Month: April 2009
When Nothing Else Makes Sense
If we are feeling this today, can you imagine what the disciples must have been feeling? They were on the ground floor of something wonderful; they were part of changing the world. This radical roving man who they had agreed to follow for life was doing something incredible! What was happening now, though? Was it only five days ago that we came to town? Was it only five days ago that we were at the height of these years—processing into town with all those people cheering us on? Was it just last night that we were eating dinner together? And, now this? What went wrong? Surely this would turn out alright! After all, this man works miracles! But there was to be no miracle this time.
We Christians have spent centuries trying to make sense of the cross, perhaps even trying to take our own humanity and our own part out of the equation. The truth is that Jesus was put to death because we as humans expected something different. It was humans who took control and did this. But there are more theories of the cross and its atoning power than most of us will ever fathom. It has been described by some as a cosmic battle between good and evil, a battle that God seems to lose at first only to pull it out in the end. Then there is the belief that the cross depicted God’s love in such that we humans might be compelled to follow in faith. And there are those for whom the cross is the satisfaction paid to God for the sins of the world, a substitution of the redeemer for the sinful, implying that God somehow demands a ransom in order to release our redemption and salvation. In all honesty, I struggle with all of these. In fact, none of them by themselves really makes sense to me.
There’s still a lot in this world that doesn’t make sense. September 11, 2001 still clangs loudly in our hearts, with its almost jarring effects of despair and hopelessness, suffering and death, and its intrusive way that it has affected our well-tuned and carefully planned lives. Communities were devastated, lives were shattered, and the pall of an incredible hopelessness still to some extent hangs in our hearts over Ground Zero.
But more than 2,800 miles away, there were some 75,000 people in the city of Seattle who responded to their own shock and sadness of that day by bringing more than a million flowers to the International Fountain in the Seattle Center. By depositing beauty, it was their way of honoring those who had suffered in the devastation. It was there way of creating something new. But we know that we cannot hold life in our hands. And so as the flowers started to decay, echoing their own tales of death and stench and despair, hundreds of volunteers began the painstaking effort of separating the flowers from the paper, plastic, mementos, and wires that were mixed with them and then chopped and mashed the 80 cubic yards of flowers into mulch for composting.
We had always envisioned a Savior that would make the world around us alright again. Instead God in Christ began recreating the world into that which it is supposed to be. That, of course, is hard to grasp as we stand at the foot of the cross watching our Lord writhe in pain and despair. But Jesus Christ came as fully human, with all of the feelings and emotions that we experience. Christ knew what it was like to be human, knew what it was like to feel pain, and knew what it was like to grieve. It is tempting to ask where God was through all this. God was there. God went to the cross first.
On This Night
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
My Grandmother once told me that the very first time that she was about to leave to go out on a date, her father looked her in the eyes and simply said, “Remember who you are”. When my father left his home to go to college, he was sent away with those same words: “Remember who you are.” And even though I probably too eagerly jumped in my little yellow Toyota and headed off perhaps a little too fast for my parents to have a chance to actually say the words, I too began a new life with the same words echoing from my childhood: “Remember who you are.” It was engrained and embedded deep within my being.
Sometimes life spins a little out of control. Sometimes things don’t go exactly like the carefully scripted plan we have in our own minds. Sometimes we have to let go or leave behind those in our lives before we’re actually ready to do so. Our lives are full of “last times”, those special, much-too-fleeting moments that we spend with those we love. It is those times when all we can do is trust that the groundwork has been laid for what must continue. Sometimes in those moments when we feel that time is ending all too soon the only thing that we can say is to “remember who you are”.
That had to be a little of what Jesus was going through on this night. Think about it…he had spent his ministry gathering those around him, teaching them, loving them, and indeed shaping them into who they were. And now…here he was completely out of time…the end was approaching. Night had begun to fall. All he could do was trust that the seeds he had planted in his followers would continue to grow and flourish even in a new environment and a new time. So on this night, he invited all those who love him—this somewhat motley crew of misfits and ordinary ones to sit around the table and enjoy their time together. He knew what was about to happen. He knew that this would be the last.
