I am just returned from Pennsylvania, where I travelled along with our youth minister, Michelle Klippert, and four young adults from the Diocese of Spokane. We went there to observe – and to participate in – a programme called Vocare. Vocare is a Latin word which means something like “to call.” It comes from the same root which gives us the English word, “vocation.” Vocare is geared towards people in the first decade-ish of adulthood – the youngest participant was 18, the oldest was 35. Most people were between 22 and 25 years of age – so, just past what we think of as college-aged. The goal of Vocare is to give young adults a community within which they may do what we might call holy wrestling with the question of where and to what God is inviting them.
Between the time that we left bright and early on Thursday morning and our return dark and late on Tuesday eve, I had more experiences than I could fit into a sermon. It was an exciting time. And it was a challenging time in the best sense of that word – I felt challenged to grow in many of my vocations: as a Christian, as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a friend, as a citizen, as a priest. As a child of God. So rather than telling you about everything that happened in our five days out East and, thereby, risking telling you about nothing, there are two experiences that I would particularly like to talk about. Maybe these are funny things to highlight given all that we saw and all that we did. But these are the things which are bubbling to the surface of my memory today.
The first experience that I would like to share with you is something that we did when we had a few hours off. It is something that I almost never do: we went to a mall. Three of the young adults with whom I was travelling were interested in finding some new shorts and shirts in anticipation of summertime. And so, because I was the guy who was allowed to drive the rental van, we went to an outlet mall near the retreat centre where we were staying. As we wandered from store to store, I didn’t look so much at the merchandise (I have all the shorts that I need and, to tell the truth, more T-shirts than a grown man probably ought to own). Instead, I looked at the images on the walls of the stores. In one establishment after another, I saw photographs of between two and six fantastically beautiful young people in equally beautiful locations wearing the clothes that were available for sale. All of the people in the photos were having just the best time ever. Some of them were dancing across beaches, some of them were laughing at a marvelous joke on a mountainside, some of them were simply enjoying their frighteningly chiseled muscles. The message of the pictures was pretty clear. They proclaimed a contract or, maybe, even a covenant: wear these clothes and you too will be young and beautiful and whole and full of joy. You too will be loved.
The second thing that particularly caught my attention took place at the retreat itself. Vocare is similar in structure to Teens Encountering Christ, the programme which we put on every January here at the Cathedral; it is anchored in a series of talks, of informal presentations in which individuals reflect on subjects such as “who is Jesus Christ?” “what does it mean to be a Christian?” and “what does reconciliation look like?” One of the first talks was led by a pair of young women, by a pair of sisters, Torrey and Rachel, both of whom are studying science, one as an undergrad, one at the graduate level. Torrey and Rachel made the extraordinary argument that Jesus is a teacher who teaches his students to engage in critical thinking.
Hearing this thesis was one of my big “yes” moments for the weekend. There is no question that Torrey and Rachel are correct – Jesus is all about critical thinking – but I had never heard this idea phrased in this way before. (Hooray for Christians who are also scientists!) Jesus invites us to question, to search, to struggle with our doubts and with our passions, to weigh tradition against our own experience, to decide for ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. What is so important – and what is so liberating – about acknowledging Jesus as champion of critical thinking is that is powerfully answers one of the great critiques of Christianity: that this is a religion of blind obedience, that we follow Jesus with canine loyalty, uncritically doing whatever he tells us.
But the Gospel doesn’t say that at all. While there are times when the earthly church demands unquestioning obedience to doctrine and to other rules – believe this and you’ll get into heaven – Jesus never does that. Rather, Jesus teaches a radical obedience, in which our discipleship demands that we carefully and seriously do the hard work of making up our own minds.
This Sunday, we are two weeks into a six-week stretch during which we are reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Encountering Paul in church is a challenge – unlike Jesus, who teaches by telling us reasonably brief stories, Paul makes his point by sharing lengthy and involved arguments. Much as it is a tall order to understand a good movie or a good book by spending just five minutes with it, so is it a tall order to understand Paul by reading only 5 or 10% of one of his letters. The folks who put the lectionary have sought tried to resolve that problem by giving us most of Galatians to read over this month and a half.
