I Am (Not)

Our reading today jumps forward by a good bit from our stopping point last week. It is still late on Thursday evening, but a lot has happened.

I could catch us up, but I’d like to let someone else tell the story this morning.  A few of the details come from Luke’s version, but much of what you’ll hear also appears in John’s gospel from end of chapter 13 to the start of 18, which is where we’ll pick up.

Check out the first 1:45 of this video from the Skit Guys now…This is a preview version you can purchase to download.  We’ll watch more later

And so here we are.  John 18:starting at verse 12 (NRSV)

12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.

17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
He said, “I am not.”

18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.

20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”

23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”
He denied it and said, “I am not.”

26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”

27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

This is not a great night for Peter.  And it doesn’t look good for Jesus, either.  

What started as an intimate dinner with friends, including Jesus remarkable show of love in washing their feet, has turned into a more public drama involving police and swords and arrests

I want to back up to some of the events in the garden that our Peter described for us… just to catch a couple of details.

He referred to Jesus praying alone… that would be the portion of John that scholars have called Jesus’ priestly prayer. It is among the most beautiful and intricate passages of John’s writing. In it, Jesus implores God to unite and empower the disciples, and not just the twelve, but the generations who would follow… all the way to us.

Jesus prayed for this unity and power, not so that his followers might fight against something… but so that we might love one another and the world, just as Jesus has done.

After he prays alone, Jesus and his disciples go to another garden, this one across the Kidron valley. They find themselves staring down Judas and the soldiers and police he has brought, along with the temple leaders.They have come armed and ready to arrest Jesus.

Jesus knew what what coming. And he walked right up to them.
And he asked, Who are you looking for?

John 18:5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus replied, “I am he.”

Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,”  they stepped back and fell to the ground.

7 Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”

I am he…

While the NRSV does a good job here of bringing an ancient Greek text into proper English, grammatically speaking… we lose something important.

In truth, when Jesus answered,  He said, “I AM.”
I am.

John has been using this construct throughout the gospel to help us hold onto the truth of Jesus’ identity.  Both his identity as a fully human Jewish man and as fully divine.

When he answers with “I am” Jesus isn’t simply affirming that he is the one who answers to the name of Jesus and comes from Nazareth.

Jesus is once again claiming his identity as the One from Heaven, God with Us.

As I shared with some of you at our first Wednesday Evening Lent gathering, I am is in fact God’s name.  If we go back to Exodus… back to the moment when Moses meets God, we see Moses encountering a bush that is burning but not being consumed.  

During this interaction, God calls Moses to his work as the liberator of the Hebrew people. Moses is skeptical, but it even as it becomes clear that he will not be declining this call, who is doing the calling is unclear.

So he says to God…   

Exodus 3:13 … “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

I am

For all generations, this is my name.

Now, when he says “I am” Jesus knows that the Pharisees and Chief Priests will hear and know exactly what he is saying.
Jesus is claiming his identity.
His true name.
For all generations.
This generation.

“I am.”  

One of the signs we skipped in this winter’s reading of John is back in chapter 6, when the storm is raging and the disciples look out to see Jesus walking on the water.

He says to them, “don’t be afraid…  Then our English translations give us, “It is I” or more colloquially “It is me”

But the Greek… you know what it says?

There are moments in his teaching that Jesus adds a descriptor to the end…
I am the Light of the World
I am the Gate
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the Resurrection and the Life

Each of those teachings reveals an important aspect of God’s character, of God’s care for humankind and the world.

But some moments, Jesus isn’t teaching, he is showing.
He is being.
He is displaying the fullness of God

Look… listen… believe…

I am.
God is here.
In me.

And in this fullness, he invites us – humankind  – to be in relationship with God

Jesus invites his followers to know the power of God
But also to experience all the love, grace and hope God offers
To hear the shepherd calling our names
And to respond whole-heartedly.

This is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples
Why he broke bread with them
Why he prayed for them with such passion and compassion
And now, here he was… being the good shepherd,
ready and willing to lay down his life for his sheep

All of them.
Including Judas. Who had gone very far astray
And Peter… Oh, Peter.
Peter who among the 12 was most clearly all in.  100%
Even if he didn’t 100% understand what that 100% was supposed to look like

We see this when he cries out “Wash all of me… not just my feet”
When he falls asleep on prayer watch duty
And becomes overly zealous with the sword

In these situations and more, we can see that he’s trying awfully hard to live into this new calling.  But not quite getting there. After all, he was a fisherman, not a Bible scholar.
But he stuck with it.
Stuck with Jesus, who kept trying to teach him.

And then, in the courtyard… it happens.
Not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter denies knowing Jesus.  

He doesn’t deny Jesus identity as Lord and Messiah.
No.  Peter is denying his own identity.
Like walking away from his place at the table, he denies being a follower.

On the very night that Jesus has prayed for his followers to bear witness to his teachings and to abide – to remain – in relationship with God…
Peter has the chance to bear witness, To say “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus…”
But he says “I am not.”

It would be easy to make light, to pretend that we would stand firm, unlike wishy-washy, all-in then all-out Peter. But truly… are we so different?

