Author: whitneybruno

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-31
Acts 4:32-35

Koinonia-Farm

Sister Sandra Schneiders tackles our first reading today and points out a different possibility in our translation of “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins, they are retained.” You see, in the second half of the sentence, there is no mention of sin in the original Greek. Additionally, what is possessive and what is objective changes. Therefore, we can also read this as “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you hold close anyone, they are held.”

This fits with John’s theme. This is the Christ who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Christ who came to forgive sins and embrace the outcast sends us out to forgive sins and embrace the outcasts.

The Christ who came to call us out of closed doors into communities that are not safe but in need of forgiveness, and being lovingly embraced.

A young couple named Florence and Clarence Jordan read these words of scripture, and those of Acts we heard today, and they believed. They were Georgian farmers, and they looked around and said – we should be one heart and one soul. We should distribute our wealth so no one is needy. When our Lord was resurrected, he came back with his wounds, but the wounds didn’t stop him. No one is so hurt, so poor, so sinful they cannot help another. Indeed, Christ came back with a mission – to go out from the locked doors and embrace the world.

So Clarence and Florence unlocked their doors. They teamed up with Rev. Martin and his wife Mabel English and started Koinonia (coy-a-nee-ah) Farm.

The name Koinonia is an ancient Greek word, used often in the New Testament, meaning deep fellowship. The community was built around four core beliefs:

-treat all human beings with dignity and justice,
-choose love over violence,
-share all possessions and live simply,
-and be stewards of the land.

Koinonia farm was a commune, where the produce and work was held in common. If that was not radical enough, Koinonia farm was integrated with black and white families living side by side, working side by side, eating side by side and being paid the same for their labor. This was 1942; in deep south Georgia; when Jim Crow ruled.

But the Jordan and England families knew the same issues that plagued sharecropping white farmers plagued sharecropping black farmers. They knew raising a farming family is hard with white kids and hard with black kids. They knew – poverty doesn’t care what color your skin is. And far more importantly – God loves the color God made your skin — from bluish ebony to snowy white and every hue on the face of the earth.

Together, the families were able to support one another’s crops so that if one failed, another succeeded, and no one went hungry. Together, they learned about what is was to be white in Georgia in the 1940s. What is was to be black in Georgia in the 1940s.

They did this in the name of Christ.

But also in the name of Christ, the Ku Klux Klan began to attack Koinonia. The placed bombs in their farmer’s stands. They drove by shooting at workers in the fields. They rallied 70 cars to drive through the farms terrifying the families. In the name of Christ, the KKK demanded the farm shut down.

The Koinonia farmers refused to take up firearms and fight back. They believed in their values: treat all humans with dignity and justice. This includes your enemies and those that hate you. Choose love over violence. This includes carrying your cross and not taking up a sword. Share all possessions and live simply. This means also sharing the hate, sharing the danger, sharing the wrath of the KKK. And be stewards of the land. Good farmers. Good caretakers.

So, when they couldn’t sell at their stands without being shot at, or bombed, they began to sell their nuts by mail. Their marketing was “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” And they did. Lots and lots of pecans. You can still order their nuts to this day.

As the farm learned more about poverty, they realized even housing is outside the ability of many families to own. And so they began to invite families to build houses, and then live in them. The no interest loans the farm gave out allowed the families to have a house when no bank would support them because they were poor, or black, or known to be against the KKK. Out of this grew the program we know as Habitat for Humanity.

Four years into the program, the Fuller family of Koiniona moved to Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, to begin the same program there. With them went Rev. Roger Miller, my belated mentor, of the newly created United Church of Christ. And this program was successful, and moved on – and now a half million houses around the world have been built by volunteers and homeowners for families to own with no-interest loans.

You have roots in all of this.

Koinonia. Habitat for Humanity. That Holy Spirit that stood up against accusations and triumphed over violence, over evil, with love, and humor, is still alive. It triumphed in Jerusalem. It triumphed in Georgia and Zaire. It triumphs here.

We live in a community that has rumbles of racism still deep in its core. We live in an America that is hell-bent on forgetting we are a nation of immigrants, a tossed salad of cultures and races mixed together, and we are better for it. We live in a time when Jim Crow laws are coming back and establishing white, male, heterosexual American men as the ideal and all other “deviants” from this are lesser people. Women. Homosexuals. Non-Americans. Anyone with any sort of skin color OR suspected non-White-American ancestors. The KKK and the Alt-Right violent movement groups are growing.

