broods of vipers

Sermon 12-8-19

Peace Covenant CoB

Matthew 3:1-12

This week has included a lot of community connection time for your pastor. I met with Soyoun from EAPC to plan our joint worship service next week, with Pastor Anita from Parkwood UMC to plan our joint Christmas Eve service on the 24th, and spent Tuesday evening at the ParkTown Food Hub with friends and neighbors sitting in a bit of Advent silence and preparing food give-away boxes for their big distribution later this month.

But another conversation took place with the Alcoholics Anonymous group that started meeting here in the building back in January. If you remember, the folks involved in that meeting wanted a location to start a brand new meeting, and our space seemed like a great possibility. It turns out that this new meeting has been incredibly successful – the group started with a dozen folks, but doubled in size very quickly. Every Saturday morning for the last year, twenty or so people have met in this space to share their lives, speak truth, and witness one another’s journeys of sobriety.

In a few weeks, the group plans to cook a big breakfast here to celebrate their 1 year anniversary together.

This building partner is not one that we get to share potlucks or worship with. It is something of a silent partnership. But I am so grateful that in this congregation’s willingness to share space, we have been able to offer room for relationship, accountability, and truth telling.

When these folks approached us last year asking about sharing space, I started reading and learning a bit about AA. I know that addiction and recovery are very present realities in the lives of many. I know that AA has transformed many lives, and that it is also not the only path toward recovery. But until this last year, I hadn’t taken time to understand the inner workings.

I read the Big Book. Maybe you have read it, too. I am totally taken with the twelve steps toward recovery. They start this way:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I have heard preachers say that AA does Christianity better than many churches. I think, at least, these first few steps could certainly be one way for us to understand John the Baptist’s call that we hear this morning for us to REPENT.

John the Baptist always shows up during Advent, and he’s always preaching – out there in the wilderness – about judgement. He calls people to repent and join him down in the Jordan River to confess their sins and be baptized. We understand that the people who were joining John down by the Jordan River were poor people, lay people, people who were suffering under Roman oppression and a religious power structure that was not offering them much hope of liberation.

But the religious leaders – the ones who are part of that power structure – show up out at the Jordan, too. We’re not sure why the Pharisees and the Sadducees journeyed out into the wilderness. The Greek is mysterious: they could have come FOR baptism, meaning that they wanted to repent and confess, themselves or – more likely – they could have come AGAINST baptism: the same Greek preposition can be translated either way. And, since John was explicitly going against the religious status quo, far away from the temple center of power, offering a ritual baptism that was not condoned by the priests, it’s pretty safe to assume that the religious leaders came out not because they were convicted far away in their temple seats but because they were fed up and wanted to put a STOP to what John was doing out there.

And when they show up, John does not mince his words

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

John is ANGRY at the religious leaders. He thinks that they are upholding unjust traditions and perpetuating evil systems. He does not meekly welcome the powerful into the crowd of poor and oppressed people who have heard hope in his preaching; he tells the truth about who they are and what they’re doing. John is out here in the wilderness and he is preaching about JUDGEMENT.

Even though we only read one scripture each Sunday, the lectionary offers us four different scriptures each week, and today, three of them have to do with judgement. Listen:

Isaiah 11:

“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.”

Psalm 72:

“He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”

These are not exactly the scriptures that we expect to hear on the second Sunday of Advent which is traditionally known as the Sunday of PEACE. Smiting, slaying, breaking in pieces…just like John’s image of trees being cut down and thrown into the fire, these are not exactly what we imagine when we think about “peacemaking.”

And yet, this theme of judgement is a thread throughout the Old and New Testaments. We cannot simply skip over God’s promises to “slay the wicked” or “separate the wheat from the chaff,” especially those of us who identify as peacemakers or are part of a “peace church.”

So often, we interpret God’s promises of judgement as rewarding the good people and punishing the bad people. But God’s judgement is always, always, always in concert with God’s mercy. God’s justice does not work like human judgement.

Scholar Matt Skinner, in studying the themes of judgement in the Gospel of Matthew, says it this way:

“Judgement doesn’t begin with God’s longing to punish or retribution. Judgement comes first and foremost out of God’s desire to make sure the truth is known. That truth is sometimes really bad news for you and sometimes is really good news for you. Sometimes it’s ‘look at all the people you have hurt’ and sometimes its ‘I see all the people who have hurt you.’ And both of those need to be healed. And both of those experiences are painful experiences.”1

God’s judgement is not about retribution; it is, first and foremost, about telling the truth.

So, when those religious leaders came to John out in the wilderness, he was preaching judgement. And Judgement meant that first and foremost, he had to make sure the truth was known. He needed those Pharisees and Sadducees to hear the truth about their actions: they were, he said, acting like a brood of vipers.

 

My friend Randall works at Camp Brethren Heights up in Michigan, and he loves snakes. He defends their beauty and utility and grace at every opportunity. He shared earlier this week on facebook that a “brood” is “a young family of freshly hatched animals… in this case pit vipers. They have lots of energy that must be harnessed by the ‘elder’ or parent vipers. The danger is in their numbers! These are not the same serpents that Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 10:16. Those are singular serpents that have the wisdom of knowing how and when to use its defense mechanism.”

So John is calling those religious leaders a young, misguided group of energetic and dangerous snakes. He is not saying that they are evil, exactly, or that they are beyond hope. John is, counter to our first impression, not condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees to eternal torment. He’s just telling the truth about what they are doing: hurting lots and lots of people. In need of instruction and correction.

We don’t know if John baptized the Pharisees and Sadducees that day. The story moves on before we get to the meat of their confrontation. But John does offer another metaphor in his description of God’s justice and God’s judgement:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Again, our first impression of this image is that Jesus – the one with the winnowing fork in hand – will separate good people (wheat) from bad people (chaff), and send the bad people into unquenchable fire. But we only think that because most of us have never winnowed grain before.

“Every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks – collectively known as “chaff” – from the grain, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain.  This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less just, or less respectful of others.”2

The Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said it this way: there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person.

John is not preaching a judgement that separates us from one another; John is preaching a judgement that separates us from our own sin, addiction, apathy and greed.

Remember I said earlier that the lectionary gives us 4 scriptures each week? We’ve read from three of them; here’s the third, from Romans:

“4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.

That does not sound like separating ourselves out from the “bad” people. It does not sound like calling one another names or barring one another from participating fully in church. If judgement = truth telling, then it can be synonymous with welcome. It judgement = truth telling, then maybe Jesus DID baptize those Pharisee and Sadducee vipers that day. Maybe telling the truth is part of welcome.

During this season of Advent, we can hear John’s call to repentance as a call to truth-telling, both about the ways we hurt others and about the ways others hurt us.

And isn’t this what our friends in AA are practicing every Saturday morning right here in this space? Can’t we learn from them how to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming?

Here are the rest of the steps in that 12 step plan:

  1. Be entirely ready to have God remove all the defects of character.
  2. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
  3. Make a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends
  4. Make direct amends wherever possible
  5. Continue to take personal inventory and, when we are wrong, admit it promptly
  6. Seek through prayer to improve conscious contact with God
  7. Try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.

This morning, I am grateful for our AA building partners, beloved neighbors who practice and witness to the purifying power of repentance. And I am grateful for John the Baptist’s call, inviting us to practice justice by telling the truth.

May we be so bold.

greater grace

Virlina District Conference Sermon

11-8-19

1 Corinthians 1:18

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

A few years ago, I had the chance to attend a writing workshop in Minnesota. It was a great opportunity. I was excited. Each participant had to submit a writing sample before the week-long workshop so that everyone else in the group could read it and be ready with suggestions, critique and encouragement.

I knew immediately which piece of writing I would submit: months earlier, I’d had one of the most…interesting experiences ever in ministry. A beloved member of the congregation I was serving – a man who loved people and was deeply loved by people wherever he went, a man who created community and knit people together in all kinds of situations – had died, and I had the privilege of helping to officiate at his funeral.

Except this funeral wasn’t like any other funeral I have done before or since. This beloved man had spent a good portion of his life participating in Civil War re-enactments: even though he was not from the South, had moved to Virginia after a lifetime of Yankee breeding, he had found a community and a hobby with the folks who re-enact Civil War battles. He researched and assumed a particular persona of a Confederate soldier, and made dozens and dozens of friends in the reenactment community.

