Geographical Reflection in Holy Week

Our religious traditions share a common grounding in the natural world. But I can only speak firsthand of the grounding Christian tradition receives from nature. Each year the grand cycle of nature unfolds with its season of birth, fullness, harvest, and death. The Christian calendar follows a similar rhythm with Advent/Christmas, Lent, Easter/Eastertide, and Season after Pentecost (the long “green” season).

Over the centuries these liturgical seasons have developed strong relationships with the seasons of nature.

Advent and Christmas, coming as they do when the days are growing shorter, have a strong resonance with light. It certainly helps that Isaiah gave us the image of a people walking in darkness so that Matthew could refine this into an image for the coming of Jesus – making us the people in darkness who receive the light of Christ. It is a powerful juxtaposition that as the natural world is increasingly dark, Jesus is the light that is not diminished.

Easter, too, takes much from its seasonal setting. The notion of death and resurrection resonate massively with the agricultural image of a seed dying and going into the ground, only to spring up with new life.

So, we can happily reflect on “the bleak mid-winter” into which Jesus comes. And we can also happily reflect on “the green blade” rising as part of our Easter observance. There is room for lots of poetic license. Would Bethlehem be likely to have “snow on snow” in December (accepting that Jesus was born in December…)? It’s possible, but not likely. And the image of a green blade poking up from its apparent death experience would surely happen, but not particularly around the time of Easter or Passover in Israel.

The natural seasons that so inform our experience of Christian tradition are European,

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The Altar in our chapel set for Palm Sunday – or as we seem to have it “Sage Sunday”.

not Mediterranean. Still they are ancient – frequently bringing into use symbols more ancient than Christianity. All Saints and its prelude, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) now sit squarely on top of the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. The great symbol of Advent, the Advent Wreath, is not sourced in Christian tradition, but in ancient pagan symbology. The now-universal “Christmas Tree” does not have any scriptural warrant at all. Christian tradition quite comfortably welcomes a vast array of other traditions – and why not? The Magi were welcomed at Jesus’ birth.

This is on my mind because we are in the end of Lent and about to keep Easter. No less a figure than the Venerable Bede tells us that the very name “Easter” is derived from an ancient goddess, “Eostre”. She, in turn, is associated with springtime and fertility. People other than Bede might argue that “Ishtar” is the goddess who gives her name to Easter… And others argue that in German and English-speaking tradition, it is not an ancient goddess, but rather the direction of the rising sun, the east, which gives the day its name. Whatever the reason, symbols of spring, of fertility, have become deeply attached to Easter. The chocolate Easter Bunnies are there because the highly prolific rabbit is a symbol of fertility. Easter Eggs can symbolize Jesus rising from the tomb, if you like, but the obvious fertility symbol of eggs has been associated with this time of year for most of eternity.

Normally this sort of chaotic amalgam of ancient symbols co-opted by Christian Tradition flows past without much obvious impact. Our holidays are made richer, but are not defined by it.

But here I am in South Africa, which is clearly not in the northern hemisphere. It is globeheavily influenced by European colonization (for better and worse), but it is in a region with opposite seasons. The US is clearly not Europe either, but in terms of seasons it is nearly identical. So for the first time in my life I am experiencing various Christian events in the “wrong” season.

Here we are almost at Easter and we will sing many of the same familiar hymns with various references to “new life” and such, but we are heading into Autumn. Green sprouts are not pushing their heads up through the earth. We are more in a season of harvest than of planting. Advent is similarly backward. The days are long and getting longer. We hear about the people sitting in darkness, but the experience is just the opposite.

For me, because I am accustomed to the subtle reinforcement of the natural seasons to the liturgical seasons, this standing of things on their heads is wonderful. Things I could easily take for granted suddenly take on meaning.

But at the same time, for folks who are deeply accustomed to the Southern Hemisphere, I have a sense that there is a loss. The symbolic language developed in Western Europe is lovely, but what symbolic language might South Africa have developed if the European

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Marshmallow Peeps and Chocolate! Covers all the bases…

symbols had not filled all the space? Is there a voice like Christina Rosetti waiting to be heard? Is there a different view of the little town of Bethlehem that we might glimpse? Is there an approach to Easter without chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps?

