Monthly Archives: March 2012

Get your loves in order

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.

Long ago, someone told me that somewhere in our diocese there is an old wooden pulpit with some graffiti carved in it, facing up so that only the preacher can see it. According to legend, it says “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In other words, stick to the matter at hand. Don’t go on about your summer vacation or your grandchildren or the upcoming election or church politics. It’s about Jesus.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks, the gospel tells us. Who were these Greeks? Greeks were foreigners, people outside the Jewish religion. They might have made it a practice to go to the Passover festival in the same way that lots of us regularly attend the Greek Festival in Portland every October: great music, great food, a chance to tour that gorgeous church…..But these Greeks going up to worship in the temple had heard something about Jesus. They heard that he had a message for social and cultural outsiders as well as insiders. So they track down Phillip, whom they know is part of Jesus’ inner circle.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus. This scene has me wondering: what if some foreigners came to our doors, perhaps for Easter, or maybe this morning, and said to the ushers, or to the person next to them at the coffee pot: “excuse me, please, we wish to see Jesus.” What would you say? What would you show them? How would you help first time visitors to see Jesus? Would you catalog our ministries that proclaim good news? The list isn’t as long as it could be, but it’s a good list. Would you say to them: “Stick around for the Eucharist. Then you’ll really see Jesus!” This is what most of us believe about worship—that every Sunday we get to proclaim the miracle of resurrection.

What would you say if someone asked you to show them Jesus?

I’ve also been wondering what did the Greeks hoped to hear from Jesus, once they saw him. Perhaps they wanted to hear Jesus say yes, you’re welcome here. Even if you come from a very different religious tradition, or none at all, I get who you are. My message is for all people, not just the faithful establishment. You’re welcome here. Welcome home. That’s certainly what I would want to hear.

And what does Jesus actually say? Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoa. I’m not sure this is what the Greeks expected after traveling a long distance to seek out this controversial Hebrew teacher.

Here Jesus predicts his death—‘tis the season—and also says something about his purpose and our purpose. He came to bear much fruit, and to show us how to do the same. He doesn’t say: I am a grain of wheat….he speaks in the abstract; he speaks for all of us about God’s purpose and our purpose. Bear much fruit.

He makes a connection between bearing much fruit and death, which probably isn’t any more welcome news to us than it would have been to the people listening to him at that Passover festival centuries ago. Aren’t there other fruit-bearing images Jesus could have used that don’t involve the death of the one who bears the fruit? Has he never heard of renewable resources?

But something has to die in order for us to bear the kind of fruit Jesus preaches, the fruit of the reign of God, where all are healed, housed, and fed, where the world is transformed into a place where all are welcomed home. When Jesus says those who love their life will lose it, he is talking about so loving our own agendas that such love keeps us from nurturing the fruit of the reign of God.

Someone once said to me: It’s important to get your loves in order.

In other words, it’s okay to love your car, a great meal, football, your husband or wife….the point is to love God more, to love God’s kingdom and God’s call to us to proclaim the kingdom, more.

When Jesus talks about hating our lives in this world in order to keep our lives in eternal life, he’s not asking for a bunch of disciples who are miserable because they hate their lives so much. He is asking us to get our loves in order.

Remember the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah? Jacob loves Rachel more than anything, but he is given her older sister Leah as his bride. He has to work seven more years for Rachel. Scripture tells us: Jacob loved Rachel and hated Leah. Well, Jacob and Leah had seven children together and he cared for her for many decades in what was considered, in those days, a healthy, happy marriage. But he loved Rachel so much that anything other than Rachel felt like hate. This is the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for God. This is the kind of love with which Jesus wants us to work for God’s reign.

Strangers visiting our church asking to see Jesus might find him in each one of you who is willing to hold loosely the things of this world, to die to your driven self in order to build the Kingdom of God. This is eternal life, life lived to the fullest.

Before I close I want to go back, back 600 years before Jesus’ promise of a grain of wheat bearing much fruit when it dies, to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah blesses us with his promise of a new covenant to be written on our hearts. Someone once asked a certain Rabbi: “why did Jeremiah talk about God writing the words on our hearts? Why not in our hearts?” The rabbi’s answer is that when our hearts break, the word of God can fall in. Two weeks from now we will be celebrating God’s promise of renewal and new life through the resurrection. It is in hearts broken open that the word of God takes root.

These last weeks of Lent call us to cling to God, rather than to what is safe and familiar, so that we can experience new joys. During these last weeks of Lent I pray that you may hear the promises of God in ways that allow those promises to blossom in your hearts, that, as our collect says: among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found. Amen.

Foolhardy Kind of Love

It was lovely, as always, to see the wonderful faces at St. David’s yesterday morning.  Here’s the text from the sermon I preached, after our readings from the 3rd Sunday in Lent.  Blessings on the way, and hope to see you all again soon!

Good morning, its good to see you. I bring you greetings from the St. David’s family in New York City, Kerlin, Jordan and Aiden send their regards and are doing well, and we’re all enjoying a bit of spring break right now. It has been a pleasure to be able to follow along with your Lenten journey here with the blog and facebook posts, and I’ve been thinking about some of the questions you have considered together thus far. What do you hear God saying? What is our mission? What proclamations will possess you on the other side of the desert, and where is God suffering in the midst of our own suffering. The question I’d like to add into the mix today concerns God’s foolishness. Where have you been foolish for the message of God? Where have your words failed to explain why you are here, or what have you stopped yourself from saying out loud for fear that it simply wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hears you? “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”

There are two things that make me wince in our scripture readings this morning. The first is this idea in Paul that proclaiming the message of the cross may be foolishness to those who hear it. It just so happens that I spend a great deal of my time trying very hard to not sound foolish, especially when it comes to church. I’m getting a degree in not sounding foolish about God right now, actually. Paul’s attitude here seems to be “you either get it or you don’t, and at the end of the day there’s just no use explaining.” Now, words have certainly failed me before. I know well the particular stare of a colleague, friend, or partner who is looking at me in the midst of some perfectly rational argument of mine as if it were springing from a hole in my head. “I don’t think you’re hearing me,” is a favorite response of mine in times like these, which is a polite way of saying, “I’ve explained this to you in three different ways already and still somehow you do not understand that I am right.” Paul certainly wasn’t making things easy for himself. He was in love with a savior whose chief power was in giving it all away, a Messiah who had not only come already but had been humiliated in the process, and most Greeks and Jews simply weren’t buying it. For anyone who has spent any time wondering how in the world you’re going to begin telling another human soul about the startling revelations God has unveiled somewhere deep down in your own, the rejection is difficult to watch. “Very well then,” Paul says, “if it is foolishness, at least it is God’s foolishness, and in the end, no words will suffice to convince you of its truth, the faith to understand our message will come from within you by God’s salvation only.” The sentiment is a poetic stroke in favor of human intuition that transcends the confines of logic and language, and at the same time, it is an easy way out of the conversation.

The second thing that makes me wince this morning is a likely candidate, the unruly Messiah himself. I cannot hear the story of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple without being reminded of my teaching days. When I was finally put in charge of my own classroom I spent a good week before school started getting everything ready, arranging all the best books in a tidy display, organizing the supplies by kind and size. My classroom was pristine, a physical, actual display of what I thought teaching should look like. Then of course, the students came in. In particular, one student came in whose learning had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and this was a first for me. Within 5 minutes he had pushed over every book, taken out every supply, and flipped over every box that he could get his hands on. My world was turned upside down, literally. And this happened every day. It took the full school year for his mother and his therapists to work with me to develop the kind of adaptive response this student really needed, which was not the classroom I had planned at all. In the end, this was a clarifying experience; this student was showing me what was really important for my teaching. Is this what Jesus is doing in the Temple? Does Jesus come into the religious structures we’ve worked so hard at developing to start trashing the whole thing? The teacher in me is still wincing. It was the Passover, religious Jews were coming from all over to make the appropriate sacrifice in Jerusalem; they were purchasing animals in the Temple square to avoid having to lug them along on the journey there, and depending on where they were from, they had to exchange their currency to do so. They were being observant and reasonable, and Jesus throws a wrench in the whole thing. And for what? What remains in our vision of faith when the materials are stripped away? Which tables is Jesus flipping over in our tidy life together?

So this is where God has me this morning. Stuck between a very strong desire to not sound like a fool when I’m talking about what matters most and a Savior who seems determined to unsettle every bit of logic I’ve carefully prepared to make sure that doesn’t happen. It is not an unfamiliar place for me to be stuck in. In New York, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests get me there every time. The responses they garner are the epitome of Paul’s “you either get it or you don’t” attitude. Folk who walk by either seem to leave convicted and inspired that someone out there is finally giving voice to an outrage they have harbored silently for a while now, or they roll their eyes and ask what the meaning of any of this could possibly be. I feel absolutely convicted by the outrage, the message, and the street theatre, and yet I have a real resistance to writing down what I actually believe with permanent marker in 15 words or less and literally standing behind it for all the world to see. I prefer more ambiguity than that, I prefer a via media, I’d prefer the other side to know that I can relate to where they’re coming from and that maybe we could have a conversation about it. I’d prefer that someone not pass me by and think that I am wrong without leaving me a chance to prove myself to them. Of course, the result of all these preferences is often that I avoid saying anything at all, and the potential conversation escapes the possibility of even happening.

