Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spirit, Flesh and Bone: A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Many thanks to Rachel Barenblat, aka the Velveteen Rabbi, for her kind permission to quote from her blogpost "Standing Again at Sinai."
When I was in college I discovered the slightly illicit delights of the all-nighter. This usually had to do with studying, of course, for some enormous, life-or-death exam for which I had not really cracked the books just yet. It also usually had to do with friendship—camaraderie, the “we’re all in this together” feeling students have when their backs are to the academic wall. It’s late May, and a lot of our high school students certainly know what I’m talking about, and I’m guessing our college students have pretty fresh memories of the same.

I spent one particularly memorable all-nighter with Jean, one of my junior year roommates. Jean was studying French, I was studying math, and I decided to add to the ambience of the whole experience by baking a loaf of whole-wheat bread, a skill I’d just learned. Also, a good way to procrastinate—kneading the dough has therapeutic value as a stress-reliever, and the anticipation of a delicious treat adds to the festive mood. As we worked and chatted (quietly, so as not to awaken our other roommates) the smell of the bread began to fill the kitchen. I later wrote,

“I breakfasted with Jean at 3 AM.
We dipped hot bread in metaphors and honey.
I’ve had a vision! someone said…
the reflexive verbs are little ferrymen…”[i]

And that’s what all-nighters are like: Work, sweet food, sweeter conversation, and sometimes, visions.

I read a lot of writing by other ministers and religious professional on the web. One of my favorites is a web log called “The Velveteen Rabbi.” It’s written by a rabbinical student named Rachel Barenblat. This week Rachel posted an account of how she observed the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot, which always takes place fifty days after Passover, celebrates the giving of the Torah—the law—by God on Mount Sinai. Rachel wrote,

My shul [that is, her congregation] and the shul up the road joined forces again to spend Shavuot together, singing and noshing and learning well into the night…

Our studies wrapped up around 3ish, [3 AM, that is!] and by the time we were through with our brief closing ceremony (passing the Torah from person to person, each cradling her for a time, and then reciting a [blessing] to seal our study) it was 3:30. [Then Rachel describes driving to another home, where participants talked about the journey from Passover to Shavuot, and then listened to a folk tale.] And by the time that ended, the sky was lightening and it was dawn.

It's been years since I've actually stayed up all night on Shavuot; I expect I'll regret it later today, at least physically. But there is something amazing and unique about the feeling of learning Torah all night, opening myself to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark, especially knowing that so many others around the world were doing the very same thing. [Joyous festival], everyone—I hope your holiday is sweet.

Rachel passed a traditional Shavuot. The customary way to observe this festival is to stay up all night studying the Torah and eating: a religious and spiritual all-nighter! The food usually consists of dairy-based desserts such as cheesecake, since the celebration includes joyful reminders of the land of Israel, a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

I have to say, this sounds like my kind of celebration: The bible, something delicious, and a conversation that goes well into the night. Sounds heavenly. One other thing I should tell you about Shavuot. Its name in Greek is “Pentecost.” This is the festival the friends and followers of Jesus—as well as Jews from all over the known world—were celebrating when the Spirit came down.

“When the day of Pentecost had come,” our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins, “they were all together in one place.” Of course they were. They were celebrating, as the good Jews they were, the fact that God had given them the sublimely sweet gift of God’s word. They had probably stayed up all night. There are 50 days from Passover to Shavuot, and there are 50 days from Easter to the Christian Pentecost. So, I imagine their study of Torah had greater urgency and relevance than, perhaps, ever before. I imagine they searched the scriptures diligently to help them to understand what exactly was going on… who Jesus was, and how he was related to the word of God as they had received it. What an all-nighter that must have been. We see the end-result:

First there was the wind… the rush of violent wind, which filled the place where their studies, their Torah-all-nighter had taken place. Maybe a wind that blew around the last bits of sweet cake and cream. Wind—like the wind that the prophet Ezekiel prophesied to at God’s command. Wind, like that wind that came upon those formerly dry bones and literally blew life back into them. Wind that bridged the gap between spirit and flesh.

And then fire—“tongues” of fire appearing on each head. Fire, like the fire of the bush that was burned and yet not consumed… remember, how that fire told Moses he was standing on holy ground. Fire, like the presence of God in the wilderness…remember, how God went before the people in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Wind, and then fire, and then… words. Not just any words, but words spoken in every language of every person that had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot. Words that broke down barriers of language and custom. All this, the morning after the all-night study session, in which they were opening themselves, as Rachel put it, to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark.

