It’s About the Bread

Communion-breadScripture Passage:  John 13: 21-32 (Holy Wednesday)

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.

(Sorry…Wednesday’s post is a little late!) We started this week with the account of the anointing of Jesus, a story that shows us what it means to extravagantly serve our Lord. Tuesday’s text was one that showed us the meaning of following Jesus, indeed what it means to “take up our cross”. And then today…no extravagant anointing, no taking up any crosses…just a prediction of a betrayal of the worst kind as the dark pall of death begins to enshroud our week.

This passage is indeed a difficult one. Look how it begins…”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. Maybe him or him or him. But I KNOW it’s not me! 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 of hearts where he really belongs and is not going. And the passage ends as the darkness of night falls.  We know what happens after that. It was Judas who led the authorities to the garden a little way east of the walls of the city and it was Judas who signaled to them which of the men standing there in the dark was Jesus. It all changed with a single kiss as Judas’ lips graze Jesus’ cheek.

But I think, in all honesty, we may be a little too eager to jump on the “blame Judas” band wagon. After all, there is probably a little Judas in all of us. There are those times for all of us 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 or the selfishness of our own preservation, 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.

And we know what happened to Judas. As the writer of Matthew’s Gospel accounts, when Jesus was condemned to death, Judas could not face himself. What had he done? And so he hanged himself, a victim of his own choices and his own action. And to this day, Judas lives on as the veritable poster child of the worst sin imaginable, known to all as the one who handed the Savior of the World over to be crucified. His name has literally become a noun, the description of the worst that one can do. Dante places him on the 4th level of the 9th circle of the inferno, hanging out for the ages in the bowels of hell between Brutus and Cassius, who conspired in the assassination of Julius Caesar. And we, like the other eleven disciples, breathe a collective sigh of relief that it was not us, that we were not the one that betrayed our Lord.

And yet, the story does not end there. With all respect to the 14th century Italian poet, I think he may have missed that. I do think that Judas ended up in hell, the worst hell imaginable, a self-imposed banishment from God, a place where he could not conceive that he would ever be forgiven because he could not forgive himself. So in that place with the blood of Christ on his hands, he saw no end other than his own.

I’ve read this Scripture many times. I’ve even preached on it a few. But this time, something else leapt off the page for me. (I love it when that happens!) I missed it before. It was the bread. Jesus said “the one to whom I give this bread.” The point is, he gave it to all of them. They were all betrayers but, more importantly, they were also all beloved.  I once heard Walter Brueggemann talk about the liturgy that we use for our Eucharist. Before we take the bread, before we take the cup, we confess. We name our sin. We name our betrayals. And then, we are told “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” The words do not specify that we are forgiven if we are good or that we are forgiven if we’re only on the first couple of circles of Dante’s vision of hell. Nowhere does it say that we are forgiven of limbo or lust or gluttony but if we get to the fourth circle (which is greed) or below, we are doomed. Nowhere does it say that. And Brueggemann points out that with those words, with the simple words “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” we are wiped clean, spotless, if only for a moment. Oh, but what a moment!

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—loved us so much that when we are handed this bread, we are handed the real presence of Christ—all of us—the bumbling disciples, those unnamed people that were in the periphery of the picture that day, the beloved and the betrayer, and me. I, Judas, no matter what I do, am forgiven. That was the part of the story Dante forgot. Forgiveness is not payment for a job well done; it is our chance to start again.

Judas was there at the table. Jesus served him as one of his own. It still hurt. But God’s unfathomable grace and God’s forgiveness is bigger than our own selfish betrayal, bigger than any hell we could ever imagine or conjure up for ourselves.  You know, it’s about the bread…

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

That is the crux. None of us are innocent. All of us are forgiven. Holy Thursday does not end in betrayal; it ends in love. Perhaps rather than trying to lay blame for what happened at the Cross, perhaps rather than using Judas as the scapegoat for all of our own sins, we should let the Cross be what it is—a place of healing, a place of reconciliation, a place of forgiveness, a place of life recreated. Because of the Cross, all of us are invited to the table and each of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what we will do, is handed the bread. Each of us is the one to whom I give this bread.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

(In the Name of Jesus Christ, I, Judas, am forgiven.)

