Friday, July 17, 2015

You Are God's Beloved

You Are My Beloved
Proper 11B- Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

When I got a listing of the lessons and hymns for today the Gospel was listed as Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (The Feeding of the Five Thousand). Then I went and read the selected verses and lo and behold, no feeding, no five thousand. What we are left with is the prologue and epilogue to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which story, by the way, is told and retold six times across the four gospels. Twice in Mark alone if you don’t mind it being a mere four thousand the second time.

This means, I am guessing, to focus us on the fact that the people need good shepherds. Had the feeding story been included we could contrast feasting with the good shepherd with the previous story of what it is like to feast with a notoriously bad shepherd, Herod. With Jesus everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, and there are leftovers for tomorrow, like the story of manna in the wilderness with Moses and his crowd of escapees. With Herod, a notoriously bad shepherd, if you are person of extraordinary faith, you lose your head – literally, as in John the Baptizer meeting a nasty end. I think we are meant to consider, the way Mark lays it out, just who would be the good and bad shepherds today.

Also left out is the moment when Jesus asks the disciples to feed this “great crowd” for whom he has compassion, we see the disciples pleading the gospel of scarcity and urging Jesus to instruct the crowd to go shopping and let the market forces do their magic. Jesus of course has none of this and says sit them down in green pastures like we read in the 23rd psalm, and feed them yourselves. That’s what my father’s kingdom is all about – compassionate interdependence, not rugged independence. My banquets, and the heavenly banquet, are not going to be at all like those with Herod and all the other bad shepherds. We are to be all about hospitality, not hostility, generosity, not the exercise of power and manipulation. We are to welcome people, all people, not tell them to go away and take care of themselves. We are here to care for one another.

Then he sends them ahead, because remember, he is looking to get some rest from it all. They’re in the boat, a storm comes up, while he is doing his centering prayer he sees they are afraid and walks by the boat. The text says, “He intended to pass them by.” That sounds strange to us until we recall that God instructs Moses to stand in a certain spot while “I pass you by,” and God tells Elijah to stand in a certain spot and “I will pass you by.” So “passing by” is God’s way of saying, “Hey fellas, it’s Me!” As usual the disciples don’t get it. They think he’s a ghost. Worse still, we are told, they do not understand about the loaves. You can just about see Jesus shaking his head, holding his head in his hands. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn. The text says they are hard-hearted. (hard-heaerted in Biblical terms means hard-headed since the Bible understands the heart as the home of knowledge while the head is the home of feelings)

This is where the epilogue picks up. Just as the crowds got to where he was going to rest before he did in the prologue, so they do it again in the epilogue. If you have ever seen the Sea of Galilee you understand. You can see all around the lake and no matter where Jesus tries to go, people can see where he is going even if the disciples have no clue. Note also they are bringing the sick, the halt and the lame from all over and “laid them in the marketplace,” exactly where he refused to send them at dinner time. Seems he intends to transform the marketplace into a kind of health-care exchange.

It’s astonishing really. He does nothing. He says nothing. There are no requirements, no talk about “faith.” Note the absence of any mention of the disciples who are still befuddled about the bread. The people are pictured as merely touching the “hem of his cloak.” “And all who touched it were healed.” The Gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, Lord Christ! What are we to make of all of this?

For one thing, perhaps, we are meant to be those who understand about the bread. After all, he teaches us to pray for bread that is given daily, not storehouses filled to overflowing. But then, just what is this daily bread?

If I had to hazard a guess I would say it is love – not just love, but the love of God. For me one of the keys to Mark’s gospel is in the very beginning. There is no birth story. Rather, a full grown Jesus steps onto the scene and joins in the Baptism of John. When he comes up out of the water, a voice says, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Now as we all know, on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer it says by water and the Holy Spirit those who are baptized are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Which I take to mean, when we are baptized there are tiny cherubim and seraphim flying around us whispering in our ears, “You are God’s Beloved! God is well pleased with you!” As we “grow up” we forget we ever heard that good news. Things happen. We lose faith in ourselves. We lose faith in others. We simply lose faith.

