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 ~ 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