Most of Galatians turns on the question of whether or not it is important to obey “the law.” For a long time, we thought that we knew what law Paul was talking about and, therefore, what his thesis in this letter was. Here’s the Cole’s Notes version of that thesis: before Jesus came, it was necessary to observe the rules given to us by Moses (so, the Jewish law). But now Jesus has come and made all of that unnecessary. Moses and all of his rules are outmoded and obsolete, kind of like a typewriter when you have a laptop, like an 8-track player when you have an iPod, like a dial-up modem or a fax machine. Indeed, continuing to follow the Jewish law may even be destructive – we hear today that Paul’s zeal for the law inspired him to behave violently. In short, Christianity is the new and improved religion which replaces the old and worn out religion of Judaism. Christianity good, Judaism bad.
Two things have challenged this interpretation in recent years. First, there has been the discovery of ancient documents from Jewish contemporaries of Paul, documents in which the writers engage with the very same question: how much does it matter if we obey the law? In other words, this debate is not as simple as Christianity versus Judaism. Rather, it is part of an internal Jewish debate about the nature of faithfulness. That makes a lot of sense once we remember that Paul, just like Jesus before him, is a Jew.
The other thing that has pushed us to read Galatians in a new way are those scholars who have posed a question: are we sure that the law which Paul is talking about is the Jewish law, the law of Moses? Paul is living in occupied territory, living with constant reminders of the brutal empire which controls his home, which has driven his community into a place of numbing fear. Paul knows that criticising the government is a dangerous business. He knows that this criticism is what got Jesus nailed to a tree. Like every citizen of a violent dictatorship, Paul knows that you have to choose your words carefully. Sometimes, you even need to veil your words, to speak in allegory or poetry or code or jokes. And this is what has inspired scholars to ask the question: what if the law which Paul is talking about isn’t the Jewish law at all? What if he is talking about the Roman law?
That possibility changes how we understand Galatians absolutely. (I encourage you to go reread Galatians with this possibility in mind. You will experience it with new eyes.) Suddenly, this is not a text about how being a Christian is better than those other religions. Suddenly, this is a text about how being a person of faith necessitates questioning the laws and the rules of this world, of the common sense, if you like, of our culture. Suddenly, this is a text about the importance of critical thinking.
Often, when people speak to me (and maybe you have this experience as well) about something written in the Bible – so, I don’t know, God found in a pillar of fire or Jesus walking on water or the resurrection – they will say: I don’t know if I can believe that. And do you know what Jesus says in response? He says: Good. It is good that you are questioning. It is good that you are thinking critically. Your questions are not evidence of infidelity: they are evidence of engagement. They are evidence that you take faith seriously.
But Jesus goes on. Jesus pushes further. He pushes in that wondrous and exasperating way of his. He says:
Now bring your questioning to the other religions to which you belong. How about the religion whose icons hang on the wall at the mall? The religion which promises salvation in stuff, which says that if you but wear these clothes then you will be young and beautiful and whole and full of joy. And you will be loved.
Jesus invites you to stand before that icon and say, I don’t know if I can believe that.
I don’t know if I can believe that the key to love is found on my credit card statement. I don’t know if I can believe that love is that small. I don’t know if I can believe that allowing brown-skinned people to work in death traps in the third world so that our clothes can be cheap and plentiful is what the Kingdom of God looks like. I don’t know if I can believe that I need to be taller or have washboard abs or the right pair of jeans and shoes and sunglasses to be loved. I don’t know if I can believe that I am anything less than God’s beloved child just the way that I am. I don’t know if I can believe that this room is filled with anyone less than God’s beloved children, that this world is filled with anything less than God’s beloved children.
Walk with me, Jesus says. Walk with me on the road of questions which is also the road of faith. Walk with me on the road of critical thinking. Walk with me towards the truth, hanging before us like a sunrise. Walk towards that truth which will set you free.
 Further evidence of just how deeply indebted my theology is to Mr. Rogers.
It is mother’s day. I don’t know about you but, for me, this time on this day often arrives with the frantic realisation that I have completely forgotten to make any plans to say thanks to either my own mother or the mother of my children. Is there a florist that is open at 8am on a Sunday? Are they going to have anything in stock? How do I make my way over to the flower shop while also allowing my wife to sleep in and not tipping her off that I completely forgot about this occasion?
In many ways, it is amazing that both my wife and my mum appear to like me as much as they do.