That’s when we need to be more like the people in the prologue and the epilogue to this story: we need to hurry and rush to those places to which Jesus goes to get rest before he even gets there, wait for him to arrive, and then touch the hem of his garment. The bread and the healing we need are to remember who we are and whose we are: We are God’s Beloved. God is well pleased with us! To internalize this good news I turn to Buddy Holly and the Grateful Dead and begin to play and sing:

I am well pleased with you

I am God’s Beloved
God is well pleased with me

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
I’m gonna love God night and day
You know our love not fade away

Our Love’s bigger than a Cadillac
God ain’t never gonna take it back
God’s love’s bigger than an SUV
No one can take it away from me
You know our Love not fade away

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
Then come on down to Jordan’s stream
Up in the Sky what do you see
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me

I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
A love to last more than one day
A love that's love - not fade away
A love that's love - not fade away
            -Buddy Holly, Norman Petty, adapted by Kirk Kubicek
              Copyright Sounds Divine

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Interdependence Day

Familiarity and The Common Good
Mark 6:1-13

Jesus, as we recall from last Sunday, had just performed two astonishing healings: the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years, and the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader. Astonishing in that the woman who was an outsider, unlike Jairus, literally with sheer grit, hope and faith in Jesus just touched the hem of his garment – and in the “great crowd,” Jesus noticed that power had gone out of him, and recognized the woman for her persistence and her faith despite all odds. Perhaps this nameless woman of faith was an inspiration to Bree Newsome who took matters in her own hands to take down the Confederate Battle flag outside the South Carolina State House. It is undeniable that these two women have a lot in common. It would not be going too far to suggest that Jesus would recognize Bree Newsome for her persistence and faith to do the right thing despite all odds.

So then Jesus goes to his hometown and the reception he receives is incredibly underwhelming! Who does this son of a carpenter think he is? He is just an ordinary man like us, grew up among us, lives among us – he is no different than any of us! As Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday years ago, leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. It has been suggested that it is because of their familiarity with Jesus that they fail to recognize the holy, the presence of God, in the very ordinary young man who grew up in their midst.

I have known such familiarity to make it difficult to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, yet the great saints and mystics of all religious traditions are those always seeking to open our eyes to the holiness in our midst. I was mindlessly flipping tv channels when I hit upon Amy Goodman and Democracy Now. I was about to flip back to Seinfeld re-runs when the story of Bree Newsome was truly inspiring. The voices of women who were in Charleston to support her were compelling. The fact that she had a partner, a spotter – she did not run off and do this act of civil disobedience in the tradtion of Thoreau, Pete Seeger and so many others, on her own,  but had partners and supporters on hand – just as Jesus does not send the disciples out on their own, but in pairs.

Note carefully that the disciples are to travel light – really really light. No two tunics, no money, but rather they are to live off the generosity of those they are sent to proclaim the message of God’s kingdom, those they are sent to heal, those they are sent to bring back to life. They are not to be independent by interdependent on one another and others – others they don’t even know and have never met!

Then Amy Goodman switched to a retrospective look at Pete Seeger and his career as a prophet and social critic with the power of song. I didn’t move until I heard Pete singing, at age 94, We Shall Overcome.

It got me to thinking about how the power of such songs often wanes with our familiarity with them. Just as these stories in the Bible become so familiar we lose sight of all that is in there – like the touch of humor Mark lends to the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Really? That’s all?

So on this Independence Day weekend, I got to thinking: I grew up in a small elementary school where our music teacher, Miss Gulbranson, taught us This Land Is Your Land. It was in the song book we had in school. It would be a number of years later, after my Uncle Lee gave me a copy of Bob Dylan’s first album that I had even heard of Woody Guthrie, an inspiration for Dylan, a singing partner of Pete Seeger’s. And probably a few years later I learned that Woody had written This Land Is Your Land. By now we are all familiar with it – perhaps too familiar to know he wrote it as a protest song – he was bothered, in 1940, by the popularity of God Bless America against the backdrop of the depression, the Dust Bowl, the impending war with Germany and Japan, the struggling labor movement, and the sight he could see outside the window of his hotel room in New York City: people, poor people, hungry people, unemployed people standing in line outside the Relief Office hoping, like the woman in last week’s story, to get some relief themselves. The original song as Woody wrote it went something like this:

    This land is your land, this land is my land
    From the California to the Staten New York Island,
    From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
    God blessed America for me.
    [This land was made for you and me.]

