Et Tu, Judas

The Judas Tree

Lectionary Text:  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.

Jesus knew who would betray him.  It was his friend, the one that had accompanied him as he traveled around the lake teaching, the one who had met his family, the one who on those long nights after those just-as-long frustrating days had listened to him.  In fact, it would be the one he trusted.  The one who held the purse that bought them small but nourishing meals and paid their way, the one that had figured out how to budget the money so that they could get to Jerusalem.  It was the one that had it together.  It was the last one that he would have thought would do this.  But Jesus knew who would betray him.  It hurt, hurt more deeply than anyone would ever know.  Et Tu, Judas?  Even you, Judas?

“Kiss of Judas”
Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308)

The others will never figure it out.  They are too busy trying to figure out who it is (and trying to make sure that it’s not them!)  Isn’t that what we do?  In an odd sort of way, this Scripture holds some degree of comfort for us.  After all, Judas is bad, SO bad that whatever it is we mess up can’t possibly be as bad.  And so the world blames Judas for all of our wrongs.  Because, if we make Judas look bad, then maybe we won’t look as bad as we know we might be.  Dante would place him in the fourth level of the ninth rung of hell.  Now let me tell you, that is NOT good.  According to Dante’s Inferno, Judas shares this rung with Brutus and Cassius, who played a part in the murder of Julius Caesar.  (Et Tu, Brute?)  We are no better.  As long as there is a Judas, we
                                                                                        are not the worst.

But, really, do you think God desires our innocence?  If that was the case, we might as well all hang it up right now!  The truth is, none of us is innocent.  Innocence died a really long time ago.  And, interestingly enough, God didn’t have any need to resurrect that.  God does not desire our innocence; God desires us.  God desires repentance, reconciliation, and redemption.  God calls us to turn toward God, be with God, and accept that gift of forgiveness that God offers us.  That’s all it takes.  If God wanted perfect people, I’m thinking God would have made them.  God would have populated the world with a bunch of stepford pod-people and things probably would have gone a lot smoother.  I don’t know…maybe God wanted better dinner conversation.  Maybe God desired a good story.  Or maybe, just maybe, God wanted us to choose God rather than being compelled by something other than ourself.  And so God offers forgiveness for whatever we’ve pulled in the past.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in Speaking of Sin, contends that it is sin that is our only hope.  Because it is when we know that we have failed, when we know that we have moved farther away from God, when we name what it is that stands in our way, that the doors will swing open with a force we never knew and all of a sudden, we find ourselves sitting at the table in a place that we did not think we deserved.  Isn’t God incredible?  So, why do we need to blame Judas?  We are all looking for God.  Sometimes we just make bad choices.  But God always offers us another chance.  Forgiveness is the starting point for change, the beginning of the rest of our eternity.

Madeleine L’Engle tells an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit.  For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light.  After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it.  The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down.  Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down.  It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb again.  After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table.  “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas.  We couldn’t begin till you came.”[i]

Et tu, Judas!  Even you, Judas!  Even you!

The path now seems to fly beneath us
And our doubts get carried away
We begin to question if we are more apt
To follow or betray
We hear the story of Judas’ deed
And quickly jump to blame,
But more than that we have to ask
If we might have done the same.

So, in this holiest of weeks, look first at yourself and find those places that separate you from God, and then look to God.  The table is waiting.  We can’t begin till you come!
Grace and Peace in this holiest of weeks,
Shelli

[i] From “Waiting for Judas”, by Madeleine L’Engle, in Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2003), 312.

   

Unless A Grain of Wheat Dies

Lectionary Text:  John 12: 20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

The tide has begun to turn.   The palm branches and spilled perfume have turned to talk about death and we wonder how long we can take it.  We live in a world that tries it best to avoid death, either literally or figuratively.  We instead work to be in total control of our lives and of what happens to us.  And so we push death away.  But here Jesus is saying that it is death the brings life, that relinquinshing control and letting go allows the fruit to grow and prosper.  That is totally backwards from what we have figured out our lives should be.  So what, then, does this all mean?

