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Acts 1:6-14

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

What I Am Learning:

The ascension is one of the key parts of the story of Jesus, but it is often neglected. This happens, in part, because it seems kind of odd. We can more easily see the possible meanings Jesus birth, his flight to Egypt, his baptism by John at the Jordan river, his arrest, death and resurrection. But this story seems a bit obscure.

In the seventh chapter of Daniel, the truly human one comes down from the throne of God in the clouds, establishes peace, and together with all the other human ones lives in peace forever.

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14

27 The kingship and dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’

Daniel 7:27

In the first passage, the truly human one is given authority to create peace in the world by the Ancient One. In the second, the truly human one shares that authority with other human beings, who would, doubtlessly, share it with others.

This was an immensely powerful passage in a time when the People of Israel were under occupation by other kingdoms. It was a vision of the inherent dignity and calling of the People of Israel to be a blessing to all nations that saw their current situation under occupation as a temporary situation. Their occupation was not in alignment with the will of Ancient One who desires people to live in peace and equity with one another.

Daniel envisions these occupying nations as "beasts." This is not to say that the people themselves were beasts. Rather that the cultural system or worldview of those nations were beastly. I tend to call these kinds of worldviews as domination cultures: a vision of human beings in which humans are to seek power over others. These kind of bullying, exploitative and colonial cultures are truly beasts, and lead humans who are captivated by them to behave in beastly ways.

Again, living by a vision of a domination culture, Daniel implies, is not God's will, not the way it has to be, is not inevitable and is not true to the image of God in which we were created.

Daniel's vision invited them to see that they did not have to succumb to the beastly vision of domination over overs, but could live into who they were created to be. This vision called them to abide by the deep truth of the universe despite whatever domination nightmare was imposed on them for the time being.

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is often called "the Son of Man." This is a translation of what Daniel calls "the one like a human being." Walter Wink, a Biblical Scholar and peacemaker, translated this phrase "truly human one." Jesus is the truly human one.

The resurrection of Jesus was a validation of Jesus' nonviolent approach to bringing healing and wholeness to his people under Roman occupation. The story of the ascension tells us that Jesus' life reflects the character of God.

Now the Romans and the other beastly nations had their vision of god too. They proposed that the true nature of the world was a dog-eat-dog, domination world. To be smart and truly human is to be the best at dominating others because this is the way the gods were, the way the universe truly is.

Luke is trying to tell us that to be a Christian is to live by and in a vision of reality in which all humans rule together in peace, mutuality and equity AND that the way we get there is through loving our neighbors in public, even those captivated by beastly visions. This is a vision of power with each other, not power over each other.

Jesus ascends to the Ancient One as a way to say that the this way of having power with each other is God's true vision - and thus the true nature of the universe and the true fulfillment of who we are.

When the disciples devoted themselves to prayer, they were giving themselves time to let God's vision for the world sink deep into them, so they could live in the world as it was and prepare for the world as it will be. The fact that women were in the room with them, in such a patriarchal society, was a sign that they were already living into God's vision.

Spiritual practices are a way for us to take time to let God's vision for us and the universe sink deep into our being, so we can live in the world as it is without losing who we truly are - who God is making us to be.

In the Christian tradition, we understand that in baptism we are joined into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - the truly human one. In baptism we are restored to our true identity as one of the truly human ones - beloved, accepted and invited to join Jesus in the healing and creation of the world.

I encourage you to look at our newly edited spiritual practices cards for examples of how you can let this reality sink deep in to you. You can find these practices toward the bottom of the page here: http://catacombchurches.org/three-disciplines-of-jesus/spiritual-practices/

 

Acts 17:22-34

22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

What I Am Learning:

First let’s notice where Paul is. He is in a public space where Athenians gathered to debate and ponder what life is all about. Paul follows Jesus’ way of engaging people in the public square, and things did not always go the way he might have wanted. At the end of his speech some scoffed at him. Others, however were open to more conversation. A few began to live changed lives.