That is where we enter the story…in the midst of this evening meal…this Passover meal…the last meal. The feast is prepared. The loved ones are gathered together. We have visions of a perfect meal and a perfect time together. But, as all of us know, that is not always the way that family meals come together. This was no exception. Nestled beneath this wonderful feeling of closeness and fellowship were chords of betrayal and distrust, signs of denial and misunderstandings, and an all-too-constant stream of arguing among the disciples. Does that sound familiar?
But in this Passover meal that we have come to call the Last Supper, Jesus chooses to share himself—his very body and blood with all of those that were gathered—this denying, betraying, bickering, and beloved lot. It was a way of giving them something to remember him so that they would not feel so alone without him. He gave them something to hold onto—to touch and to taste—something to do to keep Christ close in their hearts. On this night, Jesus gives the gift of himself and a way for all of us to remember who we are.
This is the meal that shapes us. This is the meal that enables us to remember who we are. This is the meal that reminds us from where we came. This is the meal that lets us remember what Christ did for us. But this is also the meal, this holy sacrament, this retelling and remembrance into the core of our being that allows us to taste what is to come, to get a glimpse of what is holy and sacred and once again bring it into who we are.
Go forth and do this in remembrance of Jesus Christ!
Grace and Peace,
Betrayed and Beloved
Scripture Reading: John 13: 21-32
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Today’s lectionary Gospel passage begins with…”Jesus was troubled in spirit.” He knew. He knew that a friend would betray him. It made him angry and indignant. But, more than that…it had to hurt. That has to be one of the worst pains imaginable. Because…think about it…betrayal is not something that you do to a stranger. You do not speak of inadvertently cutting someone off in traffic as a “betrayal”. For, you see, betrayal…true betrayal…is a deep-cutting blade that that can only cut into the closest of relationships. As painful as it may be, betrayal only happens in the midst of true intimacy. And that is the most painful of all.
“Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” What? The disciples looked at each other flabbergasted. NOT one of us. (And even if it was one of us, it is certainly not I. I love you! You are my Lord!) So Simon Peter leans in…Jesus…come here…come on, you can tell me…who is it? And Jesus, with perfect parabolic eloquence responds…It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. And then he hands it to Judas. Do quickly what you are going to do.
But the disciples didn’t get it. Well, of course not…because it really doesn’t make sense. So they began speculating. You know what I bet he really MEANT to say? He MUST have been telling him to buy something for the festival or to give something to the poor. (After all, just a few days ago, Judas was worried about the poor and why money was not being spent on them rather than on the extravagant anointing of our Lord!) NOW it makes sense. Because NONE of us could betray Jesus. And so the other disciples are removed from the betrayal, relieved of the blame.
So Judas leaves immediately. Even in the midst of betrayal, he is quietly obedient, knowing in his heart where he really belongs and is not going. And the passage ends as the darkness of night falls.
And, in all honesty, there is a little Judas in all of us. There are those times when we inadvertently choose the darkness, either intentionally or unintentionally. There are those times when our greed or maybe even our fears drive us to choose the security of wealth, fleeting as it may be, over trust in Christ. There are times when our own blindness toward others compels us to choose our own personal bread, rather than a community feast. And there are times when even our love for our Lord is so shrouded in the darkness of greed, and insecurity, and selfishness towards others that we once again hand him over to be crucified in our hearts. We all must ask the question “Is it I”? And we all must face the uncomfortable truth that sometimes it is. The question for us becomes: Are we more like Judas or more like the beloved disciple? The truth is, we are both. If we forget that we are like Judas, then we forget sin that always distorts our reality. If we forget that we are like the beloved disciple, then we are blocking the Spirit who makes everything new. We are the forgiven sinners as well as the created children, the betrayers and the beloved.