Mother’s Day is often a big deal in churches as well. I’ve been part of worshipping communities in which women with children are given corsages. And there are some churches which invite mums to stand up partway through the service to be thanked and acknowledged for all of their sacrifice and all of their service. That used to strike me as a good and welcome practice. I am of the opinion that we don’t say “thank you” often enough, and that our tendency not to say thanks is especially magnified when it comes to people who take care of others. We don’t esteem raising a child or caring for a physically or mentally challenged relative or sitting with a parent in her final years as much as we do other jobs. Indeed, sometimes we don’t think of these folks as having real jobs at all. I was absolutely startled a year or so ago when an acquaintance referred to the primary caregiver of two small children as “unemployed.”
Surely asking mums to stand up and be acknowledged is a good and joyful thing. And I might well suggest to you that we do that very thing this morning were it not for a blog post that has travelled far and wide – that, to use the kids’ language, has gone viral – over the time year since it was first posted a year ago. The blogger is a woman who simply goes by the name Amy and her blog is known as “the messy middle.” Far and away her most popular post is entitled An Open Letter to Pastors: A Non-Mom Speaks About Mother’s Day.
In her letter, Amy talks about her experience as a woman who does not have children, about what it was like when the priest or leader in her church asked all the women with children to stand. How alienating it was, how much it hurt. Amy watched as her own mother stood, as a close friend stood, as women stood all around her. Amy writers that her feeling of isolation, of being judged and found wanting was immense. As she puts it, “real women stood, empty shells sat.”
I have rarely heard so much pain named in so few words.
Amy’s challenge to pastors in her open letter is to do better. Her challenge is to you and to me. While I am an Episcopalian, this is one respect in which I am thoroughly Lutheran: I believe that all of us in this room, all of us who make this church what it is, are pastors, irrespective of whether or not we get to wear a collar and a costume on Sunday morning. Each of us is called to lead, each of us is called to shape this community of disciples. Each of us is called to live into the words that we hear from John this morning and in so many other places in scripture: to build a world in which we all know that we are completely one, in which we all know that we are entirely loved exactly the way that we are. In which no one sits, stricken, while all the real women stand.
Now, to be clear, Amy isn’t proposing that we should do away with Mother’s Day or that we ought not to acknowledge it in church. Rather, we might paraphrase her argument by saying that she is hoping that we will make this day bigger and more generous. That we will get rid of questions such as “do I stand if my child has died?” or “do I stand if I am pregnant?” That we will fight against the sense of guilt or shame that comes to those who chose not to have children or cannot have children. That we will keep this day in church in a way that is more Christ-like.
Amy has written a prayer. I’d like to leave you with it. I have changed it only slightly.
To those who gave birth this year to their first child—we celebrate with you
To those who have lost a child – we mourn with you
To those who are in the trenches with little ones every day and wear the badge of food stains – we appreciate you
To those who experienced loss through miscarriage, failed adoptions, or running away—we mourn with you
To those who walk the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears, and disappointment – we walk with you. Forgive us when we say foolish things. We don’t mean to make this harder than it is.
To those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms – we need you
To those who have warm and close relationships with your children – we celebrate with you
To those who have disappointment, heart ache, and distance with your children – we sit with you
To those who lost their mothers this year – we grieve with you
To those who experienced abuse at the hands of your own mother – we acknowledge your pain
To those who lived through driving tests, medical tests, and the overall testing of motherhood – we are better for having you in our midst
To those who have chosen abortion – we remember you
To those who are single and long to be married and mothering your own children – we mourn that life has not turned out the way you longed for it to be
To those who step-parent – we walk with you on these complex paths
To those who envisioned lavishing love on grandchildren, yet that dream is not to be – we grieve with you
To those who will have emptier nests in the upcoming year – we grieve and rejoice with you
To those who placed children up for adoption — we commend you for your selflessness and remember how you hold that child in your heart
And to those who are pregnant with new life, both expected and surprising – we anticipate with you
This Mother’s Day, we walk with you. Mothering is not for the faint of heart. We remember you.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Do you want to be made well?
When I was at seminary, I served on the school’s board of directors as the student representative. Sometimes those meetings were exciting and challenging and taught me a lot about how an institution such as Church Divinity School of the Pacific functions and, for that matter, how the wider Episcopal Church functions. And sometimes those meetings were, well, what’s the turn of phrase that I’m looking for? It seems to be an unavoidable reality of the human condition that there are certain meetings that are pretty good for the first half hour, okay for the second. And, by the 90-minute mark, you are losing the will to live.