Because his illness was a long one, he spent the last few months of his life planning his own funeral, and plan it, he did. The funeral was to be an all-out, as authentic as possible, Civil-War era event. It was…incredible.

At the visitation, women clad in black petticoats handed out sepia-tone photo buttons of the deceased – an antebellum tradition. The funeral home was packed with people in period dress (you could barely move through the hallways with all those crinolines and hoop skirts). Robert E. Lee delivered one of the eulogies. When we made it to the cemetery (yes, part of the Manassas Battlefield), pall bearers lifted the coffin out of the hearse and placed it in an antique, glass-walled caisson – basically, a wagon – pulled by horses. Mourners in period dress lined up behind the wagon and walked the last mile to the burial site.

The most bizarre image of the whole day was probably the funeral dinner back at the church, where dozens of people dressed straight out of 1863 milled around the fellowship hall eating potato salad and macaroni and cheese.

It was one of the most bizarre things I had ever participated in, so I wrote about it.

I wrote what I thought was a warm, funny piece that conveyed both the absurdity of the thing and the abundant love that this man’s community had for him – evident in their willingness to bring his funeral vision to reality, in the flocks of people who showed up and the dozens and dozens who stayed.

I thought it was a great piece of writing.

And then, I got to the writing workshop. Before anything even started, a few of us went for a walk and started chatting among ourselves. We moved to the subject of our writing. One of my fellow writers, J, turned to me.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re the one who wrote that Confederate funeral piece. I had a question for you about that.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, ready to talk about how great my writing was, how funny that funeral had been, how amazing the church is.

“Are there any black people in your church?”

//

It’s hard to explain how I felt when J asked me that question. I was confused: I didn’t exactly understand why she would ask that question in particular, but I felt the weight of it, nonetheless. I was angry: didn’t she appreciate the humor and warmth of the essay? I was indignant: how dare she assume that she knew something about MY congregation that I didn’t? And, honestly, I was ashamed: clearly there was something about this conversation that I was missing, something I didn’t quite GET.

I did not want to have the conversation that J was asking me to have. I didn’t want to think about race. I didn’t want to entertain the possibility that the way I was telling the story might be hurting other people. I didn’t want to consider that there might be another way of seeing the situation – and that this funny and heart-warming story of ministry in the south might hold some other, darker meaning. I didn’t want to think about flags and symbols of the Confederacy – flags and symbols that I had grown up understanding as part of my proud identity as a Virginian and a southerner – as flags and symbols of anything else at all.

I did not want to have that conversation. And she didn’t press the issue – she saw my discomfort, and she moved on. But her question kick-started what I have come to understand as a process of conversion and redemption in me, a process that, it turns out, has an awful lot to do with Jesus and the cross.

//

In the verse that Brother Roy has chosen for our conference theme, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the power of the cross. We are so familiar with the cross today – plastering it on brochures and t-shirts and jewelry – that we might be prone to forgetting what a strange and upside-down thing it would have been for Paul to travel around the Roman Empire preaching about its power. The cross was not a symbol of redemption or divinity: it actually wasn’t a symbol at all. The cross was the very real means by which the Empire executed criminals. It was a torture device. It was not something people discussed in polite company, and it was not something that any religiously observant Jew wanted to spend much time thinking about.

And yet, here is Paul, showing up in city after city, visiting in synagogue after synagogue, preaching and teaching and trying to convince all these people that the CROSS – that instrument of torture and death – is about salvation, resurrection, and redemption.

For the preaching of the cross,” Paul says, “is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

Paul’s task was not an easy one. In fact, we learn in Acts 18 that when Paul first arrived in Corinth and started preaching in the synagogue there, the people scoffed, laughed and refused to hear anything he’d say. In Corinth, in fact, the religious people hated Paul’s disruptive message about some savior on some cross so much that they became, Acts says, “abusive.” They hurled insults, threatened violence, and ran Paul out of the sanctuary.

I imagine that for those devoutly religious folks in the synagogue in Corinth, people who were perfectly content with their faith, their practice, their just fine relationship to God and one another, having Paul show up and ask them to think about Jesus, a convicted criminal, as the savior of the world, must have felt a little like how I felt when J showed up and ruined what I assumed to be a perfectly good essay by asking me “are there any black people in your church?” It didn’t go over very well.

So, Paul quit trying to convince the “faithful” in the synagogue and moved next door, where a marginally religious guy invited him to preach out of his own living room. The people in Corinth who heard and believed the gospel were the people who were willing to entertain an idea that called into question everything they thought they knew. The people who became faithful to Jesus in Corinth were the ones who humbled themselves and agreed to have the conversations that no one wanted to have.

//

Since that conversation in Minnesota, I have been learning to understand the meaning of sin and salvation – the gospel of the cross that Paul preached over and over – in a new way. Do you know that verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation? We usually read that verse to mean that the person who has come to Christ is made new, and that’s not wrong. But the Greek in Paul’s sentence is a little ambiguous, and it also might mean that for the person who has come to Christ, the ENTIRE WORLD looks different.

That’s how I feel, these days. J’s question sent me searching for whatever it was that I was missing. I’ve spent the last few years reading, listening, and paying attention to how people of color in America see the world, and it turns out that nearly everything I thought I knew for sure is…at the very least, incomplete. I have had to revise a lot of what I thought about God. I have had to confess a lot of sinful racism and white supremacy that I didn’t even know was part of me. Everything looks different through the eyes of the crucified Christ.

The theologian James Cone says that “what is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people.” Because of the ways that American society and culture (and politics and economics and theology) have been structured, there are truths about the world that we white people are sheltered from and prevented from having to see.

//

That quote from James Cone comes from a book he wrote called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” in that book, Cone asks Jesus’ followers to consider the ways that the lynching tree of American history is like the cross of Calvary, and the ways that we have hidden them both. Between 1880 and 1940, more than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched. Lynchings during this era were public executions perpetrated by mobs of white citizens. They were public spectacles: people came out in droves to observe the executions. Lynchings were extrajudicial killings meant to keep black people – no longer enslaved but living under Jim Crow legal systems – afraid and “in their place.”

This is not a conversation anyone wants to have, but Cone says that the cross and the lynching tree are intimately linked. He says that American Christians, in order to fully confess our faith in Christ who died on the cross, need to grapple with our history and legacy of lynching. “The cross,” Cone says, “…is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.”1 In order to see with Christ’s eyes, we need to learn about and see from the perspective of those who suffered lynching in America.

Lynching stories are violent, grisly, and horrific – just like the story of the cross. They are stories we do not want to pay attention to, and stories that need to be reckoned with. Two black men were lynched right here in Roanoke – William Lavender in 1892 and Thomas Smith in 1893. Like the crowds that shouted “crucify! Crucify!,” both of these men where lynched at the demand of huge mobs. Like the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, both of these men’s bodies were desecrated after their death. The 4,000 people that came to view Thomas Smith’s body hanging the day after he died even cut pieces of the rope that hung him to take home as souvenirs.

This is not a conversation we want to have. But hiding the history that shapes our present is hiding the cross.

//

Another hidden story from this part of the world happened right down the road in Danville.

In 1963, Danville was, like most of Virginia, a segregated city. And, like many places in the south, black people were organizing massive, non-violent protests to confront segregation and white supremacy. Young people in Danville gathered to form the Danville Progressive Christian Association. It was supported by SNCC, the national Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Giants of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Zellner and Avon Rollins all visited Danville during the summer of 1963 when the movement was at its height.

During the summer of 1963, movement leaders organized a series of nonviolent protests in Danville. They orchestrated a sit-in at Howard Johnsons. They occupied City Hall. On June 10, during a march through downtown, thirty eight protestors were arrested. Later that evening, more than fifty folks gathered at the city jail to hold a prayer vigil for those arrested. When they arrived, police met them. The police were not alone: the town had deputized the white garbage collectors and armed them with billy clubs. The deputized garbage workers beat those gathered to pray with billy clubs, and the police attacked them with fire hoses. Sixty-five people were taken to the local segregated Danville hospital with injuries. Today, the events are remembered as “Bloody Monday.”

