Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rising: An Easter Monologue of Mary Magdalene

"Women Arriving At the Tomb" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...
Let me tell you a tale… a tale of rising. Of a small band of spirit-broken women rising in the dark to go to the darkest place, and finding it instead a place of dazzling light… of our going to the place of death and finding it: a place of rising. But I warn you… there are some who have heard our testimony and called it an idle tale, empty talk, foolish words. You will have to judge for yourself.

You know, of course, of the events of these past days…about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a teacher and healer mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel… we, my sister Joanna and I, Mary (who was the mother of James), and the other women—many others—had bound our lives over to his service, traveling with him, providing for him, so that he could go about his great and mighty work. You know all this… I will tell you what you don’t know.

I will tell you how it was to rise on the morning after his terrible death, having had no sleep the night before, haunted as we all were by the image of his torn and bleeding body, and the sounds of Joanna weeping and moaning on her pallet, and the endless pacing of Mary by the fire. I will tell you of the great expanse of emptiness of that day, on which we were too exhausted even to speak to one another, each locked in her private world of grief and pain. Ordinarily the idleness of the Sabbath is so sweet, and the great Sabbath of Passover sweeter still: a day on which our memory of slavery makes our modest leisure grand, even kingly. But this was a Sabbath like no other. There was no pleasure in celebrating our liberation; there was only the stillness of the shiva, the seven days of mourning. We women circled one another in the small home where we were guests, each like a wounded animal, eyes bloodshot and swollen from torrents of tears, each of us fearing contact even with our closest companions, would unleash anguish too terrible to bear.

With sunset came the small relief that the Sabbath was ended, and so now we could, at last, do something… we could, at least, prepare the spices and ointments with which to anoint his battered and broken corpse. Joanna set to measuring out the olive oil: one half of a kab, about one and a half of your liters. Mary and I measured the spices: I, the 85 shekels each of myrrh and cassia, and Mary about half that amount each of sweet smelling cinnamon and aromatic cane: all told, about a hundred pounds by your measure. Then we set about crushing the spices, with mortars and pestle, and finally, working them into the sweet oil with our hands. As we worked our old familiarity returned in tiny increments. A quiet word here, a nod and a touch of the hand there. We looked into one another’s haunted eyes, in that dim, fire-lit room, made closer and more intimate by the release of the powerful scent. We looked at our hands…these hands…for how long had these hands served Jesus, providing payment for lodging, preparing a meal, weaving and mending garments? These hands, these women’s hands, now fragrant with the oils and spices with which we would anoint Jesus’ body, had only days before chopped the bitter herbs and mixed the dough for the unleavened bread, had taken the Passover lamb from the fire.

Late in the evening we finished. The anointing oils were prepared. We sat before the small fire, gazing at one another, wondering at the work we had just done. We were of one mind: we had served him in life, and our service was not ended. His burial would, finally, be proper, done in accordance with the law. He would not be forgotten. We would render him this final service, this final honor. One by one we excused ourselves and lay down for what we expected would be another long night, but one which, at least, promised the relief of a day in which we could rise and go to the tomb.

Rising… rising in the dark, so that we could proceed to the tomb unharrassed by the Romans, who were still standing vigil lest an uprising occur. The night had been surprisingly short. We dressed quickly, each taking a flask of the prepared spices, and set out. Our walk was long, the tomb was on a hillside, and so we steadily climbed. As we walked it occurred to me that we had not planned well: I remembered the stone. The tomb had been sealed, as each of us had witnessed just two days before, by the rolling of a large stone in front of it, a great enormous stone, like a millstone. How would we roll it away? We had watched Joseph, surprisingly hale and strong for a member of the council, straining and struggling with the rock even with the help of another man, a man we didn’t know. I murmured my worry to Joanna, who replied that surely the three of us could manage it together. In our anxiety we walked all the more quickly, and we arrived winded.

At the tomb we stopped short: the stone was already rolled away. I had a first, ridiculous thought of relief, that we wouldn’t have to struggle with it, followed by a terrible sense of foreboding. Why would the tomb be opened? Who would have need to go the body of Jesus, aside from us? Flasks still in our arms, we crowded into the small space, and found it empty. I turned to my companions, and we saw the panic and confusion in one another’s faces. Huddled at the mouth of the cave, we opened our mouths in protest, and we all began speaking at once.

How can this be?

Where is he?

They have taken our Lord!

Who has taken him?

Why would they take him?

Where would they take him?

I felt anger rising in me… there was one clear culprit, in my mind—the skittish Roman soldiers, who had shown such fear of our peaceful band, and who had treated Jesus with such brutality and contempt. Of course they had taken him… they didn’t want the tomb to become a shrine. They wanted him to fade into obscurity: they wanted his life to count for nothing.

Suddenly I was aware that someone else was in the small space with us, and I whirled around to speak my mind, Roman soldier or no, only… How can I explain to you what I saw? If I were to say I saw the light of a thousand flashes of lighting that might begin to convey the brightness. If I were to say I saw the brilliance of ten suns at midday perhaps you would begin to understand. Two forms stood before us. Were they men? We had heard the secret story, murmured by John and James when Jesus was not listening—they had seen two men, who they swore were Moses and Elijah, appearing in brightest glory. Was that who stood before us? All these thoughts poured into my head in an instant, and I did the only thing that made sense: I threw myself to the ground, and hid my eyes from them. Around me my companions did the same.

