Why Jesus Followers Travel in Packs

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 2.06.20 PM.png
Scenes from The Jungle Book (2016). 

Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24:36b-48

I watched the new Jungle Book movie recently. In addition to being stunned by the visual effects — having a movie where animals’ mouths move that isn’t cheesy clearly means that we live in the future —  it was also interesting to revisit a story that I loved so much as a child. There were several aspects that I did not remember from the 1967 animated film, including the wolf code. The wolf code is often repeated by the wolves in liturgical form, ingraining it into their identities:

“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it will prosper, but the wolf that shall break will die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” 

Unlike most of the other characters in the story, the wolves are dependent on one another. Individual wolves appear in the story as themselves, but they always connect back to the pack.

It’s not exactly true in practice, but at least in my experience, there are two ways to read almost any story, including The Jungle Book and those in the Bible: be overly spiritual and individualistic about it, or read it communally, with a lens of humanity, realizing that if we believe that anything resembling this story actually happened, the people involved experienced it much the way that we experience our own lives, with an equal amount of surprise and awe and irritation and other real emotions that real people have.

That this is a story from a people to a people, and in the case of today’s Gospel reading, from the pack of the disciples to (at least for today) our pack here in the Christian church in 2018.

If you overly spiritualize it and think about what it means to you and your individual belief, it’s rather boring. Yes, Jesus eats in this passage so that each of us knows and believes for sure that the disciples didn’t just see a ghost, but Jesus, alive. And you know he’s alive because he’s got a body that still bears his fatal wounds, except that he’s alive, and we know he’s alive because he needs food. Ghosts don’t eat, and according to popular culture, zombies only eat brains. I guess. Moving on.

So if you’re concerned with individual belief, that’s the heavy theology you can do with that passage, and it’s important.

But there’s also much more there on a much more relatable and human level that has much more to say about us together. Individual belief is important, but so is our communal life: “for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Some background on resurrection accounts in Luke: after the crucifixion, where Jesus dies and is real dead, the women go to the tomb on Sunday morning to find Jesus’ body not there, but some angels tell them they he’s been raised. They freak out, like you would when a dead body simply disappears, and run to the male disciples and tell them about it, and Luke says, and I quote, “it seemed to them like nonsense.” Peter, however, runs to the tomb and finds it empty, and walks away wondering what had happened. 

Then it happens to two of the male disciples on the Road to Emmaus — Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him. They think he’s just some guy asking them about everything that’s happened to them. They tell him, “Man, you must be the only one in all of Jerusalem that hasn’t heard this story.” They invite this random guy to their house for dinner.

But when they’re at the dinner table, and Jesus breaks the bread, they immediately recognize him. I like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one, and it was there, when he was with his people at the table eating and drinking, that they finally said, I assume, something like: “Oh my God — it’s you!” 

This is where we arrive at today’s Gospel passage. They’re all standing around talking, probably arguing, about this, when Jesus is all of a sudden among them, saying “Peace be with you.”

And the disciples LOSE. IT. Luke puts it mildly: “they were startled and frightened.” That sounds decent and in good order. Like they jumped a bit. I imagine something a lot more dramatic, like Thomas jumping a clean two feet off the ground because a formerly dead Jesus is RIGHT NEXT TO HIM, Peter running into the next room, and four out of eleven disciples immediately spilling their wine and five more wetting their tunics.

I imagine that Jesus thinks the greatest loss in the recounting of the Gospel stories is the loss of humor. I cannot imagine a world in which the Son of God does not have a wicked sense of humor. You’re talking about the inventor of platypus faces here.

Luke recounts Jesus’ words as “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I imagine Jesus saying something more like “Why you jump? I told you I’d be back. Did I stutter?”

A few years ago, I became obsessed with a ridiculous joke choral anthem called “Christ Cometh to My House and He Eateth All My Food.”

Well, after Christ shows them his wounds, he’s interested in mealtime again. No one says, “Lord, didn’t you just eat with the Emmaus guys,” because you don’t shame revenants for their appetites. We just assume that coming back from the dead is hard work.

Then he spends the rest of this little episode eating with them all together and talking to them about everything that had happened. He gathers the pack and appears to them all at once to explain everything.

I think that one of Jesus’ most important messages is that we are to be one body, in relationship with one another. A pack. Here to hold each other up and feed one another and welcome new people in as they want to join us. To celebrate and mourn together. To dedicate our lives to one another and this place for as long as God has put us here together.

While individual spirituality is important, I believe that God calls people to travel in packs. None of us gets to be more special than another; Jesus reveals himself to us.

Last weekend, I was here for Bruce’s funeral, as we all came together with Bruce’s family and made something happen that could not have happened without all of us: we managed a ton of people in this space, organized them, and fed them all. We worked — hard — to be hospitable, to honor Bruce, and to hold each other up as we mourned together.

Then, in the afternoon, I went to symphony hall in Springfield to see our member Dan’s Lego Master Builder presentation. Dan had the kids build bridges with Lego, instructing them carefully to cover the seams. Then, each of the bridges was tested as Dan suspended each bridge between two towers and put hand weights on each bridge. One bridge, I believe, held 50 pounds, while Chris, Dan’s son and also a Master Builder who was seated behind us, told us that the record was well into the 200s.

I felt like I was seeing two sides of the same lesson. Our bridge had been tested that morning as we held together, covering one another’s seams to form a strong bond, supporting one another as we said goodbye to a beloved brother in Christ, honored him, and supported his family and friends. And that support, among many other things, is what Church is for.

The world is a scary place, with strikes on Syria and investigations galore and the chaos on the news and in our own lives making us crazy. But then, the world has been a scary place for a long time, and traveling in packs makes things easier and less scary.

Like it was for the disciples who first saw the resurrected Christ, church is for questioning together and being startled together, for being uncertain and scared together, for laughing together and crying together, for eating together and opening the Scriptures together. And may we always come to the table together with joy, recognizing Christ in the breaking of the bread.

We are given to one another for love and support and growth — and of course, as Bruce himself would tell us all — a good meal.

May we continue to be nourishment and strength for one another.

“As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Amen.

Advertisements

Teaching, and Other Jesus-y Skills

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 3.44.54 PM.png
In the Emory sacristy before Tuesday Eucharist, circa 2009. (That’s Barbara to the left, directing people.) 

Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

Early in our educations, our teachers taught us best by their presence.

They are always there, guiding us, there to help with everything from algebra to dissecting a frog to learning to read music and speak publicly and even, in some cases, how to survive in the wilderness. Our own congregation, if you didn’t know, is made up of a surprisingly large percentage of teachers.

When we get older and need less constant guidance, teachers change tactics a bit — they become less ever-present. They know when to leave and let us handle things on our own. Teachers of all levels employ the tactic of a teachable absence, but by the time I was in graduate school for theology, the absence of an authority figure could be downright alarming at times.

The congregations I serve, including you all, owe a debt of thanks to a few teachers of mine, and Barbara Day Miller is among them.

Barbara was one of the most memorable teachers I had in seminary, and she had teachable absence down to an art. She was a tiny but intimidating Midwestern lady with impeccable style and a sensible haircut. From Barbara, I learned to navigate a hymnal, set up a sacred space, do the cat-herding of worship planning and organization, and how to drape a cross with cloth just the right way. Barbara was a good teacher for higher education, in large part, because she knew when not to intervene when there was a problem. She knew how to let the students handle it rather than always appealing to authority. It was good preparation, she said, to when we are the authority, namely, the pastor or chaplain in charge of a place.

My senior year of theology school, I worked closely with Barbara. She was the assistant dean of the chapel, and I was one of two sacristans my senior year. “Sacristan,” if you’ve never heard the term before, is a title used in fancier churches and chapels because “grand poobah of altar care” is too long to fit on a nametag. The job, at least at Candler School of Theology, is essentially altar care plus. Since there is no regular pastor to direct things and the dean of the chapel needn’t concern herself with the detail management of individual Christian worship services, that job fell to the sacristan.

With the intensity of Bill Belichick, I would command the white board before services, directing people in albs as if they were wearing shoulder pads, telling whom to go where and when, complete with diagrams. I brought the athletic style and enthusiasm, but I did not introduce the whiteboard; it was part of the job.

It was also my job to make sure everyone looked right in their albs and vestments. This is where I learned the delicacy of when and how to tell someone they’re wearing something wrong. In short, we usually did not correct seasoned bishops unless their vestments were somehow a tripping or other safety hazard. It was our job, however, to teach fellow students about proper liturgical serving attire — the kind that is simple and understated and neat.

Once, I ran into the chapel after class and towards the sacristy for a particularly important and well-attended service. It was usually a quick turnaround between the 10:45 letout time of class and the 11AM start time of worship, so we all had to hurry. So it was a surprise when my friend Adam caught me en route.

“Take a deep breath before you go in there,” he said with an east Tennessee accent and a hearty chuckle.

