Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant. 

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Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

Jesus is…

In the midst of another holy season, my pastor invited us to ponder who Jesus is. The question stuck with me and inspired a whole preaching series on christological terms. It’s what has led us in the church I’m serving as interim pastor through Lent. Every week, as worship began, we’ve asked ourselves: who are we are who is our God? Today, between palms and passion, I dared to give my answer of who Jesus is. It was a service with a lot of scripture. Before the sermon, we heard both Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:39-23:25. Worship concluded in the poetry of Luke 23:26-49 but it the sermon that follows.


Jesus is… Jesus is… the one who leads us toward peace. The one that saddles his hope and his love upon a colt and parades his way into the city where he will die. Through the gate and into the city, with people on his right and on his left, waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna! Hey sanna! Sanna Sanna Ho!” 

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout without ever really understanding what they announce. Jesus is… the one who cannot be stopped. He will wash feet and break bread. He’ll pour just enough wine so that we do not miss how precious this life is. He will do all of these things under watchful eyes. He will do it without their blessing or even their understanding. He will turn tables and resist definition. He will not let their praise and their honor forget that God is a God of love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

  
Jesus is… Jesus is… the light of that love. He is the Light of the World. The one that removes darkness, exposes darkness and dares to declare even in the darkest places that there is light and that it is good. At times, he glows. He radiates that light so much that even his clothes become white as snow. Other times, that light is so faint and dim, like a candle blowing in the wind. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people, not to be overcome or overwhelmed but as steady as the light cast upon the sea by a distant lighthouse. Guiding us. Encouraging us. Seeking us out. Leading us to where we are called to be. Jesus is… the great light that shines in our deepest darkness.He is the true light, that just might enlighten everyone, that light that is coming into the world. That is already in the world. That can’t be contained by this world.

It is something that can only be understood in the face of death. Only as we wonder why any life or any hope or any revolution must come to an end can we glimpse the face of Christ who was in the world…even if the world did not know him. But, it was always there. He was always there. In the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus is… the Word, in your words. In our words as much as he might be in all our hopes and dreams. Jesus.. is the very logic of the divine. He is the flesh that reveals God’s deepest wisdom. He is the reason and the order of God’s love for this world and for its people. Jesus is… the articulation of that love. He is the very expression of the reason that God loves, but it is a reason without logic. Or without our logic. God loves because God loves. That love has no beginning and no end.

So that it seems that God might be a chicken, foolishly opening her arms and expanding her welcome when it seems anything but wise. Much as we might refuse, much as we might think we know better, much as we might reject that love, the fact does not change: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd. Even with a hundred sheep or more to protect, he goes chasing after that one sheep that is lost and alone. He welcomes it home. He dares to claim that lost and sinful sheep to be a member of God’s family. Even that sheep is loved, embraced, affirmed, blessed and beloved. Jesus is… the one who gathers all of those broken and dejected people into his fold, declaring each and every one of them to be so loved by God. Others might mock or scoff. They may sneer and spit but Jesus is… the one who knows that we are like sheep without a shepherd.

And it is because of this that Jesus is… Jesus is… the Messiah. He won’t be a warrior or a king. He will demand justice not for the rich and powerful but for those who want to have life and have it abundantly. He will not kill and destroy for his is not that power. Love is not that kind of power. Jesus is… the anointed one. Jesus is… the restoration. Jesus is… the healer, the redeemer, the savior not just for individual souls but for the whole world. Jesus is.. the rabble-rousing, stern-speaking voice of redemption. It is voice that suggests, posits, even demands another way. There is more to this precious life than violence and fear. There is more than hatred and greed. There is more that love can do. There is more.

Jesus is… the Messiah. He is the hope. He is the love. He is the promise that love is greater than fear. Jesus is.. the force of God’s greatest conviction. Jesus is… that wonder-working, barrier-breaking, hope-restoring, healing and redeeming strength that dares to feed and forgive and bless the love that we are able to find in each other and in this world, because there is more. There is so much more of that love. There is more food to be shared. There is more healing to be done. There is more mercy to be granted. There is more hope to find. There is more love to give.

