Worship ~ 10 July

Audio Recording

“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.

Ephesians 2:4  God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Yesterday was a perfect summer day – hot, but not humid, all-day sun with a few dainty cloud puffs, perfect.

I spent a perfectly good summer day following Wikipedia links though the history of hell. I picked the bulletin cover bouquet for cheerful company.

Why I would spend time learning about hell, you might ask. Our topic this month is faith, and isn’t the point of faith to avoid hell?  Well, precisely.  

Or is it?

I’m trying to discover what faith is, what it means to me and possibly to you – although, I’d like to hear it in your own words if you’d care to share them with me – and why we make such a big deal about faith.

Last week I took the definition from the book of Hebrews: faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see

I visited with Tony Rolloff this week who pointed out that the same could be said about the Twins having a winning season – especially if you shorten the phrase to be hope for what we do not see. Which caused me to realize that religious faith, spiritual faith, is actually about something, there needs to be an object of that hope. And since I tend to jump to the outer extremes and work my way back in, I landed at the end point of faith, which is death and whatever lies beyond. Which is how I got to hell.

I think the average person, if asked what is the point of faith, would say, “So you don’t go to hell.” Or conversely, “So that you can go to heaven.” 

Pretty simple. But is it true? 

Is faith nothing more than life insurance, or fire insurance? 

If faith is the way through the pearly gates, then those without faith, without religion, or the right kind of belief or religion, will be ferried across the River Styx into the underworld of death and demons, darkness and torture. Is it a simple two option fork in the road? I’ll stop asking questions I don’t let you answer and tell you first a bit about hell, and then we’ll get back to faith.

Hebrew Scriptures refer to Sheol – a subterranean underworld where all souls of the dead go after the body has died. Both the righteous and wicked share the same fate. The author of Ecclesiastes includes animals in that fate; saying we are no different in death. Sheol was cut off from the presence of God.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BCE, the word “Hades” was substituted for Sheol because of its similarities to the Underworld of Greek mythology. Even though beliefs about Sheol and Hades were different, this replacement is reflected in the New Testament.  Jesus tells the story of poor Lazarus who begs at a rich man’s gate. When he dies, Lazarus rises to sit by Father Abraham, while the rich man descends to Hades where he suffers and is told that he had all the advantages, even the warnings of the prophets, yet still he would not listen to the cries of those like Lazarus. 

There is another biblical term that refers to the Hinnom Valley or Gehenna in Greek. It is an actual place outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Way back in the day, under the evil reigns of King Ahaz and his son Manasseh, children were sacrificed to the god Baal at Gehinnom and the place was cursed in the writings of Jeremiah and afterward became associated with divine punishment. In the gospel of Matthew, we hear of the wicked being thrown into Gehenna – into the utter darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Gehenna was also, according to some sources, the city garbage dump and so would have had an eternal fire.

However, the soul’s stay there is not everlasting – in Jewish thought, the sentence in Gehinnom is usually limited to a 12-month period of being refined before the soul takes its place in Olam Ha-Ba, or the World To Be. This 12-month limit is reflected in the yearlong mourning cycle and recitation of the memorial prayer for the dead. I also read that the rabbis tend not to teach much about heaven and hell because they prefer that people live in the present and on the earth with God and each other.

My afternoon of reading told me that our modern image of hell arises from an incorrect translation in the King James Bible conflating these two words, Hades and Gehenna, replacing them with the single Anglo-Saxon word Hell.  So, unclear and inconsistent biblical imagery, pagan influence and mythologies, misinterpretation and the terror of life in the Dark Ages have embellished biblical understanding.  When life was short, miserable, afflicted by plagues and war, people imagined the worst. If this was life for the average believer, what could the wicked be facing? An eternity of tortures. We have come to picture and assume more than the Bible actually says about the topic. 

In 1999, Pope John Paul II said: “images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God who is the source of all life and joy.”

I like that. And with it, we’re back to the topic of faith.

The absence of faith is a separation from God. It’s not hell, it’s not permanent, and it’s not by God’s will. Lack of faith limits the relationship with the divine, limits communication, limits the practice of putting oneself in the space of awareness of God’s presence.

So, if the point or purpose of faith is not to avoid negative consequences, and if it is more about faithful living than hopeful waiting for what is not yet seen, then it seems to me that maybe we make too big a deal about faith. It is listed as one of the spiritual gifts in the apostle Paul’s line-up:

1 Corinthians 12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing,  and so on. Not everyone is given the gift of faith They may be given a different gift from God’s pocket of gifts. Isn’t that interesting?

Martin Luther’s small catechism says: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith is believed by Lutherans and many others to be a gift, rather than an act of will.

We talked about this in seminary quite a bit. I came away feeling that if the spirit of God calls, enlightens and bestows gifts, each different and for the sake of the common good, then it doesn’t make one less beloved by God if faith eludes you. You are likely behaving and believing in a manner just as pleasing (or just as confounding) to God as one who is ablaze with belief. 

I’ve thought and wondered about faith for as long as I can remember, because I don’t feel anything. And because I think about faith, without knowing if I truly believe. I have intellectual faith, faithful imagination, eager hope for the mysteries I can’t understand, but I don’t think I possess the spiritual gift. I had a classmate in seminary who just about started crying when I said something similar because she believes without faith I’ll go to hell. She was completely baffled by the reading from 1 Corinthians. Living faithfully is our calling as Christians. Faith is not one of the 10 commandments. It is only in the gospels that we hear pressure to believe, and there were reasons for that urgency in their belief that Christ was about to return, within their lifetimes. There was urgency in committing oneself to the life of faith.

By far the emphasis of the biblical word is about living. Living with good courage and good will, working for the benefit of others and not only ourselves, intentionally putting yourself in the way of goodness, kindness, positive consideration of another’s position. These life skills are how we follow in God’s way and will shown us by Jesus. He talked about faith that can move mountains and faith the size of mustard seeds. He called disciples without first quizzing them about their faith or the quality of their mercy. He healed people who had great faith and those who had none.

Maybe we’ve made too much of faith, put too much emphasis on a spiritual gift that is not universally given, assigned too much guilt or shame to those who have the spiritual gift of doubt, or who just go on their merry way being good people without religion slowing them down.

I am not saying faith isn’t important, but I think it’s not everything. I think it provides comfort and reassurance and insight when it comes with wisdom. It can also create undo fear or worry when it is seen as the only way to be acceptable and pleasing to God. I think the way is broader than belief and that behavior is of at least equal importance if not greater importance. Paul does say love is the greatest of these three words we are considering – hope, faith and love.

I think if we followed in the path of mercy, compassion, humility over our part in the scheme of life, generosity of spirit and giving, openness to the mysteries of God revealed in the sacredness in all living things, we would have a very rich and fruitful spiritual life. Perhaps the point or purpose of faith is to see beyond the immediate grubbiness or pain or struggle. Maybe that’s why people often come to faith during a crisis or disaster. Maybe we are given the gift when we need it and it ebbs and flows throughout our lifespan like the breathing in and out of God’s Spirit.

