“What Did They See?” John 14:15-21

the-woman-at-the-well-daniel-bonnell“I wonder what they saw in Jesus?”  — Those first followers or the people who called Jesus “friend.”

Do you ever muse about that?

I do.

I wonder what it was that they saw in Jesus when he walked besides the shores of the sea of Galilee and called to those first rough fishermen.

What would prompt a person to give up their livelihood, (namely fishing,) to follow Jesus?

What would entice you to leave your own father, the boat, nets, and servants that would someday be yours – your whole inheritance and way of life to take up a life of listening to an itinerant preacher?

I wonder what Matthew the Tax collector saw that would prompt him to give up his lucrative position behind a desk to take up a lifestyle of itinerant living, dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the hospitality of friends and acquaintances?

I wonder what it was about Jesus that made Zacchaeus come down out of his tree and pledging to give up half of everything he owned to any he had defrauded.

What did the woman with a blood flow see in Jesus to want to risk it all by reaching through the legs of the crowd just to touch the hem of his garment — with no assurance at all that it would make any difference?

What made a Samaritan carrying her water jar even bold enough to approach a strange man hanging out by the well in the middle of the day?  Everything about this screams danger.  Women, would you keep walking if you were all by yourself and saw a lone strange man leaning against your destination?    What would you have to see in order to allow you to allow him to strike up a conversation?

What did they see in Jesus, that led them to such acts of trust, following, risk or even confrontation?

I think musing about that question has been the source of a good deal of artistic speculation through the centuries, (some of which I’ve just shared with you in these few images), but there are so many more depictions, and impressions.    In all of them we find the artist trying to capture what it was that perhaps caught people’s attention about Jesus in the first place.

From this earliest depiction from the Catacombs in Rome of the 3rd Century, of a dark skinned, clean shaved man in Roman dress.300px-Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb

To these more modern interpretations, (for better or worse!)  There is a sense that we are straining to find the best way to connect to Jesus, understand what people saw in him.

Was Jesus handsome and charismatic?  Is that what drew people to seek him out, to listen to him, to allow him to touch them and become the agent of God in their midst?

Or, was Jesus ethereal and otherworldly, radiating a sense of the strange and “not of this world” aura that peaked their curiosity and fueled their ability to listen as if he had brought some alien wisdom.

Was Jesus a “regular Joe”, indistinguishable from the folks you might meet every day in Palestine in that day?  Is that why he attracts working class, uneducated fishermen?   Because he looks like “one of them,” talks like someone who might have hit his thumb with a hammer a time or two as a carpenter’s son and therefore can connect with the hardships of their life?

Or, does the tax collector end up following because he senses in Jesus a kindred spirit, someone who talks about money quite a lot and seems to understand money’s appeal and power; even though Jesus talks about money very differently than Matthew has ever thought of it?

Our depictions of Jesus, our straining to understand what people find attractive, or intriguing, or alluring can sometimes get us into a bit of trouble.

One person’s powerful image, becomes another’s repulsive one.

“I can’t picture Jesus like that!”resize

Some can’t picture Jesus hanging around the Board Room any more than they can picture him as black and hanging around the ‘hood’, but the truth of the matter is throughout history Jesus has been depicted in the way that connected with the community and the people into which he was proclaimed, — from Black Jesus, to Asian Jesus, to Latina Jesus and every variation in between.

So again, I want to just lift up the question, “What did they see?”   What did the artist “see” in their attempt to capture Jesus in their particular context?

I think it’s important that we think about that, because as Jesus does his farewell discourse to his disciples here in John’s Gospel, he makes an implicit promise.

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but YOU will see me;”— that’s what Jesus says.

That amplifies the question!  We need to know what those first disciples saw in Jesus so that we have some idea of what they would “see” again!   We need to wrestle with that so that we know what to look for ourselves!

How will we recognize Jesus?   We need to ask that question because recognizing Jesus is somehow integral to recognizing that promised advocate that is to be sent.

 “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

That word, “advocate” can be translated any number of ways, but chief among them is “one who comes along side.”

That is what an advocate does.

He or she comes along side of you, accompanies you, goes with you, guides you, speaks on your behalf.

That’s why it is important that we understand what those first disciples saw in Jesus.   Whoever this “advocate” is that the Father is going to send, we are to recognize Jesus in him, or her, or in the spirit that they exhibit, because it is the same Spirit that Jesus has manifested.

We hear Jesus insist in John’s Gospel to Philip, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father, for the Father and I are one…”

And here now, Jesus takes it just a little further.   “…you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Seeing Jesus, and recognizing the advocate, is therefore somehow also connected to this matter of keeping the commandments and we hear that as hard, because the commandments are really hard to keep!   We know that.  We know that because the more you try to keep them, the more you have a feeling like you are always being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.  We just can’t resist doing some of these things, and others we reach in and sample without really thinking about it.

And so, we wonder with our inability to keep the commandments if we will ever be able to recognize this advocate that Jesus says he will send.

We’re not doubting that Jesus sends the Spirit, we’re just not so sure we will recognize it, that it will “come along side” us with all our disobedience and inability to keep the commandments.

But maybe what we’re missing in all of this is that in John’s Gospel, Jesus really only gives one commandment.  A commandment that is given just before this farewell discourse, back in chapter 13, when Jesus washes the Disciple’s feet.de7a2b970284c41cf1885f93be200618

Maybe what everyone who comes near Jesus recognizes is the kind of thing that even a blind man can sense… love and acceptance.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,”

By this, everyone will know…..

Maybe what everyone who comes near Jesus recognizes is the kind of thing that even a blind man can sense… love and acceptance.

It could be that we make this recognizing the advocate, seeing Jesus, much more difficult than it is.

When does the Spirit come near, when we begin to act toward one another the way that Jesus modeled.

Maybe, just maybe this matter of the Spirit coming is really a matter of recognizing that it is already in us, and it manifests itself when we do what we recognize Jesus would have done.

He told us we wouldn’t know what he had done for us until later…

It is later.

What did that first disciples see in Jesus?  They saw someone who would walk with them, and would not turn them away.