    One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
    By the Relief Office I saw my people —
    As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
    God blessed America for me.
    [This land was made for you and me.]

I recall reading an interview with Arlo Guthrie some years later in which he describes Woody, dying of Huntington’s Chorea, a devastating disease, taking him out into the back yard and teaching him one song he was sure people would forget. That song, ironically, was This Land Is Your Land, now a staple of American education, and somewhat domesticated from our familiarity with it. Arlo also recalls his mother coming home from a trip to China to tell Woody that a group of school children sang the song to her!

After listening to replays of Amy Goodman interviews with Pete Seeger, who passed away last year, I sat down with my guitar to sing the following songs.

If I Had A Hammer

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Our founding fathers and mothers declared independence, that is true. But it was a collective independence, not individual independence. The Declaration was inspired in part by the Roman hero, Cincinatus who embodied the essence of Civic Virtue, putting the good of the community before his own good, AND resigning the office to which he was called once the job was done – very much as George Washington did after serving as commander in the War for Independence, and after two terms as president. Both men went back home to be ordinary farmers.

The extraordinary in the ordinary: it is sometimes hard to recognize because of our familiarity. Yet, songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and We Shall Overcome once had the power to end a war and finally to bring the civil rights wrought out of the civil war in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution into reality.

Woody and Pete were dismissed as outside agitators, along with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr, and this week Bree Newsome. But the recognition of their influence by ordinary people all over the country resulted in many people doing small ordinary things that eventually bear fruit for us all.

Jesus was about the common good. The framers of the Declaration of Independence were about the common good. We can and ought to celebrate these truths, self-evident as they are, side by side on this holiday weekend, and sixth Sunday after Pentecost. This land was made for you and me, not just me, not just you, but for us all. Some events of these past weeks have recognized this, and for this we say, Amen! Alleluia!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Home Once Again

Insiders, Outsiders and Life’s Interruptions
Psalm 139/Mark 5:21-43

A few remarks, a poem and a song.
This episode in Mark chapter 5 is about life changes in more ways than one. Two people are healed, a woman and a young girl. Social protocol is changed: one would expect Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a quintessential insider, to get special attention, but one is surprised that the woman who has bled month after month for 12 years also gets Jesus’ power and attention and blessing AHEAD of the very important man he was going to help. Personal change: the woman (who has no name) and the daughter (who also has no name) are both restored to normative life in the community – the community that laughed at Jesus for even trying to help them. The church changed:  it should not go without mention that the lectionary selection itself has changed. In our 1979 Book of Common Prayer lectionary the story of the woman was cut out so that our Proper 8 Gospel was JUST the story of Jairus’ daughter. Once we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (2006) her story was restored. That says as much about us as a church as it does about the Gospel of Mark. For so many years her story was not heard in our churches. And yet, I would argue, her story is the central to the whole story. That is, there is just one story of which she is a central and most important part. It is a credit to our church that we restored this story to its wholeness, for the woman’s story is one we all share and one we all need to hear. We are left to imagine why her story was not included in our Sunday lectionary until 2006.

It is no accident as Mark tells her story. The woman has been bleeding as long as the little girl has been alive: twelve years. They share a sort of kinship, even though the woman, because of her condition, would have been ostracized from society and from town as being “unclean.” That is, she in all likelihood could not live at home. She was homeless and alone.

Being unclean and homeless are things few of us understand, yet there are times when we don’t feel at home in this world any more, and we may even feel yucky and unclean about ourselves. And when we are seriously ill we are usually separated out from society – often times even in isolation. Were we to be aware of life in the world of Jesus we would be utterly astonished that this unclean and homeless woman gets Jesus’ power, attention and blessing BEFORE the daughter of the very important official, Jairus.

