Worship ~ 26 May

There are several readings this morning to come at the Trinity from different directions.

The gospel of John stresses the one-ness of God in the Father, Jesus, and the Advocate or Holy Spirit, sent by God through Jesus.

26‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.      John 15

1After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

17Sanctify them in the truth for your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.     John 17

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he describes the actions, the ways of being of God that later became formulated as the Holy Trinity.

Ephesians 3:14-19

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

And one more unlikely verse — from Matthew, chapter 13: Jesus said,  45“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The gospel of the Lord…… thanks be to God

The Sunday following Pentecost is designated as Trinity Sunday. I don’t suppose it’s on your calendar or on any greeting cards, but the Trinity is an ancient doctrine of the Christian church. It is the formulation that was set out in the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as the formal understanding of the triune (three-part) nature of God that developed as the Christian church evolved into the third and fourth centuries. 

The formula of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” was primarily a teaching tool, a way of talking about the nature of God and the inter-relation between Jesus and the Spirit of God in a way that would create a measure of orthodoxy, or ‘sameness’. It was needed because, as the early Christian community grew and spread, different schools of thought developed and each had a variation. It’s like the children’s party game of telephone, where you whisper something in one person’s ear and they whisper what they think they heard to their neighbor and by the time it goes around the circle, the message is hardly recognizable. 

The variations of belief and teaching in the early church, meant, for example, that some were taught that Jesus was never really a human but just appeared to be human and so never really died, because how could God die? Some were taught that Jesus was only human, not truly God, but was adopted by God – in the same way the prophets were used for a time and a message. But then how could Jesus save?  In sorting out these and other conundrums, the trinitarian formula was developed to talk about the interpersonal nature of God, that God is one in three – three distinct, but united persons, all in one and one in all. The reason we recite the Apostle’s or Nicene creed and why they are part of the Baptism and confirmation services is to hold the community to this core of Christian faith – whatever else the pastor may say (or forget to say), whatever innovations or extracurricular songs or readings find their way into the worship service, this we hold to be true – that we worship God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and savior through the working of the Holy Spirit; one God, one faith.

So, the creeds are the tangible result of a confounding concept, but the Trinity didn’t start out as doctrine.

It began with early Christians trying to describe and put words to their experiences of the ways in which God appeared to them — and comes to us, still.

Engaging Jesus was somehow encountering God directly — and at the same time, Jesus spoke of God as both distinct from himself (like when he prayed to God, or spoke of his Father as the One who sent him) and yet somehow “one” with him. There was in some way both a “two-ness” and a “oneness”. In the same way, the earliest disciples experienced the Holy Spirit within their own beings as an encounter with God, promised by Jesus yet separate from him.  And so over time, the church’s doctrine of the Trinity developed — the idea that God is properly conceived as Three ‘persons’ in One. Not three Gods because there is intimate unity within them, and not simply One because that wouldn’t account for the multiple ways God is revealed in creation, in the world, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit. 

So, far from being a stogy detail of church dogma, the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately about a world saturated with divine presence — creating, redeeming, and sustaining creation at every turn, in and with and under every unfurling leaf and fragrant blossom… and a God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” as it says in Acts (17:28).

The formulaic “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, is firmly embedded in our liturgy and hymnody, as you either know or will notice if you are being made aware of it this morning. It is so ever-present that I have intentionally veered away from it over the years, substituting other words to wake us up. There is something both comforting and numbing about rote phrases. We cease to think. My job is to comfort and afflict, and so I push against the formula, while, I hope, maintaining the doctrine, because, I don’t imagine you think in trinitarian terms when you pray, or invoke the triune name of God… I expect that you do what I do when I’m out and about on my own. We pray to or converse with some version of God, some image that connects to us personally. Having a proper orthodox teaching is important; but having a proper relationship with God most likely rules out orthodoxy. And I think that’s okay.

I think it’s okay because of Hildegarde of Bingen who was a German mystic who lived from 1098 to 1179. Hildegard has her own day in the church (which means she’s official) and she said God was Verditas, ‘greening growth’. The last two weeks of quickly bursting change from spring buds to fully leafed out luscious green helps us understand what she meant. Hildegard didn’t mean that God was responsible for the greening, or the creator of greening things, but that God is Greening. It’s an interesting image for God. So when we’re gazing out the window at our bird feeders and watching the flutter of colored wings, hearing those sweet trills and songs against the backdrop of intense green, we are not experiencing God in nature, but are experiencing the nature of God

Or there is Julian of Norwich who said love is our Lord’s meaning, all is love only for love – all love is Love. So when we love, we are knowing Christ and yes, she includes in her meaning the ‘biblical way’ of knowing. Pretty racy for a nun during the Middle Ages.

Or there is Jesus himself who said he wished he could be a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. He also called himself the good shepherd who seeks and finds and saves the lost, a vining branch producing fine grapes for fine wine, a spring of living water flowing from the heart of God.

Or Job who said God was a cheesemaker.  “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” he asks, disgruntled, of God.

Or images in the Bible of God as a knitter, a weaver, a baker, a house builder, a woman in labor, a winemaker, an eagle, a potter, a bride. 

One of my favorite images is God as a garment. Psalm 104 begins, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”   Job complains, “God, you bind me like the collar of my tunic.”  Paul says in baptism we have been clothed with Christ.  Julian again: “I saw that He is to us everything that is good and comfortable for us: He is our clothing that for love wraps us, clasps us, and all encloses us for tender love, that He may never leave us; being to us all-thing that is good.”

This is probably why I like the mystics and heretics, because they have latched onto these other ways of thinking and imagining God. Their images might not be as orthodox, but I think without them we limit what and who we consider when we think about the realm and nature of God. What if we were to take these other images as seriously as we take Christ as a shepherd, for example? Where are the stained-glass widows of God at a loom weaving the fabric of life, or God as a calf kicking up his heels? I’m still hoping to discover “Christ the Hen Lutheran Church”.

My point in all of this is to say that the images and language we assign to God matter, and that the more we use, the broader the place and space we open for God in our lives. I don’t think “Father, +Son and Holy Spirit” will expand our view. Your experience of God trumps the doctrine.

God is Trinity, but it’s a big trinity. Expansive. A verb, not a phrase.  God in three persons does things — God heals, saves, comforts, prods, inspires, confounds, overwhelms, loves … us. It’s not enough to say we believe that God is, but we say, we profess, that God acts.

So, finally, to the last scripture reading.

Matthew 13:45-46. Jesus said,  “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Contrary to how we usually hear it, I’m going to suggest that this parable is not about us finding the value of the kingdom of heaven hidden in an unlikely place or form.

The parable says that it is about God – God who is like a merchant – a buyer and collector of pearls and things of value and beauty – who is searching, sifting through bins of gems, and baskets of discarded oyster shells at the rummage sale, and finds a magnificent specimen. Pearls in the ancient world were more valuable than gold. The merchant finds  –  you, a pearl of great value, and, to obtain it, sells all that he has. All of God’s godliness, power, and might were given up, and being in human form, being born into humble rank and powerlessness, even that life was given away – ransomed –  so that you, the pearl, could be obtained. 

