A reflection on Luke 9: 57-62 and Matthew 4: 18-22
09052801~ click here for an audio
A reflection on Luke 9: 57-62 and Matthew 4: 18-22
09052801~ click here for an audio
09052101~Click here for audio
Partial text of today’s sermon on 2 Samuel 6: 12-23 and Psalm 100. I didn’t include the retelling of Francine Christophe’s story but rather included a link to the video of her talking about it. It’s worth seeing.
How much joy do you have in your life? How often are you startled out of your everyday, casual existence and struck by awe and wonder? Teilhard de Chardin is quoted as saying “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God.” Recently I read a blog by a young mother who wrote about the aftermath of 9/11. She described in glowing poetry the drive up to her home as she returned from a flight across the country, a home she hadn’t been sure she would see again after these attacks. She talks about the ecstatic joy on her youngest child’s face when he raced to the car, arms open, crying out, “Mom, you’re alive!” It seems he had been listening to adult conversations and trying to make sense out of them, but as children do sometimes he kept his fears to himself as he tried to figure things out. What he knew was that his mother was far away and needed to fly home, and that this was particularly frightening at that time. His joy at being reunited with her was poignant.
For this woman the joy visible on her child’s face was immediately relatable to the joy of Christ’s presence. She writes:
“We pray to be invited to taste not just the joy of those who recognized Jesus, but Christ’s own joy in sharing the news of redemption. I can’t make these contemplations without thinking of the look on my child’s face as he came out the door to see me, and my own joy in knowing that he was again safely anchored by my presence. “ Michelle Francl-Donnay
What keeps us from experiencing the joy of being anchored in God’s presence? Joy is both a hallmark of God’s presence and, often, is somehow uncomfortable, unsustainable. It’s as if we are so certain that we can’t keep it, that we prefer not to have it at all. Experiencing joy is terribly vulnerable. It is to wear your heart on your sleeve and let the whole world know just how much this moment, this person, this experience means to you. Isn’t that what makes geekiness and nerdiness so adorable and wonderful? It’s all about being so passionate, so over-the-top that to those who don’t understand it just seems, well geeky. Brene Brown, a researcher who studies whole hearted living and who inspired this sermon series, says that, ”Until we can tolerate vulnerability and transform it into gratitude, intense feelings of love will often bring up the fear of loss.” The opposite of joy, she says, is not sadness, but fear.
Imagine the experience of Michelle’s son, his whole world hanging in the balance until that moment he saw his mother again, alive and whole. His joy was unmitigated, unrestrained; it was whole and complete. The travelers on the Emmaus walk say their hearts were burning inside of them. The despair of having lost their teacher, their dear rabbi, was upset, was turned upside down when the realization burst in on them that no one and nothing could ever come between them and Jesus. Fear was cast out in those moments. Fear was completely overwhelmed by the whole hearted acceptance of love.
Adela St. Johns tells us that “Joy is a light that fills you with hope, faith, and love.” It is a step beyond happiness. It is not dependent upon events, time or place, although it may be influenced by them. And…it is not constant. I don’t want to suggest that we’ve found some formula that if you follow it only joy will ensue, but we can choose joy, again and again. Joy is a choice.
If we look at the Greek word for happiness we find makarios, which described freedom from care, a sort of happy-go-lucky wealth and good fortune. Chairos, the Greek word for joy, is more of a culmination of being, a good mood of the soul. It implies a process which arrives at a place of joy, not a condition which may exist one moment but be gone the next. We can be intentional about viewing life through the lens of joy and this practice is gratitude. The two go together.
The difference between these two words implies that even Job at the height of his troubles, could have felt joy, could have abided in joy, and that perhaps this carried him through. Viktor Frankl describes people he met in concentration camps who abided in joy; who gave graciously of whatever they might have and that this abiding in joy sustained them, gave them meaning and purpose. So, yes, joy is not a constant but is a process which is not dependent upon external things.