We may as well face it, outsiders have been commanding our attention recently: Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof, Caitlyn Jenner, Freddie Gray, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev , James Holmes to name just a few. It ought to break our hearts to think of how life for each of them, and all of us, may have been different if someone like Jesus had allowed them to interrupt their lives. What if someone had given them attention and blessing and healing of some sort? If only they had had a stronger sense of belonging, a stronger sense of being accepted and at home in this world. What if?

We are meant to place ourselves in these stories. What is it like to be the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is "at the point of death?" What is it like to be in the "great crowd" following Jesus? Are we among those who truly follow him? Are we among those who laugh at him for trying against all odds to help these two women? What is it like to be the little girl, home, waiting, fearful of what comes next? What is it like to be the disciples, trying to protect Jesus from the crowd? What must it have been like to be the woman, cut-off from society for 12 years? What is it like to have her kind of hope and faith? What is it like to touch the hem of Jesus' garment? Can we grasp that the important things in this life are those things that interrupt whatever it is we think we are doing or think is important?

Now the poem, then a song to help us imagine what life could be like.

The Lightening   by Madeleine L'Engle
When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man who worked miracles,
cured diseases,
even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief.
I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why
I thought he could help me
when all the doctors
with all their knowledge
had left me still drained
and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living.
Well: I’d seen him with some children
and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
Then there was that leper,
but lepers have been cured before –
No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand,
not to interrupt, or to ask him for anything,
not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him…
I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.
I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed that they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close I could reach out
and touch with my fingers
the hem of his garment.
Have you ever been near
when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree
under which I had been playing
and I was flung right across the courtyard.
That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.
“Who touched me?” he asked.
I said, “I did, Lord.”
So that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched
his garment’s hem.
He looked at me and I knew then
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
He was tired and emptied
but he was not angry.
He looked at me
and the lightning returned to him again,
though not from me, and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.
Then the crowd came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.
-           Madeliene L’Engle

The Blessed Augustine, the African Bishop of Hippo wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.” We are all looking to be healed of something. God in Jesus allows us to interrupt whatever is happening and accept our belovedness in God’s eyes. We all have a home in the heart of God’s love. If you don’t believe in miracles consider this: even the Supreme Court of the United States of America is coming around to affirm that all people have a home in the heart of God’s love and deserve the opportunity for the kind of healing witnessed in the story of two women, one young, one more mature, representing the extremes of the social spectrum.  We all want to be made clean and whole. We all want to come home – home with others, at home with God, and at home with ourselves.

Be made clean
Go back to your home

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home

Be made whole
You are no longer alone

You are clean
You are whole
You are loved
You are home once again
You are home
                        -Kirk Kubicek, Sounds Divine


Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Power of Song

Poetry, Parable and Song……
Ezekiel 17: 22 -24/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34

The power of poetry, parable and song is meant to fire our imagination beyond what is to what is possible. Years ago a colleague and priest, Pierre Wolff, a former French Jesuit, summarized Ignatian Spirituality this way: We come from Love, we return to love, and love is all around. God is love. A few years later Diane Connelly, a teacher and practitioner of acupuncture, wrote a book called, All Sickness Is Homesickness, inspired in part by the Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.”  This suggests  to me that all of life is a homecoming: a coming home to God, who is the heart of universal Love, and that source from whence we come and to which we return. It all came together as a song, a psalm if you will:
We return to Love
And Love is all around, and Love is all around
All of life is a homecoming
Homecoming, homecoming
All of life is a homecoming
A coming home to God

It is often overlooked that much of the Bible consists of poetry, parables and songs. The prophets, like Ezekiel, most often use poetry and psalms to convey God’s truths. And Jesus taught with “many such parables” like the mustard seed parable.

What ought to interest us in all of this is that poetry, parables and songs are open to interpretation.  That is, they do not represent a single meaning or a single truth. In fact, the Bible itself constantly recycles these poems, parables and songs to address specific situations in different Biblical eras.

This is how the Bible chooses to teach us about how it is we might “walk by faith, not by sight,” as St. Paul instructs the community in Corinth. We tend to approach the texts looking for “the answer.” Yet, the same Augustine in his Confessions writes (in book twelve) that any particular verse in the Bible is capable of conveying more than one truth. He goes so far as to say each verse can have two, three, four, five or more truths.