What an intriguing concept: “Insights which arise in new ways in the dark.” There is something especially compelling about the idea of studying all night, or talking all night. I recently heard this, about the 19th century French novelist, Honore de Balzac: “He liked to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 p.m., then sleep until midnight, and then get up and write all night and day while drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee.”[iii]

Of course, there are other kinds of darkness besides the darkness of 3 AM. The darkness described by the prophet Ezekiel in our reading this morning is the darkness of people who feel utterly disconnected from any sense of God’s love and care for them. These people, exiles in Babylon during the 6th century BCE, have lost their homes, their leaders, and their place of worship, the Temple. The Temple is an especially grievous loss, because the people of Israel experienced it as housing the very presence of God in their midst. So their words are especially haunting: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” These are people lost in a spiritual darkness.

Yet, in the midst of this psychic and spiritual wasteland, this literal graveyard of the people’s hopes, one man is pulling an all-nighter, listening for a word from God’s holy spirit, and like so many other students before and after him, he too receives a vision:

Thus says the Lord God: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. (Ezekiel 37:12b,14)

For the ones who are willing to keep their eyes and their hearts and their ears open to God’s word in the darkness, the power of God is ready to be made manifest. For Ezekiel and the exiles, that power is seen in a vision of resurrection—dry bones covered with flesh and given the breath of life once again. These wanderers in the darkness of exile learn by this breathtaking and breath-giving vision that God has spoken, and God will act. For the friends and followers of Jesus, perhaps living in the darkness of uncertainty about life without Jesus physically in their midst, the power of God is made manifest by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot, Pentecost. God gives the Word, and God gives the Spirit. They emerge, perhaps, from the darkness of a long night of wrestling with scripture in hopes it will give them a blessing, with eyes and hearts and ears ready to be blasted open with wind and fire and words.

And what about us? How do we prepare ourselves for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in our midst? I guess there are worse things than spending a night—all night—studying, praying, eating, and waiting for the movement of the Spirit. Especially when we do it together. It’s the all-nighters that we spend alone that are the tough ones—the nights when sleep won’t come, and it’s not because our minds and hearts are engaged in consuming the sweetness of God’s word, but because we are chewing the bitter cud of anxiety or regret. Those are the all-nighters I can do without, thanks.

No, I like the way it happens in the reading from Acts: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” And—for those of us who are not really night owls but who are more like larks—it was 9 in the morning. Perhaps some early birds had joined them in time for the swooping down of the dove. Perhaps night owls and early birds can manage to find time together for work, sweet food, sweeter conversation, and maybe even visions.

It is time for us to dream together, here at St. Sociable. The members of the church council have been working diligently together—we haven’t quite gone all night, though at the end of some meetings we may feel as if we had. We are preparing ourselves for congregational conversations, beginning with the one we will have next Sunday, when we can continue the process of dreaming together the future of ministry in this place. Take heart: this is not a life-or-death exam; and we are indeed all in this together; and I guarantee you that every single one of us is committed to what is best for this church. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” says the Lord, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Let’s share our visions and dreams together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] A fragment of a poem written long ago (!)… circa 1981.
[ii] Rachel Barenblat, “Standing Again at Sinai,” The Velveteen Rabbi, May 29, 2009.
[iii] The Writer’s Almanac, May 20, 2009.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Signs of Life: Sermon on Mark 16:15-20

This week, prompted by this passage from the gospel of Mark, I watched a short film called “Homecoming,” about one of a handful of churches in the United States where snake handling is practiced as a part of worship.

It wasn’t what I thought it would be.

The first thing that appeared on screen was a series of black and white still photographs of a small town in West Virginia… coal country, nestled in the Appalachian mountains. These were followed by scenes from a small town church, with candid shots of worshipers raising their hands in prayer, and the voice over of a preacher with a strong Southern drawl, urging them trust in the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. “Doesn’t God mean what he says?” he yelled. And then the film began, and the music started. The description of it read “a rocking hybrid of blues infused gospel.” To me, it sounded like early Elvis—those jangly guitars, driving bass and quick percussive drums. The people were dancing… the words “whirling dervishes” comes to mind, and they spun and swayed to the house band. One man twirled all the way down the aisle and nearly out the door, spinning towards blinding sunshine until gentle hands from other congregants reached out to guide him back.

And then they finally appeared: the snakes. One man held an enormous cluster of them… rattlesnakes, copperheads, all sorts of venomous varieties. The snakes seemed to be frozen in a kind of trance of their own. The men danced with the snakes, draped them around their necks like some kind of grotesque jewelry. But always, at the same time, the ecstatic dancing to the rockabilly music. Dancing with snakes! The lead singer would issue a call and the dancing congregation would join in the refrain: “What’d you think about Jesus?” “He’s alright.”