The body of Christ given for you. Take, eat, in remembrance of me.

The soldiers are there with their swords and lanterns.  The high priest’s slave is whimpering over his wounded ear.  There can be no doubt in Jesus’ mind what the kiss of Judas means, but it is Judas that he is blessing, and Judas that he is prepared to go out and die for now.  Judas is only the first in a procession of betrayers two thousand years long, If Jesus were to exclude him from love and forgiveness, to one degree or another he would have to exclude us all.  Maybe this is all in the mind of Jesus as he stands with his eyes closed, or possibly there is nothing in his mind at all.  As he feels his friend’s lips graze his cheek for an instant, maybe he feels nothing else…It is not the Lamb of God and his butcher who meet here, but two old friends embracing in a garden knowing that they will never see one another again. (Frederick Buechner)

We are journeying through Holy Week.  Things are changing and what we know will come is imminent.  But forgiveness is abundant.  We are all Judas’s.  What are the Judas parts of you?  What does it mean to be forgiven?  Have you forgiven yourself?  None of us are innocent.  All of us are forgiven.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

 

Psalm 32: A Season of Clearing

WeedingPsalter for Today:  Psalm 32: 1-5

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

We don’t really like talking about confession very much, do we?  Oh, we come that one day a year and get ashes on our forehead and then quickly wash them off that night.  We’d rather just assume that the whole notion of the cross just covered all sins past, present, and future so that we can talk about things that are more to our liking–love, grace, acceptance, even forgiveness.  And the language of iniquity and confession is so archaic to many, not really part of our mainstream thinking about what church and faith should hold.  (I suppose it doesn’t hold a lot of attraction for our “feel good” society either.)  And so, to be honest, we sort of just look at our “light” side, so to speak, burying the dark and the unmentionables behind closed doors, keeping our sins and transgressions hidden from sight hoping maybe, just maybe, they’ll just somehow evaporate and go away.  Maybe if we quit talking about them, just take them off the table, they’ll just slip away unnoticed.  The words of the Psalm sort of haunt us though.  Keeping silent is not the same as reconciling. Silence should be revealing rather than something that hides. Burying one’s transgressions and shortcomings just takes too much of our life and too much of who we are to handle. (And they usually eventually get exposed anyway!)

This season of Lent brings up a lot of discussion about sin and confession.  Have you noticed that?  We also hear quite a bit of farming and gardening language, don’t we?  We hear words like “fertile ground” and “new growth”.  We like those.  They give us hope and a chance at new life.  But even the most inexperienced of gardeners knows that plants do not grow and flower without a little preparation, without a little room.  I am feeling that right now each time I look at my sad flowerbeds that are still full of winter brush choking out most promises of growth or life.  (And the little tornado that shot through them a couple of weeks ago did not help!) There are a few apparently detrermined plants peeking through or trying desperately to scale the dead branches of their former selves.  They are literally begging for me to help them.  We are no different.  We need room.  We need to clear the underbrush and all that is choking out our life.  We need to recognize and acknowledge those things in our life that separate us from God and separate us from who we are before God.  From that standpoint, acknowledgement of sins, confession, is life-giving.

The French philosopher, Simone Weil once said that “all sins are attempts to fill voids.”  You see, I think we’re a lot like those growing plants.  God left us a little room for growth, a little breathing space.  But emptiness is hard to hold, hard to maintain.   And over time, it is easy for things to seep into that space that do not belong, things that choke out life for us.  It is imperative for us to know that, to acknowledge those things, so that we can then let them go.  That is what confession does.  It’s not a matter of wallowing in guilt or proving one’s remorse.  Confession is the clearing.  It once again leaves room to grow.  It frees us to be who God calls us to be.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is standing back waiting for us to confess our sins so that forgiveness can be handed to us.  This is not a barter system or even a divine reward system.  I believe that God has already forgiven us, is already making that space ready.  God does not demand our confession like some sort of callous judge.  The confession is for us.  It is the way that the door opens again.  It is the way that we make room again.  Silence denies that open door.  Silence denies the grace that God is always and forever offering.  Repentance is a way of beginning again.  It doesn’t change what has happened.  It doesn’t erase the consequences or the hurt or the change in one’s life.  It just once again makes room to grow.  The fact that we don’t talk much about confession anymore is not short-changing God; it is short-changing us.  Oh sure, there will always be those wonderful parts of who we are that peek through like fledgling plants.  But think what life would look like if you got rid of all that underbrush, if you truly allowed room for God to work.