Second, Paul has spent time understanding the culture, and the ways of thinking and speaking of the Athenians. You will notice that he doesn’t spend a lot of time quoting Hebrew scripture in this public speech. While he is careful to express themes that any Jewish or Christian theologian would agree with, he quotes philosophers and poets who the Athenians knew and respected. In short, Paul respected them, event while he offered a critique of their way of approaching life, and life together.

Paul honors how devoted they were to the gods. I don’t like the translation of the Greek word deisidaimoœn as “religious.”  The word religious implies a difference between “secular” and “religious”. Athenians would not have agreed with this difference. They, like all ancient peoples, saw the sacred as infusing of all of life with meaning and vitality. The word “religion” as a reference to faith traditions only began to be used in the 17th century. This is why I don’t use the word “religion” without quotes any more.

The word deisidaimoœn could better be translated as “devoted to the gods.” The Athenians were deeply devoted to rituals that honored the many gods they believed influenced their lives. And of course, this is the problem. Many of them were devoted the gods to get something in return - rituals that reduced the mystery of life to so many quid pro quos, so many favors for the favored. Instead of human life being a sacred journey of meaning and mystery in which we are responsible to and for each other, it’s just one long sordid attempt to control life through our “devotions”.

The other problem here is that how we imagine God becomes how we imagine human beings and human communities. Those who shape and form, whether through art, language or economic systems, our imagination of God thus constrain how we human beings understand ourselves. Instead of a God of mystery and depth who creates humans in God’s own image, we end up with a diminished god and a two-dimensional view of humans.

Greek poets and philosophers were aware of these problems and Paul quotes two of them.

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides in Cretica

We too are his offspring

Aratus, (flourished c. 315–c. 245 bc, Macedonia),

The Cretans wanted to take the God they could not control and kill God, put God in the ground and bury God there. Cretans, he says, rejected truth, despised their own humanity and went only to fill their bellies with Funions. But God cannot be buried, says this mystic poet, because God is the very ground of our existence. We live in God, we grow and change and learn and seek meaning in God and have our very existence in God. The limitless of God leads to a fuller appreciation of the mystery and dignity of human life - we are God’s offspring who God cares for like offspring. So are others.

What Paul is saying in this passage is that the character of this mysterious God, has been revealed in Jesus, who as Epimenides suggested, could not be kept in a tomb.

Of course, Jesus story differed from that of Epimenides poem. Jesus was killed, put in a tomb, and stayed there until he was raised.

The God revealed in Jesus, Paul seems to be saying, cannot be reduced to a holy vending machine. Nor can human beings and our life together be reduced so seeking favor so we can survive, or others seen as mere competitors for scarce resources given only to those who offer proper devotions.

Paul is not engage here in some attempt to convert people to his way of thinking. He is making a plea to them to see the beauty and mystery and dignity of their own lives - and the lives of others.

While deeply being a Jewish Christian, Paul recognizes and honors the wisdom of other traditions.

A part of our tradition is “the day when God will judge the world in righteousness”.

Most deeply, this part of the tradition says that we live in a universe in which what we do, how we treat others and the kind of systems we help create matters. The word “righteousness” basically means “works for life and wholeness.” In other words, Paul is not making a tribalistic argument that if people are not Christians they will burn in hell forever. What he is saying is that the God revealed in Jesus cares about the real condition of human beings and holds all of us accountable for our impact on others.

Please don’t read middle ages heaven and hell into this truth telling day. Rather see Paul attempting to encourage them to take this opportunity to evaluate their lives and the way their community functioned for the poor. Remember that the Hebrew tradition of the “Day of the Lord” was commonly invoked to deal with a lack of equity and justice - not as an invitation to write off our responsibility as fellow human beings because others live or believe differently from us.

Like the Athenians, we too live in a world of many idols, of many gods, that compete for humans to identify with them. The other day I heard of a man who had a memorial service with a pro football team theme. But the most powerful god of the moment is the “market economy” that is held up as the ultimate good - reducing human beings to producers and consumers.