Christian tradition at its best, in my opinion, is quite inclusive. The church, as it pushed its way into northern Europe, simply incorporated the best of the celebrations it found. All Hallows and Halloween can live quite happily together. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday are a marvelous compliment. The Feast of the Resurrection and a celebration of fertility belong together – since they are both about new life.

So, to all my friends in the northern hemisphere – a happy Easter and eat a peep for me.

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Sermon for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a wonderful and triumphant day. Jesus receives a hero’s welcome in Jerusalem. A royal carpet of palms rolls out before him and he gets to ride rather than walk. In Jerusalem 2000 years ago, life didn’t get much better than this.

And in fact, for Jesus and the disciples, life quickly gets much worse. We know that the triumph of today quickly gives way to betrayal, abandonment, and execution – a horrible and humiliating execution.

But we also know the story doesn’t end there. For as great as today’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem may be, the real victory comes next Sunday. The Resurrection.

When you look for meaning, perspective is usually a good thing. Putting things in perspective – in context – is often the only way to make sense of them. But I think for us, for the next several days, it may be very powerful to understand events by taking them back out of context.

What if we didn’t know about Easter – yet? What if, like the followers of Jesus, we experienced the events of this week with no clear knowledge of what comes next?

Well to start with, today would seem like a much bigger deal. Jesus, this man we love and worship and follow, is finally being treated with some respect! Thank God! Praise the Lord! People are starting to get it. Jesus is Messiah. Our Jesus, our beloved friend, up there riding high with a crowd cheering him on. Not in some off the path little town, but in Jerusalem. In the city of the temple – the center of our world. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Jesus is triumphant and we have lived to see the day.

But within days our great happiness begins to fall apart and by Friday our joy is gone – forever! This great high point of today’s triumph gives way to total, complete, utter defeat, despair. Our friend, our Lord, our Savior dies. Dies on the cross. In agony. In disgrace. On Good Friday two millennia ago, that’s what the disciples knew.

If all we know is what the first disciples knew, on Friday it would seem like our lives as Christians had come to an end. Then we would have to face very hard realities.

And that is what I want to suggest today… That we take time this week in our prayer, our

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From Stations of the Cross as Luss Parish Church, Scotland.

 meditation, our worship and even our daydreaming to explore what it might be like if we didn’t know about Easter just yet.

What are our dreams as followers of Christ? What kind of tender intimacy do we share with Jesus – like in the garden or at the last supper? What happens when Jesus dies on the cross? What dreams and desires of ours die with him? Where does it hurt? What would we lose that we could not bear to lose?

If Jesus died this Friday and did not rise again, what would that mean to us.

When things start to come to mind, we need to examine them. Are they dreams of working with Jesus to build the Kingdom of God here on earth? Are they our own dreams that we would like Jesus to share with us?

I have to confess when I began examining how I might answer some of those questions… when I began to think of what I would lose: Among the first things that came to mind for me… No Bach B Minor Mass. No Faure Requiem. No Rachmaninov Vespers. Lovers of choral music will be nodding in agreement – others will just be shaking their heads wondering what these things have to do with Christ’s death. That is exactly the point.

We tend to fill our churches and our religion with things of inspiring beauty, things that inspire us. But are they there because Jesus demands that they be there – or just because we like them. Death has a way of clarifying our thinking.

We can use Holy Week to truly examine and test our faith – to let go at least a little of some of the things with which we clutter up our faith – and to focus on the essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We can do so with the great advantage the first disciples didn’t have – because we do know about Easter.

Sermon for the start of Lent

Readings for Lent 1 

It’s a bit startling that Lent has started. It seems like so little time has passed since Christmas. And in fact, it’s just over two months since we were joyfully watching Advent give way to Christmas. In the life of Jesus, these events were decades apart, but we experience them compressed together. Which tends to blur them – at least for me.

Lent, in our Christian tradition, has had several purposes. It is a time when we are meant to prepare ourselves for Easter. It is a time when we are meant to repent, to consider our own sinfulness and to find ways to return to God’s ways. It is a time for alms giving – though really, when are we not called to charity? And, in the early days of the church, it was a time when people preparing for baptism were to undergo preparation and instruction.

