Worship ~ May 15

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 ~ May 1st

Audio Recording

Reflection – Shawn Mai

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Shawn and I’ve been a member here at West Denmark for almost three years.  I am also a called Lutheran pastor to specialized ministry.   My role in ministry is as a chaplain and chaplain educator.  My call is through the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA to Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, MN. 

As an educator,  I work with students from all different faith traditions…I’ve had students who are all kinds of different expression of the Christian faith, Jewish, Buddaist, Humanist, Muslim, Ba’Hai, Pagan who want to be professionally trained spiritual care givers.  The role of a professional spiritual care giver has shifted from a religious role years ago to an emotional and spiritual support for patients, families, and staff.   My context is in a hospital, so the people I see and my students see are going through some kind of health event. 

I also serve as Chair for my national professional association, ACPE.  We are a roughly 1200 member organization of psychotherapists and CPE educators.    In a week we will commence with our annual conference with the theme: Freedom, Wonder, and Liberation: Anti-Bias Practices of Spiritual Care and Education. 

As I prepared for some conference addresses and today’s worship service, I found some interesting cross sections between the conference and our scripture reading.  Let me say more:

There is a bed rock ethic that is articulated in many of the major religious traditions throughout the ages.  

In Judaism, the Torah commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself-I am God.

The Hindu wiritngs instruct, This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.” 

Muslims learn from the Quran, “Serve Allah, and join not any partners with him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer you meet.”

“Love your neighbor” is almost universally ascribed to. 

The poet Mary Oliver said “Love yourself, then forget it. Then love the world.”   For a person who had no declared religious identity, that sounds prophetic and lines up with the universality of love your neighbor.

Today’s biblical reading in the narrative lectionary is the Story of Saul’s conversion.    It is a story animated by “love your neighbor”, in the least it is two very different people coming together in a moment of transformation.

Saul had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.  After the blinding light and being struck down, Saul was instructed to go into the city and wait for what was to come next. 

Annanias was instructed to go to Saul, who he knew violently persecuted followers of Jesus.   The focus of Saul’s life was to do away with the likes of Annanias.

This is two very different people coming together with an unknown outcome.

Doesn’t this sound like a story for our time.  Saul saw himself as one to purify the temple, bring integrity to the faith.  Annanias is one of these new Jesus followers who is seeing the world from a very different vantage point.

This story in Acts reminds me of our societal culture today.   We see and are fearful of the violence we saw in Minneapolis around the killing of George Floyd.  We see and are fearful of the violence we witnessed at the United States capitol on January 6th.   Unfortunately, this dynamic between Saul and Annanias is all too familiar.

Annanias’s prayer and Saul’s transformation reminds me today of my own work examining prejudices and the impact of my life on others.  I may not be actively out killing those who I disagree with, but how does my indifference to the suffering of others’ bring about violence to the oppressed.

What am I blind too?  What scales need to fall off of my eyes?  How do the ways I see the world bring connection and where do the way I see the world keep me “safe” but disconnected.   I bodily feel disconnection when I walk into the downtown Minneapolis Target through a sea of African American men who feel threatening.  I bodily feel disconnection when I stop at a stoplight and the person with a sign is staring at me.  I come up with all kinds of reasons not to roll down my window and give the person some money. 

The stories that run through my mind are quite creative.  I can make up all kinds of stories about who I am and who they are.  Most of them are rooted in fear and always get me off the hook in the end.

No doubt Annanias had some of those same stories going on in his mind when he went to Saul.   The Saul and Annanias story is a conversion story AND it’s a story where some force moves Annanias to overcome his fear.  What is that energy that draws us toward the other?  What ultimately causes us to behold one another?  Why do those moments of connection feel so different that feeling left fearful, angry, and separate?

There was an experience recently where I felt a different response.  Chuck and I were walking through the skyway with our grandkids on one of our Fridays and there was a disheveled dirty young man with a sign about being homeless.  I could feel the tension in my stomach.  Here are the kids, how are they understanding this?  Before I could come up with my usual story about why not to engage, Chuck stopped, brought George and Sylive with him and asked the young man about his story.  Chuck not only offered money, but he offered friendship. 

In the 17th verse of the story today, Annanias not only prays for Paul but he enters and calls him brother.   This kinship language emerges throughout the New Testament.    Brother, sister…Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone.   So this connects with the three words I mentioned at the beginning.  Freedom, Wonder, and Liberation.  Here is how this story forms my definition of these words:

Freedom

Freedom is living into the truth that I am not a separate self.    There is more that connects us as human beings than separates us.  We share the earth, we breathe the same air.  We can pretend to be separate but that is not sustainable.

Wonder

Wonder is how connectivity works.   How I behold the other with dignity, care, and love leads me toward freedom.   When I live out of curiosity and love I open myself up to authentic connection.   Reminds me of that Plato quote:  Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.  Appreciate how universal struggle is. 

Liberation

Untethering from the chains that bind me means letting go of the fallacy of separateness.   Liberation is letting go of fear and loving with abandon. 

