Critical yeast | May 6

Texts: Acts 10:44-48, Matthew 13:33

For today’s focus I’d like to borrow an idea, a phrase, from John Paul Lederach.  If you haven’t heard of John Paul Lederach, let me build up his credentials a bit to show why it’s worth listening to his ideas.

John Paul is an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.  While immersed in the work, he came to see the limitations of the framework of confliction resolution, proposing instead a larger framework of conflict transformation.  That shift itself has been widely influential in the field.  He has worked extensively in Nicaragua, Colombia, Nepal, and the Middle East.  He has sat at the table with militias and gangs, impoverished rural women, and high ranking officials.  Rather than treat conflict as a set of presenting issues and problems, he has developed methods of drawing out the stories of those involved to get at what they want, and what they need.  He tells organizations and foundations investing in peace they should think in terms of decades rather than short term projects whose immediate results are more easily measured but whose long term effects may be minimal.  He’s a professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and has taught many years at Eastern Mennonite University.  He is a Mennonite, still living, in his early 60’s.  He’s written over 20 books, but consistently credits the people he works with, often without formal education, as the innovators of peace.

You actually can’t learn a whole lot about John Paul through Wikipedia.  My theory on this is that many people probably write their own Wikipedia page, and he’s too busy or humble to write much of an entry about himself.  Just a theory.

An excellent introduction to John Paul Lederach is this 2012 interview with Krista Tippet titled “The Art of Peace.”

OK, so now that I’ve built this guy up, this better be really good.  The phrase I’d like to borrow from John Paul has to do with his observation about how change happens – how substantive positive transformation takes place.

John Paul says that social movements are often spoken of in terms of critical mass.  You build a movement and communicate a message that energizes and gathers enough people, and at some point you tip the scales.  Without diminishing the importance of critical mass, John Paul says he’s come to think of change as involving “critical yeast,” meaning a smaller number of people who hold a certain quality of relationship within a group or a system or an institution.  A certain quality of relationship that ultimately alters the functioning of the whole.  Like the way a small amount of yeast is distributed through flour to make the whole dough rise.  He’s observed this happening time and time again.  Critical yeast.

So that’s what the sermon title is about.  It’s not critical yeast like yeast that’s critical of other yeast for not eating their share of glucose.  It’s critical yeast as an idea to be understood in conversation with critical mass.

This phrase might be original to John Paul Lederach, but it’s an old idea.  There’s that wonderful concise parable of Jesus in Matthew 13:33:  “The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  When you picture three measures of flour, don’t picture three cups of flour, the exact amount we use to make our household favorite long rise, no knead, bread recipe.  Three measures of flour, one seah times three, was about 50 lbs.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  So picture this woman, white powder everywhere, large bowls all around, mixing up a feast for a multitude.  There’s way less yeast in the dough than flour, but it gets distributed throughout, and transforms the loaves.  The kin-dom of heaven works this way, Jesus says.

It fits alongside other parables of Jesus where small things, or seemingly insignificant people, exude a certain quality of relationship.  Like the tiny mustard seed that grows to become a living refuge for birds.  Or small crystals of salt that flavor and preserve: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his followers.  Or the widow with no social standing, no economic or political power, who keeps petitioning the no –good judge to grant her justice, eventually wearing the judge down.  The judge declares, and I quote from the parable in Luke, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

These are not stories of critical mass, but critical yeast.  Here, transformation does not depend on an overwhelming quantity of something, but a certain quality of presence.

This is perhaps a counter-intuitive message to be preaching on the eve of the BREAD Nehemiah Action.  The Nehemiah Action is our largest gathering of the year where we are absolutely focused on getting a critical mass of people of faith and goodwill to fill the Celeste Center.  We want to demonstrate to our public officials how vitally important these issues are to us.  If you’re only involved in the work of BREAD one day a year, tomorrow is the day.  The lofty aspirational goal of our 40+ congregations is to each turn out our average weekend worship attendance.  There are 52 Sundays in a year to show up for worship, and one day a year we can all show up together to do justice.

Thus the chant 52 – 1.  52 -1.

Our Annual Report, completed just a few weeks ago, notes that our average Sunday attendance for the last year was 181, so we are making the modest goal, which would still be a record for us, to turn out 100 people tomorrow to have a strong CMC showing for doing justice in Franklin County with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.  Imagine 3000 people of all ages – Baptists, Unitarian-Universalist, Reformed and Conservative Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonite, and other, gathering en masse, one team, cheering on the side of affordable housing, restorative practices in our schools, living wage jobs, and a Municipal ID for homeless and undocumented folks among us.

That widow petitioning the judge could get what she needs a lot faster if she’s got people standing in solidarity with her.

Join the critical mass, even if you’re slightly critical of all the methods BREAD has used in the past.

The Nehemiah Action is a critical part of the work of BREAD.  But it only happens once a year.  When the event is done we’ll each drive home, back to our different neighborhoods throughout Franklin County.  The critical mass will make the evening news, but it will be the critical yeast that continues its work throughout the rest of the year.

There’s something freeing about critical mass not being the only factor needed to tip the scales, shift the conversation, change the culture.  I think about this with our Sanctuary work.  As of now there are only about 40 public sanctuary cases around the country.  That’s a very small percentage of people facing deportation and separation from family who are in sanctuary.  It’s a very small percentage of congregations that exist in the whole country who are providing sanctuary.  We do not have a critical mass.  But I wonder how all of this is working as critical yeast.  I wonder how the relatively small presence of sanctuary within the wider system is leavening the whole loaf, creating a certain quality of relationship based around neighborliness and solidarity.  Thinking in terms of decades rather than weeks and months, I wonder what is slowly rising in the dough.

More broadly, all of us, each one here, is a part of the critical yeast of the kin-dom of heaven, no matter where we’re distributed among the loaf.  How about this as a thought experiment: Think about where each of us might be say on a Tuesday afternoon, and imagine each dot on the map as a bit of yeast in the dough.

On a more personal level, I’m guessing we can all identify one relatively small presence in our life – a mentor, a teacher, a book, even just a stray phrase we pick up along the way – that has served as yeast for us.  These people and ideas get sprinkled into our lives, and it’s the quality of their presence, not just the quantity, that does its work over time.  There’s likely a book or two waiting to be written about the critical yeast method of parenting and grand-parenting.