We could be like those early disciples. We could close our doors. Lock them. Gather together and not go out.

But that won’t protect us.

Walls are not security.

Ignorance is not security.

Active here is the Ku Klux Klan. But also the Creativity Movement. The Women of Aryan Unity and Vanguard America. All are Neo-Nazi groups. Add too the Aryan Nations’ Sadistic Sons and the Traditionalists Worker Party. The Daily Stormer, a world-wide known website for Neo-Nazi news, is published out of Worthington. Anti-Muslim groups ACT for America and Soldier of Odin operate here. Mission: America, the Bible Believers Fellowship, and Pass the Salt Ministries work to promote hate crimes against gays and lesbians. In the name of Christ – doing violence!

But we are doing good work. Through education, through refusing these ideologies that take our sacred scripture and turn it into a weapon of harm, of hate, we ARE reducing the number of hate groups.

We’re loving the hate away.

When I first started here at Saint Michael’s, Lancaster had 3 nationally known home-grown hate groups. Now, we do not.

Because we, here in Fairfield, here in Licking, here in Ohio, here in this very room – we will not tolerate abusing the neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner and the alien among us.

To be Christian, to be like Christ, is to go out proclaiming: Peace be with you.

I bring you peace.

The angels told the women to tell the disciples to go on to Galilee to see Jesus. Go on. Keep working. Keep spreading the message of peace.

But here they are, huddled and scared. So Jesus comes to them. And again – tells them – go and spread the word. Forgive sins. Embrace people. Spread the Good News of love, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and the unity of all kindred. All peoples. All nations.

And Jesus comes again the following week to tell them the same, again, and to gather up now Thomas to send him out, too. Spread the peace.

And Jesus comes again and again – here this very day – telling us the same – gathering us up and sending us out – go out to all peoples, all nations, and all kindred LIVING the Gospel. LIVING peace.

Jesus could have been furious with his disciples. They abandoned him. But instead, he gifts peace.

We could be furious with those who are different, physically or socially or culturally. But we are called to live in peace.

Go. Be the peace of Christ.

Go. Speak to relatives and friends. Don’t be quiet when someone tells a racist joke, or complains about “the blacks,” “the Muslims,” “the migrants,” “the immigrants,” or “the Mexicans.” Speak peace for and all people.

Be the peace of Christ.

Amen.

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Offertory Prayer Acts 4

Like the early apostles, we come to lay gifts to be distributed to each other and our community as any have need. Together, we have great power to testify to the resurrection of our Lord. God, guide our testimonies of words and gifts and deeds! Amen.

Psalm 133 Call to Worship

One: How very pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
Many: It is like precious oil anointing the head,
One: Anointing the beard of Aaron and running over the collar of his robes.
Many: It is like the dew of Hermon, falling on the Holy Mountains.
One: For there God ordained the blessing, the blessing of life forevermore.
Many: Like frosting on the cake, like the cherry on top – is unity. The crowning goodness of our Lord.
One: Let us go and worship our unifying God.
All: As one we praise the God who is Three-in-One!

Are You Here?

Our scripture reading is long today. And this is the shortened version.

Some churches let this stand as it is – and we hear it.

Some churches break it into dialogue. Or have performances.

I want to introduce you to an old way of telling the story.

This is an Arma Christi, Christ’s arms, like chivalry arms – not human arms. The symbols armachristiall around this statue tell the story of our scripture with little memory nudges. I know it is quite hard to see in the far pews, so please come up and look at this as you feel moved to do so now – or after the service. I’ll also tell you the part of the statue I am speaking about as I read today’s chapter of our holy gospel.

We in the Protestant tradition don’t use lots of symbols and gold, don’t use statues and icons. We aim for simplicity and humbleness.

But things like the Arms of Christ originally came from humbleness. In the middle ages, the poor were not educated. They could not read. They were not taught Latin and so could not understand the words read to them from the Bible. They were raised in working families and living hand to mouth often.

Priests and theologians and nuns and monks realized it was easier to show people the stories of the Bible than to teach each of them to read. Learning to read took time away from feeding your family. So they came up with symbols for people to remember the stories themselves, and put these symbols on the churches, so the humble could tell the stories again and again whether or not the priest was there.