This passage never really made sense to me until I discovered that wheat is a caryopsis.  This means that the single seed of this plant remains joined with the ovary wall.  Together, they form the grain.  In other words, the seed does not remain a seed but rather dies to self and becomes the grain, a true metamorphosis into new life.  In essence, death and life are interconnected, indeed dependent one upon the other.  So, Jesus was using this as a metaphor for what would happen to him and, ultimately, what would happen to us.  Our death and our life are interconnected.  In this life, we find death.  And then in death, we find new life.  Abraham Heschel said that “eternal life does not grow away from us; it is planted within us growing beyond us.” (Sabbath, p. 74)  So, our life, our eternal life has already begun.  It is already part of us.

So, why is this still difficult for us?   I think that it is because when we start talking about death and crosses and dying to self, we have to face our own self in order to do that.  No longer can we be satisfied with a Sunday-only sort of faith.  No longer can we just talk about it.  Dying to self calls for real change, real reflection.  And perhaps change is more painful than death itself.  The cross is the place where our humanity meets the Divine head-on.  There is no holding back.  There is no hiding away.  There is no waiting for a better time.

But we still want some sort of proof.  We still want to see Jesus.  I’m pretty sure that the reason that we don’t see it has more to do with us than with Jesus.  I have many times been on a bus racing across some country with a group of people trying to see as much as I could see–the Highlands of Scotland, the Alps of Austria, the rolling lands north of Moscow, Russia, or the wilderness desert around the Dead Sea.  Well, you get the idea.  You have your own images.  Oftentimes, rather than just sitting and enjoying the whole panoramic view, I have attempted to take pictures of it.  Well you know that it is a near-fact that if you try to snap a picture from a bus of a panoramic view, you will instead get a tree, or a highway sign, or, my favorite, the side of another bus.  It is not because the picture is not there; it is because you are moving too fast to see the whole thing.  When you move too fast, you don’t have enough space through which to encounter God, through which to see Jesus.



Jewish Cemetery near the
Old City of Jerusalem

 Holy Week provides space, space enough to see the Cross, space enough to see the life that comes from death, space enough to let go, space enough to breathe in what God has given us.  But this will not happen unless we slow down enough to let go of that to which we hold so tightly, let go of those things that you think you cannot live without, let go of those things that you are convinced are necessary for life.  Because you know what?  They’re really not.  Life cannot be unless a grain of what dies. 

Our path has taken us through the city and we are getting nearer and nearer to the Cross.  God never promised that we would not experience loss or pain or grief.  They are part of our human existence.  But at the Cross, there is enough space for the human to encounter the Divine.  At the Cross, a very human death becomes new life as the Divine spills onto the seed of our humanity and becomes life.  At the Cross, we will see Jesus.

And then the tide begins to turn
And talk of death ensues
But not just death for death’s dark sake
But death so life won’t lose.
We hear tales of wheat that when it dies
Leaves no seed behind
For the seed itself has died away
To itself bear fruit sublime

So, in this holiest of weeks, let go of that to which you hold, to that thing that you do not think you can live without.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

A Lingering Fragrance

“Christ in the House of Simon”
Dieric Bouts, 1440’s
(Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

Lectionary Text:  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.

You can imagine these friends around this table filled with wonderful-smelling food, telling stories and laughing together.  And then Mary gets up and picks up this beautiful jar full of expensive perfume.  She pours it lavishly on Jesus’ feet not caring how much she used.  The smell of the perfume fills the room.  And Mary kneels all the way down and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair as it spills onto the floor.  It is not the anointing itself that is all that unusual.  After all, it was normal to anoint kings at their coronation and priests at their ordination.  And, of course, anointing was a way to prepare a body after death.  Mary was anointing Jesus her Lord and King and preparing him for what would come next.  But those there missed that point.  They were much more worried about this expensive oil that was now soaking into the stone floor.

Now you have to understand that women were not supposed to put themselves in a position of being the center of attention. And they were not supposed to touch a man that was not their husband. And for a woman to let her hair down in public would have been considered a disgrace. So as those present saw her, Mary was making a total spectacle of herself. And then she wastes all this perfumed oil. Judas surmised that it could be sold for three hundred denairii. If that were true, that would have been close to one year’s wages for a laborer. But Albert Schweitzer said that “if you own something you cannot give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.”

