sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.

 

While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a

It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples,  walking away from Jerusalem.  More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise.  We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end.  They knew the prophecies.  They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.

Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.

After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them.  After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed.  After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?”  What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?

This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels.  And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking.  “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?

Hope is such a terribly human emotion.  We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something.  In our hope, we maintain  certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes.  And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along.  We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.

In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses.  Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.

Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment.  Would any of us expect less?  After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!

Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?

These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day.  For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset.  And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered,  “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”

Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all.  For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”

And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves.  These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead.  When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.

Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.

We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining.  We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts.  We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour.  We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread;  in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present.   And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.

God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”

God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.

God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.

For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen.  So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.

That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.

That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.

We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.”  And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision.  For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result.  But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped.  May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.

And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.

Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.  Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff!” … Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.”  Genesis 25: 29b-30a, 31

I never could quite understand my brother.  Right from the beginning, it seems, we’ve been butting heads.  Mother said it started before we were even born – she used to tell the story when we were fighting as children, to us or within our earshot.  How we fought within her, how when we were born, Jacob was hanging onto my heel.  It’s the stuff of family legend, our birth story… the kind of legend that holds within it a nugget of truth.

I never wanted to be constantly fighting.  It bothered me, when we were children; Jacob always had to have whatever I had, or something better.  He was constantly competing with me.  Mother encouraged it, sometimes overtly: whether it was because she had a thing for the underdog, or because Jacob was always so handsome, I’ll never know.  I suppose it doesn’t much matter.  But it was a relief, finally, to realize that, for all his competitiveness, Jacob never really cared for being outdoors.  It made me love it more, when I could escape from the constant tussles, the badgering, the pestering.  I would spend hours outside with Father, learning to hunt, to tend our animals and our fields.  And we would talk.  He told me not to worry about Jacob, but to be myself, to not let myself become infected by my brother’s fears and ambitions.

More importantly, though: my father told me stories, while we worked.  He told me about his own story, his father’s story.  How my grandfather had been called by God and sent out from his home and his people, and how God had been with him throughout.  Father taught me how to be in relationship with God, how to live in faith, and obedience.  He taught me what it meant to be a child of the covenant, living in the certain knowledge of God’s power and presence.

Gradually, Jacob’s behavior stopped mattering as much to me.  The constant jealousies, the rivalry, the pettiness continued, but I let it all just roll off.  I knew who I was – Abraham’s grandson, Isaac’s son, God’s servant.  I was a good hunter, a good farmer.  It was enough.

Until that fateful day.  It’s still a family story, that one: the day I sold my birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.  It’s not quite the whole truth, of course – no one mentions, for instance, just what a good cook Jacob really is, and how good that stew smelled!  But more than that… that moment didn’t come out of nowhere.  The ambition, the competitiveness wasn’t new.  Something like this had been brewing for quite a long time, and I had seen it coming, and had plenty of time to think.  I wasn’t really expecting such a blatant play, and made a joke of it at first – could he really be expecting me to give everything up for one plate of stew?  But he was serious – my greedy, conniving brother.  And I pitied him.

So: a birthright for a bowl of stew.  Not a bad trade, really.  After all, what need had I of a birthright?  of an inheritance?  I, grandson of Abraham, who had left his life behind to follow God, becoming a stranger in a strange land.  What more status did I need than my lineage? What more power did I need than what God would grant me? I was content.

Father understood, but he was the only one.  Among the others, the “stupid Esau” jokes abounded, but it didn’t matter.  I knew I’d be fine. Jacob took Father’s blessing, as well… as though our father couldn’t tell his hands from mine, even with hairy gloves?  As though Jacob had any of the calluses, any of the scars that hunting and farming bring?  Father knew which son knelt before him, and I hoped that Jacob would realize that, and realize that Father had loved him for himself all along.  That tricks and conniving had never been required to earn Father’s love – or God’s.  But Jacob hadn’t learned, as I had, about being in relationship with God.  He hadn’t learned about living as a child of the covenant.  He had his birthright, he had his blessing, he had his status and power and glory, yet it was never enough.

