It’s for the best,

she decided,

One moment of pain

a betrayal that wasn’t

couldn’t be, (right?)

if to spare the beloved

a lifetime of suffering.

Be hopeful.

 

Peaceful living in wartime chaos

the resistance of embodied love

among a few

tortures the heart already pierced

by each life lost;

narrows focus until

violence appears the only path

for ending violence.

Until one life seems a small price to pay

to ransom millions.

Be positive.

 

Drunk on grief

marinated in the power of anger and hate

the desire to eradicate

to annihilate

all who ressemble -

- even in the superficial, the external -

the apparent cause

of all that bubbles within

seethes and writhes,

seeking an outlet;

the desire to wipe the slate clean,

to rub out offensive words

or ideas

burns with single-minded intensity.

Do not become bitter.

 

Face to face with a story not our own

face to face with pain

and implications of complicity!

Moan aloud, exclaim

not for the wounded heart before you

but rejecting responsibility

“Not all!” – and turn away before the shatter

skewers you with flying shards.

Or hostile.

 

Hope would be a simpler thing

if it came with bright light and rainbows

if the valley of the shadow of death weren’t so…

Dark.

Peace would be simpler

if it caught our attention

spread among us with the fire

of passion

To walk in the light is to be

above all else

vulnerable,

open to the aching

convulsing pain that humanity suffers;

open to it in our own lives

tightly bound to the lives of others.

To hope without hostility

is to trust that no valley is endless

that no night endures forever

that joy comes in the morning.

To live in peace without bitterness

is to find the right, and remain

calm in the midst of chaos

focused on all that can be

rather than what cannot.

To love is to remember that hope and peace endure

by the grace of God -

- whom we are not.

Love is a better way.

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.

 

For those days when you do all the work:
Read everything possible
Talk it through
Push and pull, stretch and twist
Even write! And write again…
And still, despite it all,
(or perhaps because of;
all that preparation can be constipating)
You walk the dog –
-proudly, without
any indication of what an ugly
mangy mutt you see
at the end of that verbal leash –
We pray.
Still, we pray all the more
for the whispered rustlings
stirring among disjointed words;
for the flowing, and the crackle,
upward-seeping capillary phrasing
Spirit.
The one who grooms the matted fur
stripping away muddied words,
flea-bitten clichés…
Who trims away the snarls
And maybe even adds the bow-around-the-neck
of recognition
self-reflection
challenge
or Word
To the dogbreath-slobbery mess
I was trying to preach.
Come, Holy Spirit,
Even when I’m waking the dog.
Remind me that I do not walk it alone:
that some dogs are so homely they’re cute;
that all dogs were created by the One
who called me to this crazy preaching thing
in the first place,
And who will not let me fall so totally
flat
that I forget,
in my doggiest days,
I do not walk alone.
Some days we need the reminder that
even dogs,
with all their mess and slobber,
are a part of your creation.

“Thou shalt not”

Doesn’t really leave us much

in the way of wiggle-room

So we play with that last word in the commandment.

Because “murder” gives us the leeway

to continue killing

when it’s convenient:

When we will benefit from death

in newly-accessible goods

in suddenly-attainable power;

When we use killing to control

those around us -

- easier by far than controlling ourselves.

“Murder” is that which happens to us

that which we cannot justify

by some dispelled fear

or righteous anger.

“Murder” is unreasonable, cruel,

the taking of innocent life,

valuable life, or maybe

life that looks, somehow, like ours.

And “thou shalt not,” we cry,

in the echoes of “Why did you shoot me?”

“Stop shooting”, “I can’t breathe”.

After silent hands raised in calm obedience

to a lesson taught by parents who weep

to teach it.

“Thou shalt not,” unless you feel your own life,

your own self, threatened

by twelve-year-old men playing

with the normal violence of their lives;

by faces you most often see as targets

through the crosshairs.

It isn’t “murder” if the victim wasn’t innocent:

lily-white and pure as snow,

child-like and angelic in face and speech,

as they cry to us for help.

“Thou shalt not,” we cry

in irony-free certainty:

‘Thou shalt not,” but if you do, the penalty

is death, which is not murder, though intentional;

an acceptable death: calm, reasoned,

we-regret-to-inform-you death

which is different, you know.