God so loved the world, that he sent his only son. 

God acts – in three persons – searching, finding, listening, coming, comforting, saving in ways and images enough to fill our lives with hope in every dark corner. Christ in a cup of coffee? The Holy Spirit in a loon’s song? The power of God in a greening wood. God hanging on a cross, the Spirit of God nudging you in a random moment of compassion.

The mystics knew God, and knew God was all around us, and in the midst of every activity, and beyond all our imaginings, and in spite of our fears and doubts. God is and God acts and God comes. For you. Use your words. Use your experiences. Use your gifts and use your needs – describe the nature of the God you love. And come to trust that within the triune realm of Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Guide you have place of great value, you are a pearl beyond price.

 

Worship ~ 5 May

John 15:9-17 continues the reading from last week. Jesus is consoling his disciples, promising that – even in death – he will be with them, like a vine is connected to the branches.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

I am actively avoiding political news because I just don’t need all that crazy, but the world news is hard to avoid, hard to ignore, even though I have no influence or ability to help, and even though it hurts my heart to know there is such hatred and arrogance and dehumanizing, debilitating, overflowing venom within the collective human being. It is evident in so many realms – environmental, cultural, global militarization, politics, civil wars, border wars. We almost get used to it, expect it, normalize it – which is a terrible realization. The current campus protests are giving a new dimension to the ‘forever war’ that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing a distant conflict a bit closer.

It might seem there’s no clear side to champion in the Israel/Hamas tension. How far back in history does one go to find the instigating event? It began, I suppose, with Moses, with God telling Moses and Joshua to clear the Canaanites out Canaan so it could be their land of milk and honey. 

But, in that case, it began with Abraham being led from his homeland in Iraq to start a new people and populate a new land. That went well enough, sort of, until there was a famine and they had to leave and got waylaid in Egypt and lost their placeholder in the intervening generations. The Jewish people survived and thrived, even landless, forming communities maintaining a religiously based culture in whatever land they found themselves. Until WWII. And then the British government ‘gave’ them (already occupied) Palestine, in a reboot of God giving the land to Moses. It’s a lot more complicated than that, obviously, but that religious backstory is still mixed up in the current heartbreak. 

Today, the situation is too enmeshed in wrongful actions, and intermingled religious politics, and money, and strategic military interests to take a righteous stand on either side. Except, as Christians we have a calling and the example of Jesus to stand with the suffering. That’s what is clear. And there is suffering on both sides, and both sides have caused the suffering. So, the sides don’t matter so much, the need is what matters, the need is what we are to address – to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and comfort the suffering. To invite them to the table and serve ‘skivers and medisterpolse. To love as Jesus loved – beyond all borders and boundaries, to draw the outside, straggling, struggling in to the center of love and care on those long, reaching tendrils of the vine. To ignore their religion and operate out of the values and mandates of our religion. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Just that. But how? 

It’s easy to be against the terrorist actions of Hamas. And it’s easy to be against the over-the top retaliation of the Israeli leadership and military forces. Destroying Hamas by killing the Palestinian people won’t provide the security Israel seeks. And they do deserve safety, as do the Palestinians. And so in the end, we’re left feeling compassion for the people, for all the suffering, and being angry with the rulers and religions that create the “sides” in the first place.  Which for some reason makes me think about the way Jesus loved. Not the part about laying down his life, but about all the stories in the gospels of how he continually crossed borders and boundaries. That was how he loved. It wasn’t just “his own”, there was always some separation that needed to be bridged, some obstacle that needed to be set aside. Gender, morality, class, purity, illness, ethnicity, culture, faith, doubt – those are the stories recounted by the gospel writers. Every one of those characters had a reason (according to the rules) for being excluded. Everyone with whom Jesus had an encounter, an intervention, was in the “against” column. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says in Luke’s telling, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.    Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.”   (Luke 6:27 ff)

“God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Isn’t that in interesting line? ” Love one another as I have loved you.”

I wanted, intended, to write a sermon about Æbleskiver and how great it is to have a community event that we work so hard at, and how everyone comes to chip in, and how enjoyable it seems to be for the diners, many who come every year and who stay around well past their meal taking in the vibe and the buzz. I thought I would be weaving in the baptism of this precious little child for whom we have prayed as a tiny premie, and for Caitlin and Kyle in their anguish and fear and joy all twisted together.  Those things, too, are expressions of love that are valid and real and very worth celebrating.  

But, I worry about being so siloed, insulated, self-contained as we are in this little community of faith — and of preaching the commandment to love one another after a successful Æbleskiver dinner, when we are seriously feeling the love of community. It’s not that we should feel guilty, or not celebrate the fun and camaraderie because the world is suffering,— but, we probably shouldn’t conflate an Æbleskiver high with God’s love, or our exhaustion with Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved. I think we are to be filled, to have our inner resources topped off with the fun stuff, the communal warmth, so that we have ourselves to offer in the hard work of living active, engaged lives in the world away from West Denmark.

Loving your enemies (if you have them), loving your neighbors in ways that show, in ways that they might recognize and benefit from, loving beyond your borders — that is more to the point and more costly. Praying for the other side. Going out of your way. Offering help where it’s needed, not necessarily where you want to give it. Crossing boundaries of comfort. Taking risks. Stirring up a bit of holy trouble. If these things sound more exhausting and threatening than pulling off another Æbleskiver Dinner, then we might be on the right track. I’m not pushing hardship or misery as holy orders — Jesus did mention to love in this way so that our joy might be complete – but we all know that actual love is costly, it takes work and takes something from us as much as it gives and fills. God is love — and is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. I mean, looking a human history, that’s an impressive understatement.

Abiding in Jesus’ love, dwelling in the mystery, aligning ourselves, somehow, with the vision that all people — all of creation — is on equal terms of importance and value with our own livelihoods and wishes and rights  — that might be enough of a challenge for today. What is the height and depth and breadth of love as Jesus loved? Hold yourself in that tension, and don’t let it go, don’t let it resolve. Stay in the tug and see what happens.

Worship ~ 28 April

John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The gospel of the Lord…………thanks be to God

Hymn: We come to the hungry feast

Some of you may actually know about grape vines – the kind Jesus was talking about – vineyard vines. But, instead, you have to listen to what I know. I know about wild grapes and Virginia creeper. And I kind of like the difference between the official vineyard practices, and the way wild things grow. 