Massada, Israel
Taken February, 2010

As for Mary, none of that mattered anyway. The love that she felt for Jesus just made all those things meaningless. She was truly overcome with love for Christ. And she wanted him to know that she got it. And so this act of extravagant generosity, this act of deep, incredible love, the kind of love that Jesus gave, becomes a sort of living embalming, an act that showed Jesus that Mary was with him on his way to the cross.  Think about some of the language—Mary took, poured, and wiped. We will hear those same words this Thursday in the account of Jesus’ last meal: Jesus took the bread, poured out the wine, and wiped the feet of the disciples, and through these common gestures and such common touch, Jesus shows us what true love is. And as Mary takes, and pours, and wipes, she shows that same love toward Christ, and this small crowded house in Bethany becomes a cathedral and this simple meal becomes a Eucharist. Through her touch, through her love, the ordinary becomes sacred. Mary enters Jesus’ life and he becomes part of her. And God enters that very room and Mary feels the presence of the Divine.  Her life becomes a sacrament that shows Jesus’ love to the world. And the whole world is now forever filled with the fragrance of that perfume.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Jesus has begun the walk to the cross. Are we standing on the sidelines watching the events unfold as if it is some sort of prepared video stream? Are we holding back those things we have because the cost is just too great? Or are we waiting to see what the person next to us will do? I’m afraid that I’m probably not standing in the right place on the stage of this story.  I’m afraid I probably AM too worried about the cost, about the loss, about what people will think.  But each of us is called to take, to pour, and to wipe. Each of us is called to become a living sacrament of Christ’s love. Each of us is called to walk with Christ to the cross. Each of us is called to embody that close a relationship with the living Christ that we will be positively overcome with our love for God. Each of us is called to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to feel, to laugh, and to love with the depth and passion of Christ.  Oh, I want to be one that spills out all that I am and all that I have with utterly reckless abandon. Because, you see, that is the only way to experience that lingering fragrance that is still in the air.

So we follow our Lord hoping against hope
That soon the road might veer
And get us back to a place we know
A place we do not fear.
And then the fragrance of spilled perfume
Begins to cloud our head
The woman takes and pours and wipes our Lord
And we wonder what we would’ve said.


So, on this holiest of walks, ask yourself what it is that you’re being asked to pour out for Christ and then do it joyfully until it spills onto and covers the floor of the world…

Grace and Peace in this holiest of weeks,

Shelli

Intersection

Lectionary Text:  Matthew 21: 1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Last year when I had the opportunity to drive into Jerusalem for the first time, my senses told me that this was no ordinary place.  Most cities have a character, sort of a defining theme.  But this is a city of intersections.  Coming together right here in this small city as cities go (only 49 square miles) is the old city, seemingly untouched by time, and the new sparkling buildings surrounding it.  It is today, as it has always been, a place where the conflicts of both social politics and religious politics come together, not in unity but rather somehow choosing to live side by side with boundaries defined by centuries of distrust for each other and often heightened by physical expressions of that conflict.  And, the most powerful for me, was the intersection of my own life that I live often comfortably removed from this walk of Christ with this entrance into these gates that I had read and heard so much about.  It was almost surreal, as if I was being compelled to live the past and at the same time walk headlong into my future.  Because it is easy to say that one follows Christ.  But where are you when the crowd enters into this city where you don’t feel unsafe but you don’t feel at ease?  Intersections are indeed places of faith, places where God meets you, places where you have to choose to follow or not.

The Palm Sunday Road
Taken February, 2010

Most of us love the Palm Sunday passage.  We like waving our palms and processing into the sanctuary as we did this morning.  We like being a part of this Hosanna crowd.  But this is no ordinary parade.  Winding down the narrow Palm Sunday Road from Mt. Olivet through the Garden of Gethsemane, there is no room for bystanders, no room for those of us that want to just see it and then sneak off through the olive trees.  The road is steep and propels us forward toward the Eastern gate of the city.

In their book “The Last Week”, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, contend that this was one of two parades.  The other was a grand and glorious Roman royal military parade coming into the Western gate.   The juxtaposition of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast.  Once came as an expression of empire and military occupation whose goal was to make sure oppressed people did not find deliverance.  It approached the city using horses, brandishing weapons, proclaiming the power of the empire.  The other procession, using a donkey and laying down cloaks and branches along the road, was coming quietly, profoundly proclaiming the peaceful reign of God.  Their contention is that our whole Palm Sunday “celebration”, as we call it, was a parody of the world as we know it, a satirical reminder that we are different.