It’s hard for me to think so when we consider honestly the fully human way that Peter responds to the events of this awful awful night…

That’s why I like this video so much.  Peter isn’t the punch line to a joke. He is a complicated human facing a difficult situation. Just like we do, so many days in our lives.

Let’s watch how our actor brings Peter’s denial to life (you can scroll back up to the video again.  You can stop at about 3:34 when he describes the rooster crowing)

How did this happen? Possibly the most passionate follower of Jesus
Reduced to “I am not”

Well, it’s actually quite normal for a human to choose comfort and safety.
Jesus walked straight into a situation where being true to his identity would lead to death.
Peter followed him. 

They each would face points of decision…. stay the course or preserve your life?
When I look at the choices Jesus made and compare them to Peter…
The words “God is God and I am not” come to mind.

I mean, if we look honestly into our hearts, do we have the courage to do any different? We are fully human, too.  It’s hard for me to sit in judgment over Peter.

But I do I wonder what a faith-filled Peter might have encountered.

What if Peter had said “I am” to the woman at the gate?

Yes, she might have denied him entry. Or taken him directly to the authorities… But she might have had other questions. Questions about what it might be like to follow this Jesus who seemed to honor women.

Jesus did say… Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

What if Peter had said “I am” to the slaves and police warming themselves at around the fire?

Sure, they might have sent him away or hauled him inside to the men that owned or paid them…But they might have had questions about this Jesus who talked about setting captives free

Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

What if Peter had said “I am” to the man who had seen him while he was brandishing the sword in the garden? Sure, the man might have come at him with his own weapon. But he had seen Jesus heal the man’s ear… Don’t you think he would have questions?

Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

Peter had heard Jesus teaching.  He had stories to tell, lessons to share.
What if he had chosen to bear witness to all of it?
I wonder.

It is absolutely true that God is God, and I am not…
And I don’t know what it is like to face the trials Jesus did.
Or even the fear that Peter faced in this moment.

So I am not going to stand here and pretend for one moment that I know what I would do. But here’s what I do know.

I know God.
And I know what God has done for me.
I know how my relationship with Jesus the Christ has shaped my life
I know how much the words of Jesus challenge me
To be a more generous, kind and honest human
To seek justice for people I don’t even know
To be an advocate for those whose voices are silenced.
To love all people -in word and action.

And I know all of this because of Sunday School teachers and ministers
Because of seminary professors
Because of people who don’t believe or trust what the church and churchy people have to say these days
And because of members of this congregation,
all of whom asked and continue to ask me questions that helped form my faith…
and help me to remember what I have heard and read
and challenge me to bear witness to my identity as a follower of Jesus.
Even if it means going back to read what Jesus said, again and again

I suspect you could make a similar list of people who have loved you, taught you, challenged you.

Here’s a question to consider in the coming days…
If someone were to ask if you were a follower of Jesus what would you say?

Now I’m not talking about someone asking if you know who Jesus is… whether or not you think you’re going to heaven or if you’ve been “born again”

I’m talking about someone watching you, listening to you…
watching and listening to us as a church, the Body of Christ in this age.

I’m talking about the person who knows that Jesus said…They will know you are my followers by your love.

Maybe they wouldn’t realize that it came from John’s gospel. From his teaching after he washed the disciples’ feet when he said…  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What would you say?
And if they ask us just by watching…
Are we followers of Jesus?


Yes, please…

…which is the filtered version of “Oh, hell yes!”

… which is the opposite of what I said just 4 months ago.

Back in October, as Halloween approached, conversations turned toward costumes. The PresbApopkaterians would again be hosting a booth at the city’s “Hometown Halloween” celebration in the park. It’s a great way to be a visible presence to 1000 or so families every year.

Last year, I ran out of time and scribbled “Error 404: Costume Not Found” on a t-shirt. It was clever and nerdy, but not worthy of a reprise.

Knowing my affinity for a certain Amazon from the DC Comics Universe, lots of folks asked I’d be figuring out a Wonder Woman costume.

I opted instead to honor another fandom by being the TARDIS. True Doctor Who fans know that even a onesie is sexy when it’s the TARDIS. And it’s come in handy on cold January nights

Then one of my RevGal colleagues (and all-around amazing human) Marci posted about her experience being Wonder Woman at her church’s Trunk or Treat event. Her honesty allowed me to be fully honest with myself.

I wasn’t being practical when I opted for a onesie. I was afraid.

Afraid of what others might say about me, and worse yet… to me… if I were to dress as Wonder Woman.

I could hear remarks about how I am too old, and too big for something so revealing.

That I have too many wobbly bits around the middle and thighs and too much floppy action in my arms.

It’s the same fear that has haunted me since elementary school, when I was teased for trying to look like a girl when everyone was used to seeing me in tomboy clothes and sports equipment. And it wasn’t just the kids at school, Family and adult friends would pile on, unaware of how much it hurt.

To this day, I have to fight through 40 years worth of insecurities to try on a dress for special occasions. And once bought, to get it out of the closet and wear it in public.

