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In the swirling mass of Good Friday images: crown of thorns, blood, nails
In the chaotic movement from Pilate’s headquarters to the Place of the Skull to the new tomb in which no one had ever been laid
In the cacophony of “Crucify him” and “Hail, King of the Jews”
In the barren emptiness of “I am thirsty” and “It is finished”
It is difficult to know how to make sense of this day.
Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha. When he becomes ill, his sisters send for Jesus, but Jesus delays his trip to Bethany for the express purpose of revealing God’s glory. Before Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus dies. Mary and Martha are angry with Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” they say. But Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Clearly, Jesus plans to raise Lazarus from the dead.
He waits until there can be no mistake, waits until Lazarus has been dead four days, waits so that no one can erroneously claim Jesus’ actions are merely a healing. Jesus makes sure that everyone sees Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead by the power of God.
Still, Jesus begins to weep.
I’m going to start by telling you something that might be shocking. I dislike how many Christians do evangelism.
At its Greek root, the word evangelism simply denotes the practice of sharing the gospel. While that practice is certainly something we want to do, we want to share the gospel, the details about how we share the gospel are important, at least to me.
Just as people of other religions do, many Christians believe that we have a corner on the market of truth. Right?
By the power of God, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt, successfully crossed the Red Sea, fled from the Egyptian army, and found refuge in the wilderness and even manna each morning laying on the ground like dew to feed them. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would wander in the wilderness for forty years while they searched for the promised land. They would soon receive the Ten Commandments and a host of other laws.
In the meantime, the people were thirsty. The wilderness into which they had been spewed was much like our own desert landscape here in Arizona: dry, harsh, prickly, sandy, home to a plethora of insects and reptiles.
When I was 15 years old and getting confirmed, I wrote in my required confirmation essay that I would never be a leader in organized religion because I didn’t believe organized religion was necessary for the world.
Six years later, I was sitting in worship at the home congregation of my college roommate, and I just suddenly knew that I would be a pastor. My view on the subject hadn’t changed, to be clear. I didn’t want to be a pastor; I just knew that I would. It was like the decision was taken completely out of my hands.
This past Monday, I attempted to get to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to stand with the water protectors there, to learn about the Dakota Access Pipeline, to just be with people. I was traveling with a colleague, Jayne, and our plane was diverted from Bismarck to Minot because there were blizzard conditions in Bismarck. Finally, after three or four hours, we got back on the plane, and the pilot told us we would fly low and slowly. “We’re going to try to get to Bismarck,” he said. That’s what you want to hear from the pilot of the plane you’re on. We got there safely, but even the next day, the blizzard continued. Despite being stuck in Bismarck, we met many people with whom we spoke about the situation at Standing Rock. One Mohawk woman by the name of Paulette Moore who is a journalist and documentarian spent a couple months at the camp and told us stories of what she had seen and participated in. Among other stories, she told us about a man named Angry Bird. Led by Angry Bird, a small group of people decided to build a bridge to cross over a small marshy tributary of the river to Turtle Island. The crossing would allow the water protectors to pray by the disturbed gravesite and sacred lands of the Sioux, a site within a short distance of the pipeline construction. All night, this small group of people led by Angry Bird worked on the bridge. As the sun rose, people gathered to pray. But the police also gathered, demanding that the work on the bridge stop. The water protectors would not stop and would not stop praying, drumming, burning sage, standing together along with clergy. The police destroyed the bridge. But in the middle of this confrontation with armed police, Paulette told us that Angry Bird thought of an alternative bridge. She held us in rapt attention as she vividly described Angry Bird’s face and stance as he led people to tear out the grass and create a grass bridge to Turtle Island. As you may imagine, a grass bridge is neither a sturdy nor reliable bridge, yet the people with whom Paulette stood listened and began to tear grass out and lay down a path in the marshy tributary. There is no way that a bridge of grass would allow the people to cross to Turtle Island, but they did it anyway. They embraced what Paulette, Jayne, and I in the midst of our conversation came to call “hopeful futility.”