Now whether you adhere to the notion of the two parades or not, I think it’s a powerful reminder to us what this processional of palms really meant.  Jesus had already made a name for himself from even as far away as Galilee.  But this was the city, the bustling intersection of Roman occupation and religious doctrine.  And when Jesus entered through the Eastern gate with his funny little entourage brandishing palms, even that was proclaiming blasphemous ideals (because remember that it had been prophesied that the Messiah would enter through the Eastern Gate, also known as the Messiah’s Gate and the Golden Gate).

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.  (Ezekiel 44: 1-3)

Street in Jerusalem
Taken February, 2010

So once they had entered this gate, this “parade” that we celebrate would have been on a clear collision course with power and might and the way things were in the world.  Once they had walked into the city, these two worlds, these two ways of being, would have collided.  It is easy for us to stand on the side and wave our palm branches but Palm Sunday thrusts us into something else.  It is an intersection of Galilee and Jerusalem, of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ Passion, of establishment and holy rebellion, of the ways of society and the Way of Christ.  This Palm Sunday processional, if we stay with it, thrusts us into Holy Week.  That is the reason that this is known as Palm / Passion Sunday.  You cannot disconnect the two notions.  This Way just keeps moving.  Where are you in the crowd?  The Way of Christ has turned toward the Cross.  Will you follow or go back to what you were doing?

On this day we joyously follow the crowd
Palms in hand and praises fair
Unaware that just inside the city gate
Worlds collide and tempers flare.
And we are faced with the choice
Between silent acquiescence and faith portrayed
For one will pacify the world we know
And one will take us farther along Christ’s Way.


As we enter this holiest of weeks, we must decide whether or not to follow.

Grace and Peace in Holiest of Weeks,

Shelli

WALK TO JERUSALEM: Metamorphosis

Scripture Text:  Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

So here we have the story of a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants.  He grows up, becomes a teacher, probably a rabbi, a healer, and sort of a community organizer.  He asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission.  They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this  person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And then one day, Jesus takes them mountain climbing, away from the interruptions of the world, away from what was brewing below.  Don’t you think they were sort of wondering where they were going?  Oh, if they only knew what would come!  And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before.  And on the mountain appear Moses and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, (and certainly not replacements one for the other) but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain. 

So Peter offers to build three dwellings to house them. I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God. I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do. But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed.  And then the voice…”This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” OK…what would you have done? First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die. We are surely going to die,” they must have thought. And then Jesus touches them and in that calm, collected manner, he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.

And so the disciples start down the mountain. Jesus remains with them but he tells them not to say anything. The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come. The disciples would know when to tell the story. They saw more than Jesus on the mountain. They also saw who and what he was. And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw. For now, he would just walk with them. God’s presence remains.

The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”. It is, literally, to change into something else. There is no going back. The truth is that the disciples probably got a little bit more of God’s presence than they wanted. Because there was more than just Jesus changed on that mountain. The disciples would never be the same again. We will never be the same again. The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. You know, I think they were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples. We’d rather not really have “all” of God. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives. We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change. We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze. In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.

Remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” God’s power is God’s power. It does not just come to us; we enter it—taking with it all that we are. It is not a warm and fuzzy relationship; it is wild and risky, full of awe and wander. It is mystery. It is more than anything that we can possibly imagine. It is a complete and total metamorphosis. There is no going back.

This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story—the quintessential mountain-top experience. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that the lectionary places this reading immediately before we begin the journey to Jerusalem.  In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now. And then the lights dim. Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.

Have you ever been mountain climbing? The way up is hard. You have to go slowly, methodically even. You have to be very careful and very intentional. You have to be in control. But coming down is oh, so much harder. Sometimes you can’t control it; sometimes the road is slick and seems to move faster than your feet. And sometimes, through no fault or talent of your own, you get to the bottom a little bit sooner than you had planned. Yes, it’s really harder to come down.  Jesus walked with the disciple in the silence. The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom. As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration is only understood in light of what comes next. Yes, the way down is a whole lot harder. We have to go back down, to the real world, to Jerusalem. We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross. We must do the same.