One of the things that got me through the less successful meetings was a faculty person who served on the board with me. This teacher – and I don’t know that I really need to protect her identity, but I’m going to err on the side of caution and call her Julia – had a really finely tuned BS meter. You could actually hear it go off sometime, hear the little needle in her head redline when one of our colleagues would say something presumptuous or superficial or disingenuous. When one of those moments of BS-itude would come, I would look across the table at Julia and watch with delight as she engaged in a monster eye roll. Sometimes she would follow up that roll with a piercing statement or question. But, more often than not, she didn’t need to. Her skyward eyes had said everything. With one look to the heavens, she could push a conversation to a place that was a little more honest and a little more real.
Before I graduated from CDSP I made a point of expressing my gratitude Julia. “Thank you,” is said to her. “You have a ministry of impatience.”
I think she was glad that someone noticed.
It has been hard for me not to think of Julia this week. That’s because, as we hear the story from John of Jesus and the nameless sick man by the pool, we are reminded that Jesus has a huge ministry of impatience. Sometimes his impatience is really obvious. Think of Jesus telling the young man, “let the dead bury their own dead.” Think of Jesus withering the fig tree. Think of Jesus turning over tables in the temple. And sometimes his impatience is a little subtler.
When Jesus saw the sick man lying there, he knew that he had been there a long time. He knew that he had been ill for thirty-eight years. And so Jesus said to him, “do you want to be made well?”
Now, what is up with that?
Why is Jesus even asking this question?
Surely the answer to Jesus’ question can only be, “of course.” Of course I want to be made well. Of course I don’t want to be sick anymore. Of course I don’t want to lie here for still more of my life, staring longingly at the pool of healing while the others reach it first.
Except the sick man doesn’t say “of course.” Instead, he gives Jesus an elaborate explanation as to why he has never gotten into the pool.
And Jesus says, take up your mat and walk.
Yes, this is a story about Jesus’ healing. Yes, this is a story about Jesus’ extraordinary knowledge – his ability to know, at a glance, the almost four decades for which this man has been sick. Yes, this is a story about Jesus’ Divine prerogative to ignore the law and to work on the Sabbath. But the story that we hear today is also a parable. It is a parable that Jesus tells through his actions and his words. It is a parable about you and me. It is a parable whose title is also its primary question.
Do you want to be made well?
I don’t know about you, but I have told stories similar to the one that the sick man tells to Jesus. I remember in high school when a teacher or two noticed both my giftedness and my laziness. Do you want to learn something? Do you want to be challenged? Do you want to get into college? And I earnestly explained to him or her how I really had wanted to start working on my essay earlier than the night before it was due, how I had really wanted to do the assigned readings. But then my cat got sick and I dropped an encyclopedia on my toe and my uncle came to visit, so it was just impossible. More recently, I remember joining in with colleagues and indulging in that draining and seductive culture of complaint. We assured one another the we all really wanted to do good and important and transformative work, work that fed our souls and that met the great needs of the world. But that it was just impossible because of them or it. Because of our bosses or because of the system or because of our colleagues who weren’t in the room or because of the world or because of life.
Some of the excuses that I have given are even more pathetic than a man who, over thirty-eight years, can’t find a way of getting into a pool.
We all have our excuses for not standing up and walking into freedom. Each of us has been visited by Jesus. Each of us have received from him a challenge, an invitation, a call. Each of us has been asked, “do you want to be made well?” And, at one time or another, to a greater or lesser extent, each of us has said, “I would, Jesus. But I can’t right now. I’m too old.” (Or I’m too young or my knee hurts too much.) Each of us has said, “no.”
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I want to be clear about what this parable does not tell us. This parable does not tell us that healing is a simple as wanting to be healed. Anyone who has had cancer or who has known someone with cancer will tell you that you can want to be cured more than anything. And that desire may not save the day. Anyone who has been unemployed or underemployed will tell you that getting a job is not as simple as wanting to be hired. Anyone who has struggled with addiction will tell you that getting clean is not as simple as wanting to be made sober.
This parable is not a call to sit in judgment of those who are sick and those who struggle. Jesus never tells parables about judging the least of these. Rather, this parable is a reminder to you and to me that we start the journey towards becoming most fully alive, towards becoming most fully ourselves, towards becoming the people whom God hopes we will be when we set aside our excuses and take a risk.
It is not an accident that the people who put together the lectionary paired John 5 with the account from Acts of Paul and Lydia and their friends, with the account of their passion, their zeal for God. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart, Acts tells us, to listen eagerly. The risk of that listening, the risk of baptism, the risk of becoming a disciple, the risk of saying yes to faith. It is the risk that changes everything.