Reading Marci’s words left me a little pissed. Here I was with the opportunity to embody the strength and confidence gained by pushing this old body far enough and fast enough to finish 2 half-marathons. And I whiffed it.

So… when my friend Mel once again invited me to come to New Orleans for Mardis Gras, and upped the ante by telling me about the nerdiest parade of the season. And then said I could walk with the All Wonder Woman sub-Krewe.

There was but one answer: Yes, please.

Actually it was, “oh hell yes!”

I paid my dues and made my throws and booked my tickets… and took a deep breath when I found my costume online.

Complete your order? Yes, please!

I gotta say, my brain and heart are holding in tension all the joy and fear and excitement and vulnerability of walking around with bare shoulders, a fitted top and a short flappy skirt.

At a time when so many of our shared stories as women are connected to abuse and pain, I love that we can also say “me, too!” with a smile

…when she says, “I waited so long to see her on the big screen”

Me, too

…when she says, “I don’t always wear a tiara, but for Wonder Woman, oh yeah.”

Me, too.

… when they say, “I am Wonder Woman.”

Oh, hell yes, we are.

Want a ride in that invisible jet?

She thought she might could…

It seems that if you run my social media posts through the standard marketing algorithms, you end up targeting a woman who supports other women, does road races, and is likely to consider items with snarky, pithy or motivational sayings.  Which means I get a lot of ads for t-shirts, wall art and jewelry with a particular saying:

She believed she could, so she did


I have several friends, in fact, who own the t-shirt.  And they hashtag all kinds of accomplishments, large and small, with #shebelieved.  Which is great, for them.

I just am not that woman. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever actually done anything remotely hard because I actually believed I could.  Especially not at that “go-no go” moment when the  attempt is public and real and all the “holy shit, who thought this was a good idea” chemicals start raging.

Nope.  I want the  wall art or bracelet or t-shirt that says

She thought she might could, so she gave it a try.

I mean, I can’t be the only woman who would buy it. There have to be a lot more of us out there who hesitate than who just “believe,” right?  Women who question ourselves and our preparation.  Women who still go for it – all in – but are as ready to deal with the consequences of failure as we are to celebrate every success we are fighting like hell to achieve.

I thought I might could stand in a pulpit and make sense of the scriptures for a congregation, so I gave it a try.  Several hundred tries later, I am beginning to believe that the folks who affirmed that suspicion and have encouraged me to press on just might be right.

I thought I might could finish a half-marathon, so I gave it a try.  Fully prepared to get swept by the team that closes a course, I finished strong.  Smack in the middle of the pack. Turns out that yeah,  I could!

And then I thought, I might could do it faster…

And somewhere along the way, I thought I might could mix some running into the walking.  So I gave that a try.  I never imagined, much less believed that I would run 75% of my next half.  But the idea that I might could… that was enough to make me try.

Pretty sure this is what God sees in me, too.  There are so many ways I’ve had to wade into faith, especially when the “just because” of childhood beliefs got strolled away.  Trying out areas of trust, taking risks on mystery, making space for grace that would solidify, eventually.

I might could believe that love and grace are real
I might could believe that I am enough
I might could trust the people I love to your care

It’s a start, that seed of hope.
Not full-blown belief.
But enough to make me try.
Every morning.

A handful of things

It really stinks sometimes, being the kind of person who needs lots of words to find her way to the thing she wants to say.  I mean, most days, I don’t get around to that kind of writing because I’m busy getting announcements and sermons and newsletter articles and emails and other time-sensitive stuff out the door.

So, rather than wait for the “Now I can get that whole post out of my head” moment, here are some things I am thinking about, experiencing and… now… sharing.

I was alone on eclipse day, staring up at the sun with my safety glasses on, thrilled to be able to see even the 80-whatver percent coverage we got. I finally hunted someone down so that we could “wow!” at it together as we shared the specs.  A couple of days later, I was driving across town, listening to the RadioLab podcast that had audio recordings of people as totality occurred.  And I realized just how much we need events like this to connect us to one another in moments of awe.  I literally wept as these people I didn’t know described an event I couldn’t see… because they were so overcome by what they saw that you could hear it in their voices. Young and old, all over the country.  Awe is contagious and evocative.



Yesterday, I stopped to pick up some coffee on the way to work.  A group of people walked into the shop as I was leaving and the last guy stopped to hold the door and let me out.  I said thanks, to which he replied “No problem, have a great day.”

I smiled again, “You, too,” and I walked on toward my car.  Can I just tell you how much it made my day for him to call after me, “You look beautiful today”?  Not because I had dressed up (because I hadn’t).  Not because he’d ever seen me to make a distinction about yesterday’s level of beauty (he was a total stranger).   It was just a random kindness.  The world can use more of that, for sure.

Does anyone else ever have the problem of their ears folding over in their sleep?  Clearly a side-sleeper issue, the ear between my head and pillow sometimes gets tucked in on itself and the pain will actually wake me up.  Weird.

A couple of folks lately have described me as Type A, which sits kind of funny.  I’ve never seen myself as “driven” so much as determined. That’s a good thing, mostly, since it keeps me from giving up on hard stuff (or boring stuff). But it’s got me thinking I need to explore the way my overdeveloped sense of responsibility interacts with the athlete in me who learned you “leave everything on the court”.