Because it is a death that will make us

feel safer, despite the statistics;

knowing killers have been mur-

no, that’s the wrong way ’round.

And it is not “murder” when we discuss it first –

-“it” the crime and “it” the criminal,

now one and the same,

sentenced by twelve who don’t consider themselves peers,

covetous of their privileged humanity,

determining the terms of life and death.

“Thou shalt not,” we cry,

until we cannot recognize ourselves

in the one humiliated,

carrying the means of his own death;

the human reduced to the sum of his crimes

Then we shout, instead,

“Killing is justified!”

“Killing is justice!”

Then we should instead,

“Crucify him!”

For we shall not murder – no, of course not.

We are not unreasonable,

not cruel or unusual -

- unfortunate, that.  Unusual

is the person who stands, weeping

at the foot of the cross.

For all the “shalt not”s we have manipulated,

justified, defended;

all the innocents tarnished by our fear,

all the sinners judged

by those who judge themselves worthy,

all of the humanity forgotten, denied -

- as it crucifies itself so that “thou shalt not”

but I still can.

Because it isn’t “murder” if it doesn’t hurt me,

if it’s not my body on the cross.

It isn’t “murder” if I cannot recognize the image

reflected back through one-way glass

from curtained execution-room sterility.

It isn’t “murder” when our sense of order

is upset by disruptive life

or the fear of life’s disruptions.

It isn’t murder until we ourselves stand convicted

without wiggle-room,

under the weight of our own sentence, our own phrasing;

staggering to the top of the hill we have created,

out of blind-justice-reason and the illusion of balanced scales.

We slip in the blood of countless “Thou Shalt Not”

and wonder: who will weep for me?

Someone said today that writing is not
             healing –
     -in writing, it should be noted.
Begging the question of what is healing
     after all?
For certainly, the act of putting pen to
             paper will not
     unfortunately
     cause the bleeding to stop.
Eyes will not be opened as the words
             are set forth;
     children shall not rise from their
             deathbeds
          suddenly literate,
     and I do not wonder that Jesus
             didn’t take the time
          to write his own story.
In his limited time, he chose to heal.
And yet…
I wonder if Mary, in her grief,
     kept a journal
     or wished she could;
     (did Peter? Or James, or Joanna,
             or Salome?)
     to hold the stories told over a fishy
             breakfast?
To keep the intimate, first-person details
     of shared story,
     to keep the perspective from shifting
     or, perhaps, to shift it?
To manipulate, tease, pull, sift, explore
     in such a way that the conversation
             continues;
     that the lost voice lives anew,
             beloved,
     suddenly audible in scratching
             stylus.
In the intimacy of stories kept close
     there is room enough to ask that
     which lodges in the throat
     which might bring blame, or shame,
          or pity.
Face to face, pen and paper call forth
             “Why?”
Why this body, this time, this anguish?
Why, now, was there no healing
     no miracle,
     though the curtain of my heart was
             rent asunder
     and my world is summer-noonday
             dark?
Why did Mary, Peter, Thomas even
     find reprieve before their grief
          was half-begun,
     while three days in –
          – three weeks, three months –
     the stone is not rolled back?
Writing does not heal. The voices fade
     in folded paper, unmoving pen.
Not in scribing but in speaking:
     Talitha cum! Lazarus come out!
     was breath restored and life renewed
          and yet…
In quiet resurrection party afterglow,
     did those same words,
             carefully traced
     calm the reverb of a still-palpable
             fear?
In the writing, in the holding,
     in the heart-hearing moment
     are the first stitches to mend the
             curtain,
     is the glimmer of sun in noonday
             darkness,
     is the first, rough filler
          in the crackled not-quite-shatter.
The words we commit to paper
     cannot restore breath
     and quicken only the heart
             already beating.
But in the grappling with memory,
     the rhythms and patterns
     that speak with stilled tongues
          to answer our desolation
     there is the healing:
     the promise of new life,
     miraculous as any
          fourth-day resurrection.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…?” Isaiah 58: 6-7a

Ash Wednesday: that day when we not only gather in worship and preparation, but allow a dark, oily mark onto our foreheads. The day when we mark ourselves – visibly, outside of the church walls – as Christians.  The day when we feel the eyes of the world upon us as we stake our claim to discipleship, when the words of Isaiah rest heavily, uncomfortably upon our hearts and we rush home to wash the ash away, grateful that our service was in the evening, and we don’t really have to be out in public like… this… afterwards.