The good news this morning is that we follow one who would appear in no way to be so hesitant. Christ is moving forward into a kingdom of God’s peace on this earth that would radically shake the tidy structures we have prepared to their foundation. We know what it looks like. Widows, orphans, poor folk of every stripe and nation, every human soul who has been trod under the injustice of this world lifted up and welcomed in to the feast prepared for all at the foundation of the world. So where is the tension for you? When does your voice tremble because you know you have to say something that might not come out with just the right words attached to it? Where has Christ kicked over a table set up in the temple of your best made plans? If you aren’t sure, try this: begin a sentence by saying, “I know this sounds crazy, but…” and then finish it with something about God. If we are willing to sound foolish for the sake of saying it out loud, we may be surprised to find the risk we take in speaking is precisely the place where the conversation begins. The good news is that we do not have to worry about being right, only honest, and God, speaking in the hearts of those who truly hear will take care of the rest. In the end, it may not be about whether someone else is really hearing us at all, but about whether they hear the Christ who speaks through and among us when we are willing to lend our voices to the truth he most wants to say. And as a rule, if what comes out sounds like it belongs in permanent marker scrawled out on a piece of cardboard, we’re likely headed one step in the right direction. Here’s hoping for the courage to speak all the foolhardy words we’re most afraid to say, and strong faith where the logic of this world begins to fail. 

The Way of Suffering

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Last week, I ended my sermon with the question: What wonderful proclamation will possess you on the other side of the desert? The teaching from today’s gospel may not be exactly what we had in mind for a wonderful proclamation.

We don’t want to hear about Jesus’ suffering, certainly not on this day when we celebrate our patron saint, David—this is supposed to be a happy occasion! Happy because it is our feast day, because we share this time with friends from Bryn Seion and the Welsh Society, because of the wonderful feast of creativity happening across the hall in the form of the SE Portland Art Walk, and—never last nor least—the grand re-opening of our history room upstairs. It is also a bittersweet day, because for the first time in a long time, we are celebrating the feast of St. David without Tom Owen, who died a tragic and untimely death a few two weeks ago.

I like to think that Tom is celebrating St. David’s Day this very moment with St. David himself, surrounded by leeks and daffodils, and perhaps enjoying a glass of something beyond David’s self-imposed diet of bread and water.

My sense from what we little we really know about what kind of a disciple Saint David was, leads me to believe that he would not have had a problem hearing about suffering and death.

Jesus teaches his disciples—and anyone else who happens to be listening—that part of what it means to be the Messiah is that he must undergo great suffering, and rejection, and be killed. This is not the kind of messiah the disciples have signed up for! This is why Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. “Ah…with all due respect,” Peter might say, “ we were kind of expecting a savior who planned to kick out the Romans, and become a great king, maybe like David, and all of us, well you know….we could all be your top advisors.”

“Whoa!” says Jesus, loud enough so all the disciples can hear, “You’re talking like you’ve been listening to someone else besides me—Satan even! God’s plan is not about that kind of worldly power!”

To define discipleship as picking up one’s cross would have been a shock for Peter and his motley companions. We’re used to it. Crosses are all around us, in churches, on bumper stickers, around our necks, or tattooed on our shoulder. Crosses are how we mark ourselves as disciples of Jesus. So we often don’t think about what this really means.

When Jesus said to the disciples that if anyone really wanted to follow him, he must take up his cross, no one knew that this was the way that Jesus was going to die. They certainly knew what a cross was, and how the Romans used it, but hearing this from Jesus would have been new and shocking information. Have you ever found a new hero—a great boss or a wonderful professor or an amazing musician or political activist who makes you say: I’d follow that guy anywhere! Imagine that person saying to you: If you really want to learn from me, be prepared to die a miserable death. I wonder how many of us think about this when we hang a cross around our neck.

When we are called as followers of Jesus, we are called to die, over and over again. Not necessarily the same miserable, bloody, and painful death that Jesus dies, but we are called to die to our own needs and expectations, die to our own agenda, die to our own idea of how things are supposed to turn out, just as Peter must die to his idea of what a Messiah is supposed to be.

We are called to lose our lives as we conceive them to be. This kind of loss, this kind of death, can be excruciating.

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther talked about two different theologies. Remember that “theology” is an intimidating word that is simply shorthand for the question: “What is God up to?” The theologies Luther articulated were the theology of glory, and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory is built on assumptions of how God is supposed to act in the world. God rewards the good with riches, good health, and long life. God punishes the wicked, God brings strong, right-thinking people to power and prosperity. Those who do not succeed, or who fall victim to loss and failure, have surely done something wrong, or simply do not matter in God’s eyes.

The theology of the cross says that what God is up to is that God reveals himself to us as Jesus rejected and suffering on the cross. That where there is suffering, loss, disappointment, abandonment, and unspeakable grief, that’s where God is. God suffers with us. God is present in our suffering when we rage against him for inexplicable events, when we mourn the loss of a loved one, or when we suffer as the result of our own inability to hold our lives loosely for the sake of the gospel. God suffers with us when we suffer, and God suffers with us when we should be suffering but aren’t, when we aren’t seeing the poverty and heartache around us, because we’re too busy looking for signs of God’s glory and triumph.

Well, this is a cheerful message this morning, isn’t it? I do think it’s good news that God is a suffering God. To the extent that as we, as disciples, are willing to suffer with and for God, God suffers with us.

The other good news is the part of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel that none of the disciples pick up on: the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed—we got that part—and after three days rise again. After three days rise again. When we are willing to let go of everything we think we are, everything we think we’re supposed to have and supposed to be, God transforms our loss and suffering into new life, just as he raises Jesus from the dead. Just you wait and see.