So where does that leave Judas? We still do not really have a clear answer as to the motivation that compelled him to betray Jesus. Maybe that’s not what matters at this point. Maybe we’re not even supposed to know. And yet, many people have spent the ages trying their best to condemn him. Dante would have placed him on fourth level of the ninth circle of hell, the lowest of inferno. I tend to err more on the side of God’s mercy.
Because, you see, the good news is that God does not love us in spite of who we are; God loves us because of who we are—the betrayer and the beloved, the Judas and the one whom Jesus loved. God loved us before any human person could show love to us—a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love. And here, in the midst of the shadows of this week, a light flickers in the darkness. Holy Thursday does not end with betrayal. It ends with love. It ends with life, whether we are the beloved, the ones who deny, or the ones who run away, and even for the Judas’s in all of us. So do not let your hearts be troubled. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
So go forth into the light–darkness and all!
Grace and Peace,
What is This Thing About Wheat?
Scripture Reading: John 12: 24-33 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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment 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.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
But now is the time for the Son of Man to be glorified. For, as Jesus says, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just single lone grain, worth nothing; but if it dies, it bears fruit and lives on. You see, wheat is known as a caryopsis, meaning that the outer “seed” and the inner fruit are connected. The seed essentially has to die so that the fruit can emerge. If you were to dig around in the ground and uproot a stalk of wheat, you would not find the original seed. It is dead and gone. In essence, the grain must allow itself to be changed.
So what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully thwart change, avoid conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we have no life at all. He goes on…”Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. And whoever does this, God will honor.” This is the only time that the Gospel speaks of God honoring someone. And we begin to see the connection unfolding. Whoever follows Jesus through his death, will become part of his everlasting life.
Jesus wanted us to understand not just that he was leaving, not just that his death was imminent, but that this journey to the cross was not just his to make, but ours. Now is the time to walk with Jesus to the cross.
And, yet, we still struggle with the whole meaning of the cross. We still struggle over why Jesus had to die at all. Why couldn’t Jesus just figure out a way out of this whole sordid thing and stay around? The world needed to hear more from him. Because then it just would have stayed a seed. But, you see, because Jesus was willing to die, was willing to be changed; God could raise him from the dead and give fruit to the world.
And the cross…whether you believe that God sent Jesus to die, or that human fear and preoccupation with the self put Jesus to death, or whether you think the whole thing was some sort of colossal misunderstanding…the point of the cross is that God took the most horrific, the most violent, the worst that the world and humanity could offer and recreated it into life. And through it, everything—even sin, evil, and suffering is redefined in the image of God. By absorbing himself into the worst of the world and refusing to back away from it, Jesus made sure that it was all put to death with him. By dying unto himself, he created life that will never be defeated. And in the same way, we, too, are baptized into Jesus’ death and then rise to new life.
This is why we walk this journey toward the cross. This is why we spend time there before waking to the Easter lilies. This is the paschal mystery—that true life comes only through journeys through death where we come to understand who God is for us. Christ is died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. God has given us a new consciousness and a new way of seeing life and in an act of ultimate divine love, the cross became God’s highest act of Creation. It is God’s recreation of everything. “But if it dies, it will bear much fruit.”
So go forth toward the cross, die to self, and bear much fruit in Christ!
Grace and Peace,
Oil and Water
Scripture Reading: John 12: 1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Holy Week has begun. We have walked this road to the cross throughout this Lenten season and now it is upon us. Most of us don’t really know what it is that we’re supposed to do with this week. We have gone through this season hearing its call to repentance, to emptying, to looking at things differently. But, still, the ending is beginning to loom bigger than we imagined it would be. What is it, exactly, that we’re supposed to do this week?
Henri Nouwen tells us that “passion is a kind of waiting—waiting for what other people are going to do.”[i] He claims that all of Jesus’ life leading up to this week—all of the teaching, all of the healing, all of the miracle-making, the welcoming of sinners, the turning of tables in front of the saints, every action that was part of who Jesus was ends in this week of passion. And the reason is that, as Nouwen says, “All action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community…And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love. God reveals [Godself] in Jesus as the one who waits for our response.”[ii] This is the week when Jesus stops doing and waits to be handed over. This is the week when Jesus waits on others.