Until they needed to be cut down for the parsonage re-siding project, I tended wild grape vines. I suppose it was less tending and more like enabling. I strung clothesline under the eaves, around all three sides of the porch and let them go. Wild grape vines grow fast and branch out and tendril themselves onto everything they can reach – the screens, the clothesline, the hummingbird feeder, the siding of the house whenever they find a little flaw to hang onto. Every fall I cut them back to just the main vine and a few hearty branches, and by mid-summer they filled in the upper third of the porch walls in a thick leafy garland. They provided shelter to bird’s nests and tree frogs. During rain showers, song birds and butterflies tucked in under the natural umbrella, and once the grapes formed our cats were scandalized watching mice climb up in the dark to eat the fruit. Grape vines create their own ecosystem buzzing with life. I don’t understand how tendrils know there is something out there, just beyond their reach to stretch for, but they seem to. Sometimes they end up latching onto a sister tendril and twine themselves together into a rope going nowhere until they catch the tip of a shingle, or maybe an updraft, or the edge of thought. That seems to be all they need. 

At our place in Washburn, Virginia creeper is busy creeping through the edge of the field by the driveway and sauna. I know it can climb – trees, buildings, barns, tractors – but ours is mostly content to act as ground cover. I spent the better part of a day last summer pulling it out of the space I’ve designated for a future garden. I picked up a section of stem and started walking backwards, and kept walking and walking, watching this vine pull branches from about eight different directions. Not knowing what else to do with it, I took it down the middle of the driveway. It was over 50 feet long when I finally had to cut it. It had branches branching from branches and dividing all over the place, zigzagging and doubling back on itself. It, too, is a native species and has small berries that look like wild grapes, also enjoyed by songbirds, deer, squirrels, skunks, mice and other little nibblers. 

These wild vines are tenacious, creative, adaptive and egalitarian. Grape vines winding their way around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls make it impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends. If you pick up a visible loop of a Virginia creeper, there’s no knowing where it will take you – maybe you’re close to the growing end, maybe in the middle, maybe near the main stem – but you’re bound to find another dozen vines woven in and under and around and through that stem if you keep trying to pull it up. There’s no hierarchy or orderly arrangement. There never seems to be a main stem or mother root. It’s just a maze. A web. A community. A collection of growth, binding themselves together and to the earth. They root as they go – not deeply, just enough to draw up moisture and nutrients, to suckle and send. This was the model of discipleship Jesus intended.No hierarchy, a web, a community, a collection of growth, bound together and to him.

Jesus said, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”The fruitfulness of a grape vine depends entirely on the connection of the branch to the vine.

 “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he said. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus is comforting the disciples during the long night before his arrest. He is leaving them – and where he goes they cannot follow this time, but – he is not really leaving them because they are connected, they are one as a vine and it’s branches are one.  They abide in him, are tendril-ed together to one another and to him through love, and through the Spirit of God that will soon dwell within them. “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” he will say as he blows the breath of God into them. The connection with his disciples will be organic and integral and intimate: the disciples’ very lives will be signs of that connection, just as the life and fruit of a branch are signs of its ongoing connection to its vine. 

 I like this imagery, this metaphor, and I get how powerful and comforting it would be for Jesus’ original disciples, and for that next generation that the gospel was speaking to. They required a close, intimate association and the continuing presence of Jesus. They were on a steep learning curve. No one knew how to be a Christian since there weren’t any yet. What was it about Jesus’ teaching and modeling that they needed to hone in on, to practice, to remember and pass along? They needed the intimacy and twining connectedness of each other for support, but, also so that they stayed true to the message. They needed the vine for course correction to pull the tendrils back in if they seemed to go off on their own. They needed to keep the stories and memories coalesced. We see that in the book of Acts as it tells of the disciples going out and coming back, gathering converts and bringing in the core teachers, Peter and James. Paul was an outsider and needed to be part of the group before they could trust him or his teaching. Throughout the early years of the Jesus movement, the disciples continued to go out on missionary trips and then come back to re-sync, to weave themselves back into the community. That is the model of a vineyard. A true vine, trusted to be the right cultivar by the vinegrower God, who has branches spreading out and tendril-ing together, producing the good fruit of communal life of radical inclusion, fellowship, teaching, and compassion. Intense growth and attention to details produced the fine wine that became a living word and, gradually, a religion.

However – I think I am grateful for Virginia creepers. They are part of the grape family, they share many of the characteristics of their wild grape cousins and of cultivated, domestic, vineyard grapes, but with important differences. 2000 years later, the Christian church of our age would be unrecognizable to the early disciples. And, to be honest, we don’t have much of it right. We aren’t living the radical love that Jesus did or taught, we don’t live on the edge the way they did. We don’t feel that urgency. They would be dismayed that Christianity has become empire, has turned a blind eye to injustice and oppression and suppression. We all know that. We (most of us) live a diluted form of what Jesus preached. We fit it in around the other things going on. Faith is important, maybe even a key feature of our lives, but we have the luxury of a life that makes it doable. We have options. We – most of us – leave turning the world upside down to others. We are as distant a cousin to Jesus’ first followers as Virginian creeper is to a chardonnay. And yet, we are still connected, still stronger when tendril-ed to a faith community, still fed and enlightened, sanctified and loved by God the gardener as we follow in the Way of the True Vine.

And so, I think the Virginia creeper is a more accurate metaphor for the current state of the church. As I said, it is in the grape family, but it has the advantage of those little roots that sink in wherever they contact the ground. Its many branches don’t have to depend on the main vine for life and sustenance and continuity. If I cut out section of a branch with my loppers, both the proximal and distal portions will continue to grow. They don’t need absolute connection. A branch can become a new main vine by sending in those roots all along the length. So my ground cover might be one plant, or it might be many plants living intermingled and independently. Like all of the little Lutheran churches in the county, and the other denominations – intermingled and independently we each do our particular bit, live out our calling as a community of faith the best we can with our resources. We get some of the calling right – to feed and clothe and house and include; to love justice and practice kindness. And we miss other parts, but those might be picked up by another congregation. So that, like ground cover, taking all of us together as a people of faith, we produce the fruit God envisions and desires.

Virginia creepers are an important source of winter food for little wild animals and songbirds. It’s not fine wine from big luscious grapes, but it is what is necessary in our habitat: tenacious, creative, adaptive and egalitarian. We need everyone, we function best when all are invited in, rooted and grounded in God as the ground of our being, and the source of love.

Virginia creepers come with a warning in the native plant book: “Be sure to site it appropriately as it is so vigorous it may be too much for small spaces and envelop other nearby plants. And while it is most vigorous in full sun, it also does fine in partial shade (and tolerates heavy shade), in almost any type of soil.”  In other words, beware: once planted, it is there to stay.

What if Christian community needed to come with the same warning: so vigorous they may be too much for small spaces and envelop others nearby.  Vigorously spreading acts of love, accommodating to sun or deep shadow; growing well in rocky, hard-packed, sandy or fertile soil, producing fruit of the same species, but not necessarily the same plant, growing and thriving where it comes in contact with good earth, capable of climbing to great heights, of stabilizing fragile terrain, of covering barren spaces, and producing food for the empty months… that’s not a bad description for a life in Christ.