If the Church, as we know it, still practiced adult baptism, that last item would be critical. But we have largely moved, as of the middle ages, to infant Baptism. And the only thing I want to say about that is that I think much was lost in that move.

The repenting part of Lent is very much front and center in the Church’s current approach to Lent. In the service for Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent, we are invited to use Lent as a period of self-examination and repentance, and the suggested tools are prayer, fasting, and self-denial, as well as reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. This prepares us for Easter.

But what, exactly, are we preparing for and how do these tools help? These are the questions that call for attention, but there is something else to look at first.

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Baptism of Jesus

Lent, as I mentioned, was the time when the early church prepared folks for Baptism, and those baptisms took place as part of the Easter celebration. It is still common to have a renewal of Baptismal Vows as part of the Easter Vigil. That is why we read the story of Jesus’ baptism to usher us into Lent.

Or we almost read the story… In this morning’s reading we pick up just after Luke has told us about the baptism. And so, this is the aftermath of the baptism. It’s a really turbulent moment even if Luke is fairly calm about it: Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for a 40-day stay where he faces a period of deprivation and temptation from the Devil.

That number 40 is worth a little unpacking. Some scholars suggest that 40 was a number casually used to mean “a lot” – 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years. It’s a way of saying a long time. It doesn’t mean someone literally marked off 40 days on a calendar. But there are other symbolic meanings of the number to consider.

These days we generally think of the length of a pregnancy as 39 weeks. In Jesus time, and throughout Hebrew scripture, the length of a pregnancy was thought to be 40 weeks. So that number 40, while meaning a long time in general, also referred to the period of gestation… the time it took to give birth. 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years… all share that birth symbolism.

In some way this 40-day period is notifying us that a birth is taking place. We could say that Jesus is conceived anew in baptism and then born again after 40 days in the womb of the wilderness.

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Jesus faces temptation as interpreted by William Hole in 1905

It’s not a scientific or medical process. And, as is the case with symbolic stories, it is certainly not the only explanation for what is going on in this Gospel passage. But for our own time of Lent, I think it is a good image.

On Ash Wednesday we entered our own 40-day period of time in the wilderness. On Easter Sunday we are meant to burst forth from that womb as Jesus burst forth from the tomb. We are never meant to be observers of liturgy, we are always meant to be participants. We don’t watch Jesus rise. We rise with Jesus.

But that is getting ahead of the story… we have to go through Lent… Through gestation.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “save us from the time of trial”, or in an earlier English translation that is still pretty universal: “lead us not into temptation.” It’s odd, when you think about it, to ask God not to lead us astray – into temptation. Isn’t following God, almost by definition, about not being led astray? But look at what Luke tells us. Jesus is lead into the wilderness BY the Holy Spirit – one of the persons of the Trinity. That is to say by God.

The forms of temptation that Jesus faces are curious. Jesus is first tempted with food – and after all he has been fasting for a long time… he must be starved. It is a temptation

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Ewan McGreggor as Jesus in Last Days in the Desert

based entirely upon bodily needs.

Second, Jesus is tempted with great power. The Devil says worship me and I will give you power over all the kingdoms of the earth. I find it very disturbing that, apparently, the Devil has power over these kingdoms, these governments, and can use it for devilish purposes. We know the Devil lies, but Jesus does not contradict Satan. Instead Jesus refuses the offer – which seems to imply it was real, that Jesus might just as easily have accepted the offer.

This power the Devil offers is power, I would have assumed, Jesus already has. Jesus, like the Spirit, is a person of the Trinity – that is to say God. What the Devil seems to be saying is that the Devil, rather than God, has power over the governments of the earth. Part of Lent is meant to be spent in contemplation… and this is something I will need to contemplate.

The final temptation is for Jesus, more or less, to show off. He can hurl himself from the tallest point in Jerusalem and God will keep him safe. Jesus spends much of his early ministry trying to keep his full identity secret. But here, just as Jesus is beginning his

Willam DeFoe Jesus
Willem DaFoe in Last Temptation of Christ

ministry, the Devil is telling him to reveal it all.