So when we hear Ezekiel writing about God taking a sprig off the top of a high cedar and transplanting it, Ezekiel may be writing about God taking a small remnant of Israel after a long exile in Babylon, bringing them back to fertile territory and replanting, tending, and growing a new Israel that will provide shelter and nurture for all kind of “birds” and “winged creatures” of all kinds. This may be a fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham that God’s people would become a blessing to all the peoples and creatures of the earth.

It is easy to imagine how those Jews, including followers of Christ, might hear in this a word of hopefulness after the Roman Empire destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israel in the year 70. This was to be a watershed moment that led to the creation of early Christian communities and a whole new way of being Jewish as the rabbinic Judaism of today was born out of the ashes of the Temple. This hopefulness was true for both groups of faithful servants of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

Jesus himself recycled the imagery of Ezekiel’s poem to deliver his teaching in the Mustard Seed Parable in which once again we hear that “this smallest of all seeds” grows up to provide shelter for all the birds of the air among its branches.

As Christianity and Judaism branched out into various new forms throughout the centuries, this poem by Ezekiel no doubt gave new strength, vision and hopefulness for diverging beliefs of how it is we are “to walk by faith, not by sight.” Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all have very different views on how we are to do this – all of which are “true” for these very different communities. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews also embody various truths about how to walk in faith. Similar claims can be made about Shia, Sunni and Sufi Muslims; Tibetan, Mahayanist, Theravada, and Zen Buddhists, and so on.

It strikes me as ironic that Augustine was comfortable with there being multiple meanings and multiple truths all the way back in the fourth century church, and yet today we are insistent on their being only one “correct” truth – which of course is almost always “my truth.”

Both Ezekiel and Jesus point us to the hidden nature of Biblical faith – that is, that it is not something we ourselves create or achieve. It grows while we are sleeping. It grows by the hand of God. Faith is an act and gift of grace – amazing grace. John Newton, the one-time slave trader who wrote the now famous hymn Amazing Grace had just a mustard seed’s amount of faith which grew with each Atlantic crossing, until he realized just how sinful the “peculiar institution” of slavery really is. He left the slave trade, became an Anglican priest, served the poor, and became a driving force in the Abolitionist movement in England. No doubt like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, he had no real hand in growing his faith which led to the power of a song that changed the world – it was God at work in him, silently, hidden in the groans and sufferings of the African peoples he was transporting.

The Jesus of the gospels routinely chides his disciples – that would be us – for having so little faith. Yet, when they finally come to him asking for, demanding really, more faith, as if it were some commodity that could be bought or sold or dispensed, he comes back to the Mustard Seed parable and says, “If you only had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this tree be uprooted and planted in the sea!”

Buried beneath the surface of this parable, and in the poetry of the prophet, and the urgings of St. Paul, is the fact that we need to allow ourselves periods of what the Daoists call “doing not-doing,” or, wei wu wei – down time, sabbatical time. God’s creation and gift of the Sabbath day is the one gift of God we routinely do not accept. In a commodity driven society, we just don’t get it – that down time, time to do nothing more than commune with God, family and our neighbors, is what makes it possible for God to grow our faith. We are just too too busy to take a day off every week. Imagine what we could really do if we were to honor the Sabbath day? What if? What if we gave God one day a week to grow our faith from the mustard seed he places within each and every one of us? Think of the poems we might write! The parables we might tell! The songs we might sing! All of which, like simple tunes such as Amazing grace and We Shall Overcome, have the power to change us and change the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we only had faith as small as a mustard seed.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead
If you only have faith as small as a mustard seed.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Shepherd

Where Are We?
John 10:11-18 (NRSV)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

I am the good shepherd. There is a lot to be unpacked in just that one assertion by Jesus. Shepherds play crucial roles in the life of God’s people Israel. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all shepherds, as were, no doubt, Jacob’s twelve sons who were the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. King David is the ideal king, warts and all, and began his life as a shepherd. He shepherded his people through repeated times of trouble.Perhaps the most important of all shepherds was Moses who was on the run from the law for having slain an Egyptian taskmaster.

As Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he encountered a bush that burned but was not consumed. A voice from that bush gave Moses instructions that would lead to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s Egypt. When Moses asked the voice for its name it replied, “I am who I am.”

It is widely understood that whenever Jesus begins a sentence with the words, “I am,” that his is the voice from the bush – which the Fourth Gospel makes clear from the get-go – Jesus, the logos, the Word, was in the beginning with God and was God. And therefore is God.

Of course the words, “I am the good shepherd,” recall the familiar words of the 23rd psalm which once upon a time we used to have to memorize not just in Sunday School but in public school as well.  As comforting and pastoral as the 23rd psalm is, it often goes overlooked that it is written from the perspective of being under siege. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” At one time or another we all know what it feels like to be surrounded by enemies.

Enemies and hired hands abound.  Not much text analysis or cultural analysis is needed to know that that is true. Like the poor, Jesus may as well have said the false and bad shepherds you will always have with you. Often times they are so seductive, luring us into their snares – or running off when we are in most need of shepherding.

Not so our Good Shepherd who was, is and always will be the great “I AM.” His love is so wide, so deep and so broad. He is to be recognized by this love with which he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

At the end of the Fourth Gospel (chapter 21) is a scene that reflects back on this passage in chapter 10. The disciples are fishing but having no luck whatsoever. They are like sheep without a shepherd. A “stranger” on the shore shouts out that they need to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. No doubt they ask themselves, ‘What does he know? Who is he anyway?” Since nothing else is working, they give it a go, and lo and behold – the net was filled with very many fishes! Peter declares, “It is the Lord!” Whereupon he puts on his clothes, jumps in the water and swims ashore. There is Jesus with a charcoal fire, cooking up fish and bread. “Come and have breakfast,“he says. It recalls the times when they fed the five thousand, and again when they fed the four thousand and had baskets and baskets left over. Life in God’s kingdom is to look like this.

Then comes the scene that is meant to define who we are and whose we are. He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” “Why of course I love you.” “Then,” says Jesus, “feed my lambs.” A second time he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” “Then tend my sheep.” A third time (remember Peter had denied him three times) he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says yes a third time. “Feed my sheep.”

When the great “I AM” outlines our job description one is left to wonder just what have we been doing? As a church that is. What was meant to be a sharp and tart put-down of Judas is still the case – the poor we still have with us. Hungry sheep abound.

There is a Hasidic tale about a Russian rabbi in jail. The jailer asks him some questions about Holy Scripture. “Why does God ask Adam, ‘Where are you?’ Isn’t God all knowing?” “Do you believe the scriptures are true for all persons at all times and in all places?” “I do,” says the jailer. “Then God is asking all of us, including you, ‘Where are you? What have you done with your life so far? You are forty-six, where are you in your life right now?”

How did the rabbi know his age? The jailer was shaken to his core. So should we be, for we are Peter. What sort of feeding and tending do we do as a church? As a nation that makes such bold claims to being a “Christian nation?”

Three years ago this Sunday I led St. Peter’s in singing this old gospel folk song made popular by Jefferson Airplane. It was to be sadly prophetic. Yet, this early 19th century hymn means to wake us up to what it means if we are going to become the good shepherds God is calling us to be. This version was originally recorded in 1936 by Alan Lomax in a Virginia State Prison Farm where Jimmie Strothers, a blind, itinerant street singer was doing time for having murdered his wife. It is a song that explores the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, just as Jesus does in this tenth chapter of John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can't you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

The shepherd Moses says to his flock of assorted former slaves, “Today the Lord puts before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” We are all called, with our many and diverse gifts, to choose life, a life as God’s shepherds.  Jesus I Am asks us, “Where are you? Do you love me?” Our answer to these questions holds the power to change the world. Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fiercely Loyal Thomas

John 20:19-31
“…so that you may come to believe…”

It is a particular tragedy of the modern church that the Sunday after the Resurrection (Easter) has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” or even worse “Low Sunday” due to the fact that just a week ago churches around the world were filled to overflowing with people, and just a week later comes what is recorded in most church registers as the lowest attended Sunday of the year. It is as if the Easter proclamation was either so astoundingly fantastic that people are now fully engaged in the word and life of Jesus that there is no time to be wasted by “going to church,” or that the proclamation was so incredibly dreadful that there simply seems to be no reason to return let alone engage in the word and life of the Risen Jesus. Of course it could simply be that after the activities of Lent, Holy Week, and the big-scale production of Easter liturgies, has just exhausted the faithful who need a week off to catch their breath and begin again.