“Oh God. What is it?”

“I just… Steve, who just got ordained, is wearing a fancy presider’s garment and refuses to wear an alb. He looks like a drunken pope. Barbara will have our skins if we let him go out there like that.”

I should add that Steve was a member of a denomination that has less to say about who can wear what and when than our own, so he was used to wearing what he wanted when he wanted. Also, his name isn’t Steve. I’ve changed names to protect the flashy.

I really wanted to appeal to authority.
“Where’s Barbara?” I said urgently.

Adam responded, “She’s made herself scarce. Guess you’re handling this one.”
After a very awkward conversation with Steve, some pleading, some charming, and a lot of friendly smiling, I convinced him to wear what the other servers were wearing. I might’ve bribed him with a beer. I don’t remember. As the servers came out of one door of the sacristy and into the worship space, I walked out of the other.

Barbara looked at the servers as she sat down beside the choir and gave me a satisfied midwestern half smile.

During this second Sunday of Easter, when the resurrected Christ, the ultimate authority, shows up in the flesh among his disciples for the first time, we usually focus on Thomas. But having preached on Thomas a few times now, I found myself more drawn to a part of the text that often distracts people: namely, that first appearance of Jesus, before Thomas shows up.

Jesus comes crashing (floating? We don’t know) through the doors that the disciples had locked because they were afraid that the powers that be who had Jesus crucified were going to try to rid the land of Jesus followers entirely.

The disciples were confused. They didn’t know what the authorities were thinking or what they should do. They had had a life changing experience, and then a crisis, and then — radio silence. Jesus was dead.

Sure, Mary had told them that she had seen him alive outside the tomb, but you know how women are.

So they’re freaking out behind that locked door, essentially leaderless.

And Jesus comes straight through the door with a “peace be with you,” which I can only assume is the ancient near eastern equivalent of “‘Sup?”

He shows them the wounds on his body to prove that it’s really him. Then he breathes the Holy Spirit on them — The Gospel of John’s very own version of Pentecost — and he sends them out into the world with this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v. 23).

Now, to many scholars and many pastors and maybe many of you, this seems like some gnostic, possibly clericalist BS. As if the apostles and by extension the clergy could choose to forgive or not forgive sins; as if we are in the place of God. Some traditions have interpreted it this way.

But taken in the context of the entire Gospel of John, it begins to look a little different. Jesus spends the whole Gospel setting people free: this is the Gospel where the Bread of Life feeds us forever and Living Water keeps us from ever thirsting again. This is the Gospel where Christ comes that we may have life, and life abundant. This is the Gospel where no one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends.

And when Jesus met with them at the Last Supper, he gives them one instruction: Love one another as I have loved you. He washes their feet and says only one thing: do for others as I have done for you.

Jesus was the enfleshed love of God on earth. The Gospel of John says that Christ came so that the world might be saved through him. Christ in John is in the business of setting people free: from hunger, from thirst, from loneliness and lovelessness. And as the resurrected Jesus prepares to return to God, he’s clear that he is passing on that mission to the Church.

That’s the context in which Jesus says this thing about forgiving sins. I’m giving you a big job, and if you fail, you fail — but Christ was already set the world free. Your job, Church, is to tell people that they are set free, to show them love and to help them feel it.

You have the power to forgive, to set people free. If you do not, they will likely continue to carry their guilt.

Too often, the Church has retained sin. It has continued to make people carry around guilt and shame rather than setting them free. Too often, the church has looked to the Bible as the ultimate authority for retaining their sin. Like me in the sacristy, we want a higher authority that gets us out of doing the unpleasant thing, like — asking someone to change vestments or in this case, a far more unpleasant thing: welcoming and forgiving.

But Jesus, like any good teacher, doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. We learn to love by practicing love. Christ isn’t around in the flesh to answer every question and render every judgement. We have simply been left with one instruction: love one another as I have loved you. Forgive sin, and people will feel God’s forgiveness. Set people free from their guilt and shame, and they will be free.

Of course, we’re not perfect. From the very beginning, Church people — at least, the guys —- hid in a locked room out of fear. We want Jesus or someone to show up and be the authority, the adult in the room. We screw this up all the time. It’s also worth noting that forgiveness isn’t simple and sometimes isn’t humanly possible. Life is complicated.

The good news, though, is while Jesus doesn’t show up with easy answers, Jesus does show up through our locked doors and our fear, in bread and in wine and water and words and in each other. He shows up not to solve our problems for us, but to offer us peace and to remind us of our mission: love one another as I have loved you. Be Christ to the world.

So let us become together what we eat together: the body of Christ, given for love of the whole world.

Yesterday, we worshiped God and celebrated the life of one of our own: Bruce. Over the years, he was in the business of helping to set people free: in the Civil Rights movement and other activism, in individual pastoral care, and every Sunday in worship. While I often found it comforting to have another pastor in the congregation, Bruce usually thought of himself as another loving congregant. He did here what he had always done: he showed people Jesus. As we said yesterday, he was a city on a hill that could not be hidden.

I and a lot of people met Jesus through Bruce. And you, yesterday, surrounded Bruce’s family with all the love that he had, moving chairs and tables, moving people, cleaning, working.

So let’s continue to carry on that legacy: carrying God’s love into the world, taking the guilt off of others, and setting them free. And let us come to the table like we do every Sunday, to eat what we become: the body of Christ, given for the world. Amen.

Who Needs Resurrection?

Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 10.31.01 PM
We do!
Part of Our Savior’s 2018 Easter Vigil crowd.

First Sunday of Easter
Mark 16:1-8

“So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Well, clearly word got out somehow, as my clergy friend remarked this week.

These women have been through it. They’ve watched their beloved teacher die, and while the male disciples are hiding in a locked room out of fear that they will be the next to be crucified, these women venture out to care for Jesus’ body. Sometimes it’s not the “holiest ones” who get it best, like the disciples — it’s the ones you wouldn’t expect. It’s the ones that have been through it.

The band the Hold Steady has a song that keeps getting quoted at these Easter Sunday things these days. Select lyrics:

“Her parents named her Hallelujah, the kids all called her Holly.
If she scared you then she’s sorry…
The priest just kinda laughed, the deacon caught a draft
[When] she crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass
She was limping left on broken heels when she said,
Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor put it another way: “When life is pretty good and church is pleasant enough, who needs resurrection?”

Nah, the people who need resurrection are the ones who’ve been though it. Which to varying degrees includes all of you, in some way, from the littlest one to the oldest. We’ve all got fears and hurts and pains. We’ve all been through it.

The biggest point of Easter is the one that nobody needs to spend a lot of time on: death and pain and fear are real. Financial trouble and mental illness and physical illness and marital problems and job loss and existential crises every time you flip on the news are real. You’ve been through some stuff, and so have I.

So let’s talk about how resurrection really feels.

I myself shouldn’t still be a church person for any number of reasons, most of them having to do with me. I probably shouldn’t be talking to you right now as the preacher on Easter Sunday — statistically, I mean. This is true for a lot of reasons, most of which you can tell just by looking at me. People like me aren’t allowed to preach in most Christian traditions, and even more people like me leave the church in droves every year.

But somehow I’m still here, and I’ve been through it, so let me tell you how resurrection really feels. And let me tell you why I’m still here and why I believe not just in this story, but in this place that is formed by this story.

This place — these people, you — give me hope. This is the kind of place where you come after a really awful day and find people you aren’t related to who genuinely care about you. This is the kind of place where we accompany each other, in life and in death. This Holy Week, as many of you know, we lost one of our own here. His name was Bruce, and we loved him and love him still. He was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather and a retired pastor who had served and told and believed in this story of resurrection for well over fifty years. This week, I watched and helped as this community gathered around his family in the middle of Holy Week, brought them meals, helped plan his funeral service, and even constructed a casket by hand, so that even in death, Bruce was surrounded by the love and care of his church.

And that wasn’t all we did this week. We also planned and executed three Holy Week services, and stayed late into the night last night cleaning up.

That tells me that this isn’t just the kind of place where you celebrate Easter because this is the day the calendar told us to do it. This is the kind of place where you actually believe this stuff, and it’s in your bones in such a way that you can’t help but have your life changed by it. We’re missing a common story these days. We don’t live in the same realities as our neighbors. We don’t all have the same take on whether every part of the whole thing factually happened – ok – but that Christ is risen indeed is a thing that is TRUE because SOMETHING happened here. Word got out about SOMETHING.

And yes, you can be cynical about it. Most of us can be. I’ve been around some people who never doubt, but I find at least usually that I’m most comfortable with people who have at least considered the possibility that maybe Jesus’ followers just made the whole thing up.

But watching you all and being in community with you all makes me realize that, maybe even in spite of ourselves, we really do believe this stuff. That our view on unknowable facts like whether this or that happened can shift and change but what we know is that this stuff is TRUE.

So we cycle through it, year after year, living this true story over and over and over together.

