Of Kings and Kingdoms

This week’s reading takes us further into Jesus’ trial and conviction. We ended last week with a frustrated Pilate, annoyed over Jesus’ non-response to his questions, and wondering “What is truth.  

You may recall that He then went to the jewish leaders and offered them an opportunity to release Jesus, given the Passover custom.  Instead they called for the release of Barabbas, the bandit.

Listen now for the Word of God from John 19:1-16a

John has been setting up this trial for a while. The scene has shifted several times between the front lawn to the Pilate’s quarters, and finally to the judge’s seat on the Stone Pavement

The key players remain the same:
Jesus, the religious leaders, and Pilate.  

And their desires remain the same:
Pilate always needs to keep Jerusalem under control, but especially during the Passover festival.  There would be no unrest on his watch, no uprisings, and therefore no over-the-top responses that might draw negative attention from Rome. If that meant appeasing these religious men, one more death on his record wouldn’t bother him.

The chief priests and their police are hoping for essentially the same outcome, a peaceful passover that doesn’t draw the attention of the Empire. Jesus and his crowds and their excitement over this person they saw as a Messiah, that was a problem. They could nip it in the bud, so to speak, and even do so with the help of the Empire. As Caiaphas said, better one man than a whole population…

What about Jesus?  What did he desire?

From his prayer in the garden, we know that he didn’t WANT to die. And that he DID desire to do exactly as God willed, to complete his mission here on earth. To bear witness to the truth of who God is, and the love and mercy God offers to all of creation, in particular to humankind.

We know that Jesus came to offer life, forgiveness, reconciliation.

But as John tells us in the very beginning of his gospel (1:10-11) Jesus was in the world,and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The Light of the World stepped into our darkness -darkness of humanity’s own making! – and we couldn’t recognize or accept the gift.

We humans are intrigued by, often driven by, power
Who has it, how to get it, how to protect it.

We are intrigued by our location relative to the power…
We learn – sometimes through stern words, sometimes through swift action, exactly where we stand and what we are allowed to do with our power and influence.
Or lack thereof  

There are a lot of power dynamics at play in this passage.

Where Luke and Matthew recount many of Jesus’ teachings about God’s Kingdom, John does not.  This extended trial narrative is really the one time we get a heavy dose of references to Kings and Kingdoms. It starts in one of the earlier scenes, in chapter 18.  

Pilate asks Jesus directly,  “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus wants to know… does Pilate see this himself?  Or did someone bear witness to him, explaining Jesus’ identity?

Pilate’s response was to make clear that he was primarily interested in what Jesus had done to be handed over as a criminal, as apparently his crime warranted death. Remember Jesus’ answer?

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

The leaders make clear that they do not want Jesus released, and so Pilate begins the torture that Jesus will endure until his death with flogging, mocking. That’s definitely Pilate, wielding his power.

But when he marches Jesus back outside to the religious leaders, Pilate’s intentions are less clear.

Does he mean to mock the Jewish people by presenting Jesus again as king (having already referred to him as their king when he offered them Barabbas)?

Or does he mean to show that such a pathetic creature as Jesus could not possibly be a threat? Thus reminding the Jewish people how insignificant a threat they appear to Rome?

It’s not clear in John’s telling.
Perhaps both.
Perhaps something altogether different.

What IS clear is the narrative irony in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as precisely the sort of king he is.

Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (to which the scourging and slapping here may allude), Jesus is the vulnerable embodiment of God’s love for a dark, broken world.  A world in which Pilate and the religious authorities and their soldiers and police become the representatives par excellence of that darkness and brokenness.

Jesus is declared king from the earliest chapters of all the Gospels, though the word used most often is Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. That he will be crucified is an utter redefinition of what this means, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” as Paul would write to the Corinthians.

As Jesus told Pilate, his is a kingdom not from here.

Then, when the chief priests tell Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he seems to be taken aback. Enough, at least, to go back inside to ask Jesus “Where are you from?”

Jesus doesn’t respond.
He might have said Nazareth… or Judea
He might have recounted his genealogical origins.
But he chose to offer no answer.

Pilate was not amused, after all, no one refuses to speak to the governor.

Can’t you just see it?  Pilate, flustered and angry.
Perhaps going red in the face

If he’d had a smart phone, he might have sent out a tweet-storm

Don’t you know who I am?  Don’t you know how much power I have??

And I wonder if, in that white hot rage, Pilate got quiet.
And  reminded his prisoner in a dangerously quiet hiss

Look, King from Nowhere I don’t care who’s son you are.
I have the power to release you… whether those weak and fearful Jews outside want me to or not.
I have the power to crucify you.
I have power to decide if you live or die.

How strange it must have been for him when this ordinary man,
who was, indeed, the son of God,
the earthly embodiment of the God who is, who was and ever will be

How strange it must have been for Pilate when the man standing in front of him in a crown of thorns made clear where the power truly resided.

You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

Jesus’ is kingdom not from here.
And his is a power not of this earth.

And this trial?  It is SO not about Jesus and his crimes.
John has been setting this up – setting us up – from the very beginning.

Pilate thinks he is judge and jury, and even physically places himself on the judge’s seat.  But in John’s gospel, judgment is what individuals bring upon themselves as they respond to Jesus as a revelation of God.

Commentator Karoline Lewis says it this way…
“God does not judge or condemn, and neither does Jesus. Rather, judgment is the result of a lack of recognition of who Jesus is.” Judgment, then, is connected closely to the themes of witness and testimony in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The trial narrative puts witness and judgement front and center  “in this critical moment for Jesus, the disciples, the Jewish leaders, Pilate and all who witness the last event of the incarnation. Everyone is on trial and in jeopardy of (NOT) recognizing who Jesus is.”

When Jesus states that the one who handed him over is guilty of the greater sin, we might jump quickly to the idea that he means Judas. Or perhaps Caiaphas, or the temple police…

But Jesus isn’t talking about the actions being taken, so much as what is going on in the heart.  

The word sin here is calling attention to what is truly at risk.
What truly matters for Jesus’ trial: Jesus is not the one on trial.  

