405. …the swing back around again

[PREFACE]

During my last year in grad school, I was given the honor of being one of the speakers at the annual Spring Banquet. The theme of the banquet was Swing: There and Back Again and I was tasked with giving a five minute story, poem, song, or other sort of presentation.

Here’s what I shared.

[END PREFACE]

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Photo by: Dave Ferguson

I don’t know if any of you saw it, but a couple months ago, about halfway through the lenten season, I sent in a prayer request to the weekly Community Prayer Letter. In part, it read:

…as I work (frantically) to finish work for my last year as an MDiv, I find myself looking back and realizing that my first few years in grad school were spent identifying, dismantling, and debunking theologies, relational patterns, and paradigms that had been so harmful for so long. I also look back and see that the past year or so has been a time of rebuilding and repair.

It’s like I’ve spent much of my life as an airplane that’s been weighed down by baggage and faulty engines. And now much of the baggage is gone and the engine has been radically rebuilt and I’m looking at this thing wondering if it’s actually going to fly.

One thing that I forgot to mention in that prayer request: it often feels like my airplane and its rebuilt engine is held together with little more than duct tape and twist ties.

That process of dismantling and rebuilding, I’m sure many of you know and can relate, is not a linear one. It’s cyclical. You lose some old, foundational idea, and then you feel lost for a while. But then you find something new and that seems solid and so you use it as a new conceptual framework to help you navigate and make sense of life. But then a reading assignment, a point in a class lecture, a comment on a paper from a professor, a question from a friend – something reveals some fatal flaw in this new idea and then there you go again, floating away, untethered.

It’s like being on a playground swing. When things make sense, when our theologies and psychologies are working, it’s like swinging forward – there’s the rush of wind in your face and the thrill of ascent. But then you reach the end of your arc and soon you’re hurling backwards, away from the familiar, into the unseen, unknown.

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Photo by: Karl Hutchinson

Part of the fun of playground swings is the rhythmic regularity of it all – back and forth, back and forth. We can trust and enjoy the backwards arc because we know that before long, we’ll be swinging forwards again.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have such a sense of rhythm. In my time in grad school, there have been a number of disruptions, a number of times when I’ve been in the terrifying backswing. And because there is no rhythmic regularity to the swings of life, I never knew when or even if I’d ever find a way forward again.

And here’s a bittersweet bit of truth that I’ve picked up along the way: some backswings never bring us back.

But here I am and here many of us are – looking at some crazy airplane that we hope will fly – whether that be flying through the next school year or flying into a new career. And we look at the duct tape and the twist ties and we wonder if they will hold. And we’re right to be wary, if not outright terrified, because at the end of the day, flight worthiness isn’t tested on the ground. It’s tested up in the air.

There’s a lyric from a Tori Amos song that goes:

Is there trouble ahead
for you the acrobat?
I won’t push you
unless you have a net

And I think of the faculty and the staff here and how I believe they push us as hard as they do because they know that we do have a net. We have the grace of God to catch us when our engine coughs out a piston or when our tail falls off mid maneuver. They push because they trust God’s grace for us, but more importantly, they push us because they believe we can fly.

And so here’s to flight, here’s to trust, here’s to falling, here’s to grace and to the swing back around again.

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384. tone and tempo

[PREFACE]

Last week I got to deliver a sermon at my church. A few things you’ll need to know in order to understand some of the things I talk about.

For about seven years now, my church has been trying to move into a new home. I don’t want to get into all the details of the numerous hopes, struggles, dreams, fears, and disappointments that have plagued this project, but I will say that it’s been pretty brutal.

In these past few months, it looks as if we’re finally at a place where we can actually move forward on this project. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

[END PREFACE]

Texts for Sunday, April 7th:
John 20:19-31 (The story of Doubting Thomas)
Acts 5:27-32
By: Joseph Karl Stieler
I heard a story recently on NPR about the tempo of Beethoven’s music. The way the story goes, late in his career, a device gets invented called the metronome. This is something that keeps tempo by ticking out a precise number of beats per minute. For example, a setting of 120 would be two beats every second.

Initially, Beethoven resisted the use of the metronome, but after a while, he realized that through this device, he could ensure that for the rest of time, long after his death, that his musical pieces could be played, not just with the correct notes, but also at the correct speed. And so he took the time to go back to his previous scores and document the precise tempo at which he wanted his works to be performed.

Now here’s where things start to get interesting.

It turns out, that today, nobody ever performs his symphonies at the tempo he marked. Why? Because they’re insanely, some might say comically, fast.

Here’s an edited clip from the story:

Click here.

As you can hear, sometimes Beethoven’s tempo is so fast that performing the piece as marked presses up against the technical limits of even the best players in the world. Beethoven scholars and musicologists have puzzled over these tempo markings, trying to explain why they’re so fast. The most obvious explanation is that maybe the metronome that he was using was broken or maybe it had different markings than the ones we use today.

But here’s the crazy thing.

Someone actually found the very metronome (the exact one!) that Beethoven used and it works fine. 100 on Beethoven’s metronome is 100 on a modern metronome.

