Tagged with Lent

Having it All

Genesis 37-47

Joseph has it all. He’s part of a big family, with plenty of siblings to play with: eleven brothers and one sometimes ignored sister.  Joseph’s family is prosperous, he has plenty to eat, and plenty of everything else he needs. Joseph is also rich in love. He’s precious to his mother, Rachel, and he’s his father Jacob’s favorite child. As a sign of his favor, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat, a special robe.

How do Joseph’s siblings feel, when they notice how Jacob favors him, and when they see his special robe?  Has anyone here ever been jealous of your siblings, or your friends? What were you jealous of?

Jacob’s siblings are jealous. They are jealous, because for all they have, they can see that Joseph is getting just a little bit more: a little more love, a little more favor, a little finer clothing. Now you could say that Joseph is innocent in all this. It’s not his fault that he’s been given so much. But eventually, Joseph does do something to make the situation worse.

You see, Joseph has these dreams. Vivid dreams. Dreams of sheaves of grain. Dreams of a sun, and moon, and stars in the sky. And all his dreams mean one thing: that his whole family is bowing down to him.  Now, we can’t help what we dream. But we can decide what we’re going to say about it. And Joseph seems to delight in telling his family about his dreams. One day, he tells them, you will be bowing down to me.

No one likes to hear about Joseph’s dreams. Not even Jacob.  And Joseph’s brothers are so angry, they decide to throw him into a pit, and then sell him to some travelers who are passing by.

That could have been the end of the story. Joseph could have been divided from his family forever, because of that one mistake he made, boasting about his dreams; because of that one mistake his brothers made, trying to get rid of him. That could have been the end of the story. But God has something else in mind. God has an amazing way of bringing something good out of something bad.  God has a special gift for drawing something beautiful out of something painful. 

The story doesn’t end there. Many years later, there is a terrible drought, and Joseph’s family does not have enough to eat. So some of Joseph’s brothers travel to a place where they have heard there is still grain. Where do they go? Down to Egypt.

We didn’t hear the whole story this morning. That’s because the story of Joseph is more than ten chapters long – you can read more of it at home. We didn’t hear all the things that happened to Joseph in Egypt before his brothers came to see him.  We didn’t hear all the tricks that Joseph plays on his brothers before they find out who he is. Joseph’s still a little angry about that time when they threw him in a pit, and sold him to strangers.

But in the end, Joseph relents. He tells his brothers who he is. He tells them not to worry about the things they did to him before. He gives his family the grain they need. And then, he tells them that the whole family can come and live in Egypt with him. They’ll have plenty to eat, as the drought continues. When the family arrives, Joseph kisses his brothers, and weeps on them, and welcomes them.

Something changes in Joseph during this story. At the beginning, he seems to really treasure his gifts, and how special they make him feel. He looks forward to getting even more, and being more powerful than anyone else in his family.  Joseph makes sure that everyone knows just how extraordinary he is. At the end of the story, Joseph sees all that he has, and he decides to share it. He realizes that taking care of the people he loves, and being close to them, is more important than anything else.

Sometimes we have a lot of something, whether it’s love, favor, money, special gadgets, social status, a special striped robe. When we have a lot of something, we have an important choice to make. We can try to make ourselves safe and special, by keeping what we have all to ourselves, and protecting ourselves from other people who might want or need it. Or, we can decide to be close to other people, sharing what we have, seeing what all that bounty can do in community.

Deciding whether to hoard, or whether to share – that’s a choice we have to make it over and over and over again. It can be really hard sometimes, to decide to share. Here’s the good news. No matter who we are, what we own, what we keep, or what we share, we always have a lot of one thing: the love of God. We are all God’s children, and God has so much love, and favor, that she gives all of us more than we could possibly need. Imagine that each person in this room, and everyone we ever meet, is travelling through life with the most fabulous coat imaginable, because we are a beloved child of God.

Being rich in love, opening our hearts to that gift, can make it easier to share everything else.  And the love itself begs to be shared: to flow through us, and connect us to one another.

One More Year

Psalm 32, Luke 13:1-9

Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. Through speech and story he is tackling tough topics: worry, money, conflict, responsibility. Then someone interrupts Jesus’ sermon to bring the crowd the latest breaking news: the Roman Governor, Pilate, has massacred Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. 

You can imagine how the crowd reacted. All the shock, and the grief. All the many murmured conversations.  All the questions: Why this? Why now? Why them? Why?

Then Jesus breaks in.  You may be wondering why, Jesus says; let me tell you what’s not the reason. Tragedy and accident are not a punishment for individual sin. The people who died are no worse than any of us. In fact, all of us need forgiveness.