I share this story this morning because Isaiah declares that, for the Israelites who had endured much suffering, there would be streams in the desert, that the eyes of the blind would open, that the ears of the deaf would be unstopped, that the tongue of the speechless would sing for joy. But as people who live in the desert, we know, don’t we, that the desert will never be a verdant, succulent place. As people who live in a time of unprecedented medical technology, we know, don’t we, that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to open the eyes of the blind and to unstop the ears of the deaf. Still, we read Isaiah, and we know its truth. We know the truth that what looks uninhabitable can be a place of life. We know the truth that what seems impossible can become a reality. We embrace hopeful futility, not because we are fools, not because we are dooped, but because we are people of faith who walk by faith.
A month ago, Jayne called me and said: “I want to go to Standing Rock just to be there with people, not as a political statement but to be with people at a time of crisis, but I don’t want to go alone. You’re the only person I know who might go with me.” While I of course had been following the news about the Dakota Access Pipeline since last spring and while I had empathy for the struggle and was glad to hear just last Sunday that construction had stopped, I wasn’t sure what our presence would accomplish. Even if we had made it to Standing Rock, especially on the day after the construction was halted, there is nothing we could have done to make the situation any different or any better. We would have just been there with our hopeful futility. In the last few days as I’ve described my experience to people who ask, I’ve said: It’s a bummer we didn’t get there because of the blizzard. But the trip wasn’t wasted for we were encouraged. The trip wasn’t wasted because we got to listen to and learn from people who had been at the camp. The trip wasn’t wasted because, while eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, we joined in a spirit of comradery with veterans who were just leaving Standing Rock, with water protectors who were on their way home, all around us conversation about what had taken place. The trip wasn’t wasted because we met a woman of the Standing Rock tribe who assured us she would get the warm clothes and tobacco ties I had received from Pastor Mary Louise to the people at Standing Rock once the weather cleared. The trip wasn’t wasted because we also learned from non-Natives who live near Standing Rock about their perspective of this situation, a perspective that is very different and, we found out, largely shaped by not actually having gone to the camp. You could say we came without purpose. And you could say it didn’t make sense. But it makes as much sense as a grass bridge or streams in the desert.
During the season of Advent, God leads us in a way of what appears to be hopeful futility. What do our small efforts really accomplish? If we make food for a family who just had a baby or if we say “Good morning” to someone we don’t know at church, what does that really do? If we purchase pigs or goats or chicks for families in need from the ELCA Good Gifts catalogue instead of buying unnecessary material Christmas gifts for our family and friends, how does that really make a difference in the vast sea of global poverty? If we so prioritize in our lives that we come to GLOW or choir rehearsal or praise band rehearsal or WELCA Bible Study or Christmas caroling today after church or to mow the church lawn or to scrub the church stove, what does this use of our time really achieve? If we do what seems like the right thing to do even if it means an extraordinary effort on our part and changing and disrupting our lives, is it worth it? Is any of this worth it?
Isaiah declares that in the verdant desert where extraordinary and seemingly impossible things happen, there is a highway, and it shall be called the Holy Way. It is not a narrow way, not a dangerous way, not a difficult-to-navigate way for even fools do not go astray, Isaiah says. When we walk with faith into acts of hopeful futility we are walking this Holy Way. We may not know now—or ever—what difference our walk made. We may not understand this Holy Way of God. Indeed, it is confusing! We thought God would come and judge the world, come and triumph over all evil with great might, but instead, we wait for the birth of a baby. Talk about hopeful futility! What will a baby do?
What will a baby do?
I guess our hope isn’t futile after all. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Bottom of Form
Isaiah paints a vision of what the messiah and a world in which the messiah reigns as peaceful. If nothing else, the messiah ushers in peace. There is no lack of clarity about this vision of peace. This morning’s reading from Isaiah declares that, as a result of the messiah’s reign, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah declares that predators and prey will live with one another in peace, that carnivores will turn vegetarian, that the most vulnerable humans will play with and lead the deadliest of animals.
