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Archive for June, 2020

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36.

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 9:35-10:1

Remember that time when Jesus wept?  He was so moved by the pain he saw in his grieving friends Mary and Martha that he cried.  And then he did something about it.  He raised their brother Lazarus to new life.  The gospel lesson we read today makes it clear that Jesus was often deeply moved when he saw people’s pain and struggle.  When he saw the crowds, it says, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

The English word compassion does not do justice to the Greek word that is used there.  The Greek word is much more powerful.  It means to be moved deep in one’s guts.  It’s similar to our English idea of the heart breaking, but an even closer equivalent might be to say he was torn inside.

The words translated “harassed” and “helpless” carry more of a punch, too.  Among the meanings I discovered for those words in Greek are dispirited, confused, scattered, aimless, bewildered, distraught, and distressed.  Jesus saw so much pain and lostness.  He could see the brokenness.  Many were sick or coping with disabilities.  Many were poor.  Food insecurity was a big problem in Jesus’ day.  They were at the mercy of forces they could not control, while the religious and political leaders, the shepherds who could have made a difference were preoccupied with securing and maintaining their own power.  Taxation, for example, fell heaviest on those who could least afford it.  What did they get for their tax money?  They got a king named Herod, the latest in the rapacious Herod family, who were not above murdering each other to get and maintain power.  Herod was a developer.  Their tax money went into Herod’s big, expensive building projects.  And they could not vote this man and his cronies out.

On top of that, their tax money paid for their own oppression.  It went to maintain the Roman Empire and the Roman army that was stationed everywhere.  Roman soldiers regularly strung people up on crosses to reinforce the message: don’t you dare dissent.  Don’t you dare get out of your place.  Don’t you dare resist.  They couldn’t vote these people out, either.

Think of what all this did to people’s souls, not to mention their bodies.  But many of the religious experts spent a lot of time finding fault with others who did not agree with them, or who could not practice the faith the way the experts said it must be practiced.  They did not ease people’s burdens.  They acted like “sin police.”  From almost the very beginning of his ministry, they were finding fault with Jesus.  One example is in the passage immediately before the one we read.  Instead of rejoicing when Jesus set a man free from a demonic spirit, these experts complained that Jesus must be doing this by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Lord, have mercy!

As Jesus gazed at all these shepherdless sheep, his grief echoed God’s grief in Ezekiel’s day when God’s people were being so poorly shepherded politically and spiritually.  Many were already scattered into exile in Babylon, and a second deportation to Babylon was on the way.

When God gazed on the wreckage of the community of God’s people, God was moved to the core, and God poured out blistering critiques of the nation’s leaders through the prophets, like the one we just heard in Ezekiel.  Here’s a sample:

“Thus says the Lord: you have not fed the sheep.  You have not healed the sick.  You have not bound up the injured.  You have not sought the lost and brought back the strayed.

“Instead you ruled with cruelty.  You led my people astray.

“Worst of all, you ate the sheep entrusted to your care!”

The pain of people today moves God to the core.  What must God be thinking as God surveys the flock now?  What, for example, must God be thinking about how the political and spiritual shepherds of our American flock are handling things now that we have the pandemic putting us into exile in our homes, on top of the usual struggles of life?  The current crises have pulled back a curtain so that we are forced to look at ugly realities in our life together as a nation and at wounds that remain unhealed.  Like scattered sheep without a shepherd, we Americans can’t seem to work together to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  We are doing stuff like fighting over wearing masks.  God has got to be shaking God’s head.

The critique God would deliver through Ezekiel today might sound something like this:

(more…)

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Picturing God

God is love. That is the central message of Trinity Sunday.

A Sermon on John 14:1-7, 15-21

The Ten Commandments warn against making images of God.  No image can do God justice because God is always so much more.  There is the danger that people will focus so much on these partial images of God that they think they understand God, and there’s nothing more they need to learn.

And yet, imagining and picturing things is often how our minds work.  As a child, I think I did picture God as an old man up in the sky.  Where did that come from?  I’m not sure, but it did make sense.  In order to be our creator and to be over everything, God must somehow be high above.  God must be old, because God has been around forever.  And people referred to God as he, so it was a picture of a man.  

One common way of picturing God is of a mighty king sitting on a high throne.  Often this king has a stern face, and he demands perfection from his subjects.  Their purpose is to serve and please him.  In medieval times, people elaborated on that picture and envisioned a great top-down chain of being with God at the top, down through angels, then humans, then animals, then plants, then non-living things at the bottom.  Sometimes they subdivided each level, so for example, humanity got ranked from highest to lowest.  Human kings were on top of humanity, and they saw themselves as God’s lieutenants.  Power and authority went from the top down.

But the picture of God that Jesus suggests in the Gospel of John is very different.  At the last supper Jesus talked long into the night preparing his disciples for what was coming with his death and resurrection.  From John 13 to 17, five whole chapters, Jesus talks in circles.  He makes the same points again and again in slightly different ways. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he repeats, and he also keeps talking about the relationship between himself, and the Father, and the Spirit, and his disciples.  He keeps talking about being with each other and in each other: I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

In the passage we read this morning, Jesus speaks of it in terms of a place: he will take us to that place to be with the Father, but also he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with us in this place.  That doesn’t sound top down, from king down to peon to me.  It sounds more like a family dwelling together.  It sounds more side by side.