Then Jesus tells a parable. Someone plants a fig tree in their vineyard. But the fig tree does not produce figs; and this person is enraged. “See here!” they shout at the gardener. “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

In the face of this tirade, the gardener replies graciously. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

When terrible things happen, like the massacre of the Galilean pilgrims, it’s natural to ask why. Sometimes there are clear answers. More often, there aren’t.  In the absence of clear answers, and even sometimes in their presence, we often settle on this answer: It must be their own fault. It must be, somehow, the fault of the victims. 

How could it be the fault of the victims? What could they have done to deserve their fate? Don’t worry – we’ll find something. Our human minds are endlessly inventive in finding flaws in other people.  We judge one another based on how we look, and how we talk. We judge one another for being too rich, or not rich enough. We judge one another for being too powerful, or not powerful enough to be independent. We judge one another for making different choices, and for simply being different, than we are. Out of fear and insecurity, we judge all the time.

Imagine Jesus standing in front of this crowd of folks who have just heard about a tragedy. Desperate to make sense of things, they try to imagine what grievous sins these other folks might have committed to earn them a death sentence. But Jesus has no interest in helping the crowd along this path of judging others. Instead, he turns their attention to their own behavior.  Think a little less about everyone else’s sins, he says, and a little more about your own.  Remove the log from your own eye, before worrying about the log in anyone else’s. Remember you live in a glass house, before you throw stones.

It’s good advice. We can’t possibly truly know anyone else’s sins. We definitely can’t fix them. It’s more fruitful to examine ourselves, to work on ourselves. Unfortunately, when we turn our attention towards ourselves, we don’t always make much spiritual progress either. We judge ourselves on things that aren’t so important, like how we look, or how much money we have.  We mull over negative messages we received long ago.  We dwell on some deep and surely fatal flaw that we imagine is unique to us and must be hidden from everyone else at all costs. We get stuck reliving the things we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to judging, we’re at least as brutal towards ourselves as we are towards others.

A lot of us don’t really appreciate it when scripture encourages us to repent. We imagine that God, or the church, or the pastor, is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and trying to make us feel bad about it. This feels counterproductive, because most of us are quite skilled at feeling bad about ourselves already. No need to revisit that. No need to amplify it.

But Jesus’ call to repentance is not an exercise in harsh self-criticism, guilt, or shame. It’s  an invitation to be freed. What is making you miserable, Jesus asks? What is separating you from love?  What lies have you learned to believe? What habits are harming you? There’s no need to keep carrying that burden, Jesus says. Consider laying it down on my lap, and allowing our good Gardener to help you find another way. 

Vincent Van Gogh, In the Orchard

Imagine, Jesus says, that your soul is a fig tree. It’s in a beautiful vineyard, being looked over by a competent gardener. Still, it has not born fruit on the schedule that you expected. Enraged, you decide to give up the project of cultivating figs, or caring for your spirit, altogether.  “Cut it down!” you demand, rudely. But God, the gardener, resists your tantrum.  Give me more time, God says.  At least one more year. Let me lay down some more nutrients. Let’s see what could happen, with a little more love.

Let’s take just a moment to try to welcome God’s grace and care into our hearts. I invite you, as you are moved, to settle your body into a comfortable position; to close or lower your eyes; to gently rest a hand or two on yourself, on your heart, on your stomach, on your lap. Just breathe.

God, help us not worry too much about other people, whether they’re doing it exactly right, we can leave that up to them.

God, help us not to worry too much about ourselves, whether we’re doing it exactly right. We’ll never do it exactly right, and the things we’re so worried about messing up may not be the most important things anyway.

Help us to breathe in, and breathe out, in this moment, in these bodies, in this life that is a gift from you.

Give us courage to notice, with honesty and kindness, what is harming us most, what is holding us back, what is making it harder to love ourselves and to love other people and to love you.

Help us to let go of any lies we have believed. Help us to let go of any guilt or anger that is weighing us down.

Guide us towards trust in you: Your skill in enriching the soil, Your faithfulness in returning, year after year, to give us another year to flourish, even when we haven’t made much progress.

In good time, may our souls grow, and bloom, and bear good fruit: sweet to the taste. Amen.

Unsatisfied

Desert’s Hand by Mario Irarrazabal

Isaiah 55:1-9

Most of you know I have two small children. As a parent, I have found it’s important to set expectations, create good habits, and make common sense rules. Many of you have parented, or taught, or taken care of small children. Consider what rules you have set for them. Perhaps these include guidelines about sleep, eating, screen time, exercise, time outdoors, kind behavior, or how to save and use money.