Providence watches over each of us as we journey through life, providing us with two guides:  repentance and remorse.  The one calls us forward. The other calls us back.  Yet they do not contradict each other, nor do they leave the traveler in doubt or confusion.  For the one calls forward to the God, the other back from the evil. And there are two of them, because in order to make our journey secure we must look ahead as well as back.  (Soren Kierkegaard)

On this first Sunday of Lent, what are those things that you have buried in your life?  What needs to be done to reconcile so that you can begin again?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

It’s About the Bread

Communion-breadScripture Passage:  John 13: 21-32 (Holy Wednesday)

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.

We started this week with the account of the anointing of Jesus, a story that shows us what it means to extravagantly serve our Lord. Yesterday’s text was one that showed us the meaning of following Jesus, indeed what it means to “take up our cross”. And then today…no extravagant anointing, no taking up any crosses…just a prediction of a betrayal of the worst kind as the dark pall of death begins to enshroud our week.

This passage is indeed a difficult one. Look how it begins…”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. Maybe him or him or him. But I KNOW it’s not me! 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 of hearts where he really belongs and is not going. And the passage ends as the darkness of night falls.  We know what happens after that. It was Judas who led the authorities to the garden a little way east of the walls of the city and it was Judas who signaled to them which of the men standing there in the dark was Jesus. It all changed with a single kiss as Judas’ lips graze Jesus’ cheek.

But I think, in all honesty, we may be a little too eager to jump on the “blame Judas” band wagon. After all, there is probably a little Judas in all of us. There are those times for all of us 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 or the selfishness of our own preservation, 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.

And we know what happened to Judas. As the writer of Matthew’s Gospel accounts, when Jesus was condemned to death, Judas could not face himself. What had he done? And so he hanged himself, a victim of his own choices and his own action. And to this day, Judas lives on as the veritable poster child of the worst sin imaginable, known to all as the one who handed the Savior of the World over to be crucified. His name has literally become a noun, the description of the worst that one can do. Dante places him on the 4th level of the 9th circle of the inferno, hanging out for the ages in the bowels of hell between Brutus and Cassius, who conspired in the assassination of Julius Caesar. And we, like the other eleven disciples, breathe a collective sigh of relief that it was not us, that we were not the one that betrayed our Lord.

And yet, the story does not end there. With all respect to the 14th century Italian poet, I think he may have missed that. I do think that Judas ended up in hell, the worst hell imaginable, a self-imposed banishment from God, a place where he could not conceive that he would ever be forgiven because he could not forgive himself. So in that place with the blood of Christ on his hands, he saw no end other than his own.

I’ve read this Scripture many times. I’ve even preached on it a few. But this time, something else leapt off the page for me. (I love it when that happens!) I missed it before. It was the bread. Jesus said “the one to whom I give this bread.” The point is, he gave it to all of them. They were all betrayers but, more importantly, they were also all beloved.  I once heard Walter Brueggemann talk about the liturgy that we use for our Eucharist. Before we take the bread, before we take the cup, we confess. We name our sin. We name our betrayals. And then, we are told “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” The words do not specify that we are forgiven if we are good or that we are forgiven if we’re only on the first couple of circles of Dante’s vision of hell. Nowhere does it say that we are forgiven of limbo or lust or gluttony but if we get to the fourth circle (which is greed) or below, we are doomed. Nowhere does it say that. And Brueggemann points out that with those words, with the simple words “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” we are wiped clean, spotless, if only for a moment. Oh, but what a moment!

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—loved us so much that when we are handed this bread, we are handed the real presence of Christ—all of us—the bumbling disciples, those unnamed people that were in the periphery of the picture that day, the beloved and the betrayer, and me. I, Judas, no matter what I do, am forgiven. That was the part of the story Dante forgot. Forgiveness is not payment for a job well done; it is our chance to start again.