And then weird things start to happen. Republicans and Democrats start to hold each other’s kids. People who would otherwise not care to share space with one another start to do life together, and it isn’t all kum ba yah, but it’s happening. And maybe – just maybe, society starts to mend, even if only in one corner of our tiny fellowship hall in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This is the kind of place where you can have your Christianity and be exactly who God created you to be because that is how church should be. This is the kind of place that can tell you how resurrection really feels because we’ve been through it, and we know you have too.

This is the kind of place where you find yourself doing something sort of silly and fun on the way to telling some ancient first century story but when you all do it together from the oldest to the youngest, it really starts to take on some real meaning and suddenly, despite what you’re facing down in life, you find yourself having actual hope.
So you came to hear and celebrate the story. Whether you came out of habit because you always come here or because you didn’t have anywhere else to go or for whatever reason, you came to hear the story. So if you’ve been through it, if you know how resurrection really feels, this is your chance to help me tell the story.

And so, adults, children, youth, everybody — this is where you come in. This is the only way I know to fully tell this story, and I need your help.

St. John Chrysostom lived in about the 300s and was considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church. His Easter homily is still a feature in churches around the world as a tradition arose around it: stomping out death. And so, before we go to the table for the actual Easter mass, you are invited into the ancient tradition of stomping out death. In the early church, after the long Lenten fast and the observation of Holy Week and the Great Three Days, it was a tradition to read St. John’s Easter homily at the Easter celebration and for the whole congregation to stomp their feet at every mention of the word “death,” symbolizing how death has been defeated and put under our feet. How those who have been through it — which is everybody — are vindicated through resurrection.

I’ll be preaching John’s short and rousing Easter homily in celebration, and then I will sit down. You, for your part, are welcome to listen, enjoy, and stamp your feet in victory whenever you hear the word “death.” If you’ve been through it or if you’re going through it, may you find hope in the joyful thunder of this place.
So let’s try it: “death.” Good.

Here we go.

“Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary from fasting? Let them now receive their due!

If any have been working from the first hour [observing Lent], let them receive their reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them with gratitude join in the feast! Those who arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed. Those who have tarried until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate; but let them come too. And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to those who toiled from the beginning. To one and all the Lord gives generously…. The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day!
You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread!
The calf is a fat one — let us feast like royalty!
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith.
Enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness!
Let no one grieve being powerless, for God’s universal reign has been revealed.

Let no one lament their constant failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished death when he descended into it.
The Lord put death in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Death, were sent into chaos when he encountered you below.” Death was in chaos having been eclipsed. Death was in chaos having been mocked. Death was in chaos having been destroyed. Death was in chaos having been abolished. Death was in turmoil having been made captive. Death grasped a corpse, and met God.

Death seized earth, and encountered heaven.

Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and death is cast down! …Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty! For Christ, having risen, is only the firstborn of those who have fallen asleep.
To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!”

Palm Sunday: Marching for Jesus

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 4.49.57 PM.png

John 12:12-16

One of my earliest memories is Paul Harvey’s voice on the radio. I can’t tell you much about many of the stories I heard or any of those final, key things that Paul always held back until the end of a story, but I remember the way he would sign off, with the show’s title: “I’m Paul Harvey, and now you know the rest of the story.”

When I started to look at this John passage from Palm Sunday, I happened to notice that, in true Paul Harvey style, that John had indeed left off the rest of the story until the end, but that wasn’t included in the Gospel reading, so here you go.

Jesus came into Jerusalem with palms waving, sitting on a donkey. You’d expect the son of God to come in on a mighty steed, but nope: young donkey.

(Side sermon: I’ve heard it said that during this whole parade, the donkey must’ve thought it was pretty special — like the whole thing was about him. We can get like that when people start complimenting us for the things we do for Jesus, but I’ve heard it said that when we do that, we’re like the donkey, and we’d do well to remember: we’re not the show. We’re just the asses that get to bring in Jesus. Moving on.)

So Jesus comes in on a donkey and is greeted with palms, but have you ever wondered exactly why they gathered? I’ve always assumed that it was because of his popularity spreading through the city, then people told other people that he was coming and then everyone gathered. At least in John, though, that’s not the whole story, and this is obviously before social media could be used to gather thousands of people in mere hours. The book of John continues where we left off:

So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to tell everyone about it. It was because they heard that he had [raised Lazarus from the dead] that the crowd went to meet him.”

They weren’t just gathering to hear a teacher. They were rallying because the whole city of Jerusalem had heard by then that he had brought a dead guy back to life.

The Israelites by this point in history were becoming a desperate lot. They were under the thumb of powerful Rome, searching for anything that might give them hope. They were a small people living in a land occupied by a superpower. Since long before the Romans, they had lived in a land that was prime real estate to say the least: a series of key ports on the Mediterranean Sea and good land for farming.

As a small people, they held their own, but biblical history shows us that they also often got conquered. In the time of Jesus, they lived in an occupied land under an often cruel superpower.

By the time Jesus is born, the very DNA of the Israelites is crying out for hope. Literally.

Hosanna, after all, comes from two roots meaning “Save us, we pray.” And calling Jesus “the King of Israel” when Rome ruled the land? Needless to say, that was some provocative political speech.

We’ve got a lot people in our own world shouting “Save us!” these days, from the students and supporters who gathered for the March for Our Lives yesterday, to those around the world who have lived in their own war-torn lands for too long.

We’ve got people shouting “save us” because they are afraid of domestic and foreign terrorism, war with North Korea, racist violence of all kinds, sexual harassment and assault, right down to being afraid of the other political party being in or taking control. We’re not unfamiliar with the sentiment. We, too, are crying out to the powers that be to be saved. And sometimes, we hold rallies and marches, too.

It’s notable on Palm Sunday that this where the people of God had found themselves in their long history: rallying together in the streets, calling out “Save us!” to a poor, homeless teacher born to a carpenter who rode in on a young donkey. The only particularly exceptional thing about him to this crowd, as far as we know, is that rumor had it that he had called a dead man out of his tomb and given him back alive to his family. So they gather together, and they march. For new life, for new hope, for a chance to be saved.

“Hosanna! Save us, we pray!”

We are not unfamiliar with rallies and marches. People of all political persuasions and none have been known to rally and to march. At their best, if the cause is worthy, they can clear the way for new hope, new energy, new life. But marches and rallies are never an end in themselves. It is not enough to simply gather and cheer. Marches and rallies are a beginning.

Palm Sunday, naturally, is no different. Palm Sunday was a march for Jesus. And it was only the beginning.

This, of course, is only the beginning of the story of Holy Week. To get to the rest of the story, I’ll need to see you on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. I certainly understand that life happens and people are busy, but if you’re able and you’ve never done so before and even if you have, live this story with me. Come an experience the rest of the story. Experience what happens after everyone goes home from the rally.

You’ve already held an actual palm in your hand and laid a garment down before Jesus. On Thursday, come feel water on your feet and taste bread and wine and remember that fraught night when Jesus shared a last meal with his friends. Pray with him in the garden. Hear him betrayed. On Friday, attend the service that serves as his funeral. And come to the tomb when the sun sets on Saturday to see heaven meet earth as the whole history of earth spins on its axis and the fire of new life is kindled.

What I have said every single year I say to you now: forget you know the ending.

Just as we do not how all of this turns out, whether in our lives or in our national story, Jesus’ friends who came into Jerusalem with him did not know what they were in for, either. They had no idea as they walked through the streets of Jerusalem to cheers that their beloved rabbi would be dead by the end of the week.

Though many churches try to brighten up Good Friday by referencing Easter, I refuse. Because the disciples went away sad and confused and hopeless that day. When our loved ones and friends die, we walk away from their graves sad and confused and hopeless. If Jesus’ death was not a real death, there’s nothing to celebrate next Sunday.

So here’s your invitation: make time this week, if at all possible, to join in the Story — especially if you never have before. Because liturgical Christians don’t just read about Jesus. We see his story, taste, touch, and hear his story. Because it is the story that tells us who we are and what we’re supposed to do here.

And it is Jesus’ story that informs Christian people what hope for new life might be possible in our own world, in our own lives, and in our own movements.

Hosanna! Save us, we pray!

As we prepare to walk through this story again this year, let us go to the table and receive food for the journey.

Because these shouts, this march, this joyful day of hope — this is only a beginning.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story. Amen.

Sundays & Seasons

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 3.32.21 PM.png

Lent 5
John 12:20-33

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.”

It seems an apt time to be talking about seasons.

Since moving to New England and observing the church year for the third time here, I’ve started to feel a little sorry for my Southern friends and colleagues. This is true even though I’ve spent the last couple of weeks seeing them on social media in tank tops among flowers on while I’m inside hiding from the thirty-sixth a nor’easter and trying to figure out exactly how one cancels church because of snow (because no one taught me that at seminary – in Atlanta).