Then in my ears sounded something like a noise of rushing water, and also music, and yet I understood words in it. This is what they said:

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

And the whole world was filled with the greatest silence. As I lay face down on the stone floor in this place of death, I heard those words in the deepest place in my heart. And this is the truth: I didn’t want to hear those words. How cruel, to raise our hopes, even for an instant. How cruel, to give us even the tiniest spark to flame. My anger flared again, and again I heard the rushing water music.

He is not here, but has risen. Remember…?

Remember? Of course, I remember. I remember every moment, from the instance he called the demons out of me and made me whole. I remember every word from his mouth, every touch of his hands.

The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

He is not here, but has risen.

And I knew what I must do… I knew what we must do. There was now no doubt in my mind about the brilliant beings: they were messengers of God. I must go—we must go—and look for him among the living.

And so, rising, we did. And we found him. And you will not believe where we found him.

We found him… walking along a road as we made a weary journey.

We found him… at table with us, as we broke bread for our evening meal.

We found him…in our own homes as we talked about these things with one another.

The disciples who dismissed our story at first have seen him now. They have eaten with him, touched him, spoken with him. And they too were terrified and startled but they have seen, and they have believed. The empty tomb was not enough. That I understand. That, I think we all understand. But they—we—all found Jesus, by following the advice of the messengers.

This is what I want to say to you: Stop looking for him among the dead. He is with the living.

He is along the road as you travel from place to place. Look for him. He is there.

He is at table with you, when you break bread. Look for him. He is there.

He is in your home, at your workplace, at the marketplace, and everywhere you are. Look for him, He is there.

And now I leave you to tell me. Was it an idle tale, my tale of rising? Before you answer, look for him. Look for Jesus among the living. And then tell me your answer.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good Friday Meditation: Luke 23:32-47

Scripture can be found here...

What did Jesus say as he was dying? What do Jesus’ words from the cross tell us about him?

In many churches Good Friday is marked by a service of the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross… we have done that here. Those seven “words,” which are really sayings, are cobbled together from the four gospels. The gospel according to Luke contains three of the traditional seven sayings. And if we, together, look closely at those three sayings, we realize that Luke is telling us something incredibly important:

Jesus died as he lived.

For the past three months we’ve been reading the story of Jesus as found in the gospel of Luke. One professor describes the story this way:

Jesus announced the reign of God. His works of compassion restored people to wholeness. Dining with [religious elites] Pharisees and sinners alike, Jesus demonstrated the all-inclusive nature of God’s reign. His parables invited people to imagine a world in which [the stereotypical bad guys] Samaritans demonstrate righteousness, scoundrels model wisdom, and widows win justice. [i]

On Good Friday we mark the day on which the reign of God as announced by Jesus has resulted in his being tried for blasphemy and sedition by both civil and religious courts.  The guilty verdict has been pronounced, and our passage describes the carrying out of the punishment.

The first words we hear from Jesus are a paraphrase of a verse of Psalm 31: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Speaking as someone who holds a grudge against those who pass me on the right, I want to take note of what an astonishing thing it is, to be confronted by this vision of one who, at the height of pain and torture, utters words of forgiveness, one who prays pardon for his torturers—because, that is what crucifixion is, it’s torture, whether we’ve managed, by our gold and silver and bejeweled crosses to obscure that fact or not. Crucifixion is a very effective means of torture and execution. Its success lies in the fact that, in most cases, the bodies of the crucified were left on the crosses until nature had stripped them to the bone. Crucifixion was a kind of vivid and gruesome billboard for the Roman Empire that said, “Don’t mess with Rome (us).”

Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing forgiveness for those who didn’t even ask for it.

In death, Jesus has two companions, “criminals,” Luke calls them, though, in another gospel, they are called “rebels.” One of the criminals sees in Jesus a potential golden ticket out of this bind… the soldiers probably gave him the idea, joking amongst themselves that this so-called Messiah wasn’t really living up to his job title. “Come on, King of the Jews,” they yelled, even as they were pushing a sponge of sour wine in his face. “Save yourself!”

And so one criminal pipes up, pushing Jesus, trying to provoke him. Clearly someone who has been used to playing the bully in life, and who still, apparently, is under the impression that this might be an effective strategy as he faces the likelihood of his own death.

The other criminal has no such illusions, and he has no strategy of any kind. After all the brutal words and images, his sorrowful, truthful statement is like cold water on a hot day.

Don’t you fear God? Can’t you tell the difference between what we’ve done and what he has done, this Jesus? Don’t you get it? We are guilty. He is not. The first criminal’s bluster comes to an abrupt halt, and Jesus speaks to the second, the sorrowful truth-teller.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing welcome to an outcast criminal.

When we come to the last hours of Jesus’ life, Luke paints a scene of the natural world joining in response to the deep injustice of Jesus’ death, this innocent and Beloved child of God tortured and soon to be killed. The sky turns dark. The curtain in the holiest inner sanctum of the temple is torn in two… there is no longer a division between where we can expect to find God and where we human beings can sojourn. The death of Jesus has broken down that barrier.

