Tag: Hope

Humble Clay

Isaiah 64:1-9 maple_tree_bud
Mark 13:24-37

 

The Prophet Isaiah pleads with God – come, God, come – show the world how amazing you are. We’re dry leaves in the wind, blown to and fro about petty concerns, and chase after things which aren’t you. We’re lost in our sins.

But, God, we’re clay and you’re the potter.

God, we are the work of your hand.

God – come and remold us, rework us, repair us.

This hope is kept alive for generations upon generations. This hope keeps the people seeking and watching for the messiah – the one God will sent to gather us back from wherever we’ve blown, wash away the dirty sins, and remake us anew.

This hope brings us to the Gospel — the Good News — of the testament, the words, of Mark.

Mark remembers Jesus saying that when everything is darkest, and we’re shaken to our core — when it seems like all hope is lost…

There still is a light. THE Light. THE Word of God which will never pass away. THE God, who will not give up on us.

We don’t know when this will happen. We don’t know how or where. We don’t know when the first maple or fig bud appears – but we know it happens. We know when we see those signs of life after a long winter, that summer is near.

We don’t know what is the first sign of Christ’s full reign – but it is budding everywhere. And this long time of waiting in winter will be over, and full summer will be here.

A budding of that glorious time is happening today – with church, and with the foretaste of heaven in our communion.

A budding of that glorious time is happening all the time — all the time there is another little sign, another little bud — soon all the trees will have leaves. Soon, all people will live in harmony.

While we wait for that time, we keep the faith – keep our hope.

Hope with joy. Hope with peace. Hope in love.

For you do not hope in vain. What the potter has begun, the potter will continue to work into perfection.

Amen.

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Why Have You Cast Me Off?

Psalm 43: All Saints Sunday sorrow.jpg

You are the God in whom I take refuge – why have you cast me off?

Why must I walk about mournfully? Oppressed?

The Psalmist demands an answer from God. He or she cries out – God – my God – why have you forsaken me? Why is this happening?

The Psalmist tries a plea, show me any light, any hope, God, and I will follow it to you.

The Psalmist tries to bribe God. I will come to your altar, God, your church, and praise you with exceeding joy…. if you give me any hope.

And the Psalmist chastises themselves, “Why are you cast down, o my soul, why are you disquieted?” Why are you sad? Soul, you should take hope. For I shall praise the one who is my help, my God, again some day.

And the psalm ends.

Does hope come? Does the psalmist ever get out of their sorrow? Does God ever send enough light that the singer can see where to find God?

We don’t know the ending.

Psalms are songs gifting us prayers and words to express how we’re feeling right now.

And right now, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Who sits here feeling forsaken, abandoned, cut off from God’s light? You don’t sit alone. 3000 some years ago, this writer felt the same.

Who sits here trying to cling to hope for a brighter tomorrow, who tells themselves good phrases like ‘Take heart,’ ‘This too shall pass’? This psalmist did, too.

Who sits here longing for the mountain of God where every tear is wiped away and death is no more? This ancient person, did, too.

Jesus told the people around him: listen to these teachings in scripture. Listen to the hope offered and the promises.

But Jesus said don’t tie up the problem with a pretty bow and hand it back as a burden. Don’t go using scripture to harm people. Preach the good news, preach the hope, but do no religious violence.

This often means sitting with the psalmist in that uncomfortable zone of not knowing why there is sorrow. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Not knowing if there is a happy ending.

It often means realizing our best intentions to say something nice, or scriptural, are actually harmful… for what the psalmists and the person mourning needs is presence and abiding love… they need an invitation and permission to bounce between hope and hopelessness just like the psalmists… and don’t need a judge telling them how to feel and think.

Do you know someone who is hurting?

Words like, “God must have needed another angel” sound nice… but are actually a burden implying God in God’s selfishness killed your loved one. Try instead, “One of my favorite memories of our loved one is…” or “Tell me one of your favorite memories of them.” Either of these open the dialogue up to be a conversation instead of a burden.

Instead of, “Be strong,” which implies it is wrong to feel sad, and is a weakness, say “We all need help in times like this. I am here for you.”