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Thank you Julian of Norwich – a sure and certain hope, a simple faith in what we cannot see – based on her vision of God’s love supporting and sustaining all of life. 

So, what do you think?

Worship ~ 19 June

Audio Recording

This is week two on the topic of HOPE. I want to start by making a distinction between Hope and hoping. Most of us have something we’re hoping for. It might be some thing; or for something to happen or not happen (some opportunity, or change in politics, or a dream vacation, or retirement, or not to get Covid). There’s specificity to our hope. We can name it. Hoping for something is one step more substantive than wishing in that we have some power to make the thing we’re hoping for come to be. But, there is also a passive nature to hoping: it’s about externals somehow cooperating with our desires.

Hope is different. Living in hope is a way of being, of behaving, of ordering one’s thoughts – and we can absolutely choose it. There is intentionality in hope, internal action. 

A second difference (I think) is that hope lives in the realm of relationships rather than things or externals.

The first biblical story about hope is between Abraham and God. 

11:27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. 30Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

31 Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there… and Terah died in Haran.

12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.” 

They got as far as Bethel, but there was a great famine so they detoured to Egypt for some period of years. When they returned to Bethel, they had acquired even more sheep and cattle and camels and Lot chose to go east and Abram went west. Chapter 13 ends with the Lord saying to Abram, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; 15for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever. 16I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ 18So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.”

The hope was kindled. Abraham and Sarah went back and forth between hoping and doubting when the child they hoped for didn’t come, when God was silent for years. But still they remained faithful, expectant, in relationship with God.

I think the Hope of Abraham is perfect for this Sunday that is Father’s Day. 

Our son became a father this week. I have to keep saying that out loud to believe it. Sometime around Christmas it sank in to Peter that this pregnancy thing was sticking around. The bump was visible and Andi could feel faint butterfly movements of their child. In the conversations and comments of the months since then, I’ve been reminded that pregnancy is woman’s work. The dad can be interested and involved to some extent, but at least in my experience with Mike and Peter, the nine months of incubation is hypothetical. Kind of a twilight zone reality. I say that with all love and affection. I know Peter will be YouTubing his way through the next six months. YouTube is the do-it-yourself-guide-to-life for his generation. And they’ll do just fine. But the faithful, innocent expectation of a dad-to-be is the best image I can think of for this kind of spiritual hope.

Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any proof that God would do as God had said. Year after year they remained childless. How could they be the parents of, and blessing to, nations without a single child? How could their descendants be like the dust of the earth, or inhabit even the back yard if there is no child?

Even in our modern times, things can go terribly wrong in pregnancy. There is no guarantee that the mom and baby will be healthy. It is hypothetical hope in many ways, awaiting the proof of birth. I don’t mean to be creating tension – in our case, everything is fine, they got home from the hospital yesterday evening and were looking forward to not sleeping well, but at least in their own bed. 

Faithful expectancy is also realistic. From Abraham and Sarah in Hebrew Scriptures to Paul in the New Testament, living in hope is knowing that it is grounded in a God who walks alongside us, who doesn’t protect us like a forcefield, who may seem silent for years, but who never-the-less promises to be,  and to be with us in this life. Living in trust, in hope, with a kind of grounded optimism is a choice more than a spiritual gift. We can teach ourselves to be generous in our thoughts and actions toward others, to be forgiving of ourselves, kind to ourselves, to look for the good around us even if it takes a bit of digging.

I kind of like the phrase hypothetical hope. A hypothesis is a provisional idea awaiting further research that begins with an educated guess or thought. In formal logic it is expressed in a what if question or an if, then formulation. This is where the language of Paul lands. 1 Corinthians 1513If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” and on he goes in what sounds like circles to us. Paul was building a case in the logic of his day, formulating hypothetical hope in the resurrection of Jesus as the basis for risking the dangers of claiming Christ, not Caesar, as Lord in the people’s daily life. 

The hope we choose affects the way we live. I don’t know that we can choose to have faith. I think we can’t really decide to believe in God or Jesus, but by choosing hope we put ourselves in the way of faith, mingling in the same room, giving openings for conversations with the Spirit of God, and then, who knows what might happen? And we are able to behave in faithful ways. Innocent, faithful, optimism might be naive. It certainly sounds like it is when the headlines pop up on my BBC News homepage. But if we don’t ask the what if questions, if we don’t open ourselves to the possibility of goodness and kindness and divine grace, if we don’t expect the baby – then how will we catch it and care for it and love it when it comes? 

Do you have a sense of expectant hope? Psychologists say it gives us resiliency to deal with disappointments, illness, grief, trauma. With life, in other words. And it can be learned, added to your tool belt. When Paul talks about faith, hope, and love, he is talking about actions and behaviors, not feelings – about ways of treating one another, treating yourself as we face the challenging world around us. 

Today is also Juneteenth and another reminder of the racism that scars our country’s history and present life. Expectant, intentional hope is a practical way forward, living into the vision of a better way, choosing awareness of our own prejudices and cultural blinders, and choosing to speak up, to vote, to act out of faithful optimism for the future we want our children and grandchildren and their children to inherit.

Worship ~ 12 June

Audio Recording

1Thess 5:But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Colossians 1We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [This love is yours ] 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

For the past several years, summer preaching hasn’t followed a prescribed set of readings. There are suggestions from the Narrative Lectionary, and over the years we’ve done most of them, but I’ve also included books of the Bible we don’t usually hear from – like Esther and Ruth, or books we don’t hear enough from, like Jonah. We spent last summer among the stories of biblical women. We read through the gospel of Mark from October to May this year, and have just finished Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. I wasn’t sure where to go from there. 

News from the world is dismal, as you know: the war in Ukraine; the unimaginable gun violence in this country with no political will to change access to, or (God forbid) manufacture of, guns. We are the military-industrial-congressional complex President Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address in January 1961. The perennial rhetoric of fear has created a militarized citizenry with seemingly no chance of turning back. The climate is suffering, habitats collapsing, the economy isn’t great, and the corona virus isn’t done with us yet, making us hesitant to socialize in close quarters – which is probably what we need most of all: Hugs, visible smiles, hand shakes, intimacy of the friendly variety.

Sunshine and warm weather have helped dispel some of the gloom, but I don’t know how to preach sunshine. In most of his letters to the fledgling churches, Paul uses the trinity of faith, hope and love, and that might be the closest we can come to sunshine and warm weather in words.  In Pauline literature, faith, love, and hope are the chief ways our lives are oriented in Christ. In 1 Corinthians, he offers a description of Love as a collection of intentional actions. Most English translations list them as adjectives, but in Greek they are verbs, something along the lines of, “Love waiting patiently; love acting kindly”. Paul is describing action; not a passive feelings toward another. 