And it’s easy to explain our discomfort – in this lectionary cycle as we read through Mark’s gospel, and hear the repeated injunction to silence in the face of Jesus’ miracles.  As we read Isaiah’s scornful treatment of those who wear their piety on their sleeve, who wear proudly the symbols of their faith, expecting praise for their devotions.  We are uncomfortable with those symbols.  We pray quietly, within our services of worship; we go out into the world in loving service without constantly talking about God and Jesus… we get on with our discipleship, without fuss or fanfare.  We feel no need to mark ourselves, to show forth to the world the leanings of our hearts, our commitments, our covenants.

Right?

How many of you are wearing a cross right now?  As necklace, or earring, or on clothing, or as a tattoo?

How many are wearing engagement or wedding rings?

How many of us have at least one brand label showing somewhere – from the logos on purses or coat buttons to the swoop on our sneakers?

How many of us thought about what we were going to wear today – the impression that our clothes would make on people?  How many of us put some energy into figuring out how we were going to present ourselves to the world today?

And a symbol of our faith makes us uncomfortable?

The thing about this smudge is that it makes all the wrong impressions.  At worst, it does just what Isaiah condemns – gives us status as pious Jesus freaks who talk the talk without walking the walk.  But I suspect that’s not what makes us uncomfortable, we who tend to be regular enough in our church participation that we’ll even attend a special Wednesday night service.

The symbols we wore in here tonight – the ones we put on without much thought, perhaps; the ones we’ve worn today without discomfort – mark our place in this world.  They speak the language of our culture, showing our status, our privilege in this society; showing who we are and what we do within the current American context.  They provide for us a common language about our cultural values – a way of affirming our way of life, of agreeing that brand names matter, and nice clothes matter.  That outward appearances matter, that how we accessorize – with iPhones or androids, with long or short hair, piercings or tattoos or jewelry – says something about who we are, and how we live.  That all these things say something good about us – something we want people to see, something we think will earn us some sort of credit or status in our culture.

And this little smudge ruins all of that.

This little smudge – just a bit of palm ash and olive oil – upends everything we were saying with our wardrobe choices today.  Because this little black smudge reminds us that all of the power, privilege, status and prestige that this world can confer upon us does not change our mortality.  A little bit of ash reminds us that all of the gadgets, all of the clothing, all of the jewelry, all of the many other ways we mark ourselves for public consumption cannot change that beneath all the symbols, were are merely flesh and blood.  A little bit of ash reminds us that we aren’t really all that different, one from another.

Try as we might to hold on to the power, the privilege that this culture confers, we are each of us powerless when it comes to the essentials.  All the fine clothes in the world aren’t going to help us if we are starving.  There is no iPhone awesome enough to keep us warm outside on a night like tonight.  No symbol of our status, no mark of our privilege will keep us from this simple truth: that we are dust.  That we are all the same dust, no matter our weight, our gender, our income, our race.

No wonder we want to wash this mark away as fast as possible.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, to invite the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Is not this the mark we wear, in humility, remembering that the kin from whom we hide ourselves are, in fact, the poor we condemn for their poverty, the mentally ill whom we lock away, the immigrant whom we fear and reject?  Is not this the fast that we are called to: the fast from any notion that our status symbols mean anything? the fast from the defensiveness of privilege, the fast from all of our excuses for not treating one another as a neighbor, as an integral part of God’s creation, as a beloved and worthy child of God?  The fast from worrying more about how we are perceived than about whether the body of Christ in this very community have had enough nourishment, have adequate shelter from cold and snow, have the healthcare – both physical and mental – that so many of us take for granted?

May the smudge we bear this day be a symbol, not of our piety, but of our accountability.  May the covenant we renew in bread and cup bind us once more into one Body – one that doesn’t wear the symbols of our culture, but which we share with all who came from dust, all who shall return to it.  May the marks we receive this night call us back to God’s fasts, of sabbath, and equality, and loving relationship.