And now, Jesus is praying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Jesus prays a lot in the gospel of Luke. In fact, he prays more in Luke than in any of the other gospels. He prays at his baptism, the beginning of his ministry, and he prays when he is welcoming followers to his little band. He prays when word begins to spread about the nature of his identity, when that word, “Messiah,” “Anointed One of God,” starts to get out and about. He is praying on the mountain when suddenly his appearance is transfigured, and his clothing glows a startling white, and his disciples drop their jaws because Moses and Elijah have shown up. He tells his followers to pray for strength, and for help when they are trying to share God’s healing power.[ii] Jesus prays throughout his life. Jesus prays as he faces death.

Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing a prayer to God, surrendering himself into the care of the source and ground of his very being.

Jesus died as he lived, and for us, that is important information, because it invites us to walk that very same path, to see all our living and our dying as one, as a whole.

We too can live as people steeped in forgiveness, giving it as well as receiving it.

We too can live as people committed to welcoming the outcast, offering them bread and comfort, trying to make every shared cup of tea a little paradise.

We too can live as people bathed in prayer, in constant communing and communicating with God, the source and ground of Jesus’ being and ours.

And if we live steeped in forgiveness, extending welcome, bathed in prayer, there is a very good chance that we too will be able to die just as we live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Greg Carey, “Comment on the Narrative Lectionary 077 for Good Friday, March 29, 2013,” Working,
[ii] Ibid.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Last Words: A Maundy Thursday Meditation


Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present. Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it." They asked him, "Where do you want us to make preparations for it?" "Listen," he said to them, "when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, "The teacher asks you, "Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?" ' He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there." So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.  ~Luke 22:1-13

I think our best comparison would be the Thanksgiving meal.

Think of all the preparations you make for a Thanksgiving meal, or, if you have now entered that blessed time when, as my mother used to say, the stove is getting dusty, the preparations you used to make. The menu selection—like the Passover meal, the Thanksgiving meal tends to have some central non-negotiables. The shopping. The preparation of the foods, the cooking, the timing of it all. The cleaning of the house! (That probably comes first for most people. Where it appears on my list is perhaps revealing of the order in which these things occur to me…) The setting of the table. Will there be candles? Of course there will. This is a special meal. This is a once-a-year meal, and each year we pin extravagant hopes on it—not just on how it will taste, or will the bird be perfectly done, but will the people we care for, those gathered around the table, like it, will they open up and connect with one another. Will the meal feel the way we hope it will feel. Will there be love?

Maybe that’s just me.

The preparation for the Passover meal is always thorough (I’m pretty sure they do the cleaning part first). To the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his friends… his famously last supper…was added a layer of expectation and anxiety that surpasses even the most fraught Thanksgivings most of us have had to endure. I mean enjoy. I have lived through my share of less-than-ideal Thanksgiving suppers, but I am pretty sure no one on the guest list was also on an official death-list. I’m 99% sure Satan did not enter one of the guests prior to the commencement of the festivities. 

 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. ~ Luke 22:14-20

Famous last words.

These are not, of course, Jesus’ very last words. All the gospels record words of Jesus from the cross, the very last hours and moments of his life. But here we are listening for his last words to his friends.

I have been thinking about how we say goodbye lately. I think a good “goodbye” at the end of life is rare, and having witnessed one recently, having seen the way a saint of our church was able to say goodbye to all her family before sighing her last and easing into the arms of God, I am particularly attuned to the words Jesus is sharing with those who knew and loved him best. This is what I hear him saying.

I have been longing to share this meal with you, Jesus says.

And… there are more meals to come. There is a great feast in store.

But for now… I would like to feed you with my very life. You who have gobbled up my words, you who have feasted your eyes on the dancing ones who used to be still, and the seeing ones who used to be blind, and the singing ones who used to be mute, and the ones living in community who used to be outcast… I would like to feed you with nourishment that lasts. I would like you to eat this bread and take my life into yours. I would like you to drink this cup and know that the time of the new covenant is here… the time when God’s desire for us is written on our hearts, the time when we will belong, always, to God, and to one another.

I want you to do this. I want you to share this meal, and remember that I gave you my life. I love you that much. And I want you to ponder what that means for how you should love one another.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!"  Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. ~Luke 22:21-27

And there it is. Betrayal, side by side with love. Leaders, side by side with novices. Lording over, side by side with humble service.  These are Jesus’ last words to his nearest and dearest, the ones who would decide that the story didn’t end with him, and wouldn’t end with them.

I have been longing to share this meal with you, Jesus says. This meal in which I show you what love looks like.

And… there are more meals to come. There is a great feast in store.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Weeping King: A Palm Sunday Meditation

"The Triumphant Entry" by He Qi

Luke 19:29-44 is here...

Here it is: Today is the day when it all begins, when the first domino is tipped over and events fall into place, one after another after another.

Jesus is approaching the holy city, Jerusalem. The celebration of Passover, the holiest week of the Jewish year, approaches. The moment is now.

For those who follow Jesus, who have been following him from the beginning, we almost can’t conceive of their anticipation. This is the moment on which all their hopes are set, on which their world will pivot. Jesus will enter Jerusalem triumphantly, proclaimed king by the people, hopefully upsetting the applecart of that petty tyrant Herod and certainly giving a good kick in the shins to that enormous, dreadful superpower, Rome. Jesus is king. The people are singing it, echoing the angel-song from the very day of his birth. Even the stones are ready to shout it. Jesus is king. Now is the moment.