But like all people captured by an idol, we don’t know it is an idol. That is why we need truth tellers to help us see what we are bowing down to and invite us to rise up to honor the creator of all life, and thus the created, beautiful, mysterious and ever deepening live within us and among us.

John 10:1-10

10“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

What I Am Learning:

Shepherds in Jesus day were very low on the honor scale. They smelled. They stole grass they didn't have the right to. Sometimes they were known to sell some of the sheep they were paid to care for. They were often equated with thieves. When the

Yet, shepherds were a common and respected metaphor for leadership. In first Chronicles 11, the Elders of the people of Israel came and spoke to David and made a covenant with him to be their king:

1 Chronicles 11.2 For some time now, even while Saul was king, it was you who commanded the army of Israel. The Lord your God said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over my people Israel.’

In Ezekiel 34, the prophet speaks for God with a critique of the leaders of Israel. Instead of looking out for the interests of all the people they instead looked to their own interests:

Ezekiel 34.2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?

In this Gospel reading, Jesus made a critique of the leaders of the People of Israel for how they were leading in the real world. Jesus was concerned about how the leadership of Israel was impacting the every day lives of his people. They were looking after their own interests, feeding themselves, while the people were starving. According to Marcus Borg, 85% of the population were struggling to find work so they could feed their families. Meanwhile, the leaders who collaborated with the Romans were among the wealthiest: the Chief Priests and Sadducees were among the top 5% of income and wealth.

Jesus included a critique of violent revolutionaries. The word "bandit" here is the word "lestai" which means "insurrectionist": someone who fosters or leads a violent revolt.

Jesus also included a subtle critique of the Romans, however. They were the ones who did not come in by the gate - but climbed over the wall to kill, steal and destroy.

The People of Israel were subject to threats from many sides:

  • The Roman Empire who came over the walls
  • Collaborating leaders who did not protect the sheep
  • Violent revolutionaries who lived and died by the sword and took many with them

These are often the only options offered to us in a domination culture.

Jesus was offering a different kind of leadership and a different set of options and the people of his day were responding to it.

This is a photo of a sheep fold. In this case it is a small cave which has been improved with stones to make a protective wall. A good shepherd would sleep in the gate area, to ensure that the sheep would be protected from predators.

More than one flock might use the same sheepfold, so a shepherd would call his sheep and they would follow his voice and go out to find pasture. Jesus seems to be referring to the fact that many of the People of Israel followed Jesus, despite the fact that he did not have the social status to give him the right to lead.

What does it mean when Jesus says, "Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly"?

First, let's remember what "saved" means. We tend to have some post-fundamentalist stress disorder about this word! The word "saved" means to be healed or be made whole. It does not mean getting in good with God so when we die we go to heaven. It means to be made whole as individuals and as a people and as a planet - and to live a life with that wholeness on the horizon.

Jesus was saying that his way of nonviolent resistance and trust in God's way of mutuality is the way to life. Jesus' way of loving his neighbor and addressing the issues of his day without either violence or the despair of passivity is the way of salvation and healing. Jesus invited his disciples into an abundant life that does not need to wait for the external situation to be perfect to live an abundant life. This abundant life happens in the midst of thieves (Romans and their collaborators) and bandits (violent revolutionaries). This salvation begins in the midst of all we experience as we become reoriented to God's horizon of wholeness.

Today we are experiencing another time in which the leaders of our nation, on many levels, have been working for their own benefit instead of the welfare of everyday people. People of both political parties have participated in this. People who lead corporations have sought only their own profit, often only short term. We are in a time of deep and wide change. Many of the social and economic structures that have served us are breaking down and our leaders are often failing to name the issues, instead taking advantage of the anger and anxiety for their own benefit.

The Good Shepherd offers his leadership to us, offering a middle way between passivity and violence, despair and extremism. He invites us to see God's never ending love and life, and continue the wonderful disorientation begun in our baptism: being daily disoriented from the bad choices offered by domination culture to God's way of mutuality that is among all of us.

 

 

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

What I Am Learning:

Are we consumers of religious services or are we disciples?

For those of us in church leadership: Are we producers within the religious services industry or are we disciples leading and learning among disciples?

This isn't a very nice question for the beginning of Easter week, but it is one suggested by this reading.

I have been in conversation with quite a number of pastors who are asking the same questions. It has been inspiring to listen to them and to wonder with them about what the church could be like with a renewed focus on discipleship.

Since World War II, many churches have been formed in the model we are all familiar with: enough butts in the pews to financially support a pastor, musician, and support staff and the building that kept everyone dry. I have had mission developers from the 1960's berate me and other developers because we weren't getting it done as they did.

Ever since I was ordained, I have read articles and books and had conversations about the decline of the church as we knew it. We went through worship wars, marketing seminars and made mission statements about how the church could be saved from this decline. We have tried to copy our evangelical sisters and brothers in hopes that a band would help us do church differently and bring in the crowds.

But Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Did Jesus start any churches as we know them today?

Now before we start the shame/guilt cycle here, let's state for the record that doing church as we have done it since the 1940's is not by definition unfaithful. There is no one way to organize the ministry of all the baptized in the Christian Scriptures. The church of Christ is, as the song goes, beset by change but Spirit-led, must claim and test it's heritage.

So what was Jesus sent to do?

There are many ways to summarize what John was talking about. Here is one:

John 1:9-14 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Jesus came into a culture full of darkness that did not see its creator and thus its true humanity in him. Even those whose communal story could prepare them for him, did not fully recognize him.

He gave power to become "children of God.

These children were born

  • not of blood: that is their identities, status and loyalties were not defined by what family they were born into - a radical statement in the first century.
  • the will of the flesh - this word is used in Paul's writings and in John to refer to a culture of domination, the bullying culture of so many empires including the Roman Empire.
  • the will of humans - the desires that all human beings are susceptible to.

These children of God were born of God. To be recognized as a child of God is to see that we and all humans are part of the divine family with all the dignity, worth and responsibility to and for and with our divine siblings.

Jesus was the living light in the midst of a culture and worldview darkened by bullying, power over others, of domination. He came to kindle that light in other humans that we might bear that light so others might have it kindled in them by the power of God.

Jesus was sent to restore human beings to the dignity, worth and identity that God intends for all humans to enjoy, and to enjoy within community. God sent Jesus to restore us to ourselves, to free us to be who God is creating us to be. This is his light that restores the flame of God's light in our souls.

In his story, we see that being restored to the dignity, worth and identity is both life-giving and painful.

Jesus was not just sent, he was sent into a particular context. In his first century Palestinian, Roman occupied context to recognize one's identity as God's child was to be at odds with all the forces of darkness in which humans were de-humanized, in which Children of God were set against themselves and one another: a world of darkness in which they were always playing the Hunger Games. To be fully human in such a culture, in such a worldview means engaging in conflict and putting oneself at risk.

When Jesus sent his disciples, he sent them in the power of the Holy Spirit to be children of God in the kingdom of darkness and domination, engaging others so they might recognize they are children of God.  To be fully human in such a culture meant the disciples were to engage in healing conflict and to put themselves at risk.

Which brings us to our initial questions.

All too often Christians have seen themselves as consumers of what Jesus offers. All too often Christian faith leaders have been happy to provide religious services consumers expected in his name.

I don't believe this is what Jesus had in mind.

He was inviting us to become his apprentices: people learning from Jesus' Way of life so that they might walk that Way as he did, risking being human in a dehumanizing culture.

Our culture is also de-humanizing to us. It encourages us to think of only ourselves, to see others as either irrelevant or as a threat, to reduce human beings to producers or consumers. We huddle in our darkened rooms, alone and increasingly afraid.

Once again and always, Jesus comes into our places of fear, isolation and seeks to reverse our dis-empowerment - to breathe on us the breath of life, to fill us with God's light and invite us to join him in his Way.

In the power of the Holy Wind, beginning where we are, we haltingly take our first steps.

Matthew 21:1-11

21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

What I Am Learning:

The crowds knew where Jesus came from. He came from Nazareth in Galilee. The well worn phrase, "Nothing good comes out of Nazareth" had faded from their minds as they saw the public leadership of Jesus as he oriented himself and others to God's way of mutuality.

But Jesus left Nazareth.

He left Nazareth and went to all the small towns, the cities and even Jerusalem proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near. It was time to change, time to repent, time to re-imagine: it was time to love the one creator of all human beings and to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. And their neighbors included their enemies, the Romans.

Jezreel Valley from Nazareth out toward Mt. Tabor

He could have stayed there. He could have lived a life overlooking the Jezreel Valley fixing things for people as a carpenter. He could have had lots of thoughts about how the world could change. He could have held in his heart and head all sorts of righteous thoughts about how the Romans and the collaborating Jewish leaders were screwing things up for the common folk. He could have even eventually preached about it at the synagogue, making other's heads nod in agreement. But nothing would change except the thoughts in his head. Resentment and powerlessness could have been his blanket at night and the cold hard reality of his mornings.

But he chose to leave resentment and powerlessness behind him there in Nazareth and enter the real world of human problems and politics and passivity.

A week or so ago I was talking with some folks in a church about how our larger culture views Muslims. "Well I certainly don't think that way!" a woman told me. It struck me that what she was saying was that it was what was in her head that mattered. That somehow her thoughts were pure and that this was enough.

How many times have I thought that way?

Too many to number, I realize.

Like many of us, I have stayed in Nazareth, in the Nazareth of my own head.

Many others can't afford to stay in Nazareth. Muslims, Latinx, Blacks, LGBTQIA, Hindu's, those displaced from jobs and meaning by automation and mechanization. It is my white privilege that I could stay in Nazareth so long, to the detriment of my self and others.

Jesus left Nazareth to proclaim God's way of Mutuality - to proclaim love of one God, the creator and lover of all peoples, and love of neighbors.

In that unjust and broken time, Jesus' proclamation was dangerous. Powerful interests benefited tremendously from the way things were. They didn't want things to change.

But for one brief moment, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a sign of his entrance in peace, the crowds saw what could be and left their own Nazareth's to take part in a public demonstration of joy, resistance and hope.

Jesus invites us to leave our Nazareth's and join with others in public. What we may find is that the heaviness of our hearts, the burdensome thoughts that haunt us will be replaced by the the joy of being a part of Jesus' movement of love in the world. The blanket of resentment and powerlessness that we often experience will be replaced by the warmth of knowing we take part in the love of God in the world.

Passivity may save energy. It may make us safe. But it can limit who God is making us to be, and to be together.

John 11:1-45

11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

What I Am Learning:

One day an old friend called me to say that her mother had died. She wasn't sure that she had the strength to deal with her death, with the family dynamics that would emerge and the conversations with family friends she would have.

I told her that each of us has a backpack ready by our door for such occasions. All we need to do is trust that we have what we will need when the time comes.

She breathed a sign of relief and went to face the day with a lighter, if still grieving heart. We talked later and she handled all things pretty well and felt good about how she had responded.

We have all been there.

Death of our loved ones is baked into the cake of our universe.

We tend to see the raising of Lazarus through this lens - that in this story Jesus responded in solidarity with Mary and Martha first by weeping with them (and all of us) and then by raising him up from the dead.

The problem here, however, is that Jesus doesn't raise all our loved ones a few days after death. We are glad that Mary and Martha have him back, but what about our loved ones? If this is just a "one-off" then what difference does it make? Or worse, what if this shows what God could do, but chooses not to, for all of us.

Our personal grief at the loss of loved ones is not the primary meaning for this story.

Mary confessed that Jesus was the messiah. She believed that on the last day, the messiah would raise up the dead so they could experience life as God intended it. The messiah was to inaugurate the reign of God, free the people from the occupying army, bring equity and justice to everyone and help people live as loving neighbors.

"Messiah" was a political term: it meant the king/priest/prophet that would replace Caesar and bring the reign of God, God's way of mutuality, to the everyday world. The messiah would bring fulfillment part of the Lord's Prayer that reads: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The raising of Lazarus was a sign that Jesus was the messiah. God raising Lazarus from the dead was a sign of things to come and God's affirmation that Mary had it right. Once word of Lazarus' resurrection spread, Jesus would be seen as the true leader of the People of Israel.

Immediately following this reading, the Pharisees and the Council met. Here is what John says about that:

John 11.46-57

46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

You can see from this reading what they thought the stakes of the raising of Lazarus were: political challenge to the Roman Empire.

That Jesus did not intend to use violence to make this political challenge would not matter very much to the Romans or to those collaborating with them such as the Council.

So what does this mean for us? Doesn't this interpretation mean that Lazarus' resurrection is first-century response to a first-century problem?

It is vitally important for us to place Jesus in his first-century context. We then consider the way that he oriented himself and his disciples to the the kingdom of God in his context. Then we consider how we can be oriented to the kingdom of God in our own context.

Today we have vast income and wealth inequality.

We have a change taking place as big as the industrial revolution in automation, which took over 9 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. This will only increase! We live in a culture that sees people as having value to the degree they produce things. What happens when whole swaths of people are not needed - and thus are deprived of work and meaning?  A Princeton University study spoke of the "deaths of despair" among white working class people. Read more here.

We have a leader in our country who, instead of naming the issues of automation, is using language that is increasing hate speech and hate incidents in our country.  While he blamed Mexicans for taking jobs and Muslims for taking our security, Jews, LGBTQIA, Sikhs, Hindus and other vulnerable groups are all experiencing violence, micro-aggressions, and a general sense they don't belong here.

We are using up resources at a pace that our planet cannot sustain - either resource wise or by the changes to our atmosphere.

Many are experiencing loneliness and alienation from others, having no family near them and working so hard they have no time for friends, recreation, rest or thoughtful political reflection and action.

The underlying theme in our time: despair for our future and the future of the planet.

Jesus addressed the underlying despair of his people, caused by many of the same sort of issues. He worked to free his people up to work on these issues with hope that God's future, that God's way of mutuality was coming. In the story of Lazarus, we see a signal that there is something at work in the world greater than death and despair.

He addresses us still. He tells us that the power of God revealed in Jesus is still at work in the world. We are invited to hope in a brighter future for all the human family.

Typically, Jewish people believed that the spirit of a person hung around the body for three days. Once grieved, then they could rest until the Last Day when all would be made right. Lazarus was dead for four days. He was beyond hope of an immediate resurrection. Until Jesus called out: "Lazarus, come out!"

Like Lazarus, many of us experience times when we too are "beyond hope." We feel that hope is an illusion that we can no longer entertain, a friend that no longer visits us, dead and buried. Then Jesus calls out to each of us, "Come out!"

Hope is not an add on to the human experience. Hope is necessary for us to to be human and to recognize others as human. We do not live by bread alone.

This story reminds us of the power of God to raise our hope from its cold, dead place to new life in our bones, bellies, heart and voices.

May the hope of God, revealed in Jesus raise us to new hope and to the courage and energy that comes from glimpsing God's vision on humanity's horizon.

John 4:5-42

5So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

What I Am Learning:

Jesus once is once again crossing socially constructed barriers between people.

The first is that he and the disciples are in Samaria. Jews and Samaritans had racial and religious differences that separated them from one another. This is a complex story. The simple version is that Samaritans were Jews who refused to divorce their foreign wives after the the Babylonian Captivity. The Jewish leadership was on a purity kick when they returned and required that the Jews who remained in Israel divorce their non-Jewish wives. The Samaritans were the ones that refused. Samaritans found their own mountain to worship on, but generally were faithful to the Torah and Jewish worship practices. Things were so bad between them, that Jews would knock the dust off their feet after leaving Samaria.

Jesus went there anyway.

As if this was not controversial enough, Jesus goes to a well about noon and speaks to a Samaritan woman there. We think that it likely she was there at noon because she was not allowed to go with the women in the morning, who went to the well together. It may be that she was considered an adulterer who did not follow the mores of her village. It is important to know that Jesus did not ask her to confess this as a sin before he speaks to her. Nor does he seem to offer forgiveness to her. Jesus is willing to see her worth as a fellow human being whatever her previous behaviors or her status in her community.

It is very strange that she talks with Jesus. Women and men who were not related were not allowed to speak to one another as it would be considered pre-sexual behavior. Notice that the text says that Jesus' disciples were appalled by his interaction with her.

Jesus spoke first, and then instead of retreating to the village as expected, she responds to him. There are many things about this conversation that would be surprising to a first century reader:

  1. She was at the well at noon
  2. Jesus spoke to her
  3. She responded to him
  4. She and Jesus debate theology and religious matters
  5. She shares with Jesus about sexual/relational matters
  6. Instead of hiding her conversation for breaking the social conventions and relational morals of her day, she tells the village.

Then another surprise happens: the village leaders, instead of punishing her for her bad behavior, invited Jesus into the village.

Then another surprise happens: Jesus and his disciples stay in the village for two days, receiving their hospitality therefore recognizing them as equals.

Then a final surprise: This woman, outcast or not, sat with Jesus and the men of the village and they publicly acknowledged that she had shown public leadership by connecting them and Jesus! Women were not seen as public leaders in first century Palestine!

Several things are important to note here. First, Jesus is willing to talk with and respect any person, no matter if he has social support to do so. His vision is so important to him that he is willing to make his disciples and his own people deeply uncomfortable. Being a disciple of Jesus means to be and to sometimes lead others to be uncomfortable.

Second, when he engaged a community he most often began with those at its margins and then brought the change into the center of that community.

Jesus sought to bring reconciliation between people as individuals and groups. He was willing to break rules and expectations for behavior to bring healing and reconciliation. Jesus was not always a good boy!

Are we willing to break the rules to bring healing? Are we willing to engage in conflict with our friends and supporters and congregations and families to do it? Are we willing to be uncomfortable in ourselves?

As we are reoriented to God's way of mutuality (the reign of God) in our baptism we find that since we are beloved we have the confidence to be uncomfortable. So let's be uncomfortable participants in God's healing of the world - and find that disconnected parts of ourselves will be healed in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scapegoating happens when groups of human beings are anxious and then focus their anxiety on a vulnerable person or group, blaming them for all the problems leading to their anxiety.

The problem is, while this may make people feel better for a while, it doesn't solve the deeper issues leading to people to feel anxious. Rather, it turns human beings into abusers and victims of abuse – this is bad for everyone. It also creates a cycle in which there is always another group of scapegoated people who are "up next" and undermines the very fabric of human community.

Recently, some of our public leaders have picked two groups of people to scapegoat:

  1. Mexicans - as the reason for lost jobs and low wages and as a safety threat
  2. Muslims - as a safety threat and as those who want to undermine our culture

And if this were not bad enough, this scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims is leading to violence toward Jews, the GLBTQIA community, Sikhs and others.

We will spend three weeks talking about these issues:

  • March 16: The world as it is.
  • March 23: The world as we envision it.
  • March 30 What we are going to do about it?

We invite the community to come and join us in this conversation at the Empire Ale House at 314 W Gates St
Mount Vernon, WA 98273

We will begin at 7:00 PM and end at 8:30 PM.

If you have questions you can email terry at terry@catacombchurches.org.

Please come and join us!

John 3:1-17

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

What I Am Learning:

Yes, these verses have a tarnished reputation. Authoritarian Christians have used these verses to tell people they had to have a conversion experience in order to prove they are followers of Jesus. The primary message underlying their message: they are indispensable to God’s process of conversion and that they know what conversion looks like. These authoritarian Christians apply social pressure to people when they are vulnerable and think that the conversion they impose is from God. The more people they convert the better Christians they are, they think.  A notch on their Bible for every convert….

Jesus says otherwise.

“Nicodemus” was not a proper Jewish name, in fact it wasn’t a name at all. It comes from two Greek words. One is the word for “victory”. It is the same word that the sportswear Nike comes from.  The second word is from “demos”, which means “people.” Nicodemus means “victory of the people”.

Nicodemus was not a person, but is a stand-in for a whole group of people in Jesus’ day and in our own. There are many ideas about who Nicodemus stands for. My favorite is that he stands in for those who want the People of Israel to come out victorious over Rome. But their desire for victory had been shaped by Rome’s spirituality of power over others.  The word “flesh” in this passage does not mean our body but is a reference the domination culture that formed the spirituality of the Roman Empire. This spirituality of bullying had infected Nicodemus and all of the people he represents.

Make no mistake: Jesus was talking about the need for conversion:

 

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Jesus told Nicodemus and all who want God to enable their victory over others that what they want is not from God. But to see another kind of victory, victory with others and even with our enemies, we must be born from above.

Birth in the first century determined your status, your allegiance and your worldview. To be born from above, that is from the Creator of the universe, implies a changed status, changed allegiance and worldview.

To be born from above means that our whole way of being in the world changes.

But this is not something that can be imposed on others, or bottled up in a scripted sermon or way of converting other people. This conversion comes like the wind, a primal power of the world. The wind blows where it will and cannot be controlled. The Spirit of life moves around, uncontained and wild.

Nicodemus had read the Torah and followed the law and was a faithful religious person but had not been totally reoriented to God’s way of mutuality. When Jesus engaged Nicodemus and the people he represents he was not being judgmental, he was being hopeful. He hoped that Nicodemus might move his gaze from apre-programmed and formulaic spirituality to hear the wind blowing.

Lutherans and Episcopalians believe that this reorientation is not a once-for-all thing, but an ongoing life-long and daily process begun in Baptism:

In baptism God radically affirms our life and invites us to daily death and resurrection, dying to domination and submission culture and rising to God’s way of mutuality. In this death and resurrection we continually move through a cycle of

  • Orientation

  • Disorientation

  • New orientation

We are invited to die to the worldview of our natal culture, and be reborn to a whole new worldview.

Who does Nicodemus represent?

I have grown up in a culture that prized winning, and the individuals who win. My culture, in part, is an individualist-competitive culture. Only one can win, the others who competed don’t matter that much, they are forgotten. This winning and losing is a zero-sum game. It’s victory or bust.

This individualist-competitive culture is in me. Maybe it even is me. I want victory over others – at least a part of me does. My natal culture has taught me well, set a spirituality in me that I was only too willing to accept.

But the wind is blowing.

A year and a half ago a big storm blew through Anacortes. I did my best to prepare for it but found I was not prepared enough. The wind moved stuff around, rearranged and randomized a many things in my yard. It was frightening and exhilarating and disorienting and fun.

Nicodemus is us, and not just a few of us.

What Jesus is offering is a life of constant change, death and rebirth. Jesus offers a daily reorientation that is frightening, exhilarating, disorienting and fun.

At the end of these verses we see John 3:16: For God so loved the world….

The word “world” here is the Greek word cosmos. It has the same range of meanings it does for us today: the universe and all that is in it and how we look at or understand this world.  Jesus did not come to destroy our ways of seeing the world, he did not come to destroy our culture, but to save it from itself.

Domination cultures always destroy themselves. Our competitive ways can dehumanize us and those we compete with. Much of Christianity, including our authoritarian sisters and brothers, have turned Christianity into yet another expression of Rome’s spirituality: striving for status in a dog-eat-dog world.

How many notches are on your Bible?

Our continual conversion from domination culture to God’s way of mutuality comes from above, a primal move of love by the Creator of all things.

Are you disturbed? Are you feeling stuck between two ways of seeing the world? Are you disoriented?

If so, that’s good.

And when you are feeling that way, look up at Jesus on the cross, vulnerable, suffering and dying and realize that God does not seek victory over you, but seeks to free you and I from the need for power over others. We are so loved by God as a gift that we need no other status, no other allegiance, no other worldview.

At the end of John, Nicodemus came and helped to bury Jesus.

There is hope for all of us Nicodemus’ yet. The wind blows where it will….