Jerusalem, Israel
February, 2010
Just outside Jerusalem we came to a gate called Truth.  We called to the gatekeeper to let us in.  “The latch is not on,” he replied.  “Anyone who will can enter.”  We went closer, but seeing how great and how heavy was the gate, we looked for a way around.  There must be a way around…The pilgrims trudge toward the death of God.  Only with bowed heads and closed eyes will they be able to see the way to Jerusalem.  (from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, 63-64)
Our Lenten journey is rounding the bend and we see the city up ahead.  The path has changed us.  So, go cut a palm branch and I will see you in Jerusalem!
Grace and Peace,
Shelli

WALK TO JERUSALEM: Orthodoxy

Scripture Text:  Matthew 5: 1-18
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

I’m no real Bible scholar but I think this passage is indeed the pinnacle of Jesus’ ministry.  This is the lynchpin, the place where it all comes together, and, sadly for this world and this culture, the place where Jesus’ message begins to turn away from an affirmation of what we do as “religious folk” to a calling to go forth and do something different.  This passage turns orthodoxy around.  Orthodox…what an interesting and misdefined word.  It has come to define the “accepted” beliefs of the church, the traditional views.  In essence, it has come to mean the opinion of the majority.  But history has shown us that that has often proved to be problematic.

Here’s a date for you:  April 15, 1947…on this day, 64 years ago, Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers and, against all odds, broke baseball’s race barrier and made history.  But, like most history, he had help.  Just before he was signed, the pastor of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn had a visitor.  The visitor’s was Branch Rickey, already well-known.  They didn’t have a deep pastoral care talk.  Rickey just paced.  And the minister went about his work.  Then Rickey plopped down in a chair and screamed, “I’ve got it.”  “I’m going to sign Jackie Robinson to the team.”  There were warnings.  A well-known reporter said that there would be riots in the street on this day.  Rickey instead believed that all of heaven would break loose.  (Check out Signing of Jackie Robinson )

The point is that it was time for a change.  It was time for a new way of doing things.  “Orthodoxy” actually means “right belief”.  What  is “right”?  What does that mean?  You see, I think of myself as “orthodox”.  I’m actually extremely traditional, even though I think that word gets a bad rap.  I mean, regardless of all of the church growth movements that profess to have the “ortho-statistics” for churches, I love traditional worship (I mean, REALLY traditional!) worship.  Give me a robe, a processional behind a crucifer, and a couple of Latin chants thrown in for good measure any day against screens and a preacher doing some sort of skit as he blocks my view of the altar.  But, really, that’s not belief.  That’s just where God meets me. The point is, we all think of ourselves as “orthodox”, as right.  But right belief is this…the Beatitudes…the antithesis of this world.  It is a moving forward.  Hmmm!  OK, maybe I AM a “progressive”. 

One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes uses two verbs: are and will. Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense. It is the “orthodox” way of thinking.  The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation. The Kingdom of God moves forward.  It is so far ahead of where we are, it’s not even fully visible at this point!  In essence, it is the new “right belief”, the new orthodoxy.  It is a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
The Beatitudes lay out a vision of a reversal of the world we know. Jesus calls us to a radical kingdom that is totally different than the world in which we live. And he calls us to “get on with it”.  Now don’t think that Jesus is merely laying out the conditions under which we would be blessed or prosper. It is rather a promise of a radical reversal, an upside-down (or right-side-up) world. It is a promise from a God that wants the best for us, a God that sees that we will indeed be blessed. That is the promise—a blessed relationship with God. So this is a picture of what that Kingdom looks like. It is the way it should be and the way it will be. The Beatitudes are meant to be descriptive rather than instructive.

So, where does that leave us?  We live in a divisive world, a divisive country, and a divisive church.  We all claim to be “orthodox”, “right”.  This is hard.  We walk a fine line between causing more division and proclaiming what we believe to be right.  Now, really, we need to realize that what we believe to be “right” does not make it “right”.  Maybe that’s our whole problem.  I keep hearing of person who profess to be “bridge builders”.  Well, that sounds really politically correct and all.  In fact, it even sounds attractive.  Sure, I’d like to join a bunch of bridge-builders, the peaceful ones, the ones who get along with everyone.  OK…here is the problem.  Where are you headed?  Bridges are not meant for permanent residence.  Are you going forward or backward, left or right, to the future or the past?  You have to CHOOSE!  That is the whole point of this passage that contains what we commonly call “The Beatitudes”.  You see, things are different.  (And if they’re not, this passage professes that they should be!)  What you think is, is not.  And that to which you’ve held so tightly is decaying away as we speak.  Orthodoxy has changed.  In fact, Jesus is the one that changed it!  “Right” belief has changed.  God did not come in Jesus with a message of “Great job, folks,  you have it altogether.  Don’t change a thing!”  No, the message probably reads more like, “You know, I love you more than you could possibly know.  But you are a mess!  Listen…come and see…there’s more to the story than you think you know!”