It sounds more like the picture of the Holy Trinity that I sent out in the bulletin.  I will try to put it up here on the computer screen as well.  This painting is an icon, which is a picture that is meant to help people pray.  It was painted by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev around the year 1410.   To me, this is one of the most profound pictures about the nature of God in existence.

We see three figures around a table.  The Father is in gold on the left, the Son in blue is in the center, and the Spirit on the right is in green.  They are the same size, their clothes are similar, and their faces look alike.  Their eyes look gentle and humble.  They slightly bow their heads towards each other.  Christ and the Spirit turn towards the Father.  We could draw a perfect geometric circle around them.

There is a strong connection around this table, and even though the image appears still, something is definitely going on.  Something is moving.  What’s moving from one to all the others and back again is love.  This is an image of a living community.  This is a picture of communion.  This is a glimpse of what is going on in the very heart of God: love is alive and flowing among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, among Creator, Christ, and Spirit.  This is what Jesus is getting at when he repeats I am in my Father, and my Father is in me.  The very nature of God is loving community.

And it’s an open community.  Look at the icon again.  There is a place at the table, ready for someone else.  The three figures are all turned, open towards us as we look at them, and the Spirit’s hand is gesturing towards the empty place at the table.  Not only is there room at the table for us, but the triune God wants us there.

Notice that square hole in the table at the empty place.  There are remnants of glue in that spot indicating that at one time there may have been a mirror attached to the table so that people gazing at this painting would literally see themselves in the picture and at the table.  (See Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance. London: SPCK, 2016, p. 30.)

This is what the Trinity means for us: God’s very being is living, powerful, flowing love.  God is love. This love is so big and so active that it spills out.  This love is big enough to call the whole universe into being, and every single creature in it.  This love is big enough to cherish each and every one. 

Just like Jesus said, there is room for us in the picture, not down below God’s feet, but at the table with God.  The Trinity tells us this very basic truth:  God IS love.  The Triune God is the great source and generator of love.  The Trinity is the power of love.  We come from this love, we are healed and saved and sustained by this love, and we are cherished forever in this love.

Friends, there is room for you in this picture of love.  Your place in God’s love and at God’s table is there, ready for you.  Let God welcome you into the fellowship of the Trinity.

Join the Holy Trinity in welcoming others to the table.  The love of our three in one God is so great that there is always room for one more, and another, and another. 

Holy, holy, holy, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!  AMEN.

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Keep Breathing, Beloved

A Sermon on John 20:19-22, with allusions to Genesis 1:1-5 and 2:4b-8

 

Pentecost

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty blast of wind, as in the Pentecost story that we remembered earlier.  But more often, the Holy Spirit comes like a gentle breath, as in the gospel lesson we just read.

I don’t think Jesus’ disciples could have taken a mighty blast of the Spirit that night behind locked doors.  They had heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony that she had seen Jesus, but they were still traumatized.  They didn’t know what to make of what had happened on the cross two days earlier, and they were afraid that the authorities might be coming for them next.

What Jesus did that night was true to God’s character.  God always takes into account what is going on with God’s people, and comes to them in ways that fit the situation and address them where they are.  Jesus came quietly and stood among them, and the first thing out of his mouth was a word that they so badly needed to hear:  Peace. Sweet, sweet healing peace in the middle of turmoil within and without.  “Peace be with you” Jesus said, and before they had a chance to reply, he showed them his wounded hands and feet.  It truly was Jesus, and he wasn’t just a figment of their imagination.

“Peace be with you,” he said again, and then he added, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Jesus’ mission was now their mission.  They would love as he loved.  They would do as he did.

And then Jesus was silent.  All they could hear was the sound of his breathing.  Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It was so quiet and gentle and low-key, and yet this was nothing less than a new creation.  Just as God breathed over the face of the deep at the first creation, and just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, the risen Christ now breathed new life into his followers and into his church, overcoming hopelessness and despair.

It is so disheartening, with people we love contending with difficulties that go on and on, without any good resolution in sight.  And when will the time when we can embrace come again, when we can gather without fear of making each other sick?

This has been such a disheartening week.  It is discouraging how badly people treat each other, how little regard they show for other people’s wellbeing.  Some people are refusing to do simple things like wear a mask to help protect others, and insisting on doing things that put others at risk in the name of their own rights.  The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all the aftermath is heartrending, and even more so because it points to great unhealed wounds in our nation.  Sometimes the kingdom of God seems further away than ever, and all our efforts to practice and teach the way of Jesus’ love seem not to make much difference.

The picture of Jesus’ disciples huddled inside, disheartened and afraid really speaks to me now as we flawed and fearful disciples navigate these troubled times.  This story invites us to be quiet, quiet enough to hear Jesus speak the word of peace to us.  Quiet enough to hear him renew our call to mission.  Quiet enough to hear him breathing.  And in the breathing to find the strength we need to go forward.

Sometimes in the midst of pain and distress you can almost forget to breathe, or to breathe deeply anyway.  I remember when the ambulance was on the way to take me to the hospital before Laura was born the doctor was talking to me on the phone line, and he said, “Keep breathing.”

The living Christ is among us, breathing into us the very breath of life, the Spirit of healing, the Spirit who makes things new, who overcomes hopelessness and despair.  Remember to breathe, beloved.  Help one another remember to breathe.  Breathe deeply, beloved, and receive the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

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