The “stupid Esau” jokes persisted for a while, after Jacob left, but not for very long.  My family grew, and prospered, and the daily concerns of providing for them put old tales of birthrights and stew out of our heads.  We did well, and I tried to teach my own household about God, and covenant, and the abiding promises that they would inherit.

The jokes stopped as well as Jacob didn’t return, and we began to worry.  Birthright, blessing, status, inheritance… it all meant less when I was present and he was not, when I simply prayed every night that he was safe and happy, wherever he was.

All of this was a long, long time ago. Jacob did return, much as he had been when he left; fearful, concerned with status, worried about power.  He returned – scheming, groveling after a forgiveness that was entirely unnecessary.  Still: I sensed in him some measure of growth, of responsibility; he, too, had a growing, prosperous family in whom he took great delight.  And late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, we sat by the fire and he told me of his encounter, his wrestling, his struggle.  I was pleased that God had not given up on my conniving little brother, and hoped that Jacob might come to know and encounter God in a more humble, loving, daily sort of way.  That his experience of being called, and loved, might take from him the hunger for human accolades, and let him be content at last.  I pray that for him, still.

The family stories are told now by my grandchildren, told as though they hadn’t happened to me, told as entertainment when the family gathers around the fire in the evening.  Yet it is now, finally, in my old age, that those stories make me anxious.  For in the rote telling, and the characterization of Jacob as tricky and me as slow, so much gets lost.  There is still rivalry between us, and now between our households; as these stories get told – of birth and of stew, of struggle and of birthright – I hear the justification of an animosity that should never have been.  I hear the forgetting of our connections: we, who are children of the same mother, heirs together of the covenant, yet doomed by our story to live in a rivalry that would seem preordained and inescapable.  If we are, indeed, to become nations, then what?  Shall we be forever set against one another, justified by our story while neglecting our common roots?  Shall the day come when we give up on the very possibility of living together as God’s people, as covenant people, as one family of our ancestor, Abraham?

The story is funnier, more captivating if the “stupid Esau” jokes abound, I’ve always understood that.  But now I worry that Jacob has become the hero.  Jacob, who quested after status, wealth, power; Jacob, who was willing to scheme, and plot, and steal – for what?  The story would tell you that it was all to assure God’s favor.  The story would tell the next generations Jacob’s truth: that there is not enough to go around – not enough blessing, not enough inheritance – and so we need to see to our own needs first.  But that is not God’s truth: God, who has provided abundantly for us as for our ancestors.  After all, is Jacob any better off now than he would have been?  Am I any worse?  It’s hard to see how.

I wish, now, that we could change the story.  I wish we could talk instead of how all of these petty machinations – all of the ambition and jealousy and scheming – actually distances us from God, until it takes an angel and an injured hip to bring us back into relationship.  I wish we could talk about how wealth and status are meaningless when we come face to face with the love of God.  I wish we could talk about how even the devious, conniving, bratty younger brothers can be welcomed home.  I wish we could talk about how even the selfish, petty cruelties that we inflict upon one another do not exclude us from the promise of God’s grace.

Can’t we change the story, to tell how God’s foolishness – in loving us beyond measure, and with incalculable abundance – trumps all of the human foolishness, all of the human division, all of the human understandings that would keep us apart?  Can’t we tell the story of how Jacob was foolish, and I was wise: where birthrights don’t matter and inheritance is useless and God is the only thing that matters?

For that is the story that will heal, if we are willing to tell it.  That is the story that will bring peace between our households, peace among the nations.  That is the story that will finally bring us back together, we who are children of the same mother, children of the same covenant, servants of the same God.

“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18

You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love.  As though they weren’t one and the same.  It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all.  Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture.  Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core.  As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context.  In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading.  It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning.  Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die.  We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!

Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael.  It’s not even about Abraham.  This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.

It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read.  It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed.  But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible.  It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring.  It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not.  For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance.  Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that  “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.

Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms.  She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing.  She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac.  Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom.  And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.

This story is about Sarah, certainly.  But it is just as much about us.

We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah.  We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.

In the study guide, Economy of Love by the founders of the group Relational Tithe, the author of the chapter on sufficiency notes:

“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.

“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)

In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God?  Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings?  We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.

The authors go on:

“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)

In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?

Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear?  Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?

Are we as absurd now as she was then?

God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us.  This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life.  This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves.  But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate.  It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.

Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being.  It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned.  God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars!  God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.

God, is not like Sarah, is not like us.  God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God.  What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.

 

There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood. No matter what the subject – church, politics, children, life – there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood. So I put an idea out there, to the internet:

For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.

For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.

The answer to the idea? Silence.

Negativity is viral. Say something snarky or cutting? You’ll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook. Say it in person, you’ll get laughs and affirmations. You’ll be rewarded for your “wit”. The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun.

But if you say something nice about someone? If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world? Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going. Those are the one-liners that fall flat. Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative. Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation. Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.

It may be more “fun” to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media – print, televised, or social – plays so often to angry soundbites. It’s easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say “He is a jerk”, suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say “his actions have hurt me”, separating the person’s entire being from certain actions we find distasteful. It’s easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process. We create an “other”, a “not-me” that we don’t have to like, let alone love. We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged. But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.

What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another? What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?

It’s not easy, but discipleship isn’t supposed to be. It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining. But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us. Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God. We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.

What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month? Who will take the challenge?

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Luke 24: 30-31a

We have been talking a lot, recently,about darkness.  Although the metaphor can give way to some problematic imagery, it is still a concept that resonates in many hearts.  We understand the idea of darkness in all the times we are as uncomfortable spiritually as we would be in physical darkness: when we are disoriented and confused.

Today, we continue in Eastertide darkness, dwelling still on the very day of resurrection and the great difficulty that the disciples had in leaving that place of uncertainty.  Today, we see two of Jesus’ followers road to Emmaus, discussing what had happened, and the strangeness that that very morning had held, when the women had come running back from Jesus’ tomb with incredible, fantastic stories of angelic visions and an empty tomb.  There were plenty of rational explanations, but these two men found their whole world shaken, found it impossible that anyone could be moving normally through their day when the very foundations of the world seemed unstable.  Their question to the stranger who met them is one we’ve often felt, in times of great emotion – how does everyone not know what has happened?

It calls into question yet again how many of the disciples had ever really gotten the death and crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus had warned them about?  How many had really believed what Jesus had told them; had understood that, for once, Jesus hadn’t been speaking in parables?  Not many, judging from the reactions: the disciples we hear about were fearful, uncertain: feeling their way forward in suddenly unfamiliar world.

In the darkness, even the familiar seems strange enough.  Have you ever tried to walk through your house with the lights off?  I tried it the other night, and immediately tripped over the toys that I knew were on the floor.  We move with less confidence, even in familiar surroundings.  Should something intrude on us, in that moment, wouldn’t we all be afraid?  Would we, any of us, recognize even a loved one immediately? especially if we weren’t expecting them? Wouldn’t we be too afraid to believe?

In the darkenss, would we recognize the Risen Christ, walking with us, speaking with us, opening our eyes to new ideas and new possibilities?

Throughout scriptures, from the first book of our Bible to the last, one theme infuses it all: Covenant. Throughout our scriptures, we are reminded of the promises that God has made to all generations, to remain with us and to guide us through this life.  It is that covenant, embodied by Christ, that we celebrate at the communion table: the reminder and the promise that there is presence; that we were – that we are – worth loving and dying for; that we are forgiven, that there is grace, always.  We gather at the table in celebration of covenant in the place where we, like disciples, know risen Christ in breaking bread.