Danville-demonstrations-754x550Thurman Echols on Bloody Monday, 1963. Danville Register & Bee.

King continued to support the Danville movement. When he spoke at High Street later that summer, he admitted that the Danville police force was the most brutal and violent he had ever experienced. He planned to make Danville a center of his national campaign – though events in Birmingham that summer derailed those plans.

This summer, I got to meet some of the people who were singing hymns and praying when they got arrested that night in 1963. We sat in the fellowship hall of High Street Baptist Church and leaders from that freedom movement in the ’60s – Thurman Echols, Lawrence and Gloria Campbell, Carolyn Wilson – told us stories. Every black pastor in town was there.

One of our group asked Bishop Campbell, now a retired pastor but who had been, on that night in 1963, one of those praying protestors who ended up in the hospital: “did the white clergy support you?” His answer was swift and clear: “No. Not then, not now.”

The hypocrisy of the white church,” he said, “is even more insidious now than it was then.”

I tell you what: the hypocrisy of the white church is not a conversation I want to have. I am a pastor in the white church, and I am complicit and guilty of the hypocrisy that Bishop Campbell named. But refusing to have it is one more way that we hide the cross.

//

It is tempting to dismiss these stories as things that happened long, long ago, in the distant past.

I am tempted to dismiss J’s question and Cone’s theology and Bishop Campbell’s accusation as unimportant, irrelevant, not something I need to take seriously, having nothing to do with faithfulness – either my own of that of the church that shaped me. But when Christ claims us, when we start seeing all the ways that the cross is being hidden even here, even now, when we start seeing things from the perspective of the ones still being crucified, it gets harder and harder to dismiss these invitations to confession and repentance.

And that’s what they are: invitations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance feel like accusations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance make us defensive and angry and indignant. Sometimes, our responses to an invitation to repentance are to double down, to refuse to see, to shove those crosses even farther back in the dark, to keep it hidden a little while longer.

Lord, do I understand those responses. I have them all the time. I would rather be preaching a sermon on just about anything else in the world this evening,but God keeps inviting and insisting that THIS is the repentance and confession that he’s calling me to do. It seems to me that every time I think I’ve confessed all I can confess, repented of every last drop of white supremacy, rooted out every tiny bit of racism in my soul, every time I peel back a layer of sinfulness, I encounter an even thicker, more stubborn layer beneath it. I do not want to keep having this conversation.

And that is exactly why I need the cross, and why the cross IS good news: I cannot save myself. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I learn, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, no matter how earnestly I confess and repent, no matter how many painstaking and upsetting sermons I preach: I am not capable of redeeming myself. Only Jesus can do that.

That’s the good news that has come right alongside all this learning of horrific, violent, awful bad news: Christ, on the cross and walking away from the empty tomb, is redeeming every sinful reality and transforming every painful moment of our history into something entirely new, entirely different, entirely made up of grace and beauty. Ephesians chapter 5 says that “everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light, and everything that is revealed by the light BECOMES light.”

Our sinfulness isn’t just forgiven and forgotten; in the process of being claimed in the cross, we are also claimed in the resurrection. We who have died with Christ have also risen with him. What we learn to be sinful is, as we confess and repent and find ourselves transformed, converted into something new, useful, and redemptive.

There’s this great line in Romans: “But where sin increased, grace was present in even greater abundance, so that just as Sin ruled by means of Death so Grace should rule through Righteousness and lead to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

I think that our reluctance to have the hard conversations about the cross – the cross of Calvary as well as the lynching trees in downtown Roanoke, the firehoses in Danville and the Confederate flags all over our region – is a reluctance to face our own sin. That’s only natural. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting. But this is the promise of the gospel: where sin increased, grace is present in even greater abundance.

We have nothing to fear in facing our own sinfulness. We have nothing to fear in accepting all these uncomfortable invitations to repentance. Every time we do – each time we humble ourselves and lean into the hard work of attention, confession and repentance, Jesus is right there waiting for us, holding out grace in even greater abundance.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

1James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 156.

the return of the lamb

Sermon 5-12-19

Revelation 7

Jean Vanier had been a naval officer, completed a PhD and had a position teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto when he quit his job, bought a run-down house outside of Paris and invited two men with learning disabilities to live with him. Vanier had met the men, Raphael and Philippe, during visits to an asylum, a connection that he had made through his mentor Father Thomas Philippe, who had founded a community in France for searching young people.

That single decision – to live in community with men whose lives were being lived in sterile institutions – turned into a global movement. Today, L’Arche – which is the name for these intentional communities that include core members who live with physical and intellectual disabilities and their companions – has 150 communities in 38 countries. Over 3,500 people with disabilities live in community.

Vanier was not only a do-gooder; he wrote and spoke often about how this kind of life – so different from what his well-to-do Canadian family expected of him – transformed him. He not only believed and insisted that people with disabilities were intrinsically worthy of inclusion and care, he held that theirs was an essential contribution to a well-lived life:

“The cry of people with disabilities [was] a very simple cry: do you love me? That’s what they were asking. And that awoke something deep within me because that was also my fundamental cry…I began to understand that these people could help me grow in the wisdom of love. They would help me grow in a relationship with Jesus.”

“The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power.”

Those lines are from a book that Vanier co-wrote with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, called “Living Gently in a Violent World.”

Jean Vanier died this week, at the age of 90. He lived in community in the original L’Arche community outside Paris until just a couple of weeks ago. In the wake of his death, many are reflecting on his impact. Krista Tippett, host of the radio show “On Being,” is one of them:

“Sitting with Jean was a transformative experience in and of itself,” Ms. Tippett wrote. “We called the show we created with him ‘The Wisdom of Tenderness’—a wisdom that radiated, [was] embodied, in his presence. Yet this tenderness was also a form of power, as paradoxical and true as the Gospel teaching the L’Arche communities took up as a way of life—that there is strength in weakness, light in darkness and beauty in what the world declares broken.”1

Jean Vanier knew that weakness was holy, that vulnerability was the way of Jesus, that the way of the cross is the way of tenderness and gentleness.

//

I’ve been thinking about Vanier this week, in part because I have shared part of his story at least three times each year for the last decade when I work with new volunteers entering Brethren Volunteer Service. Vanier’s story of taking a road less traveled, deciding to cast his allegiance and his life alongside the ones that the world deems broken, is instructive for young people, especially, who are entering into years of direct service with people that they have likely been disconnected from all their lives. Patience, gentleness, tenderness, celebration: these are virtues that are hard to practice in our world today. BVS asks volunteers to find time to nurture them. Vanier lived a life filled with them.

//

And, believe it or not, our text from Revelation today is filled with encouragement for those of us who strive to live these kind of gentle, vulnerable lives in the face of the overwhelming violence of the world today.

If you remember where we left off last week in our introduction to Revelation, John – whose vision we are experiencing – had been taken up into the Spirit and found himself in a dazzling throne room – filled with beasts and colors and gems and singing. And you remember that seated on that throne, the object of everyone’s intense devotion and worship was – surprisingly – a tiny, vulnerable, slaughtered lamb.

The lamb is the one who is able to open the seven seals that are keeping closed a very important scroll, and when the seals are opened, very, very strange visions ensue. Each scroll leads to a very trippy vision: different colored horses, with riders; a host of people who had lost their lives because of their witness, dressed in white robes and crying out for justice; an earthquake, during which

The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

And then there is a very interesting vision where John sees exactly 144,000 people who are “sealed” as servants of God: 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. These 144,000 seem to be still on earth, and the “seal” seems to mean that they will not be harmed when great danger comes.

The book of Revelation has been used and abused in a lot of ways, and this particular passage, about 144,000 people who are sealed as God’s servants is no exception. You’ve probably heard some of the interpretations of this number: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the number means that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians from Pentecost until the present day will be resurrected to heaven – all other believers will get to live in a Paradise here on earth, but those 144,000 will live as priests and kings with God in heaven.

Another way of understanding the 144,000 is to believe that they are Jewish people who have converted to Christianity and will do the work of converting other gentiles on earth before the end of the world. There are a couple of problems with this idea: first, we learned last week that John, the author, was himself a Palestinian Jewish Christian – in those days, “christianity” was not a separate religion. Everyone was Jewish. Second, this line of thinking easily leads to antisemitism and supercessionist theology – which is a way of dismissing Judaism and the Jewish faith altogether by insisting that Christianity took over the place of Israel in being God’s special people. This is messy and complicated.