When do we sense the Spirit?  When we begin to walk with someone.  When we love them as Jesus first loved us.  When we speak on their behalf, or accompany them, and they us.

Maybe the Advocate comes in the midst of this Jesus work of how we choose to treat one another, and make no mistake, this is a choice.

It is a choice to wash feet.

It is a choice to love.

It is a choice to touch lepers.

It is a choice to heal the sick, the blind, and to raise up the lame.

It is a choice to listen, and to learn, and to walk alongside those with whom we may have deep disagreements and deep divisions, and really nothing in common, but the more you walk along side of someone, the more the divisions disappear as you love and understand.

What did they see in Jesus?   They saw someone, who saw them, and who was interested in them, and who took notice of them, and who loved them enough to engage them and call them and heal them and raise them up.

This is the Spirit that Jesus sends, the one that makes us recognize him in others.

“I see Jesus in you….” we say when that other one walks alongside us, and that is what they say to us in return, when we choose to walk with them through all the darkness this world is capable of dishing out.

This is what they saw in him.

May this be what is seen by those whom we meet, every day.  “I see Jesus in you.”

“Measured Life” John 10:1-10

Here is the problem with John 10.  It is just too full of mixed metaphors.

Is Jesus the Shepherd or the Gate?

Who is it that is climbing over the wall and how do we identify them?  By their actions?   By what they say?

I’m confused Jesus!

Evidently, so were Jesus’ original disciples since he has to take more than one crack at explaining his metaphors to them.

What are we supposed to take away from Jesus’ words here?

John 10 follows immediately after the extended story of the man born blind, whom Jesus healed and who then is set upon by the Pharisees who want explanations.  The whole of chapter nine is an exhausting exchange between this man who Jesus has touched and who wants to celebrate his good fortune and the Pharisees who want answers, trying to fit the event of his gaining his eyesight into their own system of how God is supposed to operate.

Everyone is questioned; the man, his parents, bystanders.

Accusations are hurled — about Jesus, about the man and what sort of man he is/was, and about the situation.

In the end the man Jesus healed sits dejected, not sure who or what to believe anymore.

It is at that point that Jesus re-enters the story, allowing the man who has sight again to “see” him.  Jesus make commentary on the blindness of the Pharisees.

It’s clear from that story that Jesus is indeed talking about the Pharisees with their rigid rules and categories when he talks about who are the thieves and robbers.

It is clear also, that Jesus is trying to issue a warning.  There is something about following the teachings of the Pharisees that robs you of something.

It all has to do somehow with the “abundant life” that Jesus has come to bring.

But this is again where we end up scratching our heads because we’re not really sure (along with the man who was born blind) what this “abundant life” is that Jesus has come to bring?  What does it look like?

What is abundant life?

In fact, this is a point at which I want to introduce a little audience participation in the sermon, because I’m pretty sure that we all have an idea of what abundant life might be.

So then, what does “abundant life” mean to you?

(Gather responses)

So, as I suspected, “abundant life” means different things for different people, and I don’t really think there is a “wrong” answer to that question “What does abundant life mean to you?”   I think variations in that are perfectly normal, because I think that what Jesus is really warning against in this whole section of John’s Gospel is what might be called “measured life.”

That’s what the Pharisees pursue in their questioning.  How do we measure whether this is from God or not?

Measured life we discover is exhausting.  Just ask the man who had been born blind.  As soon as he could “see” the first thing he ran up against was measured life, people trying to qualify, or quantify, or identify, or exemplify him.

It was exhausting, answering all those questions, and every time he tries to interject some witness to another way of living, “do you want to be a follower as well?”   He gets struck down and verbally assaulted as one who does not “measure up.”

“You were born in utter sin, and are you trying to teach us?”  The Pharisees bark at him.

Living a measured life is exhausting, and you know that because so much of your life is measured, is it not?

You live with a certain set of expectations about who you are to be, how you are to behave, and what is to be expected of you.

Expectations and measurement come your way in your workplace.   You feel it when you have to face the dreaded “performance review” or “annual review.”    Measurements will be taken of how you have acted, how you have performed in your position, how you “measure up” against colleagues, or expectations or quotas.

It will take something out of you, won’t it… even if you exceed expectations, you then have just set the bar a little higher for next year.

You live with certain expectations about relationships, and family, and family roles.

Am I a good father?

A good mother?

Am I living up to the expectations of my parents?  My peer group?  My coach?  My instructor?

How do I “measure up” in their eyes?   In my own expectation of myself?

A measured life seeps into the fabric of our daily comings and goings.

You have experienced a measured life if you’ve traveled.  There is the TSA agent barking out his or her orders, shoes off, jacket off, liquids out of the bag.  Laptop out of the bag.  Put it into separate bins.  No, not that way.  Be uniform, we’ve changed the protocol.  And if you have a green check on your ticket the procedures are different, but you can still be singled out for extra screening.

It’s all done for our safety.

It’s all done for our own protection and our own good.

It’s all supposed to make us feel safer, more in control, more comfortable with travel.

But, it is a measured life, and we feel it’s false assurance and constricting weight.

Even in the church there is an element of a measured life.   Is our church growing, or dying?  How do we measure up next to others?   What should the church be about?   Are we forgiving enough?  Faithful enough?  What is the measure to be applied?  How much we do?  How much we give away?  How many groups are welcomed?  How big our Sunday School is?  How much food we move through the pantry?  How many quilts we put out?  How much we collect for CROP walk?

Measurements abound!

We may not all agree upon what an abundant life consists of, but there is no lack of agreement about what a measured life looks like and its double edged possibility.

If we think we are “measuring up” there comes the danger of being complacent, taking things for granted, it will always be like this.

If we fail to “measure up” to expectations, then we watch what it robs and steals from us.

It robs us of dignity.

It steals in like a thief taking away things before we notice they are even missing, our innocence, our confidence, our trust in others.

The measured life makes us wary, fearful, and always ready to assume the worst in others and in events.

“You just can’t trust people, you know…”  so we begin to believe, and so we don’t.

That in and of itself becomes a thief, robbing us of the relationships that we all long for but are now fearful to engage in.