I’d imagined something else entirely: a darkened room, candles lit, an intensity of silence, and one by one, people carefully, gingerly picking up the rattlers as everyone looked on with bated breath. Instead, the mood was more of a rave. It was a dance party. Instead of fear there was a sense of gleeful abandon. Instead of the dark and silence, there was the effusive music, laugher and song. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.

Beneath the video—I watched it on YouTube, on the internet—there were viewers’ comments. There were certainly some scathing remarks, mocking the participants. One viewer suggested the snakes were not really dangerous. Another had low marks for Christians generally. But one person wrote, “Man… That is some good music! A fine example of collective effervescence!” And another, rather plaintively, commented simply: “They got something that I wish I had.”

We are at the very end of Mark’s gospel, reading one of the lectionary passages offered for this Sunday. This is a Sunday when we are standing on the bridge between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost. You may be interested to know that this passage was not a part of the gospel of Mark originally. Everything following the account of the women at the tomb on Easter morning is a late addition to the gospel: that’s the scholarly consensus. So what we’re reading now is someone’s attempt to finish the story. Jesus has risen from the grave, but it doesn’t end there. He is giving his followers some last minute instructions.

The first thing Jesus tells them is something we are very familiar with. You may have heard these words referred to as the Great Commission. Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Jesus’ final instructions begin with the idea that his friends and followers should share the good news they have received with the whole world—not even just the whole human world, but the whole of creation, the cosmos. All beings, all things. The good news applies globally.

After instructions about baptism, Jesus advises his disciples on how to recognize the marks of the true church, the authentic fellowship of believers. And this is where the passage gets a little strange. Jesus names the following signs of his life, present among the believers: “… by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

We are people of the book. We take very seriously the words of scripture, especially as they help to illumine the Word made flesh. But even as we receive the book, we receive interpretive tools to help us to understand it. So, we have some choices we can make in reading a passage like this. We have at least three options before us. We could read this passage and decide that we need to send our Sexton out in their pick-up trucks to bring us back some snakes so that we can get to it. Or, we could read this passage and wonder if there might be a deeper meaning to these words of Jesus, one that is more universally applicable to our understanding the signs of Jesus’ life among us. Or, we could let the passage question us, probe us, as we struggle with the question, “What are the signs of Jesus’ life today? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What are the things we think would be the essentials to any place, any fellowship that calls itself a gathering of Christians?

I’m going to opt for the middle way. As to my first idea, I think we just might lose our Sexton if we sent him off on such a safari. As to my third, I think those are questions we might all take with us as we leave today. I’m going for the middle route. How might we understand these words of Jesus in a way that makes them more applicable for today?

“By using my name they will cast out demons.” We’ve talked a lot about demons this spring… they have popped up consistently in the gospel of Mark. One of the signs of Jesus’ power is that the demons that possess people are afraid of him, and recognize his authority… and his goodness. And let’s not forget one of the ways in which demons did their damage was by forcing people out of community, breaking their relationships with others, rendering them untouchable.

What does it mean for a 21st century Christian to be a part of a church that casts out demons? One way of understanding demons is to think of them more broadly as those things that possess or control us. Understood in that way, they might be actual forces of evil… I do not deny its existence, or downplay its power. Or, our demons might be the addictions that have us by the throat… those items or activities that we cannot seem to live without, that make life bearable, that we think we must have in order to get through the day, whether we’re talking about alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal), or the urge to purchase, or the urge to dominate or control other people. Or, our demons may be emotions that overwhelm us. Some live with the demon of regret, others the demon of resentment. When Jesus lives in us the stranglehold of demons is lessened. When we are part of a community that shares life in Christ, one of the signs of his life is that we are open to him casting those demons out. One of the blessings of the demons being expelled is that the community becomes richer, deeper and more real.

“They will speak in new tongues.” For the early church one of the signs of the power and life of Christ in their midst was the ability to communicate across boundaries of language and custom. A week from now, on Pentecost Sunday, that will be the focus of one of the most dramatic readings we hear all year. One of the signs of our life in Christ is that we will be open to new ways of communicating with one another. There may be no hotter topic in church circles than this: how do we communicate effectively across boundaries of language and custom? But instead of being 1st century Palestinian Jews trying to communicate with Medes and Parthians and citizens of Mesopotamia and Cyrene, we are 21st century church people in Endicott trying to communicate with people who Twitter and who blog and who update their Facebook status, and who wouldn’t dream of missing the latest episodes of “American Idol” or “24”… but don’t seem to have much interest in prioritizing our particular Sunday morning shindig. How do we speak in new tongues? How do we share the good news in a new language? If we are living in Christ, if we have Jesus’ life in us, we will be working like crazy to figure this one out.