It is odd that John names such a specific number of people here, and links them directly to the twelve tribes of Israel. But just like he did before, when he set us up to see a fierce, conquering lion on the throne, John is about to surprise us again with God’s truth:

“After this,” he says, “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Did you get that? A multitude so huge that no one can count it! It’s like John knew that people would get hung up on that 144,000 number, try to assign each one a specific identity, spend millenia deciding if WE are among that 144,000…and so he immediately turns us upside down: a huge multitude, from every nation, tribe, people and language. And all these people are dressed in white, and they are – get this – worshiping. Worshiping who? Right. The Lamb.

lamb

Detail from the triumphal arch mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome. By Lawrence OP

One of the elders turns to John and asks him if he knows who all these diverse, white-robed worshipers are, and John says, “dude: YOU tell ME!” And the elder does:

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

This multitude of white-robed heavenly worshipers are the ones who have been witnesses to the Lamb: not merely “believers,” but people who have endured tribulation because of their desire to follow in the way of the Lamb on the throne.

Because the lamb is not only the conquering Christ, worthy of praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength; the lamb is also the model and example, the way, the truth, and the life. To become witnesses to this conquering lamb, these worshipers in white robes have participated in the paradoxical power of vulnerability, gentleness, and tenderness. They have lived lives that emulated the slain lamb. And that – their commitment to the way of surprising tenderness in the face of great violence and tribulation – has led to persecution, oppression, pain and deep sadness.

I think this is important: following Jesus, the lamb on the throne, does not mean that life becomes easy. In fact, given all the ways that the path of the lamb is at odds with the prevailing culture of the world: tenderness in the face of callousness, gentleness in the face of violence, generosity in the face of rampant selfishness, peacefulness in the face of intractable conflict…following Jesus might make life harder.

And if anyone understands that, it is the lamb himself, who inhabits the throne not as a perfect, wooly specimen of health, but in the fullness of what happened to him – the lamb is on the throne, John says, “looking as if it were slain.” Just like Paul records, “my grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, John sees the gathered multitude from all tribes and nations, people from every age and every background, every possible incarnation of human being, gathered around the throne of the Lamb, worshiping him. And the elder, who has revealed to John who they are, says that they are here so that the one

who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

John is quoting the prophet Isaiah, here. And he’s quoting specific portions of Isaiah, known as the “suffering servant” verses. These passages detail a Messiah who comes not as conquering war hero, but as suffering servant, the one who, as the beginning of the chapter quoted here says,

was despised and abhorred by the nation,
to the servant of rulers:”

God says to this suffering servant:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the
Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

And so it is with the great multitude of diverse people – from every nation, tribe, age and place: they will find their place worshiping the conquering lamb who was slain, resting in the promise that never again will they face hunger or thirst, because the lamb – the wounded, suffering, slain lamb – has become their shepherd, and “he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

P1091-jesus-christ-good-sheperd-hand-painted-icon

 

//

The lamb becomes the shepherd. And the sheep, we know, recognize the sound of their shepherd’s voice. The sheep, we know, trust the shepherd to lead them to safety. The sheep fear no evil, because the shepherd’s rod and staff are our comfort.

When we start to see the lamb on the throne as our shepherd, when we begin to imagine ourselves as part of that great multitude that no one can count singing our praise to the conquering, slain lamb, perhaps we might discover, too, what John had revealed to him there in the throne room, which was the same truth Isaiah tried to make clear in his prophet’s vision, he same truth that Jean Vanier lived out in his lifetime of learning to value weakness and love the brokenness of humanity the same truth that Paul articulated over and over in his letters:

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1)

 

 

 

all hail the conquering fluffy

Sermon 5/5/19

Revelation 5:11-14

 

Have you ever experienced that kind of surprise of being caught off guard by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit’s power?

I am most comfortable when I know how things are going to happen – when there is a plan, and a clearly defined set of operating instructions. But divine power doesn’t often show up in the places where I am most comfortable – I have experienced God’s presence most powerfully in those times and spaces where I am pushed beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone, when I find myself in unknown territory, struggling to get my bearings.

Has that happened to you?

I can think of a dozen examples of this in my own life, unfamiliar places where I had unexpected and life-altering encounters with God, but this week, I was thinking about how the Spirit keeps showing up somewhere much closer to home: in our joint worship services with Emmanuel Antioch Presbyterian Church, like the one we had last Sunday.

I don’t know how you all experience these joint worship services, but they always have me a bit on edge: planning them is hard work. In addition to the language barrier, our congregations have very different worshipping styles, and significant theological differences. We have to search hard for hymns that both congregations know. I was surprised, last week, to see the rather intense audio set-up that EAPC uses every week in this very small space. Pastor Timothy is very clear that the call for both himself and his congregation is evangelism, and he shares the gospel in a way that is very, very different from how I do.

I am always on edge when we have these joint worship services – because I am out of my comfort zone. And, as your pastor, I also want to make sure that worship in this space and for this congregation is a place of honesty, that it represents, to the best of our ability, what we know and believe about God. When others – with differing worship styles, theologies and understandings of who God is – are in charge, well, there’s no way to know if that will happen or not.

There are always things that make me uncomfortable. And yet, every time we have shared worship, there have been moments of deep grace, moments when I have felt the Spirit move in ways that would be almost impossible if we did not make the move out of our comfort zones and into something unknown and a little threatening.

Those gigantic speakers project a kind of singing and praying that we do not practice regularly in this space. Singing together with EAPC is a joy. Listening to Soo Min translate for Pastor Timothy’s sermon is always amazing – her gift of proclamation reminds me of the gift of tongues given to the people in the book of Acts, of Moses’ brother Aaron, of all those prophets in scripture who are called and commanded to speak the words of God in ways that the people clan hear. And, of course, there’s always the bulgogi and the chap chae at the shared potluck afterward: as sure a sign of God’s grace as any I know.

I think there is something important about this: I – maybe all of us – are more likely to notice God at work when we are off-centered, out of our comfort zones, out of control.

//

I’m grateful that our shared worship was just last week, because we are diving into a sermon series on the book of Revelation today, and Revelation is nothing if not DISTINCTLY outside of our comfort zones. And, the first passage from Revelation that we encounter this month is from Chapter 5, a vision of a heavenly worship experience that far exceeds any worship experience we’ve had here on earth.

The first glimpse of Revelation we see is a multitude (“myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”) of every kind of creature – not just humans, but angels, animals, earthly and heavenly beings, gathered together from across innumerable boundaries and barriers surrounding the throne of the one who is worthy to open the seventh seal and SINGING together, singing, the text says, with full voice:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Worship is important in Revelation. There are more than fifteen hymns sung in the book, all of them hymns of encouragement to God’s people on earth.

But worship is probably not your first thought when you think of this weird, final book in the Bible. What comes to mind when you hear someone say “Revelation”?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into Revelation a little deeper than usual. It’s so tempting to either ignore it altogether or to attempt to map Revelation’s powerful images onto the current realities of human history, but neither of those is a responsible way of reading Revelation.

Here are a few things that Revelation is NOT:

  • a horror movie script
  • a one-to-one correlation of over-the-top imagery to on-the-ground, present-day occurrences
  • a timeline for the end of the world
  • literal rendering of what judgement day will look like

Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalypse.” This book is not the only example of such strange, off-balance visions of the end time. And, unlike the big screen, bombastic, violent movies we tend to associate with the term apocalypse, it does not mean “end of the world.” Apocalypse means “uncovering.” It means, just as the title of the book implies, a “revealing.”

Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, but it was not the only apocalypse circulating at the time it was written.

There is a rich tradition of Jewish apocalyptic writing, in both the centuries before and after Jesus’ life. Apocalypses all have several things in common: they are revelations, set in a narrative framework. In apocalypses, an unveiling about the cosmic realities of the world are mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient.

In other words, apocalypses are stories that reveal a larger truth about reality by showing a human being guided through time and space by divine figures.