I have other thoughts on Harvey, the Nashville statement, and big stuff in the world, but I’m fighting my allergies and have a church newsletter to get out the door. So… this will have to do for now.

Meanwhile, what kinds of things are you thinking about these days?

Life’s a Beach, especially when you Tri

The first 5K I completed last June was part of a series of events in New Smyrna Beach put on by the “Run for  a Cause” race organizers.  Since that’s an easy trek, I don’t mind being on their mailing list…

So, about 3 weeks ago now, one of their “Come out to play” emails landed in my inbox, describing the Life’s a Beach Triathlon.  Now, I have been swimming pretty regularly since late last fall to keep from killing my feet and legs while training for half-marathons. So, I will confess to having already mused a bit about maybe someday considering the possibility of a triathlon.  But the closest thing to riding a bike I’ve done since 1998 (at the latest) is riding my motorcycle.  So, pssshhhh…

But this Life’s a Beach thing was awfully intriguing.  Just 200 meters swimming, 5 miles on a bike and 2 miles run/walk.  And on the beach. With goofy obstacles.  And prizes for costumes. And last place finishers got awards – in every division!

So.. I sent the email to my enabler, I mean sister, who said,  DO IT!

I don’t have a bike

You can borrow P’s. It’s in my garage.  Do it!

I haven’t ridden a bike in at least 2 decades.

You’ll remember how. And I’ve even got a helmet. If I weren’t headed out of town that weekend, I’d totally go with you.  You have to do it.

I’d never even watched a triathlon.  I’ve never done two of those three activities back to back, much less all three (for obvious reasons).  But I needed to do this.  Why?

Because it scared me.
Because I need to do things before I’ve overprepared for them.
Because I need to be vulnerable and open to the idea of spectacular  failure and embarrassment.

And so I did.  I signed up, knowing I had exactly 2 weeks to get ready.

I needed to get the bike, have it checked out, see if I could actually stay upright on it, then see if my legs would pump the thing for five miles.

In that same 2 weeks, I needed to see if I could go from swimming to biking and from biking to walking.  If those combos worked, I was pretty sure I could manage all three.

I got 2 or 3 rides in before the day, including a couple of combo workout attempts.  The swim-bike test turned out to include a little walking as a cool down (because jeepers the bike does funny things to your backside muscles…)

How did it go??? 

Who knew my sister was so clever? She was totally right. I could do it.
And it was totally a blast.
And I learned a few things…

  1. Swimming in the ocean is very different from splashing around in the waves to cool off after sweating on the beach.
  2. An out & back ride on the beach includes a u-turn at the midpoint.  Turning left or right on neighborhood streets doesn’t actually prep you for a u-turn.
  3. Having a towel and plan for the transition point from swim to bike would have been helpful. Having a clue at that point would have been helpful.
  4. It’s not that painful to ask other competitors for help, especially at a not-super-competetive event, especially when they aren’t in professional-looking triathlon gear.  I’m sure those folks were friendly, too, but they were a bit intimidating…
  5. I have internalized a whole lot of fat/body-shaming BS in my lifetime… more than I even knew.  I can now believe that I am healthier and stronger than the imperfections and jiggly bits I couldn’t look past before.  No matter what anyone else sees, I can see the bad-ass muscles I’ve been building.

Here are a few pics of me on the day…

The swim portion… pretty sure I’m among the group coming back in here

Heading out of the transition area, looking as if I know how to ride…

About 90% done with the run/walk section, we had gone through some tubes and under a net.. now beneath the “sea wall”

Leaping over the beach chairs…

Limbo to the finish line? Are you kidding me?? Yeah… nope. Too tired.

This is what excited to be DONE looks like.

In case you’re curious about official race-type results:

They chip timed, but only start-finish, not splits or transitions (because it’s a beach bum thing, not a sanctioned event thing).   And the swim portion was not a precise distance because one of the buoys floated off during the second wave start and we had to guesstimate where to go.  But still… I found myself in the middle of the pack and happy to be there!


And so she did

This is me, standing in the finisher’s area after completing my first half-marathon.

That smile… it was absolutely fueled by adrenaline, pride, gratitude and all the “holy crap did that just happen?” that you might expect.

I have to say that the Historic Half was a great event in and of itself.  The community support was outstanding.  People were out in their yards and along the sidewalks.  One family made a BINGO (well… RUNGO) board and the kids were marking off athletes who carried flags or wore Marine Corps shirts or pushing strollers.

Other families offered watermelon and water between the official pit stops.  There were cowbells and signs and sidewalk chalk.  It was clear that they were there for the long haul, ready to support the fastest and the slowest and all of us between.

The route was challenging. I was as mentally prepared for the hills as I could be, since we drove the course on Saturday.  At least, I knew kind of what was coming. What I didn’t know was whether my legs were truly ready.  There’s only so much hill work on can do in the flat lands of Central Florida.