There are others that might say they know the way. Others that might claim that they can make this world great again. Other presidential hopefuls. Other emperors. Other kings. Other warriors that might lead by force. There are other powers that be. Others that might claim the title but Jesus is… the Son of God. He will not let others define what that means. He knows what God can do, even if we do not.

So that Jesus is… the one who goes to the garden alone. He is the one that prays in his own dark night of the soul. With hosannas still ringing in his ears, he will wonder what can be saved. He will wonder who can be saved while the disciples sleep. 

Jesus is… the one they arrest. He is the one condemned for what they can’t understand. He is the one that will be denied. They will say they do not know him. They had nothing to do with him, no connection to that kind of love. But, Jesus is… the one, maybe the only one, that will not forget that God is love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

No one really deserves it. No one deserves to be mocked and beaten. Wearing the shackles of human fear, Jesus is… the one who bears our sins. He washed our feet and he blessed our lives. He gave us food and wine. He healed our broken parts but we stopped him. We never quite believed that love was greater than fear. 

  

We are still trying to believe it. Maybe Jesus is… still the one guiding, encouraging and leading us. Maybe. But, when Herod asks him who he is, Jesus is… the one who did not answer. He is the one who did not speak. He did not speak. He did not try to explain. He was silent. Silent as the crowd shouted, “Crucify, crucify him!” 

Chickens and Shepherds

I don’t often post my sermons but after worship I was asked for the manuscript for the sermon I had just preached. I went way off script today — which I seldom do — so I decided to try to remember what in the world I said in the hope that it might be a word of hope for more than just this one soul. But, first a bit of background: throughout this season of Lent, we have been sharing in a question about who we are and who God is for us. There have been grand theological statements and countless metaphors as we have tried to ask ourselves about who and what Christ is in our lives and in the world. You can read more about that here.  This Sunday, we entered into the wonderful words of Luke 13:31-35 to imagine Christ as a shepherd. Before we read this good news, I asked the kids: how are shepherds and chickens alike? The sermon that follows is my best answer. 

Last week, in the sharing of our joys and concerns, a prayer was lifted in joy for something that was heard on the radio. It was my prayer, actually, and in offering that prayer I said something about how unexpected it is to hear about our faith on the radio. That led to another prayer about something that was heard on television and it was said again that it is a surprise to hear about going to church on television on the radio which made me wonder about what it is that we want for it doesn’t seem that the faith that Jesus imagined was for every body. It doesn’t seem that he imagined that it would change the hearts and lives of everyone that ever heard it but it was a choice. It was a choice that Jesus offered that boiled down to a simple question of what you want for the world and for yourself.

We want many things. We want oh so much. It’s a word that finds our way into our speech often as it does in this few verses. In just four verses, it’s said three times. The Pharisees inform Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. By way of response, Jesus expresses his own wishes and desires. He tells the Pharisees, “Go, tell that fox,” that though Herod might kill the prophets, but it won’t stop Jesus from wanting to gather the people together under his wings. Of course, the people make their own desires known and Jesus knows it. He knows their desires, as he says, “But, you don’t want that.” [1]

They don’t want to be gathered together. They don’t need anyone to shepherd them together. They wished for something else. They imagined another hope. They believed in another possibility. They wanted another kind of God. And what about you. What kind of God do you want?

It’s the question that we keep asking throughout these forty days of Lent before we walk with Jesus into Jerusalem. Before we wave our palms and join the procession, before we stand beside the cross, we have to ask ourselves: what do we want?

“In this season of Lent, as we contemplate the ministry and passion of Jesus,” writes one biblical commentator, “we must also remember that rejection of his ministry comes with consequences of our own choosing.” [2] And so, we must be clear about what we choose.

We have to be clear about what it is we want. The people didn’t want God. They rejected Jesus. They wanted nothing to do with his open arms of healing and redemption. They didn’t need his compassion anymore than Herod. Herod’s best solution was violence. He longed for vengeance. Is that what we want? Are we so frustrated and angry at the state of the world that we long for someone to pay? Is our passion so ignited that sparks might fly at any moment?