It is the invention of the printing press, and public schools, and machines that let us each be able to read, and each have a Bible, and each be able to call forth its stories year after year without visual reminders. (Although the printed word is visual!)

Now although this is a Medieval tradition, this statue here is not that old. This is about 100 years old.

So now, let us turn to the story and listen to its images.

We welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and shouts of Hosanna.

Some begin to say – this is surely the promised King! The King who will throw out the Roman rulers and return Israel to its King David glory.

And some worry… Rome has a habit of murdering those who challenge them and scattering the people, or selling them as slaves…

Some begin to say — Surely this is the Messiah – who will bring God’s full reign here and make Jerusalem the crowning jewel of the world and all people to live in perfect harmony.

And some worry… if he’s the Messiah, then why does he challenge the religious authorities? Why does he let his disciples eat without washing their hands and follow other cleanliness codes? He may just be a charismatic sham.

In Mark, Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers, and he goes to the temple – where he cleanses it with a whip. And that scene is when some people decide Jesus has gone too far, and they begin planning to get him away from the crowds to kill him.

Here hangs a whip on the Arma Christi.

Thursday evening, Jesus takes the cup and bread around dinner, instituting communion, and asking us to remember him. And he foretells his death, and that Judas has betrayed him to these killers. Here is the chalice.

Jesus then retires to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. And there, asks the chalice, the cup, to pass him… if God wills it.

While he is praying, a mob and soldiers arrive with Judas. They carry torches and lanterns into the garden. Here hangs a lantern. They go to arrest the Light of the World.

But Peter pulls out a sword – here is a sword – to defend Jesus. And Jesus tells him no. From the very beginning, Jesus has been preaching not to give in to sin, not to payback evil with evil.

Peter – who later that evening will then deny knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows. Here stands a rooster. He would defend him with a sword and violence, but not with his life and peace

Or perhaps Peter was telling the truth. He didn’t know who Jesus is. Messiah? King? Something else entirely?

And here is where our Scripture reading for today begins.

Mark 15:1-47


As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.

Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered him, “You say so.”

Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”

But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival Pilate used to release a prisoner for the people, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?”

But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, (FLOG, PILLAR) he handed him over to be crucified.


Let me pause. Here is the flog, and the pillar Jesus was tied to. And you should note the irony here… Barabbas’ name means “Son of God.”

And, Barabbas is in jail for leading a rebellion against Rome. Jesus is in jail for potentially leading a rebellion again Rome, but definitely challenging the religious authorities.

Perhaps the people thought if Jesus wasn’t going to be their messiah, and just let the priests accuse him of whatever… they might as well stake their hopes on Barabbas. He, at least, has a history of fighting back.

So the “Son of God” Barabbas is released, and this Jesus guy is given over to the soldiers for torture, humiliation, and capital punishment – aka, death.

Mark writes,


Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. (CROWN OF THORNS) And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. (PITCHER) And they crucified him, (HAMMER) and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. (DICE, CLOTHES)
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”


“Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdæorvm. INRI. That very abbreviation is here, on our cross before us. The Latin charge of why Jesus was killed: for being the ‘Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews)

During Lent, we show the crown of thorns on our cross. And the purple cloak. Here on the statue are dice on a set of clothing. To cast lots is to gamble for something. Here is a pitcher to hold the wine and myrrh. This would have been to help with the pain of being crucified a bit. And here is the hammer to drive in the nails.

Mark’s writing continues…


And with Jesus they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

At three o”clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, (GRAPES ON STICK) put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”


Let me pause again to explain… So in the middle of this solar eclipse, Jesus begins to cry out, “Eloi, Eloi!” Someone thinks he is crying for Elijah, rather than speaking in his native tongue. The story goes Elijah never died, but was taken up to heaven in a firey chariot. Remember? So if Jesus really is God’s messiah, then he won’t die. God will reach down and take him up into heaven.

So they try to revive Jesus, and keep him alive long enough to see if God sends angels down. They give him vinegar, or sour wine, in a sponge to sip. Here are grapes on a stick. I think the artist must have used grapes to help symbolize the last supper – which was with good wine versus sour wine. And, to remind us Jesus said he is the grape vine and we are the grape branches.

Does the reviving with sour wine work? No…


Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.