It is those who sit in the audience.
Those who sit on the witness stands
Those who read and hear this gospel account and hear its truth.

Do they… do WE… hear and believe?
How do we respond?
When Pilate says, Here is your King how do we respond?

I can’t help but think back to the days when the people of Israel first asked God for a King. When they had determined that the prophets and judges just weren’t enough.
As if God as King were not enough…

Now, here is their King.
Their Christ.
Their Messiah

And the leaders of the Temple choose the Emperor.
As if God as King is still not enough

They handed God in the person of Jesus over to Pilate
And did you notice that in that moment, they were standing outside.
Literally, outside in the courtyard, because John wants us to see that they have not entered through the door.   

They are far away from the presence of the very God who has come to save them
From oppression
From injustice
From themselves.

God has not abandoned them,
But they do not hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow
They are blind and not willing to see the one is the very door through which they need to walk.  

And that is the very definition of the sin Jesus came to resolve.

His is the ministry of reconciliation, the end the separation between God  and the world that God loves to much

He came to reconnect our hearts to God’s so that we might know more fully, more completely the power of the love that has been implanted deeply within us from the beginning. 

The power to love deeply and fiercely is the power that can change the world.
Power like that requires vigilance…

Young Peter Parker learns very quickly as he explores his new identity as Spiderman that with great power comes great responsibility

Oh, we humans get all twisted up, to be sure.

See, if we have the power to love, we also have the power to withhold that love
To turn it into personal power,
To Manipulate others .
We have the power to set people free…
or to crucify them

We can easily see that twisted power in Pilate. But we don’t have to look that far away In time or in geography for examples.

We still have the power to free others… or to crucify them
We have the power to bully – physically or emotionally;
We withhold information or affection
We threaten to leave relationships
or stop sharing much-needed resources
We are more than capable of robbing others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity;

We have the power to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams.
But we also have the power to protect and serve;
to heal; to build others up,
to strengthen their self-esteem;
to feed others’ hopes and dreams.
We have the power to heal one another’s wounds
To bind up one another’s broken hearts

God has given you that power.
God has entrusted all of us with that power.

The question is, how will we use it?
Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self?
Or, might we pool our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us?

Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others?
Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life,
or will we—like Jesus—use our power to offer new and abundant life to others?

Because that right there?  That is the powerful sort of love that can most surely change the world.


Hosannas & Horrors

Readng 1: The Triumphal Entry John 12:12-27

And now we turn to our second reading.  The scene shifts dramatically.

The trial is complete.  Pilate has determined, with the approval of the leaders of the temple, that Jesus indeed must die. He has been flogged and mocked as a king in rags. He is wearing a crown of thorns. And the time has come.

Reading 2 : The Crucified Messiah John 19:16b-22

This Sunday is called Palm Sunday, for obvious reasons.  But over the past several years, many churches have begun to broaden the emphasis of this first day of Holy Week. Because fewer people attend mid-week opportunities to worship, it is possible for us to skip directly from today’s noisy, palm-waving, excitement to the joyous celebration of Resurrection Sunday.

That is one reason I have appreciated the opportunity our lectionary offered this year… to walk a little more slowly through John’s description of Jesus’ trial. And the opportunity to spend some time in both of these passages this morning, even though it feels a little like time travel

The reality is that the events of this final week of Jesus’ earthly life bring greater depth to our understanding of who Jesus is, both as the Son of God and the Son of Man.

In the mature church, all these centuries later, his suffering has become foundational to our Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ.  But in the Jewish tradition, from which his earliest followers and the earliest congregations arise, messiahs do not get crucified. And so, what they see in Jesus is not what was expected…

They are looking for a king like David.  Or at the very least, a prophet like Moses. Someone who brings about or signals an obvious, maybe even world-ending in-breaking of God’s presence on earth.

All of that sounds nothing like a criminal, definitely not one who is executed by the state. Really, it’s no wonder that the religious leaders were skeptical. Or afraid. After all, if God started moving right there in Jerusalem, in an obvious or world-ending kind of way – their skin was on the line.

But the people who had little to lose… the people whose lives were at risk all the time, who had little influence and even less power, they were waiting and watching. With eyes and hearts wide open.

The people who greeted Jesus with palms… they had heard stories.
Stories about signs and wonders.
Stories about healings.
Stories about hungry people being fed.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

This man was not like the other rabbis.  He didn’t seem a lot like David, but maybe that was ok.  After all, these folks were not being helped by Pilate. They needed something closer to a prophet than a king.

They were at the back gate of Jerusalem when Jesus arrived.  Pilate’s folks were at the main gate. He had apparently arranged for a parade that would open the Passover festival, but also celebrate his glory as a military leader and representative of the Empire. It was a handy excuse for a parade, and a reminder of who was in power.

Despite our reenactments of the day with children and choir members, waving their palm fronds in liturgical parades, Jesus’ entry wasn’t technically a parade.  Jesus walked in the gate and found himself surrounded by people who had heard the stories and wanted to see who he was, what he was about.  

He walked in and found himself a donkey to ride. Not a war horse, as Pilate might have chosen, but a humble, peaceful donkey.

Jesus walked in through the back gate and made a claim that both launched a movement and sealed his fate. Essentially, he marched himself straight to the cross to die.
Not out of hubris, arrogance… but obedience.  

This fully divine human might have done a billion other things, but he chose to stay on mission. He marched in there like a king… a king not of this world.

As if to say, “Yes, I am your King- your Lord.”
And in me, The Lord your God, “I am” remains with you
Remains for you.

I don’t know if his followers fully understood the scope of what Jesus was about to do. I don’t know if they comprehended what Jesus meant when he decided to march himself straight to the Cross to die. Did they truly get it when he told them that a grain of wheat needs to fall to the ground?

They may not have, certainly not right in the moment, but we should. After thousands of years, we should understand what Jesus was after, shouldn’t we?

Jesus marched for the sake of those who had their backs against the wall.