You see before you The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, a painting that depicts our text from Isaiah this morning. Hicks was a Quaker minister who did his work in the early nineteenth century.
I love this vision, this peaceable kingdom, yet it leads me to wonder: Will it ever come to pass? For despite the realm of God breaking into our world with the birth of Jesus, our world has not begun to look this way, has it? Violence is so routine in our culture, shootings are no longer a surprise. In the city of Chicago, one of the places I once called home, they just hit the sad and deadly milestone of 700 homicides for this year, and they will likely surpass the record of 704 by year’s end. We hear of bombings in other parts of the world, casualties of military personnel and civilians, if not casually then routinely, and we may not even think about the devastating effects of these deaths unless one of our loved ones is a service person in uniform somewhere in the world. We know that people throughout the world flee to the US as refugees because the places they call home are torn apart by war, natural disaster, political or religious discrimination, economic conditions, or persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Violence in many forms is the norm, not the exception, yet during this season of Advent, we proclaim that a messiah is coming who puts an end to violence.
So, this leads me to wonder: Is a peaceable kingdom even possible? When will God implement this vision of peace? When will we turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? When will the wolf live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid? When will a little child lead the deadliest of animals?
Isaiah 11 verse 2 tells us that the spirit of the Lord shall rest on the messiah, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. The Holy Spirit shall enliven the messiah, and thus enlivened, the messiah shall usher in a reign of peace, of equity, of justice.
That Holy Spirit came upon Jesus when he was baptized by John in the River Jordan, and the Spirit accompanied him through his ministry. Indeed, that spirit led him into and out of the wilderness where he was tempted. That spirit led him to preach love for enemies, to feed people who were hungry, and to heal people who were sick. That spirit brought him into relationship with tax collectors, fishermen, women, and Gentiles. In the spaces where Jesus lived and ministered, he did usher in peace, equity, justice. He did so in a way that took the disciples by surprise because, even then, people believed that violence could lead to peace. I wonder if the men—and women—who eventually followed Jesus were there with John the Baptist when he called people to repent. I wonder if they thought that perhaps John was the messiah because here was a person fiery enough to get the job done, a person with enough spit and vinegar to kick out the Romans and usher in God’s reign. But here’s the surprise of Jesus’ reign and the part we don’t quite understand as people who live in a world so saturated by violence that violence has become our norm: violence cannot usher in peace. Only love can.
The Holy Spirit that enlivened Jesus enlivens us. Indeed, at each and every baptism, we pray using the very words of Isaiah 11. We pray that the newly baptized would be sustained by the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. Jesus’ reign on earth began with a baby born in a manger and continues in us: in our willingness to love and share our lives with one another, free from fear, aided and abetted, so to speak, by the Holy Spirit at work in us.
I wonder if we might partake in the work of the Spirit here in our neighborhood, not in a fanciful way but in a very practical one. Starting on January 11, I would like on the first Wednesday of each month to invite our neighbors from Roosevelt Row businesses, from the Evans Churchill Neighborhood Association, from the Hance Park Conservancy, from the new apartment buildings around us to come and share a meal with us at GLOW, just a meal and conversation with whoever shows up. With our changing neighborhood, now more than ever, we need to meet each other, to know each other, to care for each other. For some who share this neighborhood, there is a feeling that our community members who are experiencing homelessness are for some reason not fully members of our community. As the development of this neighborhood proceeds, there is, then, an urgency in developing not only buildings but relationships with one another. Developing relationships, more than anything, takes away fear and builds the peaceable kingdom Isaiah prophecies. I hope you too will join in these Wednesdays just for a meal and conversation.
When will this peaceable kingdom come to pass? My dear friends in Christ: now. It comes to pass now when we do not allow our own fear and assumptions, our own prejudices and bitterness, our own discomfort and smallness to shut us off from our neighbor. It would be easy to see our neighbor as wolf or leopard. It would be easy to discount our neighbor as scary or of ill intent.