And apocalypses have a purpose: they are written in particular times and places, with specific intentions. Usually, the audience of an apocalyptic writing are people who are in seriously dangerous, traumatic, and unsettling times. Scholars suggest that the beginning of Jewish apocalyptic literature is in the late 6th century BCE, when the Israelites had been exiled from their home.

Apocalyptic literature lays out a structure of reality in which humans are not in charge: despite what might appear to be exile, defeat, crisis and trauma on the ground, apocalypses reveal another truth: that God is in control. “The function of the apocalyptic literature,” says John Collins, “is to shape one’s imaginative perception of a situation and so lay the basis for whatever course of action it exhorts.”

Apocalypses are written for people in crisis, reveal a larger truth about reality, and offer a deeper, visceral, imaginative option for what is possible, both now and in the future.

Revelation is an apocalypse. It was likely written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian between 66-73, during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans – a coordinated revolution against oppression that led to the Romans cracking down on Jewish people, destroying the Temple, and ending the revolutionary state. Revelation’s author was an exile of war, writing to other Jewish Christians who were experiencing the same kind of trauma and defeat.

Revelation is a vision that reveals a God who is worthy of worship, who has been and continues to be in charge of the world, despite what present circumstances may lead us to believe. And, like anything that gets us out of our comfort zones and into what is sometimes called “liminal space,” this uncovering involves some serious surprises, too.

The book begins with letters to seven churches, which is fairly familiar territory: didn’t Paul write letters to churches? Isn’t that what much of the New Testament is made of? But quickly, as soon as the letters are finished, John – who is writing from an isolated island called “Patmos” pulls us into an intense vision.

“After this,” he says, “I looked and a door to heaven stood open!” A voice calls to him and says “come up here! I have things to show you!” And, John says, immediately he was “in the spirit” and standing in a throne room.

This sounds, to me, an awful lot like the beginning of the Chronicles of Narnia series, where Lucy’s curiosity leads her and her siblings to step through the door of the enchanted wardrobe and encounter a whole new world. Or, maybe like Alice in Wonderland, when she travels through the looking glass into an upside down kingdom. Or, if you’ve read the Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo drives through the mysterious tollbooth in his toy car and enters the Kingdom of Wisdom.

One scholar likens the visions of Revelation to Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: like Ebenezer Scrooge’s night full of cautionary dreams about what could happen if he doesn’t change his ways, Revelation is a lush, detailed vision of what might be, or maybe of what already is.

And this vision is filled with worship. Except right off the bat, John of Patmos delivers us one of those surprises that come when we are outside of our comfort zones: He has arrived here in the throne room, and listen to how he describes it”

And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”

Whoa. And in the hand of the one seated on the throne is a scroll sealed with seven seals: clearly an important scroll! But no one seems to be able to open the scroll, to reveal what is written there, to unleash this important news that is held by the one on the throne, and John, who has gone through the looking glass, as it were, and ended up here in this jasper/carnelian/rainbow/ruby throne room filled with angels and beings all singing, begins to weep: he has arrived here for nothing, taken the leap only to be barred from hearing the good news.

But one of the elders looks at him with mercy and says: “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Ah, yes, the LION! This is an image familiar to John and to us. During Advent, our Sunday School class studied what are called the “O Antiphons” – the names for Christ. The Lion of Judah, the Root of David are two of those names. John surely recognized these names, too.

A lion, a conqueror, would make sense here. In other apocalypses, it is often fierce creatures like this – a roaring lion gripping the scroll in his claws – that advance the plot. In fact, in another apocalypse of the same time period, Second Esdras, the Messiah IS portrayed as a lion – roaring and prophesying judgement against Rome’s violence.

But when John looks over at the throne, it is not a lion that he sees there. Instead, he says, “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”

And, interestingly, the Greek word here for “lamb” is not just “lamb” – it is arnion, which is more like “lambkin” or “little lamb” or “lamby.” One scholar translates the word as “Fluffy.”

 

Here, in the middle of this bombastic vision, in the rainbow-emerald throne room, on the thundering, flashing, flaming throne surrounded by creatures covered in eyes, is a tiny, slaughtered lamb – perhaps the most vulnerable creature we could imagine. This is a huge surprise. This does not follow the pattern of other apocalypses. This is a huge departure both from the genre and from the expectations that John has set up for us.

And this surprise, this unexpected lamb, this vulnerability seated on the throne of heaven: this is what will help us to understand the entire book of Revelation.

Because surrounding the throne are myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of creatures – earthly and heavenly, every creature on earth and under the earth and all that is in the sea are SINGING, worshipping, together, declaring:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Like those first hearers of the book of Revelation, we too find ourselves in certain kinds of exile and defeat. American politics holds up profit and oppression as the signs of victory. American economy says that the one who dies with the most accumulated wealth and possessions, wins. Even American religion tries to convince us that might makes right, political power is the way of Jesus, and violence is divine.

But here, we find another possibility, an assurance that despite how things might look to us on the ground, God is in control; that no matter what the ruling powers of the day say, the Lamb that was slaughtered – and not the lion who boasts his way to power – is the one and the only one worthy of power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. And so, with the gathered multitudes of Revelation, we join our singing and our worship, pledging our allegiance and our lives to THIS divine power, and this only.

sidling up to death: an easter sermon

Sermon 4-21-19: EASTER

Luke 24

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

For several years, my mom worked as a hospice chaplain. What that meant was that day in and day out, she was spending hours in the homes of people who were actively dying. Death was, during those years, a constant companion – both for Mom and for the rest of us. And as anyone who has spend significant time in death’s presence knows, you either get comfortable with it or you…lose it. Gallows humor is some of best – and worst – kind of humor. Those of us who don’t spend our days sidling up next to the end of life are often offended or confused by the ways that hospice workers, ER staff, and funeral directors talk about death.

For those years that Mom was working as a hospice chaplain, our family found ourselves learning how to sidle up to death and enjoy a little gallows humor – because what other option is there?

I would regularly call Mom – just checking in on a random weekday afternoon – only to hear her answer in a whisper, ask me to hold on a minute while she moved from a sickbed filled with family singing or praying or chatting out into a living room or front yard. “Mom!” I’d protest – “You don’t have to leave the dying to say HEY to me!” “Oh,” she’d say “he’s dying but he’s not dead yet. It’s fine. They’ll be in there a long time, yet. What’s up?”

The best hospice encounter, though, happened one Saturday morning when I went out to breakfast with my parents in Roanoke. We walked into the restaurant, and before we were even seated, Mom made a beeline across the room to greet someone. This was weird: in my family, you introduce everybody to your people. It wouldn’t have been weird at all if she said “Oh, there’s Patti. Come on, y’all, let me introduce you!” But Mom did not do that. She didn’t even look at Dad and me, just walked over, put her hand on this woman’s shoulder, leaned over and said something, then walked back to our table, where we’d been sitting. “Who’s that?” I asked Dad. “I have no idea!” he said, just as confused as I was.

When Mom sat down, Dad and I looked at her, concerned and confused. “Who WAS that?” we asked. “Oh,” replied my mother, the HOSPICE chaplain, who sat day in and day out with patients whose lives were on the verge of ending, “that was a former patient.”

Dad and I took one look at each other and cracked up. Mom doesn’t HAVE FORMER patients, we both thought. Her former patients are…DEAD. We laughed until we couldn’t catch our breath. Ridiculous, that a hospice patient would be sitting there across the room eating pancakes. But Mom, sort of annoyed at us but also enjoying the joke a little, too, just said, “it happens.”

What Mom knew that Dad and I didn’t is this: sometimes, people who enter hospice care leave it without dying. Sometimes, people improve. Sometimes, the ones who draw close enough to death to see its eye-teeth end up, months later, sitting in small-town diners sipping their coffee and putting ketchup on their hashbrowns.

Mom knew that, because she spent her days sidling up close to death. She knew what it looked like, what it smelled like, its contours and its unpredictability. Dad and I, both resistant to even our regular physicals because we don’t like doctor’s offices or the possibility of bodies that slow down and give up on us, did not know. We thought it was hysterical.

//

I’ve been thinking about aloe and frankincense and myrrh, lately. That, by the way, is what you might smell in the sanctuary this morning – aloe and frankincense and myrrh – they are the oils and spices that the women who had followed Jesus so faithfully brought to the tomb that Easter morning.