And there are other theories out there, some plausible, some highly speculative, but the fact is, we may never know what to make of Beethoven’s tempo markings – maybe all the recorded and performed works of his have been (and always will be) played slower than he intended.

This is actually rather odd, because the classical world is one where attention to detail is prized. And you would think that correct tempo would be a pretty important detail to attend to. But no conductor ever follows them. In addition, not a single classical music critic ever complains about that fact, which is even more surprising because they usually complain about everything.

And I think there’s something telling here. Somehow, even these sticklers for accuracy and authenticity understand that at the end of the day, beauty must prevail.
Metronome
Now what about the text we have before us – the story of doubting Thomas?

Here, we have, not musical notation, but narrative. And if there’s one thing that modern narrative has that this ancient writer did not include as much of, it’s the emotional tone of the story. And so just as we’ll never know precisely what Beethoven had in mind with his symphonies and their frenetic tempo markings, we may never know precisely what sort of emotional tone we should assign to Thomas and to Jesus here.

Of course, the history of interpretation and even translation has not been kind to Thomas.

The NIV has Jesus admonishing Thomas with the words, “Stop doubting and believe.” The NRSV is a bit softer with, “Do not doubt but believe.”

But let’s take a look at Thomas, for a moment. What’s his tone? How did he sound when he said, “unless I see the marks in his hand and in his side, I won’t believe.”

Well, what just happened? Jesus showed up to the disciples and Thomas wasn’t there. He shows up later and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” And the text moves from there, directly into Thomas’ statement of disbelief.

But things couldn’t have gone that fast.

One of my professors likes to talk about how we are always at war with hope. And when he talks about this war with hope, he’s not talking about, “oh I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” or “I hope the Mariners win this year.” He’s talking about “I hope the chemo treatments will work again; I hope he can stay clean and sober; I hope she can carry the baby to term this time.”

These are big, unwieldy, slippery hopes. We wage war with these hopes because these are hopes that fight back. On the one hand, we so desperately want to cling to the tiniest thread of hope that things will turn out well. But on the other hand, we want to shield ourselves from the possibility of deep disappointment and so we push it away.

And here we have Thomas, mourning his beloved, dead rabbi. I wonder if that’s why he wasn’t there with the others – maybe he wanted to be alone with his grief for a while. And then he meets up with the other disciples and they’re going on and on about this crazy story of Jesus alive.

I picture Thomas in that moment, at war with hope – a tiny piece of him wanting desperately to believe that what his friends were telling him was true, but the disbelief. How could he bring himself to believe something so utterly, impossibly…

I mean, can you imagine, can you feel the tears streaming down his face as he cries, “No. That’s too good to be true. It can’t be. No, stop it! Unless I can feel the wounds with my own fingers, I won’t believe. I just can’t!”

And then a whole week goes by.

I’ll bet it really sucked to be Thomas that week. I bet it sucked to be around Thomas that week. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time the next Sunday rolled around that Thomas got some of the other disciples wondering if they had actually seen what they had seen.
Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
Findlay Family,1 we know what weeks like this are like, individually and corporately. In the course of our building projects, we’ve lived through years of these dark, despairing weeks. We know this war with hope. We know what it is to watch a beautiful dream wither away – even more so, a dream that we thought God had dared us to dream. And yet, there it went.

How and where do we find God again in moments like that?

Can I admit that when we started the process of redesigning the building, that I found it difficult to hold hope? And even now, as previously insurmountable barriers have been falling and continue to fall, as the path towards completion grows brighter and clearer week by week – I still reserve a part of myself out of fear of disappointment.

But.

But I need stories like Thomas’ to remind me that another Sunday does come. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jesus came back specifically for Thomas. And what’s the first thing Jesus says? “Peace. Be at peace, Thomas. It really is me. See (gesturing to the holes in his hand)? See (to the wound in his side)? Thomas, your awful war with hope is over. You really can believe.”

And Thomas responds with rapturous awe, “My Lord and my God.”

What tone do we hear when we read the words of Jesus?

There are no tempo markings. It is we who have to decide, each time we read, how to stage this performance. And when we decide, I hope (like Beethoven’s conductors) that we always err on the side of beauty, of gospel, of relentless, redemptive love.

And speaking of choices, in the next year or so, there will be many other choices that will have to be made here at Findlay Street Christian Church.

See, there’s another sort of rebuilding and redesign that’s in the works, because the church isn’t the building. We (gesturing towards the congregation) are the church and if we are to be faithful witnesses of what God is on about in the world, if we want to move into a new neighborhood, if we desire to deeply integrate and invest ourselves into their community, their lives… Well then our community cannot stay the same.
East Elevation
And there are some of us who are longing for change. And there are some of us who are unsure. And there are some who don’t like change or who won’t like the changes after they happen.

In the passage from Acts that Jo read earlier, the apostles and other followers of Christ had just been freed from jail. And they had been jailed by the religious leaders of the day for preaching the resurrection of Christ – a message of life and forgiveness, a message that claims that a new world is possible, that peace and reconciliation can be the new norm.