We all have ideas about how to create a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life, and we try to cultivate that kind of life for people who are in our care. Unfortunately, I have found that having great parenting ideals is not enough to make everything go smoothly. When I’m actually with my children, somehow instead of focusing on the really important stuff, I find myself spending a lot of time saying things like: “we can’t eat until you put your clothes back on,” or “please just go to your room until you can stop crying.” 

Even more alarming than the contrast between parenting ideals and parenting reality, however, is the contrast between the rules I set for my children and the things I decide to do for myself. After limiting their sugar and their screen time, and sending them to bed at a reasonable time, I find myself up hours later, after consuming significant amounts of cookie dough, binge-watching a TV show, and impulse-buying things I definitely don’t need on the internet.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to this disconnect between what we truly need, and what we often choose instead. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… listen, so that you may live.”

Isaiah was speaking to a people Israel who were just at the end of their exile in Babylon, or who had just returned from it. These are people both physically and spiritually hungry, and the prophet speaks to both hungers.  Pay attention to your deepest needs, the prophet encourages: seek good physical and spiritual nutrition. Be good stewards of your time, your resources, yourselves.  

What the prophet Isaiah describes sounds a little bit like what we might today call self-care. When we are worn out by work, by life, we are told: take care of yourself; you deserve it! In our culture, self-care often consists of movie marathons, bottomless tubs of ice cream, and baths with an improbable amount of bubbles. Self-care is wine glasses large enough to serve soup in. Self-care is luxury items with which to delight our senses, decorate our persons, and astound our neighbors. 

Self-care, according to today’s wisdom and advertising, is pleasure. Superficial, momentary pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be delightful and harmless, especially in moderation.  But choosing pleasure to excess, or choosing pleasure as our only form of self-care, is like choosing a bag of cheese puffs, or a pouch of sour-patch kids, when our bodies are longing for dark green leafy vegetables.

Last week, a clergy colleague of mine commented on social media that about 30% of her pastoral care consists of one thing: encouraging people to get some sleep. Which is to say, the deepest needs of our bodies and souls aren’t usually terribly complicated. It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to take care of ourselves. We’re not that complex to care for. Many of us simply need more rest, more movement, more dark green leafy vegetables. And then, to round it out, we need a little safe space in which to feel our feelings, and a little affirmation that we’re loveable and loved.

Our needs aren’t so complicated. But these simple, deep needs: these kale salads for our soul are somehow hard to choose. It’s easier to reach for the cheese puffs, the sour-patch kids, and the soup-bowl size glass of wine. What is the harm?  We’re adults, after all!  No one is the boss of us. No one can scold us and make us go to bed early.

But what if, when our pleasures don’t truly satisfy us, we just keep masking our deepest hungers with more pleasures, until our bank accounts and our bodies and our spirits are depleted? What if we spend our whole lives going hungry, when a feast is within easy reach?

There’s also another reason to try something different. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “See, I have made you witness to the peoples.”  Whatever we do, other folks will notice: our children, our friends, our loved ones. As God’s people, we have a responsibility to live a full and deep and beautiful life, not only for our own deep satisfaction, but to show others that it can be done: to help other folks choose abundant life

So here is my question. If you really cared about someone – a child, an adult, anyone – if someone was precious to you, what are the suggestions that you would make, to help them live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life? What are the most important rules, habits, expectations, or reminders, would you offer them?

You have some wonderful wisdom, I know, about how to live well: deeply, generously, abundantly. So, please: consider taking your own advice.  Write your suggestions down, post them on your bathroom mirror, keep them somewhere where you’ll see them often. Be your own loving parent, and send yourself to bed early, and well-nourished.

Please pray with me.

God, your thoughts are not our thoughts; your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts and ways are so far above ours. Again and again, we choose what does not satisfy us; what cannot help us live well, love God, or serve our neighbors, but only depletes us, and wastes our time and money. Help us to care for ourselves and what is ours in a better way; as well as we would advise others to do. Draw us towards healthy food for body and spirit, a liberating word for our hearts and our lives, for you are always offering us what is good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bargaining with God

Genesis 15:1-18

When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

Please pray with me.

Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.

A Community Garden

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Our human bodies, in other words, are earth; as we know also from the second story of Creation, in which God forms us by hand from clay.

We are dust; we are earth; we are clay. Our bodies are like little plots of land, temporarily assigned to us by the organizer of an enormous community garden.