Robbing us as well of the opportunities to forge relationships which might indeed be life giving, might open up the pathway for living together in mutual trust and care for one another.

Oh, we know well the measured life!

Moreover, the measured life is what is pushed upon us and fed to us, often by those in authority who are supposed to be wise guides.

We are told the measured life is for our own good, or for the greater good.

We are sold the necessity to be vigilant, to fear the other, to watch for stranger danger, and in so doing we are assured that we will be kept “safer.”

But at the end of the measured life pathway there is no guarantee, no final word of reassurance, and no comfort.

So, while we may not agree on what the abundant life means for each of us, it is still what we long to have, and it is something that Jesus says we can only obtain by not listening to or following the “thieves and robbers” who sell us measured life.

Instead, we are to look to the one who opens the gate, who stands in it, and who watches over the flock.

Does this mean we’ll be safe so long as we keep our eyes on Jesus?

Yes, but let’s be clear also about what we mean by “safe.”

Jesus is, after all, the one who goes willingly to the Cross.

It’s not physical safety that is assured to us.

It is life that is assured and given, a quality of life that is not subject to the measurements of this world.

“Abundant life,” which often stands in stark opposition to this world’s “measured life.”

As alluring as it may be to want to be physically safe, if you follow Jesus the first rule of order is that you may be called upon to lay down your own life for the sake of the other.—be that friend or foe.

You are able to lay your life down in complete confidence that even if your life is required of you, what will follow in the wake of such sacrifice is still “abundant life.”  A kind of life that sweeps away the measurements of this world.

We know this abundant life.  We celebrate it when we see it in action.

It is the gift of organs that makes the sick to run and live thankful lives.

It is the estate plan well executed that gives hope and life to the next generation of an institution or agency, letting it impact the future.

It is the choice to not push back when criticized, to diffuse the hostile act and set aside the differences so that a new direction, a new and abundant opportunity can be pursued.

It is loving when you have no reason to love.

It is forgiving when the world would say to you, “exact the maximum penalty.”

Abundant life comes in the wake of every decision NOT to protect yourself, not to live a measured life, not to be bound by the constraints of this world that cannot imagine anything good coming out of Nazareth or anywhere else.

What is abundant life?   It is what it is for you, we may not agree upon it, but we can agree upon this.

Abundant life is not living under the oppressive measurements imposed by a world that cannot picture or imagine grace, or that it would be freely given, flung wide like a gate so that all can come in and go out and find pasture and graze in safety.

This is the kind of life Jesus offers, a life without measure, and free of “measured life.”

“Seven Miles of Denial” Luke 24:13-35

SilentI do this little bible study twice a week called “Coffee with Jesus” which is based on this “Radio Free Babylon” comic strip of the same name.

Sometimes we refer to that fourth panel up there where the comic typically drives home its point as the “Snarky Jesus” panel.

That can be troublesome for a few folks.

“What do you mean, ‘Snarky Jesus?’   When was Jesus ever capricious?  When did Jesus ever display a sense of humor or anything that resembled sarcasm or being a trickster?”

I could point to a number stories actually; but none of them has quite the bite and edge as this “Road to Emmaus” story.

This is indeed a ‘snarky Jesus’ if ever one was revealed in the scriptures!

For seven miles Jesus accompanies these two forlorn followers, without ever once interrupting their grief and shock to reveal himself to them.  Somehow his identity remains shrouded through the whole conversation.

  “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?”

What have you been doing in Jerusalem these last three days?  They might just as well have asked him, and he might just as well have replied, “Oh, just hanging around and laying low….”

By not identifying himself right away, this is a Jesus who “plays along” with the situation.  Don’t tell me this isn’t a bit like one of those “coming home from armed services” gags where the father or mother hides in plain sight!

We are told in retrospect that “their hearts “burned” within them as Jesus opened the scriptures and explained things,” but during the walk they can’t put two and two together!

Moreover, they have the whole story right, and they end up witnessing to Jesus as they walk along with him.

They are talking through the important key events, clicking them off as if it was the creed.

“Jesus of Nazareth”

“A Prophet mighty in deed and word.”

“Handed over by our chief priests and leaders, condemned to death and crucified.”

“We had hoped he would redeem Israel…”

“Some women in our group astounded us…they told us of a vision of angels and how he was alive.”

“Some of those with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.”

That’s pretty much the whole Jesus story right there, but they didn’t listen to the women, or to Jesus very well in life either!

In the Gospels Jesus had told his followers that they would see them in Galilee, and that he would go before them.

Of course you’re not going to see Jesus at the tomb! That’s not where you were supposed to look for him in the first place, Oh disciples!

The “Snarky Jesus” part of me wants to say, “if you’d just listened to the women in the first place, you’d have saved yourself seven miles worth of denial here!”

But then, the point that these followers are supposed to learn is that Jesus does meet you along the way.”

The point that they, (and probably we) are supposed to begin to understand is that Jesus is present with us in the midst of our grief, our disappointment, and our confusion.

The point that we are supposed to get out of all of this bewilderment is that Jesus has already gifted us with the ability to witness to the resurrection, even when we aren’t completely confident in it!

Oh snarky, snarky Jesus in his accompaniment with those on the road to Emmaus is letting them to discover as they journey just how much of the story they already confidently have under their belt!

And, maybe that’s supposed to be our take away from the story as well.

What keeps us from witnessing to Jesus?  Is it not that we have sometimes have convinced ourselves that we just don’t know what to say?

“I don’t know my bible well enough!”

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“I don’t know what to tell people.”

And so, we keep to ourselves, quietly shuffling along instead of engaging those we meet.  We’d like to say something, know that faith should compel us to say something, but we’re unsure.  We don’t want to get it wrong.

What if we looked at every opportunity to witness to our faith as if it were an “Emmaus Road” experience?

What if we began with the premise that all we are really doing here is telling Jesus what the Jesus we meet in that other person already knows?

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”  the men say to Jesus.

And Jesus, simply plays along.

“What things?” he says.