In recollecting the history of the Colossian Christians, Paul writes them into the story of a cosmos transformed by God’s good news in Christ. This wouldn’t be the only way to tell their story. To most of their neighbors in Colossae, the little cluster of Christ’s followers would probably have looked pathetic: no temple, no priests, not even a proper meeting place—just a rag-tag group of misfits caught up in a Jewish superstition they had learned second-hand. But Paul gives them a new vision –  they are invited to imagine their place in the world as the local vanguard of a movement that is cosmic in its scope. And the Colossian believers are in on it.

Love, hope, and faith are what we need to hear and be oriented to, also, and is the course we’re setting out on. I want to begin with hope. I think it comes first.

I love the phrase, “a sure and certain hope” and thought it came from Paul, but I can’t find the quote in scripture. I know it from the graveside liturgy. “In the sure and certain hope of resurrection, we commend our loved ones to almighty God.” We commit their bodies to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and pray for the Lord to bless and keep them.

‘Sure and certain hope’ is such an interesting phrase. Sure and certain is one thing – it is assurance, a guarantee – solid – a fact. But hope strikes us as something entirely different.  Hope is ‘iffy’. ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ according to poet Emily Dickinson. We say we hope it will (or won’t) rain depending on our needs of the day, but say it realizing that our wish won’t actually influence the weather one way or the other. Our daughter-in-law hopes her baby will be born very soon – and while  birth is sure and certain – her hope for today or tomorrow holds no guarantee.

Sure and certain hope is a radical expression of faith. When it’s said at a gravesite, into the chasm of death, it is a powerful statement of trust that God is still working, that God has a ‘beyond this life’ ability, beyond our sight, beyond our knowing, and the phrase brings comfort, I think. We give our grief away, laying it there in the ground with our loved one, believing that the pain we feel will be redeemed in time.

But when we claim sure and certain hope in our daily lives it has a different feel – more risky, maybe. Because, applied to your daily life, it isn’t about the end time, eternity question, but becomes a ‘how are you going to live this day’ question. If you are to live out of hope that isn’t all marshmallows and fairy lights, but is based on the same reality that the evening news or CNN reports, then how does that work? What does it ask of you? How will you behave that is different than if you gave in to cynicism and discontent? 

When the apostle Paul writes about wearing hope as a helmet I think he’s onto something. Suffering ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (to borrow from another poet) is our daily task. Being armed with faith and love as breastplates and a hope helmet seems an appropriate way to greet the daily news and our daily lives. It speaks of resiliency, it helps to keep faith’s foot in the door so more possibilities might squeeze through. Yes, this awful thing is true, but there’s a sure and certain hope that the awful thing isn’t the only truth, or the only option, or the only way to experience the world. There is also the option of love, the wildcard that can change our own perspective if nothing else.

Circling back to Emily Dickinson – she did say hope is the thing with feathers, but it’s no wimpy, willow-the-wisp. 

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all -”    If you are an early riser or a light sleeper, you know about the bird song of June. It begins in the dark – at about ten minutes after 4 – and doesn’t stop at all until the sun is up. It can be kind of annoying, and spectacularly beautiful, both together; dissimilar blending realities. And persistent. An outlook of hope or optimism might seem unrealistic, but it’s our only chance for change.

Jesus told parables of farmers planting seed to get at this dynamic. Even though past experience has brought years of drought and flooded fields, still seed is purchased and sown. There is an expectation that things will go reasonably well based on the predictable nature of nature. There is risk of disappointment and failure, but hope for the harvest is stronger. It’s living hope, not ‘after-death, heavenly-hope’. The farmers bring in a harvest and then buy more seed for the next year. Expectant waiting and anticipatory action defines many people’s lives and is the template of the Christian life. Most often, we hear of the expectant waiting part and equate that with faith – faith in what will come next, trust in God’s love for us in death. But we shouldn’t ignore the other, hard bit – the living, the acting out of resilient optimism. Not everything is going to be fine. But comfort, courage, growth are the context of Christian community. That’s what I’ve heard in reading Paul’s letters. More than dogma or instructions in faith, he encourages them to live together in fellowship and love, to enact the love shown them by the Spirit of God. 

I’m hoping to hear about that from you. I’ll send out an email with a few questions or story starters about the way that hope, faith or love has changed the expected outcome of a situation, or how hope has helped you in concrete ways in some difficult experience. I hope you’ll respond. 

Worship ~ 22 May

Audio Recording

1 Thessalonians 4

Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. 2For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honor, 5not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.

9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one. 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

We’re still reading Paul’s letter, and I think it’s good to remember that – that it is a letter, not a text book – not even scripture, as far as Paul is concerned. He was writing a letter to encourage and comfort friends he’d made who were following the way of Jesus as well as they could, not having anything but word of mouth to go on. Well, that and the Holy Spirit who seems to have been at work among them. 

But still, it was a challenging course to follow made more so by the misunderstandings and misinformation being spread both by pagans and Jews about them and about Jesus. 

Paul has commended them for the ways they are living out their faith in daily life, for the love of God and love for all the bothers and sisters throughout the region that was evident in how they were handling themselves, the changes in values, lifestyle and belief that they had made and were maintaining – but it seems they are concerned about death. Specifically, about the death of those who die before Jesus returns, about whether they will be excluded from participation in the new creation, simply as a result of bad timing? These early Christians were actively expecting the reappearance of Jesus within their lifetimes, and some of their loved ones had already died.

Here, again, Paul uses a mix of imagery; some biblical, some of the pomp of Roman military victories, and apocalyptic ideas of their own time to describe Jesus’ returning presence. Paul is convinced by his own experiences of God’s power at work in himself and in the communities he serves, and, again, employs all the resources at his disposal to connect to and encourage the Thessalonians; to enable them to visualize the promises of God and trust in the reality of their hope.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this image challenges imperial Rome. If Christ is described arriving with the same pageantry and fanfare that would announce the arrival of an imperial messenger or even the emperor himself, if Jesus brings “peace and security” – the ‘pax Romana’ claimed by imperial Rome, then, it is, perhaps, a less than subtle message intended to reinforce the Thessalonians in their belief that the promises of God are powered by an even greater potency than that of Rome. True peace and security are found in God’s love, not in Rome rule effected through force and violence, persecution and death. 

There is no tribulation of the saints here –  it’s an opening in which heaven and earth are suddenly and beautifully reconciled, “caught up together” as though in an embrace. This time the heavens are opened in beauty, not torn apart in lament, revealing the welcome of Christ to all, collecting first those who have died, while the living continue to live. I find it comforting imagery, even if I don’t necessarily hold it to literal standards. It fits with the imagery in John’s gospel of God in Christ and Christ in God and we in Christ – all swirled together in the intense presence of love.