I trust that we’ll be received into the Beacon Hill neighborhood better than Peter and the apostles were, but like them, we are called to be witnesses, to be an example of how the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives, in our congregation, in the neighborhood, and in the world.

These are challenging, exciting, yes, even hopeful times for our church. And it feels good, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but in these past few months, I’ve sensed a new sort of levity in the air on Sundays, a new sort of anticipation. The tone is shifting and the tempo is picking up.

Church, we have waited with Thomas long enough. Let us rejoice as we see dawn breaking in on this new, beautiful Sunday.

(Cont. below the image.)
Metronome2

Photo by: seiichi.nojima

So, um… That’s a message of good news for the church and for all who know and live in resurrection. I had initially ended my sermon there, but there’s one more thing I’d like to address.

The season of Easter is a lovely time of spring and new life, and thanks be to God for that.

But there are some out there (and can I admit that I include myself in this group), there are some who are still in that long, lonely week of waiting with Thomas, waiting with some sort of long unrequited prayer. There are some who are still waging the long, cold war with hope. And like Thomas among the other rejoicing apostles, we watch those around us, those who have seen resurrection in their lives, celebrating.

And we wonder when or if our turn will ever come.

Again, can you imagine that week with Thomas? Can you hear the other disciples telling him, “hey, cheer up – Jesus will probably stop by again on Monday.” And maybe Thomas allows himself that little bit of hope. And then Monday comes. And goes. And then Tuesday. And then Wednesday…

For those of us who are still waiting, who knows what part of the week we’re in. Maybe Sunday is just a few minutes away. Or maybe it’s still early Tuesday morning, and we’ve miles to go. And during that week, Thomas didn’t know – even the other disciples couldn’t have known – that Jesus would ever appear again.

In the second half of verse 29, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while the focus there is on belief, the idea of waiting is there just beneath the surface. The writer, John, may have included that phrase because the early church would also have been waiting and wondering – “will Jesus return again? How long will we have to wait?”

And we, the church, are still waiting with them.

So those of us who yet wait and wonder – we’re not alone.
Prague Metronome

Photo by: Frantisek Fuka – Sculpture by: Vratislav Novak

But look again. What does Jesus say to those in wait? He says that we are blessed.

And yeah, it’s often hard to feel blessed, especially during extended periods of waiting, but if I can pull in Matthew’s Gospel here, Jesus had this to say about want and waiting:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Waiting for resurrection sucks. But we don’t wait alone. The kingdom of heaven waits with us and promises that we will be comforted.

And I’ll end this time with these lyrics from a song by Sinead O’Connor, performed by The Opiate Mass:

All the pain that you have known
All the violence in your soul
All the “wrong” things you have done
I will take from you when I come

All mistakes made in distress
All of your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss
I will give you tenderness

For child I am so glad I found you
Although my arms have always been around you
Sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you2

We may not see, but we are seen.

[FOOTNOTES]

  1. A few months after I delivered this sermon, the church changed its name from Findlay Street Christian Church to Welcome Table ↩︎
  2. Audio credit: The Opiate Mass ↩︎

367. Church and Chocolate

[PREFACE]

This is the first sermon I got to preach at Findlay Street Christian Church.

To better understand some of what I say in the latter half of the sermon, I think it’s helpful to know that FSCC has been an open and affirming congregation since 1987 (it was actually the first OAA church in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and one of the first in seattle).

Come to think of it, I think this is actually the first time I’ve really talked about this on my blog. And while this is a sermon, and not a theological treatise on the subject, I’d love to hear feedback on the topic of OAA churches.

I welcome disagreement and push back but if comments become uncivil, I reserve the right to moderate comments as I see fit. (It pains me that I have to include this caveat, but trollers gonna troll.)

[END PREFACE]

Scripture readings for the day:
1 John 4:7-12
Acts 8:26-39

(I begin by taking out a bar of Theo’s Chocolate. I unwrap the bar. Break off a piece. Put it into my mouth. Close my eyes. Chew, and visibly enjoy.)

That was really delicious. I’m no expert on the world of fine chocolate, but let me tell you, that was really nice. A bit bitter at first, but then as I let it melt in my mouth and coat my palate, I got hints of cherry and orange, and a bit of really subtle, pleasant sourness near the end of it. Fine, chocolate really is one of the great gifts of God to us.

(I open my eyes and look out into the congregation.)

Why are you all looking at me like that?

Would you like me to say more about how that tasted? Would that give you a better idea of how amazing that was for me?

I can say more, I can try and use different metaphors and adjectives to describe the flavor, to give you a better idea of what I just experienced…

But that wouldn’t do, would it?

I could talk about the taste of this chocolate until I’m blue in the face but the funny thing is, the more I talk about it, the less you all care about what I say, because what are you all really thinking?

You’re thinking, “Shut up and give me some!”

Oh, and by the way, I have a few more bars of this chocolate that I’ll put out after service so we can all have some during coffee hour.