But covenant endures even when we’re not expecting, and not looking for it.

Covenant endures even when the darkness seems oppressive, and we’re disoriented and afraid; even when crucifixion seems more present than resurrection in our lives; even when we’re on the road, more focused on other things; even when conversations with strangers lead us to new, strange, and disorienting ideas.

The question of covenant has been very much on my mind this week, because of the lawsuit that our denomination has filed.  The United Church of Christ, along with a few local Unitarian and Reform Jewish congregations, has filed suit in federal court against the State of North Carolina, in an attempt to overturn its ban on same-sex marriage.  Now, there are several states with similar bans, and the UCC has not sued any of them.  North Carolina’s law differs from the others in that it makes it illegal – punishable by a fine and a jail term – for clergy to perform any marriage-like ceremony that is not legally recognized by the state.  This includes commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, or for opposite-sex couples who, for whatever reason, choose to have their relationship recognized by the church, but not the state.  So the UCC’s lawsuit argues against the marriage ban, not only on the grounds of equal protection, but also on the right that we all have to free expression of religion.

Now, certainly, there are churches in the United Church of Christ that don’t agree – as there have been, in many stances we’ve taken as a denomination.  For every controversial stance that we take, there are churches who wish we wouldn’t, or hadn’t.  Yet of those churches, very few end up leaving our denomination: we remain together because we are in covenant, and our covenant is a reminder and embodiment of God’s covenant with us: unconditional and abiding, loving beyond the barriers that humans erect.  Even in disagreement, we remain bound together, bearing one another’s burdens, seeking God together, listening, learning, and walking together because sometimes, Christ is walking with us.  Sometimes, we might recognize Christ in our midst, not only in the expected, but in the unexpected as well; not only in light but in darkness; not only in faith but in doubt

As we gather at the table, we renew our covenant with one another and with God.  We renew our promise to love God by loving one another.  We renew our faith with God who promises to remain with us no matter what: despite our failures of love, God remains faithful; even though we hung God on the cross, God remains faithful.  And love prevails, over all we might do to prevent and oppose it.  God’s love is there waiting, even in unexpected places and forms, guiding us through the darkness back to the resurrection light.

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29

Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark.  We find ourselves closed  in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ.  They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.

These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries.  As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.”  That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.

Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color.  Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further.  For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”

It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God.  It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected.  So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God?  When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have?  When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room?  What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy?  How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?

How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?

It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity.  We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight.  We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations.  We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.

When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness?  No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way?  It’s disconcerting.  Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt.  And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us?  How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?

Brené Brown is a  professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of  shame and vulnerability.  Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love.  All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light.  Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?”  In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation.  Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”

I wonder what Thomas would think of that.

Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft.  Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues.  Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.

Thomas was called; and so are we.

As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light.  We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God.  We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.

And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception.  Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry.  I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment.  I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.

We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage.  We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark.  We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb.  For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.

We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.

But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’  -Matthew 28: 5-7

There was a fair amount of angst in my circles, this week.  Something about having to preach a sermon to a larger crowd than usual had a lot of clergy more anxious about Sunday morning than they might usually have been.  The sermon this week had to be spectacular – something that would really speak to those whom we don’t see every week, something that would get them through until Christmas.  This week’s message had to be a homerun… and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.

But really?  We all know that’s silly.  No matter who is sitting in front of us, there’s only one sermon we should ever preach, and we should preach it all year.  For if we preachers are doing our jobs well, then we’ll simply say this, every Sunday, in different iterations: death has lost its power, and love prevails.

It’s the simplest sermon ever, and the most complicated.  Because the questions that this statement brings up are both simple and complicated; these questions of life and death that speak to us from the empty tomb.  And because, as it was noted at a recent church gathering, the whole idea of resurrection is huge and kind of scary… perhaps because death and life are also huge and kind of scary, so the eventual reversal of them becomes overwhelming to us.