The curtain, which separates the presence of God from people, splits not bottom to top – but top to bottom. Nothing separates us from God now. God is out – lose upon the world – and God chose to do it. God acted – coming from heaven to earth.

At this point in the story, not a single human has realized who Jesus is. Not a one. Mark has told us, we, the listeners. But in the story? They call Jesus the King of Jews and the Messiah. But now, listen to the man holding this spear…


Now when the centurion, (SPEAR) who stood facing Jesus, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”


The first in the Book of Mark to know Jesus is God’s Son is a non-Jewish outsider, a Roman soldier, a foreigner. The ironies abound.

God is lose. Working in the world. Bringing all people to understand just who Jesus is, regardless of who they are and what their job is and where they are in life.

Our reading concludes,


There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These women used to follow Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether Jesus had been dead for some time. When Pilate learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, (LADDER, PINCERS) wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.


Here is a ladder for climbing up and removing Jesus’ body. And pinchers to remove the nails.

This Joseph did it, with the women who stayed faithful to the very end, and they laid Jesus in likely Joseph’s or his family’s own tomb.

No prayers for Jesus have been said. His body isn’t prepped and cleaned for burial. No one has laid any flowers or eulogized. He is simply wrapped in cloth, and stored away safely until the weekend has passed. Then the first day of the week the women will be back to continue to provide for Jesus, just as they have since the days of his mission in Galilee.

Our reading ends here today. With Jesus dead, in a tomb, and all hope lost.

Our reading ends with everyone going home.

Ends with death.

I ask, where are you today?

Are you here? Here at the cross? We all walked this wilderness of lent with Jesus. We came in with our palms, singing hosanna. We welcomed our king.

But who has stayed?

Who is here?

Who could bear to be with him, to carry the cross, and to stick to their faith?

Two Marys, who have known Jesus since he was in Galilee. Back in the very beginning. Some other women, who have been faithful. A few roman soldiers required by their jobs. Joseph.

Are you here, too?

Or have you ran in fear like Peter. Or realized along the way you don’t actually know who Jesus is?

Have you found the road too rough, and sought respite?

Have you wandered away when the miracles faded with the cries of hosanna?

I think we all have moments, seconds or minutes or months or years, that we question our faith. We question why stick around.

And sometimes we wander away. Or lose hope. Or mock what we once loved.

In the Gospel of Mark, no one “gets” who Jesus is until it is seemingly too late. They’re physically there – but not there in their heads.

We, today, cannot be at Golgotha 2000 years ago physically.

Can we be there in our heads? Our minds?

Our hearts?

Whether with candles or prayers; hymns or quiet time in a garden, I hope you find time this week to reflect on the cross. And reflect on the miracle yet to come.

Think of those men and women who leave the tomb with all hope gone…

… and the pure wonder when they return.

This is a story to be continued.

Amen.

Wounded Healers

Theodicy2
Full graphic here –> https://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2292 Does contain cusswords.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

Surely the day is coming when no one will ask “Who is God?” because we’ll all know – God’s ways are written inside of us. In our hearts. There’s no question. We just know.

Surely the day is coming when we will be in full understanding with God, and there won’t be need for teachers and pastors and theologians…

… But it sure doesn’t seem to be this moment. I testify this pastor struggles. We are here, in the final Sunday of Lent before Holy Week. Here- on this last Sunday of quiet reflection before we come to Jerusalem, and Jesus enters with the welcome of a King. Next week we’ll sing Hosannas. And we’ll consider during the week the cross.

That horrible thing.

The nearly unspeakable thing.

Sometimes, we rush from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss the heartache in between. Sometimes, we rush from Genesis and God calling us Very Good to the Gospels, where God So Loved the World.

And we miss the messy, messy reality in between.

The messy reality where murder happens, and senseless death. When armies rise up against armies. And homes are burned. And lives shattered. Children’s heads dashed on rocks and blood and guts and broken bones galore. We miss the slavery. The beatings. The rapes. The sin.

We miss the cross when we gloss over Holy Week, or gloss over the Bible.

Our stories, our scripture, our message of God is so relevant because it is asking, and reframing, and asking again: what does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be God?

Why do good things happen?

Why do bad things happen?

And to be human, to be alive. is to know good and bad and everything in between.

“My soul is troubled,” said Jesus.

My soul is troubled today, I say. I look at this cross, and I wonder – how could it happen?

How could Peter turn and deny his savior, his master, his best friend?