It is tempting to keep lying beside the pool, to keep on insisting that we would get into its healing waters if only it weren’t for those others. Maybe we can stretch things out and stay here another thirty-eight years. As painful as our sickness may be, it is familiar, it is safe. There may be no joy in it, but neither is there much danger, neither is there much risk. In a funny way, this pool is home.
But then Jesus comes along. Jesus who inspires and confuses and challenges. Jesus with his ministry of impatience. Jesus who rolls his eyes.
Do you want to me made well?
Then take up your mat. Take up your mat and walk.
Sometimes I fight with a homily. This was one of those. I abandoned some 700 words while writing it - an unusually high number for me to send to whatever the word processing equivalent of the cutting room floor might be. After preaching at the 8am service, I then abandoned another 500 or so.
It’s just as well that the deadline which is Sunday morn came, or I’d still be tinkering. Sometimes, you just have to let a work be done.
Do you love me?
Yes, Paul says. Yes, I told you already. You know I love you.
Feed my Sheep.
Few passages from scripture are richer or more complex than the reading that we just heard from John. If, when analysing a liquid or gas we may talk about the count of particles per million, in this passage we might talk about the count of symbols per letter. There are more symbols here than you can shake a stick at. We find them in the form of contrasts: water and land, scarcity and abundance, night turning into day. We find them in actions: Peter jumping into the lake, the hauling of the heavy net ashore. We find them in numbers: 7 disciples in the boat, 153 fish (not 150, not 155, but 153), and 3 – or, rather, 3 times 3: Jesus’ third appearance, Jesus’ three-fold offering of fire, bread, and fish, Jesus’ thrice repeated question: do you love me?
The temptation when reading a passage so rich in symbols is to attempt to crack it as one might a code. A lot of commentators have set out to do precisely that: there has been a startling amount of ink spilled over the number 153, for instance, with one camp arguing that 153 is the total number of species of fish that people in the Ancient Near East knew and, therefore, that it represents all the fish in the world. Other folks have done some seriously amazing math puzzles to explain how one and five and three can be used to spell Peter’s name or how those three numbers can be turned into a graph to create some kind of holy icon. Similarly, there is a huge amount of text speculating as to what Peter was wearing – or not wearing – before he jumped into the water. (I don’t know if I can substantiate this academically, but I have a pet theory that there are commentators who will do their best to argue with any Biblical passage that features a major character naked.)
As fascinating as all of this sleuth work is, these efforts to decode John as one might a scrambled message from a secret agent don’t do a whole lot for me. There is something just underwhelming about engaging with scripture in this fashion, about treating it in the same way that we have treated Don McLean’s song American Pie over the last forty years and trying to beat a single and unambiguous meaning out of it. Scripture is rarely single or unambiguous in nature (nor, for that matter, is American Pie). It is more often what scholars call multivalent, so that there is more than one possibility pregnant in just about every moment.
Besides, I have a pretty strong sense that these stories, which were originally told around campfires rather than read out of books, are meant to meet us right now in the gut rather than over days or weeks in the intellect. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, the stories by Jesus and about Jesus either yield a blinding and immediate insight or they yield nothing. While Rohr’s words are a little hyperbolic – I have learned a lot about scripture, for instance, by studying its historical context – I do believe that scripture most often finds it real impact, its deepest meaning, in our first reaction to it. While, for example, it may broaden our understanding of Jesus’ words on the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – to know that they are drawn from the psalms, their true power lies in proclaiming something that we don’t need an annotated Bible to understand: Jesus’ awful sense of desolation and hurt and abandonment by his Father.
So, what are the themes that we notice right away when we hear this tale of the risen Jesus and the Disciples beside the lake? While there are enough answers to that question to fill a book, it is the conversation between Peter and Jesus that particularly catches my attention this morning. It is a conversation that underlines two things. First, forgiveness and love are something that God initiates and that God makes available without boundary and without limit. And, second, the purpose of God’s love and forgiveness is to invite us to live fully right now, not to receive some reward after we die.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times. And, three times, Peter says yes. This dialogue is a precise mirror image of Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus before the crucifixion. Jesus knows that Peter needs the opportunity to reverse that denial, to make another choice, to be set free. And so, he initiates that opportunity, even if Peter is resistant to it, he gives him as many chances to say “yes” as he needs.