As two thousand years has stretched out between this fear of the Thessalonians and our lives, there is no doubt some tendency to doubt in the whole idea of a parousia (the appearance, presence of Christ’s return). Christian hope might seem fruitless or delusional to some. Maybe we’ve come to terms with death as less an enemy and more a natural part of the life process, a recycling of energy and spirit. As modern people, we are more sophisticated, right? We’re steeped in scientific explanations and technology, quite accustomed to science fiction and fantasy, quite confident that our senses reveal to us all there is to know about the physical world – and so we have a wary kind of tension or fear or longing or loneliness about death and Christian hope.

Two thousand years have added an assortment of traditions and beliefs about heaven, about the coming of Christ, the apocalypse. There are books and movies and video games, political movements and cults. But Paul’s instinct was right. The Thessalonians needed comfort not convincing. And I don’t think our advanced age has changed that basic need.

Paul might encourage us, too, to see the space between Christ’s coming as an actively alive, charged field of barely hidden glory. Current scientific exploration and discovery seems to be turning that way, making the probability of space thick with spiritual presence more likely than its absence. 

My dad died three years ago this month. When I was home a couple of weeks ago, mom and I were sitting on the back step enjoying a bit of sunshine and bird song. I asked how she was doing with dad. She kind of looked at me, and I said, “Well, do you kind of feel his presence or talk to him?” “No, not really. I have these photos of us all by my chair. I look through those a lot and that brings him back, certain memories. I don’t really feel that he’s gone, but I don’t feel him here.” “What do you think about heaven?” I asked. (I’m the one in the family who asks abrupt questions.)

“I do believe in it, somehow;” she said, “that there’s more to the spiritual world. I haven’t had any real experiences of it, but, I don’t know, I think there is something more.” We talked about that for a little bit and then sat in silence listening to the birds. Then she said she never dreamed about him, at least not that she remembered, except one time. And she smiled, and said she saw him walking toward her in a dream. He didn’t say anything, he just came toward her, but he had the biggest smile on his face she had ever seen. She said, “I can’t remember ever seeing that smile, but I know it was Robert. I figure that was his way of telling me it’s all alright.” 

I have never heard mom say anything like that and I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but it was one of those times that is obviously not for questions, so we smiled and leaned into each other and listened to the woods and felt the sunshine – and I have to hope I can ask my questions another time.

I think what my mom experienced in her dream was tangible hope – what Paul calls ‘sure and certain hope’ in his letter to the Romans. She isn’t worried about eternity, but she had been concerned about my dad’s spiritual life, whether he believed in God. My mom is not a fanciful woman. She doesn’t talk to herself or to chipmunks, she doesn’t have an imaginative or creative streak by her own admission. This dream surprised her and brings her comfort, and makes her smile a really big, kind of inward smile when she remembers it. 

Short of Christ coming down from the sky, dangling his feet from the clouds, how do we know this is real, real enough to offer us the hope we need to get by each day?

It comes out of our own experience. I find ‘sure and certain’ hope in little things rather than apocalyptic scenarios. I’m trying to learn how to live in the presence of God, expecting that I’m surrounded by that cloud of witnesses egging me on. I’m trying to practice ways of giving thanks everyday as part of a bedtime routine regardless of my mood or the day’s ‘feeling’ because it helps me to see God at work in the day; I’m trying to learn to keep awake to things even when I’d rather numb out with British mysteries, or crossword puzzles; attempting in some small way every day to discern what it means to live by the grace and peace of Christ, to really claim that inside.

I think it’s true that if we do small things, day by day, the power and presence of God becomes real, and can offer us hope to get on with our lives with courage and patience and kindness.

Pastor Linda

Worship ~ 15 May

Audio Recording

We continue the letter dictated by Paul, Silas, and Timothy to the Christian community they began in Thessalonica. They are writing from Corinth after having been run out of town – and several other towns.

[ch2   17As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20Yes, you are our glory and joy!”]

“Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; 2and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, 3so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. 4In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. 5For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labour had been in vain.

6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you. 7For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. 8For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” 

This is quite obviously a love letter. It is enthusiastic, surprised by joy (to borrow a title from C.S.Lewis), effusive in Paul’s pleasure and relief to hear how well things are going with these fledglings. He doesn’t seem to have expected it.

Thessalonica was a thoroughly imperialized city, committed to the ethos and politics of the Roman Empire. The cultural narrative is the imperial narrative, dominated by the emperor and his family, with their claims to divinity, imperishability, and omnipotence.

The message brought by Paul and Silas is an invitation and a challenge to, instead, align one’s life story with the narrative of Jesus, the one who was crucified in weakness and humiliation by the Roman state. This required more than a leap of faith, it was a gulf of dissonance for Jew or pagan converts to bridge.

Nevertheless, we hear in Acts that “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4). Here in Paul’s letter, he gives credit to the Spirit of God, priming them for his teaching, and notes that they received the message so wholeheartedly that they had become an example throughout the region, turning to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead.”

The opponents of Paul and Silas claim, “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus”.  Something in the message concerning Jesus and the small community of faith’s new behavior is upsetting to the powerful in the city.  Idols permeated every level of city life: their homes, work, religion, economics, politics. The newly converted Thessalonians, this gathered community of disciples, were redefining family, economy and support networks. Relationships and behavior changed as they worked out together what it meant to follow in the way of Jesus instead of empire.

The population at large is often threatened when even small groups begin to re-evaluate their allegiance to the ruling powers and transfer their commitments. Stability and the status quo are reassuring norms for most of us, even if injustice and inequality are the price we have to pay. This has become quite obvious in our current, and on-going, grappling with racism and the mythology of white supremacy.

It must have been baffling. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was like a public service announcement: the Empire is in charge. Crucifixion was a potent reminder of the impressive power of Empire. But when Paul declares the gospel concerning God raising Jesus from that death, he speaks of another—and greater—power in the world that can usurp imperial authority, that calls into question imperial claims to its (previously undisputed) power over the affairs of nations, communities, and individuals. And ears perk up.

Jesus has been raised from the dead and so everything changes. There is a power at work that is more powerful than any earthly ruler – and Paul and his companions have brought an invitation to shift over, to live within Jesus’ story, to take your place in a new narrative. The status quo of Thessalonica sent him packing, but even so, the message, the devotion to one another and to this God had taken strong root.

Paul writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel … ” and continues with love that is increasing and abounding, with the earnest desire that Paul and the Thessalonians should all be reunited. If we were to read just these few verses, it would be easy to believe the popular — and very attractive — idea that the Christian life is inevitably filled with love and joy and thankfulness and peace. And in one sense, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or protected or guaranteed.

In fact, as we keep reading we hear that the Thessalonians are suffering; Paul, Timothy and Silas are suffering. The trials and persecutions experienced by the Thessalonian church will increase in measure to their increased imitation of the life, love, and reality of Christ.