I blazed through the first 5K and thought, “well, I hope I didn’t just burn up my last 5K.”  When I got to the 10K mark (not quite halfway), I was still ahead of my expected pace, despite lots of rolling hills.  But I still felt really strong and was breathing well, so I figured I’d just keep adding to the cushion.

That’s pretty much the way things continued. I was paying attention to my legs and my lungs, pushed up the hills and relaxed down them, was able to chat a bit with spectators and other competitors… and then we were at the last 3.1 miles, 2 of which are mostly uphill.

I found myself powering up Hospital Hill (the infamous part of the course), past other folks who were struggling, grabbing a water at the station and taking on the last hill over a bridge into the home stretch.  And yes, there were a few tears as I entered the last .1 of the 13.1, but I totally enjoyed the moment as strangers cheered me into the finishing chute.  My intrepid sister/cheering section was right there yelling my name and reminding me to smile for the camera this time.

Not that I really NEEDED reminding.  Endorphines are good for that!

Some FAQs:

How did you feel about the race, technically? I finished about 10-15 minutes faster than my “it could happen, but not likely” goal.  My splits were pretty even, and the 5K and 10K both beat my current bests times at those distances as standalone races.   All of which makes me happy as a newbie.



Are you going to do this again? Actually, yes.  Going in, I was hedging my bets that I’d like this distance as a walker.  But I honestly think I could have done another couple of miles, which makes me think I can break three hours…

In fact… the next half-marathon on my calendar is in October, at Niagara Falls (finishes at the falls in Canada!).

The View

Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10

Jesus has just about made it to Jerusalem. It has been quite a journey since that day he set his face for the city, but they are now headed into Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. On foot, through mountainous terrain, however… The road gets longer as it winds its way to the city.

We don’t know how many days will pass between their time in Jericho and their arrival in Jerusalem. But our reading made clear that what awaits Jesus there is clearly weighing on his mind.

For a third time, Jesus shares a glimpse into his future: his death and resurrection.  And once again, those closest to him are in the dark. Unable to see what he means.

Taken together, these three predictions or teachings paint a fairly robust picture of what is to come. The first time, Jesus says that his suffering, rejection and death will come at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem. Not as a result of what he is doing, but because of his identity.

The second teaching is much shorter, with Jesus saying that he will be betrayed into human hands.  And then in today’s reading, Jesus takes it further.  He will be handed over from the Jews into Gentile custody.  Those political powers will mock and insult him, physically abuse and ultimately kill him.

At every level, Jesus will be refused; he will be the messiah rejected by humanity so that what is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
He will suffer and die.
He will rise.
All so that he might accomplish all that he was sent to do…
All that he might seek and save the lost.

And so, all of the interruptions and side trips and all of the interactions that seemed not to be in their itinerary to Jerusalem…  They were definitely part of his agenda.

It is no surprise then, as they enter Jericho, that the journey to Jerusalem is interrupted yet again… first by a blind man.

The blind man is a beggar by trade.  He sits on the roadside, listening for the sounds of people passing by. He asks, people give, hopefully enough that he can eat.  

It’s a pretty straightforward transaction. For him and for those who give.  

Almsgiving was a mitzvah – a good deed.  Offering the mercy of alms is a way to bless someone and perhaps receive a blessing from God in return.  

Everyone knew how the financial transaction worked.  There was honor in the giving, and there was shame in the sin that must have caused the blindness, along with shame in the need and in the asking.

The second interruption, was a bit different. As a publican by trade, a chief tax collector in fact, Zaccheus was also familiar with financial transactions. His work was not as much like an IRS agent as we might first assume.  The Romans generally did their own dirty work in that regard. They had plenty of mid-level overseers to keep track of what was collected and and military personnel to intimidate (or worse) as needed in the collecting.

No, Zaccheus was a more like a private contractor hired by the Roman government to handle international trade contracts and to collect the customs payments on goods that moved in and out of the empire. These jobs were fairly common in port cities and along the border, and Zaccheus apparently supervised others in this work. He had also been at it long enough to amass enough wealth to be known as a rich man.

If the blind man was at the bottom rung of the financial ladder, Zaccheus was accustomed to the view from the top. Not that his wealth meant Zaccheus was viewed any more positively than the beggar… at least not by most Jews. After all, he was a Jewish businessman profiting from the very empire that made all of their lives miserable. Let’s just say he would not have been invited to many dinner parties.

Tax collectors and sinners… they were regularly lumped together. Though for different reasons, this very rich man and this very poor man were both living on the margins of Jewish religious life.

And on this day in Jericho, neither of them can see Jesus
But they both persist.
And on this day in Jericho, Jesus sees both of them.
He sees the blind man, but not simply his poverty or his blindness
He sees Zaccheus, but not primarily his wealth

Jesus sees them and stops for them because Jesus sees what so many others have not.
Jesus sees men whose hearts see in him what so many others have missed.
Which is why the transaction between these men and the Messiah is nothing like what either of them have grown accustomed to.

For the blind man, Jesus offers mercy. But not the mercy of almsgiving that will allow him to eat for a day or two. Jesus offers mercy that asks the question, rather than assuming the answer.  What do you want?  