You know, until 56 years ago, women could not be ordained in the United Methodist Church. (And yet I still get assigned weddings that are upset because I am the wrong gender!)  And, as I said, the race barrier in major league baseball was not broken until 1947.  (But we didn’t have an African-American president until 2008.)  The truth is, things move very slowly.  So much for a reversal of the status quo!  And our churches still continue to exclude those in our midst who do not claim the “orthodox” sexual orientation.  I really don’t understand it.  Surely we know better.  Surely we understand that this depiction of the alternative way of being that Jesus depicted in The Beatitudes is not a pipe dream.  It’s really meant to happen.  It’s the vision of God that God brought into the world in Jesus Christ.  It’s the vision of the world that God holds for us even now.  It’s all the children of God in the whole Kingdom of God.  It’s called Shalom, or the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God.

But on some level I admire bridge-builders.  They are those that play both crowds–the conservatives and the progressives, the establishment and the rebels, the pharisees and the disciples.  You see, all of us are right about SOMETHING.  But none of us are right about EVERYTHING.  Those bridge-builders can point that out.  The truth is, though, I’m probably too impatient to be one.  I want things to change.  I want the world to look like The Beatitudes.  I want the world to be what God envisions it to be.  But even bridges tend to decay, becoming weather-worn and rotten.  Life moves.  It moves fast.  And if you don’t keep walking, you’re no longer a bridge-builder.  You’re either in danger of falling fast into the underlying currents and being carried away into who knows where or you’re just someone that’s sitting in the way while people are trying to cross.  It’s better to keep moving.  After all, God is way out ahead of us.

OK, one more time…I really am orthodox.  I really do adhere to “right belief”.  I just think it’s a whole lot farther ahead than any of us imagine.  It’s a matter of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  Oh wait, someone already said that!  In other words, our faith is measured not in “rightness” but in relationship.  Orthodoxy, “right belief”, is about relationship.  It is about welcoming all of God’s children to the table as the reign of God, the Spirit of the most holy, spills into our midst.  Emmanuel, God With Us.  Isn’t that the crux of the story?

But lynchpins are threatening.  They change the direction.  They change what we think.  They change the world.  They change us and who we appear to be to the rest of the world.  Up until now, everything has pointed to this-the announcement, the birth, the baptism, the calling, this…–as if this was the message, as if this was what the world needed, as if this was the way to the vision that God for us.  Now we wait.  We wait to see how the world responds.  And we turn toward Jerusalem…

So, in this Lenten season,  begin to live a life of reversal, so that as the Divine spilled into earth with the coming of Christ, the earth might become the vision of the Divine in you.         

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

WALK TO JERUSALEM: Called to this Work

Scripture Text:  John 1: 1-4, 29-42
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o”clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The writer of John’s version of the Gospel According to Jesus Christ presents this as a sort of “prelude” to Jesus’ ministry.  This passage begins by celebrating Jesus’ origins, tying them back to the very beginning of Creation, tying them back to the Creator of us all.  Then we are given a witness by John the Baptist attesting to who Jesus is, reminding us that this Jesus Christ is the one whose coming was announced by the angel, the one who was born years before in that dark grotto in Bethlehem, the one who he himself had baptized and who God’s Spirit had entered.  This was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Now it was time to begin the work.  This was Jesus’ calling to ministry.  And what did he do first?  He called others, saying, “Come and see…come and see what you haven’t seen before.”
 