But…it is a smallish procession, really. A man on a donkey, some people waving palms at him. Like us. Hopeful, but uncertain. There are naysayers, those who would hush the exuberance. “Can’t you shut this thing down?” they demand. Jesus is steady. “Nothing can stop this,” he tells them. The first domino is tipped over, and one after another, after another… events will unfold.

But then, even the steadiness of Jesus evaporates, like mist on the Mount of Olives in the heat  of the day. As he approaches the beautiful, the holy city, the city where his ancestor David sat on the throne, he begins to weep. “If only,” Jesus keens. “If only…”

David wept too. That mighty king, that flawed man through whom God gathered the people together. There came a moment in David’s reign… and it was near the end, his power was waning… there came a moment when David wept over Jerusalem and all it meant to him. Difference was, David was fleeing the city as the rebels made it their stronghold. And David wept for the loss of his own power, for betrayal at the hands of a son. And for his own failings, too. For the very actions that had put him in that position, things undone that should have been done, things done that could not be undone. David fled up the Mount of Olives and he wept for the loss of his kingship.

Jesus is not weeping over his betrayer… not yet, at least. Jesus is weeping because he knows well that he offers a model of kingship which will not be embraced, will not be understood, and which, in a very rapid series of angry responses, the human powers and principalities will do their best to crush.

Jesus looks at Jerusalem and he sees a time when the temple will be nothing but rubble, and the people, like David, will try to flee to the hills, to no avail.

Jesus looks at Jerusalem, and he sees the end. Jesus looks at Jerusalem, and he sees a world that is not ready for a God who is love.

And yet. And yet.

There is a tiny little video that is making the rounds these days… The music behind the images is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” one of those songs so familiar that we sometimes can’t hear the lyrics. But it is not the music of the video I want to share; it is the images. They all take the form of news stories. They all say, one way or another, “If only.”

Someone unfolds a newspaper, and it reads “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, Champions Immigration reform.” And there is a picture of an 84-year-old Martin Luther King.

And then a magazine spread. “Anne Frank wins Nobel Prize for her 12th Novel.” And a photo of Anne Frank, who also happens to be 84 years old.

And then a white-haired, 83-year-old Harvey Milk, with a caption telling us that he is “expanding LGBT rights globally.”

And on and on. A 49-year-old Daniel Pearl winning the Pulitzer Prize. A 63-year-old James Byrd, who, instead of having been dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck, has rescued a girl from a burning building. A 36-year-old Matthew Shepard leading an anti-bullying coalition. A 90-year-old Yitzhak Rabin, honored for ushering in a 20-year-era of Israeli- Palestinian peace.

Imagine a world, the video ends, without hate.

Imagine a world, Jesus might say, where God is love.

Imagine a world, Christians all over the world say, today, in which Jesus is ruler.

Now is the moment. Today is the day when the first dominoes could tip over, and events could fall into place, one after another, after another.

Imagine a world in which that weeping king rules our hearts and our lives and hate is no more.

Just imagine.

Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Today: A Sermon on Luke 19:1-28

"Zacchaeus in Tree" by Michelle Williams, Jackson, TN
Scripture can be found here...

Sometimes I read the gospels, and I honestly wonder, “What on earth was Jesus thinking?”

Take that last parable. It’s not in the lectionary… it’s not in any lectionary, either the one we’ve been following this year or the one we’ve followed in other years. It’s not there because it’s horrible. It’s dreadful. I hate it. “Slaughter them in my presence”??? Is that Jesus talking?

With every fiber of my being, I cry out: That’s not Jesus. That’s not God.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I would much rather sing you an Irish-sounding ballad:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, Today

OK, so it’s a John Denver song. But still. Today. I don’t want to think of a master who is harsh, unyielding, a bloody tyrant. I want to think of the embrace of “Today.”

It’s another day on the road with Jesus… he is heading, relentlessly, towards Jerusalem and his fate at the hands of a harsh, unyielding, bloody tyrant. He is in Jericho, an interesting city probably worthy of its own sermon at some point. For our purposes, I’ll just point out that the road between Jericho and Jerusalem is notoriously dangerous. Its topography offers lots of convenient places for the bad guys to hide. This is the road on which the poor bloke was traveling who was beaten nearly to death, only to be saved by the Samaritan in Jesus’ famous parable from the first Sunday in Lent. Just the mention of Jericho brings with it a sense of unease. Danger. Blood. Slaughter.

And here is Jesus, passing through, and he attracts the attention of a guy named Zacchaeus, a “rich tax collector.” That’s kind of like saying “an honest bank robber.” A “kind-hearted hit man.” A “patient toddler.” You get the idea. “Rich” and “Tax collector” are NOT supposed to go together. Rich, as I mentioned last week, connotes “favored by God, blessed.” A “tax collector,” on the other hand, is a no-good, lowdown, scoundrel-of-a-collaborator with the dirty, hateful, tyrannical Romans. And the only way those words go together that makes any sense is, the tax collector is rich because he’s stealing. He’s skimming. He’s as bad as tax collectors come.

But. Names are always important in scripture. Names often tell us all we need to know about the person. Peter is “the rock.” John is “beloved by God.” Jesus’ name sings “salvation.” And Zacchaeus means “righteous.”

It’s too bad about that word “righteous.” For 21st century westerners such as ourselves, we hear the word “righteous,” and we automatically add the word “self” as a prefix, meaning, someone who is sure they are right, and everyone else is wrong, and they are going to let us know about it in an arrogant way.