It would be quick and easy, but it is not God’s will. It would short circuit all of Jesus ministry. Jesus calls us to love each other and to do justice. But the Devil is tempting Jesus to blow past all the hard work of teaching and leading, and simply to manifest his divinity now. This would command us to Jesus rather than attracting us.

But to me, the most important thing about the various temptations is that they come right after baptism. They are a consequence of baptism. It is tempting to believe that once we are baptized, God is in control and we will be free of temptation. But that is not what the Gospel tells us. We will face temptation as a consequence of baptism. In the parlance of contemporary computer folks, temptation is a feature, not a bug, of baptism.

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John Wesley from his graduation yearbook…

John Wesley observed that temptation is always part of an adult Christian life – we can’t make choices for good if we are not aware of the other choices, the bad choices. Temptation is not just a fact of life, it is a hopeful sign. We don’t have to fall prey to it. We can choose to follow Jesus. But we make the choice of our free will, not because we lack alternatives.

So, the tools of Lent – self-denial, fasting, prayer, meditation, reading…

St Benedict in his rule offers some good advice. Before a brother takes on some type of self-denial, he must have permission. Our inclination, in the fervor of religious enthusiasm, is to engage in heroic actions. But this isn’t what Jesus asks. The point in asking permission is, if I have dreamed up some super-human activity, the Prior can and should say no. Because the point of self-denial is to turn toward God. Heroic denial is all about self.

The purpose of denial is to free us. A little less of something frees for a little more of something else. I will watch less TV (or for me, a little less YouTube) so that I can read more… I will eat less so that I can pray more… And in all these things I will do them in a modest way, not a heroic way.

Jesus, in his 40-day ordeal, could have behaved in a wild and heroic way. But that is not his choice. He calmly persists in faithful love of God, Devil notwithstanding.

That is our guide for Lent – to pursue a deeper, more prayerful, more loving relationship with God and with all of God’s creation.

My thoughts on recent UMC decision

I have followed from a distance the work of the United Methodist Church in a special General Conference. I am hesitant to say too much, but I don’t want to say too little either.

For those who may not know, both my mother and father were Ministers in the United Methodist Church. I was more or less born and raised in the tradition, starting in a small congregation in Brandon, Vermont. This church dates back to the late 1700s – the early

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Historic Brandon Methodist Church, Vermont

days of the Methodist Church – when clergy rode circuits of small congregations by horseback.  At the time my father was appointed there in 1955 there were no longer horses in use, but coal still had to be shoveled into the furnace by hand to heat the parsonage and church – and that is in Vermont winters. I was 3 when we moved, but it is still a piece of my history.

We moved to Averill Park, New York, to a congregation that suffered a fire in about 1959 and built a new, non-traditional building shaped in a circle. This is really the church of my youth. It is a bit non-traditional as things go which no doubt left a mark on me. The congregation merged a Methodist and Presbyterian congregation while we were there. And though the church was Methodist, it had Episcopal ambitions. Previous clergy had taken the congregation as far as they could toward leaving the Methodist Church and becoming Episcopalian. So it was a “high church” Methodist sort of place. I thought this is just the way the Methodist Church was – cross and candles in procession and that sort of thing. It was not until averill parkcollege that I learned that not all Methodist Churches were on the same wave length. 

High School years were in Latham, at Calvary United Methodist Church. Here was a time to become more involved with Conference youth activities partly because it interested me, but also because I did not like Latham. Everything unpleasant about suburban living seems central to Latham. But I did value the increasing Methodist involvement beyond the local church.

For college, keeping with the Methodist theme, I attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia. As much as I disliked Latham, I loved WVWC. It was a good school, but also a good school community (not the town, but the campus). In some ways I developed a much greater appreciation of community life through this experience that ultimately shaped my choice to enter a monastery.

In the monastic formation process it is custom to add a “name in religion”. And so the natural thing for me to do was to add Wesley. It paid homage to my routes, honored the way my parents had invested their lives, and nodded to the import work of John and Charles Wesley in shaping the modern Methodist movement as well as the Church of England and Anglican (Episcopal) movement. Many bases covered in one name.