This conversation is reimagined powerfully in the 1997 film, Good Will Hunting. Maybe some of you remember the scene, late in the movie, in which the psychologist, Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams tells Will, played by Matt Damon, that the legacy of his abusive childhood, all of the trouble that he’s gotten into, is not his fault. “It’s not your fault,” Sean says over and over. And Will responds each time, “I know.”
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
Finally, Will, like Peter, becomes exasperated with Sean’s repetition. He becomes angry. But Sean keeps on going. “It’s not your fault.” And, in that instant, something changes. Will understands that the love and forgiveness which he is hearing from his friend is real and true and unlimited. And the tears begin to flow. He falls into Sean’s arms, sobbing.
It is a deservedly famous moment in cinema.
Notice what Jesus says after Peter tells him that, yes, he loves him. Not, “good, now you’re saved.” Not, “what a relief, now you’ll go to heaven when you die.” But, “feed my sheep.” Live right now, Jesus says, in a way that proclaims the transforming love that we share. Live right now in a way that invites my Father’s Kingdom further into this broken world.
Do you love me?
I’ll ask you as many times as you need.
What a difference a verb makes.
The famous words from Philippians are tough to move into English. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” is the rendition that we hear this evening and that we know best. But here’s the trick: the word “was” is but an educated guess by our translators; there is a no verb in the original Greek. Thus, a literal, though rather incoherent translation, would give us, “let the same mind be in you that […] Christ Jesus.”
Philippians, in other words, is kind of an early example of “fill in the blanks.” This ambiguity has led to a lot of debate among scholars over just what Paul meant when he wrote his letter to the church in Philippi.
There is a camp that pushes pretty hard to swap out the reading we heard this eve for a present-tense reading: “let the same mind be in you as you have in Christ Jesus.” These folks argue that “was” pushes us into a place of imitation, wherein we are called to be the same person and to do the same things as Christ. And, well, who can pull that trick off? Who can be God and a human being at once; who can heal and tell stories the way that Jesus did; who can transform the world by dying and by rising again? The Christ event was unique and to seek to imitate it is evidence of hubris and a plain old confusion about what is possible.
In light of the impossibility of being a second Jesus, these scholars say, what Paul must have intended to communicate to the Philippians is a message about who they were called to be (and, by extension, who you and I are called to be) by virtue of belonging to Christ, by virtue of being Christ’s church. There are, in other words, certain standards, a certain attitude, that we should have because we dwell in the realm of Christ, because we are Christians.
I guess that argument is a reasonable one. And I guess that its reasonableness is precisely why I don’t by it. That’s because the Gospel is not a reasonable document. The Gospel is not the biography of a reasonable man.
Jesus riding into Jerusalem is one of the most arresting images in all of scripture. Told in all four Gospels, we see Jesus atop what is variously a colt or an ass or, in Matthew, a colt and an ass. (I’m not entirely sure how that trick works – does Jesus have one foot in each saddle? If so, I’m seriously impressed.) No matter which account we prefer, however, it’s definitely not a stallion or a Clydesdale that the disciples borrow for Jesus’ triumphal entry. This is a pretty modest ride.
Maybe it’s the diminutive nature of the colt/ass (Jesus’ feet can’t be clearing the ground by a whole lot). Or maybe it’s the reality that he is riding, unarmed, to confront a brutally violent empire. Regardless, this scene before the gates of Jerusalem always reminds me a little of Don Quixote embarking on a noble and impossible quest. There is something excessive, something over the top, something almost absurd going on here.
Throughout his ministry Jesus shared parables with those whom he met. Sometimes, those parables took the form of words. At least as often, they took the form of actions. He told stories about what the Kingdom of God was like with his body: he shared meals with illegal aliens and sex trade workers right beside the wealthiest and the most pious; he healed everyone who came to him, irrespective of their credit score. He embodied the immense generosity of God, the unfair generosity of God: remember the story of all the workers getting paid the same, no matter when they clocked in; remember the story of everyone getting fed, no matter who they were or how they got to the feast.
Jesus’ parables were loving and playful and subversive. And Jesus’ parables invited participation. They were never just about him. Sooner or later, they were always about you and about me.
During children’s church, as we tell tales of faith using Jerome Berryman’s marvelous storytelling method known as Godly Play, we often say that Jesus’ understood that his calling was to become a parable. That is a succinct and beautiful way of saying something that has taken a lot of professional theologians thousands upon thousands of words to express. And Jesus’ life was never more parabolic than in his last week, the remembrance of which we begin, today.