The other thing about these various vines as images of the church or Christian life, is that, as branches of the vine, they are indistinguishable from one another. Grape vines don’t have individual gifts. Virginia creeper tendrils aren’t rugged individuals (well, they are sort of). They all look the same, function the same, share the same responsibilities, bear the same burdens, achieve the heights together in a bundle of interconnected tendrils. There’s a undeniable humility in their inclusive equality. That, too, is a valuable image. It’s all for the sake of the fruit. That’s all. Grow to bear fruit. We bear fruit because we are extensions of the vine, tended and pruned by the gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful and to be drawn into the unity of the Father and Son. And in John’s gospel, the fruit is acts of love. That’s all. That’s all we are to be about.

It is a simple, but very difficult calling.

Earth Day

John 21.1-19

Lake Galilee

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

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This is a good reading for Earth Day Sunday. The sun rises on a shining and blueLake Galilee. The story brings together an abundance of fish, splashing, happy people, (wonderful and weird details of Peter, wanting to appear properly dressed before his Lord, yet too impetuous and amazed to wait) and the earthiness of God’s presence and glory. Jesus presents the bread and fish for breakfast as proof of his bodiliness and as a reminder of God’s outlandish abundance, recalling both the last supper and the feeding of 5000. The charcoal fire gives a nice visual – crackling and snapping to the early morning light – and it’s almost olfactory – as we imagine the sizzling fish.  It’s a lovely setting for the last appearance of the risen Lord. And his commissioning of Peter, in referencing the sheep and lambs, brings to mind psalm 23 and green pastures beside still waters. All verdant and gracious. The reading lends itself well to a celebration of the Earth.

My association with Earth Day is two fold: first, picking up trash along the roadsides – something I’ve done since 1971, beginning in 7th grade with the Youth Group of the United Methodist Church of the Pines – and the second association is an internal soundtrack of feel good nature songs – the Danish hiking song with it’s blue skies calling and gentle wind blowing could be a new addition, joining such classics as the “59th Street Bridge Song” (slow down, you move too fast, you gotta make the morning last kicking down the cobblestones feelin’ groovy), or “Everything is beautiful in its own way” (from Ray Stevens) under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find its way, or Lois Armstrong thinking to himself of the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and what a wonderful world it could be. Last week we sang Morning has broken, that’s a good one, too, (the confirmation kids all made note of it in their sermon notes). I’ve got a long list.

It is good and proper to celebrate Earth Day in worship – and this church’s lovely design with the clear windows overlooking a lake is almost as good as worshiping outside – and quite a bit more comfortable and with reliable sound.  

However, there always seems to be a “however”. The older I get the more complicated things seem to be. I can’t just give myself over into celebration of this beautiful setting and my easy relationship with nature. I still feel that, but it is tinged, stabbed through with the rest of what I know to be true.

Many of my feel good songs came out against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and Agent Orange and the civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s and that absurdly on-going struggle for dignity and equal human rights. Feeling groovy was not a prerogative for a whole lot of people.

Earth day was inspired by a huge oil spill. Prior to 1970, there were no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. Remember acid rain? A factory could legally spew black clouds of toxic smoke into the air or dump tons of toxic waste into a nearby stream. On January 28, 1969, a well called Platform A, drilled by Union Oil 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara blew out. More than 3 million gallons of oil spilled, killing more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin was inspired to create Earth Day on seeing the 800-square-mile oil slick from an airplane in the Santa Barbara Channel. As a reaction to this disaster, activists were mobilized to create environmental regulation, and environmental education. On the first anniversary of the spill, January 28, 1970, Environmental Rights Day was created, and the Declaration of Environmental Rights was read. Twenty million Americans demonstrated in different U.S. cities, and in December 1970, Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency to tackle environmental issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was born. 50 years later, the topic is still controversial. Pollution is big money, and people’s livelihoods on one hand, and health and well-being on the other are invested and in conflict.

The mention of a charcoal fire in the reading also reminds us of the high priest’s courtyard and Peter’s three denials, even as three times Jesus now asks Peter if he loves him and commissions Peter for the work of shepherding and feeding the flock.

And Peter, chatting with Jesus, wasn’t getting groovy news. He wasn’t going to snuggle the lambs. He was supposed to feed them, like Jesus, who gave his body, laying down his life as the good shepherd protecting the sheep. Peter and the others are to continue what Jesus had begun. He was to be a good shepherd for the people – all the people. Both Jews and Gentiles means all people. Those are the only two categories of people. Jesus tells him he will be bound and lead where he does not want to go. His fishing days are over — this last amazing catch has nothing to do with fish.

Barb, Mike and Al were just in Kansas City getting arrested in an Earth Day protest for trespassing on forbidden earth, the grounds of the Kansas City National Security Campus where workers manufacture a range of electrical, mechanical, and engineered materials essential for nuclear weapons designed for a global nuclear war. Talk about forbidden fruit. 

Celebrating Earth Day it seems, is less about gathering daffodils and picking up trash, and more about protecting the earth and all creatures from the ravages of our economic and militaristic consumption. It’s about racial and economic justice, it’s about integrity and sustainability. It’s a lot harder and more dangerous and consuming than a day in the sunshine pulling trash out of a river, or collecting household toxins, or emptying the garage of the winter’s recyclables. It’s a lot more like Jesus asking Peter (three times, out loud) if Peter loves him. Can you feel that terrible entrapment of love and fear? It’s a lot like asking for your life – to be changed, given; for your plans to be laid aside; for love to be real, not intellectual or flirty or flippant. Real and acted on. Love for the earth. Love for the people negatively affected by our wealth and prosperity. Love for the animals whose homes and habitats we destroy in complicity and for the sake of more stuff. Love for air and water and soil – sacred creations, each of them. Earth Day is not a poster to hang on the wall. It is an existential challenge and commissioning.

God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved, redeemed, brought into focus.  Jesus was rejected and killed for this work, and so will Peter be, and others of the disciples, for trying to bring God’s ‘love beyond borders and boundaries’ to light, for trying to teach the completely radical nature of God’s way of abiding love for ALL LIFE. Like the ancients, we assume God’s favor for us over others, we create hierarchies of value and enshrine them in liturgical text like psalm 8 with all things under the human’s feet. The birds and trees and fireflies might offer a correction for that assumption. 

What do we do with the dual nature of our natures? How do we become less comfortable with our creaturely comforts? Less reliant on blind complicity as an excuse? How do we become AWARE? And do you dare?

I don’t know how to do it, or if I’ll find a way, but I’ve been thinking about how I might preach a non-human-centered world view as a small way into this problem.  I’ve been wondering what the gospel might mean for my cats or the chipmunks or the eagles who sing from that corner pine tree.  What can animal and soil life, wild life teach us about the voice of God spoken directly to them? Why would we assume that God’s word is only in a human frequency? The creation waits, Paul wrote, groaning in travail until the revelation of humankind. Until humans grow into the image of God that God intended for us. Until we take seriously our limitations and responsibilities and possibilities as part (and only part) of the whole creation. 