My point is, we experience the tactile world through our senses. And we try to share these experiences with one another through the words that we use. Have you ever stopped to think about how odd that is? I put a piece of this chocolate in my mouth and I experience it through my taste buds. But that’s the problem isn’t it?

I’m tasting it through my taste buds. I can’t get you to taste what I’m tasting. The best I can do is use descriptive words to talk about what I experienced as the taste filled my mouth, but no matter how poetic I am with words, you will never taste what I tasted until you put a piece into your own mouth.

Now if it’s this hard to talk about something like chocolate – something that we can hold and see and taste – how much more difficult is it to talk about God, something we can’t hold or see or taste?

Here at Findlay Street Christian Church, we read from God’s word, the Bible. We sing songs to, for, and about God. We share the peace of God with one another. We take communion. We learn about God through Pastor Joan’s sermons and from the other gifted teachers we have here.

All of these things that we say and do and sing to one another, that’s all good and necessary, but if we’re not careful, it can all become just talk about God. Remember how I said that talking about chocolate is different than actually tasting chocolate? Well, one of the things that I really appreciate about going to church here is that we don’t just talk about God, we actually do taste and experience God.

And why I can say this about us? I can say this, because love is here. Love is what changes our talk and our songs from mere words about God to an experience, a taste of God.

Here in 1 John, we read that God is love. Verse 12 says, “No one has ever seen God; [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” And it’s important to note that word, “us.” That means all of us, together as a church – God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us. Not in you or me, but in us.

The writer of 1 John tells us that God is love, and so when we love one another, we are experiencing God. Our songs aren’t just pretty words and melodies. When we sing these songs together with love, it’s like chewing chocolate and letting the taste fill our mouths. And here’s the really crazy thing. It’s like we’re all taking a bite out of the same delicious cosmic chocolate bar all at the same time. And when we sing, we’re sharing in and celebrating the same taste together.

Love – love of God and love of one another – is what brings about this unified, communal experience.

And speaking of love, want to know something else I love about this church?

I love that our love knows no boundaries. There is a place for everyone here.

And I know there are people out there who question this openness, but I think this odd little story in Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch suggests that our way of love is God’s way of love.

Here, we read about someone who traveled all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. That’s a journey of more than 1,600 miles, one way. It probably took about two months to cover that distance by chariot. And this was a royal court official – a treasurer, in fact. He probably had to jump through all kinds of hoops to take all that time off for this journey to Jerusalem.

Although it’s not explicit in the text, I think a really strong case can be made for the idea that even after traveling all this way, that this eunuch was turned away at the temple. Jewish law and customs of the day would have barred him from temple worship because of his status as a eunuch.

And that’s sad enough already, but it gets worse. In addition to wanting to worship in the temple, I think he journeyed all this way because he wanted to ask one of the rabbis about a passage of scripture in Isaiah, but no one would teach him.

And what was the question he wanted to ask?

Before I can get to that, I need to say a bit more about eunuchs in the first century. There were some who were born eunuchs, but there were many others who were forcibly made eunuchs (for a variety of reasons, all of them distasteful). The eunuch in this Acts passage was probably made that way, and I think that’s why he was studying this particular bit of Isaiah.

As someone who was made a eunuch against his will, thus having to live a life that had a social stigma attached to it, you can imagine him reading himself into this Isaiah text.

“Like a sheep I was led to the slaughter… In my humiliation, justice was denied me.”

I think this is why he made the long trek to Jerusalem. He wanted to know if he could find, in these words of Isaiah, some comfort for the injustice done to him. But no one in Jerusalem would talk to him. And so he turned around and started on the long, lonely road back to Ethiopia, still reading this bit of Isaiah to himself, over and over again – pondering it’s meaning.

So here he is, on this slow chariot ride back home, when out of nowhere, Philip runs up next to him and asks, “do you understand what you’re reading?” And can you hear the disappointment in his voice as he replies, “How can I, unless someone will talk to me about it?”

And then Philip begins with this Isaiah text and goes on to tell him about Jesus, about a savior who preached a story of profound, all-inclusive love.

A lot of biblical commentators talk about how later in Acts 10 and 11, Christianity expands from a Jewish sect to one that welcomes Gentiles but they seem to overlook this bit in chapter 8, which is strange because the story of a eunuch being baptized into the faith is a radical move. If a eunuch, who belonged to one of the most shamed and ostracized segments of society, can become a Christian, Gentile converts are basically an afterthought.

And I don’t know, maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Maybe that kind of Gospel love is so open and so expansive, it makes people uncomfortable.

But not here.

There is a whole world out there that’s tired of hearing words about God. They don’t want to hear about how good the chocolate is, they want a taste of it. And the tragedy is, some of the people who are the most hungry for a taste of God’s love are the ones that the church turns away.

But not here.

In the next few months, we’re going to have to have some difficult talks about the budget and our property and along with that, we’ll have to talk about our mission and identity. There are no easy answers or obvious ways forward, but I hope that in these discussions, we remember that we have really delicious chocolate here. And we allow everyone to take a bite.