Because the resurrection is more than “Jesus died so we get a ‘Get out of Death Free’ card”. If that were the case, our lives would have no meaning – we could be as crazy as we want, as selfish and hurtful as we want, for there would be no finality, no consequences.  Yet that is not how we are expected to live, even now.  We are still called to follow, to live as disciples.  We are called to be people of the resurrection, people who live in the promises of new life, here and now.  We are called to leave the graves we have constructed for ourselves, to roll the stones away and step into the light.

We are called to leave the grave of power, and of privilege, and of comfort, where we, like Romans, believe in power of force to change the world; were we, like religious authorities who manipulated the crucifixion into being, grant ourselves power to rule over others, and judge their actions.  To leave the closed-in space from which we can believe that we are better than those whom we might encounter: that we are right and they are wrong, without having to understand anyone else’s point of view.

We are called to leave grave of economic status, and to abandon both our love of money and the concurrent fear of never having enough: the let’s-leave-enough-aside-just-in-case attitude that keeps us not only from frivolity, but from doing the good that we might otherwise do.  We are called to abandon the reduction of everything to economic value; to be the ones who would not only allow, but welcome the anointing of Jesus, rather than resenting (as Judas did) the waste of costly ointment and the pouring out of a possible source of revenue.  Let us not be like Judas, who could measure even human life in monetary terms; let us not be those who are blind to less tangible returns on our investment: returns like equity, justice, opportunity, or life.

We are called to leave grave of anger and resentment; that place where we trap ourselves in an us-vs-them mindset, and where we perceive difference as akin to attack; where it is unthinkable to break bread with those whose fear might lead them to hurt us.  Rather, can we be people of the open table, willing to incorporate Christ? Can we be people who set aside anger; who can be gracious when attempts to understand and be supportive, are exhausting? and when those whom we have asked to watch, and to pray with us, fall asleep instead?  Can we, in the light of a new day, choose forgiveness of betrayal over resentment, and welcome those who abandoned us?

We are called to leave grave of fear; to set aside the fear of what others might say or think; of what might happen to us.  To abandon fears that keep us from speaking up, from doing what is right; the fears that keep us feeling alone, and that make us deny our best selves – that make us say, with Peter, “I don’t know him!”  Can we let go of the fears that keep us silent in the face of suffering and despair: distant from one another and from God?  We are called to abandon even the fears of our own suffering, for some discomfort on our part – refusing the pleasures of power and status, choosing to set aside fear and anger, being willing to dwell in the unknown, uncertain spaces outside our comfort zone – may have us praying “let this cup be taken”, indeed, but might bring us to the new understandings that permit the rest of that prayer: “not my will, but thine be done”.  We are called to uncurl ourselves from the confinement of fear, in order to open doors to new light; to roll away stones to new life.

Can we abandon these graves for the love and grace that we are offered this day?  The love that can walk us through the valley of the shadow of death, but by which we cannot be held there?  The love that no power, no money, no anger, no fear can kill?  The love – grace and forgiveness – that mark us as disciples and invite us out of the graves we are so adept at digging, and into new life?  Can we accept the love that reanimates us, reinvigorates us, so that we may follow anew the one who is love incarnate, into the resurrection that may seem huge and scary and overwhelming, but that is ours to choose?

Can we accept the forgiveness offered this morning: forgiveness of all that kept us back, during the bleak times of despair?  Can we accept the grace that invites us out of ourselves, into relationship with one another and with God?

For the tomb is broken open: death has lost its power over us and love prevails!

Christ is Risen! do not look for him in places of death: in those small, human graves we frequent.

Christ is Risen! and we by grace are called to share in the new life of the resurrection.

Christ is Risen! may we follow where he leads us: out of the death we would so often choose, and into the grace of new life.

Alleluia!