Here is the cruel and brutal leader of the occupying forces, a man by the name of Pilate. Here is a people who live in fear of torture and of murder. And here is a man who says:
The Kingdom of God is like…
The Kingdom of God is like an unarmed peasant on a donkey.
The Kingdom of God is like a parade.
The Kingdom of God is like a protest.
The Kingdom of God is like a crowd of people who forget their fear and begin to sing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The Kingdom of God is like a celebration so great that, if the people were silent, the stones would shout out.
The Kingdom of God is like a person who knows love so well and responds to it so completely that he becomes obedient to it to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Dorothy Day’s old friend in the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin, wrote a little poem which went:
They say that I am crazy
because I refuse to be crazy
the way everyone else is crazy.
Peter Maurin understood something essential about Christianity. And he understood something essential about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This ride on a donkey, a ride which will take Jesus to the cross, is totally crazy. It is the craziness of refusing to be crazy, of refusing the rules of a broken world which tell us to return hate for hate and violence for violence and selfishness for selfishness. It is the craziness of responding to pain and loss and evil with love. It is a craziness that you and I are invited to join.
So, let’s join in. Let’s make our lives into parables. Let’s prove the translators whose words we heard tonight right, even if their invitation to imitate Jesus us so crazy as to verge on the impossible.
Let the same mind be in you and in me as was in Christ Jesus.
With the exception of committee and of planning meetings, I visit with folks most often when something big has changed or is changing in their lives. Sometimes that means a couple contemplating marriage. Sometimes that means a person wondering about what kind of vocation she might be called to. Sometimes that means a person considering baptism for himself or for his child. And sometimes – maybe most of the time – that means a person or a family during a time of ending: so, a death or another kind of loss.
A lot of the losses that I hear about are plain old unfair. Here are the accounts of kind and faithful people encountering layoffs, loneliness, depression and other illness; of kind and faithful people dying untimely deaths; of kind and faithful people enduring the kind of suffering that you wouldn’t wish on someone whom you hated. Here is the evidence, to borrow the famous words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, that bad things do, indeed, happen to good people. The harsh reality of this evidence utterly demolishes any theology which says that, if we are virtuous enough and we believe hard enough, then God will insulate us from harm.
What I hear in my office, in the hospital, and in people’s homes are the stories of that big disorientation which we know as grief. Grief is that time when it feels as though something has gone wrong with the orbit of the earth: when it feels as though it is spinning the wrong way or, perhaps, as though it has stopped spinning altogether.
Grief’s sense of a world pushed off balance by loss tends to be magnified by two things. First, in grief we are often confronted with a paradox, with the curious knowledge that, even in the middle of loss, we have received a blessing. Many people who have had the privilege of being with a loved one during her dying will tell you as much: I didn’t want my mother or my husband or my friend to die; I didn’t want to be left without this person; I didn’t want this person whom I loved to experience such suffering. But what a gift to be present for his or her dying. We may feel confused or even guilty about naming that gift.
Second lots of us labour with the sense that our grief is disproportionate or even inappropriate. This may be especially acute in the Western, English-speaking world, where we are so anxious to deny death, where we are so impoverished in the symbol and in the ritual which other cultures have to mark the rhythm of a loss. We ask ourselves: Why can’t I get my act together? Why am I so distracted from the duties of everyday life? Why does grief keep hitting me like an unexpected wave, knocking me down into sudden, heaving tears? Why am I still grieving a month or a year or five years after the loss?
What is wrong with me?
Earlier this week, an afternoon came during which I visited with a young woman after the death of her mother. Insofar as I did anything other than to listen, what I did was to attempt to reassure her that her grief, with all of its paradoxes, was normal and healthy and good and faithful. That it was not a sign of weakness. And, even more, that when she finds that she is still grieving for her mother this time next year or this time in ten years, that won’t be a sign of weakness either.
There is, I told her, no such thing as closure. I will grieve for the people whom I have loved and lost for the rest of my life. There is only doing the work of grieving well enough and thoroughly enough that we are able to reconcile ourselves to the presence of absence. This is the long journey back to a place in which we are able to live and love fully once more.