I say this by way of saying I loved, love, care deeply about the Methodist tradition. Still – I walked away from it some 35 years ago. And the decision at the most recent General Conference is part of that process. The United Methodist Church has been debating for decades how it will relate to people identified as LGBTQI. And for all that debate, over all those years, the message has been we love everyone – except there are stipulations…

Years ago my mother attended a seminar at Kirkridge Conference Center in Pennsylvania. The seminar started with folks sharing their memories of the first time the “church” had broken their heart. Mom said this was an eye opener for her and other clergy there. Seems that everyone had a memory and some were very painful. Even my mother had a memory. The point of the exercise was not to show that the church (however each person defined it) was bad, but in the relationships of being church, hurts happen. Just as they do in marriages, or in monasteries for that matter.

I’m afraid what the United Methodist Church has accomplished at this Special General

Conference is to break a large number of hearts. And it seems to have done this same thing over the same topic at regular intervals for the past 3 or so decades.

APTOPIX United Methodist Church
Participants at UMC Special Conference

I have many friends who have devoted their lives to the United Methodist Church – some are young and some are retired. But their love for the church is sincere and persistent. And that makes me all the more sorrowful at the outcome of the Conference. My friends have had the hearts broken… again!

The reason I think of my mother’s seminar experience that explored the memories of the first time your heart was broken is that there is an obvious corollary. When is the last time that the Church broke your heart? As this process continues, some will decide we have had enough and will not wait to have our hearts broken one more time. Others are not there yet. For many, hope lives on still. My caution is that everyone in an abusive relationship lives, for a time, in hope that it will get better. But in the mean time they leave themselves in abuse. And they leave their families in abuse. And they enable an abuser. Sometimes the relationships do recover. But often the answer is to get out.

I also wonder how the United Methodist Church will find a way forward. It is a very big institution, but like so many “main stream” churches, the decline is visible to all. Many of the big Methodist Churches of my youth are now small with only part-time clergy. Many of the small Methodist Churches of my youth are closed. This is not unique to the Methodist Church and is surely a big part of the story in the Episcopal Church as well – so I haven’t walked away from it. I believe the actions of the Special Conference will accelerate the decline as young people will be put off and as many older folks will be sapped of energy by having to fight the same battle more or less forever. In short – I think the United Methodist Church in which I grew up will die sooner because of the Conference’s actions.

wayforward

That sounds hopeless – but it is in fact the most hopeful thing to say in christian tradition. Without death there is no christian story. Without death there is no resurrection. The “church” as we know it is largely a 19th Century Solution. Today we have 21st Century challenges. It is not just OK, its good that the church will die – then it can get about the business of resurrecting. Into what? I don’t know. The way forward calls for faith. And it calls for a willingness to die, to let go of things treasured and deeply loved. This is true for all faith traditions. Its just a bit more acute in the United Methodist Church at this moment.

But still my heart breaks – not for me… I’m long since through letting the United Methodist Church break my heart – but for so many folks I love who are not through having their hearts broken. Jesus weeps with those who weep.

Sermon for last Sunday…

Readings for Epiphany 7

In the United States (and other places as well) there has been a popular religious refrain that seeks to ask, in various circumstances, what would Jesus do – popular enough that WWJD Braceletbracelets and other types of jewelry can be found with WWJD printed on them… What Would Jesus Do?

On the face of it, who could be critical… It seems like an obviously good question. Before I act on some impulse, I should consider how Jesus might act on the same impulse. This would be especially good for someone like me driving in heavy traffic… maybe.

But maybe Jesus stuck in traffic would act just as I do… Jesus was fully human, after all…

I don’t think the question, what would Jesus do, is a great question – it yields answers that are a bit too convenient, like my Jesus-in-traffic answer. A better question might be what is Jesus calling me to do? It’s not important for me to decide how Jesus might act. It

WWID
From The Unemployed Philosophers Guild – this Jesus doll wears a bracelet that  says “WWID”

is essential that I take responsibility for how I act and work. I, we, as follower of Jesus are called to model that faith, that love of Jesus in the way we live our lives.