I will continue to sing to myself about feeling groovy, dappled and drowsy in the morning sun, or planting gardens inch by inch, row by row – I can’t seem to help it, but I can’t now not see what I have seen of the suffering of the world and her creatures and her children, I can’t not worry about the world our children and grandchildren will grow into, and Earth Day celebrations need to encompass all of it and extend beyond a day of each year, becoming a full-in commitment to life.

Peter, do you love me? Jesus asked. Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep and follow me.

Sermon ~ 7 April

John 20:17-31 

“Mary!”

She turned and said, “Rabbouni!” (which means Beloved Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”    

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them what he had said to her.

 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.  

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Thomas, the twin, the one called Didymus, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The others told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more doubt. Believe!” Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

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That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid .., Jesus came and stood among them. 

We’re back at Easter night, the first day of the week, the day creation began. Or re-creation. Or our creation. The first thing I noticed is that the disciples have regrouped. Three nights before, at Jesus’ arrest and trial, they scattered like quail in the face of danger. But, by Sunday evening, they are back together. No texting or tweets, those who loved Jesus just knew to go back to the last place, go back to the house, lock the world out, gather all the bits together, compare memories, and grieve. Jesus created a new family at the foot of the cross with his mother and the beloved disciple, but his love and the disciples’ loyalty have joined them together, too. Fearful, but together. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto/into his disciples is a second creation reminding us of God breathing life into the first human beings. The image of new life provides an important link with Jesus’ announcement that those who believe in him receive new life as children of God. The Holy Spirit is the breath that creates and sustains this new life, like it did long ago, in a garden called Eden.

Thomas, the twin, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The others said to him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Doubting Thomas. Some days are more Thomassy than others, for me… Some days the wounds of the world or ourselves would swallow us whole, and believing in the goodness and power of God’s love is difficult. Some days I would dearly love a little solid proof, a little less mystery, less reason to wonder.

To believe in Jesus is not to say you believe in the truth of the story. To believe in Jesus is to say, “I abide in you, my Lord and my God, and you abide in me.” It affirms an on-going, whole body, mind and spirit relationship between Jesus, the Word of God, and you as the believer. It’s not factual truth that we’re believing in, it’s more real than facts or proof.

Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to Mary in the garden, she runs back to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!” But they don’t say “Great! That’s amazing!” Instead, Jesus finds them huddled together with the doors locked in fear. They, too, could be thrown out of the synagogue, they, too, could be crucified or stoned.

Jesus appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord in his death-revealed body. They repeat Mary’s exact words to Thomas when he comes, but, like them, Thomas also requires a personal encounter. Actually, we all do. That’s how faith happens. I can’t teach faith in confirmation class. I teach a bit about the Bible and how Lutherans interpret it. I teach a bit about the communal nature of worship and service and fellowship. But the experience of God has to be theirs at some point if it is to catch hold. When the Samaritan woman left the well and ran back to her townspeople telling of her meeting at the well, they went to Jesus themselves.  They said, “It is no longer because of what you said, but we have heard for ourselves.” This isn’t a slight against her. Believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else’s experience. Belief is in having your own encounter with the Word made flesh. Belief is not aimed at eternity, it begins with the fullness of life and grace here, now. An actual experience, an epiphany of God in your own life.

Because, the resurrection is not just the resurrection. Jesus said, “I AM the Resurrection and the life.” God is both glory and earthly. Belief and life are synonyms in this Gospel, and together they form the groundwork for a relationship that sustains and sends out disciples of all times and places and styles.

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”…
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.”

Thomas wanted to touch the wounds; to see and feel, and experience for himself. We get that.
But, have you ever wondered why Jesus still had wounds?

It doesn’t seem to occur to Thomas and the others that the risen Lord should now appear to them perfect, whole, unblemished.  That’s interesting.  Unlike his other signs and healings that were characterized by restoration and wholeness, the resurrected Jesus is not pristine. He still bears the marks of death.

It is this wounded Savior, then, who is the standard for the coming kingdom of God. Through Thomas, we witness the wounds of the body of Christ. And, actually, of course, they are all around us. 

Too often, in our real lives, we don’t want to see them, we don’t want to touch them. We don’t want to get that involved, or be that vulnerable.  We usually try to ensure that marks of imperfection and pain (ours and those of others) be kept covered, as if such “not seeing” will help in some way, will preserve dignity or prevent embarrassment at being seen for who we are, as we are.  

But, if Jesus is raised with wounds, maybe that – and not perfection – is what God prefers to work with; maybe our wounded-ness is where transformation and transcendence can take root – like a seed falling on soft, broken ground, not onto hard-packed, perfected ground. Seeds need the soft earth to open. Earth needs seed to fall, to become something new.

Jesus’ bodily appearance is full of mystery – how did he walk through locked doors, yet allow Thomas to touch his physical wounds? But, we see in this story the tender compassion of the living word of God. Jesus knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them peace. He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes the Spirit into their flagging hearts. He knows they have lost their way, their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation. He knows they can hardly believe their eyes that he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—so he shows them his wounds. He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the next week to make sure the Twin is not left out. He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination, but grants them the kingdom.

It is not surprising then, that in the presence of such immense tenderness, the reading says the disciples rejoiced.  Easter, in these terms, is the breaking-in of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, restoration and love like this, love for all the wounded and broken, for the afraid, believing, skeptical, strong, and faithful – love for all. It is ours to practice this living, this loving of imperfect, ordinary – to become Easter people, rising anew and going out into the world with joy and good news. 

Christ is risen. Alleluia

Easter

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran… and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 

Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 

Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  

Then the disciples returned to their homes. 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;  and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni!” (which means beloved Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

In the beginning . . . was the Word. 

“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” 

In the beginning was the Word. 

“Mary.” 

In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness. 

In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief.

John presents us with a narrative that, in its end, circles back to its beginning – that circles back to creation, to incarnation, to the coming of God in Jesus to bring light to our darkest days and life to the emptiest places and love into the void of despair. 

We know this story. We watch as Mary discovers Jesus’ tomb – the tomb that should be filled to overflowing with death and burial spices and linen shrouds and grief, the tomb that should be sealed, should be cold, dark, stone – is open…is empty. We see Peter and the other disciple run to see that what the woman has told them and they find that is indeed true – the stone has been rolled away. Why? By whom?  John tells us that the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” But, he saw nothing – no angels, no body, so what did he believe? Perhaps simply that Mary was correct — that someone had stolen the body of their crucified teacher, that the tomb was empty. 

Peter discovers the linen burial wrappings and notices the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head has been rolled up and lies in a place apart, by itself. These are not yet clues to the greatest masterpiece of all mysteries. They are simply the facts. The tomb is empty.

Having felt this void, this kind of darkness and hurt in our own lives, we understand their confusion and anger, their disappointment and doubt. Why is this tomb empty? Who would do this?  Why must they now endure this new burden added to their defeat? 