That’s very different from the biblical understanding of the word. “Righteous” in the bible is precisely what you want to be. Righteousness is a gift from God. It means purity of heart, and intention, and living. Righteousness is the way to live. And that name must stick in the craw of people who know Zacchaeus, and what he does for a living, and the knowledge that he must be stealing because he’s rich.

One other thing about Zacchaeus: He’s short. Shorter than most. Several years ago researchers revealed that, on average, men in first century Palestine could be expected to be about 5’1” tall, and about 110 lbs. That’s the average. That means, most likely, Jesus was in that ballpark. Zacchaeus was shorter. Short enough that his best bet to see Jesus was to climb a Sycamore tree, also known in Palestine as a fig-sycamore tree. A fig tree. A tree that bears a fruit that is a central symbol of God’s gracious provision.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Up he goes, because… here comes Jesus. And Zacchaeus, whoever he is, whatever he does for a living, however tall or short or important or insignificant… Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus. He wants to see him that much.

Is there anyone you would climb a tree to see?

And Jesus, because he is Jesus, comes to the tree, and looks up the papery green-yellow bark, past the shiny, green, heart-shaped leaves, and the luscious, ripe yellow or red fruit,  and sees Zacchaeus. And he says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what tomorrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, Today

Today. Have you ever noticed all the times that Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, reminds us of exactly what is going on “today”? As if we didn’t know. As if we weren’t aware of all the myriad things we need to do today, as if we didn’t know that, well, we’d better get to the gym or out for a walk if we want to feel healthy, and we’d better get to the store, because the cupboard is looking a little bare, and oh, there’s that little thing known as “work,” punching the clock, doing the reports, answering the emails, toting that barge and lifting that bale, meeting with the team, the staff, the people, the contractors, getting it all done in time to get home to see the family, or watch the news, or wolf something down before the next meeting, or volunteer commitment, or team we coach or play on… and then hopefully have some time for the homework/ studying for the test/ preparing tomorrow’s report/ saying hello to those people we love but have mostly ignored today. Yeah, we know all about today. Or so we think.

Here are some times the story of Jesus reminds us of what’s really going on “today.”

When Jesus is just a little tiny baby… just a few hours old, if that… angels tell shepherds, “Today is born for you in the city of David a savior, Christ the Lord.” (2:11) Remember that?

When Jesus stands in the synagogue of his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, he declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21) Remember that?

When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and the Pharisees warn him that the murderous Herod is on his trail: “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (13:32) Remember that?

And now… “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  (19:5)

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing…

Today is my moment, Jesus seems to be saying, all throughout the gospel of Luke. Now is my story, he sings. Come down from that tree, Zacchaeus, though it would be ok if you brought some of those beautiful ripe figs… because it’s time for my story and your story to become one story. I am coming to your house today.

A funny thing happens. When Jesus and Zacchaeus are seen going together to Zacchaeus’ house, looking for all the world like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in “Twins,” that grumbling starts again. That, “Why does Jesus spend all his time with these losers?” grumbling? And we learn something about Zacchaeus. And we have an unclear translation here, folks, because Zacchaeus doesn’t promise to make restoration to anyone he’s defrauded at some later date. He is already doing it. “Half my possessions I am giving to the poor,” he tells Jesus. It turns out “righteous” is not only Zacchaeus’ name, it’s what he is. Already. Today.

“Today salvation has come to this house.” (19:9), Jesus says. Which is another way of saying, “Here I am. And here you are. We are together. Today.”

Today is the day of salvation. Not tomorrow, or later, or, oops, last week. But today. The eternal present. Which means, it is always the day of salvation, whether we recognize it or not, whether we squeeze it in between church and volleyball practice or dinner and “Downton Abbey.” Today. Today salvation comes. Today Jesus comes.

There is another “Today” statement in Luke’s gospel. It’s something Jesus says after the bloody tyrants have gotten hold of him, and the life is seeping out of him. To a criminal being crucified right next to him, Jesus says,

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23:43) Remember that?

It is all coming quickly now. We are about to leave behind the parables of Lent, good and bad, because Palm Sunday is coming. For us, it’s next week. For Jesus, it’s today.

But first, Jesus will call a little man to come down out of that tree, and invite himself to that same man’s house for supper. He will gather at table for story, and maybe song. Because even in the face of harsh, unyielding tyrants, even on the threshold of certain pain and death, the time for life, the time for living, the moment of salvation, is today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ministry to the Rich and Needy; Or, Stepping Over Lazarus: A sermon on Luke 16:19-31

"The Rich Man and Lazarus," by Aaron Lee Benson, Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park 

Scripture can be found here...

Years ago I took my children to the IMAX Theatre across from Lincoln Center to see the documentary “Everest.” It followed an expedition up that mountain, called Chomolungma in Nepali, a word that means “Great Mother.” At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) Mount Everest is the tallest peak on earth, and it has long been the ultimate challenge to those who hear the particular call of the wild that results in climbing mountains.

It is perilous. Elevations over 26,000 feet are known to be in what they call the “Death Zone,” and many people rely on supplemental oxygen to enable them to survive. People die on Everest, climbers often describe hauling themselves up alongside frozen corpses of those who failed in the attempt to get up or get down. In the days in which the documentary was shot—several days in May 1996—nine people died on the mountain, and for a time, the documentary team put down their cameras and became a part of the rescue effort.