And in that light, I want to look at the reading this morning from Luke. Anytime we wonder what Jesus might be calling us to do, this passage is a great starting point. Love our enemies. Do good to those who hate us. Bless those who curse us. If someone hits us, allow them to strike again. If someone wants our shirt, give even more than a shirt. And Jesus concludes with what we know as the Golden Rule – do unto others as we would have them do unto us. What more is there to say…

It is both a familiar list and a daunting list. But keep in mind, the point of the list is poetic. It’s not a check-list. Hebrew poetry is based on elaborating repetition. We have lots of echoes of this in our English liturgy – “O God you are great. You are glorious. Most holy of holy. Most high above all others.”

A contemporary secular editor might encourage us to be concise and avoid repetition… But this repetition is an echo of poetry – especially the psalms. And it is likely that the psalms and their poetry were in Jesus’ ear as well.

This list that Jesus gives is not a list we can consult – what’s on and what’s off… It establishes a principal. It gives us a frame work. Our task is to go from over-arching principle expressed poetically to the details of our lives. We need to live the poetic elaboration.

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Charles Darwin late in life

Charles Darwin observed animals – and was a faithful Anglican to boot… There was something that he saw common to every living creature he observed. He could see the same response to a threat. Startle a creature, any living thing, and the same response happens. The eyes go wide, the ears go up, the muscles tense, and all the creature’s senses come to full attention. In the animal world when this happens there are two choices: the animal can flee or fight.

In today’s reading, Jesus is calling us to break with all other living creatures. Jesus calls us neither to flee nor to fight, but rather to go beyond what has been demanded. Someone curses you – bless them. Someone strikes your cheek – offer the other cheek. As far as we know, no other animal can make this choice. In this passage Jesus is calling us to transcend our human/animal nature. Jesus is calling us to reflect the very nature of God.

In fact, Jesus gets right to the point a few sentences later. By doing these things, turning the other cheek, blessing those who curse, and so forth, Jesus tells us that we will be Children of God. This is what Jesus calls us to do.

Sometimes we lose sight of just how radical Jesus tends to be. Paul in his letter to the Romans suggests that if we answer evil with good, we will heap hot coals upon the heads of the evildoer. And that is not Paul’s original thought – he is quoting the Proverbs attributed to Solomon. In Proverbs we are told that if our enemy is hungry or thirsty, we should give food and water – by doing that we heap hot coals upon his head.

Paul and Solomon are probably not being as harsh as it sounds – hot coals upon the head is probably a figure of speech meaning to purify someone. But still their idea is quite at odds with Jesus. Jesus is not interested the purification of the other person. Jesus is interested in the transformation of us.

In this short section of Luke, Jesus has changed the way the world works. Prior to the coming of Jesus, faithful people understood God to reward the good and punish the wicked. But Jesus envisions a God who kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Everything

Stone Soup meal
Tasty food from Stone Soup Ministry at Saratoga Springs UMC – feeding the hungry because they are hungry…

the faithful have believed about God has just been stood on its head. But more than that, the wicked in the world are my opportunity to be transformed further into Christ.

This would have been shocking to faithful people in Jesus’ time. I suggest it is still shocking today. We like to believe that the good folks are rewarded, and the bad folks punished – at least in the long run. And that God’s Kingdom is built by the improvement of sinners. But what Jesus is telling us is that we’re not here to make other people better – we’re here to be transformed.

This short passage begins with a description of what God’s blessing looks like when we live as Jesus calls us to live. We answer anger with love. We answer poverty with charity. We give without concern for any payback.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. By the end of the reading here comes more poetry. Do not judge… Do not condemn… Forgive…

What does Jesus call us to do?

To care for those who are poor. To comfort those who mourn. To heal those who are sick. These are all part of our own transformation.

Nowhere do I hear Jesus calling us to celebrate those who are rich beyond measure. At the same time Jesus does not call us to condemn the fabulously rich – or anyone else. Instead we are not to judge, but to forgive.

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A rainbow – God’s promise

This sermon from Jesus in Luke’s telling is a call for us to live like Jesus – to model the behaviors Jesus models. To try to the best of our abilities to live as we believe God would have us live. And in so doing to provide a worthy example, but more than that, to change ourselves.

That is the good news of Jesus.