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is shawn and i’ve been a member here at West Denmark for almost three years.  I am also a called Lutheran pastor to specialized ministry.   My role in ministry is as a chaplain and chaplain educator.  My call is through the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA to Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, MN. 

As an educator,  I work with students from all different faith traditions…I’ve had students who are all kinds of different expression of the Christian faith, Jewish, Buddaist, Humanist, Muslim, Ba’Hai, Pagan who want to be professionally trained spiritual care givers.  The role of a professional spiritual care giver has shifted from a religious role years ago to an emotional and spiritual support for patients, families, and staff.   My context is in a hospital, so the people I see and my students see are going through some kind of health event. 

I also serve as Chair for my national professional association, ACPE.  We are a roughly 1200 member organization of psychotherapists and CPE educators.    In a week we will commence with our annual conference with the theme: Freedom, Wonder, and Liberation: Anti-Bias Practices of Spiritual Care and Education. 

As I prepared for some conference addresses and today’s worship service, I found some interesting cross sections between the conference and our scripture reading.  Let me say more:

There is a bed rock ethic that is articulated in many of the major religious traditions throughout the ages.  

In Judaism, the Torah commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself-I am God. 

The Hindu wiritngs instruct, This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.” 

Muslims learn from the Quran, “Serve Allah, and join not any partners with him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer you meet.”

“Love your neighbor” is almost universally ascribed to. 

The poet Mary Oliver said “Love yourself, then forget it. Then love the world.”   For a person who had no declared religious identity, that sounds prophetic and lines up with the universality of love your neighbor.

Today’s biblical reading in the narrative lectionary is the Story of Saul’s conversion.    It is a story animated by “love your neighbor”, in the least it is two very different people coming together in a moment of transformation.

Saul had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.  After the blinding light and being struck down, Saul was instructed to go into the city and wait for what was to come next. 

Annanias was instructed to go to Saul, who he knew violently persecuted followers of Jesus.   The focus of Saul’s life was to do away with the likes of Annanias.

This is two very different people coming together with an unknown outcome.

Doesn’t this sound like a story for our time.  Saul saw himself as one to purify the temple, bring integrity to the faith.  Annanias is one of these new Jesus followers who is seeing the world from a very different vantage point.

This story in Acts reminds me of our societal culture today.   We see and are fearful of the violence we saw in Minneapolis around the killing of George Floyd.  We see and are fearful of the violence we witnessed at the United States capitol on January 6th.   Unfortunately, this dynamic between Saul and Annanias is all too familiar.

Annanias’s prayer and Saul’s transformation reminds me today of my own work examining prejudices and the impact of my life on others.  I may not be actively out killing those who I disagree with, but how does my indifference to the suffering of others’ bring about violence to the oppressed.

What am I blind too?  What scales need to fall off of my eyes?  How do the ways I see the world bring connection and where do the way I see the world keep me “safe” but disconnected.   I bodily feel disconnection when I walk into the downtown Minneapolis Target through a sea of African American men who feel threatening.  I bodily feel disconnection when I stop at a stoplight and the person with a sign is staring at me.  I come up with all kinds of reasons not to roll down my window and give the person some money. 

The stories that run through my mind are quite creative.  I can make up all kinds of stories about who I am and who they are.  Most of them are rooted in fear and always get me off the hook in the end.

No doubt Annanias had some of those same stories going on in his mind when he went to Saul.   The Saul and Annanias story is a conversion story AND it’s a story where some force moves Annanias to overcome his fear.  What is that energy that draws us toward the other?  What ultimately causes us to behold one another?  Why do those moments of connection feel so different that feeling left fearful, angry, and separate?

There was an experience recently where I felt a different response.  Chuck and I were walking through the skyway with our grandkids on one of our Fridays and there was a disheveled dirty young man with a sign about being homeless.  I could feel the tension in my stomach.  Here are the kids, how are they understanding this?  Before I could come up with my usual story about why not to engage, Chuck stopped, brought George and Sylive with him and asked the young man about his story.  Chuck not only offered money, but he offered friendship. 

In the 17th verse of the story today, Annanias not only prays for Paul but he enters and calls him brother.   This kinship language emerges throughout the New Testament.    Brother, sister…Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone.   So this connects with the three words I mentioned at the beginning.  Freedom, Wonder, and Liberation.  Here is how this story forms my definition of these words:

Freedom

Freedom is living into the truth that I am not a separate self.    There is more that connects us as human beings than separates us.  We share the earth, we breathe the same air.  We can pretend to be separate but that is not sustainable.

Wonder

Wonder is how connectivity works.   How I behold the other with dignity, care, and love leads me toward freedom.   When I live out of curiosity and love I open myself up to authentic connection.   Reminds me of that Plato quote:  Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.  Appreciate how universal struggle is. 

Liberation

Untethering from the chains that bind me means letting go of the fallacy of separateness.   Liberation is letting go of fear and loving with abandon. 

When I can move toward vulnerability, I move toward freedom.  When I am liberated from judgement, I am liberated from fear.  AMEN! 