We want so many things so that in all our wishes and desires, we end up making our own gods. We refuse the open arms of God. We don’t think it’s enough and instead we give power to the money we earn so much so that we refuse to share. We let our deepest fears transform into monsters that would otherwise terrify us if they didn’t ease our pains. We think we know better. We think we know best but we don’t. Not when we have forgotten where we’ve come from.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the same man that wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tries to remind us:

The earliest ancestors of the Hebrew people who gave us the Bible were nomads, owning no property, bound to no one location but traveling with their flocks and herds wherever there was pastureland for the animals to graze on. Sometimes this involved a journey of a few miles, sometimes it meant longer trips from drought-plagued areas to well-watered neighboring countries. Generations later, their descendants would become farmers and learn to see life in partnership between the hard work of the farmer and the grace of heaven sending the rain in its season. Later still, some of them would be artisans and merchants. Their understanding of religion would expand to include the ethics of honoring contracts and relating to workers and customers fairly. But they never forgot their origins, telling stories of Abraham, Moses and David tending their sheep. Long after they stopped being shepherds themselves, they retained the mind-set of the shepherd guarding his flock with love for every tender lamb, dedicated to protecting them from the world’s dangers. And in their poetry, they pictured God as a shepherd. [3]

And Jesus tells us that, like God, he will be the “good shepherd.” Like the shepherds of ancient Israel, he didn’t know where his flocks might lead. He didn’t know what to expect but he keeps opening his arms to them. He promises to guard every tender lamb from their fears and their greed by gathering them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” He won’t be their monster or their warrior. He won’t fire angry words but will open his arms wide. He will be their chicken. No matter how much you or I might recall about our earliest ancestors, this is indeed a very strange choice. “But a hen is what Jesus chooses,” the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to say,

which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first like in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get, who can only use her own body to defend. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting your chicks. [4]

chicks-573377_1920Ruth Anne Reese brings these two options into our present, into our practice of Lent, by asking what we want, “Do we long to be like Jesus, to be able to find compassion for our enemies, even those who want to put us to death? In this world of religious and political violence, what does it mean to long for our enemies to experience Jesus’ compassion even as we ourselves have?” [5] What do we want for our world and ourselves?

Are we more comfortable creating our own gods or do we really want to be transformed and changed by the one who opens his arms to us?

It is our choice. It is your choice. You can be anxious. You can be deathly afraid of making the wrong choice. You can mourn all that has gone wrong so that it seems the only logical choice is to become a fox. But, Jesus chose a mother hen as an image of his love. Greed nor fear nor even the need for stability would lead him. Only love. Only the kind of love that opened his arms ever wider to let the world in.

We can fret and worry about what we cannot control. That’s a choice. You can make that choice but is that really what you want for yourself and the world? Do you really want more fear than love? Do you really want your anxieties to rule your days? Or do you want love to open its arms to you? Could that love you want and need be the shepherd of all you days? Could you make that choice today?

 

[1] Reese, Ruth Anne. “Commentary on Luke 13:31-35.” Working Preacherhttps://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770. Web. 29 February 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kushner, Harold S. The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood.” The Christian Century. Print. 25 February 1998.

[5] Reese, Ruth Anne. Working Preacher.

 

 

 

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?

They Were Innocent

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

I can’t get these words out of my head. Surrounded by cardboard boxes that seem to never quite get unpacked, I keep thinking about these words spoken by the father of an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob with sticks and stones. I can’t bring myself to read anything more. I have so many questions. I want to understand how this could happen. But, I can’t read another word.

The death of this innocent woman has brought the Afghan people into the streets. Something has switched.