I want to see.
I want to know that I, too, can be forgiven.
That I am a child of God, beloved and worthy of dignity.
Jesus, Son of David, I want you to be who I believe you are.
I want you to be able to do what I believe you can do.
I want to see that… I want to see God’s glory revealed.

Jesus offers mercy that looks like forgiveness.  Forgiveness that looks like healing
The faith that the blind man offered up in those words… I want to see… that was faith enough.  

Salvation had come.
And it looked an awful lot like healing, wholeness and opportunity.
It looked an awful lot like Jesus.

And as Jesus moved on, the view from the no-longer-blind man’s spot was pretty amazing.

Zaccheus had worked awfully hard to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And he had tossed aside whatever dignity he had to climb up into the tree to get a better view.

When Jesus calls him down to talk, we actually hit some of the limits of translating ancient Greek into modern English. See, Luke uses a verb tense that can be rendered a couple of different ways, because it can mean both in Greek.

The NRSV has Zaccheus speaking in the future tense…
I will give half of my possessions to the poor;
I will pay back anyone I defrauded with four times the amount.

But it is also possible to translate Zaccheus’ words as
I have given away half of my wealth;
I have made things right by returning four times more than what was illegal gain.

A more complete understanding might be I have and will continue…

He may well be saying “I know what people say about me, why people despise me, but this is how I have done my job… this is how I will keep doing it. They really don’t know me. 

Scholars much smarter than me and my preaching friends have been arguing about this for quite some time.  But regardless of whether he is indicating a new change of heart or explaining to Jesus the truth of what has gone on, Zaccheus has shown a much better understanding of what it means to serve God, rather than serve his own wealth, than 99% of the people Jesus has encountered.    

As I reflected on what Luke was hoping to convey, it struck me that the translation we prefer might be shaped by the way we understand Jesus’ reply to Zaccheus.

Salvation has come to this house today

It’s hard to separate our understanding of Jesus’ words from the understanding of salvation that we have inherited here in 21st century America. Waves of evangelicalism have swept North America since the Puritan fathers arrived and the Great Awakening was stirred. The resulting focus on individual salvation from eternal damnation can make our relationship with God seem like a single transaction: In exchange for a “sinner’s prayer” we receive a ticket to paradise.  

This is, in fact, a relatively new doctrine. And it certainly was never the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Like the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus teaches that repentance happens again and again as our hearts are reoriented to God’s will again and again.

Jesus’ work was all about bringing wholeness right then, right there.  Offering forgiveness and healing, reconnection into community.  Saving their lives in this flesh and blood realm, often by removing any barriers to their being part of a family again…. even as he rewarded their faith in the God they could not see. The God we cannot see.

Doing that work meant being present for people in such a way that he – personally – was their salvation. Before, during and after his death and resurrection.

Seeing Jesus
Being seen by Jesus
Experiencing the reality of God’s love and grace simply by being near him.
That is salvation.

His presence was sufficient to shore up the faith of all who who had ears to hear. All who had eyes to see (even while they are physically blind!)

His passing through town, encouraged the faith of those who wanted to see Jesus badly enough to keep shouting when other would shush them or to make a fool of themselves by climbing up for a better view.

People still long to see Jesus,
to hear a word of hope
to be in the presence of the divine

They long to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

They need to hear assurance of grace and mercy
People still want the healing and wholeness that comes when we are loved and accepted just as we are

OK – Not just people.
Not just they.
You, me, everyone I know
We all cry out for mercy.

What do you want? Jesus still asks   

We want to see.
We want to be seen,
We want to be known,
We want to be loved.

Salvation still looks a lot like community,
Salvation looks a lot like the Body of Christ

And where, if not among others who have been in the presence of Christ,
Where, if not around the table…
A table where a rich man like Zaccheus, wearing his purple cloaks would feel welcome
A table where a poor man, who had begged for years in ragswould also feel welcome

Where,  if not here are we no longer lost?

Let us pray….

Pastor’s Note for April

I haven’t told a whole lot of people what really got me started on all this walking I’ve been doing.  Like most folks, I have known for years (decades even) what it takes to be healthy: regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and time away from stress and responsibilities.  And like many folks, I was pretty much living at the opposite end of the spectrum for most of those areas.  And so, it was just a matter of time before I got the kind of news I heard right about this time last year.  

I had gone to an urgent care clinic for a sinus infection and my blood pressure was way out of control. As in, they wanted me to go directly to a hospital. Right that minute. Immediately, I was thinking about all the things I was responsible for and all the people I would be leaving in a major squeeze if I was in the hospital overnight. Or even for the next few days.  I didn’t have time for that. Who has time for that? 

So instead, I signed the paper releasing them from responsibility if I died before actually going to the hospital. Definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made. Definitely not something I recommend.

But as I left, I thought to myself, Ok. Get past this crazy month – and if you’re not dead, it will be time to get serious about living.

I did exactly that. I managed to survive what was a really stressful, hectic few weeks, and then I got serious about making the changes I needed to make in order to live to see my 50th birthday.

There was a little bit of dying involved. I had to kill the idea – my own misguided belief that had somehow lingered since adolescence – that I was invincible.  And I had to take aim, one by one, at some of the habits that were making me sick. And I had to put to rest the biggest myth I had carried around: that I was not worth the effort it would take to make those changes.