The misunderstandings of this passage which is read every Sunday after Easter, and often again some part of it on Pentecost some fifty days later, abound. Poor Thomas takes the worst of it. In the Fourth Gospel  there may be no disciple more loyal than Thomas.  For it is he and he alone who, when Jesus finally says they are to go visit Lazarus and raise him from his four days in the tomb, and the others begin to whine saying, “But Lord, there are those in and around Bethany who want to kill you, please do not make us go!” It is Thomas and Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go that we may die with Him.” (John 11:6)

And as no less a scholar and priest who understood clearly what the implications of belief really are than William Temple observes, Thomas’ demand to have the same experience of the Risen Jesus as the disciples had experienced the day of Resurrection is evidence of ‘a stong urge to believe, held down by commonsense and its habitual dread of disillusionment.’ (Readings In St. John’s Gospel, p. 390)

Demanding to “see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I shall in nowise believe,” is what Temple calls Thomas’ “strong negative,” a sign of just how deep is his grief over the events of the previous week is, and a profound desire to continue his relationship with the Jesus for whom he personally was willing to give up his own life. Are we really ready to dispense with him so easily by mockingly calling him Doubting Thomas? The life of the church has sadly produced relatively few persons of such character as Thomas from the St. Stephens, St. Pauls and St. Peters, Perpetua and Felicity, all the way forward to the Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Dietrich Bonhoffers, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutus, and Dorothy Days. He who is believed to have travelled to India and to have baptized the first Christians in that part of the ancient world, we dare to think of him as Doubting Thomas, a name which has entered the vernacular as a description for anyone anywhere who expresses doubts about anything whatsoever? It confirms what Kurt Vonnegut said once in a Palm Sunday sermon, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time!”

Much of our confusion about Thomas comes from our confusion about the way in which the narrator of the Fourth Gospel uses the word pisteu which in modern day English gets translated as believe. First, it is crucial to understanding John’s unique use of this word over 100 times in his Gospel, a word that is not found in the other three gospels, is a verb. He never uses the noun form of the word. That is “belief” in John’s gospel is not some thing or some idea that one possesses. It is rather something we are and do. In what is arguably the most incarnational of the four gospels, John urges the reader and hearer of the Word to embody the Risen Jesus. That is, pisteu, believing, is something we are to become, it is what we are to Be. And as Gordon Cosby, late of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C. used to say often, “Being must precede doing.”

Indeed, it is in the Fourth Gospel that the Risen Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee queries Peter about his Love and insists that the kind of Love and Believing  Jesus is looking for revolve around feeding and tending the lambs and sheep of His flock, that is the people Jesus cares about and loves the most: widows, orphans, resident aliens, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, strangers, and all those people everywhere who  exist as outcasts on the margins of “civilized society.” (Matthew 25, etc)

Believing is an action that we are to do, not something we possess. It involves a relationship of trusting or entrusting oneself to Jesus, or God, or quite simply to doing those things God and Jesus call us to do (see above). It means something more like the Jesus in John calls us to do which is to abide in him and with him. Abide in the sense of to remain or stay with someone, to continue with, or even to live with or dwell with someone, which is how John’s gospel begins: we are told that the Word (Logos) is God, and that the Word becomes “flesh” and “dwells among us.”  In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, and throughout the Hebrew and Greek Bible, “to dwell” means to pitch one’s tent among us.

So that when Thomas, without touching the wounds at all, makes the first proclamation in John, “My Lord and my God,” he is the first to affirm exactly the claim John makes at the very outset of this gospel, that Jesus is God who becomes one of us, who sets up residence in our midst, and who calls us to a life of believing as a verb, abiding in the Word and the very work God in Christ comes to do – which as even the girls in my World Religions class can see is to show us what it means and how to be human – imago Dei, created in the image of God.