The world is starving for a taste of God’s love.

And here, we feast every week.

And so, let the feast continue.

366. (classroom) sermon on Mark 11:1-11

[PREFACE]

I wanna say right up front that the ending of this sermon is a cop out. There really isn’t an ending. I ran out of time and couldn’t close the deal.

It’s a narrative form sermon based on Mark 11:1-11. I wanted to experiment with a different kind of sermon, one that didn’t preach as much as tell. It was my first attempt at the form and it was both a lot more fun and a lot harder than I thought it would be – especially when it came time to come up with a good ending, which I failed to do. But our homiletics teacher pushes us to try new things and so I did.

[END PREFACE]

Mark 11:1-11
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’

4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna!
 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

JerusalemRoad

Photo by: Ian W Scott

 
My name is Deborah.

I am one of the two disciples Jesus sent to fetch a colt for him. I went along with my friend Mary (no not that Mary… or that one either – Mary was a very common name in our time.)

You seem surprised that two women were sent. You shouldn’t be. Why do you think we were left unnamed by Mark?

But back to our story here.

We were walking on a road that took us between Bethany and Bethphage. We were going up the Mount of Olives and in the distance we were able to see Jerusalem. We were close.

And we weren’t the only ones.

This was Passover time. There were many people on these roads traveling towards Jerusalem. Some people make pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year. Most, at least once in their lifetime. These were crowded, busy roads we were on.

We bumped into all sorts along the way. Some had heard of Jesus and watched us with curiosity. Some of them wondered, “could he be the one?” Most people ignored us and our group – they had seen this before: a group of disciples traveling with their beloved rabbi.

So we’re getting near the top of Mount Olive and we stop.

Oh, I have to tell you a story here. Bartimaeus – the blind man Jesus had healed the other day? A character, that one. He yelled to get the attention of Jesus. Do you have any idea how loud you have to yell into a crowd to get that kind of attention? Well that kind of volume and tenacity is inbred – it’s part of who this guy is. If he was loud before being healed, he was even more so afterwards, always asking people, “What’s this? What’s that? What do you call this color again?” And again, no volume control.

So you can imagine the silence was conspicuous as we took this rest stop. And maybe this is why Jesus decided to stop.

See, Bartimaeus was right up there at the head of the group. He was looking out over Jerusalem. He had tears in his eyes and a huge grin on his face. He didn’t say a word, but we all understood.

Photo by: Colin Paterson

 
Jesus comes up to Mary and I and says, “I have a job for you.”

For us?

Yeah, you’ll be perfect for this… and then he tells us the job.

“So you want us to go steal a colt?” Mary said.

“Well, stealing is kind of a heavy word…”

“But you’re asking us to walk into town, find a colt, untie it, and bring it back. What would you call that?”

“Call it… the new economy of the new kingdom. Come on, you know the owner will be in town for Passover, he’s not going to be needing it. We’ll have it back before he knew it was ever gone. And besides, we need it for that thing we’re doing tomorrow.”

And that’s true. We did need the colt for that thing.

You people, I hear you have a name for this kind of street art – a flash mob? That’s what we were doing. We had been getting ready for days, gathering branches and leaves. It was going to be something.

“So, will you do it?”

I looked at Mary and she looked at me as if you say, “it’s up to you.”

“Yeah, sure. We’re down,” I said.

Later that day, we go down to the village, spot a colt, start untying it. We thought we were going to get away clean but then just before we started making our way back to the group, out of nowhere, a small band of men appear. They stop us and one of them asks, “Where do you think you’re going with that colt?”

Mary and I look at one another and then I say, “The Lord needs it.”

The guy says, “the master needs a colt now? During Passover?”

We nod.

He pauses for a moment, just staring at us, and then he says, “alright. I never do understand that guy. Sending some strangers all the way up from Jerusalem just to get this colt and I don’t even wanna know why he doesn’t bother to…”

His voice trailed off as he walked away. The other men left with him. Mary and I looked at each other, laughed quietly, then made our way back to the group.

Photo by: Lawrence OP

The next day, our flash mob went off without a hitch. It was prophetic performance art at its best. And like any good work of art, it had multiple interpretations. Some saw it as a mockery of royal pomp and circumstance. Some saw it as a crazy Jewish cult doing some crazy, Jewish cultish thing. Some thought it was dangerous and warned us to cut it out – the Romans aren’t exactly known to hold a high appreciation for protest as performance.

Honestly, even we disciples didn’t all know exactly what it was all about. It was all of those interpretations and none of them, at least not entirely.

Me?

I thought about what Jesus said, justifying the taking of that colt he was riding on – “the new economy of the new kingdom.”

That’s a dangerous word to use – “kingdom.” Because for about a century now, Rome was the only kingdom people were allowed to speak about.

Of course we were sick of Rome. They mocked our God, stole from our temples, made us pay their taxes, worship their emperor.

But we also feared Rome. We all knew what they did to traitors.