Judas was there at the table. Jesus served him as one of his own. It still hurt. But God’s unfathomable grace and God’s forgiveness is bigger than our own selfish betrayal, bigger than any hell we could ever imagine or conjure up for ourselves.  You know, it’s about the bread…

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

That is the crux. None of us are innocent. All of us are forgiven. Holy Thursday does not end in betrayal; it ends in love. Perhaps rather than trying to lay blame for what happened at the Cross, perhaps rather than using Judas as the scapegoat for all of our own sins, we should let the Cross be what it is—a place of healing, a place of reconciliation, a place of forgiveness, a place of life recreated. Because of the Cross, all of us are invited to the table and each of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what we will do, is handed the bread. Each of us is the one to whom I give this bread.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

(In the Name of Jesus Christ, I, Judas, am forgiven.)

The body of Christ given for you. Take, eat, in remembrance of me.

The soldiers are there with their swords and lanterns.  The high priest’s slave is whimpering over his wounded ear.  There can be no doubt in Jesus’ mind what the kiss of Judas means, but it is Judas that he is blessing, and Judas that he is prepared to go out and die for now.  Judas is only the first in a procession of betrayers two thousand years long, If Jesus were to exclude him from love and forgiveness, to one degree or another he would have to exclude us all.  Maybe this is all in the mind of Jesus as he stands with his eyes closed, or possibly there is nothing in his mind at all.  As he feels his friend’s lips graze his cheek for an instant, maybe he feels nothing else…It is not the Lamb of God and his butcher who meet here, but two old friends embracing in a garden knowing that they will never see one another again. (Frederick Buechner)

We are journeying through Holy Week.  Things are changing and what we know will come is imminent.  But forgiveness is abundant.  We are all Judas’s.  What are the Judas parts of you?  What does it mean to be forgiven?  Have you forgiven yourself?  None of us are innocent.  All of us are forgiven.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

 

Psalm 32: A Season of Clearing

WeedingPsalter for Today:  Psalm 32: 1-5

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

We don’t really like talking about confession very much, do we?  We’d rather just assume that the whole notion of the cross just covered all sins past, present, and future so that we can talk about things that are more to our liking–love, grace, acceptance, even forgiveness.  And the language of iniquity and confession is so archaic to many, not really part of our mainstream thinking about what church and faith should hold.  (I suppose it doesn’t hold a lot of attraction for our “feel good” society either.)  And so, to be honest, we sort of just look at our “light” side, so to speak, burying the dark and the unmentionables behind closed doors, keeping our sins and transgressions hidden from sight hoping maybe, just maybe, they’ll just somehow evaporate and go away.  Maybe if we quit talking about them, just take them off the table, they’ll just slip away unnoticed.  The words of the Psalm sort of haunt us though.  Keeping silent is not the same as reconciling. Burying one’s transgressions and shortcomings just takes too much of our life and too much of who we are to handle.

This season of Lent brings up a lot of discussion about sin and confession.  Have you noticed that?  We also hear quite a bit of farming and gardening language, don’t we?  We hear words like “fertile ground” and “new growth”.  We like those.  They give us hope and a chance at new life.  But even the most inexperienced of gardeners knows that plants do not grow and flower without a little preparation, without a little room.  I am feeling that right now each time I look at my sad flowerbeds that are still full of winter brush choking out most promises of growth or life.  There are a few apparently very hearty flowers peeking through with their little pink blooms but for the most part, they are literally begging for me to help them.  We are no different.  We need room.  We need to clear the underbrush and all that is choking out our life.  We need to recognize and acknowledge those things in our life that separate us from God and separate us from who we are before God.  From that standpoint, acknowledgement of sins, confession, is life-giving.