Have you ever spent time in a community garden, one of the ones divided into little individual plots? In warmer weather, I often walk through the one on the side of Cousins’ field, a few blocks away from here. I love seeing how different each section of the garden is. Some folks have elaborate fencing, while others seem unconcerned with protecting their borders. Some folks lay down straw between their plantings, others woodchips. Some use black plastic to keep down the weeds. Some folks fill their whole plot with tomato plants, so that by August there are an unbelievable number of heavy, red tomatoes sagging on the vine; almost too many to pick, even on a few square yards of land. Other folks plant a great variety of things: eggplants and zuchinnis and pumpkins, several kinds of lettuce, a selection of herbs, borders of colorful flowers, and accents of whimsical garden decor. Some plots show the marks of a meticulously ordered mind, and dedicated daily care, while others are beautiful in their wildness.

I wonder: what kind of garden are you growing, on your little plot of God’s green earth?

Our scriptures are full of plants, both literal and symbolic. Our first scripture this morning, from Deuteronomy, works on both levels. It speaks of the importance of bringing the first fruits of our harvest to God. God has done so much for us, and for our ancestors, the scripture argues, that it is only right that our very first fruits should be shared with God and with God’s people. “You shall set [your offering] down before God and bow down. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God has given to you.” (Deut. 26:11)

Our second scripture passage speaks not of abundance, but the lack of it. Out in the bleakness of the wilderness, far from water, and without any food at all, Jesus contends with the devil. What will he do, what will he say, while deprived and depleted in the desert?

The Hebrew scriptures describe how God nourishes us with water, so that our leaves will never wilt (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8).  God sometimes destroys plants in scripture, ripping them out of the ground or even burning their roots.  Other roots, like the root of Jesse, are miraculously preserved.

In the Greek scriptures, Jesus uses parables about seeds to describe how the good news of the gospel grows, or fails to grow, in the soil of our lives.  He curses a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Matthew 21:19). Jesus also says, “I am the true vine.. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (John 15:1, 5)

The letters of the early Church in our scriptures are surprisingly full of plant imagery as they describe the identity and spiritual health of new Christian communities. We are compared to a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the existing plant of faith (Romans 11). We are instructed that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10) and warned of the danger of a root of bitterness in our communities (Hebrews 12:15). We are told that we are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17). And in the letter to the Colossians, we hear: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

At the very end of our bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), and just a few verses later, Jesus proclaims: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16

In all this rich plant imagery, it’s hard to pick a favorite text, but I am particularly drawn to a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that I hadn’t remembered (7:15, 17-22):

May God grant me to speak with judgement,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise…
For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits* and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

O to know the virtues of roots!
Imagine that your body is a small plot of land, a temporary assignment in a community garden as large as the universe. There’s a lot we can’t control about the plot of land we are given. We can’t change the kind of soil we have, the sun exposure, the natural rainfall, which plots border ours. But there’s many variables we do have a choice about: what we plant, and what we pull up. How we employ mulch, and manure, and irrigation.  Whether we undertake staking and pest control.

What kind of garden are you growing, with the plot of land you were given?  Is there anything about your gardening habits that you’d like to change?

As we start this season, I encourage all of you to consider claiming a Lenten practice: something you will intentionally do or not do, this season. It may be that you have too much of something in your garden right now: aphids, or acidity, or technology, or plastic, or self-criticism.  It may be that you have too little of something in your garden right now: nutrients, or water, or movement, or meaningful human connection.

Come see our strips of soil and add your own!

Let’s take a moment now to consider at least one thing that you could do, if only for these forty days of Lent, that would bring greater health to your garden. If you are moved, and if you have not already done so, please write down your commitment (anonymously) on a brown strip of paper, to be dedicated here today, and to encourage and inspire others here.

On Ash Wednesday, those who were here started some new roots, by placing plant cuttings in water, in the jars that are now in our entryway. As the season starts, we’re also enriching our soil, with these pieces of paper, these commitments to ourselves, and our community, and to our world.  Who knows what could grow, if we only grant ourselves what we truly need?

Please pray with me: Holy God, I am a humble little plot in your great creation, dust and dirt, earth and clay, seeded by your Spirit. Please forgive my inexpert gardening, and grant me the grace to keep on trying, while I learn from you about the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. Build up my soil, and establish my soul until it grows strong, flourishing in all seasons. May I bear abundant fruit, offering my first fruits to you, sharing my bounty with neighbors and strangers, and in good time, returning my plot to your careful stewardship. Amen.