Finding paradise – God’s holy hill…

Volmoed Mountains above
Mountains above Volmoed – Hemel en Aarde – South Africa

The search for Paradise, or Utopia, or Heaven on Earth (pictured above as Hemel en Aarde – Heaven and Earth) has been a thing for humans for probably as long as we have been human. Certainly it has figured in every religious narrative. When Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it was the “promised land” for which they were destined. And for the modern day typical Benedictine Anglican Monastic, it is still a thing…

So when I saw a book titled Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, I heard it call my name. In our modern day Utopia, where instant gratification is highly to be desired, I could download it as an ebook in no time – and I must say my gratification has been quick and significant.

Bregman caught my attention (and that of many others) by telling the assembled billionaires at Davos that they needed to be talking about fair taxation rather than philanthropy. Though he is a young man, wags are now noting that this will be the last time he is invited to speak at Davos… but it is his ideas of Utopia, not taxation, that I want to think about.

Volmoed Waterfall
Waterfall at Volmoed – I’m certain Utopia must have waterfalls…

Various cultures over millennia have had a common myth that caught the attention of Carl Jung. It is the story of sailors (or other travelers) who somehow come ashore on a tropical paradise where everything they want is provided in abundance. They have no cares and no worries – and after a short time they can no longer stand paradise.

Bregman, in his opening discussion of paradise, or utopia, quotes Oscar Wilde on finding paradise, and it was a revelation for me. Wilde’s notion, as I understand it, is not there is anything wrong in paradise that makes us restless. Its that we must be looking for the next version of paradise. We don’t need to leave paradise to go home. We need to go further.

In medieval times paradise was the land of plenty – where food was abundant and lives were long. And here we are. There are still many problems in the world, including hunger, but we live in a world of great abundance. And we live pretty long lives. We have arrived in someone else’s vision of paradise. We should be grateful and we should be looking for the next paradise.

What, from our perspective, does paradise look like? Bregman drops two clues into this pot. First, he suggests that simple desires beget simple utopias. I think this could be a positive or a negative assertion. Second, the crisis is that we can’t come up with a vision

Volmoed Grotto to outlet
Grotto at Volmoed – a vision of paradise?

of what paradise might look like – we can’t envision something better. We surely can envision improvements, but utopia is not an incremental correction.

Utopia can be approached in two different ways. We can either find the place where the folks who make the world less than Utopia are gone. Or we can find the place where everyone can be helped in. Obviously I’m for the second option – because the first route is the path that Hitler, among others, chose. We get rid of the problems and we’ll be left with Utopia. At least that is the thought. The reality of that approach is we are left in hell.

The vision of utopia, or heaven, that speaks to me most is the description found in Revelation: The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city. It has three gates in every direction. All the gates are open by day, and there is no night. It is heaven because everyone can enter. Whatever we may have achieved by way of Utopia these days, this is a still-bigger vision.

I still have much to think about in Bregman’s book, but I am extremely grateful for where it has taken me so far. It is not a book about despair, but rather about hope. We have managed to attain, by many measures, the Utopian vision of our ancestors. Our Utopia is turning a bit dystopian – but that is as it should be. Its time to move toward the next Utopia. Our only mistake is in thinking that we are finished. The journey to Utopia/Paradise/Heaven is a journey made in stages.

Volmoed Prayer Hut
Prayer Hut at Volmoed – I would just note that these pictures of Volmoed are from a year ago. Recent wildfires in South Africa’s Western Cape have destroyed most of the vegetation you see in this pictures. But nobody was hurt. And already Fire Lilies have started to spring up. 

 

Epiphany 3 sermon – for the interested…

Lectionary for the day

When that great committee that decided what lessons we would read on various Sundays got together, it must have been it must have been a great challenge to figure out what to put in and leave out – we want scripture to be read in church, but we don’t

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Tables awaiting a committee?

want too much scripture to be read in church…

Today’s reading forms a nice little nugget, but without some context its meaning is unclear. This reading is a pivot point in Luke’s narrative. Just a few paragraphs before today’s starting point, Jesus is baptized and then immediately he faces temptation. And then, off he goes for a little time at home…

But this is not rest time at home. For in Luke’s rendition, this is the middle chunk of the story – this point in Luke’s story begins Jesus’ public ministry. Today’s passage finds Jesus visiting the home town synagogue and folks who know him by family now must learn to know him as Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth is becoming Jesus the marked one – that is Jesus Christ.