He knows perfectly well the events, he has lived them!  But allowing a person to tell the story from their own perspective gives them the opportunity to make sense of it, and it gives them practice at telling it and making connections in their own life of faith.  Often times sharing in this way opens up moments of dialog that make hearts, and sometimes cheeks, and often times eyes burn as we tell our story of what God has done for us.

Maybe all we are really doing in witnessing to Jesus is telling the story of God’s accompaniment with us to that other person who already knows it all too well, but simply needs to hear it from out lips and from our perspective.   Sharing the story opens new avenues for understanding how it is that God is walking and working in this world.

You might for instance, already know that Jesus walks along with you in the journey, but isn’t it reassuring to hear someone else’s experience of that?

Or put another way, Cleopas and that other disciple may have heard the women’s story very clearly.  They can certainly recall it, recite it, but it hasn’t yet become their story.

Not even seeing the empty tomb made it their story!

It is all well and good that “the women” believed, astonishing really, but what difference does what they believe and what they have seen make in my life?

It simply isn’t their story of understanding Jesus’ accompaniment in life with yet, and its not until their hearts burn and their eyes are opened that the women’s story becomes theirs as well, and it happens in the telling of it.

Maybe it’s the same with us.   We tell the story of how God has met us along the way, as silly or strange or momentus as that story might be, and when we do, we can join the women, and Cleopas and Simon and all the others and acknowledge that they were right!  “We have seen the Lord!”

And now what do you do with that?

Well, for Cleopas and the other disciples, it meant running back the seven miles you just traveled again to confirm the story for those others!

It isn’t an “idyll tale” as we dismissed it earlier.

“The Lord has indeed risen!”

There is found in the sharing of the story a kind of confirmation.   “I get it now!   Jesus did appear to you, because this is how Jesus appeared to me!”

It may be different for us all, how Jesus appears.

Your story may be unique to your experience, but once it has taken place, then your story joins with my story, and with the Women’s story, and with Simon’s story, and with Cleopas’ story.

We all become witnesses of it to one another.

Jesus is not capricious, but he is at the very least one who delights in popping up and popping in and revealing himself at least for a glimpse in people’s lives.

That “glimpse” is often enough to fuel the telling of the story again, which prompts the next story from someone else, and so it passes on and forward again and again, and to make one wonder just where Jesus might pop up next!

This is the kind of Messiah Jesus has been all along, popping into the lives of people to heal, to forgive, and to surprise them with God’s compassion and grace.

Is it any wonder that Jesus is still that way?

It may be that Jesus comes off a bit “snarky” from time to time to lead us into finding our own conclusions.

“What things?”

Or, it may just be that at the end of our “seven miles of denial” Jesus is waiting to reveal to us what we should have known, and may have sensed all along.

A God who accompanies never truly leaves us.  As he promised, “I am with you always.”

“Earthshaking” Matthew 28:1-10

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake….”

This is the detail that Matthew contributes to the account of the Resurrection of Jesus that is not found in Mark, Luke or John.

Two earthquakes, to be precise.

The first earthquake marks the moment when Jesus dies.  It is creation itself seeming to lurch at the moment of Jesus death, throwing open the graves of many of the saints.

The second earthquake happens on the day of Resurrection.  This is when those open graves give up their dead, many of whom are seen walking about Matthew says, and understood to be a sign of God’s power to bring life from the long dead.

This earthquake is marked by the appearance also of the Angel witnessed by Mary, Mary Magdalene, and by the guards who faint as if dead when the Angel appears.

There is good reason to faint.

The Angel throws the stone aside from Jesus’ grave and then takes a seat upon it, much the way you or I might effortlessly toss a pillow on a couch and take a seat.

It’s such a significant event that it’s hard to see how the other Gospel writers could possibly have left it out or not mentioned it, which leads one to believe that Matthew has inserted this detail into the story for a specific reason.

It’s not hard to figure out what that reason might be.  Encounters with God are meant to be earthshaking!

Matthew is the gospel writer most concerned with making sure that we understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecy, and writing to his Jewish audience he knows that there are certain themes that weave themselves into encounters with God, and earthquakes are certainly one of those themes.

An earthquake shows up in the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai.  Moses is on the mountain and the mountain shakes with the presence of God.

An earthquake shows up in the story of Elijah.  While the dejected Elijah is seeking God on Mt. Horeb, peering from the cave in which he is hiding, Elijah experiences first a great wind, then an earthquake, and then fire.   All pass by the cave entrance, and when the noise and shaking abate, the presence of God is found in the stillness that follows, and that is what draws Elijah forth from the tomb of his own making.

An Earthquake begins the story of the call of Isaiah, and the mighty gates of the Temple rattle on their pivots as Isaiah has his vision, of the Seraphim who announces the presence of  God entering with their “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts!”

These are all earthshaking moments, when God comes near, and prophecy is uttered, or fulfilled, and God’s intention is finally made clear.

So, one piece of the puzzle of what Matthew is trying to convey is simply the power and presence of a God who comes to keep promises, and fulfill them.

“And suddenly there was a great earthquake…”    God is on the scene.

But there is another element of the story that I think Matthew is trying to convey, and it has to do with our own experience of what an earthquake does — to us.

This is a bit harder for those of us who are flatlanders and who have limited experience with earthquakes.  We’re more attuned to the destructive power of tornados, thunderstorms and floods than to earthquakes, so it requires a little more imagination to see the statement made.

 

If you have ever been even in a small earthquake, you know that the first thing it does is disorient you.

Earthquakes disorient.  They take what is normally firm and reliable and they change its very nature.

Earthquakes can make solid ground liquify. That will be the fate of the Interstate System in Missouri, or so they tell us.  When the New Madrid Fault has its major event, we can expect to see every interstate bridge across the distance from Kansas City to Memphis Tennessee simply sink into the ground as the loose soil liquifies from the vibrations, breaking the highway into segments, which in a matter of seconds will cripple all transit.

It staggers the imagination, disorients, who can imagine something like that?

Rocks split.

Landmarks shift, and buildings and towers topple and disappear.   We have seen this on television in the aftermath of earthquakes, but it is still a little unbelievable, and not something we can quite get our minds around.

What is most disorienting of all is the fact that nothing built by human hands remains unaffected, and there is no place that is “safe.”