Try not to say, “Don’t cry, they’re in a better place,” which implies not only that it is wrong to cry, but also that being with the mourners was hellish. Say instead, “I wish I had the right words. Just know I care.”

Words like, “It’ll get better,” may be true… but are a burden, because that is not where a person mourning is sitting at right now. Silence, companionship, a hug, a dropped off meal, a check up calling or writing months or years later saying, ‘I know you’re still hurting, and you’re still in my prayers and thoughts’ does much more good than reassuring the person now that tomorrow is brighter.

Because when we’re mourning, tomorrow may not be brighter.

It may take years. Or decades. Or it may not be better until we’re in heaven and God wipes those tears away.

The one who know is hurting?

Just cry. Just sit. Let the mourner lead you.

The greatest among us is a servant.

The blessed among us are those who weep.

The psalmists leads us in his or her mourning from despair into hope and back and forth again. And God goes with them the whole way. We ought to too.

Today we remember all of us who are in mourning. We remember all who have died and leave behind beautiful, complex, lives and stories and memories for us to carry on.

And we remember all who have died and leave behind words unsaid, mysteries, and pains never addressed. We remember we are a community.

A community of saints, living and dead, born and not yet born, and never born, who all make up the body of Christ.

And we practice what we teach – to truly rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. To hold both the promise of new life with the pain of mortality. To embrace each other as who we are, where we are, and to love one another with the deep, abiding love God gives us.

Amen.

Why Rejoice?

Indonesia VolcanoIsaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?

Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.

What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.

There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.

Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…

Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?

A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.

And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))

A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.

We have empathy fatigue.

It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…

Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.

It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.

Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?

There’s a million more crying for aid.

We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.

It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.

Because we weep.

Because we love.

At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.

To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.

We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.

We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.

We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.

Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

ISAIAH JOY

Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.

Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.

What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?

Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.

“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.

Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.

Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,

“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.

And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.

And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.

So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.

And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.

Isaiah continues,

“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”

In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.

Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.

Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.

Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.

And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.

And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.

And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.

And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.

But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.

PHILLIPIANS JOY

Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.

He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.

But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))

“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy.  ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
OUR JOY

Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.

So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.

Think of the county fair.

Think of your family and friends.

Think of your pets.

Your fall garden.

The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.

Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…

I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”

So I sat down and did them with her.

My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.

–sharing—

Amen.

What Anticipation!

Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11

palmSunday.jpgRoughly translated today, we are cheering: “Praises for the Prince! Anyone who comes in the name of God is a blessing! Let there be praises in heaven!”

We are anticipating the new prince, the new rule. We are making a religious statement- God celebrates this person, this Jesus. We are making a social statement- anyone who proclaims God is a blessing to us. And, we are making a political statement – Jesus is our Lord, it is Jesus we follow – not any other politician.

Is it any wonder the whole city of Jerusalem is in an uproar asking ‘Who is this man?’

The whole world should be in a uproar when we make such bold statements! If only we could live up to this hope and anticipation and proclamations of faith!

But you and I both know – these very same crowds turn on Jesus in just a matter of days. And we, who praise here this morning, will face hours when we’re tempted to deny Christ like Peter, and betray our faith like Judas, and sleep while on watch like everyone else.

So, in this reprieve between the reflection of Lent and the beginning of our holiest of weeks, let’s slow down like the Gospels do and really look at our scripture. Let’s sing our hosannas and understand why we do so.

In each Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem a little differently, but always hosannas are shouted. Always praises to God, and asserting heaven is praising this person. Hosanna means two things – literally, it is “Save us, we pray!” But over the centuries in ancient Israel, it also took on the meaning of huzzah, or yeah – a cheer. So we and the people are cheering for Jesus… but we’re also praying: save us!

“Save us, prince. Those who come doing God’s will are blessings. Save us, God.”

And slow down and look at what people are carrying. What people carry is different in the different gospels to reflect what celebration parades looked like to the people the Gospel was addressing. So cloaks here, palm fronds there, tree branches in Matthew, but always cheers and loud praises of Hosanna everywhere. Maybe today, if we were to write about this, we would say the crowd waved flags and threw confetti as we yelled PRAISE GOD! SAVE US! One way or another, it’s in God’s name, it’s about a savior, and it’s a big celebration!