I share this with you now because I want to say that we are past the point of antibiotics and rest. Becoming a healthy and thriving church again – it’s going to take a lot of work. A lot of energy and activity.  It will take persistence and trust in God’s resurrection power. It will take all the community and love we can muster when the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements pop up.

But hear me, friends, when I say that this congregation is so very worth it.  You are worth all the effort it is going to take, all the pain we will endure, all the sweat and tears that are bound to fall. You are worth it because the church is God’s plan for the world to know all the love, grace, hope, and peace that we have experienced through Jesus Christ.  You are worth all that God has and will invest in you, and I am honored to be walking alongside you.

Good news from bad news 

Actually, the news wasn’t bad… it was awful. And shocking.  My brother-in-law had taken ill and was on the edge of death within 2 days when I put my husband on a plane headed for Providence.  It was hard to take in the idea that he might not make it in time to say goodbye. 

And he didn’t.  The good news was that there would not be a long battle for life. The bad news was the truth that he was gone. And every one of us who knew him and loved him was left to wonder how we would navigate a world without his laugh, his encouragement, his counsel, his teasing… his presence. 

The good news was that my church folk knew I needed to go, even though I had just missed worship last week to lead a retreat.  And a RevGal who lived close by stepped up to offer to cover as soon as I asked for prayers.  The bad news was that I needed to be ready to be wife and sister-in-law and pastor-presiding-over-the-service all at once. 

The good news is that the service went well.  It was the first time my by-marriage family has seen me being a minister. And for many of them, the first time a minister did a service that wasn’t just “by the book”.   It was hard, but important, for me to be able to honor his life and our relationship by presiding.  And it was hard to do so in a way that was unabashedly Christian without preaching (per the family’s wishes). 

The bad news is that I still have grieving to do and big emotions to feel… and it will be way too easy for me to set them aside to get back to work when I get home tonight. 

Perhaps the best of the good news (and yes, I have buried the lede) is that we got to spend a good 36 or so hours with the kid.  Beautiful, hope-filled hours, filled with conversations about all manner of things.  The kind of ranging conversations I have missed something awful.  We shared a few moments of sorrow and laughter that I will treasure until the next time we can be together in person.   And I will replay those goodbye hugs as many times as it takes to embed them in my memory at the cellular level. 

A Matter of Life & Death

Last week, we looked at two encounters Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, both of which involved choosing to break the Sabbath rules.  He then spent some time in the mountains praying before naming the 12 closest of his followers as those who would be apostles… the leaders among the learners.

The next portion of Luke’s gospel is what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain”.  It is the companion to the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount.   He joins the people down on the plain, healing and teaching.  But we are picking up today’s passage after this sermon.  Listen for the Word of God for you today from Luke 7:1-17.

Early in the week, as I planned this week’s worship, I was pretty excited about the chance to dig into this passage.  These two interactions are fascinating, especially in juxtaposition to one another.

One involved a man of power and influence, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman army.   The other, a widow who was left with no standing, no support, much less influence, after the loss of her son.

One conversation started with the assumption of healing.  The other with the resignation with which we are too well-acquainted as we have had our own dealings with death.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me.  Some crazy bug attacked our household, picking us off one by one. I felt like death warmed over from about Tuesday afternoon onward, and so I spent more time with my eyes closed than open this week.  I had no energy for the kind of brainwork it takes to write a sermon, and I was not entirely sure whether I would have the energy or voice to deliver one.

So today, you’re a little more of a glimpse at what I’m wrestling with than usual.

As we think about what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, these two stories point to two very important characteristics.

The Centurion has heard of Jesus and sends the Jewish elders to ask for him to come heal one of his slaves. We don’t know why the Roman didn’t come himself… perhaps he didn’t think Jesus would come for him?  Perhaps he was busy.   There really is no telling…

But I find it intriguing that the elders  seem to take it upon themselves to let Jesus know how generous this Centurion was…. Luke doesn’t indicate that he included his love for the Jewish people in his message to Jesus. In fact, as Jesus approaches, as second message arrives, saying not to come.  “I am not worthy to be your host”.

Here is a man who could have demanded Jesus come, could have demanded that he see the slave. For that matter, he could have just replaced the slave, should the servant have died. But instead, he describes Jesus’ authority and power to heal and he trusts in that authority and power, even from afar.

He had Faith -just as it would be described in the letter to the Hebrews…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  

He articulated that faith in very practical, very human terms – because as a man who worked within a chain of command, he understood power and authority in very practical, tangible ways. And that understanding allowed him to believe that all he needed was a word from Jesus.  Just a word would heal the slave that he valued so highly.

But don’t you just wonder how much of the Jewish way of trusting in the authority of Yahweh  – Jehovah God – had rubbed off on this man?  How many of the stories he might have overheard as they were building the synagogue that he’d helped pay for?   

Jesus heard faith in the man’s message -no matter its origins.  He healed the slave and he bore witness to the Centurion’s faith.