The French philosopher, Simone Weil once said that “all sins are attempts to fill voids.”  You see, I think we’re a lot like those growing plants.  God left us a little room for growth, a little breathing space.  But emptiness is hard to hold, hard to maintain.   And over time, it is easy for things to seep into that space that do not belong, things that choke out life for us.  It is imperative for us to know that, to acknowledge those things, so that we can then let them go.  That is what confession does.  It’s not a matter of wallowing in guilt or proving one’s remorse.  Confession is the clearing.  It once again leaves room to grow.  It frees us to be who God calls us to be.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is standing back waiting for us to confess our sins so that forgiveness can be handed to us.  This is not a barter system.  I believe that God has already forgiven, is already making that space ready.  God does not demand our confession like some sort of callous judge.  The confession is for us.  It is the way that the door opens again.  It is the way that we make room again.  Silence denies that open door.  Silence denies the grace that God is always and forever offering.  Repentance is a way of beginning again.  It doesn’t change what has happened.  It doesn’t erase the consequences or the hurt or the change in one’s life.  It just once again makes room to grow.  The fact that we don’t talk much about confession anymore is not short-changing God; it is short-changing us.  Oh sure, there will always be those wonderful parts of who we are that peek through like little pink flowers.  But think what life would look like if you got rid of all that underbrush, if you truly allowed room for God to work.

Providence watches over each of us as we journey through life, providing us with two guides:  repentance and remorse.  The one calls us forward. The other calls us back.  Yet they do not contradict each other, nor do they leave the traveler in doubt or confusion.  For the one calls forward to the God, the other back from the evil. And there are two of them, because in order to make our journey secure we must look ahead as well as back.  (Soren Kierkegaard)

On this first Sunday of Lent, what are those things that you have buried in your life?  What needs to be done to reconcile so that you can begin again?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

If I Could Turn Back Time

Judas BetrayalToday’s Lectionary Passage:  John 13: 21-32

21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus 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. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some 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. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.  31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Poor Judas!  We take this story so literally most of the time, pinning all the bad in all the world on the one that Biblical translations and exegetical interpretations have branded the betrayer, the bad seed, the evil one, the poster child for the worst sin imagineable.  In fact, Dante’ puts Judas in the fourth level of the ninth circle of hell, the lowest rung of the inferno, along with Brutus and Brutus’ co-hort Cassius.   Me?  I tend to err more on the side of mercy.  Because truth be known, don’t you think that Simon Peter was nervous when he was asking that question.  “Lord, who is it?”  In other words, “is it I”?  “Am I the one that will betray my Lord?”  After all, I’m not sure than any of the disciples really came to the forefront.  None of them stood out that night or the next day as glowing examples of who God calls us to be.  They were scared; they were unsure about their own well-being; and they were certainly unsure what life would hold next.  Maybe some had begun to figure out what was about to happen.  I think most of them were like us, living in some sort of state of denial thinking that we are doing the right thing and that everything will turn out alright.

And don’t you think that all of them, Judas included, looked back on the night the next morning and thought, “If only…if only I could turn back time.”?  (yeah, I know that’s a Cher song!) So why did Judas do it?  Oh, please, why do any of us do what we do?  We all have regrets; we’ve all made mistakes; we’ve all wished that somehow we could turn back time.  The truth is, there is a little Judas in all of us.  But in this same passage, there is another character introduced:  “the one whom Jesus loved”.   This is the epitome of light against the foil of Judas in his darkest hour as his actions usher in the time that brings Jesus’ presence as the light of this world to a close.  There is all kinds of speculation.  Was it someone that we don’t know?  Was it Mary Magdelene?  Or was it, perhaps, even Judas? 

Judas could not live with what he had done. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that Judas would end his own life that next morning.  (Matthew 27: 3-5)

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 

And yet, Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, welcomed Judas to the table; in fact, Jesus welcomed all of them, that motley crew of misfits that never really could get it together and were always in competition with each other, that lot of sinners and saints.  The truth is we are all both–the betrayer and the beloved, the sinner and the saint.   God does not love us in spite of who we are; God loves us because of who we are.  The question that we should ask ourselves is whether or not we believe that anyone is ever beyond God’s redemption, beyond God’s love, beyond God’s power to pick up and recreate.  This night of betrayal does not end that way.  This night ends with love and with life.  Because, you see, when it’s all said and done, God really does turn back time.