But, as I unpack so many boxes, I’ve only read the one article in The Washington Post that struggles to name the crime worthy of such a punishment. I’ve only read this one article quoting her father, saying:

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

Perhaps this is just something that parents say because it is just too hard to believe that your child could be anything other than innocent. Or maybe that’s too simple. For surely, there is nothing simple about murder. There is nothing simple about deciding to take another’s life. There is something sacred about this life — whether or not we choose to affirm it. We can deny the existence of any kind of deity but our humanity won’t allow us to deny the gift of life.

virgin-mary-stylized1So that this father’s words could fall on anyone’s lips. But, when I first read these words, I thought instantly of Mary the Mother of Jesus. She must have said something similar when her boy died on that cross.  She must have wondered about how people could be so cruel. She must have been disgusted by the violence. The streets may have been lined with crosses. It may have been something she saw everyday. But, when her boy was murdered in that way, something must have switched.

Something must have changed how she saw the powers of Empire. Something must have changed her tolerance of their occupation. Because, like Farkhunda, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was innocent. His only crime was that he questioned the powers of this world. He dared to critique those that refused to be questioned. Like Farkhunda, he wanted to know if there was another way to treat each other — especially the poorest among us. For this, they were both killed. 

And I can’t get these words out of my head. Because they are my words. They are words I have spoken again and again. Because people are so cruel to each other. Because there is so much violence in this world and I’m still waiting for something to shift. Call it resurrection. Call it justice. Call it human decency. I don’t care what you call it but we have said this too many times. We haven’t lamented time and time again that we don’t understand why this terrible thing has happened. We don’t understand why this 27 year-old woman died. She was so innocent. 

I don’t understand why this had to happen. 

I don’t understand why it had to happen in this way. Plenty of people have told me that Christ died for my sins. Church members in Bible Study have insisted to me that Jesus had to die in this particular way. And he knew it was coming. 

I don’t understand why. 

I never have. I don’t think I ever will.

This is my first Lent not leading a congregation. Instead of struggling with these question is Bible Study, I’m unpacking boxes. I am so confused by this I thought this past week was Holy Week. It’s not. Holy Week actually begins tomorrow on Palm Sunday. So, this week when there is still too much violence in this world, I’m trying to remember how Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan encouraged me consider what Jesus was passionate about

Because I want to be that innocent.

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In the Middle of the Story

The question always comes up in Bible Study when we find ourselves talking about Jesus. Somewhere in the middle of the Gospel, no matter which Gospel we’re reading, we find ourselves studying a particular passage after he’s born and before the real trial has begun. There’s just been a healing or some other sign. And someone will imagine how Jesus feels at that very moment.

I ask them to stay within the story. I ask them not to jump ahead. Or read outside of the selected verses because it’s so very hard to stay in that moment. We know the whole story. We know how the story will end. We know what will happen to Jesus. We know what we’ve been taught about him so that it’s so very hard to stay in the moment. It’s hard not to hear the hymns we’ve sung for years and the creeds we thought we’d long forgotten reverberate against the words in that particular passage. Because it’s all there. No matter how hard we try to push it away and just be in that moment in Christ’s life. It’s all there.

But, that’s not how it is in our lives. We are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it’s going to end up. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. There are things that we desperately wish would happen. There are things that we are trying with every ounce of our being to make happen. We’ll fight like hell for those things, but in the middle of the story, what we notice most is the resistance. Not God’s wonderful works. Not what God has done. Or even what God might do.

We notice what we can’t make happen. And yet, the psalm invites us to sing.

Sing of God’s praises. Sing of God’s wonderful works. And remember.

Remember the wonderful works God has done,
    the miracles, and the judgments God has uttered,
O offspring of God’s servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, the chosen ones.
Psalm 105:5-6, NRSV

Remember how it was for Abraham and maybe — just maybe — you’ll see that same wonder working in your own life. Seek God’s presence and strength. Because you and I are in the middle of the story. We don’t know how it will end. We don’t know what will happen next. We know what we want but perhaps instead of seeking that next thing, it’d be worth spending some of that energy on seeking God’s presence and strength. Because we’re in the middle of the story and we don’t know what will happen next. But, no matter what, we will need that presence and a whole lot of strength.