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For a while [the judge] refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.” Luke 18:4-5

She was late. Well, later than she meant to be, at any rate. But just as she was setting out, all hell had broken loose. The baby didn’t like being left with the neighbor – honestly, the neighbor didn’t like either – and so had fussed and cried until she’d ended up nursing the child to calm her. At which point, of course, the baby spit up.  She rubbed at the spot, hoping it wouldn’t show; she needed all her confidence for this meeting, she needed not to be disheveled and smelling of spit up… or whatever it was that her five year old had had in his hands when hugged her good bye.

It was not the first time she would be going to a meeting like this; nor, she reflected, the last, most likely. She gripped her folder tightly, feeling the comforting thickness of all the paperwork inside. As she walked, she glanced over her shoulder, skyward, still afraid of the death that fell from the sky. Even after months here, this habit was too ingrained to break. She hurried past row after row of tents, past the children who played in the alleys, children who should have been in school. Children who should have been hers… but best not to think of that now.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to the judge; a large man, all button down shirt and power tie, a heavy ring  with a black stone on his right hand, thick gold band on left. He was the only person she knew who could walk through camp wearing such wealth, who would not be robbed for the cash to pay a smuggler, so secure was he in his power. Perhaps this was why he had never made eye contact with her; he’d just told her, time and again, that her paperwork was incomplete, that they were over their quota for this month. He’d just dismissed her, every time she’d gone to see him.

She wondered if he’d have looked at her husband… and in the same instant, wondered if she’d even be doing this if he hadn’t died. For it had been his death, along with their oldest daughter, which had finally made her flee; it had been her desperate resolve to keep younger ones safe, to start life over in a place without bombs, for their sake, that had brought her here.

She reached his office, one of the rare semi-permanent structures, and stood for a long moment, staring at the door. She wondered why she bothered, why she kept coming back to this man who only saw in her an enemy; who only saw in her tiny children the potential for violence. Her children…

She took a deep breath, filled with the scent of spit up and mess, adjusted her hijab, once more rehearsed her speech in her head: “My husband and daughter were killed in airstrikes. We left Aleppo 15 months ago. I am requesting refugee status and and a visa to enter the United States.”

And she knocked on the door. Perhaps this time. Perhaps this time would be different.

***

We read this parable, and in my experience, the general response is to feel bad for the widow, persistent in her quest for justice. But do we ever really think about who she is? Do we question what injustice she might be seeking to right? I suspect we see her, inevitably, as an older woman: a woman who is familiar to us, like us… so we don’t wonder if we would agree with her complaint. We don’t consider how we ourselves might respond to her stubbornness.

We have a tendency to read stories like this with a certain lens: to see ourselves as the justice seeker, to be, therefore, convinced as to the rightness of the claim, because we assume she is like us. But we don’t know that. Only that she is persistent.

And we don’t always appreciate persistence.

***

She buttoned her blouse carefully, checked her reflection in the mirror, patted a loose hair into place, reached for her jewelry box. She’d wear the pearls today, the earrings and necklace. They gave her a sense of dignity, of respectability that helped, on days like today.  She hummed as she got ready, the songs of her childhood, of her church; the songs she remembered her Grandma had sung. In the early days, she had tended to hum songs of encouragement, of justice… recently, she’d noticed that more and more, she needed the songs of comfort, as her heart grew more tender.

She paused, glancing at photo on her bedside table. Their son beginning to look so like him; same eyes, same smile. Her heart constricted, as it always did when thought of their son. He’d been twelve when his father died; he was fifteen now, fifteen going on thirty. And she worried. She’d had the talk with him. He knew what to do: don’t talk back. Do exactly what they tell you. Keep your hands visible.  It was small comfort: his father had known this, too.

Today was a reasonably short trip, just about a two-hour drive, plus a stop at the airport to pick up two others, widows themselves. Like her, they were dressed neatly and wearing sensible shoes. Together, they drove downtown, parked, took their posters out and met the others. All of them had their game faces on. They prayed together, aware of how much they’d need it.

Together, they took their places on the pavement outside the courthouse, each with a poster bearing the smiling face of a husband, son, daughter, brother; their names, their dates.  Across the top, the same word emblazoned on each poster: Justice.

They stood all day on that sidewalk, watching the people flow in and out of court. They stood, knowing intimately the proceedings going on inside. They stood, trying not to make eye contact with the passers-by. For, as usual, a few smiled, or gave encouraging signs, but many more catcalled, or yelled slurs, or suggested crudely that these people on the posters, these beloveds, had deserved their fate and earned their deaths.

She thought of her husband, who’d pulled his car over when he realized he was having a heart attack a dozen blocks from their house. He had knocked on the nearest door, hoping for help from a stranger; he was killed by the homeowner, who had assumed the knock was an attempt at burglary… at 4 in the afternoon. She thought of her friends, this group that traveled from city to city, court to court, pleading silently, persistently for justice. She thought of their family members, the names-become-hashtags; she thought of the family in the courthouse today, pleading for justice for their twelve-year-old who hadn’t had time to do what they told him to.