This is one of the ways the kin-dom of heaven does its thing.  It tends to take an unpredictable course.  This was the experience of Peter in the book of Acts who, through a series of events not of his own making, found himself in the home of Gentiles.  With his world neatly divided into the tired old categories of “Us” and “Not us,” Peter was suddenly face to face with “Not us,” a group of Gentiles.  And, much to his surprise, the same Spirit of life and liberation he had experienced through Jesus shows up among these Gentiles.  The yeast jumps loaves, does the same thing in different mixing bowls, causing Peter and the early church to ponder the unfathomable reality that maybe there’s just one big loaf, with the same yeasty Spirit spread throughout.  This is the good news that consumed the early apostles, the good news we still remember when we share from the one loaf of Communion.

I want to draw this together by ending with a collective meditation.  A gratitude prayer of sorts.  So you can get yourself positioned in whatever way works best for you to do that sort of thing, eyes open or closed.  We’ll start with the inward journey dimension and work our way out.

So first of all, let’s call to mind the people who have served as critical yeast in our own lives.  Those people who’ve had a certain quality of presence.  Maybe just a brief appearance, maybe a consistent presence, but people through whom the Spirit has lodged itself in our lives.

And now let’s recognize that we play that role in the lives of others.  Let’s call to mind the people we especially hold dear who could perhaps use some critical yeast that we have to share.  And we’ll do this and the other parts silently.

Let’s imagine this in our interpersonal relationships, and in the organizations and institutions where we give our energy.  This work is not an additional burden, but a gift of the Spirit given through us.  Places where, through the grace of God, we might be that critical yeast.

Let’s also call to mind those people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, who are critical yeast in their communities, in their neighborhoods.  The kind of folks John Paul Lederarch works with.    Folks doing the slow work of peace.  Folks who cross language barriers, folks who get others to sign petitions, folks who administer care in whatever form.  People in positions of power and people with no formal power.  Peacemakers in troubled parts of the world, including our own.  We give thanks for these folks, and pray for strength and courage for them.

Let’s move another concentric circle out and imagine our congregation and other congregations around the county and country and globe as critical yeast in this one big loaf of a world that God loves so dearly.  All the small ways the kin-dom of God bubbles up through these communities.  Our prayer is that we continue to develop the quality of relationship with God and one another that keeps us vital.

And finally, let’s imagine critical yeast coming together with critical mass, for events like tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.  When we join and concentrate our energy in a show of people power.  Critical yeast plus critical mass, so that the Spirit of life and liberation, the Spirit of love of justice might do unexpected things among us, so that the kin-dom of this earth might look a little more like the kin-dom of heaven.  This is our hope, this is our prayer, this is our faith in action.  Amen.


The sheep and the goats, continued… | November 26

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

 This is the last Sunday of the lectionary cycle, meaning we’re at the end of the church calendar.  Next week is Advent 1, the beginning of the new church year.

This is called “Christ the King Sunday,”or “Reign of Christ Sunday.” In closing out the year, the lectionary goes all in with it really being the end.  It gives us a judgment scene, the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25, commonly known as the sheep and the goats.  Or, commonly known for the phrase “the least of these,” which becomes the surprise criteria by which people are judged.  “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me,” says the king/judge/son of man/human one/Jesus.

It’s an important line for social justice minded Christians who believe faith has to do with how we live in this world, especially toward vulnerable people.  Yet the scene of a gentle and sacrificial savior turned eternal judge also has its own problems.  They are problems that the story itself begins to raise, as the sheep and the goats both talk back to the king, questioning why such an arrangement has been made.

I invite you to listen closely to the reading of the text, and then enter with me into a purely speculative continuation of the story.




Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


When the king finished saying these words, there was silence.  It may have lasted minutes or hours.  Everyone was too stunned to speak, or move.  All eyes were pointed down.  They were aware that something tremendous had just happened.  Something that would define everything going forward, but it had not yet sunk in.   They were shocked and confused.

Not long before, they had been one mass of humanity, a family.  A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular vast tapestry of cultures and nations, old and young, all succeeding and failing in some way or another to be the kind of person they thought they wanted to become.  They had been mostly oblivious to how their small lives affected those around them, for good or ill.  They were faint lights flickering in the dark cosmos, occasionally possessed by heroic or demonic impulses.  Mostly trying to survive and stay sane and enjoy the good things in life they had been given.  More alike than different.

Now a clear and undeniable line had been drawn between them.  They’d been separated, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, some to the left, others to the right.  No one in the middle.  Not a one with one foot on one side, and one foot on the other, of that line.  No both/and, no in-between, no room for gray or ambiguity.

After…a while…a few of them, and then all of them, starting looking up, looking around to survey the scene.  They made eye contact with those near them, stood on their tip toes to see those far away, all the while increasingly aware of the overwhelming Presence of the One, the Human One, the King.

They all stood there, soaking it in.  Trying to come to terms in their own minds with what this meant.  After a while, neighbors began talking in hushed tones, all discussing a version of the same question: What is going on?

Finally, one of the goats spoke up, clear and loud enough for all to hear, directed at the king.

“Is this a metaphor or is this for real?”

The king, unstartled, replied: “This is as real as it gets.”

Another voice from the goat side, emboldened by the first: “But I’m a person, not a goat.”

“That part’s a metaphor,” said the king.

“What about the eternal fire part,” asked a third goat from the very back, “Is that a metaphor?”

Everyone, goats and sheep, waited anxiously for a response that never came.

The goats, who were actually people, began murmuring among themselves, tension in the air.

The sheep, who were actually people, began murmuring as well, and now it was their turn to speak up.  One of them asked: “So, just to clarify, the only determining factor as to whether we have been assigned to the sheep or the goats is whether we gave you food when you were hungry, welcomed you when you were a stranger, gave you a drink when you were thirsty, clothed you when you were naked, took care of you when you were sick, and/or visited you while you were in prison?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” replied the King.

“Even when we didn’t know it was you?”

“Yes.  Whatever you’ve done, even to least of all these,” replied the king, sweeping his hand across the countless mass of humanity gathered in front of him, “you’ve done to me.”

“And to further clarify,” said the same sheep, “you have separated the goats from us not because of bad things they’ve done, but because of these things just named they haven’t done.”

“Yes,” was the reply.

And so it began to sink in.  They had each unwittingly chosen their own fate.  Every day of their lives they had made small decisions that had added up to major consequences, for others, and now for themselves.  They had made their own judgments, and now the Human One was making their judgments visible for all to see.

But there was more than just that.  It was impossible to ignore or forget those final words the Human One had uttered.  “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The King seemed to motioning now, to the angels, as if to bring this ceremony into its second Act.  Act One: separate sheep and goats.  Acts Two: reward and punishment?  Now to shepherd the sheep into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  To herd the goats away, to a place where they would forever feel the pain of those they had oppressed, or simply ignored.

But then, another twist.

“No,” shouted one of the sheep.  Everyone, including the king turned their heads in the direction of the voice.  She was small, perhaps just a child.  A likely candidate for one of those the king had dubbed, “the least of these.”

“No,” she shouted again, and started slowly making her way through the crowd of sheep.  As she walked, people parted in front of her.  After a short distance some of them began to realize where she was headed.  Not toward the king, as if to confront him on the throne, but toward the line of separation, toward the goats.  As she got closer, her destination near, her resolve evident, several people along her path began to caution her.

“Where do you think you’re going?” challenged one person, who already knew the answer.

“Don’t throw your life away,” chided another.   “They have made their decision, and the king has made his.  You’re safe here.  We’re safe.”

But she kept going, through the crowd of the righteous, until she reached the edge.  There was no real line, no wall of separation.  Just a gap.  She walked into the gap, out of her group, into the onlooking and disbelieving crowd of goats.

“You’re a fool,” shouted one sheep across the gap.  “You heard what the king said.  They’re on their way to hell.”

To this, she had a ready reply: “We were given favor by the king because of how we treated the least of these.  And who is more the least of these than the recently damned?”

Moved by her response and courage, several more sheep began moving toward the goats, defying the gap of separation.  Then more, and more.

Observing what was happening, it donned on some of the goats that there was nothing stopping them from also crossing that gap, joining the sheep who had stayed in place.

Soon the orderly scene devolved into chaos.  There were sheep on the goat side willing to risk their eternal destiny to be in solidarity with their fellow humans.  There were goats on the sheep side  trying to blend in and gain a reward that was not theirs.  There were goats on the sheep side who thought they could ruin the purity of the righteous and drag them down with everybody else.  There were sheep on the goat side who thought that if everyone was changing sides then they could still be with the sheep if they stuck with their flock.  There were goats on the goat side and sheep on the sheep side too baffled to budge.  There were goats on the goat side who felt they deserved the punishment and therefore would accept their fate.  There were sheep on the sheep side convinced that if they stayed put the king would sort this all out and set things right again.

But the king was nowhere in sight.  During the confusion he had stepped down from the thrown.  His radiant presence was noticeably absent.

It was just the people who remained.   The distinction between sheep and goats had all but gone away with the mixing, the crossings back and forth.  They were just people, undivided and unmarked as righteous or unrighteous.  They were, once again, one mass of humanity, a family.  A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular mish-mash of cultures and nations, old and young.

Not only had the king left, but the throne was gone as well.  In its place was a great banquet table, filled with good things to eat and drink.  It was set for a feast, and everyone moved toward it.  There were seats and places set for everyone.

As they ate they began to talk about what had just happened.  Some mourned the absence of the king, while others reveled in their recovered freedom.

Some concluded that this had been humanity’s final test.  To defy and dispense with the god of wrath who assigns people to eternal fates.  Human kindness and solidarity had triumphed over the god of judgment.  The human race had freed itself from the shackles of oppressive religion.

The girl who had been the first to risk her own life on behalf of those formerly known as goats, who had been the recipient of scorn and anger, was hailed by all as a hero.

The feast was so good and rich, many wondered whether this might be paradise.

The feast continued day after day, and soon the judgment scene of the sheep and the goats seemed more like a dream than a real event.  A shared hallucination.


And then, late one evening, as the day’s festivities were drawing to a close, an old man looked out from the banquet table and saw someone barely clothed, shivering at the outskirts of the gathering.  With wonder and compassion, the elder left the banquet table and approached the ragged one, putting his coat around her.

In the following hours, weeks, years, there were similar kinds of sitings around that massive banquet table.  Some caught site of a stranger, in need of a companion.  Some noticed a person who was hungry, in need of food.  Others glanced out and saw a person who was sick, in need of care.

Some believed in their hearts this was the Christ, the king who had returned to be with the people, the Human One.  Others simply saw someone in need and responded with kindness.  Many went out to her, extending a hand of welcome, or a plate of food, and or a caring touch.  Others saw whatever helpless creature she appeared to be, but turned their heads away, continuing with their own feast.  Others were so busy feasting, they never noticed there was anyone there but themselves.


Merciful strength | Sanctuary I | October 1

Texts: Matthew 9:10-13; Numbers 35:9-15;

Worship Theme: Sanctuary People

 In the year 399 a man named Eutropius ran from the Roman palace in Constantinople into the nearby Great Church, as it was called.  He was seeking sanctuary from his political enemies.  He was greeted by the bishop John Chrysostom and granted the protection of the church.

Eutropius began life as a slave and became a eunuch in the court of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  He rose through the ranks, and when Theodosius died, Eutropius was in middle of the power struggle that followed.  He arranged a strategic marriage for Theodosius’ son Arcadius who became emperor over the eastern half of the empire.  Eutropius managed to exile and fend off his political rivals.  He became Arcadius’ closest advisor, eventually having himself named Roman consul.  But his enemies soon rallied and forced his removal, and he feared for his life.

Bishop Chrysotom’s thoughts on the matter are preserved in two sermon manuscripts.  He used this situation to compare the misguided quest for worldly power with the steadfast mercy of the church.  Addressing Eutropius directly, he stated: “The Church, which you treated as an enemy, has opened her bosom to you.”  One of the ways Eutropius had treated the church as an enemy was by arranging for edicts that restricted the ability of his political enemies to obtain sanctuary.  But now he, known for his conniving and greed, had no other place to turn but the refuge of the Great Church.

As you may imagine, this was not a particularly popular move with the congregation, initially.  Not only was Eutropius famous for being ruthless, and not only were there imperial officers, with swords and spears, surrounding the church demanding Eutropius’ removal, but Chrysostom himself admitted in one of the sermons that providing Eutropius sanctuary may very well be against the law that Eutropius himself had recently helped establish.  But sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that emperor Arcadius commanded his soldiers to stand down and not interfere in that hallowed place.

In the words of one historian, summing up the situation: “Sanctuary provided opportunity for Eutropius to see the truth of life’s fleeting glory and for the church to demonstrate that it was strong enough to protect even its most unpopular enemies against a fearsome army.”

The situation unfortunately did not end well.  Eutropius tried to secretly escape from the church building, but was captured, exiled, and eventually killed.

(All quotes and information above from Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500, by Karl Shoemaker, pp. 25-27)

One month ago we decided to become a sanctuary congregation.  And not just in theory or belief, but in practice.  We welcomed Edith Espinal to take up sanctuary, aka live, within our church building.  It has not been a simple process, but it is simplified by the fact that rather than being a conniving, assassinating political power player, Edith is an active member of the community and mother with no criminal record.

Since that time we’ve been learning as we go, with the significant twist that Edith left our building after two nights because of a temporary extension to apply for a delay in her deportation.  This congregation was a part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s, and a number of you have training in accompaniment and advocacy through Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Now we’re very much in the middle of what appears to be a growing movement within the faith community, locally and nationally.

So we’re asking questions, and, to borrow a phrase from the poet Rilke, we’re living the questions.  What does it mean to be a sanctuary congregation?  What does it mean to be sanctuary people? Continuing down that line, how might the sacred space around our bodies become sanctuary space for whoever we’re with?  And how do walk the inward journey of sanctuary?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be speaking to through the fall in our worship services.  And hopefully they’re the kinds of questions that make for good discussion around the dinner table, in small groups, and whatever other ways we are together.

This week and next will focus on the history of sanctuary, inside and beyond the church.  In other words, what has sanctuary looked like in other times and places?  I’ll be relying heavily on this fantastic book, “Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500 by Karl Shoemaker.

I apologize if I start sounding like I know more about this than what I actually do.  Most of this is pretty new knowledge for me.

But I will just go ahead and give away the punch line right up front.  One of the punch lines.  Here it is: The Church, big C, has practiced sanctuary extensively for the majority of its existence.  For well over 1000 years sanctuary was standard church practice.  And, sanctuary practices show up regularly in non-Christian settings.

What I’d like to do is to use this story of Eutropius and Chrysostom in the Great Church of Constantinople in 399 as a hinge.  This week we’ll start there and look backwards, and next week we’ll start there and look forwards.

The gospels portray Jesus as someone who had no official credential but who demonstrated power and authority through his teachings, his healings and miracles, and his bold actions.  There are any number of gospel stories relevant to sanctuary, including the one we read this morning.  In Matthew 9 Jesus is in Capernaum, the home base of his ministry, where his early followers lived.  He’s in “the house” which seems to be the house of Peter’s family.  He’s sitting at table with his disciples, joined by tax collectors and sinners, social and moral outcasts.  It’s nothing like an official practice of sanctuary, but when the religious leaders see this and challenge Jesus on it, he offers his guests protection, material and spiritual refuge.  He replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are “sick.”  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

The last bit about mercy not sacrifice is a quote from the prophet Hosea which the religious leaders would have known well.  It’s a bold and even comical move for Jesus to shoo them away and tell them to go study up on their own tradition and get enlightened on this thing called mercy.  It’s typical Jesus style.  To use the language of sanctuary, Jesus was a walking sanctuary, and everywhere he went, people who could find refuge nowhere else, were drawn to him.  And he welcomed them –  little children, those who sold their bodies to make a living, those, like tax collectors, who had sold out to the empire.  Jesus was a mobile sanctuary, and when he entered a house, or a field, or a boat, the wind shifted, and those who were previously at ease were on edge, and those who had no other refuge, were put at ease.

These are the same winds of the Spirit that blew at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection and created a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community defined by the mercy and power of Jesus’ ministry, which we simply call, “the church.”

Things are pretty foggy before the case of Eutropius about the growing practice of sanctuary within the church.  One thing that’s clear is that the church didn’t invent it.  The ancient Greeks developed sanctuary practices around temple sites and sacred groves.  These spaces were considered sacred, inviolable.  And debtors, criminals, and slaves were protected if they took asylum in these locations.

Rome recognized that fugitive slaves were safe from their pursuing masters if they clung to the feet of a statue of of Caesar in Rome, or, later, the feet of a statue of Romulus.  To get their slave back the master had to solemnly swear to treat them fairly and not punish them for having fled.

In a very different part of the world, the Big Island of Hawaii has a well preserved site of ancient sanctuary where those who had violated taboos and were under the threat of death, or those defeated in war, could flee, undergo a purification ceremony with a priest, and return home free of guilt.  I definitely would not have known about this except that Melonie Buller recently visited the island for their older sons’s wedding and came upon this while doing some site-seeing.  So the next time you’re visiting some exotic site, keep your eyes open for sanctuary sites.

The Torah gives instructions for the creation of six cities of refuge for the Israelites.  Numbers 35 is one of the places these are described.  They had a fairly narrow purpose.  They were open to people who had killed another person unintentionally.  Intentional or premeditated murder was given the death penalty, but unintentional murder, or even murder in the heat of the moment that wasn’t pre-meditated, made one eligible to escape to a city of refuge to avoid the nearest of kin who had the sacred duty of redeeming the death by killing the murderer.  The accidental murderer was only protected if they stayed within the city, and they were only allowed to go home if the high priest in office died.  The death of the high priest may have been seen as purifying the land of the spilled blood, or as the great Jewish scholar Maimonides later suggested, the death of the high priest was such a sorrowful event that everyone gave up any thoughts of vengeance.   (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, chapter XL).

There’s a great piece of writing in the Jewish Misha that says: ““Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and clothing for (the fugitives) that they might not pray for her son’s death.”  (Mas Makkoth 11a)

The Talmud noted that the roads to the cities of refuge were made twice as wide and exceptionally smooth in order to present no obstacle to those fleeing.

When the early Christians began offering sanctuary, they did not initially rely on the argument of their places of worship being sacred spaces.  Reverence for place was associated with the pagan world.  In Christian thinking there was nothing sacred and inviolable about the temples and sacred groves and the gods who populated them.

What they did rely on was the idea of intercession and penance.  They believed in the sacred duty of interceding on behalf of the accused, the criminal, the fugitive.  They believed that if one had committed a great crime, that they should be offered the opportunity for repentance and that the priest had the duty to intercede not only to God, but to the one seeking vengeance, or the public official, to give the fugitive protection from harm.  And they believed that the crime could be reconciled through penance, such as a thief paying back or working off the value of what they had stolen.  In short, they believe in something akin to what we now call restorative justice rather than punitive justice.  In short, they were committed to practical acts of mercy that Jesus demonstrated so clearly.

The early church was not without fault, and it was about to become entwined with political power in ways that have not even yet been completely undone.  But they did carry on and deepen the ancient human practice of giving sanctuary to those threatened with life and limb and exile.

Sanctuary is and always has been a practice of merciful strength.  Next week we’ll look at how it became a legal and essential practice for 1000+ years across medieval Europe with intercession, penance, and reconciliation mixed in with criminal justice and politics.

For today, we’ll end with a quote from Bishop John Chrysostom whose congregation extended sanctuary to the Roman official Eutropius.  Since we are in the sanctuary of this building, we can receive it as spoken to us: “When you take refuge in a church, do not seek shelter in the place, but in the spirit of the place.  The Church is not wall and roof, but faith and life.”  (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 17).


Dancing with death and resurrection | Easter | April 16

Matthew 27:45-53; 27:55-61; 28:1-10

If death were a dance, what would it look like?

When death dances with you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like… a meeting with Pilate – a rare conference with the political authority who held in his hand the power of life and death.  Who had withdrawn his power to protect life, and handed yet another subject over to a tortured death.  Who had been swayed by the fickle crowd.  Whose soldiers had done their job, carried out their duty, ensuring the security of the state.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like asking for a body, a dead body, from the one with power to grant or withhold that body.  With the wave of his hand, Pilate granted Joseph his request.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it felt like new linen cloth, clean and slightly course, wrapped tight around the body.  It smelled like myrrh and aloes.  It felt like stone, cold and hard.  A new tomb, hewn in the rock.  He laid the body in the rock tomb.  “Then,” Matthew writes, “he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away.

When Abbie and I danced with death it sounded like… nothing.  Our first two children were born the way we’d hoped and expected.  The work of labor was followed by the yelp of life and a flurry of activity – doctor and nurses who had done this many times before, skilled at attending to a child in the first minutes after birth.   As the father, who had not felt life slowly growing within me, one minute there was nothing, and then there was something, someone, very real, very real, and very alive.

But with our third child, we danced with death, something we had not expected.  The work of labor was followed by a deafening silence as our daughter Belle was stillborn at 22 weeks.  There was no flurry of activity afterwards because there was nothing to do.  We held her and sat with her, talked and didn’t talk for long stretches of time.  We received visitors who sat with us in silence, talking, and not talking, moving about and being still.  Eventually, hours and hours later, it was time to go.  Eventually, we walked out and drove away.  Back home, where life was very much the same, and very much different.

The two Marys danced with death from a distance.  They’d followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him out of their own means.  They had invested their resources, their money, their time in this man and his message about the kingdom of God.  They’d invested their hopes in the way he moved among the people, the way he touched people with his words and his hands.  People who hadn’t been touched for years.  The way he lifted them up, women!, as partners in this work.

The two Marys were there with “many women,” Matthew says, as witnesses to death, watching from a distance.  When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” danced with death they strained their eyes to make it out.  It was happening, over there.  Jesus’ other companions had fled for their own safety.  But Mary, and the other Mary, were there, with many women, watching.

They were distant, and then they came near.  The Sabbath had ended.  It was dawn, the first day of the week.  They came together to see the tomb.  They came near to see, when they danced with death.

What’s it like to be distant, and then to come near to death, to see.  Like walking into the labyrinth, winding your way along the only path there is. Eventually you make your way into the center, surrounded on all sides by the path that got you there.  And there you are.

When Jesus and death had their day to dance, Jesus was silent when commanded to speak.  “Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” Pilate demanded.

He was nonresistant when expected to fight back.  “Put away your sword Peter.  For all who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

For one who had demonstrated such power, he was remarkably powerless.  “He saved others, why can’t he save himself?”  Matthew 27:42

Matthew narrates Jesus’s last moments this way: “Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.”  Jesus gave up…his spirit, his breath, that thing through which the body has life.  He gave it up, let it go.

There’s a great mystery in that moment.  When the miracle of birth meets its mirror image.  Life is there, then it’s not.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus’ dance with death was a moment of rupture.  “At that moment,” he writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”  Temple, earth, rocks.  That which represents the most sacred, the most sure, the most solid thing we can imagine.  Is torn, shaken, and split.  The earth moves under our feet and we can only try to keep our balance.  Or sometimes, not even try.

If you were to dance with resurrection, what would it look like?

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

For Matthew, there is not one cataclysmic rupture, but two.  After the death of Jesus, the rock splitting earthquake, after Joseph of Arimathea’s careful attention to the body, after the women have looked on from a distance, they come near after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning.  It was Mary Magdelene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb.

“And suddenly there was an earthquake.”

And again that which was most sure and solid is torn, shaken, and split.  Only rather than life being shaken, this time it’s death.

When Mary and Mary dance with resurrection, it looks a stone being rolled away.  It looks like flashes of lightning.  It looks like guards becoming like dead men and a dead man becoming like… Life itself.

It feels like fear and great joy, and leaving the tomb because what you were looking for is not there.  It looks like running out of the labyrinth without paying any attention to the lines.  The way has opened up ahead of you in all directions.

It sounds like being out of breath from running and still running into the light of day.  It sounds like encountering Life itself which says, “Greetings!” and, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9,10).  It looks like running to tell your friends.  Christ, and you, are on the loose.

About a month ago I was putting Ila to bed and she surprised me by asking “Where’s Belle?”  I told her that Belle had died when she was born.  We buried her ashes on grandpa and grandma’s farm and planted a tree there.  We can go and see the tree, but we can’t see Belle.  Ila wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer.  Neither was I.

I imagine one day, not too long from now, she’ll ask me an even more loaded question.  “If Belle hadn’t died, would I have been born?”  I’m not ready with an answer on that one yet.  What I want to tell her, eventually, is that it might not be the right question to get stuck on.  Whether the life you are living would have been entirely different, or would not have been at all, had death not intervened somewhere along the way.  I’d like to tell her the same thing I tell myself.  That we are surrounded by mysteries, and that one of the most wonderful mysteries of all is that we are alive right now, and that “now” keeps changing, even though it’s still now.  That Christ is Risen, on the loose, and is not confined to any singular package of cells and organs.  All to which Ila might respond: “Geeze Dad.  It’s like you’re preaching a sermon.”

The March 9 issue of Christian Century magazine included an obituary for Richard Reinhold Niebuhr.  He was the son of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr and himself a long time professor at Harvard Divinity School.  It included a quote from him he had written in 1960.  “The problem of preaching at Easter (is that) it is a relatively easy thing to muse on the story of the first Easter, for it is not Easter as such that is a scandal,” even to modern people. “The difficulty arises at the juncture in which the humanity of Christ and our own humanity are equated or not equated, at the juncture in which we either do or do not recognize ourselves in him and him in ourselves.”

To recognize ourselves in the one who was dead but is risen is an act of faith.  To acknowledge that even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like now?

Matthew includes in his gospel a brief anecdote not mentioned anywhere in the other accounts.  It is as delightful as it is bizarre.  It happens right after Jesus’ death.  Right after the temple curtain is torn, the earth shakes, and the rocks are split.  Right in the midst of the disruption.

Matthew writes: “(And) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After (Jesus’) resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52).

Now imagine this scene.  Many bodies of the saints have been risen to life.  They are waiting, just waiting in those tombs that held them for so long.  And after Jesus’ resurrection they start to come out, to dance their way into the holy city.  To move their way through the streets, making unannounced appearances to unsuspecting people going about their daily lives.  To appear to many.  To dance their way into the marketplace.  To dance their way into homes.  To dance their way in and out of the paths that people tread every day.

Matthew makes very clear that resurrection is not confined to Jesus.  The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead raises others from the dead.

Now, imagine that we are the others.  Even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.  Imagine resurrection dancing its way all around you and towards you.








No more scapegoating | Palm Sunday | April 9

Texts:: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14-25

If you were to randomly walk into our house anytime in the last four or five months, odds are pretty good you’d hear a certain Broadway musical playing at high volume.  A little before Christmas, Hamilton took our household by storm.  It’s still a favorite, although not quite as intense now as it was for a while.  It’s been such a constant at our house it’s nearly miraculous this is the first time it’s come up in a sermon.

For the uninitiated, Hamilton is the true story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became a Revolutionary War leader and the first US Treasury Secretary ; George Washington’s right hand man.  And it’s all set to hip hop.  As the opening number says, he was

“The ten dollar founding father without a father

got a lot farther

by working a lot harder

by being a lot smarter

by being a self starter.”

Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean and is played by the musical’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, himself the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York.  In the original cast, George Washington is black, and Thomas Jefferson has dreads.  Along with being lyrically brilliant, thoroughly educational, and impossibly catchy, another reason for its popularity in our house is that the female leads are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza, who marries Alexander, and Peggy.  Three sisters.  The Miller sisters quickly adopted and perfected their part.

Another feature is that the story is largely told through the eyes of Aaron Burr.  Burr and Hamilton shared much in common, but had very different ways of pursuing their aspirations.  In case we had forgotten or slept through high school US history, Burr tells us right away that he’s the fool who shot and killed Hamilton, in a dual.  So one of the threads throughout the musical is seeing how these two friends and collaborators eventually have their falling out.

When asked about his inspirations for writing Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda included the 70’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  That musical tells the story of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, who, in case you had forgotton or slept through Sunday school – every year – eventually betrays Jesus, aiding in his crucifixion.  That musical takes a lot of liberty with the psychology of Judas and Jesus, but it’s a powerful method: to hear a familiar story from the perspective of the “villain,” and thus see it in a new way.  As Aaron Burr sings, after he and Eliza are by Hamilton’s side as he dies from the gunshot wound: “Now I’m the villain in your history.  I was too young and blind to see.    I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

Today is Palm Sunday, and the lectionary gives two options for the gospel reading.  There is the standard reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He parades into the city in street theater fashion, met by cheering crowds and a road covered with cloaks and palms.  Greeted with shouts of joy: “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Less than a week later, he’ll be dead.

The other gospel reading, which we chose, features Judas.  It’s four days after that dramatic entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is gathered for supper with twelve of his closest companions, Judas among them.  As they eat, Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him.  All the disciples deny it, but we, the reader, have already been told that Judas had met with the chief priests.  He’d offered to betray Jesus, for a price.  The reading ends unresolved, the tension thick in the air.  Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You said it.”

Every story needs a villain, and here we have our man.  The one so close to Jesus that they would dip their bread in the same bowl, becomes the betrayer, the Judas, the villain.

If you need a villain, someone to blame for the death of Jesus, Judas is definitely in the running.

But let’s consider the possibility that the gospels are doing something far more interesting than giving us a story with a hero and a villain.  Something much bigger and ultimately far more revolutionary.  Something that calls into question the whole framework for how we tell our stories.

Rene Girard was a literary critic who did extensive research into how the scapegoating mechanism has worked throughout human societies.  Because groups are inherently unstable, with desire and conflict threatening cohesion, we need a way to keep ourselves together.  The scapegoating mechanism provides a powerful means to do this.  We may not be able to agree on everything, but if we can, at key times, agree that this particular person, or this particular group of people, are what is causing our problems, and if we can direct all of our energy toward casting out, eliminating, defeating, executing this person or group, we will achieve a remarkable unity.  It will hold us together, for a while longer.  The unity will inevitably start to weaken as the energy from the scapegoating event dissipates, and so eventually another scapegoat is needed.

Girard proposed that human sacrifice began as a way of regularly ritualizing the scapegoating act.  Sacrifice obviously pleased the gods because it brought the powerful blessing of group cohesion.  It was a miracle every time.  By directing the anxiety and anger and scattered energy of the group all in one direction, all laid upon that sacrificial victim, the group managed to both restored their unity and affirm their own goodness.  They have cast out of their presence the cause of all their strife.  This is the right and righteous thing to do for the security of the group. And it’s self-evidently true that the sacrificial victim was the cause of the strife because it’s such a unifying act to cast them out.  The priest who carries out the sacrifice mediates the gift of the gods to the people.  The victim is declared guilty and offered up, and the crowd, the congregation, is redeemed and declared innocent, born again as a people.

Even though we don’t do human sacrifice, or animal sacrifice in the same way these days, the scapegoating mechanism persists.  The more anxious the society, the more passionate and urgent the scapegoating.  It doesn’t matter who the current scapegoats are – the communists, the terrorists, the Jews, the gays, the immigrants.  What matters is that there is a space that must be occupied by some small group in order to keep the larger group together.  This can also happen on a very small and mostly harmless scale.  Parents eventually figure out that one way for their fighting kids to get along is to get them mad at you.  It’s a desperation move, but sometimes making yourself the scapegoat temporarily can create a miraculous harmony for everyone else.  It can shift the dynamics in a snap.  So I’ve heard.

Scapegoating is a gift from the gods.


Unless the story starts to get told from the perspective of the sacrificial victim, the designated villian.  From the perspective of the crowd, the ritual and mechanism is the truest and best thing they’ve been given.  It’s what holds them together.  It’s what renews and redeems creation.  It’s what brings safety and security, and purity.  But when the story starts to get told from the perspective of the scapegoat, it starts to crack.  It starts to be revealed as a lie.  It starts to be revealed for what it is.  A lynching.  A murder.  A form of unity based entirely on the power of violence and death.

Girard was a secular philosopher and literary critic and came to believe that the difference between good literature and bad literature was that bad literature covered over the scapegoating mechanism, and good literature revealed it.  In the latter part of his career he focused much of his attention on the literature of the Bible and came to see it as a document filled with standard examples of cultural and religious ritual around the scapegoating mechanism.  Except that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are ultimately concerned with revealing and exposing and doing away with scapegoating.  It’s the story of empire told from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves who get blamed by Pharaoh as the cause of all his ills.  It’s the story of a nation told from the perspective of the prophets, who defend the most vulnerable in the public square.  It’s the story of conquest from the perspective of the exiles and the occupied, who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society.  As is echoes in so many of the Psalms and the Isaiah reading today, the God of the Bible takes up the defense of the one surrounded by the accusing crowd.

And it’s the story of a Messiah who refuses to play the role of Messiah.  It’s customary to comment this time of year how strange it is that the crowds who one day are cheering and Hosanna-ing Jesus into Jerusalem, turn around so quickly and shout “crucify him, crucify him.”  But this is exactly how the whole thing works.  This is standard procedure for human culture.  The Messiah, the king, the president, the quarterback is either the savior or the villain.  The dynamics can shift in a snap.  We either demand that they fix everything, or demand that they be crucified so we can move on to the next potential Messiah.  Either way, we are innocent of this man’s blood.

One of the reasons I loved the story from Mark’s sermon last week was that it captured the exact moment when the hero was about to become the villain.  The guy who fixed everything was about to lose favor with the crowd, and he was pondering at the edge of the cliff whether he should just save them the trouble and do to himself what the crowd was about to do to him anyway.

How strange and terrible are the events of Holy Week.  That Jesus would knowingly walk into that space occupied by the scapegoat.  That space that has taken a thousand forms and faces throughout human history.  Jesus will occupy that space not because scapegoating saves us, and certainly not because God demands a human sacrifice in order to forgive us.  But because scapegoating kills us.  We are the ones who demand a human sacrifice.  It’s just what we do.  We demand someone else pay for our sins, so that we can remain convinced of our own innocence and righteousness, assured once again that god is on our side.

Crucify him, Crucify him, shout the crowds.  It’s such a powerful force that even Pilate, the Roman governor, is like putty in its hands.  It’s what the crowd demands.  It’s what will pacify anxiety.  It’s what will keep the peace and restore order.  It’s what will confirm what we whisper to ourselves.  That this man deserves every bit of it, and we are innocent.

Jesus occupies the space of the scapegoat, and thus exposes it.  Exposes it as violence – and not just violence against another human being.  But violence against God.  Jesus, the god-man, occupied the vulnerable space of the scapegoat, and so everyone who has been in that same place becomes the image of Christ among us.  This is why James Cone would declare with authority that Christ is black.   Jesus assumes the place of the scapegoat.  Exposes the lie, breaks the spell that entranced us, and blinded us.

The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities by making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15).  The scapegoating mechanism has been disarmed and need not hold any power over us any more.  God redeems freely and abundantly, and Jesus, by refusing to be the Messiah, becomes the Messiah, who saves us from our perpetual need for victims.  Jesus overcomes sin by becoming the sinful one, the scapegoat, and offers a new way of being human.  A way that has no need of victims.  A community made up of victims, and perpetrators, who recognize their own complicity, who live into the gift of grace, who give themselves over to being a community of love and repentance and reparation.

Christianity has often fallen right back into the old pattern.  God becomes the ultimate demander of sacrifice with Jesus on the cross, the Jews get blamed for it, and Judas embodies the villain.  But Christianity at its best has offered to the world a peaceful and redemptive form of community.  We are all complicit, which strangely frees us up to become something else.  The world is wide enough for us all and there need be no more scapegoats.  It is our gospel, good news, message.

As Aaron Burr sings in one of his many fabulous numbers: “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”  (“Wait for it“)

During this Holy Week may you know the gift of Christ who gave of himself so that we can be free from the powers of death and participate in the parade of life.






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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





101 | February 5

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Tuesday evening this space was full to overflowing for a teach-in led by the Central Ohio Worker Center.  The event was called Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  It was kind of a rally, but moreso a class.  It was designed to teach the basics of how the immigration system functions in the United States, how it’s changed especially over the last 15 years, the relationship between federal departments and local law enforcement, and how cities like Columbus fit into the mix these days.  Mark blogged about this Wednesday and included a link to the power point that Austin Kocher presented.

I think the genius of the event was that it was both a timely response to a very specific situation, and a deeper look at a decades old system.  It was a 101 class.  It was an introduction, a foundation, a teaching of basic concepts.  Personally, I left feeling more grounded, with a better sense of history, and community.

By way of holy coincidence, during the month of February, 2017, the lectionary is gifting us with another kind of 101 class.  The texts throughout the month come from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount.  This solid block of teaching from Jesus was one of the most valued guides for the early church.  It was one of the most often cited passages among our spiritual ancestors, the 16th century Anabaptists and Mennonites.  In other words, if there’s such a thing as Christianity 101, or Discipleship 101, or If- you- want- to- follow- Jesus- you- should- really- pay- attention- to- this 101, it is the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, the four weeks of February, the remaining Sundays before the season of Lent, we will be focusing on parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hopefully it serves to further ground us in the ancient words and teachings of the church, even as we listen for what this present moment might be asking of us.

Each of the gospels organize their material a little differently in order to communicate to their original audience, and one of the important things to know about Matthew’s gospel is that it separates Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks.  The Sermon on the Mount is the first and longest of these five blocks.  The second major block is in chapter 10, then another in 13, another in chapter 18, and then the final block in chapters 24 and 25.

For a mostly Jewish audience, five blocks of teaching would have had immediate symbolic connection to the Teaching.  The Torah.  The five books of Moses that provided the foundation of Jewish life.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   To suggest that what this teacher from Nazareth had to say was on level with the teaching of Moses would have been quite a claim.