“They will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” You may already have figured this out, but this is the verse from today’s reading that grabbed my attention in the first place. But how do we understand these words in our context? Clearly, there are those in our day and age who still interpret them literally. You too can YouTube it and see them for yourselves. For us, I think there are other ways to understand this concept. It might have to do with dealing with difficult or dangerous people, places or things. How do you “handle” the snakes in your lives… the people who, if they bit you with their anger or their malice, you’d be afraid you might not recover? In the video, the preacher says, “If a rattler bites you, you have 45 minutes to live without medical attention… unless God takes over.” I’d say that’s a pretty good description of what it can be like if someone truly tries to harm us. We may have 45 minutes, or a day, or a week…. but unless we allow God to take over, we will soon be, spiritually speaking, in critical condition.

“If they lay their hands on the sick, they will recover.” The last sign of life Jesus identifies is a continuation of his ministry of healing. Mark’s gospel is filled with stories of Jesus healing people, and by so doing, restoring them to the community they had lost because of their illness. The true church, the place in which the life of Christ is lived, will be a place where his healing continues, and where community is restored to those who have been on the outside.

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation, says Jesus, and these signs will accompany those who believe. As I read this passage, one theme runs through these signs of Jesus’ life in the new community he shaped. They are all about healing and wholeness. They are all about the freedom that comes when your life is centered, not around yourself, but around sharing the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. They are about both individual healing and the healing of relationships… making us stronger, more whole, both in ourselves and for one another. Healing not only our own hurts, but those things that keep us isolated from a hurting world.

I keep coming back to that viewer who commented on the film: “They got something that I wish I had.” That is a sign of life for Christians as well. When we, in our fellowship—in the ways we are together and the ways we are for the community outside these walls, in the ways we sing and pray and listen and speak—when we inspire that kind of wistful longing… we know we have something here. “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” May it be so, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Love, Love, Love, Love: Sermon on John 15:9-17

Crossposted at my other blog. Um, yeah....been meaning to mention it.
It's been a big week here at St. Sociable. I love these people so much...


I sometimes wonder, if someone had a lot of time on their hands and decided to search through all the sermons I’ve ever preached in order to count how many times the word “love” appears… how many would that be? I’d bet that would be a lot. I say “love” a lot in my preaching. In fact, I have a sense that “love” may just be the word I use the most in my preaching because “love” captures my understanding of the Good News. The Good News is this: God loves us. God loves us, each and every one of us, wildly and extravagantly. God is love.

Our reading from John’s gospel this morning picks up precisely where last week’s reading left off. In fact, I had a brief moment when I seriously considered titling this sermon, “Abiding, Part II.” Or “Abiding, The Sequel.” But when the love angle caught my eye, it captured my imagination. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” So, Love it was.

Love. Is there any word that is more casually tossed around in the English language? Think of all the ways you can say you love someone or something. I love my spouse, I love my children. I love that movie! I love Jesus. I love chocolate chip cookies, and that first cup of coffee in the morning, and Oriental chicken salads. I love my friends. I love my church family. I love the people I work with. I love you. How many kinds of love do you suppose I’ve just named?

C. S. Lewis, one of the great popular Christian thinkers and writers of the 20th century, described love exhaustively in his book, The Four Loves.

The first love Lewis describes is affection. He says that this is the kind of love we seem to have in common with the animal world, and anyone who has a pet knows: we can feel their affection. We love them, and they love us! And they show love for each other. Affection is the kind of love parents have for their children, and children for parents. It is a kind of love that arises naturally, probably out of a biological imperative to keep the species thriving. It is a kind of need-love and giving-love, all wrapped up into one. The parent gives to the child, and needs to give to the child. The child needs the parent’s giving, and the child’s need is a kind of gift to the parent.

Our love for God is need-love—why else would we always be calling God “Father?” God is all fullness, and by comparison, we are all need. We need God’s love the way we need air in our lungs and blood in our veins and food in our stomachs. It is very like the affection of parents and children.

Next Lewis describes friendship, and he comments on how little respect it gets in literature and entertainment. He wrote his book in 1960, and I think there have been a lot of “buddy” films since then, for men and for women. Still, think of the famous pairings: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, even, for some of us, Nick and Norah Charles. But who ever thinks of David and Jonathan, or Elizabeth and Charlotte? Friendship is not a result of a need-relationship, like affection. And that is precisely why, in the ancient world, friendship was valued more highly than other loves. Because friendship is freely chosen, because we are not compelled into it by our own emotional or physical needs, it was considered the kind of love that elevated human beings into the realm of the angels.