This apprentice community rooted themselves and their relationships in a narrative and practice of love. And that commitment to each other will ensure their survival in the midst of suffering. Paul writes to the Corinthians that without love we are nothing – a noisy gong or clanging cymbal, that in the life and example of Jesus, love is to be demonstrated in practical ways in the community. Jesus made clear that the main thing is to love God, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. And John Lennon sang, “All you need is love, yah, yah, yah, yah, yah. It’s easy!” Well, maybe not. To be rooted in love and to practice love comforts body and soul in the midst of difficulty, but growth in compassion and empathy and spirit can/probably ought to find us questioning ourselves and society in the midst of complacency. It is the power of shifting narratives, of asking new questions about values, expectations, dreams. It is the power, of asking What if?

The magic question Barb gave us in Lent is What will it take? That’s the pragmatist’s question. Or maybe it’s the second question. The dreamer’s magic question is, What if?  What if we changed the narrative. What if we changed the goal of life from winning to cherishing, from consuming to observing, from using to loving. What if (for example) we made a fuss about plastics out of love for the creatures that share our space? What if we refused to participate in the usual put-downs and demonizing and limited ourselves to the more difficult task of introspection, examining biases and behaving as we wish others would? 

Imitation, someone said, is highest form of flattery. We might try to be imitators of Jesus, to flatter God with love and kindness and courage expressed for our neighbor and world.  But what if, in the incarnation, God is imitating human life, is flattering us, showing us the value and potential and power of being fully human… a little lower than the angels as psalm 8 says…  Does it change our sense of purpose or responsibility, I wonder, if we shift narratives from being the striving imitator to being the example? In Paul’s understanding and in the Bible’s truth, we are both. Created by and for love. Grateful to God and graceful to everyone else. But, responsible to be what we are created to be, not simply to receive.

Take a moment to bring into your heart’s mind some one, some thing, some place that you love absolutely beyond reason.

What would it take to protect or preserve or promote the thriving of that beloved one or thing or place? 

What if you have the power to make it known?

Pastor Linda

Worship ~ 8 May

These few weeks between Easter and Pentecost are a good time to read from the Apostle Paul – even though he’s a challenge in many ways. I think he is more pertinent now than ever, especially if we pay attention to how he said what he did, not just what he said. The two sources we have for information about Paul are the book of Acts and Paul’s own writing. Acts gives us the itinerary that puts his letters in context. So I’m going to give history and context along the way.

1 Thessalonians is the oldest New Testament writing. This serves as a reminder that the gospels were all written long after the stories they tell took place, based on the Jesus tradition that was passed along through first person accounts, oral history and letters and recollections that are mostly lost to time. Last week you heard Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. We don’t know the actual timing of it, but it happened months to a year after Jesus died. Paul himself was likely killed before the first gospel was written, so all of his writing, the interpretation of who Jesus was, comes first. The gospels tell us about Jesus and God; the letters Paul left behind tell us about the significance of the resurrection to the life of faith – at least for his context and time.

Paul had already been busy traveling and teaching by the time he wrote this first letter in the late 40’s. He had companions along the way, changing from time to time – Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Phoebe and others. They were often run out of town by Jews offended at his message, or Romans offended for the sake of the emperor, and that is the catalyst for this letter. After hurriedly leaving Thessalonica, he eventually ended up in Corinth and stayed there for two years. From Corinth he sent Timothy back to check up on them, to see how the community was faring. The report was quite encouraging!

So we begin his letter to the church. (1 Thessalonians: 1-2)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus  Christ:

Grace to you and peace. 

    We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

  You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

 You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.

 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20Yes, you are our glory and joy!”

A word of God, a word of life….. thanks be to God.

Two things popped out at me as I read this. 

First, is the format of the letter itself. There was an expected form for letters in the ancient world. I read about this in one of my seminary textbooks. What made me smile as I read it was remembering my mother’s instructions when she sat me down to write to my grandparents, or thank you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts. My mom used this same ancient formula.

Here it is from my textbook: “The general structure of a letter in antiquity began with the name of the sender, followed by the name of the receiver, and a greeting – often an inquiry or wish about their health. Then followed a personal section, often recalling some past association or fond memory, and next the reason for the letter, usually a request of some sort, or thanks for a gift given. Letters regularly ended with salutations to mutual friends and a closing wish.”    Exactly.

I wonder how many of us learned the art of letters and thank you notes at the kitchen table under our mother’s tutelage. The second thing I locked in, and maybe only because I had Mom in mind at this point, was the reference Paul makes to wet nurses. He reminds the Thessalonians of their close connection: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” This is a lovely sentence, a tender theology, and quite unexpected for many of you (I imagine) coming as it is from Paul. 

But this is a terrific example of what I meant when I said it’s important to hear how he writes, how he teaches, and not only what he says. Paul will speak in whatever way, whatever genre, whatever imagery he believes connects the message of Christ crucified and risen to his audience. He says he strives to be all things to all people – what he means by that is that he will do anything within his ability to get this message across, to help Gentiles and Jews, Greeks, Romans, and pagans, men, women, slave and free to understand that this Jesus, this God, this salvation and redemption is for them, that it is for all.

You may have also noticed that in the next paragraph, he talks as a father: 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

But today is Mother’s Day, so I’m sticking with that. 

In the past, I’ve made a point of not preaching about it. I’ve mentioned Mother’s Day only in prayers of the people because I know how conflicted our parental relationships can be. But as I’ve gotten older in this job of preaching, I’ve gotten more interested in speaking to what actually connects to our lives, and less interested in preaching what is careful, pious, expected or recycled. 

To that point, we have all had mothers. Some of you, I’m sure, identify with Paul’s comments: “We were gentle among you.… 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Some of your mothers, some of you as mothers, or as surrogate mothers, are gentle, self-giving, tender-hearted. Some did not have mothers like that.   

Mother’s Day is as often a painful reminder of loss, of heartache, of abuse, of distance as it is of joyful connection and gratitude. It’s hard to know what to say that won’t leave someone out or accentuate a painful memory. But we have those feelings and ignoring them doesn’t make them less real. Here in the congregation we have mothers who are estranged from children, who have lost a child. Some of you have lost your mothers too early or tragically or unexpectedly or after caring for them for a long time. 

Death is grief and relief and guilt – there are stories or conversations or images that circle around, that are brought to mind with an unexpected scent of perfume or someone’s unknowing remark. How do we live with our mothers and how do we live without them? What wouldn’t we do for them and what have they done to us? How has the way we were mothered affected the relationships we’ve formed years later, our own parenting or partnering? How do we get over our mothers? How can we best support the mothers in our midst? How can we forgive and accept our own job of mothering?

Like many of you I find myself in the middle of all of these questions.

After church and a meeting today, I’m going to Minocqua to be with my 96 year old mom. Last weekend, I was in Duluth for a baby shower for our son and daughter-in-law and was given a wonderful gift when Andi walked over to me, took my hand and placed it on her 7 month pregnant belly, saying, “Here, can you feel her hiccups?” 