Jesus marched right into danger and death for those he spoke to, for those he spoke about about in the sermon on the mount. Those he said were worthy of honor:
the poor, those who mourn,
the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
the merciful, the pure in heart,
the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

Jesus marched right into Jerusalem for all those who would be reviled and persecuted and for those who would be be victims of evil lies and accusations because of their association with Jesus.

With the church being birthed in an empire, it’s easy to see why early Christians would have needed to  work hard to make sense of their expectations of Jesus, even as they found their way into being a community of faith… a community built on the teachings of this humble and obedient Jesus:
The messiah-King who died on a cross.

This origin story, with its roots in utter political failure, seems like the antithesis of a traditional messiah-king.  But perhaps not…

Jesus is the promised heir of the Davidic covenant, as Matthew helps us see in the genealogy that begins his gospel telling. But to fully grasp the way Jesus comes to save, not just reign, we have to also look at the covenant put in place by God through Moses while the Hebrew people moved through the wilderness.  

The Ten Commandments and then the Torah were given as gifts to guide the people in right relationship with God and with one another. As the fulfillment of the law (the Torah), Jesus becomes the means of atonement – the means of returning humankind to right relationship.
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

He doesn’t accomplish this by using his power to come down from the cross and live as an earthly king in royal splendor.  Instead, Jesus remains on the cross to become the ultimate redeeming sacrifice, removing all that would separate us from God.
Not just in his day,
not only for a particular generation,
but for all people and for all time.  

This Jesus was the King who came to the world.
To love the world
To save the world
The whole world.

It seems crazy that the very ones he came to save would have rejected him.  Especially in hindsight… which is always 20/20, right?

But I wonder, what kept more of them, especially those who should have been expert Messiah hunters, from seeing Jesus?  Really seeing and understanding who he was?

After all, even random Greeks came asking, after simply hearing stories,  if they might see Jesus.

I was recently listening to RadioLab, which you can catch on our NPR station.  The hosts of this show use storytelling and all kinds of music and sounds to help us not-sciencey people understand some pretty complex stuff.

This particular episode was about Rainbows  (I’m going to mangle the description and details a bit, since I’m going by memory, but you can listen for yourself here.)

They were curious about how different creatures saw color, and they used rainbows to explore the question “what animal would be the champion rainbow viewer?”

It turns out that many creatures have eyes similar to ours that use cones and rods to process the light as it bounces around the objects in the world… including the droplets of water that refract the light into what we see as rainbows.

We have 3 color receptor cones… red orange yellow. But because those three colors blend, we see lots of gradients between, thus ROYGBIV.

Now- RadioLab used music to help listeners imagine the what that might sound like.  I don’t have access to a 300-person choir, but our organ can help… <full clear chord>

If you walked your dog and both looked toward a rainbow, the dog would see a diminished rainbow. None of the reds… just the blue-violet and yellows.  <diminished chord>

But some birds, like sparrows, have 2-3 times the number of cones in their eyes.  Imagine looking up to see an incredible array of reds beyond ours, purples at the other end and lots of variations in between.   <adding augmentation and depth to the chord>

Now – There is a particular species of shrimp – the mantis shrimp – that actually has 100s of cones.  Right… crazy bulgy eyes on this critter that is a really big shrimp.

You would think that would mean they could distinguish between thousands of colors… like all the colors of paint in the Sherwin Williams display… The Hallelujah Chorus of rainbows <huge glorious chord>

That Rainbow that would be crazy amazing… But that turns out NOT to be the case. They have the cone capacity to see all those colors, but not processing power… their minds cannot conceive the colors. So mantis shrimp can probably see a rainbow, but not in a way that would register it in an orderly, harmonious, full spectrum.  Just a bunch of random colors, some that excite them. Some that are frightening.

When people looked at Jesus, some of them really saw him.
They saw all the colors:
all the beauty of miracles and signs,
all the glory of God,
the fullness of this invitation to experience grace upon grace,
and they wanted to see more.

They saw it, and they wanted others to see it, too.
They bore witness to the beauty,
to the truth, to the life
to the LIGHT they saw in Jesus.

They told others, offering the same invitation they had heard

When they gathered at the back gate, they came and saw their messiah
They waved and shouted “Hosanna – Save us!”
“You are the one – Praise and honor to the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  

But then, there were others.
The ones whose hearts were not receptive,
whose minds just could not conceive what their eyes were seeing.
Some people couldn’t see God in the man
They saw the same signs and wonders, but not the invitation
They saw a threat.
They saw trouble.

Perhaps because most of us humans are so much more comfortable with black and white.
With Kings who reign as we expect.
Messiahs who don’t die.
Rules that are clear.
A God who loves and forgives (or not) based on what we deserve.

This was true when Jesus walked on this earth physically, and I daresay it is true today.

So often the story of Holy Week gets distilled down to the green of the palms and the red of Christ’s spilled blood.
In doing so, we lose sight of the fullness of the gospel.
The fullness of God in human form.
Who came to save the world and then to send us to continue the work.

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus
to turn water to wine, to feed thousands on scraps
to raise Lazarus from the dead,
to bring sight to the blind

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus to bring us into relationship with God when we do not deserve it,
To offer grace upon grace,
To impart the Holy Spirit
To bring us into the very work he was about:
Loving the world.
The whole world.

What Pilate couldn’t see in his mocking
What the Spiritual leaders couldn’t see in their embarrassment
was the truth behind the sign on Jesus’ cross.
He WAS the King of the Jews

And his story would be told by the Jews who spoke Hebrew,
the Gentiles who spoke Greek,
and the Romans who spoke Latin.
They would go on to tell story of his life, his ministry, his death,
and in due time, the story of his rising.

And I suppose that is what John wants us to see
In the palms,
In the garden,
In the anointing,
In the denials,
In the washing of feet and the breaking of bread,
In the mockery of a trial,
And yes, even on the cross,

God was not simply present, but at work.
God was making a way for us to see ALL that the Light of the World has to offer.

May we see what the people at the back gate  saw
when they Hosanna!  All glory and honor to the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
May we see the the Messiah who would save them.
And the rest of us
In the fullness of his glory.