And may we not be so quick to be rid of them.  Even when they are gone from our skin, may they remain in our hearts, guiding us towards the promised resurrection.

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of the bombing in Colorado and the shootings in Paris. The scale is totally different, for sure. I am grateful that no one in Colorado was hurt, and grieve that the same cannot be said of Paris.

Yet it is hard not to see the pattern re-emerge in American media: brown people targeting white people is newsworthy. A white man targeting brown people is not. Freedom of expression is newsworthy. Freedom from racism is not.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical publication. Satire, by definition, holds up a mirror before us and makes us uncomfortable. Satire necessarily walks the line of the offensive. The art and writing is consciously provocative, and had the protected right to be so. This does not excuse violence: nothing does. But discomfort is inherent to satire, and I am, unfortunately, not surprised by the anger and reactivity that it prompted.

But the fact that that same discomfort and reactivity can emerge by the simple fact of existence is particularly troubling. The Colorado Springs office of the NAACP is not a vehicle for satire. It does not exist to provoke or offend, but to strive for a world in which we all have the same rights and opportunities in practice as well as theory.

There is the deliberate mirror of satire, and there is also the mirror we come upon unexpectedly, the one in which we see ourselves creating hashtags for free expression of satire, but not for the simple desire for this nation to live fully into its promises of democracy and equality. This is the mirror in which we see ourselves as caring more about whether privileged people can express themselves, than we do about whether all people can vote without restrictions, or walk down the street without being stopped, or listen to music without the volume being a life-or-death decision, or simply ask for help.

Because if #jesuischarlie; if we truly care about speaking even those truths that make us uncomfortable, shouldn’t we also #standwithNAACP? Shouldn’t the hashtag indicate more emotional involvement than simply stating the fact of the #NAACPBombing?

The mirror is before us, with no satire or provocation, but I for one am uncomfortable. And so I exercise my freedom of expression by encouraging us all to speak – to weep, to grieve, to seek and work for the change that this nation so deeply requires. I encourage us all to have the courage of our hashtags, and to strive for the day when all our rights are guaranteed in practice, without the threat of violence.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25

This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there.  It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular  phrase,  “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women.  It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.

“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain.  So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” –  and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply,  “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.

But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me.  Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”

So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?

We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol.  But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ.  As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death.  To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution.  It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation.  Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.

That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke.  That was the imagery that  Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.

Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation.  His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross.  Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself.  Choose it for yourself.  Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness.  We must choose, freely and without coercion.

And what happens when we choose the cross?  when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”?  What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment?  What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?

What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.

The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”.  The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.”  The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all.  Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship.  I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”.  Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.

And it may well cost us.

It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world.  It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.

It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love.  It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right.  Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable.  Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis.  Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.

Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our  selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.

May we so choose.  May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.

May we so choose.

Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.

Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.

Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.

Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b

As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story.  Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life.  But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel.  Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children.  Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.

Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed.  For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest.  Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation.  Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.

Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us.  Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions.  “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.

Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well.  And that is a much harder prospect to face.

This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of  loaves and fishes.  I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily!  But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia.  Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example.  What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning?  What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?

Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle.  Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there.  The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.

And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.

Wouldn’t we all wrestle?

Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own?  Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk?  Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done?  Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?

Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more  likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe.  We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.

And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church.  For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God.  We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church.  We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others.  And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?

We wrestle.  We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it.  We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day.  We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.

We wrestle, and for longer than a night.

But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner.  For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway.  I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and  asks for a blessing anyway.  He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness.  He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all.  Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.

Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.

We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers.  And sometimes, we get hurt.

But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed?  Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations?  the miraculous abundance that flows from God?

We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?

Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?

May it be so.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46

Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?  Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold.  Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value.  I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.

But we don’t live in a fairy tale.  We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?

If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it.  Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow.  It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.

Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it  not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else.  To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else.  Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law.  The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.

And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?

We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted.  Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked.  Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized.  For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons –  half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter.  In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.

That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed.  The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet  all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard.  For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it.  Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer.  But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts?  When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?

What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk?  What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens?  What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?

The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.

The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater.  It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal.  It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort.  The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control?  why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?

Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?

In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.

For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything?  What is our parable, for this modern age?

I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.

For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice.  It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace.  For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.

That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.

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