Not indoors, where the building crumbles down around you.

Not outdoors, where the ground swallows, or the architecture falls on you, or the shaking of ground tosses you on unsteady feet and makes you helpless.

This is the truth about earthquakes, they disorient and disarm you completely.

We talk about building things to “Earthquake specifications” now, at least in areas that are most prone to such events, but what that really means is that we “build things to move.”  We do not build them to resist movement, but rather to embrace the movement as it happens.   You sway with what happens, or you fall.  Nothing stands against or opposes such forces and comes out unscathed.

This is what Matthew appears to be driving home in his Resurrection account.

Many things were done by human hands to try to oppose or stop God, to stave off the Kingdom Jesus announced, or to push back against the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

A plot was hatched by religious leaders to thwart Jesus.

30 pieces of silver were employed, and you know nothing stands against money when it is properly deployed.

Solid relationships were corrupted, as the friend becomes the betrayer, and the symbol of love, a kiss, is made an instrument of betrayal.

There was a washing of hands by the government officials, as if the leadership could absolve itself of responsibility and erase the complicity of betrayal and its ineffectiveness.

Jesus was crucified so that there wouldn’t be a riot, at least not a mob that couldn’t be controlled and turned to a desired outcome.

Guards were set so that the tomb will not be bothered, and as a show of force of who was truly in charge.

A seal was set upon the tomb to warn off any would-be robbers.

Many things were attempted and employed by human hands to stop or oppose the power and the intent of God.  Matthew’s Gospel gives us all the details of what human hands could and did do to Jesus, and it all looked at first like the powers of this world had prevailed.

“And then suddenly there was a great earthquake…..”

In the wake of the earthquake all of those attempts to contain the intent of God by human hands and human hubris are left in total disarray.

This is the point that Matthew drives home with his earthquake.

Nothing devised by human hands prevails against the things that are set in motion by God!

The women become the perfect witnesses to the resurrection because of what we are told they leave the empty tomb with, which is, “fear and great joy.” 

Fear:   Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of here.   This is God’s raw power on display in this story that no human conniving can stop or oppose.

You have to learn to roll with this.

There is a reason to be afraid because of the Resurrection, God is intent upon having God’s way in this world, and Jesus does have a claim upon this world, and a claim on you.  As Rich Mullin’s so eloquently reminds us in his worship song “Awesome God” “it wasn’t for no reason that he shed his blood.”

So there is a point of fear at work here, because Resurrection ends up being earthshaking for us.   It affirms that whatever we think we can do to push back against God’s Kingdom, against God’s love is pretty much useless.

This is how Resurrection disorients us.   It is earthshaking to realize that God is so intent to save this world that he sends his only Son, who continues to be on the move even when we have done our best to stop him.

It is disorienting to think of God dying on the Cross, for us, and death not being the end of things.

It leaves us in disarray, unsteady on our own feet to realize that what we thought was permanent… death itself… can be overcome by God.

There is therefore no place safe.   No place to crawl into, or hide, or run to where God does not have power to reach us.

Not behind locked doors.

Not on the road to Emmaus.

Not back on the shores of Galilee.

Not in your home or your workplace, or any other place you may turn into throughout the week.

God is on the move, and nothing stops the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ.

Who can imagine that?

So there is fear, in realizing that there is no place that God cannot find God’s way.

But there is great joy as well.

The great joy of realizing all of this was done for us.

The great joy that comes from realizing that because Jesus is risen, we too may have eternal life.

The great joy that comes upon the women as the seize hold of Jesus again, by the feet this time, as if to just slow him down long enough to be assured that all the love he had for them could not be extinguished by this world.

This is the great joy of the resurrection.

Jesus returns to this world that crucified him, not to avenge or conquer with all the power at his disposal and angels that can toss stones like pillows.

Instead Jesus returns with just one clear message.  The promised Kingdom has indeed come near, and it cannot be stopped, and you will see him.   He goes ahead of you, just as he promised.

That disorients us as much as any earthquake.

Easter is earthshaking.

God loves this world.

God loves you.

In the midst of all that powerful and disorienting love, all you can really do is  learn to “Roll with it.”

“In the Face of Betrayal” John 13:1-35

“So, where is this Kingdom Jesus keeps talking about?”    One has to admit, this is the single most difficult sticking point for being a Christian, and has been all 2000 years down range from Jesus.

Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom that was supposedly breaking in upon this world.   He healed the sick, fed the hungry, commanded those who had two cloaks should share one if asked for it, and made it all sound like any day now the world would be changed.

And then, it didn’t.

Crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell, on the 3rd day rose again… ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father…. We profess that Jesus is all of that, but the world is still chugging along as it always has.

We still have the same political intrigue.

There is always someone vying to be on top.

There is always someone promising that they have all the answers, and then disappointing or back-tracking on promises.

There is always someone else getting caught in this scandal or the other, and the world as it chugs on its merry way seems to take peculiar delight in finding the dirty secret, the smoking gun, or the inconsistency that brings about the fall

No one is “squeaky clean.”

Where is this Kingdom of God that was promised?

It did not come with the end of the Roman Empire and the descent of the Dark Ages.

It did not come with Christendom, with the height of church power and primacy.

It did not come with Reformation or the Renaissance.

It did not come during the Industrial Revolution, or with the Space Race with the rise of Information Technology.

It did not come with the United States, or the EU, or with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Where is the Kingdom promised by Jesus, a world transformed?

Every generation looks to the innovations of this world, to the winds of change that blow through, and tries to interpret it as finally “the hour.”   This is the time when God is finally going to bring in that promised Kingdom, and the world will be a better place.

And then every generation in succession feels the bitter sting of the betrayal of their hopes, as events that seemed to hold such promise go from bad to worse, or the promise hoped for falls far short and is once again unfulfilled.

Where is this Kingdom of which you speak, Jesus?

Perhaps we miss the Kingdom because we are not listening very closely to Jesus, and what he point to tonight.

In John’s gospel we are told in no uncertain terms that Jesus knows what is coming.

He knows that this is “his hour.”

He knows that Judas will betray him.