If you remember the baptism story, it concludes with the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Though we have not read that for a few weeks, it would be fresh in the minds of Luke’s audience. So, when Luke reminds us that Jesus is filled with the Holy baptismSpirit, he is reminding us of the baptism events. It would seem like a small detail, but in Luke, there are no small details. This is a new, more power-filled Jesus. In today’s marketing jargon, Luke is giving us Hyper-Jesus.

Luke doesn’t just leave it at that – as if to underscore the point, Jesus goes to the synagogue and is given a chance to read. Isaiah happens to be the chosen scroll and Jesus happens to go to the part that begins: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

Any chance we can miss the point? Jesus is baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, comes to Galilee filled with the Holy Spirit and then reads from Isaiah that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Isaiah is, of course, referring to himself, but Luke is placing Jesus right beside Isaiah – a major Profit… a person who can speak for God. In this short passage, Luke is transforming Jesus before our eyes.

We know that Luke’s Gospel has a particular dedication to those who are poor and powerless – scholars call it the preferential option for the poor. That is a clinical way of saying that, unlike our world which has great affection for those who are fabulously wealthy, in Jesus’ world, the Kingdom of God, the greatest affection is reserved for those who are powerless, vulnerable, broke.

So Luke is giving us a big foretaste of what is to come in the public ministry – good news will be given to the poor, freedom will be given to those in prison, vision will be restored to those who are blind, and release will be given to the oppressed. All these good things are promised to those who are basically the dregs of Galilean society. If you think ahead, you’ll see that this is exactly what is to come to pass. We’ll hear the same list of priorities, more or less, in the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll also notice that the list lacks anything for the comfortable and powerful.

Things start off well enough. Jesus reads from Isaiah, says that today this scripture is fulfilled, sits down, and everyone admires him. That is where the reading today ends – but just as you have to know what comes before the reading to understand the implications, you also have to have some idea of what comes next.

adoring crowd
Adoring Crowd

I suspect the reason the mood in the synagogue is so good is that it takes a bit of time for Jesus’ message to sink in. There is, after all, great comfort in scripture as long as you don’t pay too much attention. But if you dig in a bit, the comfort is replaced by challenge. If the poor and needy are given what they need, if the powerless are lifted up, where will that leave me? If God loves “them” so much, what about me?

We struggle, I struggle, with the challenge of following Jesus. Jesus does not come to make things nice. Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted, but at the same time Jesus comes to afflict the comfortable. Jesus is a revolutionary.

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Angry Crowd

If we continued reading past the end of this morning’s reading, within a few paragraphs we find the once-adoring crowd completely turning on Jesus. They love him right up until they hate him. They love him right up until they understand what he is saying. The comfort of some in our society is closely linked with the discomfort of others.

For those of us who live in comfort, the fulfilling of Isaiah’s prophecy is good news in the sense that it’s the Gospel, but it is also threatening. Our world will be shifted. The world of injustice will no longer do. God’s Kingdom is where we want to live. It is where our spirits are called – we just need to get our minds and bodies on board…

As Jesus begins his public ministry, he calls various people to follow him. Those who would follow me, he says, must leave self behind. Jesus calls people to leave their jobs, leave their families, even to leave their dead to bury the dead. This is not an easy call. Everyone around Jesus struggled – so it’s no surprise that we still struggle. In fact, if we didn’t struggle, it would mean that we are not following Jesus. Anybody who preaches an easy gospel is not preaching the Gospel.

We know what comes before and we know what comes after – in this portion we heard we get a good indication of our call: Bring good news to the poor. Release those who are imprisoned. Provide vision to the blind. Free the oppressed. Proclaim the Lord’s favor.

What does this mean? I don’t know. How do we do it? Again, I don’t know. Where do we start? That I do know. We start in prayer and we start in community. This business of following Jesus is a social business. In community, in church, in some form of congregation we consider how we can proclaim God’s love in word and, more importantly, in action.

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And then, in the congregation of God’s children, we get about that action.