And yes, there are times when things seem scary.
Yes, there are times when we have legitimate concerns about safety.
But I think that the two most significant barriers between us and a peaceful world is one, our lack of belief in its possibility and two, our unwillingness to move beyond our own fears and assumptions and uncomfortability. It is easy to say: well, if only this politician would do this… It is easy to say: well, if only this large institution would do this… It is far more difficult to look ourselves in the mirror and say: I can do something differently. I can meet and get to know my neighbor. I can see the humanity in others, and it’s not actually that hard. It means starting out: Hi, I’m ____. It’s good to meet you. It means asking a question like: Have you always lived in Phoenix? It means noticing something in particular about another person, perhaps their kindness or their humor, and just starting a conversation with a comment. In these small ways, and they are small ways, we begin to break down the walls between us. We, aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit, build the peaceable kingdom. We are not wolves and leopards, but people, people loved by God, each and every one of us. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Ever since I can remember, my family has embraced the same Christmas traditions: eating hors d’oeuvres instead of a big, formal meal on Christmas Eve, going to church, and before opening presents, reading the Christmas story from Luke chapter two. I assume my parents began this Christmas story tradition with the desire to impress upon me and upon my sister that Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus and not about the presents. And I say kudos to them! I think I did learn that as evidenced by the fact that I am now a pastor. But something else I learned about reading the Christmas story before opening presents every Christmas Eve was exactly how long that story is—20 verses! 20 verses in the Bible takes a while to read. There’s Cesar Augustus, then Mary giving birth to her firstborn son and lying him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn, then the shepherds and the angel and the glory of the Lord shining around them, and then finally Mary treasuring all these things in her heart. To a nine year old waiting to open her presents, 20 verses is a long wait. Starting at age 9 up to this very year, I have been the designated reader of the story. In reading this story from a young age each year, I came to be acquainted with the Bible. The Christmas story was the one story I could find in the Bible, the one story where I knew how to pronounce all the words, the one story that led me to find other stories. While I rushed each year to get from Cesar Augustus to Mary and Jesus to the shepherds and back to Mary, in between those moments of rushing, I learned the foundational story of the incarnation—God coming in the flesh—and was led into further reading of the Bible, milestones in my early faith. Thank goodness we didn’t rush to open presents!
Today is the first day of the church season called Advent, always the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Advent is a season of waiting, a season of waiting for Jesus’ birth, a season of waiting for God to act. We may be confused by this season of waiting because shouldn’t we just skip to Christmas? What is the value of waiting? Why does the church—through the mechanism of the church calendar—call us to wait? I ask these questions because, as a culture, we are not keen on waiting and, like my 9-year-old self, are fond of rushing.
We have likely all been there…While driving or riding in a car, the person in the next lane—or let’s be honest—maybe it was us. But for the purposes of this illustration, we’ll just say it was someone else. The person in the car in the next lane drives with incredible speed, covering the distance between here and there with an astonishing flash of light and sound of squealing tires. You watch them go…and then you find yourself next to them stopped at the next stoplight. You shake your head and laugh. Speeding up to get quickly through the stoplights of Central Avenue, 7th Street, or 7th Avenue—instead of patiently driving—doesn’t really pay off in the end.
Or perhaps you know the feeling of learning to garden. When I planted my first garden, I was astonished to read on the outside of the seed packet the number of days I would have to wait for my vegetables to come to fruition. How long does it usually take? 60 to 90 days! That’s 2 to 3 months! All right now, I had energy and enthusiasm to put in a garden, but the wait time on the production of the actual vegetables can be a downer.
We will have to wait. There are certain things we can’t speed up: how fast seeds grow or don’t grow into vegetables, how long it takes to get from here to Central and Bell Road in a car. We will wait in lines and on the outside of closed doors. We will wait for test results and college acceptance letters, for returned phone calls and returned text messages and returned emails. We will wait for people we love to come home and maybe wait for things we don’t want to happen to happen. We will wait anxiously, angrily, with dread, or we will wait patiently, hopefully, joyfully. Regardless of how we wait, we will wait because some things just take time.