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

Worship ~ 13 March

Audio Recording

Mark 11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you,“Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ’Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 

17He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.’
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ 

22Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. 23Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

25 ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

Things are not what they seem.

Jesus rides a colt into Jerusalem, exalted by crowds who sing straight from scriptures’ promise for a king, enacting the prophesy of Zechariah. They wave their branches and have a grand procession, but Jesus’ way, although strewn with palms, does not lead to a throne: It leads to a cross.

Cheered on by the crowd that lines the road, the procession enters Jerusalem, and Jesus goes straight on to the temple as we would expect him to do…. but he goes in, looks around at everything, and, seeing that it’s late, he leaves. He leaves the temple, leaves Jerusalem and goes a few miles away to Bethany for the night.

That’s odd. It’s so anticlimactic. I mean, the stage has been set with the colt and the crowds. He’s never ridden anywhere in their travels – this was a celebration, an event….and it just fizzled.  I guess the colt was taken back to its manger. I suppose the crowds lost interest when he got to the temple? Went home to make supper? Why did Mark include this, it doesn’t seem to fit. 

That’s because nothing fits our expectations. The adoring crowd is not what they seem to be. The next time we see them waving branches, they will be in garden of Gethsemane waving sticks and clubs while Jesus is arrested. The next time we hear them cry out, they will be calling for his death. 

From now until the end, Jesus, who has, it seems, been constantly on the road, on foot and on the way for three years, stays between Bethany and Jerusalem, knowing that staying will be his death. 

The next morning they head back to Jerusalem and we get this marvelous little story of the fig tree. Mark’s gospel gives us the most human characterization of Jesus. He was hungry. He sees a fig tree in full leaf – and, although he knows it’s not the season for figs, goes over to see if it has any fruit. And it doesn’t, so he curses it and moves on. When we see the fig tree again, it has withered and died. 

Matthew’s gospel has smoothed things out. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem ends at the temple where Jesus drives out those buying and selling and overturns the moneychangers tables. After that they go to Bethany for the night and in the morning, on their way back to town, the fig tree story is told, but it withers immediately in their sight.

Mark’s telling might seem inelegant and out of order, but things are not as they appear.

When Jesus comes into the temple this second time, he enters the Court of Gentiles and it’s full of the commerce of the temple system. Booths of doves for sale, grain and oil, lambs and kid goats all to be sold for offerings – much more convenient than traveling with a pair of turtledoves or an extra jug of oil from Galilee. Roman coins had to be exchanged for the proper temple coins. This was the accepted practice.

So it seems Jesus was really hangry; cursing innocent fruit trees and upsetting all the vendors. What’s up?

Well. What’s up is that Jesus found the temple to be as barren as the fig tree. Mark tells one story within another to emphasize the point. Just as the fig-less fig tree withers after not living into its nature, so the temple was not performing its purpose. The Court of Gentiles was to be full of worshiping Gentiles, not commerce. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t purify or cleanse the temple making it fit for sacrifice, he upends temple practice making room for its proper functioning: to be ‘a house of prayer for all nations’, as it says in Isaiah. They weren’t praying, they were braying, they were hawking their wares. Gentiles were allowed only in the large outer court. They could bring or buy a sacrifice or exchange their coins, which would then be taken by priests through the gates into the Women’s Court, through another gate to the Israelite (men’s) Court, through the Court of Priests and finally to the sanctuary and altar. Worshippers were excluded from God’s presence categorically by perceived righteousness. 

This is not the way of Jesus. God’s agency through Jesus was to bring God near, to make God known. Jesus teaches his followers not to rely on a sacred space for their prayers, but that through praying and practicing mutual care and forgiveness their gathering place, wherever it is, will be sacred. 

The procession into Jerusalem that doesn’t seem to have followed to the temple wasn’t an oversight in Mark’s storytelling. It shows the separation of the people from worship. The fig tree wasn’t a whimsical inclusion, it implicates the temple leadership and their practices that had ceased to bear fruit. Messing up the Court of Gentiles’ commerce wasn’t done because Jesus wanted the temple to be more holy, it was done because the very people who needed connection to the God of mercy and life were being excluded. Faith is not transactional. God does not want burnt offerings and sacrifices, but an open and contrite heart. From the sacred place within each human soul, prayer and praise have power to transcend and transform. A temple, a church, an institution can easily get in the way, can get so accustomed to custom that it loses sight of what is living, what is needed, what is re-forming in the Spirit’s way.

Are we what we appear to be? Or rather, what do we appear to be – as individuals, as a community of faith, as Christians? Are you a pilgrim, prophet or priest? We are all servants to something – what cause or need do you serve? If you imagine looking back with the eyes of your future self, will you be content, satisfied, with what you’ve done with what you were given?  You may not feel you have faith to move mountains, but is your faith enough to sustain you through times of trouble? Is it enough to guide you in decisions? Does it provide you with comfort and challenge? Are you able to pray, believing that you have already received, forgiving as you have already been forgiven? What more can you do with this one, beautifully imperfect life?