He knows that Peter will deny him.

He knows that the disciples will all abandon him.

If ever there was a moment when Jesus could have jumped up on the table and shouted, “I know what you jerks are made of!” and listed off each offense in order, the shallowness of their commitment, and the duplicity of their actions, this would be the moment.

One of them was sneaking around and plotting behind his back for money.

Another is all bluster and bravado, but will have not one lick of commitment when the going gets tough.

The others are clueless, can’t seem to figure out a single thing on their own or see the issues even when they are right in front of them. .

You or I might have called time out, dismissed the whole bench of disciples here, and called for a “start over.”

That’s what we might have done in coming face to face with disappointment and betrayal.   It is what this world demands.

Find the guilty party, the smoking gun of ineptitude, scapegoat them, blame them for the failure and then start over with someone “more reliable.”

But that’s not what Jesus does.

Knowing all that he does, Jesus instead takes the towel, and washes the disciple’s feet, and tells them to love one another.

Knowing all that he does, Jesus breaks the bread, and shares the meal, and dips his portion into the same bowl as the betrayer.

He chooses to sit right next to him, recline with him, share this meal with him, even knowing what is about to go down.

Where is this Kingdom that Jesus has been talking about?

It appears it is right here!

It is knowing what you know, about the people around you, and despite what you know about them, still choosing to do this, to love them, serve them, be with them.

American Author and Mystic James Marion has observed that when Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of Heaven”, what he is really doing is offering a metaphor for a state of consciousness.  The “Kingdom of God,” — the “Kingdom of Heaven” is not some place to which you go.   It is not a destination, or a transformed world.

It is instead a state of mind that you come from.

It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.

“The Kingdom of God has come near”  Jesus asserts, and tells his Disciples to announce it, and to do so by behaving in a way that this world does not always understand.

When confronted with too many mouths to feed, he commands to the disciples “You give them something to eat.”

In sending them out to proclaim the Kingdom, he tells them to venture out ill prepared.  “Take no staff, no second tunic, no extra sandals, but when you enter a house say ‘Peace….”  Who leaves with no travel plans and no luggage?

This is not about the world changing to meet your needs, this is about you changing and in the process, the world changes.

This is what Jesus does in this story, on this night, in the washing of the feet of those whom he knows will betray and disappoint him.   He does it anyway, and in so doing sets the expectation that this world will not be changed by “quid pro quo” deals, but by acts of service.

“Do you know what I have done to you?”  Jesus asks.  13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 1

The Kingdom is found not in a place, but in a choice made, an action undertaken even knowing what you know!

The Kingdom of God is not so much a destination to which this world will arrive some day, as it is looking at the journey of life in this world and choosing to behave in a way that defies the expectations of this world, and in so doing brings into this world the expectations of God, and the reality of God’s Kingdom.

The world would have fired all the disciples for their betrayal and disappointment.

Jesus instead washes them, and commands them to love.

This is the expectation of the Kingdom.

We too often think of the Kingdom of God as something that Jesus will bring in some day, and when he does, this world will be changed.

But instead, in the actions of this night Jesus lays the example of how the Kingdom is brought in every day by the decisions we make as his disciples and the actions that we can choose to take every day.

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

This is how the Kingdom of God comes upon us, not from without, but it emerges from within, ….what you choose to do in the face of the world’s disappointments and betrayals.

Palm Sunday 2017

You can’t say I didn’t warn you.  Way back in my December “Servitor” article I warned you that this year would be a “politically charged and governmentally intrusive year” as we read through the Gospel of Matthew, and this is why.

Matthew will not let it be anything other than that, and we are brought face to face with it all particularly on this day, Palm Sunday.

The ministry in Galilee, which has been known far and wide, has portrayed Jesus as casting out demons, healing the sick, and confronting religious leaders and those in authority and putting them in their place.

Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom, and it has played very well in the places where people have largely come to him.

Those in need seek him out.

Those who have heard of the miracles he can do come to receive from him.

Those who are skeptical come to ask questions, and inquire further, and who are open to his message find in him a compelling alternative to the grind of Empire that is life under Roman occupation.

But now, Jesus is not in Galilee anymore, not out in the sticks where you can get by with a lot of things so long as you don’t make too many waves or draw to much attention.

Now he is entering Jerusalem, there is no mistaking how he is coming into town, how he is received by the people, and what this entry signals.

The waving of palm branches, and laying them down before him hearkens back to the most recent memory of action taken against occupying forces.  It was during the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century B.C. that Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem having driven back the Greeks.  They cut palm branches to celebrate his military victory when the temple was cleansed and restored.   This was a story told, and a moment celebrated.

As Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

That is not just some generic greeting.

“Hosanna” is the Greek rendering of Rabbinical Hebrew “Hoshia-na”  “save, rescue.”

So this is the expectation on this day by those crowds who welcome him.   Here comes the one who is like King David of old, who will do battle here, who will “save” us from Roman occupation and the ineffectiveness of our current leaders.

This is an entry that signals a regime change.

It is the Inauguration day parade where the new leader is walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and as the crowds greet and wave at him, they also have expectations.   Promises that are to be kept.  Hopes that are to be fulfilled.

Look at Palm Sunday with those eyes, and begin to see all the expectations that come with it, and you will begin to understand how it was that expectations not met as anticipated could turn the crowds from cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify him.”

Even as eyes recognize the symbolism of the events, we have to acknowledge that there were details tucked into the story that were deviations from the norm.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem all right, but it is not on a prancing steed, or on a chariot of war as a conquering king would.

No, he comes on a beast of burden, saddled with the clothing of the poor, and it is either a young colt at that or perhaps is it a colt with a with a nursing foal accompanying.  So, in Jesus’ entry we see not a conquering warrior, but a different kind of leader.

This is a leader whose intent is to nurture.

This is a savior who earlier in the Gospel invoked the image of hen and chicks, wanting to gather Jerusalem under her wings.

This is a clue that that battle to be engaged in Jerusalem is not like one of the kings of old, where the oppressor is driven out by force.

This is not a regime change, where once it is done the people will sit back again and evaluate how the leader did, and where we can judge the effectiveness of his leadership based on whether our lives are better off in this world than they were before.