Watching “Everest” with my children, especially on that enormous IMAX screen, I had a visceral reaction to the scenes in front of me. The worst for me and, I’m pretty sure, for at least some of the climbers, was the moment when they crossed the Khumbu Icefall. The icefall is at 17,999 feet, formed by an enormous glacier, which is moving, though more slowly than a waterfall. To cross the chasm created by the icefall, climbers travel on a bridge formed by several ladders that have been lashed together. One image is burned in my memory, which actually gave me a serious attack of vertigo as I sat in the movie theater: a camera shot looking directly down, through the rungs of a ladder, into the chasm, a drop of anywhere from 200 feet to two miles.

I am telling you all this because, as perilous as Everest is to the mountain climber, every Sunday preachers do something perilous, in our own geeky way. We climb into pulpits and try to say something true about our holiest book, something relevant about the ancient stories we cling to as a faith community. We try to string the stories together like so many ladders across an icefall, without tumbling down into some awful chasm from which there is no escape. And some stories are more perilous than others.

This story is particularly perilous for me.  I stand before you to try to say something intelligent and helpful about a passage in which the guy who ends up on the wrong end of judgment, the guy being tormented in Hades, is someone who wore a lot of purple and really liked to eat. This parable is my Khumbu Icefall.

And isn’t it so much easier to read the bible when we don’t relate to the people in the stories? When we can say, “Well, thank goodness, that’s not me,” or, “Oh I don’t do that” after we’ve read a parable or a commandment. But we can’t really distance ourselves from these stories. The bible consistently holds up a mirror to human nature. We read it—and interpret it—at our own peril.

Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and he is teaching and telling parables, one story after another, and one theme running through them is wealth and ease, and the challenges presented therein. As I’ve said before, parables themselves are perilous, or maybe the way we read them is sort of perilous… we see a story about seeds and growth and we think, “Seeds: gospel. Growth: the kingdom. Check.” Or a story about fathers and sons, and think, “Son: sinner. Father: God. Check, check.” Or a story about a rich man and a poor man, and dear old Father Abraham… now, who is he standing in for? Check?

And the answer is: not so fast. To any of it.

There was a rich man, and he loved to wear nice clothes, expensive ones. The ancient near-Eastern equivalent of designer labels, especially if they were purple. Purple was the color, favored by the Roman Caesars, and the trend for royalty to wear purple was well-established. Purple cloth was a luxury item; only the rich could afford it.

And at the gate of the rich man’s house lay a poor man named Lazarus, who was desperately hungry, and who was covered with sores that were only tended to by sympathetic dogs.  Lazarus yearned for the scraps of food from the rich man’s table.

And oh my we can tell Jesus is up to something already. Do you know why? Because we know the name of the poor man, and we do not know the name of the rich man.

And both these men die, and what we witness is the great reversal foretold by the prophetic song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who intuitively knew all of this when she was pregnant, and she sang,

“[The Lord] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

Lazarus is carried by angels to be with old Father Abraham, the ancestor of his people. That was the classical understanding of the afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures: to be at peaceful rest in the bosom of Abraham, to lie with your ancestors, until the final judgment day.

The rich man died and “was buried,” we are told. No angel escort for him, which sounds bad even before we are given to understand that he is being tormented in Hades.

At this point the audience… imagine the people gathered around Jesus, hanging on his every word, wondering what he’s going to say next… they are getting… annoyed. In fact, they don’t believe it. This scenario: poor man, comforted by Abraham; rich man, tortured by flames… this makes no sense to them whatsoever. That is not the way it works, in their worldview. The rich are rich because God has rewarded them in this life for their virtues, or maybe the virtues of their parents. The poor are poor because, well, you get the idea. That’s what they deserve. Jesus’ audience is starting to shift in their seats and look at one another and get very, very uncomfortable.

Unless, of course, they are poor. Which some of them… many of them… are. And those listeners… well, they might, at this point, be leaning in, to hear better, to make sure Jesus is really saying what he’s saying.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said. Remember? “…Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

And then the rich man does something understandable, and yet, unfortunate. He sees that the poor man who used to lie in front of his gate is resting comfortably with Abraham, so he asks for just the tiniest drop of water… that Lazarus would dip his finger in water to cool his tongue. Completely understandable, given the flames, etc. The unfortunate thing is: he’s still got this notion that he can order people around. After spending his days stepping over Lazarus to go out to on his visits to his rich friends, or perhaps to see his tailor, he still thinks of Lazarus as someone he has power over by virtue of his position…which means, he fails, completely, to understand exactly what his position is.

Abraham replies kindly. He calls the rich man “child.” He still acknowledges him, a member of the family. But he gently points out the great reversal that has taken place… “[The Lord] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” “Good news to the poor.” Abraham says, in so many words, that this situation cannot be altered.

Then the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers, a kind of first century Palestinian Marley’s ghost. “He wears the chain he forged in life…”

Abraham declines. The rich man’s brothers, like the rich man himself, can listen to the words of the prophets and figure this out on their own. The rich man knows all to vividly that that approach is not foolproof, as he is the fool. Surely, he pleads, they will listen to someone who comes back to them from the dead…?

And like a mother with a child who wants just one chocolate chip cookie half an hour before dinner, Abraham says a final, definitive, “No.”

No…to a drop of water.

No… to the hope of being freed from torment.