Of course, the word love is associated most frequently, in our culture, with romantic love, or what Lewis calls Eros. As he puts it, it is the kind of love lovers are “in.” Which gives us some sense of what Eros is like: it possesses us, it claims us, it feels bigger than we are. Think of Romeo’s words as he gazes up at the balcony: “What light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the East and Juliet is the sun.” These aren’t the words of someone who is merely attracted to someone. Romeo’s love has taken possession of his soul. Lewis doesn’t want us to simply reduce Eros to sexuality, either. Sexuality is a part of Eros, but not the totality. Rather, Eros is a kind of complete delight in someone, what he calls “a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality.” That is the kind of love lovers are in.

Finally, we come to Lewis’ fourth love: he calls it “charity.” I think we tend to associate “charity” with “charitable giving” (or receiving). It has even taken on a slightly negative connotation… no one wants to be on the receiving end of charity. But that’s not what he’s talking about.

The love Lewis describes is what the biblical writers call Agape. This is the love Jesus is taking about in today’s passage when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” And, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” What kind of love is this? This is the same kind of love we talk about when we say, “God is love.” The love Jesus is talking about is the kind that gives of itself completely and utterly. It’s the kind of love that gives up all the power in the universe to become a puny, relatively power-less human being. For those fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” who happened to catch this week’s season finale, it’s the kind of love that lays down its life so that someone else can live.

When Jesus is telling us to love one another, he isn’t talking about having affection for one another—though we may have that. He isn’t talking about being in love with one another—though we may, joyfully, find ourselves in that condition. He isn’t even talking about having true and deep friendships with one another—though we may be lucky enough to have those. He is talking about a love that transcends all the other loves, because it is ready to give of itself totally, wildly and extravagantly, without hope or expectation of receiving anything at all in return. It is ready to give even at the risk of its own life, its own welfare. That is agape-love. That is God-love. And that is what we are called to, as followers of Jesus. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

Now, I realize: there is nothing like setting a standard of behavior that is completely and utterly unattainable to get folks bummed out in the middle of a sermon.

Where do we begin? I have what may seem like a somewhat radical suggestion. Why not begin by doing absolutely nothing? Why not begin, not by trying to figure out how to achieve the impossible, matching the crazy, all-out giving-love of God in Jesus Christ. Why not begin, instead, by receiving it, by letting it seep in, sink down, flood into our hearts, souls and bodies. Why not begin by trying to understand that the Good News really applies to us? Why not begin by seeing what it feels like to abide in God’s love?

I have some recent experience in this area. At the beginning of Lent I decided to take on a daily practice of prayer and scripture reading—understand, this is something I always aspire to do, but there’s something about Lent that gives us just the gentlest of shoves in the direction we always mean to go but never quite get around to. And so I began getting up an hour earlier than before, and reading scripture and praying. And the epistle for Ash Wednesday read, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” [2 Corinthians 5:2] As I read those words, something inside me awakened and stretched and opened its eyes to the possibility that it just might be time for me to trust in those words, that now is the acceptable time. It just might be time to see what it felt like to abide in that love. And with that little kernel of hope—that I might be able to abide in God’s love—I began to make plans to share the fullness of who I am with you.

And so today you know a little bit more about your pastor than you did last week. And today I feel so very blessed to be able to say that I know even more about the love of God than I did last week. I know that the love of God shines through your faces and echoes in your words. I know that the love of God bridges barriers we may have thought were insurmountable. I know that the love of God lets itself be heard in phone calls, and read in emails, and seen in face-to-face visits, and held in bunches of flowers and hand-carved crosses.

And I also know this: the love of God does not guarantee there will be no difficult times, but it does promise to abide through those times. The love of God does not eliminate the need for painful or hard conversations, but it does promise to abide in the midst of those conversations. The love of God does not take away our racing hearts when we finally have to speak our truth, but it does promise to abide, giving us whatever it is we need to let those words be spoken. The love of God abides, and abides, and abides.