I know I’ve made mistakes as a mother to my three children. I’m reminded of them now and then by said children, and there are some mistakes I know, but keep to myself, down deep out of the range of words. I’m aware of the effects of my mom’s generational style of mothering on me. I’ve also watched her change her opinions – enlarge her compassion for mental health issues, for gay and lesbian sexuality. She is able to look critically at her privileged white life. I admire that more than anything else about her.  I learned, as I became a mom, to pray that I could be who each of my children needed me to be, that I would connect to each of them and their unique personalities, that I would listen to what they said and to what they weren’t saying, that I could be guided by what they needed and not what I expected them to be. 

I know I’ve also made mistakes – lots of them – in mothering this congregation. You can’t possibly know the love and regard I have for you by my actions and inactions. But I’ve felt, do feel, that that’s part of my role here. To love you and offer what I have to give to help you grow – to help us all grow up in spirit and faith and hope.

Being a parent, (I can only speak to being a mother), isn’t easy. Neither is being mothered by the mother we were given. I kind of love that Paul brings this wet nurse imagery to his letter. There are men and women who nurture, who inspire, encourage, sustain us all along our lifespans in ways and at times our own mother’s couldn’t do. You all take on that role within your circle of influence and within the church.

I feel that I’m balanced in the center this year. I still have my mom, but sometimes I mother her. I have children who still need me, but sometimes – let’s be honest, it’s mostly Marnie – sometimes they mother me. I have a compassionate, lovely daughter-in-law who will hopefully have a healthy, safe birth in the next month – and, although I can’t get my head around it yet, our son will largely be a stay at home dad and will practice his mothering and fathering skills and continue the cycle of mistakes and love and trials and joy.

Anne Lamott is a writer who describes the difficulty of Mother’s Day in her characteristically humorous and blunt way. This is just a bit of what she writes:
“This is for those of you who are dreading Mothers Day, because you had an awful mother, or wanted but didn’t get to have kids, or your kids ended up breaking your hearts. If you love the day, and have or had a great mom, and kids who have brought you incredible pride and joy, maybe skip this:…

Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.

The illusion is that mothers are automatically happier, more fulfilled and complete. But the craziest, grimmest people this Sunday will be the mothers themselves, stuck herding their own mothers and weeping children and husbands’ mothers into seats at restaurants. These mothers do not want a box of chocolate. These mothers are on a diet.

Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents. 

Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss. 

But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing. And we are all mothers.

You want to give me chocolate and flowers? Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.

That sounds to me a lot like incarnational love – ordinary, beautiful, and available to all. I know it’s hard for many to talk about the relationships that matter so much. I hope that whatever your connection to motherhood, you are able to lean into it today – not to wallow in the same old narrative, but perhaps look from a new slant, and find people who support you and love you and sit with you in the complexity of feelings and memory. I hope you will share your stories. This, too, is a way we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Pastor Linda

 

Worship ~ 24 April

Audio Recording

I’m not quite done with Mark and his gospel. You know how there are people you listen to, or certain authors you like to read, or actors you are interested in – if they’re in a movie you’re more likely to watch it? Well, nerd that I am, I have theologians I follow, or at least get oddly excited at finding something they’ve written. Dave Fredrickson is one of them. He is a professor at Luther Seminary and was my Greek teacher, and because of the ‘beyond tradition’ way he taught and thought, I kept taking classes from him. So… when I found an article he wrote about Mark as I was snuffling through the web, I printed it off and have held it in reserve for today. 

Dr. Fredrickson has specialized in the cultural context of the New Testament. What were people reading in Jesus’ day? What plays were they attending, what is written about their relationships or livelihoods, what was being imported or exported, what does their artwork tell us about their values or ideas? What importance to our understanding of scripture does their understanding of our physical bodies make? All kinds of fascinating avenues of thought. But, my interest today was caught by the title of his article, “Nature’s Lament for Jesus.”

This is Earth Day Sunday and the 2nd week of Resurrection when we typically read of the reappearance of Jesus to his disciples. In Luke, it’s the road to Emmaus. John has several sightings – Thomas poking his finger into Jesus’ gashed side, and my favorite, when Jesus serves up a shore breakfast for the fishermen. But since Mark doesn’t end that way, I’m free to consider nature’s lament, and take you out of our world view and a little bit into Jesus’ world view – or at least what can be deduced from the remains of their day.

We begin in Mark 15:25 

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 

37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 

These details have always fascinated me.  The sky goes dark and the curtain tears. Traditional interpretation says that the temple curtain is what separated God from humans, the holy of holies from our world of sin. The High Priest was the only one who could go behind the inner curtain, and only once a year, on the day of Atonement. 

The tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death meant God wasn’t confined or hidden away, but entered into our world through the Spirit to be with us, in trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

There’s nothing wrong with that understanding. I like it. But when Dave Fredrickson says there’s another way to think about it, I want to know what it might be. 

This is what he proposes. “I believe we make better sense of the strange circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death if we think of the curtain as a visual representation of the cosmos. Then the tearing of the curtain becomes one of two events (the other is the darkening of the sun) that express nature’s grief over Jesus’ death.”

So, first a bit about the curtain. This was the second temple, built after the Babylonian exile. There aren’t as many descriptors of it as there were of the original temple and it lacked much of the grandeur and gilding, but still it was magnificent. 

Writing in the second century B.C.E., Aristeas tells of his journey to Jerusalem and what he saw there. The temple was “built with a lavishness and sumptuousness beyond all precedent,”  he writes. From a description of the magnificent doorposts and lintel he goes on to the curtain, which “corresponded in every respect to the door; especially when the fabric was kept in unceasing motion by the current of wind (pneuma, breath in Greek). Since it was from below, the curtain bulged out from the bottom to its fullest extent, the spectacle was highly agreeable and hard to tear oneself from. It was as if one witnessed the cosmos breathing.”

Josephus, a contemporary of Mark, a priest and historian, says something similar, 

“Before the golden doors hung a veil of equal length, of Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was the mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe. For the scarlet seemed emblematical of fire, the fine linen of the earth, the blue of the air, and the purple of the sea.… On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of the heavens.” 

Aristeas and Josephus indicate that by the first century the temple curtain had a reputation, a public way of being perceived, as a representation of the cosmos. As Jesus dies, this cosmos was ripped in two from top to bottom, the heavens torn apart.

Tearing or ripping garments was a way the ancients expressed grief. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” said the prophet Joel. Dave Fredrickson goes on to build more of a case for this, but his point is that, in Mark’s time, the curtain torn from above is nature in lament. 

“When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33). The sun’s behavior is another example of nature grieving. In Greek art and artifacts there are scenes of trees gently bending over the dying or dead.  In poetry, nightingale, swan, hill, cow, bull, tree, flock, hive, sea—all mourn a lover’s death. Entities in nature express grief without the aid of language. They do impossible things. They act against their own nature. In the psalms, trees clap their hands and dry lands gush with springs when they’re happy. Out of sorrow “the trees cast their fruit on the ground” and flowers wither, flocks give no milk, bees no honey. The Apostle Paul writes that the earth is groaning in labor pains. Nature was an active, eloquent agent in their world view. 