Now I know that often when we talk about “calls” from God, many of us squirm in our seats a little. Calls are something that a lot of people limit to clergy. But as early as the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of a qara, which means to call, call out, recite, read, cry out, proclaim, or name. The word was used both as a summons or a general call as well as a specific election, the calling of someone to do a specific task that needed to be done. And, here’s the point—the call is to everyone. It is that voice, sometimes silenced by our busyness and our preconceptions, that is buried deep within our being. It is that voice that calls us to be who God created us to be.  But you will notice that God doesn’t just throw a blanket over humanity to see who will pick it up. And nowhere in the Bible does God really ask and wait for volunteers. The call to each of us is very unique and specific. God calls us to our own part of God’s creation, our own part of the Kingdom of God that is ours to build.  God calls us to walk this road to Jerusalem.

Note here that two disciples follow Jesus as a direct result of John’s witness. John showed them the light. And then two others are called. One is named Andrew we are told, who then gathers his brother Simon Peter. Both become disciples. But the other one that is called is unidentified here. We are not clear who this is. This anonymity is reflective of the writer’s understanding of discipleship as a broader vision. (In essence, the “other disciple” is us!) Discipleship is meant for all of us. Yes, all of us! And when Jesus calls us to follow, the answer is always “come and see”. You have to come and see for yourself. God calls, God names, and God calls each of us by name. Just, come and see!

So how do we respond? What does it mean to respond to our call from God? What does that look like? That calling is to each of us to become the part of God’s Creation that we are called to be. It is at the very center of who we are as followers of Christ. And nowhere in the Scriptures do we read of calls from God like “Hey, if you’re not too busy, on your way home from work, could you feed some homeless people?”  or “Listen, I don’t want you to inconvenience yourself, but when you have time, could you speak out against injustices in this world?” or (my favorite!) “OK, once you’ve “made it”, once you have all of the money that you need to be secure and you are completely adept at what I’m calling you to do, then, very carefully, so as not to make yourself uncomfortable, could you follow me?”  God does not call perfect people.  God calls us. 

The “called” life is one of tensions and convergences and wonderful coincidences that God melds together into a wonderful journey of being.  It seems that God is continually calling us into places and times that we’ve never been, constantly empowering us to push the limits of our “comfort zones”, to embark on a larger and more all-encompassing journey toward a oneness with God.  It seems that God always calls us beyond where we are and beyond where we’ve been, not to the places that are planted and built and paved over with our preconceptions and biases but, rather, to places in the wilds of our lives with some vision of a faint pathway that we must pave and on which we must trudge ahead.  Thomas Merton says that “there is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”[i]  It is the image of God in each one of us that must be reclaimed and nurtured so that we might take part in bringing about the fullness of Creation, in bringing the Reign of God into its fullness.  Perhaps, then, the meaning of calling is not one in which we launch out and pursue a new life but is instead one that brings us to the center of our own life, one that brings us home, back to the womb, back to God.  T.S. Eliot says that “the end of all our exploring… will be to arrive where we started…and know the place for the first time.”[ii] 

So, back to the story.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  This is the beginning of his own walk and his own work.  We don’t usually think of Jesus being “called”.  We’re more comfortable just imagining him already there, as if he dropped into our lives already formed.  But that’s not the way it works.  God did not just plunk down into our human existence without any connection; rather, God in Jesus inserted the Divine Calling into a long, successive line of called ones–some who were ready and some who were not, some who went willingly to do what they were asked to do, and others who fought the fight of their lives to keep it from happening and lived to tell the tale of encountering God–and it keeps going.  So Jesus had to be called.  It’s what it’s about.  Jesus was formed and then called and then called others who called others who called others…well, you get the drift!  And one way or another, they responded.  Jesus was not the lone ranger.  And those that he called went.  They were nothing special–just ordinary people like you and me.  They were ordinary people asked to take on the work of discipleship and they ended up with a life that they never could have foreseen or imagined.  It is in the ordinariness of our lives that God calls us and asks us to join in the work, to join with Jesus Christ in this work of ministry, to walk with Jesus on this walk to Jerusalem.  Come and see!  It will be magnificent!  And the work has begun…
So, in this Lenten season, listen for where God is calling you and then…come and see!  Because that is the way to Jerusalem…
Grace and Peace,
Shelli 

[i] Wayne Mueller, How Then Shall We Live?  Four Simple Questions that Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of our Lives, (New York, NY:  Bantam Books, 1996), 3
[ii] T.S. Eliot in Pilgrim Souls: An Anthology of Spiritual Autobiographies, ed. by Amy Mandelker and Elizabeth Powers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 146