Good Friday Vespers

This year our service was held around a cross in the midst of the sanctuary, with scripture, prayer, silence, and song inviting us to consider the events surrounding Jesus’ death and what they mean for us today. Here’s a piece of reflection from Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

When the followers of Jesus tried to understand who Jesus was, they naturally turned to the stories and figures in their sacred scripture and in Jewish tradition. Some people imagined Jesus to be a prophet, like Elijah. Others believed him to be a king, like David. Others believed him to be the messiah, or a messiah: someone anointed by God to bring salvation to the people. Tonight Joanna read a passage from the Hebrew scriptures that describes another figure who became important to followers of Jesus then and now: the suffering servant, from the book of Isaiah.

The suffering servant is a confusing and somewhat contradictory figure in scripture. Some aspects of the description may be hard for many of us to accept as a description of Jesus. In particular, the idea that God might require or plan for a human sacrifice to redeem the sin of others may not resonate with our beliefs.

But as we prepare to hear the story of the Passion at the close of this service, I am struck by how this passage from Isaiah captures many things that I do believe about Jesus. Like the suffering servant, Jesus was nothing special to look at; no one ever mentions that Jesus was particularly beautiful. He wasn’t rich, didn’t come from a powerful family. And like the suffering servant, Jesus becomes a scapegoat for the errors and fears of others. In the end, by Jesus is arrested, and killed: not because he has done anything wrong, but in order to appease leaders and people who are wary of the problems he might cause, or the values he represents.

It’s important to remember, as ancient Jewish followers of Jesus and modern Christian followers of Jesus draw connections between Jesus and the suffering servant, that the suffering servant in scripture is not actually one person, but a representation of a whole people: the people Israel.  So perhaps a meaningful way to bring this Hebrew text, and our gospel text, into our current day is to think not only of Jesus, but of the communities of people who, though innocent, are experiencing blame, scapegoating, suffering, and execution.  I think of black Americans; trans folks, and the whole GLBTQ+ community; those who experience domestic violence, and gun violence; people suffering with disease. I’m sure you can think of others.

Suffering, and violent or untimely death are hard for us to think about if we don’t have to. Sometimes we ignore them. Or, in Christian tradition, we have sometimes glorified them. Today we try, instead, simply to acknowledge them: to open our hearts to the sadness in the life of the Jewish people, and in the life of Jesus, and in our world today.  To bring our own heartbreaks to be joined with the tears of Jesus, and the tears of the world.

 

Love First

John 12:20-33

Everyone is talking about Jesus.  They’re talking about Jesus, because of what happened with Lazarus. It is not so long before our gospel passage for today that Jesus learns that his friend has died. He goes to the tomb and asks for the stone to be taken away.  He cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up out of the tomb.

We can imagine that a story like this would get around. A teacher named Jesus raised someone from the dead? Everyone is talking, rumors are spreading, and more and more people are coming to see the one who defied death.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, and some folks don’t like it. Roman leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will revolt against their rule. Jewish leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will provoke the Romans into harming other Jewish people. A few folks begin to wonder if it might be a good preventative measure to kill Jesus, or Lazarus, to prevent wider bloodshed.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, excited, worried, and Jesus knows it. For a while, he hides out, avoiding the conflict. But eventually he decides: it’s time. Jesus travels into Jerusalem for the great feast of Passover -we’ll remember this story next week. There are lots of people in Jerusalem, and when they see Jesus, they tear palm branches from the trees and wave them in the air, shouting, “Hosanna!”

Amidst this great crowd, those who saw Lazarus rise continue to testify. This story about Jesus continues to spread. So, as our text for today begins, Greeks, Jews from the greater diaspora, folks who just arrived in the region, come to see for themselves the one who defied death.  They tell Philip, with great politeness: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The scene is set for Jesus to tell us more. Will he explain how he did it, how he lifted Lazarus from the dead? Will Jesus promise to do away with death forever?  No such luck. Jesus is always happy to challenge people’s expectations. He says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Instead of telling us how to conquer death, Jesus starts talking about what we might call the benefits of death: his death, our death, the death of our lives as we know them. Jesus talks about death, and service, and glory, and is answered from the heavens, with a voice that sounds like thunder, or angels. And then Jesus concludes, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So much for immortality. They way of Jesus, it seems, does not set itself against death. Following Jesus, we are led closer to death. In fact, the path of Jesus moves through death.  It is only on the other side of death that the story takes a positive turn: the grain bears much fruit; we discover eternal life; Jesus is lifted up from the earth; Jesus draws all people to himself.

What does it mean that Jesus speaks in this way about death? Is he recommending martyrdom as a path for all of us? Does he believe that suffering and death are glorious or productive? Should they be something that we seek? (more…)