Oh that we would see Jesus, indeed.  


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?

A Lesson in Love

It’s not quite time for passover.  We’re at something like the night before the day before the day of preparation for passover…but it’s getting close. Kind of like Christmas Eve-Eve.  

And beyond the calendar, Jesus knows what is coming.  And not just in that fully God omniscient kind of way. The fully human Jesus knows that when he raised Lazarus from the dead, the events leading to his death had been set in motion.

The end of chapter 12 tells us that many of the Jews who had come to Bethsaida to mourn alongside Mary saw and heard what Jesus did, and they believed. But others of them went to the Pharisees and told them what happened. This led to a council among the the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked what they should do in light of all the signs Jesus was performing.

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, basically  “here is the reality… it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

John tells us that from that day on, they planned to put Jesus to death. They only half-expected him to come to Jerusalem for the passover festival.  But they gave orders anyway… that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

You might imagine then, that there was a strange tension around the temple this passover season.  That people might have been on edge.

Certainly, those who had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah would have been worried for him. And the leaders in the temple were so concerned about the numbers of people turning to follow Jesus that they even plotted to kill Lazarus.

But Jesus came to Jerusalem anyway. And he and the twelve found a place to stay, to eat and rest. And so here we are…

John 13:1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot,  to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

They were together, eating, enjoying one another’s company…And right smack in the middle of the meal, out of nowhere it seems, Jesus stood up. Then he did one of the most baffling things one could imagine.

That’s saying something when you consider what Jesus has been doing and teaching and saying… But what John describes here is way outside of normal customs.

Generally speaking, people would wash their own feet as they entered a home. The host would put out a basin of water as a mark of hospitality, kind of a liquid welcome mat… So that travelers would be refreshed as they enjoyed a meal or drink.

One mention of the custom in scriptures comes in Genesis 18, when Abraham offers his divine guests a basin to wash in while he and Sarah gather up something to eat.

Offering the basin in the middle of a meal might have been awkward, but the timing here really isn’t the issue. See if a household was large and had means, they might bring in a slave  to wash a visitor’s feet. And most often this would be a female slave.

But a free person – like Jesus – would almost never wash the feet of another free person – like the disciples.

With one exception… someone might voluntarily offer.  And this act of service would be understood as an act of devotion, of humility. Because the person washing was taking on the role of a slave.

And right there, in the middle of the meal… that is what Jesus did.

Trust me when I say this action is no less a sign than any of the healings or feedings or other wonders the disciples had witnessed.

This is their rabbi
Their teacher and leader
They have heard and thought and even said aloud that he is their Lord.
That he is the Son of Man, the One Sent From God.  

And, as Paul would capture so beautifully in these hymnic words to the church in Philippi…

Jesus – though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave…

Describing this particular night, John captured it this way…
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet

Taking on the form of a slave.

But why? John says it was all for love… Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.

It’s hard to render Greek verb tenses well in English, But John is saying that – Jesus’ love for his own  – these men and all who truly believe in this earthly realm – Jesus’ love for his own was there from the very, very beginning and will remain until the very end.

On this particular night, Jesus embodies the extraordinary love of God by laying aside his robe and taking up his towel.

It is no wonder that Peter is aghast.
How can he allow this?
How could he possibly be worthy of this kind of honor?
How could any of them be worthy of this kind of love?

How could any of us?  

I mean, there’s grace… of course.
But even with that, my human heart can only stretch so far…

Surely there are limits. Right?
Aren’t there some sins that are just too big?
Some evil that is too, well, EVIL for grace and forgiveness?

And here’s where things in this story start to feel complicated for me.

When Peter tries to stop Jesus, we get into another one of those 3-D conversations that happen on 2 different planes. If we stick to the social level, Peter is mostly right. It’s much more appropriate for the pupil to offer this kind of devotion to the teacher, not vice versa.

If one of them ought to be washing the other’s feet, it should be Peter kneeling down. But Jesus, as usual, isn’t concerned with custom.

He is thinking and acting on a more spiritual plane. He is talking about cleansing in a way that goes far beyond dusty sandals. When he says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,”  John has Jesus using a unique verb- not the one Peter uses.

Jesus uses the same word for wash that he used in his instructions to the man born blind. To go cleanse himself in the pool of Siloam.

This is the sort of cleansing that allows for new vision.
The sort of cleansing that allows for recognition of Christ’s divinity.
That allows for belief, for becoming a true disciple, a sheep in the fold of the Good Shepherd. This is the kind of cleansing that invites and makes space for  one to be in relationship with God,
And the sort that exposes those who hang back, who do not believe, who cannot see Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus is cleansing them… all of 12 of them.
Jesus washed all of their feet, every last man in the room.
Including Peter, who would deny knowing Jesus.
And including Judas, who would betray Jesus to those seeking to kill him.

Jesus loved them so much, God so desires to be in relationship with us, that even knowing that Judas was beyond his reach, Jesus knelt down anyway.
And in the cleansing, he made a way possible.

I imagine, as he came to each of these men, Jesus remembered when and where they became followers.  They had shared meals at so many tables, they had slept out under the stars and in the homes of extended families.  They now had years of stories and memories and many many miles in common.

And, I suspect that Jesus was the only one who had any idea that Judas was part of the plot against him.  

After all, Judas had joined the group with the same interest and passion, with the same hope that this rabbi was a prophet, or perhaps even more. They had all come seeking something that Jesus had to offer.

We like to think we could have spotted Judas, done something to warn or protect Jesus. We tend also to believe that we would have walked on water, if given the invitation that was wasted on Peter.

After all, hindsight gives us a lot of confidence, But I’m not so sure that our vision is so keen in real time.  

As I read and reread this passage over the last week, I couldn’t shake the memory of the tragic events at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.  I can’t believe it will be three years this summer from that evening that Dylann Roof walked into the church during an evening Prayer Service.