Once again, we are reminded that as the son of God, Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth to do the work of healing, of reconciling, of setting captives free, of bringing jubilee to the land.

And we are reminded that his mission field was not confined to the Jews.

Now it seems like we just turn the corner in Capernaum and run into the funeral procession, but Jesus and his followers have moved on to Nain. And it’s almost as if we have two parades happening, and their routes happen to intersect.  

If they were a parade, Jesus and his large crowd of followers would be carrying signs and riding floats that represent life, joy, hope. They are hyped up after a series of miraculous healings and brilliant teachings .  

It must have been sobering for them to realize that the procession they meet near the city gate is comprised of a widow, her dead son and a crowd of mourners.

This time, no one approaches Jesus, no one makes any requests.
This time, Jesus sees what is happening, and he is moved to respond.

He is moved by compassion… Compassion that was sparked as life met death, as hope collided with suffering.

True compassion is not an intellectual exercise. The kind of compassion Jesus experienced is as fully human as it is fully divine. Compassion is one of those “feel it in your gut” emotions.  

In fact, the greek root for the word translated as compassion in this passage is splagchna – literally intestines.

When Jesus sees what is happening, he experiences that same  deep, gut-wrenching compassion that moves people today to act when they see suffering.  It’s that twist in your belly when you hear that music and see the sad faces of the dogs in the commercials for the humane society

He saw the woman and knew what was happening.
There was no husband, no son, no male kin there to console and mourn with her.   

He saw the woman and knew this meant she was now among the most vulnerable, given the patriarchal structure of the Jewish people.

He saw the woman and knew that he had the power and the authority to change what he knew in his gut was not good.

He told her not to weep.  And he told the young man to rise. And thus Luke reveals to his readers (like the people of Judea) that Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise the dead to life.  

Jesus is powerful.
This much is abundantly clear.
And logical, if he is who he claims to be, right?
The son of God should be all powerful if God is all powerful.

But this combination of stories also presents us with a deity who wields that power in such a way that  his actions affirm and give life.

Think about that – and compare it to the ways we experience people who have power – perhaps in the form of leadership, wealth, influence, control.

How often do we see the truth in the aphorism about power corrupting people… and the more power they gain, the more corrupt they become?  

But rather than amassing power for himself, Jesus starts at the bottom. And he stays among those on the lowest rungs. That is the kind of leader he is.

Luke started his telling of Jesus’ story with people preparing us for a messiah who would turn things upside down.  Who would bring down the mighty and lift up those who had been made low.  

The teaching we see in his initial sermon in Luke 4 and the sermon on the plain reinforce that idea.  And we begin to see Jesus acting in ways that reverse fortunes in this portion of Chapter 7.

When Jesus sees the widow and his gut twists, he liberates her from a dire situation by bringing her son back to life.

And when Jesus hears the faith of the Centurion, he heals a slave. Not nearly as satisfying, really.

I want the story to end with a captive set free from slavery.  

Yes – it’s great that this man is healed. And I’m hopeful that a man who seems humble and values this slave highly treats the man well. But even after the miracle, Jesus’ work seems unfinished.  

Perhaps at some point the Centurion finishes the work, releasing the slave.  After all, he had faith.  

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he kept up with Jesus, heard more of his teaching and offered release to a man he valued as a person, no longer as property.

Yes- that’s a very optimistic possibility, but I believe that compassion moves us fully human people, too… not just messiahs. Maybe that is the point.  

As people who believe in Jesus, as people who trust in God’s power to enter into our world and transform it, and as people who understand that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is yet to come, we must accept that there will always be work for us to engage, to complete.  

The challenge is to see it amidst the distractions of this world.
And then to overcome the cynicism that freezes our guts and blunts our compassion

But here’s the thing.  We don’t have a choice.
That work is part of who we are.

God doesn’t claim us or save us so that we can sit back and wait until it’s time to punch our ticket and hop onto the train that’s bound for glory.

Not any more than God watches and waits for us to slip up and sin so that our tickets are void and our names get moved from the nice to the naughty list.

Dear ones, please hear and believe this truth:

You are loved because God is love.
And not a thing in this world can change that.
You and I are never going to be powerful enough to change that.

You are loved beyond reason by the God who created and claims you.
Not because you made a choice.
Not because you do more good things than bad.
Not because you said the prayer of confession this morning.
You are forgiven because God extends grace.

You are saved because the work of Christ was done in his living, dying and rising.
That is what we will proclaim at table this morning.
That is what we proclaim when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit remembering that, from the moment we say “Yes, thank you” to God’s love – we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

And how can you know this to be true… when you have left this place , this sanctuary?

You’ll feel it in your guts.
You’ll feel it in your guts every time you see someone bowed under the weight of grief…

You’ll experience it in your splagchna, as you hear of injustice carried out and especially when injustice is done in the name of the very One who embodied justice.

That roar of righteous anger and compassion is all the evidence you need that Christ has saved you –  and thus is saving the world –  from a life lived for self, chasing earthly treasures.

That, my dear ones, is my prayer for you and for me today…
That our eyes would be open and our guts be gripped by the depth of need we see in this world. And that the Light of the World would shine brightly in our response.