When there is no body, there is no closure. When there is no body, there can be none of the comfort that can be gained from the certainty of death. When there is an empty grave there is no location for grief to dwell.               Unenlightened, the two of them go home. 

Our focus returns to Mary. Neither Peter nor the other disciple have offered her words of comfort or encouragement. They have not persuaded Mary to return home with them. So she stays.

Weeping, she looks into the cave. She hears an echo from within the tomb and from behind her – from the place of death and endings and shame, and from the garden of new life … “Woman, why are you weeping?” 

Really? Well, let us repeat the litany of grief, guilt, and heartbreak that fills our human frames, that marks our earthly days.    Death, betrayal, abandonment, illness, anxiety, failure, fear… how’s that for a start?

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” 

“What are you looking for?” These were the first words Jesus spoke in this gospel, way back in the beginning, when a few of John the baptist’s disciples followed him.  “What do you want?” Jesus asked them, and then invited, “Come and see.”

Jesus asks Mary the same question, “Who are you looking for?” 

Well, what – or who – are you looking for? You’ve come here for a reason – – presumably for more than breakfast. Whom do you seek? What is it you hope to find here? What do you need to find – and hope it might be found here?

There is work here that needs to be done… you probably didn’t come looking for work. 

There is sickness and death and birth and growth and friendship here; there is fellowship among the saints; good food is shared here, peace is shared, stories are shared and heard.  There are a few noisy children underfoot (when we’re lucky). There’s curiosity, and laughter, and prayer, a bit of sarcasm now and then. There is encouragement and nurture, a lively concern about injustice and the future of the planet. There is music for our souls.  There are various vocations being lived out in important, intentional, and earnest ways. There are memories to hold, traditions to build on, and a future to imagine our way into.   These are thing you might discover and share. 

Did you come seeking them? If so, you’re welcome to them. Although, since they aren’t commodities, engagement is required.

What – or who – are you looking for? 

I can’t promise that you’ll find God here, or that you will be warmed or enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that here you will find the One in whom your soul finds its rest and goal. I can’t conjure God. But, I can promise you welcome at Christ’s table of grace and mercy. I can promise you an opportunity to search your conscience, offer confession, and receive release for the burdens you carry. I can promise that whether or not you find God, you can be known – fully, truly, and forgiven and loved by this gardener God, this Savior, this Christ among the crocuses. And I can promise you that it is good news of great joy for you.

With a word, Mary realizes her mistake. This is not a gardener, nor a thief.  “Rabbouni,” she says –  a term of endearment for a much loved teacher. She might as well have called him Good Shepherd, for she turns at the sound of her name. She turns toward Jesus in a moment of recognition that encapsulates all of the joy, all the expectancy, all the incredulity of resurrection. 

I’m still thinking about those fragrant burial spices – 100 pounds of fragrance now scattered on the ground? Was it trailing out on the disciples feet, were the angels sitting on it? A hundred pounds of scent filled the morning where the tomb was empty. It had to be a heady accompaniment to a mystifying encounter.

In the beginning . . . was the Word. 

“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” 

In the beginning was the Word calling her by name.     “Mary.” 

In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness, and even now, the darkness has not overcome it.

In the beginning there was a garden, out of which God sent Eve and Adam to know death and grief, to work and toil, to live (not in the absence of God, but) estranged and apart.

In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief. We know that garden, that pre-dawn chilling darkness.

But from this Easter garden Mary Magdalene is sent out rejoicing.

This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Life wins. God reigns: rains down mercy, sprinkles down hope, pours out possibilities…where none seem to exist.  The Word has spoken through the ages, spoken through the dark night, has broken through the stone wall – the Word has spoken…. a name –  your name, my name, and has turned our death into life. 

Jesus, who was crucified, who was buried, has been raised! He has ascended to his father and to yours, his God and to yours, so that where Jesus is, there you may be also.   Alleluia!

Good Friday

John 19:28-42

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I thirst.”  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” 

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

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The gospel of John narrates Jesus’ death with simplicity, dignity, solemnity. Here there is none of the turmoil or violence of the other gospels – no jeering crowds at the trial before Pilate, Jesus carries his cross bar by himself to Golgotha and without the crowd looking on. There is no conversation with crucified criminals or mocking by soldiers. Jesus does not cry out to God or make a loud cry at the end – in fact, the Synoptic gospel’s quotation from psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a theological impossibility for Jesus of this gospel. He and God are one from the beginning, united in work and in love. Their unity is strengthened, not broken, at Jesus’ death. The natural world perhaps pauses, waiting – but does not shake or moan or give in to the darkness. 

There is poignancy and sadness at this scene, but there is not despair, not abandonment. Jesus is the mystical, incarnate Son of God, the one sent by God into the world to save the world by revealing God’s love. And this is Jesus, the man who dies on a cross, bleeding from his wounds and pierced side, wrapped in linen cloths and laid to rest in a garden tomb. In his death, Jesus lives out the life for which he was born and into which he was sent by bearing ultimate witness to the truth: that through him we are given what is most precious – true incorporation (being brought bodily into) the love of God. 

The abundance of scriptural cross references confirm that this death is part of God’s plan for salvation from the beginning. His unbroken legs lead us to the psalter (psalm 34), his pierced side to Zechariah, but they also prove that he is truly dead… “and at once blood and water came out.” The emphasis on the eye witness is to confirm to readers that this actually happened…. and it is physiologically accurate of a chest wound after crucifixion. 

The significance of water and blood is only partly for proof. The context from Zechariah (12:10) is both mourning and hope. In the midst of death God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication to the house of David, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for a firstborn.”  In citing this passage, John both implicates those who remain blind to the presence of God, and offers hope, that even in death, when we look on the one who was pierced we see God’s only child, the firstborn of creation, who transforms death in love into life. 

Jesus told the Samaritan woman he is the source of living water – in death, life flows from Jesus’ wounded side; his blood – linked to the original Passover – is not for forgiveness of sin, but to provide life – as blood from the original Passover lamb saved the Israelites from the final plague of death.

John is a master of evocative language – with words that conjure the imagery of salvation history in promises and hope.

Hope may seem a strange thing to be talking about on Good Friday, but it is true for this gospel.

We’ve been singing a few Advent hymns in Lent because they are appropriate for this gospel’s telling. Here’s another one: “All earth is hopeful, the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open (for the seed to be planted and grow) for God’s creative task; this, the labor of people who struggle to see how God’s truth and justice set everybody free.”

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are the characters of this struggle to see. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court – and a secret disciple of Jesus. He represents those who fear losing political power and influence within the synagogue and community if they openly confessed belief in Jesus. At Jesus’ death, however, Joseph is emboldened by the truth he now believes and makes his faith public. He embodies the risk, and openly claims discipleship. This was a hugely significant challenge for John’s original audience – the cost could involve being shunned, stoned, or killed as we know from the apostle Paul’s story and Stephen’s stoning.