But the items used are also symbols. They tell us more about the story.

See, Jesus comes on a donkey – and not just any donkey, but a young one. This is the symbol of peace. A warrior king rides in on a stallion – a big huge war horse. But the king of peace comes on a young donkey – a little common creature, skittish and untrained. Humble. Just as the prophets foretold that the promised savior would do. Curiously, in Matthew, did you notice the colt is so young that Jesus rides the baby donkey’s mother instead of the colt, and the colt goes along with his mother? I like this image. This is an image of peace, prosperity, family, love. You’re surely not running into war with a mother donkey and her nursing foal. This is like the image coming up in our gospel of Jesus wishing to gather up, protect, and love Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Jesus enters not as a warrior with weapons and might – but as a member of a loving family.

He might be on a donkey, but they still welcomed Jesus as a king and the center of the impromptu celebration parade.

Just like we roll out the red carpet for stars, ancient peoples would lay down their jackets or cloaks to make a special path for a ruler to travel. Again, they’re saying he is their ruler and someone super special.

But even more symbolism is at play in this tiny scene!

To Greeks reading or seeing this occur, the palm frond is the symbol of victory. The goddess Nike carries palms in victory.

However, to the Egyptians hearing this story or seeing the procession, palms are a symbol of eternal life because they stay green for so long.

And so, we receive the fronds as a powerful symbol reminding us of Jesus’ victorious power over death, and we celebrate in the promise of eternal life.

Now, welcoming Jesus in this manner is how someone would welcome a returning victorious war general, or a king… and the songs being sung by the crowd are Davidic songs… songs related to the fallen kingdom. This isn’t just a religious welcoming. This is a political welcoming.

I like this scene as the play ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’ sets it. The people are singing “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and nearby the Jerusalem authorities are grumbling and warning each other that this is getting out of hand. It was cool when Jesus was a teacher, or Rabbi, with parlor tricks… but now the people are mentioning words like miracle, king, and messiah. In that play, the high priest sings, “They crowd crown him as king, which the Romans would ban. I see blood and destruction, Our elimination because of one man… The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high! … For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.”

In other words – just as we read last week Babylon would tolerate no political uprising, so too, will Rome not tolerate such. If the people crown Jesus as their king – a Jewish king – Rome is going to sweep in and bring blood and destruction… just as Babylon did a few hundred years back. These officials don’t see a prince of peace coming on a donkey… they see the would-be-king bringing the end of their city, and people. They see a heretical cult leader.

In Luke, some of Jerusalem’s authorities in the crowd about Jesus tell him, “Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!” Shut them up! Get them to stop saying you are messiah, king, savior!

But Jesus answers, “I tell you, if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”

Recall – John has said God could raise up descendants of Abraham from stones. Perhaps Jesus is alluded that even should the authorities silence every voice crying out Save Us! Praise God! that Jesus’ mission and word would continue. New stones would arise, and they would cry out too – prayers for salvation and praises of God.

Hope cannot be finally destroyed. Jesus’ whole mission is one of hope – of love – of joy – of forgiveness – and God’s love message to the world cannot be snuffed out. Even if lives are extinguished and voices made silent – the message continues on in new places, with new voices, in new lives.

The tension in this scene is incredible. There are the people – believing and hoping in their messiah. Some dreaming of a return to a beautiful earthly kingdom. Some dreaming of the golden age of God’s reign on earth. Some in the crowd already living in this golden age — people who have known and experienced Jesus’ miracles. And also in that same crowd are people dreaming of Rome coming and repeating what Babylon did, and leveling the city to nothing — scattering the people — and leaving a valley of dry bones. Some dreaming of God taking affront to this guy who is suggesting he is God, and God taking revenge.

The tension here at the beginning of Holy Week is just a faint echo – but what do you feel? When Jesus comes into town, how do you picture him? What do you anticipate?

Do you anticipate his miracles? His cures?

Do you anticipate his leaderships? His reign?

Do you anticipate war and the End Times?