The Sermon on the Mount readings actually started last Sunday with the Beatitudes when we had our Coming of Age service focused on Esther, so now it’s kind of like we’re walking into the 101 teach-in after it already started.  We missed the opening session.  Traffic was bad, and you had to drive around looking for parking.  You finally find a spot, walk briskly toward and into the building.  You slip in the back, find one of the few remaining seats, hoping you didn’t miss anything important.

“You are the salt of earth” is the first thing you hear, and the speaker is looking right at you.

Me?  I am the salt of the earth?  I think have missed something important.

The You is plural, the speaker clarifies, but Yes, it includes you.  You are the salt of the earth.  You all are the salt of the earth.  Ya’ll.

Salt, as in that substance which the Romans believed to be the purest and most useful of all things, product of sun and sea.  A gift of the gods and so offered up to the gods, the most primitive and elemental of offerings.  Your life is gifted to you, product of sun and sea, fruit of love and longing, and so your life becomes a gift to the world.  Salt.  You.  Your life, an offering.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in that most common of substances used for preservation.  The world has not always known refrigeration, you know.  And the world’s tendency toward decay, toward decomposition, toward slowly coming undone, bonds of relationships loosening and dissipating.  That inclination is met with salt.  Salt gives us more time.  Salt extends viability.  It preserves the good.  You.  Salt.  Your life, an agent of preservation.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in flavor.  Our foods are so permeated with salt it’s easy to forget it’s been added in there.  It tastes better with salt.  Salt not only preserves the good, it accentuates the good.  It adds enjoyment, pleasure, it deepens the quality.  Not too much now, don’t overdo it.  It’s not all about our salty selves.  You, your life, is a sprinkling, here and there.  That’s enough.  A sprinkling that accentuates the good.

You all, collectively, are the salt of the earth:  An offering, preserving goodness, flavoring life on earth.

And not only that.  The speaker goes on.

You are the light of the world.  Again, the you is plural, and it is a collective reality.

It’s one of those statements that automatically becomes untrue if the person or group claims it for themselves.

“We are the light of the world.”  “I am the light of the world.”  If it’s the ego making this claim, it comes to represent the exact opposite reality.  It becomes colonial.  We are the light of the world and must therefore take this light into all the dark and backwards places of the earth.

But it’s different when the claim is made by an authoritative voice speaking to you.  “You are the light of the world.”  Like a reminder of a truth easily forgotten.  Jogging our memory, reminding us that although we are not the source of the light, we contain the light.  Our bodies composed of those ancient elements, fused in the cores of distant stars.  Fusion’s byproduct is light.  Those sacrificial stars gone supernova long ago, offering their creations to world.  The cosmos salted with stardust.  The periodic table drifting through space.  The elements, longing with attraction, find each other, come together, make a home together, join and evolve over an unimaginable stretch of time.  We are one of the forms to emerge from this light infused process.  It is preserved in our bodies.  Your existence is a testimony to sacrifice and love and miracle.

You are the light of the world and there is no hiding.  In fact, the speaker is now saying that the light must be public, radically visible.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

You are the light of the world, and that light is brilliantly, publicly, visible, but there is a part of us that must disappear in order for that to be true.  It’s the part that serves only the self.  The part that either has an overblown sense of itself of being the light, or, equally destructive, the part that will not believe it contains any light at all.  The part that denies the Divine miracle that has birthed it and so becomes confined.

You are the light of the world.  And Lord knows the world needs light.

This is Discipleship 101.  Salt and Light.  It’s basic stuff.  Profound in its simplicity.

Rather than being asked to do anything yet, it appears we’re being asked to be.  Or even simpler than that, we’re being asked to acknowledge who we are already are – the grace that has already been given us.  It’s not “You should do salty things,” or “You need to go illuminate something.”  Rather, we are given statements of being, reminding us who we are.  You are salt.  You are light.  The doing flows out of the being.  Settle into the being, and the doing will flow naturally.

Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.

It’s sounding a little more archaic now.  He’s shifted to talking about those uniquely Jewish documents known as the law and the prophets.  Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and so on and so on.  Those Scriptures we’re frequently unsure what to do with.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”  He goes on about the value of even the tiniest notation of those ancient scriptures, the jots and the tittles of the scribes.  He’s talking about carrying out the old commandments.  How whoever does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Surely he can’t mean all the commands of the law.

Maybe this part doesn’t apply to us as much.  Might be a good time to sneak out for a restroom break and hope our neighbor saves our seat.

Besides, we were kind of hoping for a repeal and replace approach to what we call the “Old Testament.”  Can’t these five blocks of teaching in Matthew just take the place of those five books of Moses?  We’re the new wave.  The big tent of Jews and Gentiles.  The new coaltion that’s more chill about all those rules.

But the speaker can’t seem to let it go.  Can’t just move on and start something new.  “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

I confess to personally having tendencies toward wanting to abolish.  My beef isn’t so much with ancient Judaism, but there are times when I wonder why we don’t just abolish the whole Christian project.  Or at least disassociate and try a new name.  So much baggage and harm done with that name.  I remember a visiting professor at seminary from the UK who talked about a group he knew who wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus but didn’t want to have any connections to the pitfalls of the Christian church.  Since they recognized the Sermon on the Mount was the core of Jesus’ teaching, they decided to call themselves the Mounties.

I confess I struggle mightily with some of the stances of the national Mennonite Church.  Its hesitance to address matters of racism.  It unwillingness to affirm the gifts of LGBT folks.   Can’t we just abolish the law?  Can’t we just be the Mounties?  Or just Humans?

The teacher has an alternative suggestion.  Rather than abolish, the teacher draws our attention toward fulfillment.  Toward living out the aim of the tradition.  Fulfillment.  Staying on the trajectory and being a part of the arc for where all this is headed.  Fulfilling the best intentions and best aspirations of the law and prophets, and gospels, the church teachings, and maybe even the Mennonite Confession of Faith.

It’s a salty move by the teacher.

To find and preserve the good that’s there from the beginning.  Salt, just by being salt, has the capacity to preserve that which is good.  To give us more time with what we’ve inherited.  To flavor the batch.  For example, protecting the immigrant and sojourner in your midst is one of the most repeated themes throughout the Torah.  That’s about as old and conservative a value you can find.

Those are a few of the opening ideas of Discipleship 101.  Salt, Light, Not abolish, but fulfill.

The speaker has plenty more to say.  It appears he’s just getting started.  Settle in.  Get comfortable with your neighbor.  There’s more to come.