open up a whole new path.  We felt as though we were trapped in our worries and fears and self-doubts, as if we are surrounded by mountains and valleys that we can’t see around or climb over.  And then words of comfort or assurance come to us, and we experience what Isaiah describes.  “Every 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.”  And we see a way where before there was no way.  There are times when we need this kind of message to disrupt all the other disruptions.

If you are a person for whom certain phrases instantly remind you of a song which in turn gets stuck in your head, you may find through Advent that Handel’s Messiah will have a steady presence in your brain.  When writing The Messiah Handel chose these first words of Second Isaiah to be the beginning.  Comfort, comfort.  What unfolds in Isaiah and what unfolds through that music is a story about the offer of comfort, which changes the whole landscape of our world.

When Mark begins his gospel, he cites this passage from Isaiah as having to do with what he calls “the beginning of the good news.”

Mark’s can be a tricky gospel for the Advent/Christmas season – primarily because the Christmas story is entirely absent from it.  In Mark there are no angels visiting Mary or Joseph, and no birth story.  If we were to base our children’s Christmas play on Mark’s gospel it would be very low stress for all involved, with no lines to memorize.  I say this at the risk of having you demote Mark as a lesser gospel, which it most certainly is not.    Mark tells of the beginning in another way.

Mark’s first words are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  In the next few verses Mark goes on to tell of John the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, and of Jesus who is fully grown when we meet him who hits the ground running with a quick baptism, wilderness trial, and is very soon proclaiming his message that the kingdom of God has come near.

Mark’s gospel does not begin as one of pure comfort.  Right from the beginning he uses contentious language that sets the stage for later conflicts in the story.  He calls his writing “gospel”, “good news” which was a term associated with Roman propaganda as decrees of gospel would be sent out to the far corners of the empire to announce a military victory or the coming to power of a new emperor.  Mark claims another gospel.  In referring to Jesus as the “Son of God,” Mark is challenging the emperor who also carried this title, and making a claim about what it really means to be a representative of God on earth.  The first mysterious character on the scene, John the Baptist, also carries this sense of struggle.  Aside from being someone who lived in the wild, wore clothes made out of camel’s hair, and ate bugs, his message also had an abrasive edge to it.  His was a disruptive message.  He was a whistle blower on people’s sins, especially those in power, calling them to turn around 180 degrees and walk in the other direction.  Soon we learn that John is arrested, and later killed, for his message, a signal that not everyone found his message comforting.  Annie Dillard writes that “we wake, if we wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.”

But John’s message was one of hope.  He was cutting a path through obstacles in people’s lives and clearing a way for a fresh start.  He made the remarkable claim that people’s sins could be forgiven.  That all those mountains of mistakes that had accumulated in people’s lives and all those valleys of deficits that people felt they had could be made level.  It’s comforting to hear that no matter how deeply worn in our habits are there’s a possibility of a fresh start.  A fresh start with God, and a fresh start in a community of baptized people who live under the order of forgiveness.  John also said “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”  I’m guessing that he found this personally comforting.  That he recognized he didn’t have to hold everything together on his own, but that one more powerful than he would come along and build on his words and his mission.

This is how the story begins.  This is how the Second Isaiah and Mark introduce what they have to share.   And like the beginning of any good story, it sets the tone for what we can expect to come next.  And unlike a book with a final page, it’s a story that’s still being written.

A disruption yet to come | 30 November 2014 | Advent 1

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you feel about disruptions?  You’re settled in for the evening, reading a book on the couch, and there’s a knock at the door.  Your day is going pretty well until you get a phone call that a family member has just been hospitalized.  Or maybe you are that family member hospitalized.  You’re driving along with a friend having a great conversation and you come to the top of an exit ramp where you are confronted with the person with the sign that says some version of: “Hungry and jobless.  Anything helps.”  Disruptions.

Or: Another kind of disruption, which happened to me a little while ago at home: the girls were playing and laughing and having a good time together and I turned up the volume on NPR to better hear the news.  Then I realized I was most likely committing some kind of grievous sin by drowning out the laughter of children to listen to the sorrows of the world.  I turned the radio off.  It was a welcome disruption, all things considered…

When the Advent planning group got together and pondered the scriptures for this season, the theme that emerged was the singular word of Disruption.  As a person fully at home in the modern Western world of clocks and scheduling and Google calendar, I admit that disruptions can be disorienting.  As a father of a two year old who still doesn’t regularly sleep through the night, I admit that some disruptions can be really disorienting.  As someone who has experienced enough disruptions to know that they often pull me out of my narrow focus and challenge me to rethink my priorities, and as a person of faith who notices that throughout scripture and history God seems to be a really big fan of disruptions, I confess I want to be more open to the goodness that disruptions can bring with them.

As we prepare for the birth of Christ, which is both a gentle and world-altering disruption, we are confronted this week with scriptures that speak of disruptions of apocalyptic proportions.

When the prophet Isaiah looks around at his world he sees that Jerusalem is in shambles, the temple is in ruins, the people are lost, and the world is adrift in injustice.  Things are coming apart at the seams, and God is nowhere in sight.  Isaiah speaks from within the ancient worldview of the three tiered universe – the gods and angels and powers in the heavens above, the humans and other living things on the earth, and the watery abyss and underworld below.  Within this geography, Isaiah cries out to the Lord, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Isaiah longs for the days of those stories his people tell, when the Lord did awesome deeds overcoming enemies, and mountains quaked at the Divine presence, and nations revered the Holy Presence.  Back when God had some real muscle and didn’t hesitate to show it – or so the stories go.  Now, Isaiah laments, it’s as if God is in hiding.  The moral fabric is fraying.  Isaiah confesses, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you.”

Isaiah’s poetic words sound similar to the poem included in the midweek blog, the Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, written in 1919 as smoke still filled the European air after the devastations of the first World War:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

If we would include our own laments we could add that the streets of Ferguson cry out for justice, the sands of Iraq and Syria are soaked in blood, and gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” says Isaiah.  Oh that the veil that separates the gods and humans would be torn, and we would be visited by One who sets things right.  For Isaiah, disruption of the status quo would be an act of Divine mercy.  Disruption is our only hope.  Disruption is salvation.

This hope for a Divine inbreaking, and this sense that things are so askew that they cannot simply be restored incrementally, came to be characteristic of later Jewish writings, collectively referred to as apocalyptic literature.  When we think of apocalypse our minds most likely go straight to the group of films that base their plot around the impending destruction of the planet.  The new movie Interstellar, in which a crop disease and second Dust Bowl bring the earth to the verge of being uninhabitable and require a search for a new home elsewhere, is only the latest installment of this storyline.

But apocalyptic writings that did and didn’t make it into the Bible don’t so much foresee the destruction of the world as they do the end of an era.  It’s not so much Bruce Willis Apocalypse, end of the world, as it is what the band REM sang about, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  The world as we know it is coming to an end, and something new is emerging.  The word apocalypse itself is Greek for “unveiling.”  To undergo apocalypse, is to undergo an unveiling of what lies just below the surface and is on its way into existence.  You may not see it yet, but an apocalypse is at hand.  The world as we know it is ending, and a new world is coming into being.

So in Mark 13, when Jesus goes all apocalyptic on his disciples, he’s not simply pulling this out of thin air.  He is pulling this out of air thick with centuries of apocalyptic images and declarations.  Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel had all said similar things and, most importantly, Daniel had spoken of a time when the reign of the Inhuman empires would be ended, and one like a Human Being would come and begin to rule.  One like a human being – or a son of man as it is often translated.  Compassionate, merciful, reconciling.  Humane.  Daniel saw it first, and Jesus adopts this title for himself, the Human Being, the Son of Man, but also uses it in the collective sense, which is how Daniel originally used it.  A new humanity, coming as if on the clouds with power and glory.  Or, as Jesus did throughout his life, the one who redefines power, and redefines glory.  The one who rules from the place of servanthood.  The one who gives away glory to the most despised and unworthy.  The one who turns the whole system upside down and inside out and breaks history wide open exactly by not grabbing power, but by giving it away.  The one who ultimately gives life away, his own, and counts it a victory.  How’s that for a disruption?  How’s that for an apocalypse?  Everything has been unveiled – our violence, our addiction to getting and maintaining power, our inhumanity to one another, the overwhelming love of God – everything has been unveiled, and now the question is whether or not we can see it.

Despite his borrowing of destructive imagery, Jesus’ message is not one of doom and gloom.  The coming of the Human One does not bring destruction, but emerges among us despite the destruction we cause.  The new collective Humanity, the Human Being, is learning how to live humanly despite inhuman conditions.  Jesus goes on: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near.”  “It” being the new humanity, which is near.

Jesus shifts his disciples’ attention away from things falling apart, and toward the fig tree, whose bloom ushers in a new season.   He ends his words in Mark 13 by urging his disciples to stay awake and pay attention to these things.

Out in the front of our church building, along Broadway Place, is a ginkgo tree.  You passed by it when you were coming in.  I’ve been wanting to talk about this ginkgo tree for a while and this seems like an appropriate time because it fits just right into Jesus words about the fig tree.  “From the ginkgo tree, learn this lesson.”  The ginkgo tree is an ancient tree and has no known close relatives.  Its leaves are that unique fan shape with that rubbery texture that isn’t quite like any other tree I know.  What’s remarkable about the ginkgo tree is that it is a survivor.  It or a very close relative was around during dinosaur times and survived that mass extinction 65 million years ago.  One of the biggest apocalypses ever (Bruce Willis style) came to our planet and the ginkgo tree survived.  Much more recently, on August 6, 1945, at the end of World War II, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  In the apocalyptic landscape the bomb created, there were several ginkgo trees that survived the massive blast.  One was less than four football fields’ length from the center of the blast.  It not only survived, but began re-budding in the year following the blast and is still a thriving tree today, with steps up to a temple built around it, an international symbol of peace.

“From the ginkgo tree learn this lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Human One is near.”

I love that we have a ginkgo tree planted right by the peace pole and peace flags.  The meteor that brought down the dinosaurs, and the bomb that leveled a city were massive disruptions of apocalyptic proportions.  I’m not implying that Mark or Jesus was looking back or looking ahead to these events, but the language of apocalypse fits these and other times well. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and stars will be falling from heaven.”  In other words, everything you thought was most solid and sure is disrupted.  It prompts cries like that of Isaiah, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

But learn this lesson from the fig tree.  It’s the fig tree, it’s the gingko tree, it’s the coming of Christ, the creation of a new humanity, that is the real disruption.  These signs disrupt our violence and our fascination with destruction.  They interrupt our narrative of doom and gloom.  They are the real apocalypse, the real unveiling, of what God is doing in this world.  The branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, and you know that summer is near.  The young woman is with child, and brings forth the Christ in the most humble of settings.

I find it both troubling and delightful that the first Sunday of Advent always confronts us with these apocalyptic texts.  It happens every year.  We think we’re getting into a time of remembering the first coming of Christ and we’re immediately faced with texts about the Second Coming.  We want to simply look back, but instead we’re looking ahead, or better, looking into the present moment, for a disruption already here, and a disruption yet to come.  This second coming doesn’t appear to be merely a one time event at a time to be determined.  It’s more like a continual disruption of the present moment, as gentle as children’s laughter and as forceful as a collision, an inbreaking always happening, a second and third and fourth, and hundredth coming.  Christ coming to us every day in the form of the Human Being, or the tree, who disrupts our tired ways of living and offers a new way of seeing.

Stay awake and keep alert.