When the Son of Man comes – what do you anticipate?

….

Paul encourages us to wait with our anticipation with the mind of Christ. A mind that does not take advantage of others, does not abuse privilege, and is obedient to God. A hymn asking that we not abuse the privilege we have of being alive, being made in the image of God, being able to greatly affect in and influence the world around us. A mind that is concerned with caring for others. A mind that takes all our hopes and anticipations and puts them to use – caring for, and loving, our hurting world.

Do you anticipate, and live into, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign and rule, now?

Amen.

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

Things Unseen

Protesters Demonstrate In Philadelphia During The Democratic National Convention

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Our election this season is one of fear. Fear, feelings of persecution, feelings of unheard, feeling misunderstood, feeling marginalized, feeling belittled, feeling silenced. Fear leads it all. Followed by anger, and hate, and more fear.

Our African American citizens fear the cops. The cops fear the African Americans. On edge, the two confront one another – and far too often someone is misunderstood, marginalized, and forever silenced. Fear of authority; fear of the other; these fears fuel terrors into our election.

Sexual fear drives us. Fear of loved ones being abused; fear of being killed for whom one loves; fear of sex and bodies and passions themselves. A rhetoric of hate comes out of these fears and spews from the mouths of politicians and Christians alike. There is no attempt to overcome the fear – just destroy anyone or anything that reminds us of the fear.

And so: education on sexual health is banned from schools, access to sexual health services are denied, protection for gays and lesbians is denied, and transgendered adults and even children are murdered. All of this coming from fear of our own bodies.

And this fear drives our votes, too.

Insecurity is a major fear among us right now. There is the insecurity of being a white, high school educated, man. At one time – that’s all you needed to be to be very successful in America. But now – women and non-whites compete for the same jobs. This means college is often needed to stand out. It means when once being born a straight white man was ticket to wealth is no longer the truth. And that insecurity, that feeling of being less-than, drives our election.

When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Just as Jesus said: the low will be raised and the high lowered, so all are equal. But this feels like oppression to those who once were high. And that makes them feel fear, insecurity, and hate.

The fear inside insecurity is what makes us speak of a wall between ourselves and Mexico. Speak of bombing other countries. Speak of banning whole religions, whole regions, from ever visiting family or friends here. Fear drives us to isolate ourselves, and inside our little bubble… we forget that we fear a very small minority… and the majority of the world’s people are just like you and I. But because of a few, we fear them all.

The very early church knew much fear, too. They had once been privileged: Hebrews, Jews, people of not great but not bad standing. Middle class, per se. And now… as soon as they began this Christ business… they were banned from places of worship. The cops always thought they were up to no good. Some people said they were planning a rebellion and so abused, terrorized, murdered Christians. Some people hid their belief in Christ for their, or their family’s safety. Some people were more open. But all together… they knew fear.

What would they do with it? Isolate themselves and stop living out their faith? Would they pretend to be secular, or follow Zeus or Caesar, in public?

Would fear drive them to make strict rules about who could, or couldn’t, enter their congregations? We now have a rule that only those with a Christian parent may enter the sanctuary. We now have a rule that only those who haven’t sinned in the last week. Now only straight people. Now only Americans. Now only white straight Americans whose parents were born here and none of them have ever ran into the law or defaulted on bank loans or crossed the street without looking both ways.

How ridiculous do we want the rules to get to make us feel safer? Will they help?

No.

There’s always more to fear… because each of us have a little portion in us that fears even the very things we do. What if someone else finds out? Will they still accept me? How long until I’m kicked out?

A cycle of fear is a cycle that works like setting a pot of water on a hot stove. A little bubble, a little fear, leads the water of people to a rolling boil, roiling fear; leads to fear flowing over the edges of the pot and eventually – no water, no people, are left in the pot at all. Everyone is gone. Fled. Hiding. And there is no more church.