The willingness to bury Jesus is seen by John as a confession of faith. Nicodemus first came to Jesus at night and left very much in the dark about Jesus’ identity. He later stood up for Jesus on the basis of fairness in hearing him out in a discussion among the pharisees. But here, now, Nicodemus abandons neutrality and secrecy and acts out of love and with great reverence.

The prodigious amount of burial spices – 100 pounds – could be again seen as a proof offering – it would be enough to keep Jesus pinned down … but consider its fragrance.  100 pounds of myrtle, of myrrh, of sweet aloes. That fragrance would have filled and overpowered, and out-flowed this newly carved cave like the excess of pure nard that Mary poured over his feet, anointing them with her hair. This is an act of utter devotion and all-in love.

Joseph, Nicodemus, and Mary prove themselves to be true disciples as they live out of love. Jesus’ body is handled with care and dignity in its preparation. John makes note that it is the Day of Preparation – on one level it is the day before sabbath begins at sundown, on a higher level, it is the day Jesus is prepared. Linen burial cloth was normally accorded only to those of wealth and high standing, the pristine condition of the garden tomb adds to the dignity and beauty of their treatment of Jesus’ body. 

The scent of burial spices, the scent of earth, fresh clay, the garden setting pull us back to the beginning. “In the beginning, when the world was a formless void…” pull us back to the beginning -“In the beginning was the Word….and the Word was with God in the beginning and through him all things were made… In him was life… 

It is over, but it’s not. There is sorrow, but also the new beginning, deepening commitment, growing awareness of the scope of God’s involvement and presence. How are we to live in this love? 

There is no single or simple answer.

 But there is this story of Jesus’ life and death, and the characters who fill it, who, in one form or another all live within us. These gospel characters are part of each of us. Their motivations and fears and excitement and hesitancy, doubt, blindness – are ours as well. To this story we come back to again and again in the words of liturgy, in song, and faith. 

Through the story of God’s love for the world – often hostile and apathetic – Jesus’ love comes as a glimmer of what it means to be community, what it means to beloved,  what it means to know God in the midst of life and struggle, pain and death. 

“From his fullness we have all received… grace upon grace.

Maundy Thursday

John 19:23-30

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.  

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.”  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

________

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished…”

Written probably 60 years after Jesus died, 20-some years after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, John is a theological, not an historical gospel. As I said before, it is stained glass, not a photo. The being, life and death of Jesus are interpreted, not reported. And so, the human elements of his crucifixion are not the focus. Jesus goes willingly to his death. That is a key point of the gospel. He knows this to be the completion of his hour, the time of his exaltation and glory in the Father.  The other gospels don’t make this the claim of crucifixion. They wait for Easter and the resurrection to talk about God’s glory. In them, his death is a painful tragedy, final proof of the unrequited love of God for the world. But for this author, the incarnation is the beginning and crucifixion the completion of Jesus’ mission.  He tells his disciples, “What should I say – Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” 

Death by crucifixion is not defeat in John’s gospel, but rather, is terrible, costly, beautiful love – a part of God’s plan of salvation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” Those are the opening lines, and it is a summary given in advance of what we are to experience as the gospel unfolds; that’s the interpretive lens of this author. And from chapter 3: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved though him. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…” 

The light, however, does not go out as Jesus dies on the cross, “the darkness did not overcome it”. The light grows brighter – I imagine God’s glory is blindingly bright in this moment. Jesus gives up his spirit and the light of God reveals Jesus as the Christ, the savior of the world who, for love of this oppositional world, died so that a new seed might grow.

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  Four women to counter the four soldiers. Four women to indicate the kind of servant-led community that Jesus established. Not the powerful, not the noteable, not the expected, not ones who had any station or ability to lord it over another, but four women and an unnamed, beloved disciple who watched and listened, who loved and grieved.

Jesus’ mother bookends his ministry in earthliness, in mothering awareness, holding the incarnation before us. There were thoughts in the early church that Jesus wasn’t really human. That God assumed humanity as a disguise, without really being human or suffering human death (because how could God suffer and die?). Mary stands at the cross to help us behold her suffering, human son, and to see it through.

She was the first to believe in Jesus, back at the wedding in Cana, leaning in to say to him, “They have no more wine,” and to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” This scene at the cross is a refraction of the first of Jesus’ signs. There at Cana he turned water into the finest wine. The steward noted this, that the inferior was served first, the really good stuff appearing at the end. At the wedding, wine served as a return to Eden, a sign of unreasonable abundance, celebration of life and the creative union of man and woman in one. God was joyful! Through it, God’s glory shone.

On the cross, Jesus says, “I thirst,”  and sour wine is lifted for him to drink. He takes the inferior wine, saying, “It is finished.” And we are left to wonder about the finest of wines still to come, a foretaste of which we sip in communion.

“Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”  Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” 

Jesus has created a new family from the first person who believed and the last to be mentioned, but not named. We know from the other gospels and the writings of Paul that Jesus had brothers.  As the first born, Jesus would be the one expected to provide for his widowed mother. This responsibility would fall to the next oldest brother upon his death. So John is telling us this on purpose – to indicate something unusual the community experienced in life after the resurrection. 

A new family had formed. Back to the prologue: “..to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God.” 

No longer was it through obligation to the law that the needs of widows and orphans and sojourners were to be met.  In Jesus’ death we belong to each other. Jesus gives himself away to us so that we might give ourselves to each other. Jesus unites all people as he gathers us to himself. In the language of this Gospel, Jesus makes us all someone’s mother and someone’s son. Outsiders are welcomed in, outcasts are seen, cared for, included, widows become mothers, individuals become a community. “No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home,” a favorite hymn says. That is the new community of Christ – one that transforms and binds people together in love and servanthood. 

“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

In John, there is no conversation with the others crucified on each side, there is no earthquake or thunder, no darkening sky, the temple curtain is not torn in half. That would be a return to chaos. Here, Jesus maintains his dignity and his initiative, his control of the final hour. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit; an active agent to the very end, the crucifixion did not take it away from him, but he offered it up.  “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus told his disciples – “that he will lay down his life for a friend.” Jesus lays down his life for all – friends and enemies alike.

This gospel wants us to step into the light. But, it also recognizes that we don’t, or can’t. The Jews, as they (or as we) are called, were not evil, corrupt or ignorant or greedy in this gospel. They might have been those things, but that’s not the point. They do not hear Jesus’ voice. They do not see the glory of God. They are not moved by the Spirit’s nudging. They are they enemy, but they are those for whom Jesus died. They are those for whom this new life is needed and given. Jesus didn’t die for the sake of the good, the holy, the open-hearted. He died because of, and for the sake of, those others who are not in communion with God. “Not to condemn, but so that the world might be saved.” Right? Do you get that? So that, throughout all of history, those others, those oppositional or ignorant or willfully closed minded ones are brought into God’s gracious loving presence, as well. This gospel kind of turns our expectations upside down. Jesus didn’t die for the good, for the beloved insiders, but to bring the outsiders in.