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

Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, 2010
Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, 2010

So, as you walk through this week, remember that we are all Judas but, more importantly, we are all beloved.  And, remember, that God really does turn back time, so to speak, gathering all of us to the table and recreating us into the fullness of God’s vision for all.  But God cannot begin until you come.

“If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Waiting for Figs

figtree1This Week’s Lectionary Passage: Luke 13: 1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! 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?’8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

We spend a lot of time trying to make this faith thing make sense, don’t we?  We try to offer reasons for what happens in our life, the good and the bad.  After all, we surmise, everything has a cause and every cause has an effect.  And so we live under the illusion that somehow we have control over things, that somehow everything in some way has got to make sense.  But truth be known, we really don’t have the answers.  In fact, our lives are really pretty precarious when you think about it and sometimes the answer is just that we have to wait and wonder and be willing to just let God be God.  And repent… 

And then we read this parable of the fruitless fig tree.  The owner waited and waited and no fruit appeared.  So, he got tired of it and told the gardener to cut it down.  After all, nothing was happening.  It was just wasting soil.  But the gardener stopped him, offering to nurture it just a little bit more than it had been, putting fertilizer around it, and waiting just a little bit longer. 

Now, granted, this is not one of our warm and fuzzy passages.  Jesus is not healing or welcoming or feeding a crowd.  In fact, this is downright hard, probably because we find way too much of ourselves in it.  We, too, want so badly to find answers to things that happen in our lives that we often lapse into that same notion of God rewarding and punishing based on what we do that these first century followers did.  After all, what other answer could there be?  And then, the fear factor…if we don’t bear fruit, we get cut down?  If we don’t repent, we’ll die?

Well, do you remember the Book of Job, the quintessential story of all in life that makes no sense at all, that has no answer,  that comes to us from the margins of faith, those places where we’d rather not go?  You remember it…Job, righteous and reverent, loses everything he has.  And most of the book is about his so-called friends and even Job trying to figure out why.  After all, God doesn’t just pull life out from under someone for no reason.  Job must have done something.  He must have not been who he was supposed to be.  The truth is, Job and his friends, like us, I’m afraid, inherited a somewhat myopic world of retribution and distributive justice.  It is hard to imagine a God who loves us just to love us and who, when bad things do happen, when life begins to feel like a whirlwind, appears into the depths of our being to help us stand, to help us walk, and to wait…just a little bit longer.

That’s where that turning, that repentance comes in.  You see, our problem is that we see repentance as a negative thing.  We envision repentance as a change toward being “right” or “moral” or something else that will win us favor with God or rack us up enough points to get us into heaven.  That’s why we sometimes have this Job-like image of God as some controlling entity that pulls some sort of Divine strings based on what we do.  But what kind of God is that?  Repentance is not about losing who you are; it’s not about becoming a puppet of some sort of string-pulling God; it means discovering the wonder of who you are meant to be.

The Greek word that is usually translated as “repentance” is metanoia.  In Classical Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s life.  Penance was not a part of it until later.  We did that to it!  It simply meant to follow a different road.  But, as Jesus said, unless you repent…unless you change course…unless you let go of the life that you’ve created and the image of this string-pulling God that you’ve somehow concocted, and listen to the road that beckons before you, you will remain comfortable and secure and right where you are.  And you will, surrounded by comfort and answers, die!  But, oh, what you will miss!  Frederick Buechner says, “To repent is to come to your senses.  It is not so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying, “Wow!” ( Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1973), 79.) 

So, what does this have to do with waiting on figs?  It sounds a little bit like a threat.  OK, one more chance you lazy fig tree.  Because if you don’t, you will die and that will be it.  You have one more chance to get it right, to repent, to turn, or, that’s it.  Well, you know as well as I that there are well-meaning people in pulpits all over the world saying exactly that.  You have one more shot!  And that it!  Oh, that’s not it at all!  Read it again.  There’s always another chance.  There’s always someone that will come along to nurture and wait patiently for us to turn, for us to change, for us to see what we’re missing.  You see, there ARE consequences for those who do not repent.  But it has nothing to do with punishment.  It has to do with missing who we’re called to be, missing out on the life that is offered us, missing out on being able to see what God is showing us.  And that, my friends, IS a form of dying.