So, citing poetry, art and contemporary writers of Mark, Dr Fredrickson makes his case that the dimming of the noonday sun and the tearing of the temple curtain expresses nature’s grief over Jesus’ death. 

One thing that’s interesting about this is that, although nature was noisy with grief, God was silent.   We overheard God claiming Jesus when the heavens are torn apart at his baptism and again in the mountaintop transfiguration, but when Jesus is on the cross, there is no divine word. Perhaps it is a grief too deep for words? Perhaps, through the many and varied ways Mark includes nature in the mysterious acts of God in Jesus throughout the gospel – multiplying bread and fish, stilling the wind and waves, for two examples, we are prepared to see God present in grief in the world and not distant in heaven or behind a curtain.

So, does this matter? 

One of the tenants of Grundtvigian theology is that God is self revealing in nature, that we can discover God – not simply something about God, but truly God – in the natural world. If that is true, and God is present, incarnate in creation, then nature’s lament, earth’s groaning, is God’s lament – in Mark’s world view and in ours.

The exploitive and self-centered way in which we have ‘cared’ for the earth, the creatures, the water, the soil and sky is cause for lament. And not only lament, but repentance, sudden and abrupt change of behavior. And if God is present in nature – not contained by nature, but present somehow – then loving God with all our heart and strength and soul has something to do with our relationship and responsibility to the natural world. How will we respond to the earth’s lament? It is not only practical, or political or economic, but it is a statement of faith and an act of love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves and for the little ones in our midst.

  • * Nature’s Lament for Jesus  by DAVID E. FREDRICKSON, Word & World Volume 26, Number 1 Winter 2006

Worship ~ April 10

Audio Recording

Mark 14:12-21

 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ 19They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ 20He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

   It’s believed that the gospel of Mark was written about 35 years after the events of this Passover night took place. It was the first of the four gospels to be written, but it’s helpful to remember that all of Paul’s activity, and his letters to the small Christian communities he helped form, that all came first.        

   In fact, by the time the gospel of Mark was written, Peter, and Jesus’ brother James, and the apostle Paul have all been killed – probably under the persecution of Nero. The precise date and author of Mark are unknown, but scholars’ consensus is that this gospel was likely written during the Jewish-Roman war that lasted from 66 to 74 AD. The final Jewish revolt perpetrated by the Zealots called down the military power and brutality of Rome. The temple and Jerusalem are either in ruins or are in their final days when Mark writes. So, even though the narration is in present tense bringing us into the story taking place around us, it is written with the knowledge and perspective of later realities of the war and the ongoing persecution of early Christians both by Jewish leaders and Rome. The urgency of the gospel was very real for the author and community of Mark. They believed that the end was near.

   As a consequence of persecution and the passage of more than three decades, the eye-witness accounts and first hand experiences of those who actually knew Jesus have, by this time, become stories that are told, taught, and circulated as a way of remembering Jesus’ life and his teaching, as a way of making sense of his shameful death, but also, and more importantly to the author, as a way of passing along the communities’ conviction that Jesus is who he finally said he was. The secret that he scolded and hushed up came out in the end. We will read his trial before the chief priests on Thursday, and will hear Jesus finally say, “I am. I am the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.” That confession, coming at the end of Mark’s carefully crafted tale, is the revelation that should clarify the story. Finally, the insider perspective with which we as readers have been privileged is spoken into the character’s world. The mounting suspense and dissonance and secrecy and hostility will meet at point zero. Well, it almost happens.

  I actually don’t like to read the whole gospel. I suppose it’s funny then, that I’m a pastor and spend hours every week reading and writing about them and trying to figure them out. My favorite stories to watch in my free time are British murder mysteries. And I watch the same ones over and over and over again. I rewatch mysteries because I find comfort in knowing what’s coming, in being familiar with the story – there’s a certain companionship in familiar characters. But, I dread getting to this part of the gospel. As we approach it each year I feel it in the pit-of-my-stomach. I just don’t want to read it again. Foreknowledge and repetition that comfort me in British mysteries, don’t help with the gospel. Being familiar with the characters doesn’t help. 

  The cozy mysteries I enjoy are about detection, and gradual revelation, not the death. We don’t typically feel much for the victim or against the perpetrator; we care about the detectives. Mark, as storyteller, is the detective, giving us clues as we go – both about Jesus’ identity and what will befall him. But there’s no sense of triumph when the truth of each comes out. It’s more like the crossed stars of Romeo and Juliet. In spite of its mysterious nature, the gospel is a tragic love story. The disciples who need to hear Jesus say clearly, ‘I am the Messiah’, aren’t there to hear when he finally does. And the antagonists who force the question, don’t want to know, don’t believe him, and won’t repeat the message. So, the proclamation of good news ends in failure.  But, that is jumping ahead to Thursday and Friday.

   It was the first day of Unleavened Bread, the day the Passover lamb is sacrificed. The man with the water jug was there as Jesus said he would be. He led them to the master of the house as predicted. The upper room was available and furnished as Jesus said it would be. The meal is cooked. Jesus comes in with the twelve. They take their places, perform the rituals, and begin to eat. It is with this scene at the table that my dread begins. 

  It’s the intimacy, the sense of family, the expected trustworthiness and closeness of the scene that stays with us. The betrayal from within this close knit, well travelled troupe cuts deep. And it all takes place as Jesus said it would. 

  He knew Judas would betray him. Jesus knew Peter would, too, in fear for his life. And that the rest of the disciples would run for cover. Jesus knew he was heading into mortal danger alone.  Yet he sits calmly at the table, passes bread and dips it – does he watch the others’ hands? Is one hand trembling as it reaches forward? Jesus does not call Judas out as the others question and fuss. He eats with his betrayer anyway. And he loves the faithless, fearful ones anyway. 

  As tangled and tragic as the storylines are, Mark is still holding a few cards to his chest. There is a lot of Agatha Christie in the gospel. To borrow from her detective Poirot, it’s not what the gospel says, it’s what it says that matters.

  There are several threads or themes running through the gospel: Jesus’ foreknowledge is one. Secrecy surrounding his true identity is one. Opposition to Jesus is another – and began with the Herodians in chapter 3. Divine power is another one. Acts of God’s authority and healing power fill the first half of the book and then drop off abruptly. Jesus popularity among the people follows this arc. Meanwhile, opposition swells in the second half. 

  But from beginning to end, Jesus’ desire is to keep his identity hidden. And who knows what, when, is the captivating bit of detection and line of questioning that we as readers/hearers of the gospel are to discern. Why are secrecy and foreknowledge key to Mark’s story, how do they function? Were they storytelling devices common to the age? Or do they help us make sense of what would otherwise be simply a tragic tale?