But here we were, with Jesus, who refused to keep quiet about his kingdom. And we knew walking into Jerusalem meant kingdoms were going to clash. And nobody knew what would happen.

Well, one person did, but I don’t think anyone wanted to believe it.

But I heard.

Just before healing Bartimaeus, Jesus talked for the third time about his death. But Jesus was always saying strange things right? So most people figured he was speaking another parable that they couldn’t understand.

But I heard. I could see the way his face changed and how his voice lowered whenever he spoke about his death. It was small and subtle, but I could see it. He meant it. He knew what he was talking about.

By the time we finally made it into Jerusalem, just outside the temple. It was already dark. Really dark. The energy of the day had waned – the novelty of the flash mob had long since petered out. We rolled in quiet and the temple was empty.

Most people immediately turned around to find a place to sleep – some finding inns, some on the streets, some walking back outside the city to make camp. Me – I had to grab the colt to take back the next day.

And so I made my way up to Jesus. He was standing in the Court of the Gentiles. The twelve were off to the side making something to eat, talking amongst themselves.

“Rabbi, the colt…”

He had already dismounted. He was standing beside the colt looking out into the temple courtyard at all of these merchant tables. Something was stirring deep inside of him but I couldn’t tell exactly what.

He turned to me, looked into my eyes for a moment and then said, “you know don’t you? You know what’s going to happen here, why I’ve come.”

I nodded. I knew that he had come to subject himself to the powers at play – politics and religion. We both knew it would not end well.

He gave me the reigns of the colt and turned his attention back towards the temple.

As I made my way back to Mary, I took another look over my shoulder and saw Jesus, framed by the grand temple entrance. I saw him hang his head. His shoulders sagged. He looked so small then, the temple towering up above him.

A chill wind blew through the city. The colt shuddered.

I pulled my cloak around me a little bit tighter.

This was going to be a dark, cold night.

365. symbols, advertising, and communion

[PREFACE]

I REALLY want to write up part three of my series of posts on What We Talk About When We Talk About God but I am in grad school and the end of the Spring semester is approaching which means work is piling up that I need to get to (stuff I’m already behind on).

But because I’m trying to stick to my one-post-per-week schedule, I did want to put something up.

At my seminary, we have a weekly Wednesday communion service. The services are organized and led by students and this past week was my turn to work with a few other people to do communion for the school. One of my jobs was to write up and deliver a brief homily, which I reworked slightly for this week’s blog post.

[END PREFACE]

I want to talk briefly about symbols.

Our world is inundated with them. I think I’ve been more aware of them since moving to Seattle because back in Hawaii, there are laws that prohibit billboards and limit the size of business signage. I remember when I first got to Seattle, there were huge images everywhere – all over the place. And so in-your-face, begging to be seen, forcing themselves into your peripheral vision.

And yeah, on the one hand it’s kind of a bummer to have all of this extraneous imagery but on the other hand, sometimes it can be fun.

…because advertisers and the designers who work for them can be really inventive and clever with images and symbols.

Take a look at this Amazon logo. What’s up with that arrow – is it just a bit of visual flair or is it doing something more? Well, Amazon is all about delivering goods and so the arrow makes sense. And you could also see the arrow as a coy smile, highlighting the friendly nature of the company. Pretty obvious stuff right?

But can you see where the arrow goes? Notice it goes from A to Z, symbolizing how these days they sell everything from A to Z. It’s also a reference to the fact that they began as a bookseller – books composed by letters of the alphabet – A to Z.

Or here’s a more subtle one – one that most people don’t notice but I warn you, once you do see it, you can’t unsee it.

At first glance, it looks like a straightforward logo. I mean, there are different colors and the D is pressed right up against the E – nothing really special about that.

But there is something more.

Can you see it? Would you like to?

FedEx is a delivery company and to symbolize that, they’ve cleverly incorporated an arrow into their logo. Can you see it?

Take a look at the white space where the E and the X meet.

And then there’s this symbol. It’s called the Star of Life and you’ll find it on all ambulances. And that bit in the middle is called the Rod of Asclepius.

As an aside, always take sermon illustrations with a grain of salt. Sometimes a big grain.

Because here’s the thing. When I first started working on this reflection piece, I was going to talk about how the symbol at the center of the Star of Life came from this week’s lectionary reading in Numbers (21:4-9) – the story where the Israelites, out in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land, are complaining AGAIN. In this text, God gets upset, and sends a bunch of poisonous snakes on the plain and people start dying. Moses prays for them and God tells him to take one of these snakes and to put it up on a pole. And then every one who looked at that snake, that symbol lived.

And I had heard in some sermon somewhere in my past that this medical symbol came directly out of this passage… But then I started researching the symbol and found that it actually has Greek origins. That said, the history of how it actually got to be associated with the medical profession isn’t quite so clear. It might be related to the Numbers text, it might not.

All that to say, whether or not this symbol has direct ties to the Numbers passage, it certainly has resonances. And like the Amazon and the FedEx logo, it’s kind of fun to have the eyes to see something that’s out there in public, hiding in plain sight.