Near the end of our gospel passage, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” For the past twenty months, I believe God has chosen to bring us together as pastor and congregation, to do God’s work—to bear, as Jesus says, “fruit that will last”, or as our mission statement says, “to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world.” God chose us. God’s love abides with us. And I believe that God has work for us to do together, before God sends us on our separate ways. But the first thing I believe God wants is for us to know—to comprehend—that wild and extravagant love God has for us. That giving-love. That God-love. That love in which we can abide, in which we can trust, and in which we can take risks, together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abiding: A Sermon for for Mother's Day on John 15:1-8

Once upon a time, there was… a nothing, a collection of cells, a point suitable for the head of a pin. It was you, it was me. We were that small. We were that contingent. We were that fragile, that the tiniest puff of a breeze could blow our tiny selves all to smithereens, to kingdom come. But… you and I, long before we had agency or identity, we had something going for us. We had a nest. We had a place to rest. In technical terms, our blastocyst selves found an endometrial wall into which we were able to implant. We found a place to live, a place to grow, a place to abide. That place was inside a mother.

When I hear Jesus’ words in today’s passage, when he tells us, “Abide in me,” I can’t help thinking of the place, the person in which each one of us was able to abide, our biological mothers. Who abides more truly and literally in someone than a baby abides in the womb that carries and nurtures it for nine months? Abide in me, says Jesus, and I think, “Like a baby abides in its mother.”

It is still Easter! We are in the fifth week of the resurrection season, and our understanding of resurrection keeps unfolding, as week after week we hear stories and words designed to help us move more fully into awareness of what that means. What is the resurrection life? Interestingly, the words we read from the gospel of John this morning are words spoken by Jesus before his death. This is from a passage that scholars call “the Farewell Discourse,” several chapters in which Jesus is talking to his friends, giving them all his wisdom, just prior to his arrest.

It might be worthwhile to say a bit here about the gospel of John. There are four gospels, and scholars usually group three of them, Matthew, Mark and Luke, together; those three are called “the synoptic gospels,” meaning, they all have roughly the same outlook. There are differences, to be sure, but essentially, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are connected. They share sources, they share many of the same stories and parables, miracle accounts and timelines. One of the most interesting things about the synoptics is how they portray Jesus. They show us a Jesus who doesn’t say a whole lot about who he is, and when others try to talk about it he hushes them up, especially the Jesus of the gospel of Mark.

Then there is the fourth gospel, the gospel of John. It is strikingly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. It contains many stories that are not found in those gospels. It has a three-year timeline, as compared with their single year. And, in what I find to be the single greatest difference between John and the synoptic gospels, Jesus talks about himself. A lot. In fact, in John, we have a Jesus who is constantly making these “I am” statements. “I am the vine.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the gate.” “I am the living water.” Far from trying to keep his identity, his nature, on the down-low, the Jesus of John is all too ready and willing to shout it from the rooftops—or in the temple courtyard. That’s what gets him in trouble, in the end. It’s not an identity people are comfortable with.

There’s something else I believe to be true about the gospel of John. I think John’s portrayal of Jesus is saturated with the resurrection, all the way through. John’s Jesus is a Jesus who seems already to have lived the whole story, and come out the other side. He has all the answers. I think this is why, in this year focused mostly on the gospel of Mark, the lectionary provides us with these passages from John during the Easter season. As we are opening ourselves to trying to understand what the resurrection means, how and why it matters, we have Jesus’ words from John spelling it out for us.

Abide in me, says Jesus, as I abide in you. One truth about the resurrection, then, is this: now we have an opportunity for a connection with Jesus, a relationship with him, which goes beyond the superficial. We are invited, in and through the resurrection, to go beyond following Jesus, beyond imitating him or emulating him, to go beyond wanting to be close to him. We are invited to literally welcome Jesus into our very selves. And that relationship goes both ways. We welcome Jesus into us, and Jesus welcomes us into him.

This is a relationship that bears such intimacy, frankly, it makes us, many of us, just a little uncomfortable. What does it meant to abide in Jesus? What does it mean that he abides in us? Maybe a return to that metaphor of motherhood can help.

Julian of Norwich is revered as one of the great Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. In the year 1373 Julian was just 30 years old, and she became gravely ill, a “sickness unto death.” On May 8th of that year, the 3rd Sunday after Easter, she was visited by her priest, who had given her the last rites. After this visit, the pain left her and she experienced a series of something she called “showings,” what we might call visions. For twelve hours she received 15 visions of God’s love. Here is what she has to say, describing some of these “showings.”