  My feeling is that this last question is key. Jesus’ ability to predict that a colt would be tied up and available for his ride into Jerusalem, that the disciples would meet a man with a water jar, that Judas would betray him and Peter deny him is not only what the gospel says, but tells us what it is saying.

   Jesus predicted his death three times. These other predictions proved to be true. The events unfolded as he said they would. Therefore, his death will happen as he says. And, if that is trustworthy, it means that he goes to his suffering knowingly, intentionally, though not wanting it. And if his death follows the prediction, then so will his rising. That, too, will be trustworthy and true. We as audience have seen it all unfold, we’ve seen the disciples’ failings and are warned that it will get worse, that they are soon to forsake him. We have grave doubts that they have ever understood who he is and what it means to be a follower of the Christ who suffers. But we have seen God’s power aligned with Jesus, working through him, claiming him as God’s own. If no one in the story knows what we know, if the disciples scatter like quail chicks at the first sign of danger, and if even the women who have observed it all from the sidelines remain silent, then who is left with eyes to see or ears to hear? Who is left to tell of the consequence of God’s tender, powerful act of love? 

   Is it a mystery, or is it elementary, my dear Watson?

Worship ~ 3 April

Audio Recording

Mark 14:1-11

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.”

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Chapter 14 starts a new chapter – quite literally – in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. It’s not the first time we’ve heard that someone is out to get Jesus – it began with the Pharisees conspiring with Herodians in chapter 3. It’s been a motivation for Jesus’ constant movement in the gospel, but now that he is in Jerusalem, the stage is set and the tension is thick.

Maybe because of that, we tend to rush on ahead, not wanting to know, but not able to linger here in the hours before his arrest and trial. We were also warned in chapter 3 that Judas Iscariot, one of his twelve disciples, would betray him. We’ve been primed for this. Mark’s gospel has been called a passion narrative with a long introduction. The next few chapters are what we’ve been heading for all along. But Mark doesn’t want us to rush, to get it over with. He slows down the action, slows down time – and what he includes is here to be noticed. Once again, there’s a story within a story. 

Once again, a woman’s quiet action interrupts the predominant public narrative of males. Tucked in-between the scribes and Pharisees looking for a way to kill Jesus outside the public’s eye and his own disciple coming to their aid, is an unnamed, unknown woman who interrupts a meal.

Each of the four gospels includes a story of a woman anointing Jesus, but the details and timing vary quite a bit. Mark’s is significant not only because it’s the first time the story is told, but because she stands behind him and anoints his head. Anointing in this manner is what prophets did to Israel’s kings. Her anointing is what makes Jesus the Christ, the anointed one. Her action (and God’s). Mark gives us detail. An alabaster jar: white, translucent stone. An ointment made of nard: luxurious, expensive – made from the flowers of spikenard, a plant growing on the slopes of the Himalayan mountains and traded, transported by caravan – costly indeed, and precious, used drop by drop for calming massage or anointing bodies for burial. And this woman breaks the jar, pouring the entire contents over Jesus’ head. Fragrant, slow moving oil coating his hair, sinking down onto his scalp, into his beard, scenting his garments, filling the room, the entire house, with its mesmerizing scent. 

It is an act of extravagance. Ecstatic devotion. Like the poor widow, this woman with no name has given it all, holding nothing back. Yes, it could have been sold. Yes, the money could have been given to the poor as a generous blessing. That was what Jesus told the rich man to do when he came looking for the way to eternal life. The critics around the room were right, but they missed the point of devotion, missed the symbolic act of anointing, missed the moment of compassionate, outpouring love given days before Jesus’ own giving. They missed the complex, ephemeral meaning of beauty.

In the movie Babbett’s Feast, based on the story by Isak Dinesen, a woman refugee is taken in by two devout sisters who care for a small religious group in a remote Danish village. In exchange for room and board, she offers to keep house and cook. Soon after, she’s notified of a winning lottery ticket. She offers to create a dinner for the anniversary of their father’s death before she leaves them. The sisters agree, but then fear that their own and the community’s righteousness will be undermined by the luxury of the feast. The meal is a banquet of sumptuous tastes and smells. Afterwards the sisters talk with Babette about her return home. She tells them that she will be staying on as a housekeeper because she has spent all her lottery winnings on the meal, her extravagant outpouring of love.

Like a meal once it is consumed, fragrance is ephemeral. The scent of the nard filled the room and gradually faded. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that Jesus would retain this scent, this fragrance throughout the remaining two days of his life. She did anoint him for his death and burial as he said, a last act of love and human kindness while, outside in the night, his own Judas went to the chief priests, receiving an extravagant sum for his action of betrayal.

In the face of the forces of death and destruction that are gathering around Jesus, this woman offers beauty and love. It seemed like a waste to the onlookers. If we were reading this all in one sweep and could hold the imagery of her actions, we would see and smell the anointing of Jesus as king hours before he is crowned by Pilate’s soldiers with thorns and draped with a purple cloak. It is a complex, confusing, emotional image of the one we call Christ, the son of God.

Jesus said whenever the story is told, she will be remembered. But somehow the church missed that message. We repeat this story in every communion liturgy – in the night in which he was betrayed… I’ve added her into the book of liturgy where she should be – in the night in which he was both anointed and betrayed…

This story within a story is important for our lives outside of liturgy and scripture. Beauty and love are powers that transform and transcend. They aren’t practical, economic, militaristic. Beauty and love are as hard to pin down as a fragrance, but they are what matters, ultimately. Not our stuff. Not our edifices. Not our power or strength or wealth. There is a ‘last shall be first, least shall be greatest’ economy to love and beauty. Hope grows from kindness in a cruel world, from beauty against a backdrop of brutality. 

We can see that played out in Ukraine with music. There have been violins playing in bomb shelters, choruses of the national anthem sung in the streets. An Italian, Davide Martello, has been playing piano for refugees arriving in Poland, wanting to give them something beautiful as they leave the violence behind.

Denys Karachevtsev is the cellist on the bulletin cover. A citizen of Kharkiv, he plays in the ruins to give hope. “I love my heroic city which is now struggling to survive the war. I deeply believe that we can help.” He is doing what he can do. Bach’s cello suites are not ammunition, but they may have power.

Sometimes it feels like we are too embedded in anger and exploitation and self-interest, too far along the path of self-destruction to turn back. We don’t need more powerful weapons or better arguments, maybe what we need is more imagination, more acts of extravagance, more devious beauty.

What is it that you can do? In your hands you hold a vessel. Close your eyes and imagine it, feel its weight, its composition. Is it warm or cool? Heavy or light?  Your vessel is full.  Inside it is your extravagant gift, unique to you. What senses does it activate – sound, touch, scent?  It is precious… a treasure that is yours to give.  Can you name it?  Sense it?  Where would you use it or share it or give it?  What lies in your power?  What is it you can do?

Pastor Linda