Our scripture today talks about David bringing the ark home, seeking the blessing of God’s presence. In Christianity we tend to hold one or two hours on Sunday as sacred time, whereas in some other faith traditions, there is a tendency to hold a space as sacred, but what happens when you invite God, very God, into your home, into the whole of your life? This part of the story speaks of David dancing before the ark having already made the decision to bring the ark home, but just prior to this David had been in fear of God, had been angry because Uzzah had been struck dead for touching the ark in order to keep it from falling. David had left the ark behind, not wanting to be exposed to the uncontrollable power of God, but those he left the ark with experienced renewed blessings because of God’s presence, and David wanted that.
He had to face his fear. He had to acknowledge his mortality and his vulnerability before he could invite God fully into his life, but when he did, when he did, he danced ecstatically! When he did he showed no shame, he was over the top exuberant, he was filled with joy and happiness! Happy and fulfilled he went home to bless his family.
I sort of wish the story had stopped there, a happy ending for everyone, but that’s not the end of the story maybe because if it had ended there it would not have involved the whole complexity of our lives. Have you ever seen preschoolers give a dance recital? It’s so refreshing and amazing! One of the cutest things ever, because often there are one or two who have no shame, who show up fully as exuberant and out there as they can be! But usually we learn to check ourselves somewhere along the line, we learn to hold back a little until we know it’s safe and even then, well being as fully passionately present as a child is just really vulnerable so we don’t go there, we hold back a little. Because if we don’t there is always Michal to remind us, “Look at you out there, dancing like a fool! Nearly naked!” We have all had these Michal people in our lives haven’t we? The ones who remind us that being filled with inexpressible joy is, well a little silly and over the top and people are going to notice.
We recognize this belittling, this shaming as a wound that is all too common. Today I want to look at Michal. I want to look at the lack of joy, creativity, and abundance in her life. Michal, the daughter of a king who went mad and tried to kill her soon to be husband. Her bitter response to David’s open show of joy and exuberance betrays a deep wounding. I want to invite you to go a little offscript and wonder with me, a midrash-like pause to wonder what Michal’s childhood would have been like, who she might have been. To wonder what might have happened that brought such bitterness, such gall to her when she witnessed unbridled joy. Just take a moment and think about that, there are no right answers; midrash invites us to consider the unwritten implications of the text.
You see, Michal’s bitterness left her barren. It left her empty. Brene Brown tells us that, “Until we can tolerate vulnerability and transform it into gratitude, intense feelings of love will often bring up the fear of loss.” Something was triggered in Michal, some memory of loss or pain and it’s easy to imagine this given that her father Saul had gone mad in his later years, soothed only by the sound of David’s lyre. She could not tolerate vulnerability and could not transform it into gratitude.
We live in an age when scarcity and fear of scarcity is advertised, promoted! You’ll never be good enough, thin enough, rich enough, smart enough, successful enough…it goes on and on. There isn’t enough and you can’t be enough. This fear of scarcity drives some incredibly unhealthy behavior. It increases our anxiety and fear separating us from joy, from gratitude.
We are encouraged to believe that there simply isn’t enough to go around and what we have everyone else wants—but is this true? “My grace is sufficient” God tells us. How do we manage to rest in this sufficiency? If we can rest in this sufficiency will it allow us to feel safe enough to be vulnerable? To dare? To go on great ventures?
“My grace is sufficient for you, there is enough. You are enough. Do not be afraid, be grateful instead.” Our psalm reminds us that we are the Lord’s and he has created us, that he will be faithful to us all the days of our lives. There is enough, you are enough.
This year we have been working on revitalizing the church. It’s a process that conventional wisdom tells us takes about five years, only we don’t have five years. Our finances are tight and we knew that, at best, we had two years but this month we are having to face the possibility that we won’t have two years. The culture of scarcity in which we live suggests that we will lose. Our faith, however, suggests that, no matter what happens, God will be with us. We get to choose which voice we listen to. Joy is the result of a choice, the choice to practice gratitude every day.