No… to the prospect that a resurrection will make any difference whatsoever.

There’s one thing about parables… have you noticed that, oftentimes, the parables are not exactly… finished? Think about last week’s parable, the story of the prodigal son, the sinner who was welcomed back into the embrace of family and grace… but whose brother stood outside, shifting from foot to foot. We don’t really know the ending of that story, do we?

This parable is also not finished. Our clue is that last tantalizing line of dear old father Abraham: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” To which I reply: You want to make a bet?

There was a resurrection. There is a resurrection. There will be a resurrection. And that has made all the difference. Jesus finished the parable alright… he finished it on Calvary. He finished it emerging from the tomb. He found a way… finds a way… across his own Khumbu Icefall.

The rich man’s sin, by the way, is not “being rich”… it is not a sin to be rich. The sin of the rich man is that he was so immersed in the texture and charm of his gorgeous purple robes… and I have a lot of sympathy for this… and he was so enamored of his sumptuous feasts… again, I have sympathy… that they completely obscured for him the fact that Lazarus was every bit as human as he was. Which is exactly what the prophet ani difranco tries to tell us in her song, which just happens to be titled “Everest.”

from the depth of the Pacific (she sings)
to the height of Everest
and still the world is smoother
than a shiny ball-bearing
so i take a few steps back
and put on a wider lens
and it changes your skin,
your sex, and what your wearing
distance shows your silhouette
to be a lot like mine
like a sphere is a sphere
and all of us here
have been here all the time…

Distance shows the rich man and Lazarus’ silhouettes to be indistinguishable, which is something the rich man never figured out. But Jesus did. Jesus figured it out. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said. Remember? “…Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

I’m not going to lie to you. Having all the clothes we need and all the food we want and the ability to order people around puts us in spiritual peril, especially if it convinces us that those who have less somehow deserve their lot. If we believe that, we are needier by far than Lazarus ever was. But the good news is for us too… it is for all of us. Because Jesus also says that he will “proclaim release to the captives…” and I include those of us who are so captive to our own worldview that we don’t recognize the starving man at the gate. We will be released from our ignorance. And he “proclaims recovery of sigh to the blind…” and I tell you, those of us who step over Lazarus will be healed of our blindness to his suffering.  And he proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor…” and I tell you, that year will see all of us, rich men and women and Lazaruses alike, side by side at the bountiful table of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

* Title shamelessly stolen from Brian Stoffregen and Alyce McKenzie

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lost and Found: Sermon on Luke 15:1-32


Scripture can be found here...

Ask my father. He’ll tell you. I’ve always gotten lost. From the time I could toddle away from my father or my mother or even my older brother. I’ve always felt in my heart the certainty that what was over there, or maybe even just out of sight, must be or bigger, better, or more interesting than what’s here. And so off I would go.

I don’t remember the first time it happened. I was not even two years old. Here’s what they tell me: I was napping in the shade of a tree in the garden while my mother sat nearby weaving. And she looked over at me and saw: there I was, lying on a little mat in that trusting position little children sleep in: on my back, arms flung wide, hands slightly open. She stepped over to the kitchen door to cool herself by taking some water, and when she returned a moment later I was gone. My mother’s panic in that moment is the stuff of family legend… or it was, until I became the family legend. They found me on the other side of the house, only five minutes later. My father tells me my mother aged a year in those five minutes. I was sitting near the sheepfold, clutching a silver coin in my hand that my mother had been fretting over. She kissed me and scolded me and thanked me and took my back to my mat. So they say.

Of course, when you’re lost, you don’t always know it. At least, that has been my experience. I feel sure that, that first time, I was following something supremely interesting… maybe a dragonfly. I’ve always loved dragonflies. I’m sure if I were following a dragonfly I would be entirely confident that I was not lost. You know what they say about sheep. They get lost one tasty blade of grass at a time. Once we nearly lost an entire herd because one tried to cross a ravine, and one by one, they all followed along, breaking one wooly neck after another, until the shepherds and their dogs found them, and led them in a more sensible direction. I never thought of myself as a sheep. But still…

My propensity for getting lost only followed me as I grew. When I was eight I was lost when we were traveling back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because I stopped by the side of the road to find stones for my sling. My brother noticed I was missing from the group within a half hour, and, beaming, returned me, into my father’s care. Always the hero. Always the star. When I was thirteen I was lost the day before I was supposed to stand in the synagogue, to read from the prophet’s scroll for the first time. I had gone to find a field far away enough that no one would hear my undependable adolescent voice straining to chant the lesson without cracking. I was far away enough alright. I was so far away I missed dinner and showed up, hungry, thirsty, and dirty, only after being rounded up by my father’s field hands.

I am one with a tendency to wander. I am one who gets lost. Just ask my father.

My tendency to get lost worsened as I grew, and it changed. My sense that something bigger, better or more interesting lay just over the horizon curdled, soured, to include a sense that what was right in front of me was inferior, somehow wanting. I looked around at the home that nurtured me, the places I had explored as a child, always so spacious and welcoming… and I saw fields shrunken to tiny patches, and rooms too crowded with faces that ceased to please me, and now just irritated me. One night as we reclined at table with our wholesome but all-too-familiar food I realized it: I wanted to get away. Far away. I couldn’t wait to leave, not just this place, but these people. I wanted to put it all far behind me. My mother was already gone, to Abraham’s bosom, to rest with her ancestors. When I looked at my father all I could feel was annoyance that his was not my mother’s smiling face, just a busy, distracted old man I hardly knew any more. When I looked at my brother… I was consumed with something close to hatred for him. The firstborn, the one who would inherit the double portion of our father’s estate. Always the hero, always the star. I couldn’t stand him.