We are not used to a Christ who does nothing. We are, rather, more comfortable when Jesus is showing us how to do what we’re supposed to do as followers. We are not accustomed to such a passive Christ. I looked up the word “passive” in an etymological dictionary. The root is the Latin passiuus. And then, surprisingly enough, it says “See Passion.” The etymological root of passion, the term that we use to describe Jesus’ suffering journey to the cross, is the Latin passionem, or suffering. And it says “See Passive.” The two words are related. The “Passion”, this time of suffering and being “handed over”, is a movement from planned and intentional action to no longer being in control. All of Jesus’ actions are accomplished. It is finished. It is a time of waiting—waiting for others’ response.
In our lectionary Gospel reading for this Holy Monday, we find this passive Jesus. He visits the home of friends, the home of those whom he had served, those for whom he had done things. And, it says, they give a dinner for him. Jesus is the guest of honor. After all the doing, after all the action, after all the stuff, he now spends time with friends. And they serve him. And then the passage tells us that Mary takes a pound of costly perfumed nard, breaks the seal, and lavishly pours it onto Jesus’ feet. Then as the oil runs down his feet and begins to drip to the floor, she wipes his feet with her hair. The whole house is filled with this overwhelming fragrance.
Well, the disciples just couldn’t leave it alone. What in the world was she doing? Here is this man who has worked for years to bring peace and justice to the world, to heal others, to end poverty and oppression and you waste this oil by pouring it out on him! That oil could have been sold. Things could have been done with that money! We could have done great ministry with what you just poured on his feet! But you have wasted it! You have squandered it!
Then Jesus responds. “Leave her alone,” he says. You see, she gets it. She understands. I do not have long to be with you. She knows where I am going. And she responds. This woman loves Jesus. In fact, she loves Jesus so much that she defies the expected and instead pours out the abundance of her life and anoints Jesus for his burial. This is not the time to talk about budgets or the ways things are normally done. This is the time of Jesus’ waiting and her response. As she anointed Jesus, Mary entered Jesus’ Passion and understood what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ.
There are those in our society that would describe that breakthrough as being “born again”. But that phrase, commonplace and probably overused and misused as it is today, was not even around over a hundred years ago. Instead, the words that were used to describe this coming into who Jesus is was to say that one was “seized by the power of a great affection.” Isn’t that an incredible phrase—to be “seized by the power of a great affection”? You see, we 21st century folks usually think we have it all figured out. We know what we’re called to do to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We live our lives as best we can within the framework of what God wants us to do. And we do what we can for others by reaching out in the name of Christ. All of that is wonderful. But are we truly “seized by the power of a great affection”? Why do you think Jesus did everything that he did while he was on this earth? Was it just to show us what it is we’re supposed to do? No, Jesus was more than merely an exemplary human being put here for us to emulate. Jesus came to reveal God’s love, to show us how much God loves each of us and how much God desires us, to make known once and for all the affection that God has for all of God’s Creation and for us as children of God. Jesus was God made known, Emmanuel.
There is a story from the Sufi mystical tradition of a disciple that comes to an elder for direction.
“Where shall I find God?” the disciple asked the elder. “God is with you,” the Holy One replied. “But if that is true,” the disciple asked, “why can I not see this Presence?” “Because you are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notices the water.” It is not that God is not with us; it is that we are unaware of that incredible Presence.[iii]
When we finally stop doing what we think we should be doing and listen for that which God is calling us to be we will become aware of that extraordinary Presence that is God. And in that becoming, we enter the Christ-life.
In our faith understanding, the Sacrament of Baptism is the beginning of our life as a Christian, a new life in Christ, the beginning of a journey toward oneness with God, toward the life of Christ. The waters of Baptism remind us of God’s ever-Presence in our lives, of God’s claim on us, and of the great love that God has for us that was revealed in Christ. It is sacramental because it is God’s love made visible for us. Through this sacrament, we enter this journey with God.