Paul, when he writes the Hebrews, addresses their fears. Jesus, when he talks to his disciples, addresses their fears. The Bible tells us not to fear more than any other phrase! Do not fear, I am with you. Do not fear, I am your God. Do not be afraid, you are loved. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

To the early Hebrew church, Paul reminds them that we aren’t walking by this world’s standards, and this world’s answers to fear are not God’s answers. He reminds them, and us, that we walk by faith, we are convinced of things not seen, and we do not have to be ashamed of this faith and assurance in things that we cannot see at all.

For instance, I turn on the news, and I don’t see love. But I have faith in it. I trust is exists even through I don’t see it. My hope and my promise is in God, who is love, and who says love conquers all things.

I see people using our faith as a weapon, and committing religious violence, acts of terrorism, against others in the name of God. I see this – I see the hate and fear – but I trust what I don’t see.

I trust the unreported, unremarked upon woman who drops pennies and quarters into the charity jars and donates her time to volunteer work.

I have faith and believe in the man never interviewed by the news and never praised by politicians; this man who stops to help change a flat tire and who lets people ahead of him in line.

I don’t see it, but I believe in the children who stand up for one another against bullies. I trust in the children who make ‘get well soon’ cards for teachers and bus drivers.

My eyes don’t tell me, but my heart tells me, to believe in the teenager girl who struggles with so many issues, so much daily fear and misunderstanding – and yet, not to participate in hate speech at work.

I have faith in the unseen. I trust in the hope of God. I trust in what the world ignores. I know we are sojourners, travelers, in a strange land. This land would have us believe that everyone is selfish, evil, and out to harm us. I know there’s a lot to fear, I have been scared… but I also trust in the promises of God.

As Paul writes, Abraham and Sarah never saw their descendants be more than the stars… they died without seeing the full promise come to fruition. Yet they had faith, and what God promised came to pass.

Isaac and Jacob too. They died without the full promise occurring… but their faith led to the next generation, and generation by generation, God worked and fulfilled the promise.

Do not fear, little flock, do not fear.

We walk by faith – not fear, not hate. We walk together – not isolated, not cut off from the world. We walk with God – and because we walk with God, we do not have to fear any evil.

You and I will likely die without seeing God’s full reign on Earth as it is in Heaven. We’ll likely die without Christ having yet returning in full glory. And yet, we can pass on this faith and trust for we know… as Jesus told us, it is God’s delight to gift us the kin-dom. It is God’s good pleasure to work with us to make the promises of peace on earth a reality.

Amen.

What Just Happened?

Meister_der_Palastkapelle_in_Palermo_002.jpgLuke 19:28-40
Philippians 2:5-11

Can you feel it? Something is afoot.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Trump or a Sanders supporter… either are promising something new. A revolution. To make America great again. Can you feel the energy? The possibility? The people gathering, a new SOMETHING on the horizon!

Or maybe you’re a Cruz, a Kasich, or a Clinton fan: why rock the boat? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

There is uncertainty. What will home look like? Who will lead us? What kind of future are we striding in to? Who will control what that future looks like? Can you feel the struggle, the hope, the worry, the dreams, the possibility, the feeling that we are on the cusp of a unique moment in our history?

… Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re one of the many who are already sick of the political ads, and political Facebook posts, feel like you’ve lost friends and the election isn’t even here yet. You just want this whole thing to blow over so you can go back to your normal life.

And you know, we are speaking of politicians. Not potential messiahs.

The level of built up possibility, energy, change on the horizon was even greater in Jerusalem when the people saw Jesus arrive. So too the wish things would just go back to normal! And, he wasn’t a potential new president of a democracy; he was the potential promised savior from God AND new king AND herald of God’s reign on Earth.

Just as we go to rallies to wave banners, and greet politicians with cheers and whistles. We sing their victory songs and repeat their chants. So too, did people 2000 years ago.

When Jesus arrived, they ran out with their banners — in this case, palm branches and tall grasses. They cheered and whistled. They sang a victory song from scripture and changed the lyrics to be “Praise the KING who comes in the name of the Lord” rather than “Praise the one who comes.”

Today, we gather around potential presidents knowing they’ll take the stage, teach us, inspire us, lead us – and we hope they end up at the capital where they do a ritual – swearing in – and become our leader.