Later in our service we will participate in another symbol – something else that’s out in the wider world, something that looks ordinary at first glance but takes on deeper meaning once you have the eyes to see.

And I’m speaking, of course, about communion. Bread and wine that looks ordinary but for those with the eyes to see, it’s so much more.

361. (classroom) sermon on Mark 1:4-11

[PREFACE]

I know I just posted up a “sermon” a few days ago and here I am, putting up another one.

What can I say, it’s just what I’ve been doing in grad school lately.

This sermon was written for my homiletics (preaching) class.

One of the things we’ve been learning in the class is the importance of context. Not so much the biblical or historical context of the text one is preaching on (that’s been covered in other classes), but the context of the congregation. The sermon, if it is to be effective, must take into context the people to whom it is delivered.

The sermons we write for this class are written for our classmates.

I make a point of saying that because it really does shape where I go in the sermon and might help you make sense of some of the places I go in the message. (It also helps make sense of the odd paragraph breaks and the sentence fragments – they’re written in such a way to help me deliver the message. It’s hard to explain. When I write something that’s going to be read, I write one way. When I write something that I’m going to read, I write another way. This is an example of the latter.)

Our teacher tells us that sermons are for a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. Because of this, she frowns on reusing sermons. A part of me wonders what she’d think of me posting up this sermon – something written for grad students, in a classroom, a few days ago; rather than for a somewhat anonymous audience, on the internet, for whenever you happen to click on it – but here’s the thing. I’m posting this up because I want to reference it in another post I’m working on.

…and to be completely transparent with you all, I’m posting it because I really like it.

[END PREFACE]

Mark 1:4-11

(4)John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (5)And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (6)Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (7)He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. (8)I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

(9) In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (10)And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (11)And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Can we get this right out in the open, right at the beginning, and say that this is a strange text? For one thing, in Mark’s Gospel, John just appears out of nowhere. Poof! Preaching repentance and baptizing people out in the wilderness.

What’s going on here? I mean, if he’s out there in the wilderness, how did people find out about him? And why were they drawn to a message of repentance?

And it’d be one thing if there were just a few people out there, checking out this space oddity, but Mark tells us that people were coming from all over – “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

Can you picture the scene? A throng of people, the hot sun, a hot wind stirring up the dusty air? And at the center of it all, a man with an ugly, brown, camel hair tunic – bits of grasshopper and honey still clinging to his beard.

And what’s he saying?

“Repent! Be baptized! Be washed, be cleansed of your sins!”

And that’s striking enough because sins aren’t forgiven out in the desert, they’re forgiven in the temple. But in a way, it’s not so surprising because there have been eccentric teachers like this before preaching other wild and wooly messages.

No, it’s the next thing he says that really catches their attention.

He says, “Don’t look at me, there’s someone else, someone greater. I’m just getting you ready for him.”

Now this is really new. Previous wilderness “messiahs” have always pointed to themselves as the solution. But this guy? He’s pointing them towards something else, someONE else, something coming but not yet here.

Still, I’ll admit, I had a really hard time getting my head around this story, especially when it came to preaching on it – where’s the good news? I mean, Jesus hasn’t even begun his ministry yet, what is there to preach on? What on earth does it have to do with us today?

And then it came to me.

In a way, John was heading up the first Occupy movement – the Occupy Judaism movement.

Because what is the contemporary Occupy movement about? A bunch of people who see systemic injustice being done and want to do something about it. And so they take to the wilderness of the unsheltered urban streets – a wilderness starkly different than that of the Judean desert, but perhaps no less dangerous or uncomfortable.

And John didn’t actually come out of nowhere. Mark tells us that he came preaching, right out of the pages of prophecy – Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And what does that mean, to make straight paths? I think the larger context of the Isaiah text makes this clear.

“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

A level playing field – the very message of the Occupy movement.

Because I wonder if a landscape strewn with valleys (people living lower than others) and mountains (people living high above) is a land that blocks out the light for far too many?

Is it inequality that Isaiah is concerned with here? Is this the message that John was bringing, the message that so many were attracted to?

John is out there in the wilderness, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he’s calling forth a society where access to the grace of forgiveness is no longer controlled by the powerful few but available to all.

Back then, the only people who could forgive sins were the religious elite, those of the priestly clan. This was a system that was supposed to create community but somehow it had gotten corrupted. It became about power and prestige rather than holiness and blessing. And the people knew it and that’s, I suppose, one reason why they were drawn out in the wilderness to John – for free access to forgiveness.

And not just forgiveness.

Again, the oddity of John was not just his clothes and his diet. No, he was offering something even stranger: a hope – a hope not based in himself and not even in a distant, abstract, holy God, but in another person. And that seems obvious to us now, but imagine their surprise back then. Imagine the strange, hopeful mystery that John was inviting them into – to look and to wait for someone else.

Because it’s one thing to say, “I am the answer, I am the one to put your hopes in.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “I’m just the messenger telling you to buckle up because someone else is coming who’s going to take this world in an entirely different direction. And repentance? That’s getting you turned in the right direction so you don’t get whiplash when the change does come!”