Now, in our culture, this is a message we don’t want to hear, a message, in fact, that we often think we should not hear. We have come to a place where we think that waiting for anything is the result of someone not doing their job well, not returning phone calls or taking too many breaks, the result of some travesty on the part of engineers who don’t know how to time stoplights, the result of a failed system. Why must we wait for anything? As a culture, we are uncomfortable with silence, with space, with being here and now. As a culture, we are ever rushing towards the next thing, but Advent is a season that invites us to be here, now, fully present in this moment as it is. Christ is coming! Coming in the manger and coming back in glory, but here, now, in this moment, there is nothing we can do to rush Christ’s coming. We can simply sit in this liminal space, the space between what was and what will be.
For me, there is relief in Advent. As a highly motivated, driven person, I perpetually have a list of professional goals on my mind, goals I strive to complete in a myriad of ways, ever looking for opportunities to take steps forward. At home, I literally have a list of goals posted on my refrigerator, things at which I am working in my personal life. In my driven state, Advent is a place of rest, four weeks of life where I realize that, while goals are good and helpful, there are some things I cannot rush. Being fully present to the person I pass on the street or my neighbor or the person who appears to need help, being fully present to each conversation, to each activity, to the values implicit in the choices I am making is maybe the very best thing I can do now—or ever.
We are perhaps ever living in Advent, ever waiting for what is to come. In the midst of our wait which may feel wasted, we may discover some value. We may discover that not rushing may be purposeful. We may discover that waiting itself is part of the plan, part of the goal. In the brilliant book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant which is a fictional account of the family of Jacob from the book of Genesis, one of the characters reflects on the time of pregnancy—though the same could be said for the time it takes to adopt. The nine months of pregnancy—with all its difficulties and inconveniences—are regarded as the time in which mothers learn how to be mothers. The nine months of waiting are not wasted but instead purposeful: a time of learning how to care for a being beyond oneself.
At the end of this season of Advent, we will celebrate the coming of Christ in the manger. Regardless of how we wait, Christ will come. Nothing we can do will stop the coming of this baby savior. But in the meantime, how will we wait? What will we learn in this season? Perhaps, with the prophet Isaiah, we will learn that we no longer need spears and swords. Perhaps we will learn to see Christ coming again and again in our neighbor. Perhaps we will sit in this moment, here and now, fully present to whatever God has to reveal to us today. Regardless, now, we wait…
Christ the King C2016
November 20, 2016
In the summer of 2010, I took a small group of youth on a mission trip to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeast Montana…
I thought that I would never feel as stuck as I did that night we were mired in muck on the top of the buffalo jump. But today, I feel stuck, and while of course I don’t know if this is true for everyone, I am guessing that most of us feel stuck. We feel stuck in unjust systems, stuck in racism, stuck in sexism, stuck in heterosexism. We feel stuck in the way health insurance works and the way we buy and sell houses. We feel stuck in family systems that don’t feel healthy or loving. We feel stuck in the ways we live that speed up the progress of global climate change. I know I felt stuck by the election; I honestly was not a fan of either of the two major party candidates. We feel stuck in free market capitalism, the way money works in our culture. I think sometimes we don’t even realize how stuck we feel, especially when it comes to money. I don’t think most of us can even imagine a world where money is not used; I think most of us forget that God didn’t create money—people did. And we can’t begin to imagine a different way of getting what we need and want in the world, whether that is food or health care or education or religion. What we have right here, right now is the limit of our imagination. We feel stuck.
The good news today is that we are not stuck. We are not stuck in a world where things must stay the same, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. We are not stuck in a world that necessarily creates and supports injustice for Jesus laid a path for us to a different world.
In today’s gospel, Jesus does three extraordinary things. He is on the cross, and in this place of ultimate humiliation and suffering…
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
He does not rush to defend himself or save himself but instead stays the course, knowing that God has called him to walk through this death and eventually into new life.