What I value about living here, though, is the harsh winter and the perspective that it gives. I’m amazed every single year that I watch this entire land die, be covered in ice and snow and buried — not for a few weeks, but for right at half the year — to be gloriously resurrected in the springtime. During Lent, we cancel church as nor’easters make their way over us, burying everything in snow. During a bad year, this might continue into the season of Easter, but because the festival of Easter in liturgical Christianity is seven weeks long, even the earliest possible Easter in late March will still see the landscape well resurrected before Pentecost in May.

In the South, the flowers bloom in March and sometimes even in February. Where I’m from in south Alabama, the landscape doesn’t even die all the way — most things just go dormant for a few months. My parents’ oak trees keep a lot of their leaves.

Here, everything is officially deceased several times over as we stare at the bare bones of any tree that is not evergreen. We watch the defeated grass sit for months upon months as it all gets covered with ice and snow over and over and then, somehow, when the time is right, it all comes back to life. I find myself appreciating the green and warmth of summer more here than I ever have before.

I tell everyone that my favorite time of year in New England is the summer, when we all have permission to not wear closed-toed shoes or shirts with sleeves or go inside more than is absolutely necessary for however long the summer lasts.

This Sunday, though, there’s still snow outside as Holy Week looms intimidatingly over all clergy and musicians and worship planners like some sort of liturgical Babadook.

This Sunday is the final step before Holy Week in the divine dance of a drama that you sign up for every year by showing up here. Next week we will wave branches and welcome Palm Sunday.

But this Sunday, we’re talking about growing things. I guess in the interest of full disclosure it needs to be said: passages like this are a big reason that lots of people are turned off by John.

The story goes like this: Greeks show up looking for Jesus in a recurring theme in John: “We wish to see Jesus.”  “Seeing” in the book of John is tantamount to some sort of enlightenment or revelation. Jesus often invites people to “come and see” – and most recently before this story happens, Jesus was invited to come and see the tomb of Lazarus before raising him from the dead.

So some Greeks wish to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew play a game of telephone before there were telephones, proving that the church has never been totally efficient at communication, eventually communicating to Jesus that someone wants to see him.

Jesus hears that these foreigners want to see him, and he responds with a weird parable about wheat. Weird, isn’t it, how historically great wisdom teachers have been so impractical and downright bizarre in their statements? Normal people say things to them like, “Yo, someone wants to see you,” and they launch off into, “Observe the pine tree!

We imagine that being one of Jesus’ first disciples would have been some great and romantic adventure where you get to sit at the feet of the Son of God and watch him preach great truths about being human, heal people, and multiply wine and snax. But then you realize that half the time they couldn’t ask him what he wanted for dinner without him giving them some metaphor.

Case in point: this story. Jesus responds to a request to see him with an observation about nature: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it to eternal life.

I can just imagine the Greeks being like, “DUDE. Who’s dying?! We don’t want to die, we just wanted to chat.”

It’s hard to be sure, but I think the idea was, “You want to see me? Wait until I’m crucified as a criminal. And if you really want to understand, follow me where I go and don’t cling to life, but be willing to die.”

Or, as Ecclesiastes says, to everything there is a season.

Everything in our nature seems to tell us to cling to life above all else. On the one hand, this makes total sense: everything that is alive is bred, over centuries, to stay alive. At our core, we humans are not really any different.

Of course, clinging to life doesn’t make us the kindest creatures. Some of the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of wiping out a people group that is perceived as an existential threat. Whether it is real or imagined, all you have to do in order to justify violence to a minority population is to convince the majority that that population is a threat to the majority.

Jesus came to teach us a better way, but the problem is that kindness doesn’t exactly come with immortality. Following Jesus’ way does not mean that we cannot be hurt. It’s quite the opposite: kindness and nonviolence make us more vulnerable, as we will see as we re-live the story of Jesus during Holy Week.

Note: This does not mean that we can only be passive. It does not mean that those being victimized do not get to stand up for their own worth and dignity.

It does mean that we do not get to destroy people just because we are afraid of them.

It also means that, to reference Ecclesiastes again, everything has a season and a time. As someone said at Wednesday night supper this week, we cannot appreciate or even fully understand great joy without great pain. Being shown grace and forgiveness and love by another person just doesn’t have the same weight without repentance, owning our stuff, and being vulnerable — and that’s hard.

It also means that, even in our capitalist, money-making economy where we are measured by how few days we take off, no one can actually go full speed all the time. I’ve found myself wishing often that being a pastor was like running. You see, I love running, but I cannot run all the time. Taking a day off, or two or three or even a week when I’m injured, doesn’t mean that I don’t love running. Quite the opposite, in fact — it means that I want to continue running for as long as possible. If I decided to run every time I had a spare moment, very soon, I wouldn’t even be able to walk.

I’ve sometimes wished, while watching my colleagues and peers, that working too much as a pastor, or a CEO, or anything really, rendered us incapable of doing the most visible parts of our jobs. What if we had to take time off to take care of ourselves, to lay fallow, to heal and re-grow, or else we wouldn’t be able to do the thing we love anymore?

Rest. Stop growing and advancing and rest. Creation was designed to do it — and so were we. There’s a reason God made Sabbath a thing.

So if your life is decidedly in winter right now: if you find yourself struggling every single day, if things look hopeless and bleak and dead, or if you find yourself just too tired to move, remember that one way or another, spring has to come.

I believe that God is in the business of redeeming all things — hard times, exhaustion, even death itself. I think that that’s a big part of this story that reminds us who we are each and every year.

Every year, someone on social media or elsewhere in my life critiques the sadness of the worship service that is Holy Week, and especially Good Friday. Good Friday is the darkest day of the church year, the one that symbolizes the times in our lives when nothing is okay. The times when a person we love has died and we feel like nothing will ever feel bearable again.

Good Friday is the deep depths of winter, those long nights in December when the sun seems like it barely rises before falling again. Before I moved here, I’d always thought that it always looked like late afternoon in every photo I’d ever seen of December in New England. When I moved here, I realized: it’s because the sun basically never gets all the way up into the sky.

As the shadows lengthen, most people get at least a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder and we turn on our full spectrum sun lamps and we wait for the light to return.

And there’s no getting to summer without going through that. Just like there’s no high productivity without rest.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”

So here we go, one more time, into the breach of Holy Week, and then the Three Days, and then Easter. Whether you’ve lived in New England all your life or not, let nature teach you, because it teaches well in this place. Watch as the snow lays on the fallow ground, cold and bleak, but secretly nourishing and watering the glorious growth of the summer months. As we are taught the story of Jesus in here, let’s watch it also be proclaimed out there, telling us the clear, true message: the darkest seasons are never the end. Spring is coming. Warm days and pleasant spring walks and beers and laughter by the campfire are coming.

And the nor’easters that can’t seem to stay away from us will only help us enjoy the warm days that much more.

And so with that, let us prepare our hearts for Holy Week.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Snakes, Secretaries, and Saving the World

Adventures in Paradox.

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 3.22.14 PM.png
Or, what Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and modern-day political dramas have to do with one another.

Lent 4: Laetare Sunday

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Today is a day of paradoxes: it’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, the mid-point, when we’re called to rejoice in the midst of a somber season. Much like Gaudette Sunday in Advent, some churches go pink rather than purple for the day, and the first word of the ancient liturgy was “laetare” — “rejoice” — even as we continue along this somber wilderness road. It’s a day of paradoxes.

Keep that in mind.

My favorite professor in seminary was from New England and upstate New York. When I moved here, that sentence began to really make sense. People reflect the places that have formed them, and loving a place and loving its people go together well. I wish this had been true for all of history.

Gail R. O’Day is now the dean at Wake Forest Divinity in North Carolina. The most memorable course I took from her was the Gospel of John. She is single-handedly responsible for the fact that I sometimes forget that there are three other Gospels.

She was full of memorable, matter-of-fact quotes delivered with New England shortness and practicality. There’s kindness, too, but often the big translation problem between North and South is learning to read attention and dedication as kindness rather than, necessarily, overflowing warmth of manner. Dr. O’Day might seem cold to some, but to me, she was hilarious. It is a day of paradoxes.

Once while I was taking Dr. O’Day’s John class, Tim Tebow wrote John 16:33 on the two sides of his eye black. When people called her, knowing she was a John scholar, to ask what John 16:33 was, she responded, but also asked playfully at the end of the conversation, “So, wait, you don’t have a Bible [or Google]?”

She remarked after the game, “I don’t think that game went so well for Tim Tebow. Guess that’s what happens when you take an apocalyptic claim by the Son of God and wear it on your face.”

As part of a larger conversation about John references and football, she said, “I’ve noticed a lot of people [at football games and elsewhere] carrying signs with JOHN 3:16 on them. I always want to come behind with a marker and add “dash 17.”

John 3:16 is within the passage that we read today. I don’t know about you, but if you were raised any flavor of Christian and had to memorize scripture as part of your formation as a kid, chances are good that you at some point had to memorize John 3:16. I can’t remember exactly what Sunday school teacher had me memorize it, but I can still remember it in the King James translation, pronounced with a thick Southern accent.

So come with me for a quick and nerdy run through text and context in maybe the most popular passage in Christianity, would you? Remember: it’s a day of paradoxes.

Unlike me, most people don’t have to go to seminary to figure out that context matters and that 3:16 is entirely incomplete without 17. Jarringly so — at least to me. If you read and memorize only 16, you might think that this whole story was about us. That each of our lives stands alone as a love story with Jesus — our very own divine rom com — about us believing that Jesus came and saved us alone. Instead, our individual stories are part of a much bigger, more cosmic story. It’s not that our stories aren’t real — it’s just that we miss the beauty of the forest by falling in love with the first tree we saw.

But verse 17? “For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Yeah. I want to take a magic marker to some signs now too.

Just like our stories get dragged out of the wider story that they belongs in, so did John 3:16. What we’re not being told even within this lectionary passage is that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who snuck in by night. Nicodemus sneaks in to see the teacher who had thrown a fit in the temple just a chapter before, knocking over all the tables and making an actual whip out of cords. To clarify: this is roughly equivalent to another local preacher, unaffiliated with any church, coming into this room on a Sunday, turning over Wayne’s chair, and knocking over the pulpit, yelling at all of us, and storming out. Then this is me, without informing any of you, having a secret meeting with him to ask him serious questions about his theology.

Nicodemus will spend the entirety of John 3 trying to understand, but failing spectacularly, and given this passage and the analogy above, I can’t really say that I blame him. What did you think would happen, Nicodemus? That you would suddenly understand this new, possibly-crazy teacher?

But sometimes appearances, even secret, controversial appearances, can be deceiving. It is a day, after all, of paradoxes.

One of my favorite TV shows is Madam Secretary, the tales of fictional Secretary of State and CIA veteran Elizabeth McCord. McCord is a powerful, charismatic, funny woman who runs the state department in a way that would make the vast majority of Americans proud. Social intelligence is her thing; her ability to read people and to get to the heart of a given matter is what made her career in the CIA, and it’s also what makes her excellent as the top diplomat of the United States. She’s idealistic, but not naive. She’s very aware of appearances, but she often clashes with those who put appearances over ideals.

One thing I noticed recently involves the way that the fictional Secretary McCord often conducts secret meetings and back channel negotiations. Contrary to what you might have heard on the news, a back channel — that is, an unofficial secret communication with a foreign government or entity — is not in an of itself a bad thing. In fact, diplomacy wouldn’t happen without back channels, which often allow leaders to save face. It’s all about who and when and how.

Secretary McCord, I noticed, often conducts her secret diplomatic meetings in churches. She will enter a church under the appearance of prayer, happen to sit next to a foreign diplomat or other agent, have a quiet conversation, and then quietly leave. It only occurred to me recently that if she were our actual Secretary of State (and we should be so lucky), we would probably think of her as pious because of the number of times she appears to go and pray. It even sort of makes sense, as her husband is a fairly devout Catholic and a religious scholar.

What she’s actually doing is not praying, however — it’s saving the world. During these church meetings, in different episodes, she arranges the rescue of American hostages, averts wars between other nations, and averts wars for the United States itself.

I think that the same is likely true, in a way, of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. We’re tempted to think it’s about Nicodemus’s personal salvation. In reality, Jesus is talking about saving the world.

The content of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is, not surprisingly, rooted in their Jewish faith. Jesus brings up the serpents in the wilderness in Numbers — the Old Testament passage for today.

About that Numbers story. The people complain about everything, and suddenly, snakes appear and start biting and killing people.

Well that, as they say, escalated quickly.

Then, in what reads like maybe something written by one of the Monty Python guys, God says, “Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.”

You can almost hear Moses. “A snake? On a pole.”

“Yes.”

“And the people who get bitten will live?”

“Yep.”

And he does, and they do.

They look at what’s killing them, and live.

That’s a nice Hebrew Bible classic, but it doesn’t explain why Nicodemus and Jesus were talking about it. What do snakes on poles have to do with saving the world?

Remember: it is a day of paradoxes, and that’s good, because my experience is that the Gospel is full of them.

It begins in an obvious place for the season of Lent: we humans are pretty awful. Humans are often violent and broken and stubborn. Don’t believe me? Watch the news. Listen to your own thoughts. Watch people interact in traffic. We’re capable of a lot of good, but we’re all far from perfect; we can be downright awful and have been for the entirety of human history.

This past Wednesday, we had to cancel for the snowstorm. We were due to talk about Satan. We’ll likely come back to it this week, but since it connects, here’s a preview: “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary” — the one who blocks the way.

Satan is the one who tells you that you are not beloved, that you are not good enough, that you cannot accomplish anything you set out to do. The accuser. The one who blocks the way. And we, in turn, rather than being like Jesus, more or less become little devils instead: those who tell others that they are not beloved, that they are not worthy, that they cannot be part of our club. We block their way: sometimes to the necessities of life or the recognition of their human dignity, sometimes into the church itself.

In the Garden, Satan appeared as a snake. When we’re at our most broken, we can be little snakes ourselves. Think Slytherin in Harry Potter, but without the redeeming qualities.

We are broken, so God became a human. God taught us to, as Rachel Held Evans says, “heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more” (46). As violent people who do not like to be told what to do, we accused God, condemned God, and violently nailed God to a tree.

I once heard a comedian remark about how odd it is that we celebrate and symbolize Jesus using the manner of his death, with little crosses, some even containing the image of his body. The comedian joked, if Jesus beamed down and saw that, you think he’d be like, “DUDE! What the heck?! That was a BAD DAY!”

I mean, if we celebrated those who died in car crashes by wearing cars around our necks or if we celebrated assassinated politicians using sniper rifles, that would be really, really messed up. But with Jesus, the method of his death actually has become the symbol of what he stands for — and how he heals.

Now, people look upon the violence of a Roman cross and see love. They look upon what was killing them: violence and oppression — and live.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Indeed, it is a day of paradoxes.

And that’s my best guess at what Jesus wanted to say to Nicodemus the Pharisee.

This whole thing is also much bigger than we’ve made it. We think it’s about saving us individually, about saving Nicodemus individually, but what Jesus is really doing is saving the world. Driving out the Satan in all of us that says that we and others are not worthy of love and life and happiness.

And that changes everything. It moves us from a posture of trying to convince our neighbors to loving them instead. It moves us from being little devils who accuse and judge and condemn into little Christs instead who forgive and love and rescue, in big ways and small. It moves us from a place of only mourning our shortcomings to rejoicing over what God has done. It moves us from despair to rejoicing.

And such a revelation just may give you the overwhelming urge to add “dash seventeen” to the next John 3:16 sign that you see at a football game.

Let me know. I’ll help you. Amen.

Jesus Rants

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 4.42.04 PM.png

Lent 3

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22

There’s a meme that made the rounds not long ago that features the line, “I promise not to get into any religious arguments.” Below that, it reads: “Three Drinks Later…” with a painting of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. Three drinks later, I think I’m Martin Luther, telling the Church exactly what I think of this.

It has several less funny, more partisan political cousins, but this meme has stuck with me because I think it reveals something.

The “three drinks later” joke is funny to us because it’s a snide acknowledgement that the current institutions are not serving us well, but if we said what we really think (perhaps with the help of some liquid courage), we’d admit that everything needs to change.

That’s why I think it’s funny that this Jesus story we read today — the one where Jesus goes flipping tables over in the temple right in front of the religious leaders — happens right after Jesus changes water into the good wine at the wedding at Cana.

Jesus promises the disciples, “I won’t get into any arguments with the Pharisees.”

Three drinks later, tables flip.

(Note: It doesn’t really happen immediately after. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus goes down to Capernaum with his family and his disciples for a few days. But it’s fun to imagine anyhow.)

This is a story that must be important, because it appears in all four Gospels. If no one’s ever told you, now’s the time: there are distinct differences in the Gospels. If you tried to compile four accounts of your grandmother from four different family members, you’d understand. The order changes, quotes are slightly different, you’d borrow from one another. Things like that.

One significant difference is that this story appears in two different places in the four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s the final straw that convinces the religious leaders to have Jesus killed. In those Gospels, he flips over the tables and he’s dead within a week.

But in John, as you see, it’s in chapter 2. In John, this story is only the beginning, days after the Cana wedding and only days after Jesus recruits the disciples.

Sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.

It’s my favorite, and not only because it tends to shake up our expectations and assumptions about what things happened when and why.

It’s because John’s Jesus is, to me, the realest, earthiest, most relatable Jesus available, but John gets a bad rap because almost all of the overly pious Jesus quotes that people pull out of the Bible at annoying moments come from John. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” quoted by your fundamentalist relative when you mention other faiths? John. “For God so loved the world,” appearing on the signs of street preachers everywhere? John. 3:16, of course, to be specific. “Living water?” John. “I am the Good Shepherd?” John. “I am the light of the world?” John again. “Take heart, I have overcome the world,” the citation once written on Tim Tebow’s eye black? Also John.

I could go on.

Still, I hold that John is still the most scandalous, messily human Gospel we have.

Indeed, sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.

For today, though, let’s just talk about Jesus making whips out of cords driving the livestock out of the temple, pouring out the moneychangers’ money in front of them, and flipping over their tables.

After their new rabbi turning water into wine, this the disciples’ second clue that they have signed up for a wild ride. Years ago, in my internship church, my mentor set up various scenes from Jesus’ last days (according, again, to the first 3 Gospels), and one of them was a table that people were encouraged to flip over. It was hilarious to watch people try to do it gently without making any noise. Finally, Mandy, the Methodist pastor who was my supervisor, explained,  Flip it! Make noise! You won’t break anything. It’s an IKEA table on a stone floor. It’s an Ektorp, for God’s sake. Don’t be gentle.

I once read a tweet that said, “When asking “what would Jesus do,” consider that flipping over tables and throwing a hissy fit is a viable option.”

After Jesus causes a huge ruckus with what I can now only imagine as Ektorps banging against a stone floor, we have the disciples pondering what it all means (that whole “zeal for your house will consume me” thing, which is from a psalm), then the Jews coming to Jesus saying, in 21st century parlance, “WTF man? Why did you do that?” Essentially, “Show us how in the world you have the authority to do that and not get punished for it.”

Jesus’ answer comes quickly, even if it’s mysterious: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”

The Jewish leaders aren’t crazy for thinking he means the temple that they’re standing in. If someone sitting here today said “Destroy this church, and in three days I’ll raise it up again,” only a moron would not assume they were talking about this building.

So John helps us out by telling us that he’s talking about his body.

The point of the whole thing  seems, at least to me, to be that the Spirit of God isn’t in the institution, no matter how impressive that institution may currently have been. God isn’t in the building or the church organization or in the programs we create. No institution owns God.

As one slam poet so deftly put it, “The body of Christ be your body.” (1)

Right after the 2016 election, the Gospel passage was another one where the disciples are super impressed with the temple, and Jesus says, essentially, “Meh. It’ll all be destroyed in a little while.”

The message that I took from that passage in November of 2016 was that no matter what your political beliefs, you cannot trust institutions to save you. This is true of politics, religion, education, everything. Institutions can be helpful, but they will not save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that.

The body of Christ be your body.

The Old Testament reading is about Moses getting the Ten Commandments. It’s where we get the phase, “brought down the mountain to,” which we use to mean information that normal people receive from some authority “on high.” We Protestants tend to think of both Jews and Catholics as being law-based, of never questioning the word that has been brought down to them from supposed authorities.

This week, I spent an hour and a half or so studying with other clergy from the area under the teaching of Mark Shapiro, who, before his recent retirement, served for some years as the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Springfield. Since his retirement, the rabbi has busied himself with several projects, one of them being a teaching gig at the Episcopal cathedral. On Wednesday we delved a little into rabbinic tradition, talking about how Jewish communities and leaders are steeped in the tradition of reading their scriptures and working things out for themselves via good old fashioned argument. As the saying goes, where you’ve got four rabbis, you’ve got at least five opinions. Jews work things out the only way anyone can: God, common sense, and community.

You see, we like to think of this whole thing as Old Testament law vs. New Testament grace. We also like to think that it’s the Catholics who are legalistic and us Protestants who are grace-focused.

The truth is that no institution, ours included, can save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that, and to some degree, somebody in every major religious tradition has understood this.

The body of Christ be your body.

In an age where everyone seems to be worried about the futures of religious institutions of all shapes and sizes, this knowledge is freeing — and terrifying.

As Lutherans, we believe that the bread that we break is the body of Christ, meaning that it is a tangible way that Christ shares himself with us, and also how we, the body of Christ the Church, share ourselves with each other.

Because here’s what Jesus knew: temples, institutions, churches — they all come and go. They die hard deaths, usually fighting death the whole time, but they all eventually die. As yet, no religious institution has really stood the test of time for more than a couple thousand years.

What does last is tradition, and identity, which we mark with our bodies and imprint into our minds. Practices that link us to those who came before us, both people we knew and people who died long ago. Telling the stories that tell us who we are and what we’re doing in the world, and working it all out via God, common sense, and community.

“The body of Christ be your body.”

And that, dear beloved people, is my own “three drinks later” rant, written and delivered to you stone sober.

Our hymn of the day is one of Our Savior’s collective favorites, “Built on a Rock.” Among its best lines is “Surely, in temples made with hands, God the most high is not dwelling — high in the heavens God’s temple stands, all early temples excelling. Yet God who dwells in heaven above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies God’s temple.

The body of Christ be your body. The body of Christ is us, and nothing can save us except God, common sense, and community. And when we die, the body of Christ will remain. Destroy this temple, and in three days, Christ will raise it up again. Not the Church we find ourselves in, but the community around Jesus Christ — the body of Christ.

The body of Christ be your body. Not an institution. Not a building or a set of programs, and certainly not a central office in Chicago.

The body of Christ is us together. Destroy it, and it’ll always be back. We’ve been responsible for a lot of ugly in the world, but even our own failures and irrelevance can’t destroy it forever.

In the meantime, just remember: when you ask the question “What would Jesus do?” just remember that flipping over tables and ranting – especially when an institution is not serving its purpose – is always an option.

Three drinks later, indeed. Amen.

1. That slam poet is George Watsky, and that poem is quite funny and insightful, and you can find it here.

The Church and the High Line

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 4.24.25 PM
The trees growing through the old train tracks on the High Line in Manhattan.

Lent 2
Mark 8:31-38

A few weeks ago, I made a weekend trip to New York City. Parker and I walked along the High Line, an elevated linear park and walking trail on the west side of Manhattan. The High Line soars over Manhattan’s streets, and along the way, passers by can gaze at and interact with art, enjoy the green space, and rest at park benches as they stare at the busy streets below.

The High Line didn’t start as a park, though. It was originally a railway, built beginning in 1847. The trains carried mainly coal, dairy products, and beef, and operated at street level. In the early days, so many accidents occurred between the trains and other vehicles that the corridor became known as “death avenue.” So in the early 1900s, public debate began about how to address the danger, and in 1934, the High Line viaduct project was begun to raise the trains over the traffic below. The new, raised trains would carry their cargo directly into New York City warehouses and businesses. Because the project was destined to go through blocks rather than along streets or avenues, 640 buildings had to be demolished in order for the railway to be built.

It turns out that the High Line project has always been about letting old things die in order to create something new.

Of course, over time, other modes of transportation for these goods took over, and the trains became outdated. The growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s precipitated the fall of rail transport nationwide, and eventually, it rendered the High Line trains useless. By the 1990s, the raised rail line was completely unused and in disrepair, slated for destruction. The steel structure of the thing, however, was sound.

Long story short, it was saved by the High Line park project. In 2005, it was removed from the national rail system so that it could be zoned as a park, and construction on the park began in 2006. By June 2009, the first section of High Line Park was opened, and the High Line was resurrected and thrives today, with new sections still being added. The old tracks are still there, overgrown by vegetation that greets thousands of passers by each day. (1)

As Parker and I walked along the High Line a few weeks ago, I looked at the abandoned railroad tracks and a tree caught my eye, growing strong right smack dab in the middle of the tracks. The trains had to die for something new to arise.

Reflecting on the state of the church in America like I do, I said to Parker, “If this was the Church, do you think we’d’ve ever stopped running the trains, or tried to find a way to have trains and a park (because the young people really like parks)?”

The reply came: “But people really love the trains, Anna. We’ve always had the trains. Some people gave a lot of money for those trains.”

Somehow, in the church (and in the rest of the world, really), a resurrection people has become afraid of death, afraid of endings, afraid of change.

Like most things, though, you can be sure that it didn’t start with any generation alive today. It’s a human thing to think that death is final and change is scary. It’s nature, after all — death is a final thing to be fought, and stability is safety. We generally have a hard time with change and transition, in the church and elsewhere.

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus pulls no punches as he describes what must happen to him. This is one of those times that we lose the full impact of Jesus’ words here because we already know the ending.

“Those silly disciples,” we think. “They don’t have any faith. They don’t believe Jesus when he says he’ll be resurrected. Poor suckers.”

What we forget is that they didn’t have the whole story available to them from birth, as many of us have. They did not grow up hunting Easter eggs or coloring empty tombs or reading the full story of Jesus.

All they really knew for sure was that they found a teacher that they loved, and that when people died, they stayed dead. So when Jesus openly said “I must be killed,” Peter said exactly what any of us would say to someone we loved who said, “I have to die” — “Shut up! You’re not dying! Why would you say that?!”

And this is what gets Peter called Satan. Satan, which in Hebrew means “the accuser” — the one who tells you that you are not what God has called you to be.

It’s similar to where the institutional church is now, really: we don’t have the end of the story in front of us. All we have is what we can see: as churches decline in numbers and all churches wonder, with varying urgency, what’s next. We don’t have a guarantee that it’s all going to be okay — in New England or elsewhere. In a hundred years, I sometimes wonder if the children of the Church in whatever form it takes next will look back on us and think, “Those poor suckers. They were so full of fear and refused to change. They just didn’t have any faith.

I’ve seen too many debates about why people don’t come to church anymore. I keep wondering why we want to go back to some heyday that existed in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s. The booming institutional church of the twentieth century was, yes, the source of a lot of good, but it was also the source of plenty of abuse and evil.

God is a creator, not a time machine. In God’s time, there’s no going back to what was. 

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

One quick aside while we’re talking about this passage: let’s be clear: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” — isn’t about us working ourselves to death. It’s not about church people and pastors denying what we need and what our families need and what our bodies need for the sake of the Gospel. It is not about self-abuse in the name of self-sacrifice.

The church for too long has glorified overwork, confusing motion with progress, trying to get back to “where we were,” and we have a lot of burned out pastors and tired laypeople to show for it. As one ELCA pastor put it to an overworked friend of mine recently, “You don’t have to die for Jesus. Jesus already died for you.

“Take up your cross” is, as my hospital chaplain friend Kathleen says, less a message of “kill yourself” and more a message of “get over yourself.” This isn’t about you or me putting in as much work as you can to keep this current model of church going. This isn’t about us at all. It’s about listening to what God is doing right now, trusting that God is not defeated by human failures or shrinking numbers or those pesky millennials who just won’t go to church — because, well, one of them is preaching to you right now.

God, Kathleen says, is always firmly on the side of life. Of being human. Of not being on the side of imperial power. Of not being a company man. Which actually means not confusing motion with progress or overworking yourself, but instead, about being more human and helping others to do so as well. Of being willing to let something die — really die — so that it can be resurrected.

Which, let’s be real, can really get you crucified by those who love only what was.

So let’s move forward, separating what is Gospel from what is simply our preference, denying ourselves, and taking up the difficult things in order to help ourselves and those around us become more human, more honest, more real, more loving — more like Jesus.

This Lent, at Wednesday night Bible study, we’re talking about the “dark side” of theology: stuff like Satan, demons, sin — stuff that modern progressive Christians have a hard time talking about. This week, we talked about being dust — ash, death, and human frailty. We used Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday, the same one that the council is reading together this year.

In her chapter “Ash,” she talks about how we are formed from the dust, made in God’s image, but the creation story tells us that we tried over and over to be like God the way that we saw God — to rule over everything, to be in charge, to conquer and dominate. And in the process, all we did was spread death everywhere.

She says, “We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave.

“And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.

Life to death, death to life — like seeds, like soil, like stars. No wonder,” Evans writes, “that Mary mistook the risen Jesus for a gardener.” (2)

The High Line as it is today is itself a kind of wild garden, with trees stretching up through the tracks of dead institutional infrastructure towards the glorious sun of the future. Children play tag around the old train tracks and interact with new art and sculptures along the way. Because the city that never sleeps finally let its outdated trains die, but realized the structure was sound, something new could arise.

Unlike Jesus’ story, we do not know how our story ends — not the universal church, not Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, not our own individual stories. Every now and then, in the wilderness, we face the ultimate temptation: hopelessness. But our structure, too is sound.

And remember: in God’s time, there’s no going back.

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

We cannot stop death, but we can remember that the only thing that love cannot do is stay dead.

So let us step out in faith, like Abraham and Sarah, and into the future to which God calls us, unafraid of the road ahead, with no guarantees.

Because it’s true that someday, this old train — the institutional church, this church, and all of us — will stop running.

When that happens, God will build something new: a place where everyone can stop above the din of their lives and take a moment to breathe, to love, to meet God — to be more human. And we will all stretch up through the tracks towards the glorious sun of the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. My High Line knowledge came primarily from Wikipedia. You can read more about the High Line, its history and its present, here.
2. You can purchase Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday here.

Temptation, Wild Beasts, and Angels: When the Wilderness Finds You

Lent 1
Mark 1:9-15

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 2.44.25 PM.png
The summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, where thousands of hikers each year are rewarded with this view – and a reminder.

As a church, we find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness for another year.

I have to confess that I’ve never entirely been sure that things like Lent matter to most people, even church people. I’ve had my doubts over the years that most people have the time or the available brain power to imagine the forty day Lenten journey as anything other than something that happens at church. Naturally, for most people, missing church means missing Lent, and Lord knows that between flu season and busy lives, it’s easy to miss church these days.

It’s for all these reasons and a few of my own that I realize it’s not natural for many of us to have a lot of imagination about Lent; the only reason you might think about it outside of this space is if you’ve given up something or added something for your Lenten discipline. You might think about Lent when you reach for the chocolate or fast food during the week and remember that you can’t have it, but that’s probably about it.

But while we may struggle with Lent, we don’t need any help understanding the concept of wilderness. Literally speaking, even those of us who are non-hikers can imagine life on something like the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Many of us know someone who’s done a thru hike like that, staying in the literal wilderness for days or weeks.

We understand metaphorical wilderness, too, and all of us understand it by experience. By this I mean the countless times in all our lives when we feel ourselves searching and lost. Any number of things can land you there: the illness or death of a loved one. An illness or injury of your own. A vocational crisis. A financial crisis. A broken relationship. A general sense of dread from what you see on the news. Any combination of these factors and countless more can land you in the wilderness.

You know the many feelings of the wilderness, too: sadness and depression, anger and bitterness, relief and gratitude — sometimes by themselves, and sometimes all at once.

You know what it’s like to find yourself in this kind of wilderness, even though it can happen in any number of ways, sudden or gradual. Maybe you’re plunged into the wilderness of loneliness and confusion suddenly when you hear the bad news — you know, that she’s sick or that you’re sick or that he died or that that person doesn’t want to be with you anymore.

Or maybe it happens more gradually, as you slowly find yourself sliding into a general confusion about your life and your identity and what’s happening in the world.

It doesn’t matter how you get to the wilderness, but it’s rarely by choice.

In today’s Gospel story, we get a re-run of Jesus’ baptism before we’re told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.  Let’s be real: we mainly get that re-run of his baptism because the wilderness story is only two cryptic verses. But sometimes the most relatable stories are the ones without a ton of detail.

What we do know is that Jesus didn’t get there gently. While Matthew and Luke phrase it something like “was led” by the Spirit into the wilderness, Mark is much more forceful in his description. He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness — using the same Greek word that Matthew, Mark, and Luke use to talk about what Jesus driving out demons, and the one that 1 John uses to talk about people wrongfully getting forced out of the church.

So Jesus, not unlike many of us, is driven into the wilderness, and there he meets the three things and entities: temptation, wild beasts, and angels. And so today, we’ll talk about the wilderness in three parts, using the experience of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to help us along.

Chapter One: Temptation

Because Mark doesn’t do details, we don’t know anything about what Jesus’ temptation was supposed to be like. As for us, though, we usually think about temptation in pretty petty terms, really: temptation to do bad things.

I don’t mean to belittle this kind of temptation; certainly we all have our vices, some more serious than others, that legitimately harm us and others. Most times, though, I think the problem is far more insidious than being about an individual behavior — the biggest temptation that grabs all of us, I think, is hopelessness. That this will never be okay, that we have failed, that we are tired and can’t go on.

Hopelessness. Thru-hikers get it in the literal wilderness, and everyone gets it in the figurative wilderness.

This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, there was another shooting. Another school shooting. For those of us who are teachers or students and for the countless more who love such people, this hit us harder than usual.

The photo that impacted a lot of us deeply was the one of a grief-stricken woman with an ash cross on her forehead. For liturgical Christians in particular, this impacted us deeply, churning up not only compassion for this woman, but reminding us that we are all a heartbeat away from utter grief and deep, dark, lasting wilderness.

Temptation for most of us these days is to give up and resign ourselves not just regarding gun violence, but public debate and our ability to solve anything in general. I feel it, that pull into my own uselessness and inability to change anything, ever. To resign myself to living in an entirely different political reality than those I love.

When you hit the temptation to hopelessness phase, you know for sure that you’ve found the wilderness.

Some days, that temptation wins, and I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, but there’s only one Jesus, and I’m not him.

Chapter Two: Wild Beasts
The funny thing about the wild beasts of Mark’s story about Jesus is that we don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to make of it. Is Jesus up a tree running from coyotes, or is he taming foxes and hanging out with them so that he doesn’t get lonely in the desert? Well, personally, I can’t imagine God in flesh up a tree, and I’m a dog person, so I prefer the latter.

I know animals aren’t for everyone, but those of us who love and appreciate the presence of animals know that their noticing us can lift our day. One of my favorite cartoons is called “The Awkward Yeti” and is often a discussion between organs and other parts of the body either among each other (for example, the brain is analytical, the tongue is demanding, the gut is ornery and embarrasses everyone all the time, and the heart is whimsical and impulsive).

One particular cartoon goes like this: Panel one: the heart is walking alone and sad. Panel two: A cartoon dog walks up to the sad heart and wags its tail. Panel three: The heart walks up to the dog and pats the dog on the head. : pat, pat : Panel Four: the heart bounds away smiling. Pets, whether our own or someone else’s, have a way of lifting our hearts. Diego would like to note that he is usually available after church for doge therapy upon request. His fee can be paid in scritches behind the ear.

But the “wild beasts” can be just that — wild. They can come to you in the form of wild geese over your head or the hawks floating around the mountains or a rabbit or a deer that you see in your yard. This is the part where the real wilderness and the metaphorical wilderness are the same. People wouldn’t undertake thru hikes through ugly places, and what often keeps hikers’ feet moving is the promise of beauty — beautiful creatures and beautiful views.

In the same way, part of what can make the metaphorical wilderness okay is the chance to enjoy the real wilderness, even if it’s just the beauty of the or the snow or the sunlight or the birds outside your window.

St. John of the Cross knew wilderness of his own, and he wrote this poem:

“I was sad one day and went for a walk; I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times –
to just be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love;  they don’t chat.
They just gaze with their marvelous understanding.”

Final Chapter: Angels
Jesus also meets some angels in the wilderness, whom we are told “attended to him.” Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t tell us that the angels show up at the end. In Mark, it looks to me like the temptation and the wild beasts and the angels are with Jesus at different points all along the journey.

On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a whole other culture with its own set of terminology. “Trail magic” is an unexpected thing that lifts a hiker’s spirits. “Trail angels” are people who make trail magic happen, whether it’s a ride into town or a hot shower or a hot meal. At its heart, a trail angel is someone who is not spending all their time in the wilderness taking a moment to help someone who is.

I don’t have to tell you that when you’re in a period of metaphorical wilderness yourself, there are plenty of trail angels along the way. They’re the ones who give you a meal or a smile or a helping hand when you need it most. They can’t take you out of the wilderness, but they can give you what you need along the way.

So the next time you find yourself in the wilderness or if you find yourself in the wilderness today, look for and give thanks for the trail angels along the way, be they family, friends, or strangers.

Learn what thru-hikers know: there is always trail magic to be found.

And while you’re at it, this Lent, consider how you can be a trail angel yourself. Consider who you know that’s in any kind of wilderness right now, and consider whether you’re in a position to help. Relationships are complicated and messy and often broken and you are not capable of helping everyone. But everyone can be a trail angel to someone.

Epilogue
The liturgical Lenten journey isn’t primarily, for most people, about a pious observance. I think Lent is most useful when it helps us understand something about our lives inside and outside of these walls. Whether you’re here for every service held in this place through Pentecost or whether this is your only time to join us, you’ll likely find yourself in some wildernesses on the journey from now to the end of spring. Most of us are settled in some sort of wilderness already.

May you find food for the journey here, because the bread we break is God, the one driven into the wilderness before us, teaching us to withstand the temptation to abandon it all, the one who was with the wild beasts and created the beauty of the wilderness we see, and the one who met and sends us angels along the way. 

We don’t usually go into the wilderness by choice, but the Good News is that we also do not go into the wilderness alone.

When hikers reach the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, they are greeted with a plaque with these Ash Wednesday-appropriate words: “Man is born to die. His works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all it’s glory shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.

Ash Wednesday reminded us that we came from dust and will return there. All of our journeys in the wilderness will not save us, but they can teach us. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we find the end and a stunning view and a glimpse of  a loving God who shall stand far longer even than Katahdin, and we will feel small, humble … and fulfilled. So let us journey this Lent — together. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Morbid, Hopeful Humor for Another Year’s Journey

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 9.43.31 AM.png
Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is the day that the church always plays a joke on us: the Gospel is about how not to disfigure your face, then we go and put ash on ours right after that.

In addition, this year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day; “be my Valentine, ya sinning mortal.” And that is where we begin today.

Just recently, I happened upon a crude and delightful Instagram account called @LordBirthday which usually includes mostly ridiculous lists.

My favorite list was “Things I worry about that are totally normal to worry about.”

Some highlights: “That I will be asked by a farmer to participate in a rice harvest.”

“That I will get too tall and become the TOWN JOKE”

“That I will get stuck in the blood pressure machine at Rite Aid and just have to become part of the store.”

“That I will lose my nose in a war”

“That I will be left for dead in a room full of ukuleles”

“That I will have a big, splashy panic attack in the YMCA pool,” and finally, we see @Lord Birthday’s penchant for ending with a veiled but serious existential crisis:

“That I will go gently into that good night.”

All of us have a mounting list of worries, some ridiculous, some legitimate. For most people, things related to death rank high on the list.

Jesus people gather on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent by talking about death. Our own mortality, to be specific. We cover other things, too, as you can tell by the readings, but the most personal part of the entire service is receiving the ashes and hearing the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” which echoes some of the last the words that will likely be spoken at our funerals: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Everyone dies, no matter what they accomplish. You cannot be good enough to dodge death. Death makes us humble, so that is why we begin Lent this way.

Seems like a bit of a joke, doesn’t it, to come to church on Valentine’s Day to be reminded of your own mortality. Weirdos.

I read in The Atlantic about an app whose sole purpose is to remind you five times a day that you’re going to die. It’s inspired, apparently, by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” asserting that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” This app pings your phone at unpredictable intervals, recalling the unpredictability and suddenness of death, with sometimes incredibly morbid quotes about death along with a terse message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” It’s called WeCroak and it’s supposed to bring you inner peace.

I read the article. I did not download the app. (1)

Then there’s TurboTax, which has been running a new series of commercials lately. There’s one where a woman breathes hard and weeps in fear for her life behind a slatted closet door, the light in the room illuminating her tears and her terrified eyes.  Sinister music in the background plays as she tries to get a better view of what waits behind the door. We see a rocking chair. We hear squeaks. We see a shadow move in the room towards the door and the terrified woman.

The woman screams as the door is suddenly pulled open in front of her.

In the room stands a singular adorable teddy bear, which beatboxes, hums, and dances… for an uncomfortably long time.

A single line fills the screen: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” (2)

The commercial’s about our fear of taxes, but I sometimes wonder if the same is true of our fear of death. If you’re like me and most people, every now and then you have an existential crisis where you deeply fear death, for ourselves and our loved ones.

Though churches have, over the years, offered sure and certain answers, the Bible is much more concerned with how we live in this world than what happens in the next.

All we know officially is death and resurrection, but I have some hunches.

The end of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian includes a song that I’ve always wanted played at my funeral. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” includes the gem: “Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke, it’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: I know that death is not actually a joke. It is a scary, ugly reality that looms over all life everywhere. There is a reason we say that the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

But I’m also well aware that not only is Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day, but Easter this year, some forty-something days from now, is on April Fool’s Day. Kind of appropriate, I think, considering it’s the day we celebrate Jesus making a fool of death, pulling off the universe’s ultimate hoodwink. I imagine him winking back at the deep, dark tomb, knowing everything is different, now.

April fool. 

But today, my job is to be your version of the WeCroak app. We will all die, and so will everyone that we love. To some of us, that’s obvious, because we think about death all the time, whether we’ve witnessed death our whole lives or whether we’re coming to terms the passage of time. Others, for whatever reason, find ourselves living above the fear of death, rarely thinking about it until it crashes into our world through the death of someone else.

Either way, we will all die, so Ash Wednesday reminds us that while we’re here, for whatever time we have left, we’d better learn to live.

So live.

And here, on Valentine’s Day, love. If you don’t have a significant other, reach out to someone else to say hello. If you’re estranged from everyone, we’re glad you’re here and we’ve got love to spare and plenty of Jesus bread to go around.

Give thanks that while it is true that WeCroak, we follow the one who came that we may have life, and have it abundant, the one who offers himself to us here, and the one who played a giant joke on death.

You are dust. Technically stardust, most specifically. You were created from dust to be part of the earth, to live and love and for God’s sake, laugh, on the earth. You are dusty and holy and woefully imperfect and completely beloved.

And when the time comes that all of us, no matter how rich or smart or talented or good, meet the great enemy Death, may we wink like Jesus, realizing that Love has hoodwinked death, realizing that when the door is thrown open, there’s nothing to be afraid of. And may we “go gently into that good night,” having lived, and returned, to Love. Amen.

1. Read more about WeCroak in The Atlantic here.
2. If you want a chuckle, you can watch the whole commercial here.