And then one day, like a tree branch under a weight of ice, I snapped, and I went to my father as he discussed the coming season’s planting with my brother.

The words tumbled out of my mouth. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”

He and my brother looked at me, stunned into a long silence.

“My son…” he said, and I felt my face go dark with anger. Whatever it was he saw in me stopped his words. My brother looked at me with something like disgust. Then he turned his back. The two of them walked slowly away from the house with me trailing behind, like the child I always felt like in their presence. My father gestured to a parcel of land. “There. That is your third. The servants will draw up the contracts. So be it.” And then he took his tunic between his great hands, and for one terrible moment I thought he was going to tear it, that he was going to show all the world—but worst of all, my brother—that I was dead to him. But he did not tear his tunic. It fell from his hands, and hung limply about him. He shuffled back into the house.

The day I left is hazy in my memory. I remember my father, for some reason, decked out in a long blue robe… his best one. I attempted a smile, but my face wasn’t cooperating. A part of me was so elated. And another part of me… but I buried that part. Pushed it away, far down beneath the surface. I set out with a heart that was almost light. I disappeared over a hill, and my home disappeared behind me. I didn’t look back.

What shall I say about my time away? I went to one of the cities in the Decapolis region… I thought I’d increase my fortune there. But first, I thought I would just take some time to enjoy myself, to get the feel of the big city. Oh, how it sparkled at night, the beauty of candlelight in rooms draped with silks! And I sparkled too, with enough wine in me. Not the measured amounts we had at my father’s table, but enough wine to obliterate my memories of the days and nights of my childhood… and the days and nights that followed, too. Days and nights in which I met new companions eager to show me ways to spend my money on questionable investments, to gamble it away at drunken games, to use it to impress certain ladies whose company I wanted to keep.

In no time… no time at all… the money was gone. My fortune. My inheritance. My father’s work, his life’s labor. All gone. And still I kept drinking, until, one day, all at once, the parties and the gambling ended, because there was famine in the land, and everyone was terrified. I was evicted from the last in a long line of places where I’d found a casual, cold kind of hospitality. I wandered along the roads outside the city until I came to a farm, Gentile owned, where they were needed someone to slop their pigs. I was hungry enough and humiliated enough to take the work, to stop the growling in my stomach.

Sleeping in a kind of barn, up before dawn, to the sounds of grunting and foraging, throwing the smelly mess of leftovers from the farmhouse to the herd. Funny thing is, I came to love the pigs. They reminded me of myself. Living by instinct. Grateful for a nauseating mixture of leftovers. Sleeping when they were full. Not thinking.

One afternoon I sat watching them rustling and sighing and snorting as they settled in to nap. The sun beat down on me… I no longer had the pale skin of a city dweller, I looked again like the boy of the countryside I’d been raised to be. Only… my skin was cracked with wear. As I looked at my dirty hands, I realized they were the hands of a man thirty years my senior. And as I looked again at the peaceful swine, I realized that they were sleeping because they were full. Which I was not, and hadn’t been in months.

I yelled my notice to another worker as I walked back towards the road. I was formulating in my head what I would say…


I couldn’t imagine a sentence to go with that word. And then for the first time in months, his face came to me, loomed over me as I walked, and ran, and walked again towards the place I’d forsaken.


“Father…” I tried again, but all that came to me was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry… for so many things. I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for wanting your money more than I wanted you. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for looking at you and not really seeing you. I’m sorry for not knowing what abundance is when I am living in the midst of it. I’m sorry for taking good wholesome food for granted. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Eventually a sentence began to form in my head, one I could speak to my father’s stricken face.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

That was it. I knew. I knew I couldn’t ask him to be my father again. I didn’t dare. But I could ask him, in his simple human decency, which I knew was real and deep, to save the life of a vagrant. To save me.

As I came over the hill to and the house rose into view, I saw him.

He was seated, in that same blue tunic, under a shade tree… the same tree under which my mother had placed me to nap, so many years ago. And then suddenly he was running… running toward me, his tunic flapping around him. As he grew near I started to speak, the words, tumbling from my mouth…

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son—” but before I could even complete my request I was being pulled into his arms, my face against his big heart, and I stopped. I couldn’t speak for weeping. He was weeping too. And then he was calling out to his workers.

“Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

And I tell you, never was there a feast so delicious, meat so tender, wine or figs or cakes so sweet, as in the celebration dinner we shared that night. Never, in any city of the Decapolis, did any company raise a toast with greater joy, or recline at table with a greater sense of well-being, than the joy or peace we shared. I will never forget it. My homecoming.

My father was gone, for a time, from the table… My brother, who did not disgrace his family, who did not take an inheritance and lose it, but who always, in every situation, did the right and honorable thing… my brother… well. I will leave him to my father. I tell you, no one can resist the heart of my father. No one can resist his compassion. Look at me.

And ask my father. He’ll tell you. I spent my life getting lost, but I have been found again, in the embrace of a love that brought me home, and clothed me like royalty, and welcomed be back to a table of abundance and joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.