This group of people who loved one another, led by a vibrant young preacher, made space for him. They offered him what they had that evening… a warm welcome, an opportunity for fellowship, prayers…

They may have wondered why a young white man joined them, at this historically black church,  but I doubt any of them had an inkling of the evil in his heart.  They had no idea that they would betray that trust

And in their willingness to welcome the stranger, Jesus was in the room with them.  Right there alongside the evil that made itself painfully visible all too soon. And Jesus was in the courtroom as family members spoke, not in terms of vengeance or hatred, but forgiveness.  

I don’t know what to do with this truth…
the truth that Jesus is so willing to be in the presence of evil
And to offer cleansing grace and love to all…
even in the face of danger
even in the face of death

Everything within me moves toward preservation…
Making sure that I am safe, as well as those I love.

In this particular moment in history, I wonder…
How do we love our neighbors openly, beautifully, selflessly?

If I understand Jesus correctly, we are to look to his example.

14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Loving one another requires us to serve one another. No matter who we are or where we think we stack up in the great pecking order of life. Loving one another requires us to set all that aside.

And, even beyond setting aside our privilege and station, we are to set aside our very lives.

If we go back to what Paul wrote to the Philippians, we are reminded of what that looks like. Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

It’s a hard lesson, this one…
I mean, it’s one thing to take up our towels and follow Jesus, but picking up the cross?
That’s whole ‘nother, way bigger ask.  

But guys, this goes way beyond our individual human lives. This is about our life together, our calling as the church to be the Body of Christ. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body.  This is true In every time and in every place in the world, and therefore the Church must strive to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):

What does that look like in 21st century America?  

Well, in addition to all the polity stuff, our Book of Order lays out a beautiful vision of who we are together. The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation.

The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

Don’t you want to be part of that church?  Living as a community of faith, hope and love? So would an awful lot of other people, which is why it goes on to say

The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

Why? Because God so loved the world.
Jesus IS God’s unending, ineffable love for you and for me, for all of us.
Love that bent down to wash the feet of his followers
Love that cried at the death of his friend
Love that gave sight to the blind
Love that saw the truth in a woman’s story
Love that offered wine at a wedding
Love that took on flesh and lived among us.
Love that was there in the beginning
Love that will be there when time is no more.

That is the love we have been given.
That is the love we are to give away.
Even if it costs us our lives.

That is the lesson.

I am the Resurrection

Today’s passage is another long one… most of what we consider chapter 11 of John’s gospel.

It is another description of a sign- a miracle that Jesus performs, bringing the presence and glory of God into full view.

We haven’t talked much about the way John structures the telling of these stories, but the story in chapter 9 – the healing of the man who was born blind that we looked at last week- that gives us a great example of the pattern he develops.

First, a sign.   Like the man’s healing. Then a dialogue – a conversation in which people talk or ask about what happened. And finally a discourse – which is basically a sermon… Jesus explains what has happened and why.

Here in chapter 11, John reverses the order.

This particular event is the last of the signs Jesus performs. And for the Jewish leaders, it is the last straw.  

In John’s telling, this event is the catalyst, setting in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion

So John wants us to pay attention to this sign… so that we might better understand what is coming. Thus the dialogue and discourse come first, as John carefully sets the scene.

Listen for the Word of God….

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus… of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble,  because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”

13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (NRSV)


It’s an all too familiar story, really, the story of waiting at the bedside of a dear one, hoping against hope…

The story of crying out in prayer – sometimes literally crying out – sometimes silently but desperately bargaining and begging… but definitely calling out to the Lord…

I would venture to say that we’ve all been there in one way or another, saying to the Lord,
The one I love is sick… The one you love is sick.
You can change that right now!
Please… change it right now…

I can only imagine that sense of urgency and hope
that desire to see Jesus walk through the door….
It would have been even more acute for Mary and Martha…

Because he literally COULD walk through their door.

They know him well, they know for real that Jesus loves them, in the same way that you and I know that our friends love us. And they know for a fact that Jesus loves their brother Lazarus.

They know all that Jesus has done and is capable of…

Don’t think for a minute they haven’t been following all that Jesus has been up to, hearing about all the signs and miracles and teachings, both near and far.

So Mary and Martha know and believe that he could heal Lazarus.
They believe that Jesus would want wholeness for Lazarus.
That’s why they sent for him.

And waited.

But Jesus doesn’t come rushing to Bethany.  Not right away.  

And the one they love
The one Jesus loves.
He died.

The women would have done the work of preparation, mixing the spices and oils, binding his body so that as his body returned to dust, his bones would remain together.

And then he was placed in the tomb, a stone covering its opening.

I know… Our hearts want to jump right on ahead to those last couple of verses, don’t they? But we need to sit with this a bit.
Because Mary and Martha… they didn’t know what was coming.
Not for them, not for Lazarus
And certainly not for Jesus in just a few days’ time.

As far as they knew, the next time they would see Lazarus would be at the Day of Resurrection. This is when all the dead would rise as if from sleep, and families would be reunited, the living and those living again.

It was a common belief among the Jews of Jesus’ time that the coming of the Messiah would hasten the Day of Resurrection. This was one of many reasons they were on the lookout for the Son of God.  

And so… as we do to this day, Mary and Martha prepared and buried their loved ones, including Lazarus, looking forward to that day of reunion.  

But until then…  they would grieve.   

Just as surely as we know the pain of wishing, hoping and praying in the midst of suffering, we know the many forms grief takes.

Sometimes it looks like Martha…
taking care of the details, working our way through the day,
holding it together, at least on the outside.

Sometimes it looks more like Mary…
Perhaps more together internally than it appears from the outside. Needing to express the pain and sorrow physically through tears… tears that come unbidden and can seem unending.

Sometimes it helps to grieve in community… Surrounded by and surrounding others…hearing from those who have walked the journey before, drawing strength from those hurting along with us…

Certainly, we can understand how each of the sisters would have come to Jesus, saying
“If only… ”
“If only you had come.”
“It didn’t have to be this way”

Angry, sad, disappointed.
Matter of fact
Shattered and weeping.