No, this is a different kind of battle, but no less political.

In this battle the limitations of earthly kingdoms are laid bare, and exposed for what they truly are.

Governments and kings, Temple authorities, Chief Priests and Councils, even disciples are all the same.

They disappoint.

They self-preserve.

They do not care.

This is Matthew’s take on the story of Jesus.  If you are looking for some structure that will save, forget it.  All have fallen short of that, and the characters in the story show us how.

For Pilate and Roman Authority … well Jesus Barabbas, Jesus of Nazareth, it’s all the same… One Jew looks like another to Pilate.   He can’t be bothered with their intrusion into his well oiled machine of state.  He washes his hands of the intrusion of Jesus.  “Do with him what you will.”

For Caiaphas and the religious leaders, ridding themselves of Jesus is a political expediency.  His presence agitates the crowds.  They plot to have him killed, and are concerned not about the action itself, but rather the appearances.  “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot.”   There is no concern for the death of a fellow Jew, only how to hold on to power and keep the status quo at any cost.

For the Disciples, well it is one of them who betrays, which is a way of saying that very few groups (or congregations for that matter) are ever destroyed from without, it is always an “inside job.”

Judas may even have had noble motives, believing that he would be forcing Jesus’ hand to bring in the Kingdom.

Or, he may have just sold out, dissatisfied with the direction things ended up going, Jesus all talk and no action.

Peter tries to assist the uprising that will bring about the regime change, mobilize the masses to riot and violence by raising the sword at the garden.  Let the bloody rebellion begin.

But Jesus forbids it, and he too has a moment of not understanding.  How will this Kingdom come if no one engages the opposition?

The disciples all disappoint in the garden, they can’t even keep awake for an hour, and when the police show up, they all scatter, seeking to preserve their own skins.

The once bold sword swinger Peter,  will become the thrice denier who skulks in shadows.

Matthew tells us this is the triumphant entry that signals the change of regimes, the Kingdom brought near now to intrude upon Empire, but when it happens, from all outward appearances, Empire comes out on top.

Pilate stays in his Palace.

Herod remains King of Judea.

Jesus ends up crucified for insurrection, and the guilty go free.

The disciples are scattered and the movement is lost.

So what are we to take away from this week?  From this story?

Well, perhaps it is this.

You are who you are when Jesus comes into your midst.

This is how it is with the encounter with Jesus.

We don’t “clean ourselves up” to come into the presence of God, but rather the point is that Jesus comes and finds us exactly where we are, and your reaction to his intrusion on your life will vary.

Jesus rides into your world with all the outward signs of signaling a regime change, but tucked under that message is this desire to nurture you into a new way of living, and that’s what we miss.

We expect action from him, not transformation in ourselves.

And so it is, that when Jesus enters into this world of Empire in which we live, we have the same kinds of reactions that unfolded in the entry into Jerusalem.

Some will be filled with expectations that Jesus should do something to save, do something to straighten out this un-justice world.  “Hosanna” – Save us!

Some will be angry that Jesus doesn’t fit the mold of what we expect a Messiah should be. His actions will seem strange.  His follow-through on events erratic.  Jesus remains unpredictable, not something we “get” all the time.

Some will be annoyed that he’s often just like any other would-be religious fanatic, they are ready to wash their hands of the whole church thing when expectations are unmet.

Some will be upset that Jesus doesn’t do what they want him to do.  Despite their initial appearance of affection for him, betrayal is always just a “kiss off” away.

This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who wants to nurture but we will have none of that.

This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who does challenges political authority, and who he scares enough that they in the end to put a seal on the tomb and make good and sure he stays put.

You are who you are when you encounter this story, and your character is laid bare and exposed.

You are heartless politician.

You are expedient church leader.

You are a betrayer, a coward, a steadfast but powerless watcher, a questioner, a skeptic.

The triumphal entry turns tragedy, and you are exposed for who you are in the end.

But the story is not yet over, and no seal put on a tomb, even by Empire, will keep it shut.

Jesus’ time in Jerusalem becomes earth shaking, in more ways than one.

This day, the entry and the start of this week reveals us as we are when Jesus first comes riding into Empire as we have fashioned it.

But, we are not yet who this Savior will make of us after the earth-shaking events of graves opened.

That’s what Palm Sunday sets us up for, watching how it all unfolds this week, exposing us for who we are in the Empires we have fashioned or adopted.

I did warn you.

Jesus will come riding in, and Empire as you have fashioned it will fall.

It must, so that new life can be born from the grave

Resurrection People John 11:1-45

There is an undeniable streak of cynicism running through the Gospel story today.  A kind of “What’s the point?” pall that seems to hang over this whole story from beginning to end.

Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness, and promptly decides not to act upon that news.

“How can that be?” we ask, along with many in the story.  “How could Jesus blow off his close friend, the brother of his beloved Mary and Martha in their time of great need?   What kind of friend is Jesus, if he can’t drop everything and come running when needed?”

The Disciples have a cynical outlook on the whole prospect of returning to Judea.

“Hey, weren’t they just gathering up the rocks there to stone us???” you can hear them thinking.

Despite attempts by Jesus to turn this into a “teaching moment” about light and walking in the light, Thomas at least continues in the attitude that is pretty clearly resignation.

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Martha is no ray of sunshine, recriminating Jesus when he approaches.  “Lord if you had been here….”

Mary echoes her sister’s comments, using practically the same words.  “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

The sisters have no doubt been talking with each other and rehearsing what they would say when Jesus finally showed up… and it’s not pretty.  For all the assurances of their faith, the knowledge of him “rising on the last day,’ and the outside hope that “even now God will grant whatever you ask of him.”  The problem of Jesus’ hesitation hangs over the whole story. Their words to him are forced, as if to say, “yes we know but… it’s a little late now.”

The crowd assembled is at the same time impressed with Jesus’ coming to be with the grief-stricken family, and with his own evident grief, but they are also skeptical.  “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind had kept this man from dying?”