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  -Matthew 26: 40-41

Were you there?

It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week.  It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there.  There is tremendous desolation in the way that  the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals.  Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.

Were you there?

It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago.  Of course none of us were there.  But if we had been?  For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come?  Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?

Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss.  We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.

Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present.  Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all.  This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences.  We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo.  We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.

Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:

This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing.  We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…

Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…

The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.

 Were you there? Are any of us?

It seems an odd question, but it is the right one.  Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware.  Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo.  Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us.  Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our  energy, our attention, our love?  Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know?  Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?

Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone?  that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us?  Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?

The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us.  We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong.  We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.

We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”

“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” -Matthew 21: 8-9

This week, a friend blogged about something that’s really been frustrating him.  Shay is a priest and an activist, and for both aspects of his life has done a lot of study and reflection.  He has devoted a lot of his life to learning about theology, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and the intersections of all of these.  And he is always willing to talk to those who might be new to any of those subjects; to begin to teach, to recommend resources.  But he is not willing – or able! – to do it all of that work for someone else; to take all that he knows and just dump that information into someone else’s consciousness: as he reflects, “New understandings can’t just be handed to you. A one-hour conversation in a coffee shop or an email exchange won’t cut it. There are some things you can only understand by studying.”

You’ve got to do the work.

Sometimes I wonder how often Jesus thought something similar.  I wonder how often he wished his new interpretations, his unpacking of scriptures, would lead people to actually study the law and the prophets; to go deeper in their faith, to really enter relationship with God.

Today, we encounter Jesus entering Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time.  For this is the moment when the gauntlet is thrown,  this mocking procession that so nearly mimics a warrior’s triumphal entry, according to the Psalms:

This is the gate of the Lord;
   the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
   it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
   O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
   and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
   up to the horns of the altar.   (Psalm 118)

In keeping with the Psalm – familiar enough to be recognizable to the people of Jerusalem! – Jesus is treated like royalty, like a savior, like a conquering hero – but what does that mean to the very people who are throwing down branches and cloaks?  What do they expect, as they see Jesus claiming the mantle, the authority of the Messiah, in the face of power?  This is Jesus as many have long hoped to see him, but for a far  different end result than most may be hoping for.  Expectation trumps all that they have heard from him over the course of his ministry; appearances in the moment speak louder than the most poignant sermon.  And so the people cry out: Hosanna! which means, Save us! Save us from the immediate problems we are facing – the occupation, the taxation, the struggle of daily life.  Hosanna, Son of David, be the savior for this generation.

I wonder how many of them were still following with shouts and palms after he reached the Temple?  For it was at the end of this procession that tables got turned and people got rebuked… how many were brought up short in their praise of the man who suddenly seems scornful of their religious practice?

How many stayed to hear his teaching in Jerusalem, which seems to take on a particular urgency in this week.  The audience will be large, for it is Jerusalem at the Passover: there are many who might hear.  But there is a deeper urgency, not just to be heard, but to get the people thinking enough, interested enough, to study and to follow: to go beyond immediate, to do the work, not for the Kingdom of Judea, but for the Kingdom of God.

This week especially, we are made aware, in the urgency, of the demands of discipleship.  The twelve are about to discover that the discomforts of three years spent tramping around Galilee, Samaria, Judea were nothing at all, compared with this week in Jerusalem.  We are made aware, in these days, that the triumphal entry of a humble King was not the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but the beginning of the end, the beginning of the real demands of discipleship.  This week is the crucible in which discipleship is tested, in which we find out who had done the work, incorporated the lessons… And we watch, as one by one, Judas, Peter, James, John and the others disappeared from Jesus’ side, and even the women, Mary Magdalene among them, remain in the distance.  This is the week in which we are reminded of the cost: that we are called to bear witness to suffering, even at risk to ourselves.