Why were they bringing burial spices that morning, while it was still dark? Hadn’t Jesus already been buried in the tomb? Shouldn’t all of that have already happened?

The answer is yes. Jesus died around 3pm on Friday and for his friends, family and Jewish community, the Sabbath began at sundown. The sabbath meant no work, no travel, no commerce. It meant that no one would be able to prepare Jesus’ body between sundown on Friday and sun-up on Sunday. If you weren’t versed in the burial practices of the day, you might not know what a big deal that was – this inconvenient sabbath day looming over the grief and trauma of crucifixion.

Jesus’ body would need a lot of attention: to be removed from the cross, anointed with oils, wrapped in linen cloths, treated with spices that would cover up the odor of death and begin the work of preserving flesh. That work was women’s work: they were the ones who knew what happened in death, because they were the ones who went out to buy the spices and the linens, washed the bodies, anointed them with sacred oils, tenderly cared for the flesh of human life captured by death.

And these women knew that they were on a pressing timeline. Jesus died around 3pm. The women did not linger at the cross: they knew what to do in the face of death, and they hurried over to the market. They needed myrrh and frankincense, aloe and linens, and if they did not buy them now – this afternoon, before the sun set and sabbath arrived – they wouldn’t be able to do what needed to be done until Sunday. By then, Jesus’ body would already have begun to decay, already have begun to resist the tender mercy that these women knew how to provide.

The artist Jan Richardson has created a series of prayer icons, following the hours of daily prayer and the work of Mary Magdalene during that last week of Jesus’ life on earth. This one is called “Shopping for Spices.”

blog-ShoppingForSpices

The women went out, bought the spices, did what they could in the face of death, took care of what there was time to take care of, and then hunkered down to rest, grieve and pray their way through that Holy Saturday sabbath.

In the morning, while it was still dark, as soon as they could, they made their way to the tomb. They had spices in hand: tools of their ministry, exactly what was needed when your responsibility is to sidle up next to death, look it in the eye, and understand its depth and implications. They arrived but, to their amazement, the tomb was empty. Two men in dazzling clothes appear and ask “Why do you look for the living among the dead?! He is not here; he is risen.”

And these women – the ones who know what death looks like, what death smells like, what death involves and what death requires – run with their story to tell the rest of Jesus’ friends, the men who were still gathered together, still mourning, still trying to get their minds and their hearts around what had happened. They proclaim, with joy, that death has not taken their friend: He is risen! The women proclaim this gospel, the first preachers, the first witnesses to resurrection, and the men DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.

In fact, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the Mother of James tell the male disciples what they’ve seen, the guys think it is “an idle tale.” That word, in the Greek, is more derisive than it sounds in translation: it is LEROS, which means “the delusional talk of someone suffering from deep illness.” The disciples, upon hearing the women’s profession of faith, the announcement of resurrection, the Good News that the God they had committed themselves to was powerful even over DEATH, assumed the women were hysterical.

//

It is not a stretch for us to imagine that response from the disciples: even today, two thousand years later, our own denomination has only ordained women as preachers of the gospel for 60 years – a mere 3% of our history as Brethren. And I know all too well that there are still hundreds of pulpits where I would not be welcome.

Women are not the only ones whose voices are considered untrustworthy these days. Think about the confessions of suffering and proclamations of justice that our culture has shushed and derided in just the last few years:

“Me too.”

“Black Lives Matter.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Think of the people in Flint, Michigan, who still do not have clean water and whose voices have been drowned out by callous politicians and distracted citizens. Think of the water protectors at Standing Rock, decrying the desecration of the land that has nurtured and held them, or the people in Southwest Virginia who have lived in treehouses to protest pipelines through the mountains. Think of queer siblings in the US church who name the ways that they have been hurt and harmed by hateful theologies and practices. Think of Eliseo, and other undocumented people whose voices get silenced by threat of arrest and deportation.

All of these people have seen suffering, have witnessed death. They are crying out, testifying, lamenting, naming exactly what is wrong and exactly what is needed. And so often, their voices, their protests, are dismissed as delusional, hysterical, shrill.

We are still very good at dismissing the testimony of the ones closest to suffering. But if we are people of the resurrection, perhaps those are the voices we ought to be paying the most attention.

//

It strikes me that the women may have been the ones to witness the resurrection and become the first preachers of the gospel exactly because they were the ones who were not afraid of suffering, the ones who chose to sidle right up alongside death. They were the ones who moved toward the dead body, who took pains to care for Jesus’ wounded flesh, who went out and bought spices and linens and oils in order to love their friend in death even as they had in life.

Imagine, if the first folks to the tomb that morning were people who had never entered a tomb before. Imagine if the first people there were folks who didn’t know what spices were for, what a dead body looked like, or how it would smell. Imagine what the story would be like if the first witnesses of resurrection were people who didn’t know, intimately, the differences between a live body and a dead one.

These women walked right into the tomb, unafraid. They brought spices because they EXPECTED to encounter death. They knew what death entailed, and its sights, smells, and implications did not deter them from sidling up next to it. In order to become the first witnesses of resurrection, these women had to willingly walk themselves into the reality of death, grief, and pain.

Maybe…just maybe, in order to witness resurrection, we, too, might have to learn to be less afraid of death, less afraid of suffering. And maybe it is safe to say that the ones among us who know death and suffering most intimately are the most trustworthy source to speak to us about healing and resurrection.

//

I don’t know what spices to use to prepare a body for burial. I had to google that question in order to figure out what spices to diffuse this morning. I didn’t know, until my dad and I laughed at my Mom that day, that people could graduate from hospice care without dying, could be former hospice patients still alive and well and eating pancakes.

I didn’t know because I have not spent that much time sidling up to death. Death is scary…terrifying, really. But this resurrection story invites us to consider an alternative. This resurrection story invites us to draw nearer to suffering and death, to show up in hard places, to stick around when the ones we love falter. And this resurrection story gives us the courage to do it, too:

Because, after all, isn’t this the Word, the Truth, the Gospel, the Good News: that the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the One who created us and knows every hair on our head, the One who sent Jesus to walk among us and love us with a love that will not let us go, isn’t this the One whose grace transforms shame and suffering, whose perfect love casts out fear, whose power conquers even death?

The women witnessed resurrection, and proclaimed it. The grave has no victory, death no longer has power over us. He is not here; he is risen! Alleluia! May the gospel embolden us as it emboldened them. May we find courage to proclaim it even when others refuse to believe. May we find courage and strength to get proximate to suffering, to sidle right on up to death, secure in our knowledge that Christ has risen and love conquers even death.

Amen.

a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Luke 6:26-38

A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

This image that closes out this passage seems an unlikely one to me. This is one of Jesus’ hardest teachings: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If you love the ones who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. No, Jesus says, I say to you love your ENEMIES. Do good. Lend without expecting anything in return. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Don’t judge anyone, he continues. Forgive and you will be forgiven. This long list of nearly impossible relational commands – the master course in discipleship – and then the passage ends with this image: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.

What in the world?

I watched this great documentary on Netflix called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In the episode about fat, the chef and star, Samin Nosrat, goes to visit an olive oil company in Italy.

The place is unbelievably gorgeous – twisted olive trees growing on an Italian mountainside. The proprietors of the old world olive oil company walk her through the process of harvesting the olives, making them into paste, and then pressing them in a gigantic, circular, cold press. The image of rich, thick oil running down the sides, overflowing the machine: oil that is spicy,; oil that will flavor everything it touches – this is what the bizarre line from our passage reminds me of.

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 9.35.22 PM

It also reminds me of Psalm 133:

 How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.

 

There is this image of abundance, of pleasure, of precious, overflowing oil associated with the love of God’s people for one another in the Psalms, and the same kind of abundant, overflowing goodness here, coming directly from Jesus. What’s that about?

//

During the 1960s, life here in Durham was filled with the work and intensity of change. Durham had long been known as a town with what white people referred to as “good race relations.” There was a significant upper class black community here – NC Mutual’s headquarters, the largest black-owned business in the country, helped make Durham known as “Black Wall Street,” and both business and politics between white and black was carried out in private, back-door compromises between the white and black elite. By the mid-1950s, however, things were changing. The country was changing, and poor people in Durham – both black and white – were becoming more involved in decision making.*

C.P. Ellis was born here in Durham in 1927 in a small house in East Durham. His family was poor, and he grew up in deep poverty. His father worked in a cotton mill and he knew intimately the insult for mill workers and their children: “linthead.” He grew up poor and remained poor, even after he became the owner of a small service station in East Durham. In 1961, sensing that he might find community and purpose there, C.P. Joined the Ku Klux Klan. He rose quickly up the ranks there, proving his instinct correct. By 1965, C.P. Was elevated to the role of “Exalted Cyclops,” the leader of the Durham branch of North Carolina’s KKK, what federal investigators called “the most active Klan state in the country.”

C.P. was a gifted leader. He drug the Klan out of the shadows and into public. He made intentional contact with city leaders of government and business, and showed up at community gatherings and city council meetings. He was known all over town as the leader of the KKK, but some important, “big” men, though they called him at home and met him in secret, refused to acknowledge him on the street. This disrespect, so like the disrespect he’d grown up with as an impoverished mill kid, wasn’t lost on C.P. But he forged ahead, working hard at the Klan’s goals.

//

Ann Atwater moved to Durham in 1953 from a tiny North Carolina town, summoned by her partner and father of her daughter. That man didn’t even meet her at the bus station when she arrived, and soon moved on for a new place and new job. He asked Ann to come with him, but she refused, and stayed here, in Durham, until she died in 2016. Ann was poor, black, and a single mother raising two daughters. She lived in Hayti, in a tumbling down house with bad plumbing and safety hazards galore. She did what was available to her, but not much changed about the housing or the city’s services. But Ann was a leader – and in 1965, Howard Fuller recruited her to start working as a community organizer around the issue of housing. She began confronting slumlords who refused to repair their property, organizing her neighbors for marches and protests, and showing up at every action, and almost every city council meeting.

Ann and CP knew each other. They were both showing up in a lot of the same places, working with their communities on opposite side of issue after public issue. At city council meetings, they’d compete to see who would fill the most seats first: at one meeting, Ann and her crew arrived early and filled the entire gallery. The next meeting, CP’s Klan members arrived even earlier and filled the hall before Ann arrived. Ann and her organizing friends figured out how to get around that, though: when a seat opened up beside a white Klan member, one of the black organizers sat down. The Klan man, unable to sit next to a black person, scrambled to his feet and another black organizer sat in his seat, causing the next white Klan man to jump up and move – a domino effect until the civil rights activists filled the hall.

The enmity didn’t stop at seat filling, though. CP wasn’t stranger to violence. He never attempted to hurt Ann herself, but when a young member of the Klan called him to report that a white boy had been mugged by a group of black men, he grabbed his gun and fellow Klan members and drove over to the scene. When he saw a group of young black men standing on the corner, he asked what they knew. Unsatisfied with the answer they gave, CP grabbed his gun and shot at them, striking one of the men in the leg. He turned himself in, went to trial, and was found not guilty.

During one particularly heated city council meeting over a commission to institute a Human Rights Commission in Durham, CP gave a particularly nasty, racist speech. Ann reached into her purse and grabbed the knife she kept there. Infuriated with CP’s racist furor, Ann stood up and lunged toward him, intending to kill him. Luckily, three of her friends were between Ann and the aisle and managed to wrest the knife from her hand before she could make it to the microphone.

Ann and CP were enemies. There’s no other way to describe their relationship. They were both strong leaders, had earned the respect of their communities by working hard and being public.

//

In 1971, the Durham public schools were in the process of de-segregating. Federal law mandated that the community work together to determine how they would go about the process of integration. The process involved was called a “charrette” – a French term for a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions. The meeting requires an intense period of meeting, conversation and design. In Durham, it was a period of 10 days, with meetings all day and into the evening every day. The idea was to bring people together: rich and poor, liberal and conservative, white and black.

The leader of the charrette knew that he needed buy-in from all sectors of the community for the plan to work. He had met CP and Ann in different contexts, and began to wonder if he would have any luck convincing the two of them to co-chair the effort. A long shot, but worth a try.

Both CP and Ann were dead set against participating, but in similar chains of events, each was convinced by friends, inner compulsion and – I suspect – the Holy Spirit – to agree. For Ann, it was a natural outreach of her activism work. For CP, who had steadily increased the Klan’s public presence in Durham and whose own children attended woefully under-resourced public schools, it was a gamble.

The first few meetings didn’t go very well. Ann and CP refused to talk to each other. They spoke to one another only through translation of a third party. At a meeting to raise awareness and interest for the charrette, CP set up a display of KKK materials. The exhibit hall was crowded. As CP left the room for a moment, he saw a group of young black men move in to tear his display down. Ann, seeing CP’s distress and recognizing that the two of them were going to have to learn to trust one another somehow, yelled across the room in her loud, deep, commanding voice at the young men, preventing them from tearing apart the display. CP was understandably surprised. After the event ended, CP saw Ann sitting in the office of the building and walked up to her, asking how she was doing. Ann couldn’t quite believe that he was talking to her, and answered honestly: that her daughter was getting taunted and bullied in school because Ann had agreed to work with a Klansman. CP was gobsmacked: just that morning, his own son had confessed that he’d been teased and taunted for the very same reason: his daddy, a Klansman, was working with a black woman.

Something happened in that moment. CP started crying. Ann cried, too. Ann reached out and grabbed CP’s hand, a simple gesture of comfort. But in that moment, CP remembered the upper class politician he’d seen on the street the other day, the one who was happy to call him late at night and meet with him in secret about the Klan’s ideas for Durham but who out there on the street acted like he didn’t see him, passing CP by with his hand outstretched.

The charrette was intense. People participated, but not without drama. Ann and CP both endured taunts from their friends and neighbors about being race traitors. But the decisions of the charrette were good ones, and they were put into practice. CP left the experience at a loss – he left the Klan, or, perhaps, the Klan left him when they realized that he was no longer committed to their racist agenda. He turned to drinking more than he already did, and even ended up in the hospital after a drunken attempt at suicide. It took a long time for CP to admit that Ann and some of the black people he’d met during the charrette work treated him better than most white people.

But CP had felt it – that overflowing of grace, the abundance of people who know they’re loved and are willing to act out of that wealth. Like oil on the head of Aaron, like a good measure pressed down, shaken together, and running over, CP found his place as a child of God. And I cannot imagine any other way that Ann could have befriended this man, other than that kind of overflowing, abundance of love, directed by the Holy Spirit.

When CP died, the family held a small funeral – family only. But they invited Ann. Ann told the story of arriving to the funeral home, a bit early. She was the first person there, and when she sat down in the pew, an employee came up to her, questioning look on his face: “You know this is the service for CP Ellis, right?” “Yes sir, I know.” “Well, you know it’s only for family, right?” “Oh, yes, I know.” The man kept looking at her, clearly waiting for her to get up and leave, but Ann looked right back at him:

“CP was my brother.”

The man left.

//

Ann died in 2016. This story is a tiny glimpse into her remarkable life here in Durham, organizing, marching, protesting, demanding that the city step up and acknowledge its white supremacy and do something about it. This spring, a feature film about Ann and CP premieres, called The Best of Enemies.

Here is Ann’s version of the story, in her own words:

Pastoral Prayer

God of abundant, extravagant, overflowing love,

Hear our prayers this morning as we bring our whole selves before you, the parts of us that are celebrating deep joy and the parts of us that are mourning deep pain. You know every hair on our head and every word even before it arrives on our lips to speak, and so we know that you are already here with us, celebrating and mourning alongside us.

Help us, God, to absorb your love – the love that is deeper than oceans, that reaches to the heavens; the love that passes all understanding, the love that seeks us out when we are lost, the love that holds us fast, the love that will not let us go. You are closer to us than every breath we breathe. Your love created us, sustains us, and keeps us alive.

Surround us with this kind of love, God, your kind of love. Open our hearts and our heads to receive it – a gift, freely given, meant specifically for us and rooted in the same love that created the heavens and the earth. Pour it over us, God. Surround us and immerse us and season us and marinate us in your unending, unbounded love.