“Truly I tell you, today, you will be with me in paradise.” Instead of walking the way of punishment, Jesus promises this man convicted of a crime that he will live with God eternally.
The way of Jesus, the dominion of Jesus on this Christ the King Sunday is a dominion not stuck in racism, sexism, heterosexism, a dominion not stuck in revenge, punishment, violence, injustice. The way of Jesus is forgiveness, responding to God’s call despite its challenges, and love even in the midst of brokenness and sin. We glimpse this dominion of Jesus wherever and whenever we extend forgiveness, wherever and whenever we respond to God’s call in our lives, wherever and whenever we reach out in love. While we may feel stuck, Jesus is Lord, and Christ is king…really. That means that forgiveness, our sense of God’s call, and love trump revenge, defensiveness, or punishment. Jesus is Lord, and Christ is king. I know we feel stuck, but we aren’t. God has called us to live in this dominion of Jesus that is mixed up with the dominion of this world. God has called us to embrace forgiveness and love and to walk the way of Jesus ever asking ourselves: what gifts do I have? How might I serve? How might I live so as to reveal Jesus’ dominion?
I’ll leave you with an example. I share this not to proclaim my goodness, not at all, because I have very much struggled with this, and to be clear, I am not telling you that this is something you should do. Everybody has their own things they’re working on. But this is a place where I felt stuck and now no longer do. Several months ago, I borrowed my mother’s bike because I wondered if I might be able to bike more and drive my car less. My experiment went pretty well, so I purchased my own bike. And slowly, slowly, I have been changing my lifestyle so that I am biking as much as possible. If I am going someplace within six miles of home, I will almost always bike there now. It has meant changing how I schedule my time because biking takes longer. It has meant changing how I dress because it’s sometimes difficult to bike in a skirt. It has meant I am more thoughtful in general about how I use my car. A year ago, I thought: I could never bike most places. I want to. I want to reduce my carbon emissions. I want to be healthier. I want to be more connected to my community. I want to respond to God’s call to live more simply. But I can’t do it, I thought. Well, I am doing it. This past week, I didn’t even get in my car four out of seven days. Some weeks are better than others, for sure, but I am not stuck.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are not stuck in a dominion of hate. We are not stuck in a dominion of revenge. We are not stuck in a dominion of punishment and violence towards anyone or the earth. Jesus has laid a path for us, a path that is different than the world’s path. It is different, but it has been laid for us. And when we start to walk down that path, we will know the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, making it possible to forgive, to respond to God’s call, to love. We are not stuck in the dominion of this world for Jesus is Lord, and Christ is king. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Oscar Romero was a Roman Catholic priest turned bishop and then archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 until 1980 when he was assassinated by para-military personnel inside a church in the middle of a worship service he was leading.
During those three years, he used the pulpit and his regular weekly radio address to call out corruption among El Salvador’s leaders and the repression of the Salvadoran people. There were many things to fear in El Salvador in the late 1970s: disappearances, torture, rape, murder, the low-level threat of military occupation of city streets. In this context, on November 13, 1977, preaching on the very same biblical passage we read today, Archbishop Romero echoed Jesus’ words. He said: I tell you, brothers and sisters, let us not be frightened.
We are delighted that the trees along our property facing Hansen Park are going in :-)
A huge thanks to Katherine for all she has done to make this happen. We'll have more details on the entire project later.
To be a reformer of the church is risky. Today, we remember and celebrate the work of Martin Luther, a reformer of the church, who lived in early sixteenth century Germany, the reformer whose name our own Lutheran church bears. Where Wycliffe and Huss and Tyndale were silenced, either through the successful banning of their books or their execution, Luther’s voice somehow managed to be heard.
Mother Teresa was an Albanian woman who early in her life devoted herself to service as a Roman Catholic nun and lived most of her life in India. The letters she wrote during her lifetime show that Mother Teresa struggled with wide and deep doubts about the existence of God, the love of God, the grace of God.