In much the same way, Mary poured the oil upon Jesus. The act was sacramental. Mary understood that love. She entered that love. Indeed, she was “seized by the power of a great affection”. And in pouring the oil, she entered Jesus’ Passion. She became part of Jesus’ journey to the cross.
In Baptism, God uses water to make God’s love visible to us. And as Mary poured the oil on Christ, she made her love visible to God. And, do you remember your basic chemistry lesson? If you pour oil into the water, the oil is raised to the top. Oil and water…God uses both to make this incredible love visible to us. And immersed in that love, we will find ourselves “seized by the power of a great affection.”
This is the week when we come to the end of all our doing. This is the week when we walk with Christ through betrayal and suffering and last suppers and final endings. This is the week when we finally realize that we can do nothing else. And on that final day, as the passive Christ is handed over, there is nothing more for him to do other than wait for our response. Who will follow me? Who will come to me with all your misery and your sins, with all your trouble and your needs, and with all your longings to be loved. Who will follow me? Who will hand over their lives just as I have done that you too might be raised to new life? Because it is then that the oil will be poured out for you in much the same way as you are immersed in the waters of your Baptism.
This week is not an easy one to walk. Sometimes we are still not sure what it is that we’re supposed to do. But this week is not about us; it is not about what we do or how we do it; this week is the week that we are called to be “seized by the power of a great affection”, to become one with Christ, to enter Christ’s suffering and passion and waiting, to make our very lives a sacramental journey. And as we come closer and closer to what seems to be a final ending, we will finally be aware that we are never really alone. God calls us. God is waiting for our response.
In the Name of the One who journeys with us to the Cross!
Grace and Peace,
[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “From Action to Passion”, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books f/ Plough Publishing, 2003), 179-185.
[iii] Joan Chittister, There Is a Season (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 14.
From Palms to Silence
Scripture Reading: Mark 11: 1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Today is Palm Sunday. It was glorious this morning! The day was beautiful. While it was a little dark at the early service, by the time 11:00 rolled around, it was sunny with a little breeze. (Not like last year, when the gale-force winds wrapped a Lenten banner around me just as I was rounding the corner into the church! I’m sure I provided quite a show for the passersby on Main Street.) The crowds poured into the sanctuary, palms waving, while the brass ensemble played. We like parades. We like celebrations. Just for a moment, we are at the height of Jesus’ life–his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Just for a moment, we feel like victory is about to be declared, that our player has won the game, that our beliefs have been proven right. We wave the palm branches and sing the triumphant hymns. And then….silence.
Just as quickly we move from the Palm Processional to the Passion. Just as quickly we move from triumphalism to surrender. We read through the account of Jesus’ Passion, suffering, and death. The palm branches now litter the sanctuary floor. We step on them to stand and sing “O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done.” And reality sets in as the sheer purple fabric is draped over the cross.
I have not usually liked the idea of the whole Palm/Passion Sunday thing. It has always felt like we were trying to cram a whole week of despair and suffering into a few minutes and get it over with–sort of like swallowing bad-tasting medicine quickly before it causes any real damage to our palate. But I am struck with the rawness of juxtaposing the whole triumphalism thing with the images of hopelessness and despair. Perhaps it makes us wake up and take notice. Perhaps it makes us finally realize the ludicrousness of the way we sometimes lives our lives, of the way we sometimes think about things, in the face of what God is calling us to be, in the face of where God is calling us to follow.
And so we enter this week by moving quickly from triumphalism to silence, from celebrating to listening, from action to waiting, and from feeling justified because we believe the way we believe to the Passion of Christ crucified.
Our hosannas sung, our palms waved, let us go with passion into this week.
It is a time to curse fig trees that do not yield fruit,
It is a time to cleanse our temples of any blasphemy.
It is a time to greet Jesus as the Lord’s Anointed One,
to lavishly break our alabaster and pour perfume out for himwithout counting the cost.
It is a time for preparation…
(From “Holy Week”, Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 67.)
So go forth on your journey to the cross and prepare for your Christ!
Grace and Peace,