Shifting her weight on aching feet, she stood up straight, silently pleading her case, her husband’s case; persistent in the face of unrelenting judgement.

****

It’s interesting that we spend so much time pondering the widow, and so little pondering the judge; the one who doesn’t fear God, who has no respect for people – which, in many ways, amounts to the same thing. It’s interesting that, as we read this story, so often our identification is with the widow, rather than the judge; with the one who seeks justice, rather than the one who passes judgment.

This judge, who has no fear of God, no awe before the divine, no sense of his place within the mysteries of creation, no wonder at the complexities of this world, and his place within them… I wonder what went through his head during the widow’s first visits? I wonder why he denied her? what he refused to see in her? what he said to justify his lack of action; how he made her “other”, therefore unworthy or dangerous? How did he discredit her persistence – did he call her “inflammatory?” “inappropriate?” Did he decide that her protest was an “improper” way to call attention to injustice?

I wonder about the support, the complicity of those around him, those who encouraged his inaction, or soothed his discomfort. Those who helped him to justify his dismissal of this widow, and her needs.

I wonder that we do not see ourselves in that judge, for we are not always the widow. We are not always the justice seekers, but too often, the ones who grow weary of the persistence of those who demand that we do justice in this world.

At pub theology, the other night, we had a conversation about whether we’d recognize Jesus, were he to come back, here and now. But the more I thought about it, in the days that followed, the more convinced I became that we had asked the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether we “would” recognize Jesus. It’s a matter of whether or not we do.

Do we recognize Christ in the persistence of those fighting for access to treatment for addiction? Do we recognize Christ in the cries of those demanding that the minimum wage be a truly living wage?

Do we see Jesus turning tables, when we see the persistence of communities of color demanding that we acknowledge and end the violence of implicit bias in schools, in hiring, in the criminal justice system?

Do we see God in the widows of this world; widows of immigrants, widows of overdose, widows of violence, widows of indifference, begging us to acknowledge the injustice they have known?

Do we see the God who sees us, as we are reminded again and again in Luke’s Gospel? The God who doesn’t wait for us to ask, but sees us and knows us and calls us?

For that is the good news, here: that we who are persistent in our quest for acknowledgement will get our hearing. We will feel the movement of the arc of the moral universe as it bends, however slowly, toward justice.

But more than that: the good news is that our God will not let us go, when we refuse to see the widows of this world; when we continue to create “others” whom we need not respect and whose persistence we can ridicule and write off. Our God will persist in pushing us to do justice, with all the tenacity of the widow. God will not let us go, even when we have lost our respect for God and one another. God will but will continue to urge us, encourage us, demand from us justice for this world she so loves.

And that is, indeed, good news, for us and for the world.

When grief hits – really hits

when finality folds in upon you

with all its echoing emptiness

Some people run, just for the sake

of moving

of having something to do

with still-living flesh

arms and legs that cannot contain

the unbearable.

And I watched as the men looked

rummaged, flailed, fled

I, whom grief turned to stone

unmovable but for the flood

pouring down my cheeks

clinging to my lashes

until the world blurred:

lost its form in a haze

of light and water.

Movement again, yet not

with the speed of whirling grief.

My eyes, half-blind, streaming

saw first the dirt

upon the stranger’s hands

as though he’d been entrusted

with coaxing new growth

from fertile earth.

Between tear-shimmer above and below

he appeared,

walking through the garden

in the cool of the morning

radiant with the first light of day.

“Where is He? For I know

He Is

somewhere

and I promised to follow.”

And he spoke, and the world became

perfect,

as on the first Day.

One word, and I was made new.

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.

 

“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.

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.

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!

“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.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12: 2

A colleague of mine recently offered up this prayer of her Lenten discipline, an unusually honest one: “Thy will be done, yes, of course, God.  But if you need tips on “thy will” just lemme know.  I have some ideas.”

Thus says a minister in Lent, but it is a reflection, I think, upon the way that we all often pray: speaking familiar words (thy will be done), thinking familiar thoughts, holding familiar people or images in our hearts.  Sometimes we make specific requests, we pray for a specific outcome – for healing, or resolution, or change.  But how often do we listen for the response?  How often do we allow our prayers to be a conversation with God, rather than a dictation of our own ideals?  How much more often are we inclined to offer our own ideas of “thy will”, and leave it at that?

Now certainly, God can make God’s own self heard quite nicely, when the need arises.  Ask any clergyperson you know, and the story of their being called to ministry is usually one of God breaking through sometimes-dense human resistance.  Psalm 29 talks about the voice of the Lord breaking the cedars, reminding us of the power that God can call upon as desired.  But mostly, it seems, from my own experience and the experience of scripture, God does not desire great displays of power.  God is neither a grand dictator, nor puppeteer of the universe.  The preference, throughout, seems to be for subtlety, on God’s part: making us use brains we were given, making us choose whether or not to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.  God chooses the subtlety of sending a baby, via an unwed, teenaged mother, to redeem the world; the subtlety of calling the fishy-smelling lowly to discipleship, and turning them into leaders; the subtlety of blessing.