The incarnation ended with Jesus’ last breath, but the impulse of incarnation – of God entering ordinary, abiding with us through sin and sorrow and celebration and uncertainty does not die on the cross. It comes to birth through the new family of Christ, “born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Tonight we leave in darkness. But this fourth gospel would not have us leave in despair.

Palm Sunday

John   12:12-16 

12 The great crowd that had come to the Passover festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!’ 

14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ 

 16His disciples did not understand these things at first (at the time); but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 

John  19:16b-22

 So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

___________

Does that seem too abrupt?  It does, doesn’t it. What about the parade? What happened to the singing and dancing and happy shouts? What are we supposed to do with our palms of victory at a crucifixion? Let them fall to the ground to be trampled on and forgotten?  Hide them away out of shame and embarrassment? 

John’s gospel is bottom heavy. The first ten chapters cover 3 years of his ministry. The next nine chapters cover one week. It’s been a long week since Lazarus died. Spread out over these six Sundays, we’ve heard about Lazarus, Jesus’ arrest in the garden, the betrayal by his disciples, his trial before Pilate, and the Jewish opposition demanding his death, and we’ve had to skip pages and pages of his last evening with the disciples, his long farewell — but still, now that we’ve arrived at this crux, it seems there should be more narrative, more words to postpone it. The other gospels all have descriptive stories at this point to help us prepare. John doesn’t describe the scene, only the facts.

“They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”

The reminder that the palms you hold in your hand today become the ashes smudging your foreheads eleven months from now on Ash Wednesday is an appropriate tonal modulation. John doesn’t let us enjoy that triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. It, too is brief— just a single sentence, a bit of psalm 118, a short quote from the prophet Zechariah, and the key line, verse 16: “His disciples did not understand these things at the time; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”

It’s all been aiming at this: Jesus’ hour, the glorification, the lifting up on the cross, the manner of divine love revealed in this.

We’ll hear his last words on Thursday, see him taken down and buried on Friday, and leave that service in silence, in the dusky gloaming of twilight. 

Jesus’ death was abrupt. In this gospel’s telling, it’s also secretive – the events of the last 6 weeks were mostly held in the cover of darkness – pushed along by the Sanhedrin to get it done before the Passover Feast. They wanted to be able to eat their sacrificial lamb, ritually slaughtered at the temple for the forgiveness of sin. They needed to stay pure, stay apart from death. They had to get this legal affair tied up, and they didn’t want the crowds involved.

So, this is it. Jesus goes from Pilate’s headquarters to Golgotha and the cross, accompanied only by soldiers, four women and one unnamed disciple. Pilate orders the inscription to be written in the languages of the empire. He does what the Jews were unwilling to do. Pilate proclaims Jesus as a king for all the world to see. But what kind of king is this? What of our hopes? What has become of the promise that Jesus is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome? He seems overcome.

We want to think that life and death are two separate things. John wants us to see that they are not. They are intertwined. Like most of Jesus’ dialogues that begin on one plane and spiral to some other reality, some other conceptualization, that is how life and death are treated, too. Life and death are manifestations of the same thing: the glory of God. The incarnation of God in human form necessarily requires a death: God’s death, because God took on human flesh. If you believe that, then whether you begin with life or begin with death you’ll end up in God.

Jesus was crucified just outside of the city; and the inscription of his crime was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek for all the world to read. The chief priests tried to get it changed, but Pilate was done with them. The inscription the last twist of mockery. “What I have written I have written, The king of the Jews.” Once again, Pilate speaks the truth without realizing it.

Just six days earlier, Jesus had been in Bethany and called Lazarus out of the tomb. That seems a long time ago now to us. But, the crowd who witnessed Lazarus stumbling out of death into daylight kept talking about it. They came to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover and heard that Jesus was coming.  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, like a hero, like a victorious king, and they shouted “Hosanna! (which means, save us) Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”  Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, riding into the city in true kingship form as prophesied by Zechariah long ago.

“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”  “This is our scripture,” the disciples would say. “Look, Jesus on a donkey…it’s a sign… of royalty and peace, of God’s favor – our victory has begun.”  Horses and chariots are used for warfare, but the donkey was the assurance of stability, of righteousness and rule. Jesus rode it into Jerusalem holding the reins of peace.

Even the Pharisees felt it – they said to one another, “We can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” Five days later, the world has turned and this king is hung on a cross to die.

What kind of victory are we talking about? Death is not a victory we can recognize, holding these palms in our hands, or at least not one that satisfies our struggle with mortality.

As Jesus passed by, rocking side to side on his donkey, his feet scuffing along in the dust on either side of the little beast, did the palm waving stop and the crowd go silent – suddenly disappointed by this sight? And what kind of King is it that you expect Jesus to be? What powers or protections do you expect faith in him to provide? What insulation from the pain and heartbreak of the world?

This divine and human verb of a God, this Being who is One with the Father remains a mystery in plain sight. We want one who helps us deal with living: one who heals our loved ones and ourselves. One who feeds the hungry real food, blesses the poor with real benefits, inspires governance with real wisdom and compassion, one who saves us from ourselves… because, Jesus came into this life as though this life matters, right?

And then, in John’s gospel, Jesus certainly does suffer, but seems fine with the unfolding of this hour. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  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 lose 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. it is for this that I have come to my hour.” Dang. I mean, I like planting seeds and seeing what comes out of the warm, moist earth, but I don’t want to be one.
In the gospel of John, Jesus enters willingly into this hour. He goes willingly into death – it is for this reason that he has come and he seems to know it.  It is to glorify God. But to our eyes and hearts it looks a lot like defeat. It’s not the resurrection that Jesus claims as the glory, but his death. That is the hour this has all been driving toward.

The fallen seed reveals the upside down nature, the profound mystery of Jesus’ divine mortality. We think of life as preceding death; it seems obvious. But Jesus looks at the natural world and says that it is in fact the other way around: Death comes before life, as the seed is buried in order to grow. The source of our life is Jesus’ death.

It is a hidden victory; it’s glory in disguise.  That is the triumph of Jesus’ death – that life comes from it, that we require death in order to fully live. That something in us must die to full live. It is a pattern the disciples finally understand at the end of the story.

Those who make their own self the focus of love lose themselves. If you never move beyond loving yourself, you will live in isolation, lacking what relationship, what true communion with others and with God can offer. To make the ‘self’ the ultimate focus of love, means that you can’t really be yourself, because it is in loving others that you are drawn out. This death of self absorption draws us into the world and the messy, real lives of people and into beauty.  Jesus’ death and resurrection patterns this strange growth in which you find yourself by losing yourself. We come into a place where living and dying become all one, because we are in God.

That is the kind of king that rode a donkey into the city. Not one that charges in with horse and chariot, not one that challenges the power of Rome; but the kind of king that challenges the assumptions of self. One that rules in the heart, and whose power is revealed in acts of service and justice and hospitality and compassion. And who glorifies God in the disguise of daily life and faithful love and even in death.

Hosanna! Save us, good Lord, from ourselves…and Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen