Easter
April 4, 2021
In a New Way

What does it do to you to witness a man’s murder? I haven’t watched much of the trial testimony from those who were present when George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck for nine interminable minutes. It’s really hard to see those witnesses in so much pain as they relive the trauma of that day. In court, videos have been played and replayed. Men and women have wept on the stand, overcome by emotion. Some witnesses still struggle with guilt, wondering what they should have -- or could have – done. Shock, distress, sorrow, pain, grief, a conviction that the system is unfair – it’s all in the air and in people’s traumatized minds and bodies, individually and collectively, especially in communities of color.

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Easter April 4, 2021

Acts 10:34-43 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 20:1-18 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In a New Way

What does it do to you to witness a man’s murder?  I haven’t watched much of the trial testimony from those who were present when George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck for nine interminable minutes.  It’s really hard to see those witnesses in so much pain as they relive the trauma of that day.  In court, videos have been played and replayed.  Men and women have wept on the stand, overcome by emotion. Some witnesses still struggle with guilt, wondering what they should have -- or could have – done.  Shock, distress, sorrow, pain, grief, a conviction that the system is unfair – it’s all in the air and in people’s traumatized minds and bodies, individually and collectively, especially in communities of color.

Two thousand years ago, those who witnessed Jesus’ suffering and death on a Roman cross were traumatized, too, as individuals and together as a community of faith.  There was no video to replay, but visual images are powerful, and there are things we can’t unsee.  Some of Jesus’ closest friends and followers couldn’t bear to watch, and they fled from his pain and their own.  Others stayed – his mother and some other women, including Mary Magdalene, along with the disciple whom Jesus loved.  Crucifixion is a slow death by suffocation, a death meant by those in power to serve as a lesson to others.  The brutality is the point, and trauma all around is the result.

John’s gospel tells us that, after Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea got permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body down from the cross.  He and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who once came to see Jesus by night, took down Jesus’ body.  They prepared it with spices and wrapped it in linen cloths for burial, according to Jewish custom, and then they laid it in a new tomb in the garden.

I don’t know what anybody did after that.  Maybe they all stumbled home, still in shock.  Maybe some of them wept together.  Others might have wrestled with what they did or didn’t or couldn’t do in the face of Roman power.  Maybe they were grieved by their lack of courage and their abandonment of Jesus.  I don’t know what it did to them to witness a man’s murder.  Those were dark days for all those who loved or followed Jesus.  And then, “while it was still dark,” the writer of John says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”  In this gospel account, she comes alone.  She comes, literally and metaphorically still in the dark.  She comes, traumatized by what happened to Jesus, and she discovers that the stone has been removed from the tomb.  What can that mean?  Has the body of Jesus been stolen, adding yet another layer of pain for those who loved him to contend with?

She runs to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, and they race to the tomb.  Love wins out, it seems, and that disciple looks in and sees the linen wrappings.  Peter arrives and goes inside, and the other disciple follows him, seeing and believing – though it’s not clear what he believed.  As yet, they didn’t understand the promise of the resurrection.  And they don’t seem to tell anybody about this.  They just go home.

Mary, however, remains there in the garden, weeping outside the tomb.  She looks inside and sees two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  She says, “Because somebody has taken Jesus’ body, and I don’t know where it is now.”  A man whom she mistakenly thinks is the gardener also asks her why she is weeping and wants to know who she’s looking for.  She says, “If you’re the one who moved Jesus’ body, tell me where it is, and I’ll take it away from there.”  The body of Jesus matters to her, and, although I have no idea how she thinks she’ll move it herself, she’s intent on putting it back in the tomb where she still thinks it belongs.

Then the one who is not the gardener she supposes him to be says, “Mary!”  He calls her by name, and she recognizes him.  “Teacher!” she says.  Perhaps he senses how much she just wants everything to go back to how it used to be, to return to “normal,” because he tells her she can’t hold on to how she knew him in the past.  He tells her that he is returning to the Father and that she is to go tell her brothers what Jesus has told her.

She does indeed go find the disciples, but she bears witness not to Jesus’ ascension or even his resurrection.  The first thing out of her mouth is, “I have seen the Lord.”  I’ve always thought of that as a big, bold, joyful witness, but maybe it’s not only that.  Maybe there’s confusion and wonder and a little fear, like “I don’t really understand how this can be, but I know that I have seen the Lord.”

The “what” of Easter matters way more than the “how” of Easter.  There’s hardly any artwork I’m aware of that attempts to portray Jesus’ resurrection.  Instead, there are myriad depictions of the risen Jesus’ encounters with Mary Magdalene, with Thomas, in a locked room with the disciples, with the two on the road to Emmaus, and on the beach as Jesus prepares breakfast over a charcoal fire.  Their relationships continue as Jesus meets them all in various new ways.  Hanging on to the old way is no longer an option, and there’s no doubt grief in that, but a relationship with Jesus that’s bound by neither time nor space becomes an almost incomprehensible gift.  A gift and a blessing not just to Mary Magdalene or to those who met Jesus in a new way during those fifty days after the resurrection, but a gift and a blessing to us and to all who might unexpectedly hear Jesus call their name.

Names matter.  We might hear them in a bold greeting, a whisper in our ear, or a faint sense that we’re somehow being addressed.  Our names matter.  When we were baptized, our names were spoken at the font as we were water-washed and Spirit-born.  God knows us by name.  We are Jesus’ kin – like the brothers Mary Magdalene was sent to witness to.  Like the sisters and brothers whose names we dare not forget.  “Say her name.”  Breonna Taylor.  “Say his name.”  George Floyd.  “Say their names.”  John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna, Mary the mother of James.  Peter, James, John, Thomas.  Jesus knew them all by name.  And Jesus knows us by name, too.

Jesus’ death traumatized his followers.  His resurrection and his presence with them in a new way began to heal their trauma.  He called Mary by name and she knew him.  He breathed peace into the midst of the disciples’ post-resurrection fear.  In the breaking of the bread, those he had joined along the way to Emmaus suddenly recognized him.  They knew him, found joy in his presence, and walked seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they experienced.

The people who meet Jesus after his death and resurrection may not know what to make of their encounter with him, but it heals, not hurts.  It brings peace, not fear.  It hauls people out of their pain and grief and offers something life-giving, maybe little by little, but surely and steadily.  He’s a light in the darkness.  An encounter with Jesus offers something to hold onto that’s grounded in love that is stronger than death.

Easter testifies to how, out of trauma, out of crisis, out of a pit – whether it’s a body on a cross or a knee on a neck or a devastating pandemic – new life can come.  Truly, new life can come.  And the God who drew Jesus out of the grave will be at work in that – for us, in us, with us, through us, beyond us, and sometimes in spite of us.

Philosophy professor James K. A. Smith, in writing about the depression that bewildered and humbled him because he couldn’t think his way out of it, recalls a scene from The West Wing.  In it, he says, “White House chief of staff Leo McGarry reaches out to his deputy Josh Lyman, who is struggling with PTSD.  Leo tells him a parable: ‘This guy’s walking down the street when he falls down a hole.  The walls are so steep he can’t get out.  A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you!  Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts, “Father, I’m down in this hole.  Can you help me out?”  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  “Hey, Joe, it’s me!  Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole.  Our guy says, “Are you stupid?  Now we’re both down here.”  The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”’”

Jesus, who knew trauma first-hand, has been in every hole where we might find ourselves, and he knows the way out.  The love of God drew him out of a grave, after all.  People came to know him in unexpected ways after the resurrection.  You yourself might meet Jesus in a new way through a relationship with a therapist, a compassionate friend, or a caring sister or brother in Christ who meets you where you are and accompanies you as you tell the truth about your life.  You may meet Jesus in a new way in music or art or movement or prayer that is healing to your mind and body.  You – we – may recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  You may meet him in a new way as you work alongside others for a more just world, a world with less violence and pain and more hope and joy.  Really, even if you don’t understand this whole Easter thing, you may meet Jesus in some surprising, new, life-giving way, just as Mary Magdalene did on that first Easter morning when the risen Jesus called her by name.

Amen.     

   

         

Palm/Passion prelude
March 27, 2021
Prelude to the Passion

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Sometimes it’s right to just let the story speak. Each year on Good Friday, we hear the passion according to the gospel of John. And each year on Palm Sunday – or Palm/Passion Sunday, we hear how Matthew or Mark or Luke has told this story. In the gospels, we find four portraits of Jesus, four pictures of his life and death and resurrection, drawn from slightly or significantly different perspectives.

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Palm/Passion prelude March 27, 2021

Philippians 2:5-11 Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 14 and 15 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Prelude to the Passion

Sometimes it’s right to just let the story speak.  Each year on Good Friday, we hear the passion according to the gospel of John.  And each year on Palm Sunday – or Palm/Passion Sunday, we hear how Matthew or Mark or Luke has told this story.  In the gospels, we find four portraits of Jesus, four pictures of his life and death and resurrection, drawn from slightly or significantly different perspectives.

The gospels are both history remembered and history interpreted.  They carry both memory and meaning.  Early-first-century events are recounted by late-first-century believers who saw in Jesus the fulfillment of even-centuries-earlier promises and prophecies.  When we listen to their witness with our twenty-first century ears, we hear about things that happened long ago and far away, but the passion of Jesus also speaks to now and near about Jesus’ passion for God and for the kingdom of God.  It speaks, too, about what anxious and fearful people can get caught up in, about imperial power and religion’s temptation to collude with it, about bondage and liberation, about betrayal and faithfulness, about sin and suffering and salvation, about us and Jesus.

On this day, what will draw us in?  Where will we lose ourselves in this story?  Where will Jesus find us in this story?

Every year, thousands upon thousands of people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, to tell once again how God acted to save God’s people, setting them free from a miserable life in Egypt under harsh and oppressive rule.  That, of course, was a story guaranteed to make Rome wary.  Throughout Jesus’ lifetime, a procession of Roman soldiers and cavalry entered Jerusalem year after year at Passover in a show of force meant to intimidate Jewish pilgrims and to support the garrison of troops that were always stationed near the Temple.

The High Priest – appointed by Rome – and the other Temple authorities couldn’t have found it easy to walk the uncomfortable line between their responsibility to Jewish religious observance celebrating freedom from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, and Roman expectations that such observance would be no threat to Rome’s own oppressive rule and to the reign of Caesar.

Into this tinderbox comes Jesus.  He has been preaching that the kingdom of God has come near, that the reign of God is at hand.  This year, as Roman troops on horseback enter the city from the west, Jesus has come into the city from the east, riding on a donkey.  Crowds of people go ahead of him while others follow, all shouting “Hosanna!  Save us!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus knows his scripture, and here he enacts what the prophet Zechariah once proclaimed: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”  The people, yearning for a king who will free them from Rome’s oppression, add, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  But what the crowd expects and what Zechariah proclaimed are not the same.  The prophet anticipated a kingdom of peace, not violence – exactly the kind of kingdom that Jesus proclaims has come near in him.

Roman troops roll into the city from the west.  Jesus humbly enters the city from the east.  Many in the crowds who shout “Hosanna!  Save us!” want a king like David to lead a revolt.  No wonder those in authority are nervous.

The stage is set for us to again hear the passion story, this year as the writer of Mark tells it.  As we are drawn into the passion of Jesus, somewhere in this story we will meet up with ourselves -- our hopeful, excited, anxious, horrified, sorrowful, blessed, beloved-of-God selves.

The Passion of Jesus, according to the gospel of Mark.

Mark 14:1–15:47

Lent 5 B
March 21, 2021
Lent is Tough

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Each week, on a web site called The Painted Prayerbook, Jan Richards creates a piece of art and writes a reflection based on the texts for the coming Sunday.

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Lent 5 B March 21, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Pastor Susan Henry

John 12:20-33 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Lent is Tough

Each week, on a web site called The Painted Prayerbook, Jan Richards creates a piece of art and writes a reflection based on the texts for the coming Sunday.  For the fifth Sunday in Lent one year, Richards began with these paragraphs:

“So do you remember that kerfuffle back in the 90s when Mattel brought out a new Barbie doll called Teen Speak Barbie?  The Barbies were programmed to say what the company considered typical adolescent girl phrases.  Some of the dolls were heard to utter, ‘Math class is tough!’  A protest ensued, and Mattel excised that phrase.  The story still circulates, with the troublesome phrase often (mis)quoted as ‘Math is hard!’

“At this point in the Lenten journey,” wrote Richards, “I find myself getting in touch with my Inner Barbie.  Call her Ecclesiastical Barbie, perhaps . . . .  (Ooooh, can’t you see her now, complete with the Barbie Dream Church and Deacon Ken?)  These days, when someone pulls the string on my Inner Barbie, she’s likely to say, ‘Lent is tough!’ or ‘These [readings] are hard!’

“The scripture passages that this season presents to us are intense, dense, and complex.  They are laden with metaphor and meaning, swirl with constellations of symbols and images, and shimmer with vivid emotion and crucial teaching.  These texts challenge us to look with honesty at our lives, they confront us with our attachments, and . . . they urge us to sit with our own mirrors.

“Lent,” Richards concludes, “is not for sissies.”

Well, I’d say ‘Amen’ to that!  In the gospel for today, Jesus speaks of dying, of losing, of falling into the earth.  It’s pretty sobering stuff.  Certainly, among the hard things in this reading is this sentence:  “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Wait a minute, we may say.  Aren’t we supposed to live with gratitude, to love the life we’ve been given, and to live out our faith through love for our real neighbors in this real world?  Well, yes.  Strange as it sounds, these things are only apparently in conflict with Jesus’ words.  Maybe it’s helpful to note that “loving one’s life in the world” has a particular negative meaning throughout the gospel of John. 

Here, the writer of John zeroes in on our attachments.  Granted, attachments can be useful things.  I think of how my vacuum cleaner attachments make it easier to negotiate little spaces or slurp up cobwebs.  But unless I keep those attachments in their proper places, they actually hinder rather than help me.  They get in the way or I get entranced by all the nifty things I can do with them, and the carpet never actually gets vacuumed.  It’s not good to be too attached to our attachments.  That’s true of life as well as vacuum cleaners.

That’s not the same as saying we should have no attachments.  We are made for life together, for community, for good and healthy relationships, for being sisters and brothers in Christ, for loving God and serving our neighbors.  Through our baptism, eternal life begins here and now, in this life.  It’s not just something we look forward to after we die.  Our lives in this world matter so much to God that God came and lived among us in Jesus, the Word made flesh like our very own.  Life, as the logo says, is good. 

I love my life.  I hope you love yours.  But I suspect that we can easily identify some ways in which our love for our own lives gets disordered.  We might love our own personal lives too much.  Too much me, not enough others.  Too much me, not nearly enough God.  Or we might disproportionately love the things that have inched their way into our lives from being luxuries to seeming necessities or things we actually feel entitled to.  The current pandemic is offering us a mirror that’s revealing more than many of us care to see about ourselves, our country, our priorities, our values, our attachments.  Such a mirror may reveal just how much we like what we’ve had and how much we want more of it, despite what it has been costing us or others.

The cost is what Jesus is addressing here.  Our attachments do cost us something -- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes our lives.  Our attachment to a given way of looking at the world can hinder our ability to work creatively and cooperatively with others.  We can get attached to a particular outcome as the only acceptable solution to a problem.  Our attachment to our stuff can lead us to live selfishly, to satisfy our own desires at the expense of others’ needs – especially the poor and the vulnerable -- and to seek to maintain our lifestyle despite how it threatens the wellbeing of our neighbors or the health of our planet.

Personally, I’m pretty attached to getting into my own car and driving wherever I want whenever I want.  I like being able to buy out-of-season fruits and vegetables, even though I know they increase my own carbon footprint.  Because of these and other things I’m overly attached to, there is a sense in which I do lose myself, my true self, my Jesus-given self.  St. Paul counseled believers to be “in the world, but not of it.”  He got that from Jesus, who reminds us how powerful the tug of the world is and how susceptible we are to its pull.

If we don’t think that’s true of us, we might notice how we respond to something else Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Do you feel some resistance to Jesus here?  I do.  Sometimes I want to say, “Thank you, but I’d just as soon keep being the one little grain of wheat I am, and not give myself over to death and dirt, to darkness and promises.”  I’m so attached to the identity I already have that it’s hard to trust that letting it go will lead to an even fuller, richer, more faithful and fruitful life here and now.

But that is Jesus’ promise.  Perhaps that’s enough to give us the courage to look closely at our lives and ask what in us -- in you and in me and in us as a congregation and in us as a nation -- needs to “fall into the earth and [die]” so that God can make us extraordinarily fruitful?  What might you or I or we together have to give up or let fall away so that we can be more faithful followers of Jesus?  If we look in the mirror Jesus hands us in this passage, what will we see?

It may be that sitting with what we discover is all we can do for now.  You or I or we might only be able to begin to want what Jesus wants for us.  But we can sit with that, with all its discomfort and disorder.  And we can ask God to help us trust that falling into a fertile kind of darkness will not mean losing our lives, but finding them.

We can keep one another company through challenges like this.  We can be honest about our lives and our disordered attachments.  We can mourn what has to die so we can bear much fruit.  We can tell stories about our past experiences of dying and rising and bearing fruit.  We can worship together – virtually, for now -- pray for and with each other, listen for God’s leading, and be on the lookout for tender shoots that might grow and bear fruit among us.  We can act for the sake of one another’s health and growth and of the planet’s well-being in the present and for the future. 

Our Inner Barbies and Kens may still be saying, “Lent is tough” and “These readings are hard” -- and that’s true.  It’s actually going to get tougher as we move toward Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.  But we know that sitting together, actually or virtually, in the deepening darkness and entering into the death of what is so dear to us will not be the end of the story.  At the Easter Vigil, we will enter into the darkness bearing the light of Christ, telling the stories of God’s saving love, remembering our dying with Christ and our rising with him through our baptism, and proclaiming the good news that God can bring new life out of death, and that we ourselves are the fruit born out of Jesus’ dying.

Lent is tough.  These readings are hard.  But fear not.  Jesus has shown us the way to live, to die, and to bear much fruit.

Amen    

Lent 4 B
March 14, 2021
Promise and Fulfillment

There are some weird stories in scripture, aren’t there? That snake-on-a-pole healing story from the book of Numbers sounds to me like a theological take on “the hair of the dog that bit you.”

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Lent 4 B March 14, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9 Pastor Susan Henry

John 3:14-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

Promise and Fulfillment

There are some weird stories in scripture, aren’t there?  That snake-on-a-pole healing story from the book of Numbers sounds to me like a theological take on “the hair of the dog that bit you.”  The people of God have been wandering for a long time after being led out of Egypt through the water into freedom.  And for almost as long, they’ve been complaining.  There’s no water, Moses.  We miss the food in Egypt, Moses.  We’re going to starve out here, Moses.  God gives them water from a rock, manna to gather every morning, and quail to eat at night, but they are far from content.

In a way, who can blame them?  After the exodus from Egypt, they expected to make a beeline for the promised land, a place of plenty, a land of milk and honey.  Instead, as biblical scholar Terence Fretheim puts it, they are “a people stuck between promise and fulfillment.”  They’ve meandered through the desert for years and years, uncertain about the future and nostalgic about an idealized past.  It’s a challenging place to be, and, as Fretheim says, “Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from oasis to oasis.”

As people who’ve been wandering in a pandemic desert, early on we sought security in stocking up on toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, and we got anxious when grocery store shelves were empty.  While many of us have been nostalgic for the Before Times, people of color and people who are living with injustice or without enough food to eat or water to drink aren’t eager to return to what was “normal.”  The wilderness is a hard place to be, even as the vision of a better future for all people beckons.  Vaccines will take us to an oasis in this desert if we keep wearing our masks and social distancing.  Hard as it will be, coming to terms with how many of us benefit from systems and patterns that are costly to others might just lead us to another oasis.  Seeing one another as neighbors not as strangers will surely land us in a place where good things can grow.    

But, along the way, there’s a lot of complaining.  A lot of judging, a lot of insisting on our own way, a lot of backbiting and lying and sowing division.  A lot of slithering serpents who are injecting poison into the body politic and wreaking havoc on life in community.

The people of God in the wilderness were impatient with Moses and, this time, with God as well.  “We have no water and no food,” they say, at the same time complaining that they hate the disgusting food they do have.  Poisonous snakes show up and bite them, and people begin to die.  They come to Moses, saying that they’ve sinned against God and against Moses, and they beg him to ask God to take the snakes away.  God graciously provides a way for them to be saved, telling Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole.  When those who are bitten lift their eyes to it, they will be healed.  And so it is.

Notice that the snakes are still there.  Healing and saving don’t come in the way the people want or expect.  God, it seems, is full of surprises.  “Lift your eyes,” God says, “and see how, even when you stand in the midst of  what’s deadly, you will be healed, saved, made whole and well.”  How weird it is that God would use the very thing that poisons them to then redeem them.  Lift your eyes and see what will save you.

The people of God carried that image of God’s saving grace along with them.  The bronze serpent had a place of honor in the tent of meeting and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.  But apparently over time it became an object of worship rather than a reminder of God’s saving work among them.  Faithless kings and faithless people forgot that God, not a snake on a pole, had saved them.  The bronze serpent became an idol.  They loved it more than they loved God.

After the disastrous reign of Ahaz – the worst king ever – Hezekiah called the people back to living more faithfully as God’s people.  He instituted all kinds of reforms, and he broke the bronze serpent in pieces.  That caused an uproar among those who’d fallen into worshipping something other than God -- the God who led them out of Egypt into freedom, providing manna in the wilderness, saving them from the poisonous snakes that bit them, and finally bridging the gap between promise and fulfillment by bringing them to that land of milk and honey.

We too live between promise and fulfillment.  The pandemic will end – but not yet.  The reign of justice and mercy that we call the kingdom of God will come fully – but it’s not here yet.  It seems like we’re constantly shaking sand from the desert out of our shoes on the way to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.  And, like the people of God in the desert, we get impatient, and we complain, and we find ourselves in trouble that we can’t fix on our own.  Conspiracies slither around; hatred poisons relationships; self-interest triumphs over love for neighbor.  Power corrupts.  Idols allure us and draw us from God. 

Where is God in all this?  Calling us to lift our eyes, not to a snake on a pole, but to Jesus who is lifted up on the cross and in the resurrection and at his ascension.  The cross confronts us with the end result of conspiracies, hatred, self-interest, lust for power, sheer idolatry, and more.  The cross reveals our sin, even as it reveals God’s power to take the worst the world can do and, despite it, bring healing to the wounded, hope to the despairing, wholeness to the broken, salvation to the lost, and new life to all the dying.

In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  What follows that verse is probably the most familiar verse in scripture – John 3:16. “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.”  Lest we think that God’s love is meant to exclude rather than include, we’d best keep reading:  “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.” 

We lift our eyes, trusting that God’s promise to love the world -- the whole of creation, not just us -- is fulfilled in Jesus.  In John’s gospel, “the world” usually has negative connotations – like how we might speak of worldly values, worldly success, or being worldly wise.  But Jesus says that God intends to redeem it all and that God’s way is through love.  That might not be the way we expect God to fix things, but God allures us, draws us, attracts us with love.  God invites us to raise our eyes to the cross and see what saves us.  It pains us to look, and yet healing is found there.  In John’s gospel, the glory of God is revealed in Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross, at the resurrection, and in his ascension.  It’s all one saving act of God, and we lift our eyes to it and live.

John’s gospel is full of sharp contrasts – life and death, light and dark, being saved and being condemned.  Those who read Jesus’ words in today’s gospel as exclusive might consider their context.  Nicodemus, an educated religious leader, has come to Jesus by night – which is probably a sign that he is “in the dark” about Jesus.  He says that it’s clear than Jesus has come from God because no one could do what Jesus does “apart from the presence of God.”  He’s curious about how God is at work through Jesus, but Jesus tells him that only those who are born from above, or born anew, can see the kingdom he is proclaiming.  Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and can’t imagine how anybody who’s already been born can be born anew.  “How can these things be?” he asks, before he slips back into the night. 

Is Nicodemus now walking in the light or still in the dark?  Born anew or not really living?  Saved or condemned?  Even in a gospel full of binaries, it’s not that simple.  Nicodemus leaves that night, confused, but we meet him again by day when Jesus is crucified.  He lifts his eyes to the cross, and, with Joseph of Arimathea, takes down the body of Jesus.  Together they wrap Jesus’ body, preparing it for burial with an extravagant amount of myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus has brought, and then they lay Jesus in a tomb in the garden.

In Godly Play, we often wonder where we are in the story or what part of the story is about us.  Those are good things to wonder about for both stories today.  Where are we in the wilderness story?  Impatiently shaking sand out of our shoes yet again?  Sinking our fangs into someone?  Wanting God to fix things, but our way?  Lifting our eyes and trusting we will find healing?  Slipping into loving something more than we love God?

And I wonder where are we as Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about the Son of Man being lifted up so that we may have life.  I wonder if we’re in the dark.  I wonder how we’re being drawn by the love God has for the whole of creation.  I wonder where we see promise and fulfillment.  I wonder how we see in the cross both our sin and God’s saving love.

I wonder where these stories will lead us.

Amen

     

           

Lent 3 B
March 7, 2021

Where Is God?

“Where is God in all this mess?” When we’re caught up in a pandemic, reeling from a diagnosis, stuck between a rock and a hard place, or lamenting whatever chaos has swallowed us whole, we might wonder where God is.

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Lent 3 B March 7, 2021

Exodus 20:1-17 Pastor Susan Henry

John 2:13-22 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Where Is God?

“Where is God in all this mess?”  When we’re caught up in a pandemic, reeling from a diagnosis, stuck between a rock and a hard place, or lamenting whatever chaos has swallowed us whole, we might wonder where God is.  In the midst of pain or grief, we might pray, “Where are you, God?”  In our fear or loneliness or when we’re living with the consequences of a bad decision or bad luck, we might ask that, too.  When you or a family member or a church friend feel like life just pulled the rug out from under you, where is God?

In the long story of God’s way with God’s people, God’s presence was made known in promises to our ancestors in faith, in dreams, in a burning bush, and on a mountain.  It was God who led God’s people out of bondage into freedom and God whose glory went before them in fire and cloud.  God made God’s home in the tent of meeting in the wilderness and in the holy of holies of the first and the second Temples.  The Temple was God’s dwelling place, a sign of God’s eternal presence with the covenant people.  God made Godself known through the words of the prophets, too, but in all these various ways, God was a disembodied presence.

The first temple – the one built in King Solomon’s time – was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people were sent into exile.  There they wept over the ruined city, asking how they could sing the Lord’s song in a strange and bitter land, and they yearned to return to Jerusalem.  Eventually, they did.  Much later, by Jesus’ time, the Second Temple was under construction.  It was a building project undertaken by Herod the Great, and it had so far taken forty-six years!

The outer courts of the Temple were open to everyone, Jews and Gentiles.  And in that space, a lot of commerce took place.  People came to the Temple to worship and to offer sacrifices according to Jewish law.  If a dove was required, you bought one there, since nobody was going to bring one along from their village or town.  The same with an unblemished lamb – if you even owned one back home.  This was all part of the sacrificial system.  It’s what it took to make that system work.  In addition, since it wasn’t permitted to take money with the emperor’s face – a graven image -- into the Temple, you exchanged your Roman money for coins without images, half-shekels to pay the Temple tax with.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the Passover and shakes things up there at the Temple.  He makes a whip out of rope, and he drives out the merchants and the money changers, the sheep and the cattle.  He pours out coins and turns over tables, and he says to those who are selling doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  I’m pretty sure nobody was expecting all that disruption, given that these transactions were what made it possible for people to worship rightly, according to Jewish law.  Why would Jesus interfere with people’s ability to bring their offerings, to come near the God who claimed them as a chosen people?  It’s a puzzle, isn’t it?

The other gospels tell a similar story, but in each of the three, Jesus calls out corruption.  In Mark’s telling of this story, Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? but you have made it a den of robbers.”  Given that Rome appointed the high priests who then served Rome’s interests rather than their own oppressed people’s interests, you can see why Jesus might have been upset.  Disrupting business as usual during festivals like Passover when tens of thousands of people were coming to the Temple would have had an adverse effect on Rome’s revenue, given the coziness between the Roman bureaucracy and the Temple priests.  That seems to have galled Jesus.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this cleansing of the Temple comes after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, and it’s the last straw for the religious authorities and the Romans.  In fact, it sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus.

In John’s gospel, however, Jesus’ actions at the Temple come at the very beginning of his ministry, really as his first public statement.  In this gospel, it’s the raising of Lazarus that is the last straw for the secular and religious leaders.  For his own theological purposes, the writer of John puts this piece of performance art by Jesus just after his less-public act of changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  That was, as John describes it, the first of Jesus’ signs – the first event in which the glory of God was revealed in Jesus.  For John, the cleansing of the temple is the second sign.  But how does this event reveal God’s glory in Jesus?

The temple authorities confront Jesus and want to know who Jesus thinks he is.  “What gives you the authority to come here and throw things into disarray?” they ask.  And Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Okay, so that’s just crazy talk, as far as they’re concerned.  Nobody’s even mentioned destroying the temple, and obviously nobody could do in three days what’s already taken forty-six years – and it’s still not done.  As often happens in John’s gospel, those who hear Jesus misunderstand him, often by taking him literally.  John lets us in on what they do not understand, telling his readers, “. . . he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

Oh.  Already at the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is revealing that the dwelling place of God is his body.  Jesus himself is where God is found.  The glory of God is revealed in Jesus.  The eternal presence that you came near in the Temple has now come near you in Jesus.  Where is God?  In Jesus.  Destroy Jesus and in three days he will be raised.  You’ll see.  At his death, Jesus will be raised on a cross.  Three days later, he will be raised from death.  And in his ascension, he will be raised as he returns to the Father.  The cleansing of the temple reveals the glory of God in the Incarnation, in God’s eternal Word become flesh and blood, standing in their midst.  Where is God?  Here in the Temple in a new way.  Here where no marketplace belongs.  Here where the whole sacrificial system no longer makes sense because Jesus is the end of sacrifice.   

After the first sign Jesus did at Cana, we’re told that “his disciples believed in him.”  But that was just the beginning of their coming to have faith in him.  In John’s gospel, believing isn’t about giving intellectual assent to something, it’s about a relationship of faith and trust.  And surely, for the disciples, just like for us, such a relationship grows over time.  It might take looking back, recalling a moment or a word, and finding new meaning that deepens one’s faith.  Only after Jesus had completely disrupted the commerce in the Temple did his disciples recall something that helped explain for them his passion and his actions there.  “Zeal for your house will consume me,” they remembered from Psalm 69.  And, although John lets us know that Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body, it’s only after the resurrection that his disciples recall what he had said about being raised in three days.

Faith doesn’t come in one fell swoop for Jesus’ disciples then, nor for us who are his friends and followers now.  We trust the work of the Holy Spirit in us to remind us of Jesus’ actions, to recall for us Jesus’ words, and to deepen our faith.  After the resurrection, the disciples remember what he said at the Temple, “and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”  They recall the scripture they already know, and they give Jesus’ own words equal weight.

In Godly Play, we tell stories from scripture and we give children the language of the Christian people so that they can make use of it to make meaning in their lives.  In my preaching, I do the same thing.  I tell you stories from scripture with the hope that they will make their home in your hearts, so that when you find yourself asking questions like “Where is God in this mess?” you might draw upon those stories to make meaning in your lives. 

Later in John’s gospel, on the night when Jesus will be arrested, he tells his disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  Being reminded of what we might forget under the press of fear or grief or stress is a gift the Holy Spirit graciously gives.  Recalling where God has made God’s presence known in the past gives us confidence about where God will make God’s presence known now and in the future.  Maybe any bush can be a burning bush.  Maybe in a dream God will assure us of God’s presence with us no matter where we go.  Maybe we will remember and treasure Jesus’ promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us.

As we celebrate communion, we remember that “on the night in which he was betrayed,” Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread which is his body, and he gave to all the cup which is his blood.  He asks us to “do this for the remembrance of [him],” for the making present of what was past, for the blessed assurance that this is “the body of Christ, given for you” and this is “the blood of Christ, shed for you.”  Where is God?  In Jesus.  With us.  For us.

When we’re hungry for God’s presence, we can feast at Jesus’ table and on the scriptures and stories we’ve laid up in our memories.  Irish author John O’Donahue writes, “Memory to me is one of the great sources, one of the great treasure houses, of wonder.  You look at humans walking around on streets, in houses, in churches, out in fields, and you realize that each one of these creatures is carrying within herself or himself a whole harvest of lived experience.  You can actually go back within yourself to great things that have happened to you and enjoy them and allow them to shelter and bless you again.  One of the negative aspects of contemporary life is that there is such disrespect for memory. . . . Memory now seems to be focused almost exclusively on past woundedness and hurt, some of it induced, some of it real.  It’s sad that people don’t use their good memories and revisit again and again the harvest of memory that is within them, and live out of the riches of that harvest, rather than out of the poverty of their woundedness.”

The harvest of memory within us includes what the Holy Spirit may bring to mind for us to address our fear and loneliness and woundedness.  We can recall with wonder memories of having come through other times when chaos threatened or grief brought us to our knees.  We can remember with joy the moments that lift our spirits and still shelter and bless us.  We can bring to mind the mystery of the Incarnation, of Jesus the dwelling place of God.  When we wonder where God is, we can revisit our great treasure house of stories that remind us of all the ways God has been and is still with God’s people, still with us.

Amen