What must have happened in Martha’s heart as she and Jesus spoke?

At first… Perhaps she heard from him the same mostly empty comfort others had offered… Lazarus would rise.  

Of course he would.
Eventually. Yes.
As would she… and all those they’d already mourned in their lives.

Perhaps she even rolled her eyes a bit at this rabbi she still loved, even though he was 4 days late.

And then perhaps she looked a little deeper into his eyes, seeing something she’d missed before as he answered again.

No… it doesn’t have to be this way.
That is why I am here.
I am the resurrection. And the life.

This was a promise.
Not for someday. Some for distant unknown future.

This was a promise for today.
If she but believed.

And she did believe, didn’t she?
Didn’t she send word for him, knowing that he could heal her brother?
Didn’t she just tell him that he could have prevented this death?
This tearing apart of her heart, of Mary’s heart?
Didn’t she just…

She did.
She believed.
She said it aloud

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

And in the saying, she believed it more fully, more deeply.

And she believed enough for Mary.
Mary who was shattered.  Bereft.  Unable to stop crying.
Mary, who was surrounded by mourners.
Mary, whose tears called forth tears from Jesus…

As if carried on a wave of those tears, Jesus knew it was time.
They went to the tomb.
They removed the stone.

And the shepherd who knows his sheep by name, called to the dead man
Lazarus…   Come Out!

How a dead man could hear?  I don’t know.
I mean… this is a miracle…

But I know this: the sheep know their master’s voice.
And they go in and come out at his bidding.

Lazarus heard his name
Lazarus came out.
Lazarus was alive.  

Death was and is real.
All too real.

Death is real for the couple looking at the sonogram as the doctor tells them that their long-awaited baby’s heart is no longer beating.

Death is real for the 95-year-old who dies in his favorite comfy chair watching Wheel of Fortune…

Death is real for the soldier who watches as the humvee in front of him rolls over an explosive that they never saw, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.

Death is real for the high school freshman gunned down at school on a random Wednesday afternoon.

Death was real for Lazarus.
Death is real for us.  

But Death was not and death is not final.

Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Because The Word Made Flesh is also the Resurrection.  And the LIFE
Lazarus came out to show us that life is real.

Life beyond what we imagine
Life beyond what we could earn
Life that is available to us as we abide,
As we remain and rest in relationship with God.

And that life, when we unbind it, is powerful.
Powerful enough to bring change to the world
Powerful enough to heal
To forgive
To weep with those who weep
To rejoice with those who rejoice

This is LIFE that is powerful enough to tear down systems and structures that perpetuate injustice

Life that is ready to be unbound and released to bear witness to the love and glory of God.

Life that is grace and reveals grace upon grace

This is life that will be lost and regained, unbound and released again.
Because yes… yes… the resurrection of Lazarus is a preview…
a sneak peak o
f what is to come in the days to come.

The tomb won’t be able to hold Jesus any more than it could hold Lazarus once Jesus showed up. In Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, death has met its match.

Now, as we gather this morning, I have to confess:
Too much of the time it does not feel like death has been defeated.

Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in pain and ask our agonizing questions — about all of life’s woes… job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, gun violence, war and terrorism — all of the ways that death’s shadow is cast across our lives.

And yet, even as we cry out of the depths, we live and wait in hope.
And that hope is what enables us to see that the only way is through…
Through the days of waiting and wondering
Through the the valley of the shadow…
Through the grief

You know, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite worship services of the year.  But it’s also really hard.  In no small part because I have come to love each of you.   

I know that in life and death we belong to God.  I believe that with all my heart.
But as I place that ashes on your foreheads and repeat those words:
 that we are dust and to dust we will return,
the truth of our mortality…
well… it’s hard..

Because I know chances are good that some of us won’t be here next time Ash Wed rolls around. I suspect that between now and then we will gather for a funeral.

And I don’t like that…

I was talking about this truth with another pastor friend this week.  And it dawned on me that I would not be able to make it through imposition of ashes were it not for what comes next in our worship.  If it were not for the other items on the table next to the ashes.

I don’t think I could make it without having the table set for communion.
Without the opportunity to proclaim not only Jesus’ death, but his resurrection
Without a time in which we claim together the promise of his return and cry out Come Lord Jesus!

In the eating of the bread of life and the drinking of the cup of salvation, we are nourished with the truth that humanity matters deeply to God

We remember that we are the ones Jesus loves,
the ones he weeps over,
the ones he comforts,
the ones he came to save.

Like Martha and Mary, we have learned that God rarely – if ever –  acts exactly when, where, or how we think God should act. But we continue to learn that God will act in God’s good time. And we can believe that death will not have the final word. The day of resurrection will come.

And like Lazarus, we are beloved, known by name.
We have come to know the shepherd’s voice, we can hear and respond to the call of life,
We can and must emerge from the tomb ready to bear witness to the vividness and power of resurrection and so that we might all live with unbound hearts.

We remember together that the world, life, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

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?

A Subtle Shift

Somewhere along the way, it happened. A subtle shift.

It must have been that gradual kind of subtle, because I don’t think I’d even have noticed it yesterday morning, if not for the dream.  A running dream.

Not the nightmare kind of running dream.  Lord knows, I have plenty of those that recur often enough.  Like the one that I couldn’t shake in 4th grade – we were on a field trip at a bizarre theme park, populated by famous trademark characters. For some reason, Little Sprout wanted to run away with us, which totally pissed off the Green Giant.  I would awaken in a cold sweat, having run as far and as fast as I could before being caught by the no-longer-Jolly giant.

Or the one that actually comes back once in a while during hurricane season, in which I am at a mall in a rainstorm. The lower floors begin to flood so badly that fish and other water creatures start swimming through the doors… including sharks.  Sharks that can shapeshift, grow legs, and run after you when you head up the stairs to escape.

The thing about these nightmares is that they always reflected the reality that I didn’t just dislike running, I loathed it. And always knew I was just awful at it.  In real life, I mean.

I was always the slowest.  Even when I was at my fittest, I was big and slow.  And it always felt like I was running through tar, or that my feet and legs were made of pliable lead.