Even Jesus feel a bit caught up by heavy mood at first.  He is moved to tears yes, overwhelmed with emotions at the hardness of reality of this death most final, — he has been four days in the tomb which is “dead-dead” in Jewish culture.

Jesus weeps.

He inquires of where the body of his friend is lain.

He has words of hope for Martha, assurances for Mary, but he also evidently feels the need to lift up his own prayers to his Father.

He does so as a witness to the crowds, or so we are told by him.

But, I suspect there is also a matter of Jesus’ own need here.  We have grown accustomed through the Gospels of watching him find a place to pray, to find solace away from the crowds to commune with the Father.

Here however, he opens up here in plain sight and earshot out of his own need.  “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I know you always hear me….”

Giving voice to that inner knowledge appears to be important for Jesus.  It is not just so the crowds who can overhear, but the prayer is also for Jesus himself.

It this act of “prayer out loud” that lifts Jesus out of the inexorable pull and drag of this world upon him and upon everyone in the story.

Even, and perhaps especially, the Messiah, the Son of God feels the weight of the world from time to time.

And that, beloved in the Lord, is where I want to take a jog from the Gospel into our own world and experience right now, for if I hear anything these days it is about the overwhelming cynicism that has become own experience.

There is an undeniable streak of cynicism that runs through our daily lives, and we often feel quite powerless to address it, or to deal with it, or to find ways to stave it off from pulling us ever deeper into resignation.

This is where our lives touch this story of Lazarus, for if we are honest with ourselves we will recognize that our question is the same as that on the lips of Mary, Martha, the disciples and the crowd.

Where is Jesus?

The cynicism that runs through this story runs through us as well, as so many of us reel at the changes and the accusations and actions of those in power.

“Where is God?” we ask.  “How could this, whatever ‘this’ is for you, happen?”

No amount of “it’ll be all right” will do to address the fact that someone, something appears to have died.

No amount of reassurance, or calling to mind the past, or looking with hope to the future working itself out will deal with rotting corpses.

We can no more pull ourselves out of the funk of cynicism these days than the disciples, or Mary and Martha, or the crowds could that day as they gathered at the tomb of four-day-dead Lazarus.

Words alone just don’t have the power to do that, not even eloquent prayers or wishful hopes.

No, what is required is nothing short of an experience of resurrection.  Words that resonate with action, and that has to come in the form of an experience quite literally “lived” by all those involved.

A body called forth from the tomb has to come to life.

A crowd has to see that event, and watch as the bound-one staggers out.

A closer group has to have a “hands on” experience with resurrection, be instructed to touch, to “unbind him and let him go.”

Nothing short of a resurrection experienced will have any effect on the pall of cynicism.  Something has to happen that is totally unexpected or anticipated, even though longed for.   Mary, Martha, Lazarus himself and the crowds gathered that day, yes even Jesus himself, will have to witness and experience it as it unfolds to dispel the darkness that currently envelopes them.

And that, curiously enough, brings us back to our day as well, and claiming something that we have perhaps lost in the midst of all the cynical stuff around us, which is who are we!

Are we not referred to as a “Resurrection People?”

Are we not witnesses to the Resurrection, and to the power of that Resurrection, and have been now for 2000 years?

And where did we see Resurrection?

Oh, beloved, we see it every day!

We see it, but our eyes must be lifted from the fog of cynicism that would keep them from seeing it.

You witnessed Resurrection when you walked into the door today.  Did you see it?

You made a decision to not stay on your sofa, to not catch the early seating at brunch, to not pull the covers back over your head and hunker down.

You stepped inside a church, where others made that same decision, and it was a moment of resurrection.  It was you saying defiantly to a word that wonders where Jesus is, that “Jesus is here.”

Jesus lives in the decision to gather, where the Word is preached and the Sacrament is administered.

Jesus becomes flesh again in the neighbor, and in the greeting, and in the voice uplifted, and in the bread and wine broken, given, shared.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” we defiantly proclaim, as if prophesying to dry old bones and we watch them come together again and take on muscle and sinew in the Body of Christ as it assembles.

Time has not erased the truth that because Christ Jesus was raised from the dead we too might have a new life.

Every Day!

Resurrection resides in the stocked pantry shelves, and in the sacrifices made to feed the hungry and cloth the naked.

Resurrection lives there because we don’t do those things just because they are a good idea, or because of the need or necessary, but because we follow a Risen Savior who has shown us how to love and has commanded us to feed.

Resurrection lives in the way we treat one another, in the kind and the tenderhearted words we speak to one another in the midst of our own grief.

Resurrection lives in the truth that must be spoken to power, the reminder of Last Judgment, the call to love, and forgive, and care for the vulnerable in society.

Resurrection lives in an offering taken, and in the decision to give that the lights may remain on and the organ may be tuned and story may be told once again.

Resurrection is evident in the notes of the singer, and in the passing of the peace, and in the lesson that is prepared and in the child who is welcomed and who feels welcomed.

Resurrection is found in the work of committees, and the silent service of cups filled with wine and linen lovingly arranged just as carefully as any folded linen cloth at the empty tomb.

You will witness resurrection in this world whenever you turn your eyes upward and pray, “I know that you always hear me…”

The furious plots and plannings of the kings, princes, presidents and nations have never been able to hold back the flood of justice and righteousness when God unleashes it.

“The arc of the moral universe is long” said Martin Luther King Jr. “but it bends toward justice.”

This is what we need to see in this Gospel today.

For all the cynicism that is displayed by all those involved in the story, when Resurrection is beheld the world is changed, and many come to believe.

This is what we do, Resurrection People.   We dispel the cynicism of this world by witnessing to what we see every day.

We hear the call of Jesus that brings the dead out of their graves.

We watch as those who were formerly as dead to us make their way back to life.

We get busy with our own hands unbinding and setting free those who stagger back to life.  We give them food.  We give them hugs.  We reach out and strip away, bit by bit, the things that hold them back.

We do all that by striding into this world to do the work of a Resurrected people.

Jesus is raised, and lives in us.   Though cynicism may slow us down from time to time, we live in the assurance given to us by Jesus himself, and show to us by his resurrection, that in the end the very gates of hell cannot prevail against us.