The young woman left my office and I turned on the radio. And a song was playing that I had never heard before. I later learned from the DJ that it was by a pair of sisters, Ellie and Louise Macnamara from Ireland. They call their band Heathers. The song was called Forget Me Knots. It was the song’s chorus which got my attention. In that chorus, the Macnamara sisters sang six words:
It’s alright not to feel okay.[i]
That sort of holy coincidence – that occasion when life figuratively or, in this case, literally, provides you with the soundtrack for the very moment which you are experiencing is always a little beautiful and a little startling.
It’s alright not to feel okay.
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem has all of the contradictions, all the paradoxes, of grief. I think that it had those contradictions back when Jesus and his friends experienced the great and awful week which led to the Golgotha – a week which, in many ways, begins with the story which we hear today. And it continues to be contradictory in our telling, today. Is this a time of triumph, as John suggests that it is – is this about Jesus meeting his destiny and being installed as King via the cross. Or is this a time of fear and pain and shame and loss, as the Synoptic Gospels suggest?
The answer, then and now, is yes.
Here we are in the home which Mary and Martha share. Mary engages in the ritual of anointing Jesus feet with perfume. It is a gesture of hospitality and love. But it is also a gesture of mourning: a foreshadowing of the anointing of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.
Jesus’ disciple, Judas, balks at the waste of the perfume. Now, Judas doesn’t get a whole lot of benefit of the doubt in John – he is pretty much Evil with a capital “E” – and John tells us that Judas just wants to pocket the money that the perfume would have fetched. But, actually, his question is reasonable enough: if we were to set this story in modern day Spokane, 300 Denarii might well come out as $60 or even $80 thousand dollars.[ii] That could sure help a lot of poor people.
But Jesus says: let her be. Doing this sort of thing matters. Taking a break from our work and naming what is going on matters. Spending resources on the work of grieving matters. It’s alright, he says, not to feel okay. Maybe it’s even important, sometimes, not to feel okay.
Mary’s act of anointing is startling in its sensuality, it is almost too much. Not just the perfume onto Jesus’ feet, not just its heady scent filling the room, but the startling and beautiful decision to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. How much is this anointing like washing the body of a loved one as he lies in hospice?
How hard and how sad to have to do such a thing. What a blessing to get to do such a thing.
Here is the paradox: here is love and here is loss, all in one place.
[ii] I have heard this figure estimated at as low as $18,000 (the preacher in question assumed 52 weeks at the minimum wage). While that is defensible math – Jesus and his friends were the minimum wage workers of their day – it wasn’t contextually appropriate for St. John’s. The congregation here is predominantly middle class and, thus, a higher figure better conveys the reality that John is telling us that there is some seriously expensive perfume in use here.
A little reflection on the book of Jonah.
Hearing the famous story of Jonah once again, I have one major question.
What does the fish think about all of this?
The big fish (in the words of James Kugel, “it was indeed a ‘big fish,’ by the way, and not a whale - that was Pinocchio”) is kind of the forgotten character in this tale. We think a lot about Jonah himself and his motivations. Maybe we empathise with the sailors who, despite all their rowing, cannot escape the stormy seas which their passenger has visited upon them. And those of us who are parents - those of us who have heard a lot of vigorous “no’s!” from people whom we love and for whom we care - have some sense of what God must be going through in dealing with Jonah, the most reluctant of all the prophets.
But the fish? We tend to treat her as what amounts to a prop or a stage set. She is kind of like the mountaintop or Mordor or Macbeth’s castle, necessary for the play to proceed but not someone about whom we are going to write our final paper. I’m not convinced that that’s fair.
Let’s spend a little time with the big fish.
So, here she is, pulled out of her fishy life to swallow but not to digest (God is really specific about that second part) this guy who has come through the roof of her world, who has fallen from the stormy heavens. It is her calling from God, over three days – that enormously symbolic number – to serve as tomb and as womb for him, to take him deeper into the crushing darkness of the ocean than any human being has gone before. To swim through 72 hours as this stranger sings a prayer of repentance and praise from the vessel of her belly.
And then, at the end of it all, it is the fish’s calling to swim to the surface and, like a college student who has overdone it on Saturday night, to spew him out onto the surface. In a number of medieval paintings, Jonah is naked by the time that the fish hurls him onto the beach. She is, in many ways, a mother giving birth.
What does the big fish think as she leaves the shore, her great tail pushing her further into the cool anonymity of the deeps? Does she forget the man whom God called her to shelter from the storm? Does her recede from her recollection like the tide of long-ago years?
Or, as she swims away, does she remember that, for a fleeting time, her belly was his home?