This dream was different.

I met up with some friends who were at a park and we started jogging. And talking about life.  Running just happened to be the way we were moving through the world.  I was keeping up, but not sprinting magically ahead or taking half-mile strides (as happens in those crazy superhero dreams).  Running was somehow natural and nice.

And the weirdest part was that the next morning, after the usual awkward warm up part of my workout, I noticed that it wasn’t just in the dream.  Running was somehow natural and nice.  And it happened again day 2, post-dream.

Mind you, I am still slow. And still on the bigger side of average.  And I’m still liable to catch my toe on the edge of the sidewalk or dance awkwardly around the yappy dogs I encounter.

But there has been a subtle shift.

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.

God Sees (With) the Heart

Psalm 51:10-14

As you read last week with Jody… Samuel was called by God to be a prophet, to speak to and lead the people of Israel.  As a matter of fact, Samuel was last of the leaders in Israel we call judges

The Judges were a series of leaders who came after Joshua, who led after Moses. God used these women and men to unify the people, get them to repent, deal with the spiritual problems of the nation, and also deal with the physical threat.

They are sometimes military leaders who know how to mobilize the nation for war against an enemy, but their real power lies in their knowledge of the Torah and ability to adjudicate Jewish law. Like Deborah and Samson before him, Samuel was a combination of prophet, judge and warrior.

In his early years, Samuel would travel the land, adjudicating the law, and giving people advice. But as happens as we humans age, there came a time he just couldn’t do it all any more. His two sons, who were meant to take over for Samuel, they were corrupt and not surprisingly -unpopular with the people.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel realized that the series of wars they were engaged in with the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land weren’t going to end any time soon.  They thought maybe things would go better if they had the same kind of political ruler that the nations around them had.

So a delegation was dispatched to ask Samuel to anoint a king instead:
And the the people said [to Samuel] “Behold, you have grown old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations. And the thing was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel …” (1 Samuel, 8:5-7)

Samuel doesn’t want to do it, but God tells him to go ahead and find a king for the people.  I always imagine God saying to Samuel, something like “Yep. Bad idea. You know it, I know it, but they clearly need to see it for themselves…Let’s do it”

And so the  Time of Judges comes to a close.

Samuel functioned as a leader for 13 years, the last two of them co-leading with the first king of the Jewish people. That first king – whom Samuel grudgingly anointed- was named Saul. Saul was indeed a great warrior. And he unified the people. Saul made mostly good – but sometimes problematic – decisions.

Then he usurped Samuel’s priestly role. And he helped himself to some of the spoils of war, essentially disqualifying himself from the job. Samuel told Saul as much, but he wasn’t happy about it. So things are more than a little tense.

So to recap as we head into our passage for today (1 Samuel 16:1-13):
Israel wanted a king. God gave them one. Along with their king, Israel now has palace intrigue and a brewing violent conflict over succession.

When Saul became King there was an interesting mixed reaction. Saul himself tried to hide from all the attention, but Samuel was having none of that.  (1 Samuel 10:23-24; 26-27).

By all appearances Saul would be a great king – and he did have a good start. But those who knew him best – those who really knew him – they didn’t think so highly of him.

Yet, even when Saul failed miserably due to a lack of integrity and faithfulness, Samuel mourned the loss of his reign. But God knew it was time to move on and told Samuel as much.  God chose a new king and Samuel was sent to anoint him.

Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “I have provided for myself” Is more directly read as “I have seen” for myself a king. God has seen, has a close eye on, the King that God wants Samuel to anoint. And now Samuel must listen closely, because his human vision stops at the surface.

Kind of like our vision can be lacking as we look around us… I ran across an interesting story along these lines. It’s about a woman named Rita Belle and a man-  Richard Walters.  They met at a senior center, a mission in downtown Phoenix for the poor and homeless where Rita worked.

Richard was more reserved, but Rita was outgoing. She spent time talking with him, and they became friends. He had never married, didn’t have children, and was estranged from his brother. He told her he had no home and slept on the grounds of the senior center. Richard ate at the hospital and used a telephone there when needed.

What Rita couldn’t see when she looked at Richard… What Rita didn’t know… was that he was a retired engineer; an honors graduate of Purdue with a Masters degree; and a Marine. In time, Richard became ill.  Rita became his nurse and ultimately the executor of his estate.

Here’s the thing… it turns out that Richard Walters was wealthy.
Very Wealthy.

He left behind 4 million dollars, which was given to places like the senior center.

Among his few possessions was a radio. If you listen to NPR, you may have heard an announcement like this:
“Support for NPR comes from the estate of Richard Leroy Walters, whose life was enriched by NPR, and whose bequest seeks to encourage others to discover public radio.”

See, Mr. Walters left close to half a million dollars to NPR. But no-one, not even Rita, would have imagined it. The way someone appears doesn’t tell the whole story. We are sometimes taken in by the appearances of others.  

As author Agatha Christie once wrote, “The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask.”

When we judge by appearance, we can give credit to those who don’t deserve it, and we can fail to acknowledge those who deserve to be encouraged. Deciding who is worthy of our love and friendship based on outward appearances is an all-too-common problem for humans.

Pre-judging someone has a name – prejudice. We often think of prejudice as primarily about race, but we can find ourselves discriminating or facing exclusion based on gender, primary language or an accent, jewelry or headgear that expresses religious beliefs differing from ours, or body shape, age, or even the way we dress.

We know not it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but I do it anyway…
Anyone else in that boat with me?

Sometimes, we get to know someone just a little… and after learning one fact or hearing one story….we paint an entire picture of who we think they are…Never really seeing, much less getting to know, the real person within.

That’s not the way that God sees you.
That’s not the way that God sees me.
And that is very good news.

That’s also not the way that God saw David

God looks on the heart.
And God being a God of relationships, looks
with the heart.

God saw in David’s heart the makings of a king:
He was not the oldest
He was not the tallest or strongest
He was young and ruddy and the last person Samuel would have chosen, even if David had come through earlier in the parade of sons.