This Sunday after the Resurrection ought to be called Fiercely Loyal Thomas Sunday, and no doubt (no pun intended) ought to cause some degree of fear and trembling to enter our hearts and souls asking ourselves: Am I even in some tiny place in the heart of my very Being able to embody some small aspect of who Jesus is in my life the way in which Thomas is so very loyal and trusting of his Lord and his God?

We can abide with Jesus. We can dwell with Jesus. Our belief can be an active part of who we are and whose we are, and lead us to do those things God in Christ calls us to do. As John concludes, this story, and all the stories in John, are written so that we might entrust ourselves unto the God who offers his Peace, his Shalom, his unfolding reign of justice, peace and dignity for all persons – not some, not a few, not lots and lots of people, but all persons.

“Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace, Shalom, be with you.” We are to become Peace so, we are to become Shalom, so that like Thomas we may live lives of Peace and Shalom for all people. This is what “to believe”  as a verb is all about.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Happy Easter!

Easter - John 20: 1-18
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Of the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb, this story in John is my favorite. And it is the traditional gospel to be read on Easter morning around the world and throughout the ages.

Early in the morning, so early we are told it is still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and sees that the stone is set aside. In those days a round stone like a mill-stone and actually called a rolling stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb. Although the text does not say so, she must have looked in because she runs back to tell the other disciples that the tomb is empty. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”

Peter and “the other disciple,” quote, “the one whom Jesus loved,” race to the tomb, with the “other disciple” out-running Peter. He looks in and sees nothing but the linen cloths, the burial cloths, lying there – a reminder of the linen cloths that wrapped him in swaddling as a baby in a manger? Then Peter goes in and surveys the scene, followed by the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” and at that moment we are told that he believed.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Then they went home. Not Mary. She stands outside the tomb, and bends over to look in. The tombs were rather small. It would be hard to stand up inside.  Lo and behold, what does she see?

That’s right, two angels, one where his head had been lain, and one by where his feet had been.  She stands outside the tomb weeping. Jesus had been the one person who understood her and had made her feel healthy and whole again. All her life she had been restless, agitated, uncomfortable with herself. But Jesus had changed all that. Jesus had accepted her for who she was and made her feel like a real person again. Now he was not only dead he was gone.

The angels speak to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Which surely would make more sense – that is that someone broke in and stole the body.  It makes much more sense than a dead man three days dead coming back to life again. As she thinks of all of this she bumps into a man and supposes it is the gardener. The tomb is in a garden after all. There must be a gardener.

He asks the same thing as the angels, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “If you have taken him away tell me where he is!” Then he replies with only one word. He says her name. “Mary.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

There is only one person who ever said her name just like that. But it does not look at all like he used to look. But it is his voice saying her name.  “Rabouni!” she cries out, which means rabbi or teacher.
Evidently she is holding on to him for dear life for the risen Jesus needs to say, “Do not hold onto me because I have to return to Love,  I must return to my Father. But go tell my disciples that I am ascending to my father and your father, my God and your God.  I am going home to Love!” And she told them he had said these things to her.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Several things in all of this. Please note it is a woman who first discovers and announces to others that he is gone from the tomb. And that rather than simply take her word Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved” go to see for themselves, as if Mary Magdalene may not be that reliable. But reliable she is.

And we are told that the disciple whom Jesus loves sees for himself and believes.

It has long been a mystery as to just who that disciple is. The long standing assumption is that it is the disciple John who perhaps is the narrator of the Gospel of John. From there the list goes on including the possibility that it is another woman, a Samaritan woman, whom Jesus met one day at the well of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

There is, however, another possibility, one which I believe makes the most sense. The other disciple whom Jesus loves is the reader or listener to this story and who, like the person in the story, believes. That is the beloved disciple is you, or me, or anyone who hears this story and believes.

Gospel means “good angel” or “good news.” If I am right, this is really good news because any one of us and in fact all of us can be the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loves. This is really good news! This is why the world over beginning Easter Sunday and all week long, and for the next 50 days, people everywhere shout out:

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!