It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His [Motherhood] starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. [1]

The gentle protection and guard of love. According to Julian’s vision, it is the fact that Jesus overcame evil with good, gently protecting us from that evil—that makes him our mother. Later, she extends that metaphor by pointing out that, just as a mother feeds her baby, Jesus feeds us with his own body and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. [2]

I recognize that Mother-language for God tends to make us a little nervous. Mother-language for Jesus is certainly unexpected! But any language we use in trying to describe God, and our relationship with God is, by definition, going to slip quickly into the realm of metaphor and approximation. The language of God as Father, though it more comfortably on our ears by virtue of its familiarity, is still the language of metaphor. God is bigger than our language, so big that we need to bring God a little closer to our human experience. God is like a father, God is like a mother. And a shepherd, and a rock, and a fortress. All rough attempts to speak of something that is, ultimately, indescribable.

But we’ll keep trying. Abide in me, says Jesus. Abide in me, as I abide in you. We can abide in Jesus, Julian suggests, because we can trust Jesus to overcome evil with good, to offer that gentle protection of love. We can abide in Jesus, because we can depend on Jesus to provide us with sustenance, bread for the journey. Turn these same ideas around, and we can see how Jesus can abide in us. Who here has recently had an opportunity to overcome evil with good? It happens more often than we think. Just think of the last time you were in the presence of someone who was really, really angry. A deep breath, a pause, a quick prayer of “help,” and we are ready, in a situation like that, to try to overcome anger with gentleness. And in so doing… we have availed ourselves of an opportunity to abide in Jesus, to participate in his holy actions of peacemaking. Who here has recently had an opportunity to feed the hungry? These occasions are all around us, whether we’re volunteering at one of the soup kitchens in our community, or bringing our own canned goods for CHOW, or dropping off a casserole to someone who’s been in the hospital, or even picking up the tab for the lunch of someone we know is struggling. And we’ve done it again: participated in Jesus’ sacred actions of feeding the world with his love made flesh.

If we are talking about essentials of motherhood, and how Jesus may embody them, I don’t think we can get away from one of the things for which Jesus is best known: teaching. On the day the popular culture sets aside to honor mothers of all varieties, it should be getting clearer and clearer to us (if it wasn’t already) that mothering is not and cannot be limited to a biological function. There are many who mother who have never carried a child in their womb; I would have to count my own mother in that category. And there are many who mother who were never birth-mothers or adoptive mothers. I can think of countless women and men whom I could easily place in that category, as well as my children’s father. And, of course, biological motherhood—as grateful as we all are for it—is no predictor of giftedness for the task of mothering.

You may know that Mother’s Day did not always have the meaning and message it does today. Its original inception was as a day for women, mothers in particular, to rise up and demand peace. The original Mother’s Day Proclamation was written by Julia Ward Howe, known as a suffragist, abolitionist and poet. In the aftermath of the Civil war, this author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” wrote, in one line,
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.”

A mother—a true mother—teaches her children. By word and by example. As a dear friend of mine says, “They are always watching us, everything we do.” Indeed they are. So those of us privileged to mother—whether our children are those born of us or children who have come to us by adoption or affection, or those hundreds we have taught in the classroom, or those hundreds we have taught in the Sunday School classroom or those hundreds we have coached on the playing field—we are on notice. We teach even when we have no intention of teaching. But if we abide in Jesus… our teaching is that much more likely to come from a place of love and goodness.

Abide in me, as I abide in you. In this resurrection season the resurrection continues to unfold… and we find that it truly inhabits us. Now we have an opportunity for a connection with Jesus, a relationship with him, which goes beyond the superficial. We are invited, in and through the resurrection, to go beyond following Jesus, beyond imitating him or emulating him, to go beyond wanting to be close to him. We are invited to literally welcome Jesus into our very selves, even as Jesus welcomes us into his heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter LIX. As translated at
[2] Ibid., Chapter LX.

Monday, May 04, 2009

In the Valley: Sermon on Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Every minister I know can tell you some version of this story, because it has happened to all of us. This is how it goes. You are at the bedside of a dying patient, say, an elderly woman who has been unconscious for days. The nurses have warned you that she won’t even know that you are there, that she no longer speaks, even when she has periods of consciousness. You sit quietly by her bed for a little while. Eventually you decided to pray the 23rd Psalm. In wonder you watch as the woman begins to move her lips. She isn’t necessarily speaking distinct words, but her sounds match the rhythm of what you are saying. She is praying the psalm with you. This supposedly unresponsive patient is responding to the words of this psalm—words she has probably known her whole life. In a moment of grace, she joins you in prayer.

In the valley of the shadow of death the words of this psalm speak to that woman. For her, the valley is the prelude to the last days of her life. For you and for me, the valley could be any number of things. We may take our first steps into the valley because of illness, our own or that of one we love—a beloved partner or spouse, a child, a grandchild. We may pass into the valley because of fear… the fear of losing a job, or not finding another one, the fear that we are somehow under attack, or will be. We may enter the shadowlands because of problems in our relationships, when we recognize the scary and disheartening signs that all is not well with the person we love most in the world, or even with ourselves. The deep darkness may come upon us when our children make choices that baffle us. Even in the most blessed life, even when we spend the majority of our days in the sunlight looking down upon dazzling vistas, each of us walks into that valley sooner or later.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

David, the shepherd, the king, the writer and singer of psalms, knew the valley of the shadow of death intimately. He knew what it was to be pursued by his enemies who wanted to take his life, and even the torturous understanding that one of them was his own son. He knew the valley of the shadow of his own guilt, after he took the woman Bathsheba like a piece of property and sent her warrior husband to the front lines of battle to be killed. He knew the valley of the shadow when his own infant son died, and when the son who sought his life died. But David knew something else about the valley of the shadow of death. He knew that his only chance of getting through that valley was to surrender himself into the hands of the shepherd—and not just any shepherd. David knew that we need the kind of shepherd described in this psalm. And so, perhaps David sang: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Everything following this statement—I shall not want—is a recitation of actions taken by the shepherd. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” It is intriguing to me, this idea of “making” someone lie down. My head is immediately filled with memories of being a young exhausted mother with a recalcitrant toddler, both of us badly in need a nap. The shepherd, like a good mother, knows that the sheep need their rest, even when they’re restless. He makes them lie down. Sometimes, I think we won’t lie down—we won’t pause for rest or refreshment—until something knocks us down. I don’t believe God knocks us down. But it may be that when life has knocked us down, we can finally pay attention to where it is the shepherd is trying to lead us.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” Still waters… this is a deceptive little phrase. I used to think it was about the shepherd giving the sheep water to drink, until it occurred to me. If you are hiking and you need a drink of water, you don’t look for a still pool. You look for running water—what in the biblical era was called ‘living water.’ The still waters are not about refreshment for the body: they are about restoration of the soul. Even sheep, it would seem, need beauty, and transcendence. I remember a family fight, an evening of anger and hurt that was somehow softened and eased because it took place against the backdrop of a stunningly gorgeous sunset. The shepherd ushers us into these quiet places of rest and beauty, knowing full well that our fractured and fragmented souls are in just as much need of refreshment and restoration as our bodies. Maybe more.

The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” I have learned that our contemporary view of shepherds can be highly sentimentalized. I know that for years I had an image of a sweet youth sitting on a rock with his panpipes or his harp, gently serenading the white, wooly lambs (and perhaps a pretty shepherdess). It is in the nature of sheep to not be too terribly bright, to be followers rather than leaders, to scare easily. Sheep can find their way to danger, it is said, one bite at a time. And fear is contagious, no matter what your genus and species. The descent into the valley is the journey into fear, into the things that scare us and haunt us and disrupt our dreams.

The shepherd is well-equipped to care for us in our fear. Instead of that idyllic image out of a renaissance madrigal, try to bring to mind the biggest, burliest bouncer you ever saw at a bar. Shepherds were rugged, tough individuals. “They worked long hours in the cold and rain; they smelled like sheep. The rod and staff that comfort us were used to beat away wild animals, killing them if necessary.”[1] We go into the dark valley comforted, because we go there with someone who is willing to fight for us. We go with someone who is willing to die for us.

The psalm takes a turn here, leaving behind images of the pasture in favor of images of the royal banquet hall—perhaps a reflection of the life of David, the shepherd who became a king? “Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The psalm doesn’t leave us in the valley. The shepherd doesn’t even leave us in the sheep. Abruptly, we have been welcomed into the royal hall, and clothed with rich garments, a ring put on our fingers and shoes on our feed, and we have been ushered to the table. Notice… the enemies have not gone away. But their power is diminished, vanquished in the presence of the shepherd-king who is intent on providing us with everything we need.

Of course, this was the destination all along. The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. We shall not want: for green pastures, for places of beauty. We shall not want: for comfort, for reassurance. We shall not want: for the bread of life, and the overflowing cup of salvation. And all this in the presence of the things that we fear the most: the nameable and unnameable threats of the valley, the tangible and intangible fears that haunt us. Instead of threats and fears we are served a lifetime of goodness and mercy. And we are assured: this shepherd-king and this home and this table: they are ours forever.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Becky Ardell Downs, Midrash Lectionary Discussion List, 2003.

Things to Remember

1. Blog about Tribeca (photo is a teaser)

2. Don't bring up how you were in NYC during the Swine Flu outbreak just before Communion. I'm just sayin'.

3. Where was Jesus to be found? At the margins.