How could all the disciples run away from Jesus’ last hours, dying there, a condemned criminal?

How could Mary abide seeing her son die?

How could God abide this wrong?

Or all the other wrongs in the world?

Who is God to permit such suffering?

Why do bad things happen?


Theodicy is a fancy term for this problem, for asking the theology of “why do bad things happen?”

The issue is set up like this: why does an all powerful, all knowing, all loving and good God permit bad things to happen?

Some have answered – there must be no god. My God, My God – why have you forsaken me? Because there is no god listening to your cries.

And some have answers – surely there is a god. We just have to tackle this theodicy problem.

These three descriptions of God set up a triangle. If we can resolve one of the angles of the triangle — all powerful, all knowing, or all good — the issue collapses upon itself and goes away. We have an answer for why bad things happen.

Let me give you an example… Maybe bad things happen because God is not all powerful. God loves us deeply and wholly. God knows bad things are going to occur. God works with us to try to stop these things. We pray and God works. We work and God gives the Spirit. But because we are sinful, or we have free-will,  or because God chooses to limit God’s own power… bad things happen.

Maybe the world would fall into chaos if God meddled too much in it and did a lot of miracles.

Maybe God wills a perfect world, but chaos and sin is still too powerful.

Maybe God set up the world to reward the sinful with pain and the sinless with blessings, and to meddle in this would be to disturb the order of things.

For one reason or another, God’s not all powerful. But God is all knowing and all loving.


 

Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all knowing. God can and does do everything. And God is all love. But God doesn’t know the results and the future. Sometimes, chaos slips into God’s plans. Truly humans plan, and God plans better, but even the best of plans can go wrong. God doesn’t plan the bad. Sometimes, it just happens.

Think of the Garden of Eden – it seems God was surprised that humans chose to eat from the trees God banned. God sure acted angrier than someone who planned on this happening!

Or maybe it just appears God doesn’t know what God is doing at times because we have very limited minds and perspectives. There must be a master plan – we just don’t know it.

Or God is just making things up as God goes along.

Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. All things are ordered and what seems random is actually determined due to quantum physics… But what if God DOES play dice? What if change, chaos, random occurrences, happenstance really is a thing… and we and God just plan the best we can?


Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all good. God can and does do everything; and God knows all that will be and has been; but God is not all hearts and sunshine and love. Instead, God is vindictive. Or God is righteous. Or God is just.

If you read the Bible, there is fire and brimstone. Maybe that’s the only way some people learn their lessons. There is hell, and punishment for sins, and punishment just for touching the Ark of the Covenant without permission.

Maybe God is so just and righteous, that the impurities of us on God’s honor, and God’s righteousness, means God HAS to demand satisfaction – demand payment – for our wrongs. There is a universal debt we’re racked up, and someone has to pay.

Or maybe God just appears to be not loving, but in actuality, is loving us like a parent and knows to teach us with soft knocks and hard knocks how to be better people. Maybe God is letting bad things happen to test us, to burn away the chaff, per se.

Maybe God could have designed a way for us to learn how to be good people without heartache, but then God could have just programmed us to be robots and we never would be able to voluntarily love God back or be in a real relationship. Because real relationships require freedom to say no. Freedom to walk away.

Or maybe God is like us… and not wholly all good but has spurts of anger and emotional outbursts.

Or maybe…

Maybe…


The lists and ideas go on and on and on. All of these justifications of God have been argued. And will be argued. And are currently being argued.

And not just in academic books or in seminaries.

I hear phrases like, “That’s karma,” and it means “what goes around, comes around.” If you do good deeds, good things come back to you. If you do bad deeds, bad things happen to you. This is theodicy. Trying to explain our God and why bad things happen.

I hear things like, “God knew what God was doing,” or “It was just her time.” There is a master plan and God is following it. We’re just along for the ride. More theodicy. More explaining why bad things happen.

And I hear things like, “God must have needed another angel,” or “That’s the punishment of God.” Again… more theodicy. More trying to explain our world and our God.

After Jesus died, people struggled greatly to explain how God could let Jesus die. Some concluded Jesus must never had been the Chosen One, the Christ. Maybe he was a great prophet, but not the Christ.

Others concluded Jesus must have known this was going to happen all along. And they remembered things he said that seemed to foreshadow his death.

Still others decided the cross must actually be an act of God’s love, and Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that takes away sins… just like the lamb’s blood in Passover — the time when he was killed.

These are all theodicy answers.

All the gospel writers and early Christians and ancient Jews and ancient Greeks and Romans trying to understand what just happened and who God is.

None of them are right.

But none of them are wrong.

Theodicy is like balancing on a ball. You can do it, but you constantly have to make adjustments. And as soon as you have your balance, as soon as you have an answer, the ball and problem has moved again.

I think of it like a puzzle. I worry it for awhile, come to a conclusion that lasts a month – a year – maybe more — and then I have to come back to it again and think some more.

And people did this long before Jesus’ time, too.

The entire book of Job is a work of theodicy. Why do bad things happen? Each one of Job’s friends offers a different solution. And Job demands an answer from God God’s self — and God doesn’t give a satisfactory one. Or doesn’t answer. It’s hard to tell.

It’s like the author of Job knew we won’t have a satisfactory answer to why bad things happen until we can ask God ourselves face-to-face. Until then, we’re screaming at the sky.

Why bad things happen to people — good people and bad people — seems to never have a perfectly neat answer that works 100% of the time all the time for everyone.

So when you hear John’s answer today for why the cross happened, and why bad things happen, know it is John’s answer. Each Gospel answers it a bit differently. Each theologian answers it differently.

Each person answers it differently.

We all come to the cross as individuals, again and again and again, and each time, we see Jesus, we see God, we see why bad things happen, in a different light. Even if it is just slightly different than last time.

John’s theodicy answer is the cross had to happen. Jesus is like a single grain of wheat. And Jesus will fall, and the seed die, per se, and stop being a wheat seed. But it will then grow up and produce many, many wheat seeds. Much fruit.

And that we are to follow this – to reject the way of the world, and to accept the way of Christ. To stop trying to save our lives and start living for Christ.

John’s answer is that God spreads God’s salvation through what appears to be bad things, but is actually good. The cross looks like humiliation. It is degradation. It is shame. But it actually is glory, and honor, and is a way of lifting Jesus up for all people to see.

The seed appears to die, and all hope to be lost – but it is simply giving up itself in order to reproduce a hundred fold.

Jesus will appear to die, and all hope to be lost – but he is simply giving up himself in order to bring all people to him.

Sometimes I agree with John. Sometimes I do not. That’s the thing about theodicy… its a problem we never solve permanently. We just reach temporary solutions.

One temporarily solution for myself is to think of all of us, and God included, as wounded healers.

Bad things happen. God doesn’t will them, I think (for right now. My answer of course will change. All theodicy answers change.) But God wills good to come out of bad situations.

So God didn’t plan to put Jesus on the cross, but God planned to bring good out of what happened. And God did.

God doesn’t intend for us to have cancer, to lose loved ones, to suffer – but God does intend to help us bring good out of these situations.

God intends to help us become wounded healers.

Wounded healers are people who know what heartache is, who know what loss is, and through their own wounds, are able to heal others.

Because I’ve been in those shoes, I know how to help. Because you’ve been in my situation, you know what I need most. No two people have the same exact experience… but every heart is carrying a wound.

And that wound, that hurt, is a soft spot that God can help us use to connect with one another.

It’s not the Law of God written on our hearts… maybe. But maybe it is: maybe the new covenant is a covenant of love that connects in these wounds, and unites us through the common experience of being human.

The common experience of knowing heartache. And joy. And suffering. And elation. And pain. And death.

That’s the thing about theodicy – about understanding God and why bad things happen – our hearts and minds change as we experience more.

As we transition this week into Holy Week, and into Palm Sunday, I invite you to reflect on the cross – what does it mean? Why did it happen?

Agree with John. Disagree with John. Agree with Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul or disagree with all of them.

What is the cross to you?

Who is God to you?

Who is Christ?

And why do bad things happen?

Amen.

Palm Sunday Call to Worship

One: Say to daughter Zion: Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on a donkey!
Many: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
One: Who is this? Who disturbs the peace?
Many: Hosanna! This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee. Hosanna in the highest!
One: Do you hear what they are saying? Jesus, make your disciples stop shouting!
Many: Hosanna! If we keep quiet, the stones will start shouting. Hosanna in the highest!
All: Hosanna! The King of Peace arrives! Hosanna in the highest! Let us praise God!

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?