This is why God needed Samuel to stop mourning Saul and listen closely.

It was time to stop looking backwards, to the past…
God was ready to do a new thing. Again.

For Samuel to get this right, he was going to need to connect with God’s heart.
To hear God’s voice over his own internal dialogue

This required the prophet to do the same work we must do in our hearts.
To connect to our hearts to God’s and hear God’s voice more clearly,
We must cultivate the habits of confession…
Of confessing our awareness of our own habits and sin
Of confessing our earnest desire to clear away the clutter that threatens to separate us from God.

We must cultivate an attitude of prayer that comes from faith, not fear

We must cultivate a life of prayer that flows out of a deep trust in the God who created us, and who loves us best.

Because when we can open our hearts to God, leaving them fully open to God’s love and grace, then we can live fully into the people God made us to be

Our work is offering God open and honest confession, seeking to be free
God’s work is beautifully described in our Psalm reading for today

God creates in each of us a new heart
God puts in us a new and right Spirit
God does the work of renewal, renovation and restoration.
God brings us into relationship and brings us back… over and over again.  

We see this more clearly… more tangibly… in the descriptions we have been given in the gospels of the way Jesus lived and moved among people. Even after his reputation grew and crowds began to follow him or to come out to meet him in the villages and towns he visited, Jesus’ ministry was all about powerful encounters with individual men and women.

He would see or hear someone
He would call them out of the crowd
He would look them in the eye

Jesus could be so aggressively personal as to be invasive.  And… his personal interaction was never restricted by human societal expectations of which people a good Jewish rabbi should be around

He saw people.  

I’m sure the fully human side saw the lepers’ sores, the twisted forms of the paralytics and epileptics, the hard lines of pain etching into the faces of the women forced into difficult labor or selling their bodies to survive.

And, I would imagine, there was a part of him that recoiled, a fully human part of him that wanted to look away or pull back and look at the crowd as a sea of indistinguishable faces.

But the divine in him?
No, the divine in Jesus always looked beyond the outward appearance
Beyond the human reasons to turn away, to exclude and to deny

The divine heart that beat within Jesus Christ looked to each of their faces and then looked at their hearts, and he saw in every single one of them the heart of a beautiful and beloved child of his own father God.

He ate with them
Drank with them
Mourned and partied with them

Jesus saw their sorrows, their pain, their needs
He heard their desires
He gave them hope
He restored and renewed those broken hearts
He made a way for each of them to rejoin the community

He loved them.
In the same ineffable, undeniable, indefatigable way that you and I are loved.  

And then he commanded us to do likewise.
Doggone that Jesus.
He commanded us to do that very same thing.
That very hard, very personal thing.


Not theoretically, but tangibly
And profligately…
Regardless of what our neighbors look or smell or sound like.

But remember, it’s more than just the outward appearance…

What we think we know about someone can shape the way we see them, too. An article circulated a while back about an experiment that Canon – the camera manufacturers – conducted.

They wanted to explore the  power of perspective in portrait photography. So they enlisted the help of 6 photographers and asked them each to independently shoot portraits of a man named Michael.

But as in every experiment, there was a variable.  A twist: each photographer was told something different about Michael’s background.  The photographers were told that Michael was: a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, or a recovering alcoholic.

Meanwhile, Michael, an actor, did his best to take on some of  the personality of each character. Enough to make it believable.

They shot their photos in the same studio with the same props, but the six sittings produced radically different results.  The choices made by the photographers – poses, angles, lighting, even their interaction with Michael –  had at least as much impact on the images as the actor and his physical being.

They thought they knew who they were seeing in front of them, but that knowledge was incomplete. The photographers had just enough information to put Michael into a category or stereotype. Their decisions were based on a surface understanding of who he was, almost like a label.   

In a culture that would break us into demographic segments competing for resources and attention, power and influence, we are called to look beyond those outward labels, beyond the markers that separate US and THEM

We are called to look beyond
Left and Right
Blue and Red
Old and Young
Traditional and Emergent
North and South
Black and White
Right and Wrong

We who call ourselves Christians must live into this truth:
We are made in the image of God, who looked past the outward appearance to the heart.

We are made in the image of God in Christ, who humbled himself, setting aside a comfortable seat in power, and taking on the form of an infant, became vulnerable:
Became the target of ethnic cleansing
Became a refugee
Became a poor carpenter in a minority enclave

And he obediently modeled and taught the way of love that eventually meant his death at the hands of the Empire.

We are made in the image of God…
And we are made in the very human image of the Son of God…
Who felt the tug of a hand at the edge of his robe even while the crowd pressed in all around him
Who saw Zacchaeus up in the trees and joined the little tax collector for dinner
Who told the woman at the well every little detail about her life because he knew her heart was thirsty for living water

We are – each of us- image-bearers.
And we are – together as the church – the embodiment of Christ- the ultimate image of God.

Each and all of us are called to see more than skin deep, to look beyond the labels
We are called to see and restore and defend the dignity and humanity of each of God’s beloved children

And we are called to trust that sometimes, God will surprise us,
Pointing us to people we least expect
Speaking through those we would choose to ignore
Leading through those we would prefer not to follow

We are called to look beyond the outward appearance and using the hearts that God graciously, consistently and patiently cleans restores and renews within us,

We are commanded to follow in Christ’s way of love.


Old friend

I can’t remember why
or even when
not exactly

It has been so very long now…

More years have passed
than I even imagined I would live

Now more old
than old friends
after half a lifetime
creating lives, growing up
chasing dreams, making do

Almost forgetting
just how tightly
laughter and music
the energy of shared joy
can bind the hearts
of the young at play.

Was it because I moved?
And then you moved?

It has been so very long now…

And all that time
Like a loose thread in my pocket
that I only notice when it gets caught between coins
you have been along for the ride

Just there enough
that I knew you
after all these years

Just there enough
that the laughter and singing
come easily
and joy
can’t help but follow
after all these years

I can’t remember why
or even when
Not that it matters, old friend.