It’s hard to talk about the cost of discipleship without evoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor.  After serving churches in Spain, Germany and England during the 1920s and 1930s, Bonhoeffer found himself teaching at Columbia  University at the start of the war.  I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for breathing a sigh of relief at his situation and continuing in his comfortable life in New York City, but that was not the discipleship that he knew himself called to.  And so he went back to Germany.  He went back into the Third Reich to found a Christian community – a community that would bear witness to the great suffering of all Germans during those years; that would serve as a bulwark of love against the pervasive hatred of the Nazi regime.  In Germany, Bonhoeffer could live out what his discipleship called him to do: to stand at the foot of the cross, as Body of Christ was crucified before his very eyes.  To leave comfort and security for community, relationship, and vulnerability.  He had done the work, had traced the path that lay ahead of him and prepared his heart.  He well knew the cost of discipleship (it would be the title of his most famous book), but knew as well the joy and the freedom that the cost made possible.

Did any of those waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna in Jerusalem have such understanding?  Those shouting Save us! so that we needn’t do the work, needn’t bear the cost ourselves.  Save us, as well as our comfort, our security, our familiar lives.  Hosanna! Save us! they cried, but how many would follow, to the point of salvation? To the point where love won?

How many would do the work, and put their prayers – Hosannas – into action?  How many would look beyond the immediate situation, beyond themselves?

How many would study, wondering at the warrior in humility, looking like an idiot on a donkey, and search for deeper meaning?

How many would study their own lives in this new lens of love and grace and humility, until they could stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the worst that humanity can inflict upon itself?  until they could forgive the cruelty, the mockery, again and again?

And we, who are also waving palm branches today? We, too, cry, Hosanna! Save us!  We, too are called to do the work: to follow, even to the unexpected places, to the unexpected results.  We, too, are called to a demanding discipleship; perhaps even more than the population of Jerusalem.  For we know the results of this week: the promises that only began with this procession.

Will we do the work, delve deeper into those promises, and learn their place in our own lives? Will we be disciples, accepting the cost, setting aside comfort and security to work for God’s kin-dom?  Will we work to ensure that the abundance of food that this creation provides will  feed all who need, without human judgment attached?  Will we work to ensure that adequate housing is not a privilege but a birthright?  to view the “other” – the imprisoned, the ill – as ours to care for rather than to shun and punish? to actively remember that we are not the owners but the stewards of this holy creation in which we live?

Will we do the work, and learn to speak the truth – of love, of grace, of justice, of equality – to power?

Will we do the work? will we pray, Hosanna! Save us!, and then put that prayer into action?

For we do have work to do.

Blessed, indeed, is the one who comes in the name of our God; the one who has blessed us and called us, not to the triumph of a King’s arrival, but to the humility and vulnerability of love beyond us; to the demands and the freedom of understanding, and choosing this path.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God, and blessed are we, who set aside our palms, and follow.

“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9

 

I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people.  The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example.  An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.

In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile.  The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire.  These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land.  It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them?  Was the covenant broken?  How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?

The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung our harps.  For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4)  Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God.  Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment?  I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?

I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.

Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the  most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face.  It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk.  The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos.  It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?”  If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?

Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.

The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly.  The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement,  “it could happen to you!”  Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out.  Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.

We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.

Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us.  But it is not true.  There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago.  There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility.  The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.*  The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime.   There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight.  But when fear is internalized, where do we flee?  We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church.  It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them.  We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.

Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first.  We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security.  We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.

On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem.  It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with.  Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough.  We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God.  After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there.  We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless.  It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the  songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic.  And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another.  I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope.  I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.

There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians.  People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.

Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us.  We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe.  We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another.  We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest.  We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.

We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us.  We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.

We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.

God, who doesn’t play it safe.  God, who went to the cross.  God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.

God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection.  We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word.  We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety.  Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose.  Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility.  Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.

We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig.  We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.

We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.

We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.

Mortal, can these bones live?  O God, you know we can.

 

 

*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  Brazos Press, 2007.  p.15

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