In Jesus day, too, the crowds gather with stars in their eyes and dreams on their sleeves – inspired, ready to be taught and lead. They hoped he’d head for the temple – the capital – and do a ritual sacrifice where he proclaimed the city belonged to God and no longer Caesar.

People around Jesus cried, “He is the promised Davidic King! He will take us to war, destroy our enemies, liberate us, and we will be great again!”

Others cried, “He is the promised prophet! He will turn the people’s hearts back to God, rid our institutions of corruption, and restore our faith!”

Still others proclaimed, “He is the Messiah! The one who brings God’s holy reign on earth; when peace and prosperity flourish and all things are made whole!”

And some proclaimed, “He is the Son of God!”

King, prophet, messiah, God…

If you weren’t in the crowd, you were standing to the side shaking your head at the words being thrown around. You were thinking, “Can’t we have this Jesus business over with and get back to normal life?”

Others, not waving fronds, grumbled, “These people are blockheads; this is some charismatic carpenter with pie-in-the-sky ideas. He just says whatever the people want to hear. Look at this ragtag lot – jobless peasants, cripples, sinners, the mentally unstable and the foreigners – following their pied piper.”

The claims of king, prophet, messiah, God; the people, welcoming Jesus as their victorious conqueror and king… these are very troubling developments to the people in charge of keeping order. This might be fun and exciting for the rabble today… but tomorrow, when Pilate hears there is a king? When Caesar, who is called the Son of God, hears there is a new Son of God? What then? Will the people cheer and rejoice when this ‘king Jesus’ brings fifty-thousand soldiers bent on bloodying their blades and scattering the people, murdering the educated, and enslaving the children? Only the stones will be left to testify what once was here. Only the stones will remember the great people and city that was Jews and Jerusalem.

The ones worried about the coming future tell Jesus, “Rabbi – tell your disciples to stop!”

Jesus replies with a reference to scripture. What Jesus references is the prophet Habakkuk who heard God say: (Chapter 2)

…Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
and collect all peoples as their own.

Shall not everyone taunt such people and, with mocking riddles, say about them,
‘Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!’
How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?
Will not your own creditors suddenly rise,
and those who make you tremble wake up?
Then you will be booty for them.
Because you have plundered many nations,
all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—
because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

‘Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!’
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!’
Is it not from the Lord of hosts
that peoples labour only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.

In other words, when Jesus says, “If I silence the people who are testifying, the stones and wood and plaster will cry out the truth: The arrogant, the wealthy, the creditors, the people who think they are safe because of their possessions and because they have destroyed the people they don’t like – those people are being lowered. The people who live by faith alone are being raised up.

This feels like oppression to the oppressors. This feels like liberation for the oppressed.

What just happened?

Jesus has told the religious leaders, and the politicians, and the people around him that God is going to do a new thing – and it is nothing at all like that most people are expecting and many won’t like it.

It is a reversal from the norm, a scandalous equality. The knowledge of the glory of God has arrived – and even if the people are silenced, God’s truth can never be silenced.

This is God’s truth: That all of us are brothers and sisters, equals.
God’s truth is that equality is not something to exploit. We ought to serve one another, not lord over one another.
God’s truth is a king on a humble donkey, not a war horse.
God’s truth is a messiah who says show love to your enemies, not sword and war.
God’s truth is a savior who doesn’t save even himself from suffering – but who saves us from isolating Sin.

God’s truth is that love – not hate or fear – is the strongest power on Earth.

And God is love.

Jesus’ reply is God’s truth is so integral, so a part of the world, that no politician, no media, no person or people can ever fully silence love.

During this Holy Week and always, may we have a mind like Christ’s – and not exploit others. Let us be humble, servants, loving. Let us confess Jesus is Lord – and we follow the humble, loving, peasant God, who died a shameful death, and who defeated the evils of the world to be resurrected into eternal life. Let us live into that eternal life – and as we wave our palm branches, celebrating, let us remember we celebrate one who loves us enough he willingly walked into the city of his death, let himself be betrayed, captured, let himself be made a fool of, let himself be crucified… let us go with him to dark Gethsemane and let us rise with him next Sunday victorious in love.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, Palm Sunday 2016