As we face the possibility that this church may not continue as we know it and have experienced it, can we rest in God’s grace, God’s sufficiency? Can we turn away from the culture of scarcity and acknowledge that God has and continues to provide us with many, many good things. We have enough, we are enough. Can we pause and admit that, although change of one form or another is coming, nothing need ever separate us from the ones we love and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God? Can we dare to be curious about what God is saying to us, and wondering about what might come next? Knowing and trusting that there is a next, even if we don’t see it just yet?
For my part I am committed to being here and being with you throughout whatever comes. I have committed all of my resources to being the best pastor I can be. I am not tucking away savings or preparing to leave. I firmly believe that God is not done with this little church although he may be asking us to do something entirely different and new. I don’t know what that might be but today I am resting in deep gratitude for all of you, for this ministry, for the beauty of Jasper, for the invitation to this ministry. Today I choose joy.
09051402~ click here for audio
Yesterday morning we celebrated our third Sunday luncheon and I was informed before worship that if I could go a bit long, it would help the cooks. I went a bit off script and added a sermon illustration so I won’t be uploading the text.
This is a sermon on Luke 22: 31-34 and John 21: 15-19.
09050702~ click here for the audio of the sermon. I went a little off script today so I’m simply going to post the audio link, unless someone requests the written work. I do think the audio is better, more complete.
09043002~ click here for audio.
What is the poetry of your soul? What is the song of your heart? What is it that makes you come alive? Our psalm today, in the New Jerusalem version, reads, “Deep calls to deep by the cataract’s roar,” one of my favorite verses. The depth of the mystery, of the majesty of God, calls to all that is deep within you, in the midst of life, near the streams and roaring waterfalls, near the rush of traffic and the busy roar of humanity, in the silence of the woods and the rushing roar of all that is in your heart longing to be be spoken. The depth, the mystery, the majesty of God, of God’s love, calls to you, in your deep, quiet, hidden places, and will not be still, will not be quiet.
It speaks to that internal space where all your possibilities take shape and form. To the possibility that you may retire, pull away, diminish your presence, saying: enough, I’m done. To this, God whispers love and compassion, urging the heart to break and call you into service and care for your neighbor. It speaks to the thought that you are not enough and can make no difference, bring no change to the world, saying: you are exactly as I created you and you are exactly in the place I brought you, that you might be who you are fully and without hesitation and this will change everything. Howard Thurman once said,
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then, go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive!”
So what makes you come alive? What is the poetry of your soul, the song of your heart? Where does God’s deep, mysterious, loving call resonate in your soul? What is it that insists on being spoken, brought to life and lived through you? The world is incomplete, unfulfilled without your contribution.
Several years ago a particularly creative individual wrote a 3000 word love story and wanted to see it embodied, lived into. So..he put an ad in craigslist and asked people all over the United States if they would be willing to have one word of this love story tattooed onto their flesh and he received thousands of Yes’s. Each person was sent just one word and at a pre-appointed time they all gathered together and a small child was led through the crowd, reading the story, one word at a time. You see the story couldn’t be told, would always be incomplete, unless everyone showed up. All the small words, the “a’s” and the “The’s” the big words, “recognition,” “fulfillment,” all of them needed to show up before the story could be told. What is your part of the story? Here in Jasper, we know that we are part of a greater, larger story, what is within us that longs to be spoken, to be told? The world hungers for this! Longs and groans waiting for all of us to show up.
This weekend the internet was again filled with grief, with loss, with tears, as we all, from a distance, witnessed the death of an innocent, young boy, the tears of his father who cried out against his inability to save his family, that his arms were not strong enough to hold them. Across the world people rallied and cried out with him, that our collective arms have not been strong enough, our will too lax and feeble. People posted photos side by side of this fragile child’s body and images of groups of people rushing to save beached whales asking why we rush to the one and not the other. The whole world, groans and cries out waiting for all of us to show up and sometimes, sometimes we do. Even before the death of this child Iceland responded to the refugee crisis by offering up their homes, 10,000 of them!
God created humankind and sitting back and observing said, “ah, this, this is good!” and I have to believe it is these Icelandic people, it is the Turkish people who came to the beaches, it is all of us who cry out against such suffering and loss that God referred to. I have to believe that is our ability to transcend suffering and loss, to break through shame, guilt, and fear and reach out to those who are in need that God was referring to. I have to believe that is our interconnected nature, that we were created in relationship, for relationship, that God evoked the response, yes, this is good!
This is what lives deep inside us, in all its beautiful complicated diverse patterns. We need one another. Our story, God’s story, is told through us. When we show up and commit to following through, we bear a credible witness to the God of our understanding, but we have to show up.
A few years ago I was in Guatemala, on a mission trip with Habitat for Humanity. One of our projects was to build a “smokeless” stove for a family in a nearby town. We arrived early that morning in the drizzle and met the family, the neighbors. Our presence was not unanticipated. The family had been hard at work preparing and purchasing necessary ingredients. One of the ladies present spoke forcefully. Even without an interpreter it was easy to hear how important it was to her that we hear her. Through our interpreters we heard this message, “You Americans, you come down here all the time and you promise us great things. You’re going to help us rebuild our homes, you’re going to help us develop sewage systems, and give us new stoves, but then you always leave. You want me to thank you now for what you are about to do, but I will thank you when it’s done.” It made me wonder what had happened in the past to all those good intentioned Americans who hadn’t stayed the course. What this woman was telling us was that she needed a credible witness, not someday promises but a witness, hands reached out, roofs raised, food supplied, now, not someday, and we complied. We worked hard and we demonstrated what I hope is a credible witness to the love of Christ for all people.
Living an authentic, credible life is about getting into the arena, getting one’s hands dirty. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech, the man in the arena, suggests we all need to get in the arena and out of the stands. He said,
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. “
Living that full, authentic life, responding to the call of all that is deep within us, that longs to be spoken and brought to life in the world is to be in the arena. It is to be passionate and a little over-the-top, to be too much and to be OK with being too much. Something in us becomes small and timid when we relegate ourselves to the stands, to witness and watch the struggle of others. We are called to be in the struggle, passionately in the struggle and to bring forth the poetry that God has written in our hearts, the song that is playing in our souls, the unique and weird contribution that God has given us.
Authenticity means giving people a piece of yourself- nothing counterfeit, nothing withheld, covered up or apologized for. To risk giving a piece of yourself, your heart, trusting that in doing so, the world becomes a better place. Trusting that God created you worthy of contributing and knowing that the world longs for you to show up and be exactly who you are as fully and passionately as you can.
In the deepest moments we are asked to open our hearts our very selves and give what is there without censoring, without holding back, give. Give the awkward, the not yet ready for publication, the raw truth of one’s self. We are called to be terribly vulnerable and let ourselves in all our unique complexity, be seen. We are called to show up for one another and show up again and again.
It is what comes out of a person that gives witness, not what they eat or wear, not their social ranking or privilege or lack thereof, but what comes out. What is your credible witness? What comes out of you? Is it the warm greeting of a man greeting others wholeheartedly and without reserve? Is it the willingness to spend hours toiling so that your neighbors might have the same opportunity that you have? What is the witness that you would be?
Deep calls to deep by the cataract’s roar; God has called you into being because you, exactly as you are, matter, because you, in all your unique and weird glory, are an essential part of the story. All that is deep, hidden, and mysterious in God is calling to all that is deep, hidden, and possible in us, that we might step forward, into the light and be seen as God’s children, as God’s credible witness in the world.
Abba James said: We do not want words alone, for there are too many words among people today. What we need is action, for that is what we are looking for, not words which do not bear fruit.
The book of James insists we be ‘doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
The call to an authentic life is a call to the arena, to get out of the stands where we might witness and applaud or criticize, but to get in the arena and to dare greatly and by doing so to enrich the lives of all those we touch. It is not a call to success, it is not a call to a perfect life, but a call to dare greatly and show up fully, to be seen in all our passion, in all our love and risk it not turning out so well. All the world cries out for this witness, longs for this witness.
Deep calls to deep
By the cataracts roar,
All your waves and breakers
Have rolled over me.
In the day God sends his faithful love
And even at night; yes at night,
In the dark and in the quiet, all alone,
The song it inspires in me,
Sings through me,
Breathes in me,
Is my prayer to the living God.
Is my witness and my heart’s song,
This then, is my song, is my witness, to the breathe of God moving through me, shifting within me, calling me into the fullness of being, a fullness that I must not diminish nor hide away, but must let shine in all its geeky and passionate splendor, as weird and wonderful as it was created to be. The story is incomplete without my little piece, without your piece. The world longs to hear this story told and who are we to withhold ourselves? We are followers of Christ; we do not belong in the stands watching and applauding but in the arena, in the grit and mire, striving to live fully as children of God.
May it be so.
Click here for an audio of the sermon~09041602
King David knew where God was, at all times. He had a handle on God, specifically he had two handles, or rather poles. It made it more convenient to carry God with the army when they went to battle and when they weren’t, well they could place God in the tent of the meeting where only holy men were allowed to enter, those who were complete, whole and perfect, who were clean. It was embarrassing, to say the least, when David lost God in a battle and had to retrieve the ark from the enemy; I mean, how does one explain to God that you allowed him to be captured and carried away? Solomon, being wiser, fixed God geographically by creating a permanent home, a temple, around which all decent people for centuries would center their lives.
Remember the Samaritan woman questioning Jesus, “Our ancestors worship God on the mountain but you say God is only in the temple” She was baiting him because for centuries God was in the temple, behind the holy of holies, behind the veil. A place so sacred and dangerous that when priests would venture back there they would wear bells and a rope so that those in attendance could listen for the movement of the bells and know if God had found this man displeasing and killed him off. If so they could retrieve the body by pulling on the rope rather than risking themselves, especially if God was angry.
The Holy, the Sacred, is dangerous. It transforms and threatens and changes things. It is unpredictable and wild. The Spirit blows where it will, but mostly, we like to contain it. God in a box. God in a temple. God in a church. This wild ruach, this untamable God, is one we would really like to fix permanently in safe places, in sound theology, in proper worship. We like to tame the wildness and contain the wideness of God’s majesty. It is too overwhelming, too uncertain.
Yet we all want an experience of the divine. The language of God is written on our hearts, simply waiting for them to break so that the words may fall in. It’s the breaking that we fear even as we long for God’s word to enter us, change us, transform us. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it will not yeild anything, and yet we hold tightly to what we have, fiercely maintaining the good that we know, that we possess and refuse to allow it to fall. Falling we are transformed, remade, broken open and something new, something really truly wonderful grows in, thrives in, the broken places which are surrendered to God, given over that they might be transformed, remade, reborn.
We have this resurrection faith and yet death and dying to what we know, what we possess frightens us. Our fear is evident in our grasping and resistince even as we must be gentle with ourselves on account of this. The holy of holies is a frightening place to be, better to enter with bells on and a safety rope firmly attached because who knows what might happen within?
When I was younger I used to tiptoe into the sanctuary when it was empty. I was convinced that God was watching, no longer distracted by the crowds of worshippers that usually filled the place, if I went in alone, it just felt too visible, too vulnerable.
During holy week we would hold an Easter vigil, from the moment the Good Friday service ended until the Easter morning service began someone would be sitting alone, in the sanctuary below the cross. Parishioners were encouraged to sign up for fifteen minute increments to insure that someone would always be there. My mom liked to sign up for the midnight hours and she would come and wake us in the dark of night and we would drive silently to the church, still half asleep. Once there, one of us would enter the sanctuary in silence, walk to the front of the church and relieve the person who was sitting there and then for fifteen long, interminable minutes, one would sit there at the base of the cross and re-member, re-embody the ones who sat beneath the cross while Christ died on it. It was a holy of holies to sit with death and loss, in silence. It was a moment of being with the horrors of torture and murder at the hands of a police state, at the request of religious leaders. It worked its way into me as I sat there in the silence. God who suffered, God who died, God who came to live with us and became vulnerable to us and who scared the powers that be so much they had to have him killed. You just can’t put that God in a box. Not a god-box, not a pine box. That God simply won’t stay put. No matter how much we want him to.
That God breaks in like sunlight at the dawn changing all our fears into easily dismissed shadows of the night. But we must not be afraid to get down on our knees and look into the tomb, look into the shadow of death itself. This is the God that flows like water into every hidden space, softening what is hard, feeding all the green and growing things and cleansing us of all impurities. This is the God who our ancestors tried to bury and who would not stay buried.
We have this resurrection faith, a faith that tells us death and loss do not have the final word and that God cannot, will not be contained, that God continues to bring new life in the most unexpected and startling ways.
This uncontainable, irreverent God invites us to kneel down in silence, in awe and wonder, and see the vastness of life springing from the seemingly dead inert places in our life. With all humility we are asked to open ourselves up to all that we do not know and to recognize that nothing we know or do can possibly contain God; that the beginning of all wisdom is to be in awe, to tremble with wonder and to let go of our attempts to put God in a box.
The writers of scripture might well have said, the beginning of wisdom is vulnerability. It is not found in the safety of what we believe we know or what we can contain or own. But rather to stand humbly and vulnerably before God and wait silently to be surprised, to be astonished. Standing in the holy of holies is risky business. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And the holy of holies shows up where it will; it moves through people’s hearts and speaks through their mouths. It whispers among the pine trees and it dances with baby goats. If we are observant and we are careful, we might find the holy of holies almost anywhere. The veil has been torn from the temple and there is no separation between us and God. In all aspects of our daily lives God waits to greet us.
Faith is not the absence of doubt nor an unquestioning certainty but the willingness to surrender and continue on our journey trusting only that God journeys with us and that as long as God goes with us, all will be well. Faith is to lay belly up on the waters of God’s love and care trusting that you will not drown in it but will be carried, will be held. It is to allow yourself to feel the warmth of sun above and the cool of the water below and trust the current which carries you on. This week President Jimmy Carter spoke about his faith journey. His astonishing witness was that he is “..perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to a new adventure.”
When we release our anxious striving and trust that God is in control and it’s OK that God is out of our control and beyond our understanding, then we too can look forward to even death as a new adventure.
Our challenge today in this church is to accept that we really don’t know if this church will survive in this form. It may. It might continue for another couple centuries just like it is, and people will say, wow, First Presbyterian has been in Jasper since the beginning! Because it will feel so long ago to them, but it may not. It’s possible that God is calling us to a new adventure, one which we may not understand right away and one which we might be inclined to resist because it feels too strange. What boxes have we placed around God, how have we attempted to define our expectations of God, and what happens if God turns up elsewhere?
We are very attached to how we do church here. It is uncertain if we will be able to continue doing so. Our faithful response is one of continuing our journey with God, not knowing how it will all turn out, but knowing for sure that God is with us.
We have this resurrection faith and we know that what often looks like dead inert matter can give rise to a rich harvest, even when we don’t expect it, even when everything seems gone, done, finished. God startles us by showing up when we are near death, when we are in exile, even when we look into the tomb.
Our psalmist speaks to us today, “How lovely are your dwelling places, Yahweh Sabaoth” for God dwells with you, and you, and you. For God dwells in startling and surprising places, filling the world with grace and light. “My whole being years and pines for the Lord’s courts.” Yes, and yes, we long for God. Our whole being aches to know that God is here with us. “My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its young.” But Jesus laments the son of man has no place to lay his head. God wanders with us, among us and will not be contained. “How blessed are those who live in your house, they shall praise you continually. Blessed are those who find their strength in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Because we too are on a journey and God alone is our strength. We ache to stand on the threshold, in that liminal space where we see God most clearly.
We praise God and we enjoy God’s dwelling places, knowing that God is always with us, and no one and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God is out of the box, the veil is torn from the holy of holies. God is loosed upon the world, out among us, in the most unexpected places. So let’s walk through the world looking for God, seeking God out, until God taps us on the shoulder and says, “You’re it, I mean you’re really it!” and we are invited again, to delight in God and all that God has brought into our life.
Click here for audio~09040901
Gracious God, disturb our calm, unsettle our understanding, and shake us loose from all we hold precious that we might receive you. Amen
This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it? The shock, the outrage, it was clearly intolerable, clearly wrong. Eating flesh and drinking blood? Gross, no way! Who would say such a thing, let alone do it. Sometimes I think we have grown too used to such language; it fails to shock us as it would have shocked Jesus’ audience that day. I think that to really get a good idea of how shocking this was we need to know that kosher meats always have the blood drained out them. Blood was mysterious. It embodied life itself. No one would think of eating something that literally carried life within itself. It was unconscionable
And can we hear threads of Philippians in this, God emptying himself out, becoming less, pouring forth and allowing himself to be diminished. Can we hear the thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician woman also, if I but touch the hem of his clothing some of his power, his vitality, his being will pour forth and heal me. Can we hear the fear of loss and vulnerability that made this kenosis, this melting heart, ooey-gooey, emotional stuff feel just too scary? Kenosis being the Greek word used over and over again for the compassion Jesus has for the crowds, for the towns, for the people he meets. This way of speaking, of the pouring out, the emptying, the loss of control and vulnerability is at odds with our understanding of God the Father Almighty. God, who is in control. God who demands retribution. God who’s sovereign identity requires we make good on the debt we owe him, one which, we can never repay. This God, the one who is invulnerable, is at odds with the god we see in Jesus Christ. Who came to us as an intensely vulnerable child born in poverty to an unwed mother.
I wonder if perhaps, Jesus didn’t come in order to change God’s mind about us, about the debt we owe and need for retribution. I wonder if Jesus might have come in order to change our minds about who God is.
And I wonder if, in John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t trolling the righteous religious people of the day. Those good and upright people who have studied the scriptures long and hard, who have kept every rule and are ever so careful to maintain their scrupulous behavior. Jesus wants to shake us loose from all our rigidly held ideas of right and wrong, of correct and mistaken. I wonder if Jesus isn’t asking us to think very deeply about what really does matter and how too often we let those things which are really side issues interfere and take us off track from the truly significant and why is it we do that?
One of my internship supervising pastors took his first call in Scotland. He used to tell many tales from his time there and his deep love of the country and the people resonated through these stories. There was one story though, that brought some uncomfortable laughter. One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the area had gotten involved in worship wars. They argued over the correct hymnal to use, the correct liturgy, the correct use of liturgical props, you all know this story, right? We’ve all seen it, which, I suspect, is why some of that laughter was a little uncomfortable when he would tell this story. This story is our story, although this church made a choice that few of us would. They decided to split the church right down the middle and so, in the middle of the sanctuary they erected a wall. Sort of like when my sister and I were little and we used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our room. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine and we’ll get along just fine.” And they did. They chose a side and they stayed on it.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who live according to the ways of the world. It is a messed up, intolerable message. And then, Jesus tops it all off with, and take up your cross if you would follow me. Uh huh, take up a cross and die to the ways of the world. Die to the dream of making it, of maintaining your own security, of taking care of number one first. Let all that go.
Is it any wonder that we prefer to focus our attention on whether the correct colors are being used on the communion table? Or whether our liturgy is correct and proper? Dying to all that we know, to our certainty and security is frightening. And so, as we struggle to get everything right and correct, Jesus comes along and says, here is my body eat it. Go on chew it up, feel the toughness, the gritty-ness of my body and then, wash it down with my blood, for all that I am is poured out, broken up for you. There is no correct way to say that. There is no right way, no proper way, nothing in our human understanding that can make that OK. Is it any wonder that our text goes on to say, “after this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.” Following Jesus is to have our certainties removed, again and again. It is to be startled into newness, thrown into vulnerability and to have all that we think we know for certain thrown into doubt and questioning.
God invites us again and again to move out of certainty and our attempts to capture God, to hold him in some contained way which falls apart again and again, and we are thrown into mystery. We are too prone to wanting to capture God, to having the correct theology and the correct responses, the correct way of living and being so that we can rest in certainty, but the God we meet in Jesus won’t let us do this. The God we meet in Jesus is one who defies our expectations over and over. He hangs out with the most unsuitable sort of people, the unclean, the dirty and morally suspect. He breaks all our rules which give us a simple and predictable life. He heals on the Sabbath, he allows unclean women to wash his feet, he chats women up at the watering hole. The righteous people must have wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do!
A pastor once served one of those churches who solved the worship wars by holding two services, a traditional and a contemporary. Both were still compromises as there were lots of people who held very strong opinions about what proper worship was, but he did the best he could. He was really surprised and, admittedly felt a little justified, when one of his more conservative and traditional parishioners began attending the contemporary service. He approached this lady feeling just a bit smug because she had been so adamantly opposed to the contemporary service. “I see you’re attending second service now,” he said, “I guess you’re enjoying it after all.” “Oh no, Pastor,” she replied. “I hate it. But a few weeks ago you preached about how important it is to be hospitable, to meet people right where they are, and all of the young kids were going to the contemporary service and I realized I didn’t know any of them. I realized I hadn’t been very welcoming to them so I started attending that service so that I could better support them, get to know them, and be hospitable.” Instead of erecting a wall whether the physical kind or the temporal kind, that hour of separation, she crossed over to where those whom she was called to love and serve were.
The root of wisdom is awe and wonder of God. It is to engage the mystery knowing we are about to have the lid blown off our attempts to contain and limit God. We are about to be drawn into the unknown and to strange and new places, strange and new relationships, and we are asked to respond to this again and again with love, with kindness, with compassion.
I want to tell you about Syeda Ghulam Fatima. You can read about her on the Humans of New York Facebook site although Syeda lives in Pakistan. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten many times for her activism. She is most certainly a woman who knows what it means to take up one’s cross. In the deep rural areas of Pakistan there are brick manufacturing companies which use bonded labor. In return for a small loan an unsuspecting individual will promise to work for a while, only that while never ends. The loans are rigged and there are fees and additions such that keep these workers in debt for the rest o their lives, and when they die their debt transfers to their children. Syeda has worked tirelessly, literally putting her body between the owners and the workers. Syeda does not say that it is too much, too dangerous, too risky. She knows it is and yet she returns again and again. She pours out her life with deep compassion and love for those she would protect. She speaks truth to power and she keeps hoping that love will win, and she doesn’t stop. This is the intolerable message of the gospel, that following Jesus asks us to take up our cross and give of ourselves and all that we have and are, out of love for one another.
It would be easy for Syeda to say that these people are foolish and they got themselves into this situation, they can get themselves out. It’s really not her problem. Except that we have been called to love one another. Except that we are all a part of one another. Except that we are called to be food for the world. This is who Jesus has shown us that God is, this food for the world, this joining with those who suffer and are oppressed or cry out. Jesus has forever changed our understanding of who God is. The god we see in Jesus is not aloof, is not distant from our suffering, but is deeply vulnerable to us, has forsaken anything that would keep us separated from God’s self. This is not the angry God who demands retribution, but God who feeds us with God’s very self, standing between us and all that would harm us, all that would separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Knowing who holds our hand, how can we be afraid? Yet we are so often, and it is easier for us to focus on who is right, who is wrong, is this correct, or that. We nothing if not masters of distraction but the invitation is ever before us, let go of your certainties, your securities, and prepare to let God carry you into the unknown where life is renewed, where grace becomes tangible, and where the invitation to love radically is ever extended.
Perhaps Jesus did not come to convince God to let us off the hook, on a debt we could never pay, to give us another chance. Perhaps Jesus came to invite us into a new kind of relationship with God. One in which we are fed and nourished in our inner being that we too might be food for the world. May it be so.