Of course, blessing, in our time, has all the subtlety of a cast-iron frying pan.

Suddenly, you’re counting your blessings, aren’t you?  It doesn’t take much more than hearing the word, and it triggers us to start reflecting on our lives.  And I’ll wager that I can guess what your blessings are:

Your health.  Your nice warm homes, especially on cold, snowy mornings like this one.  The food you ate before coming here, the food you will eat later in this day.

But are these blessings?

Is good health a blessing, when millions in this country – let alone around the world! – are without insurance, or providers, or anything approaching adequate care?

Are our homes blessings, when millions are homeless or living precariously, hovering on the edge of eviction, or couch surfing?

Is the food that we so often take for granted a blessing, when millions are food-insecure, many of them right here in this community?

Are we counting blessings? or privileges?  And if these are blessings, what does it say about the God who bestows them upon us, but not upon everyone?

Here again, we would seem to be putting God in human vesture, listening to the voice of our comfort rather than to “thy will”.

I came across an article last week by Scott Dannemiller, that speaks to this beautifully:

I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed.  Like the “amen” at the end of a prayer.
     “This new car is such a blessing.”
     “Finally closed on the house.  Feeling blessed.”
     “Just got back from a mission trip.  Realizing how blessed we are here in this country.”
On the surface, the phrase seems harmless.  Faithful even.  Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have?  Isn’t that the right thing to do?
No.
First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers.  I can’t help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M’s to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to poop in the toilet rather than in their pants.  Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it’s for our own good.  But positive reinforcement?
God is not a behavioral psychologist.
Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong.  For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day.  You read that right.  Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day.
The problem?  Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith.  In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.
I’ll take door number three, please.
If we’re looking for the definition of blessing, Jesus spells it out clearly.
     Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach
them, saying:
     3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
     5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
     6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
     7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
     8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
     9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5: 1-12)
I have a sneaking suspicion verses 12a 12b and 12c were omitted from the text.  That’s where the disciples responded by saying,
     12a Waitest thou for one second , Lord.  What about “blessed art thou comfortable”, or  12b “blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?”
     12c And Jesus said unto them, “Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.”

Who is this God to whom we pray?  Is God the bestower of comfort?  of privilege?  or of blessing?

Abram may well have asked that; I know that we would, in his place.

Abram’s father, Terah, had been called from city – Ur of the Chaldeans – to God’s land, but stopped at a likely looking spot along the way.  He stopped in a place where there was evidence that a good life could be built – land and water in enough supply to keep him, his family, and his livestock.  Terah did not venture further, but lived his remaining years comfortably.  But God, in one of those less-subtle, frying-pan moments, called again, this time to Abram.  Now, the bible doesn’t record Abram’s response, but I’ll have a go at what it might have sounded like:

“Are you crazy?  I’m 75!  No kids to help but my nephew, and you want me in the hinterlands?  And you call this a blessing?

Isn’t that what we might say?  In Abram’s place, what would we do with such a pronouncement?  How would we receive this directive, with no reassurance except that we’d be a blessing to others?  What would we do?

What have we done?

God didn’t puppeteer, in this instance; didn’t reach down and frog-march Abram off into the land that God has designated.  God called, and Abram chose what his father hadn’t.  And Abram was blessed.

God blessed Abram: God opened the door to possibility, of being a great nation, of an increased blessing over the course of generations.  And Abram chose to walk through the door.

Do we?  Do we accept the open doors, the opportunities of discipleship?  Do we accept the promise of presence and increased blessing; of increased opportunity?  Do we accept to open doors ourselves, to make ways for others?  Or do we say “thy will and here’s how!”

We are blessed, each time we hear a need and think, “someone should do something about that.”  And a door opens.

We are blessed each time we are invited to witness pain and vulnerability in others, or invite someone to witness ours; each time we are able to take a stand for our faith, even if it invites ridicule; each time an opportunity arises, and a door opens, and we may choose, or not, to be blessed, and to bless others.

We are blessed, if we can hear God’s call; if we can hear the still, small voice speaking amid the words of our own prayers.  We are blessed if we can stop making suggestions and start taking them.

We are blessed even if we, like Abram, don’t really understand in the moment what it is that we are being called to do.  Even if we don’t know where the open door will lead, but we choose to trust, to walk through the door, to take the first step.

We are blessed, not because of what we have, but because of what we might do.  Because we are called, invited by God to the opportunities of discipleship and servanthood; to the presence of the swirling Spirit and the love that conquers death.

In Lent, we are called to be more present to God’s presence in the world: to empty ourselves of distractions – our suggestions to God – and allow room for God to move and speak.  To pray familiar prayers, and then listen for a response; to see God’s movement in human hands, and human voices, and human actions; to count our blessings, not in things but in actions.  We are to count our call, our opportunities to show God’s love in this world: the opportunities to bring God’s kingdom, to bring the promise of new life; the opportunities to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others.

God called Abram, at the age of  75, into the wilderness, with just the promise of blessing.

And Abram said yes.

May we be so blessed: may we be such a blessing.

Thy will be done, O God.