Anyway, I suppose that’s one way to look at John the Baptist. But how does that speak to us today? What’s the message for us?

When I started working on this message, I complained a lot. I thought it was unfair to be given a text which, really, is prologue. Jesus’ formal ministry doesn’t begin until another four verses after my pericope. How do I preach on that?

And then it hit me. Maybe I have the easiest passage of them all. Because the parallel between then and now, that story and ours?

Divinity students at The Seattle School, most of us envisioning ourselves going into some sort of ministry informed by the Gospel of Jesus – we are John the Baptist.

We point to hope in a world desperate for some hope to cling to. More than that, we point to an embodied hope, a physical hope, a storied hope.

And in this increasingly secularized world, a world where we can hold a computer, disguised as a phone, in our hands. A world that can harness the atom to power (or to destroy) our cities. A world with flight and medicine and the internet which can simultaneously topple regimes and deliver pictures of cats with silly captions to make us laugh.

In a world like this, I wonder if we might look like John the Baptist. No, we might not dress in uncomfortable clothes or eat bugs, but the message we believe, the message we bring? Isn’t that just as odd if not more so?

For those of us in the Theories of Culture class, we are learning that lasting world change never happens in a vacuum. It requires a whole host of disparate elements to come together unpredictably, uncontrollably.

I don’t know, is it too grandiose to say that we’re living in just such a time today – a time when the world is pregnant with new possibilities, a time when change is in the air, a time when more and more people are becoming aware of the injustice of inequality – and, more importantly, are willing to do something about it?

A time when the air all around us is rich with the gospel message of hope and love and freedom.

John tapped into the change that was already in the air in his time – that’s what drew people to him. People were desperate for change, for hope, and for someone powerful who could get them out of the mess they were in. And there was John, getting them ready for and pointing them towards Jesus.

And that’s what we get to do.

But I don’t want to sugar coat our task. Yes, ours is a good, hopeful work in a world and time ripe for change, but we would do well to remember that ours will also be a difficult, messy, maybe even dangerous work. I mean, John got himself jailed and then beheaded.

But we also do well to remember that out on the banks of the Jordan River with John’s voice crying out in the wilderness – Jesus showed up for John.

360. reflection on Micah 6:8

[PREFACE]

One of my classes this semester is called Essential Community. It’s goal is to introduce students to the need for and complexities of creating a community where people can gather to know and to be known.

That sounds like a simple task on the surface, but there’s a pretty big difference between a group of people in a room and a community. The former can be likened to a party – fun and social but not particularly deep. The latter can be though of as people who come together to bless and to be blessed, to teach and to learn, to give and to receive.

One of the final assignments for the class is to write and deliver a sermonette on the verse, Micah 6:8 – the theme verse for the class.

…and I like what I came up with and so I thought I’d share it here.

[END PREFACE]

8 He has shown all you people what is good.
   And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.

I love the verbs used in Micah 6:8: do, love, walk.

I love that the call is to DO justice – justice as a verb. Here, justice not an abstract principle or idea, but justice is something done, something put into practice. Cornel West says that “justice is what love looks like in public” – and I would add that it’s what love looks like in the commons. [We spent a lot of time on the idea of the commons in class.]

But we have to be careful here because the pursuit of justice can lead to the diminishing of one’s enemy, of the oppressor. It can dehumanize the person or group perpetrating injustice and when dehumanization happens, any manner of retaliation can be justified – justice-ified.

Which brings us to the second verb, “love.”

And how are we to love? Mercifully. This is not tough love. It’s the opposite of that. This is tough forgiveness. And what’s the difference? Tough love is tough on the other, often under the guise of justice. Tough forgiveness, however, is tough on the self for the sake of the other. Because forgiveness, true forgiveness, is always hard on the self.

We are wronged in some deep, dark way and we demand that things are made right – an eye for an eye, or a heart for a heart broken. And we want justice. But justice unfettered by love hurts all involved. We wound the other in retaliation and in doing so, we wound ourselves.

But justice, tempered by love expressed in mercy calls forth life.

Which brings us, finally, to the verb, “walk.” And how are we to move through this world? We are called to walk humbly. And as Jesus’ second greatest commandment will remind us, we are also called to walk humbly with our neighbor, through the commons, through life.

Three verbs: do, love, walk.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

It all sounds so simple doesn’t it. But our time in class and with the readings has shown me that these verbs are anything but easy. Not easy to understand, not easy to implement, and certainly not easy to live. And we can be left feeling powerless or lost.

But I wonder if there’s actually a fourth verb in there. What if we saw the word, “with,” not as a preposition, but as a verb? “With” as an action, an activity. We don’t do or love or walk alone. We do them with. I do them with you. You do them with me. And we do them together with God. Can you feel the activity embedded in the word – it bristles with life lived out together.

Which makes me wonder if perhaps the most important verb in this verse is the verb, “with.”

And so, what does the LORD require of us?

To do, to love, to walk, and to with.