We need your love, God. We need to be saturated with it. Because your call to us is to be the people who witness to this love, people who love one another, people who love our neighbors, and people who love even our enemies. We cannot do this, God, unless we know the kind of love that comes only from you, the kind of love that permeates and makes possible the things that seem to us to be impossible. Make us your witnesses, God, people from whom love overflows.

God, as we pray this morning, hear our prayers:

Hear our prayers of thanksgiving, for all the love we have experienced:

Hear our prayers for those we know to be in need of this abundant love:

And God, this morning, help us to pray for our enemies, for all those who hurt us, who devalue us, who ignore us, who put stumbling blocks in our path, for all those who wish us ill. For those enemies that we cannot bear to name or pray for, may your Spirit intercede with sighs too deep for words.

God of great, abundant, overflowing love, hear our prayers this morning. Amen.

 

 

*I’m grateful for Osha Gray Davidson’s book, The Best of Enemies, for background and narrative of Ann and C.P.’s story.

desire of nations

Sermon: Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019: Epiphany!

During Advent, our Sunday school class has been paying a lot of attention to a single hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

This familiar hymn has its roots in an ancient prayer practice called the O Antiphons. In traditions that hold to what’s called the “liturgy of the hours” or “fixed hour prayers,” the O Antiphons are special additions to Vespers, or the evening prayers for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. They date to the 6th century, and each antiphon is a name of the Messiah, taken from prophecies in the book of Isaiah.

You know all the names, because you know the hymn:

O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel.

For folks who pray the O Antiphons daily during the week leading up to Christmas, they are calling on the name of the Lord in a different way every evening.

Some of the names are familiar – Emmanuel means, of course, God-with-us. Some are a little more obscure: the Root of Jesse comes from Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming Messiah in chapter 11: “In that day the Root of Jesse will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” Isaiah was prophesying that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David – Jesse, remember, was David’s father, and also the grandson of Ruth and Boaz.

Each antiphon, each name of the Messiah, is connected to a passage from Isaiah, and each name illuminates a different part of Jesus’ identity, as the gospel writers and early Christians understood it.

This tiny baby, the Messiah, came to be understood as the fulfillment of prophecy, God incarnate, such a complicated mystery that it takes multiple names with multiple histories to even begin to try to understand who Jesus was, and is.

Jesus is the personification of Wisdom.

Jesus is the promised Messiah who will come from the lineage of David, and Jesse.

Jesus is the Light that dawns in the East, shining on all those who have sat in deep darkness.

Jesus is the one who will unlock the doors to heaven, unbind the slave and set the captives free.

Jesus is God, come to be WITH us.

Jesus is ALL of these – and more.

One of the antiphons that we didn’t get to study in Sunday school is, in our hymn, the verse that goes:

O come, Desire of Nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

This is the Desire of Nations, or the King of Nations, or, in Latin, Rex Gentium.

This antiphon comes from Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 2:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3     Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

This particular identity of Jesus was – is? – the one that made people mad. In today’s text, King Herod was especially resistant to welcoming a new King, especially one who would judge all the nations and put an end to war.

King Herod was appointed, not elected, to rule over Galilee as the representative of Rome, and his reign was violent. He was an insecure leader, and the first thing he did was to execute Hyrcanus. Herod took all kinds of security measures to ensure his rule: he used secret police to monitor the opinions of his subjects; he tried to prohibit protests of his policies; he had his opponents removed by force. He maintained a bodyguard of 2,000 personal soldiers.

Herod was a big-time builder. During his reign, he spent millions on building the Temple Mount, a huge harbor at Caesarea, and massive fortresses. The money to build all this came from heavy taxation.

Herod was the king of Judea, a region filled with Jewish people, but he had a lot of trouble understanding the Jewish way of life. He was loyal not to the people, but to Rome: when he built the huge new Temple, he put a giant golden eagle at the entrance, refused to listen to the Pharisees when they explained how it needed to be built – to scripture’s specifications, and replaced the high priests with outsiders from Babylonia.

When Herod died, violent riots consumed Jerusalem – all the dissatisfaction of the oppressed boiling over.

This was the King who received strange visitors from the East one day, visitors who confessed to him that they had seen a new star rising that indicated a child had been born, destined to be King of the Jews.

Herod was not respectful of Jewish law and scripture, so there’s no telling whether or not he knew about Isaiah’s prophecy that this King was not only King of the Jews but actually the King of Kings, the one who would judge between nations, bring justice and righteousness to all people, the one who would cause all wars and all oppression to cease. IF he HAD read that passage, I suspect Herod would have been INCENSED and foregone his rather measured response to the magi in favor of one of our modern, presidential rage-filled tweet storms.

Really, can’t you just see the Twitter feed?

The Jews have a CHILD for a king? SAD!

I am the only KING in this country. For “wise” men, those guys sure are DUMB.

A STAR? You should have seen MY STAR. So BIG. The BIGGEST. The HUGEST STAR EVER. I AM THE ONLY STAR HERE.

Melchoir is a FAKE. His last astronomy prediction was TOTAL BUNK. Heard he can’t tell a star from a moon.

Only HEROD could have built that beautiful TEMPLE. Don’t tell me some other BABY KING is going to do THAT.

Herod was right to be mad. All the prophecies pointed to a Messiah who would rule over every earthly king and kingdom, a Messiah whose power would be not only the kind of divinity that humans created and bestowed upon their royalty, but actual, heavenly divinity – god incarnate.

heqi magi

He Qi, The Magi

And the kind of King that Jesus was – is – would be VERY different than the kind of King that Herod was. Herod ruled as a pawn of the Roman Empire – everything he did was specifically calibrated so that he could continue to rule over the Jews in Judea – cruel enough but not so cruel that revolution fomented – while remaining in the good graces of Rome.

His thirst for power kept him constantly on the lookout for anyone who might challenge his reign. That’s why Matthew tells us that after the magi went home without telling Herod where this new king was, he instigated what we call the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” commanding that all children in and around Bethlehem who were under the age of two be killed.

I read this text last year, and Herod sounded really familiar. I read it again this year, and even more of that time felt like this time. We also live in a time when rulers are mad for power, when poor people are taxed beyond their livelihood, when strongmen build impossible structures just to have their names on them, when leaders are in thrall to Empire and responsive to money instead of people.

We live in a time when children are being sacrificed in order for leaders to retain their power – in the last several weeks, as we prepared for Christmas, two children died while in custody of the US Customs and Border Patrol: 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin died on December 8 and 8 year old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez died on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes, reading the news in America in 2019 feels hopeless. The horrors just keep coming. But reading the story of Jesus’ birth is hopeful in more ways than one. All those names of the Messiah – all those different, mysterious identities of Jesus – they become even more relevant.

In an article last month, Rev. William Barber wrote about Herod:

The spirit of Herod still lives…And yet, it was in the time of Herod that God began preparing the way for Jesus and for deliverance. This is the good news of Christmas in the time of Herod. In the face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free. There is no “peace on earth and good will to all people” apart from the angels who showed up to tell migrant farm workers that their Savior had been born. There is no “joy to the world” apart from the message that politics of Herod’s are numbered and a new politics is getting born. We who would celebrate the new born King should consider what it means that we wait to hear the angels sing in the time of Herod. In fact, maybe the point of the text is that we must choose love, truth, mercy, and justice. We must embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod.1

 

What does it mean for us, today, to embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod? What does it mean for us to follow the Prince of Peace, to live as his disciples, the ones who

beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;

the ones who believe that


nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

 

Herod did not win. Oh, yes, he reigned on for a few more years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his sons divided his territory. But Herod’s reign was not powerful enough to stop the coming of the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Desire of Nations. Even Herod’s paranoia, violence and oppression did not stop God’s plan to arrive on earth, to offer deliverance. “Even,” Barber says, “int eh face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free.”

I am always struck by the magi’s decision to go home by another way – to refuse to return to Herod, to resist the Empire’s consuming power and worship, instead, this baby in a barn.

This is the call for those of us who have promised to follow Jesus today: we cannot ignore the Herods, but we need not bow to them. We cannot pretend that the terror of Herods’ reigns does not exist, but we need not participate in them.

 

Herod is not our King. Jesus is. Praise God.