You know, it’s an interesting thing about figs–the common fig bears a first crop, called the breba crop, in the spring on last season’s growth. The second crop is borne in the fall on the new growth and is known as the main crop.  But the fruits cannot happen without the first crop and, likewise, without the last season.  Essentially, the fruit sprouts from a seemingly fruitless crop.  Maybe the gardener saw that.  I think God certainly does.  See God sees things that we miss, things that our eyes, unadjusted as they are to the light, have not seen yet.  God is good at leading us through our darkness and nurturing us over and over again.  The truth is, God is pretty incredible at patiently waiting for figs.

And yet, with all the omnipotence that we imagine God to have, God cannot pull strings.  Because there is one thing that the Almighty cannot do because God in God’s infinite Wisdom placed the power to choose in our hands.  And so God cannot coerce us to love or to serve or to respond.  God cannot force us to see what God is showing us.  And so God waits for figs to bloom and the world to change.  And God holds us and guides us and picks us up off the bottom of our existence time and time again.  There’s always another season.

We read this passage in our Lenten season because it is our season to wake up, to open our eyes, to turn, to love, and to learn that sometimes the world that we see does not make sense.  But it’s not all up to us.  God is waiting patiently for our response.  God knows it’s hard.  After all, it just doesn’t make sense.  We wish it made sense.  G.K. Chesterton said “to let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  You see, God just desires that we love.  And for that God waits.  God knows that there’s always a little bit more time to wait for figs. 

So in this Lenten season, turn toward God and wait for figs.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Shrive

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34)

Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday–there are a plethora names for this day.  Most of us understand it as an eat-all-you-can, party-till-you-drop day before we enter our Lenten fast.  So, don your Mardi Gras beads and stuff yourself with rich syruppy pancakes and get it all out of your system.  Right?

Well, at the risk of interrupting your partying, I think it’s about something more.  (Don’t you hate that?)  The word “shrove” (as in “Shrove Tuesday”) comes, sadly, not from the word for over-the-top entertaining but from the English verb “shrive”, meaning confess.  (Oh, shoot, you say!)  I know, it’s a hard word for us, particularly when we’re drowning ourselves in pancakes.  But, yes, it is a day of preparation, a day when we leave behind what we know, those things to which we are accustomed, and begin the journey to the Cross.

It is sad that in our world, there are many of us (Christians, that is) that have equated confession with judgment.  And we want to run from it.  After all, sin is somewhat subjective when you think about it.  Try as we might, there are few “black and whites” when it comes to sin and history has shown that when a culture inflicts that notion, oppression of some type usually results.  So confession becomes a somewhat shaky ground on which we tread.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin, she says that “sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.”  That is what this day represents–the invitation to set things right, to confess, to shrive.  It is the day to prepare, to begin that long and arduous turn away from who we have made ourselves to be and toward God and God’s vision for what we could become.  Forgiveness is not the thing that we are trying to attain.  It is the starting point, a gift from God for those who want to begin again.

So, in the midst of your Mardi Gras wildness and your pancake extravaganzas, as you don your masks for one more hidden transgression, remember to stop, to shrive, to begin the turn.  Lent begins tomorrow.

For this season, I will try (yes I will try!) to post at least a short devotional every day on this blog.  Many of you are part of the email group that gets it every time I post.  (For those who have signed up through this blog, you will get it but for some reason known only to Google, you will get it 12-18 hours later.  Go figure!)  So if there are others that would like to be part of the email group that gets it right away, just email me through the St. Paul’s website at stpaulshouston.org.  (Go to “About St. Paul’s”, then “staff”).

Additionally, I am reposting my “Bread and Wine” Lenten blog from several years ago.  It is located at http://breadandwine-lentenstudy.blogspot.com/ or you can let me know if you would like to be added to that email group.

AND another opportunity…I have been posting my Lectionary notes that many of you get emailed each Thursday on http://journeytopenuel.blogspot.com/  It’s a once-a-week post but if you’re interested, take a look.

Thanks for being a part of my Lenten journey!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli