Saturday, March 30, 2019


[RCL]: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

An image is formed by these lectionary passages, most especially by the epistle and the gospel story, of a God with open arms ready to receive us in a loving embrace. This image is constant and unchanging. Past and future don’t exist in the eternal present of God’s embrace: God is always waiting; God is always willing to take us in; God does not look back to our own miserable past, but God offers us the immediacy of love. Keep this image before your eyes.

“All this is from God,” St. Paul assures us, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” This act of reconciliation is rather difficult for us to understand since reconciliation implies that each side has been estranged before coming together—that, as we have drawn away from God, God has drawn away from us. Here is where language fails us, because, as both Jesus and Paul make it quite clear, it is we who have moved away, we who must return and be reconciled. God’s arms remain open in order to embrace us when we return. These arms never push us away. Never.

In the familiar parable of what has come to be called The Prodigal Son, the father has never stopped loving the child who chose to go away, to live a dissolute life. Through one powerful sentence in the story—But while he was still far off, his father saw him—we too see the father constantly on the lookout for his lost son. And even though this formerly rich, well-nourished, and well-dressed young profligate is now filthy, skinny, and in rags, the father recognizes him from afar and runs to meet him with open arms.

The picture of the younger son who lives a life of sin and estrangement is nothing new. We recognize him all too well. He is the perfect image of selfishness—he takes what the father offers and goes away in order to waste it. We recognize human selfishness because it resides in all of us; we recognize the sin of saying “I am my own, I belong only to myself, I owe nothing to my Creator; I will do as I please.” All we have to do is glance at this new form of estrangement ironically called “social media.” The worship of Mammon and the fulfillment of all personal desires without regard to consequences are in front of our eyes daily in this age where nothing is private and nothing seems to be considered sacred. If we allow ourselves, we become witnesses to human lust, degradation, narcissism, greed, lies, and isolation pictured before us in films, computers, television, and media of all kinds. We see the condition of our own culture as we watch the younger son in this parable lowering himself to the ultimate degradation for a Jew of his time; to live among pigs. In the eyes and ears of Jesus’ Jewish listeners, nothing was dirtier than dealing with pigs.

If the story ended there, with expressions of “It served him right because he was an ungrateful son,” the depression and desperation would be complete. But, thanks be to God, the story does not end there. The young man looks at his condition and is first aware of the terrible needs of his body, of hunger: “Here I am living among pigs while even my father’s servants have enough to eat.” Of course, this is a selfish reaction, but we are tied to the needs of the physical self and it’s an honest reaction. God gave us life and life must be preserved. But immediately, like the psalmist, the young sinner acknowledges his sin and does not conceal his guilt: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This is the beginning of repentance, of turning around, of knowing that we don’t belong to ourselves alone. Our separation, our sin, is first against heaven and then against those who have loved us. Acknowledging this state is the first step toward reconciliation.

The young son sets off to return to his father, confident that he will be received, because he knows his father’s heart. And he is not wrong. The father is indeed keeping vigil, his arms open, his eyes searching the horizon to see the returning son, to recognize him as his own, no matter how disfigured he now is.

When the young man left his home years before, clutching his treasure, his thought was: I can do what I want. I am my own. Now he returns knowing that he belongs to his father, that he is not his own. And as he is received into the open arms of his loving father, he becomes the recipient of extreme generosity and largesse: excellent food, clean clothes, good footwear, and extravagant celebration—although he deserves none of it. It is enough that he has repented. He enters into the new creation made possible by reconciliation.

In St. Paul’s understanding of the work of God through Christ, we can also understand the full meaning of this superb story. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In the image Jesus paints of his Father, we begin to see this new creation. The father of the Prodigal Son does not ask, “What have you done to bring yourself to this condition?” He doesn’t reprimand and say, “I warned you that this would happen to you if you lived according to your desires.” No, he asks nothing of the past because the “old has passed away.” What comforting words these are. “The old has passed away.”

Yet, reconciliation doesn’t stop there. St. Paul makes it abundantly clear that now that God has taken us back into God’s embrace, “reconciled us to himself through Christ,” we receive a new gift: “the ministry of reconciliation.” We cannot remain enclosed in this loving embrace without becoming “ambassadors for Christ.”

There is so much misery in this world, so much living in both physical and spiritual hunger and in the degradation of all that is holy. The ministry of reconciliation, of spreading the good news of God’s new creation in Christ, belongs to us. This may be daunting, even frightening, but it is there. We cannot escape it. We must continue to remember that in this new creation, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” as St. Paul declares.

In a country that is bitterly divided, at a time when hatred seems to be winning over love and where hostility works against reconciliation, let us move as true ambassadors for Christ to spread the good news of God’s embrace for all of God’s creation and created beings. “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” St. Paul’s entreaty rings in our ears: “On behalf of Christ.” And the image of a loving father, of God’s arms ready to embrace each lost child, stays before our eyes as we proceed in this Lenten season toward resurrection.

Katerina Katsarka Whitley, a former church journalist, is a book author and retreat leader. She holds regular writing workshops and teaches Intercultural Communication at Appalachian State University. She was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, but lives and writes in Boone, NC.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Temptation's 'Bout to Get Me

A white supremacist kills 50 and wounds 50 others in an armed attack on worshippers in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques; recalling the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killing four young girls and wounding nearly two dozen others.
Historic flooding in the American Midwest region leaves at least 3 dead along with countless dead and stranded livestock leaves many farmers facing the end of their livelihood. One intentional tragedy, one natural disaster.

In Luke 13: 1-9 Jesus is asked about an incident in which Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea with headquarters in Jerusalem, had slaughtered a number of Galilean pilgrims and their animals as they had come to the Jerusalem Temple to offer the appointed sacrifices. And he talks about 18 Judeans who were killed as the Tower of Siloam had collapsed on them as they went about their day in Israel’s seat of religious and political power. One was a state-sponsored terror attack meant to control the captive population Israel under Roman occupation. One would seem to be an accident – although an inquest might reveal corners were cut on the government contracts to build and maintain the tower, a part of the city’s fortification.

In the incident involving Pilate, those around Jesus knew he was on his way to Jerusalem and were perhaps warning him to change his direction and his mind. Jesus seems to suspect they might harbor the all-too-human tendency to question who might be at fault when he replies, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Whatever anyone else thought, Jesus is on a single-minded mission: calling people to repent. Not a word we hear much these days. We spend millions in investigations just to get people to confess, “Yes, I did it and I’m sorry.”  In Holy Baptism the question is put to us all, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” From the day he emerged from his forty-day wilderness sojourn, Jesus has been calling anyone and everyone who will listen to repent, “for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

His answer suggests he is not concerned with who is to blame, or why bad things happen to good and innocent people. After all, he reads the scriptures. He knows the sun shines on the good and the bad, just as the rain falls on the good and the bad. To their warnings about Pilate he issues his own warning: repentance cannot be delayed, for death may come at any time. Repentance needs to be an ongoing attitude toward one’s life, rather than an occasional act.

That is, we all fail daily, even hourly, to love God and love our neighbor – which Jesus extends to love our enemies as well. Surely people who traveled with him on what was a dangerous road to Jerusalem, and a dangerous city in so many ways – surely people struggled, after hearing of Pilate’s act of terror on faithful pilgrims in Jerusalem to worship their God as their ancestors had done for centuries in that very place – surely they must have struggled to understand just what it might mean to love Pilate alongside God and neighbor. Surely, we struggle as well to extend love to the mass murderer in Christchurch. Surely, we struggle to understand just what it would mean for us to love the hundreds of farmers who have worked their land for generations and now stand to lose everything. Or, to understand how four men in Birmingham could have such malice of heart to murder four innocent girls worshipping in a church on a Sunday.

Jesus seems to say there is no time to “understand” all of this. It is time for repentance. To turn our lives around. To turn our collective lives around. To reorient our lives to love God and love neighbor, even to the point of loving our enemies. He knows repentance is not a one-time, once-in-awhile affair taken care of on Ash Wednesday, Yom Kippur, in a confessional booth, or in a general confession on Sunday morning. Repentance must be a way of life – the way of life for us all if we are to be citizens of God’s gracious reign over all. As the Shaker hymn has it, we all need to “turn, turn till we come down right.”

The Hebrew word is “shuve,” to turn. The idea being we find ourselves distracted – as individuals and as a community and a nation. We are distracted by political ideologies. We are distracted by the “issue of the day.” We are distracted by all the shiny objects we see on the internet and want shipped to our door – tomorrow. Forgetting, perhaps, that the only one of the Ten Commandments delivered twice is, “Thou shalt not covet….and if you did not hear me, thou shalt not covet.” We are distracted by thinking we are good and innocent people, and then we find ourselves saying things about others behind their backs. We turn away from God’s way.

Every day we all end up walking astray from the path God in Christ sets for us; or the Buddha sets for us; or Lao T’zu sets for us. Or, Confucius sets for us; or Mohamed sets for us; or Lord Krishna sets for us. Or, Socrates sets for us. Or, the Hebrew Prophets set for us.

To sin means to miss the mark – stray from the path. It means to forget who we are and whose we are. Jesus says we all do it. We even see him forget, such as his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who wants him to heal her daughter and instead he calls her and her people “dogs.” Wow, does he ever forget, just like us!

To turn, to repent, must be a way of life. Every day. Not just once a year, or once a week, or even just once a day. We must turn, turn till we come down right! And even then, just keep turning. Because health and well being may be ended in the twinkling of an eye. Because we rarely know when the end is near. It means resisting all sorts of temptations that face us all day long. Temptation’s ‘bout to get me, temptation’s ‘bout to get me, temptation’s ‘bout to get me, and all my strength will come tumblin’ down.

Jesus ends with a parable about a fig tree; a man who orders it to be cut down since it has produced no figs; and a gardener who says give it some love and give it another chance, another year. If no figs then, “You cut it down!”  Therein lies the tension: God’s grace says I’ll give you another chance. But will we take that chance today to turn, turn till we get it right? Will we repent today? This minute? Right now?

There is a world of those who suffer every day like those in Jerusalem did. They need us, God needs us, Jesus needs us, the world needs us to repent. We can produce figs every day. If only we will take all our second-chances to repent now. Today. And every day. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Wings of God

Praying for the Dead and Injured in Christchurch
“O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.” (Jeremiah 6.26)

God, all holy, all loving, hear the cry of your people in Christchurch,
those caught up in the horrors, those witnessing the effects of so much hate,
those who hear the news from far away.
From north and south, from east and west,
draw your peoples into a closer union,
that we may challenge hatred with love,
the fear of the other with friendship
and all evil with your goodness. Amen.

The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Southwark Cathedral, Church of England

This Second Sunday in Lent we pray, “O God, whose glory is always to have mercy….” We begin this day with an acknowledgment of that which lies at the heart of God’s glory: mercy. It is Kurt Vonnegut who once observed in his Palm Sunday Sermon that being merciful is the best idea we have been given so far. For when we are merciful we are close to the heart of God’s glory.

In Luke 13: 31-35, Jesus points the reader to Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter in language that is both code and metaphor. He references the dangers that have long lurked in Jerusalem for those who challenge the status quo – prophets who repeatedly, again and again, call upon the King and the religious authorities to return – repent – to the Way of God, the Way of Torah, the way of being in this world that calls us all to care for widows, orphans, resident aliens and all those with few or no resources.

This is not the first time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus recalls that those who call for reform are often sent to their death. So, when the Pharisees warn him as he heads toward Jerusalem that Herod wants him killed, Jesus already accepts this as fact and declares it will not deter him: “Tell that fox I still have God’s work to do and will not be stopped.” After which he acknowledges the danger that lies ahead, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

When he gets there, he pauses outside the city walls on the Mount of Olives where in Luke 19: 41-42 we read, “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” When I first saw Jerusalem from that very place, the gold-leaf Dome of the Rock gleaming in the setting sun, I too was suddenly moved to tears and was told later by a companion that I was repeating over and over again, “It’s all there…it’s all there…”

It seems now that dangers that lurked in Jerusalem that day that the Pharisees try to warn him now lurk in nearly every religious center around the globe: two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA; a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI; an African-American church in Charleston, SC, and on May 3, 2012, my parish church, St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, MD. We need to remember, in every era Herod finds allies among people of faith. Everywhere is now Jerusalem. An attack in any one of these places is an attack on us all, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Christian. Like Jesus we have been warned. Like Jesus, we continue the work God gives us to do, being merciful toward all people every day. It’s hard work. It’s the work of God’s mercy.

Jesus’ words of judgment hang over us all every day. Over against his words of judgment are his poignant words of lament: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus applies to himself imagery of protection the Hebrew Bible assigns to God (Psalm 27, Deut 32:11, etc.). Neither God nor God’s son may be likened to a fox that preys on the young of others, but rather to the hen who diligently cares for her young.

I have friends at Diemand’s Egg Farm in Wendell, MA, who assure us that this image is true. They say that a mother hen will gather the chicks to keep them warm or to protect them from danger. Though sometimes in times of danger she will, like other birds, attempt to draw the dangerous animal away from the chicks, possibly sacrificing her own life to do so. To gather them under her wings, she will fluff up her feathers. Then she will cluck or squawk at them, kick them, peck at them or just plain gather them under her wings. She makes it clear she wants them all there beside her. God in Christ wants us all beside her.

This God whose glory is mercy wants us beside her, now and always. And she will peck and cluck and squawk at us until we all get under her wings – until we all join in doing the work of mercy and compassion for others – all others – no matter the danger involved. Jesus says he is the wings of God. He invites all who hunger and thirst to come under his wings to live our lives with God doing the things God does most: being merciful. God knows how often we squirt out from under her wings – but she always welcomes us back.

God needs us. Jesus needs us. The world needs us. We are all in Jerusalem now, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jew, Gentile, Atheist, Agnostic. It is time to be Merciful as God is Merciful. “From north and south, from east and west, draw your peoples into a closer union, that we may challenge hatred with love, the fear of the other with friendship
and all evil with your goodness.” We know the things that make for Peace. Or, do we? Amen.

I am the wings of God
All you hunger, all you who thirst
I am the wings of God

Life lived with God never ends
Life lived with God never ends
All you hunger, all you who thirst
Life lived with God never ends

We are the wings of God
We are the wings of God
All you hunger, all you who thirst
We are the wings of God

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Remember That Thou Art Dust

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
“What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
 “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Remember. That’s how Lent begins. Remember. Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. Remember – to call to mind once again. Not to forget. At the end of the day, all of religion and all religions, and in many ways all of life itself, depends on remembering. This is especially true of Biblical religion, and yet, a look at the history of the Church reveals that most often we forget.

Placing all other interesting and sometimes helpful interpretations of what we call The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness aside [Luke 4:1-13], the necessity to remember is at the heart of it. It often goes unnoticed that the devil - who in Biblical terms is an adversary, or a false accuser – challenges Jesus three times. And three times Jesus responds with words from the last book of Torah, Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy depicts Moses sitting everyone down after the long sojourn in the wilderness, where a diverse group of former slaves had become a people, God’s people Israel, to make sure that everyone remembers who they are and whose they are before crossing the river into the land of promise and new beginnings. Deuteronomy itself can be said to be a Book of Remembering.

It is no wonder, then, that when the devil challenges, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Remember, Jesus has not eaten for a long time, what the Bible calls forty days, which means longer than a lunar cycle, longer than a month. Like his ancestors in the wilderness for forty years, he is hungry. Yet, he remembers, “It is written, “One does not live on bread alone.” Recalling Deuteronomy 8:3 as Moses reminds the people of the gift of manna, and says, ‘One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’” That is, one’s need for bread is secondary to one’s need for every word of God, among which are words that one does not make a miracle of turning stones to bread for oneself, but one is to share the bread one has with others so that others also might live.

Again, the devil’s second temptation is of political power over the whole world if only he will worship him. Jesus remembers Deuteronomy 6:13, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" No doubt he also remembers the sad times in his people’s past when idolatry of other nations gods, and having a king like other nations did, became just so much idolatry and resulted in the people being sent into Exile and a return to slavery.

Finally, Satan plays mimics Jesus’ scripture game and quotes Psalm 91:11-12 daring Jesus to leap off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus remembers Deuteronomy 6:16, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" At which point the devil “…departed from him until an opportune time.” That being, the time of the Passion and Crucifixion. Jesus has remembered that God alone is God, and that the word of the Lord, when remembered, is what shapes the community of God’s people to be a light to the world – the whole world. Jesus knows, as Moses knew all the way back in Deuteronomy, that once a people forgets its past, it loses both its present and future. Returning us to the aphorisms of George Santayana, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: the idea that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

If we dare to think that Santayana and the rest are wrong, we just need to look around. We cannot even get 435 people in one room to unanimously renounce hate speech of all kinds. Twenty-three US representatives voted No. And Representative King, disciplined by Congress for years of hate speech, simply voted present. Present. He did not even have the guts to vote up or down on hatred. Or, why there is even one elected representative in Congress who does not want to approve of measures to assure that every citizen who wants to vote will have that right to do so unfettered? We see more neo-Nazis marching around and harassing people. There are more anti-Semites, more KK Klan members, more uber-Nationalists throughout Europe and around the globe than ever. We are told 22% of American millennials have never heard of the Holocaust, and two-thirds do not know what Auschwitz is. There is an elected President in Russia who can order people to be murdered other sovereign nations any time he wants it. A crown prince in Saudi Arabia does the same. Our fetish with American boundaries and border protection has deep roots in the kind of White Supremacy and dreams of Manifest Destiny that sustained slavery, stole one-third of Mexico in a ginned-up war, stole Spanish territories around the world on a faked sabotage allegation, and the breaking every known treaty with the native peoples of the Americas to confiscate all their religious and hunting grounds.

All because we refuse to remember. And we refuse to heed the warnings of modern-day prophets of God’s word like William Sloane Coffin who opined, “The world is too dangerous for anything but Truth, and too small for anything but Love.” To which one might add, and too complicated to ignore and forget our shared history with the rest of the world’s countries and religions. We must remember. And then like Moses and Jesus, we need to remember who we are and whose we are.

As one commentary warns, however, “Yet a caveat is in order. A people’s memory is a beneficial force in their lives and in the lives of others only to the extent that it reminds the owners of the memory that there are other stories and other memories. One of the challenges facing the twenty-first century is how humankind’s many-splendored ethnic and religious memories may be used in the service of the whole human family. If the ancient hatreds are ever to be laid to rest, some selective forgetfulness must take place, or humans will continue to fight the old battles over and over. So, George Santayana was only partly right. It may be true, as he wrote, that those who ‘cannot remember their past are doomed to repeat it,’ but it is also true that those who remember history too vividly are doomed to be enslaved by it.”   [Texts For Preaching, Brueggemann, etc Year C, p.192]

There is a consummate and important humility in the way in which Lent calls us to remember: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” All people, all cultures, all religions share the same stardust, DNA, resources and destiny to thrive in this world. We must remember all this, or be doomed to be enslaved by the very worst our history reveals. We must remember.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday 2019

Who Knows?
“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come… Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?” [Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17]

“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground – then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living thing.” [Genesis 2:4b-7]

It is a toss-up. It’s a toss-up as to which of these, the verse from Joel, or the verse from Genesis, is perhaps the most precious and touching verse in all of Holy Writ. Consider Joel. The prophet sees a vision of total destruction of the land for the people’s unfaithfulness to the Lord’s commandments to Love God and Love neighbor [ Leviticus 19: 18, 33-34]

For lack of Love, God will vanquish the land. Famine and dust bowl and depression and refugees and agribusiness and climate change and HIV/Aids and terrorism and warfare and opioid addiction and gun violence and domestic violence and violence against LGBTQ people and violence against women and racism are images that may come to mind. But, says Joel, who knows? Who knows? That is the question for us all.

Yet, there is time to repent, to return to the Lord, to make a sacrifice and an offering for our sins. Yet, who knows? Who knows that God himself will not, out of love and compassion and being slow to anger and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, perhaps this very God will sneak into the Temple which is now empty due to the fact that there is no animal and no plant to sacrifice at the altar of the Lord, and leave an offering of cereal and drink?

Who knows, maybe God will repent, return, on our behalf and even provide the offering we are unable to make ourselves, so that this merciful God can then forgive us. Do we get the power of this at all? Can we begin to comprehend a God who loves us this much? A God whom we pray this day hates nothing, as in no-thing, that God has made. Can we grasp this? No wonder this God gets upset and angry when we presume to hate anything that God has made. Or, anyone. This is what grieves God the most, we can be assured: our hatred of others, our mistreatment of others, our lack of compassion, charity and love.

Yet, Joel imagines, the prophet imagines, the prophet calls for us to imagine that such a God is so abounding in steadfast love that God himself will sneak into the empty Temple of our lives and leave our offering of repentance for us so that God can get on with the business of forgiving us. Who knows?

But then, reading the verse from Genesis chapter two, how could it possibly be otherwise? Before anything at all was, the Lord our God scooped up a handful of dust, breathed into it, and poof – there we were, male and female made in God’s own image. Imago Dei! Made in the image of God, male and female and all creation. When we sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands” do we even remember how it all began. How we began? In God’s hands: one moment there is nothing but dust, the next moment male and female in Gods’ own image, Imago Dei!

This is why we are here today. To remember how it all begins. To remember how we all began. All as in all. As in the God who hates nothing and no one God has made. To remember: We come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. We are but dust and to dust we shall return. But we are Holy Dust, Sacred Dust – and as science has told us we and all of creation are made of Stardust! Who knew? Who knows?

All. Nothing. Then everything. God breathes into a handful of dust and we became living beings. God gives us our very breath. “By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Breath – the Ruach, the Breath of God.”

We mark ourselves with the Holy dust of last year’s palms, the holy ash of last year’s hosannas which so quickly turned to dust, betrayal and loss; the ashes of all the times we forgot about God’s love; the ashes of all the times we forgot to love all things, all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being; the ashes of our own incapacity to help ourselves. As these ashes are placed upon our foreheads, can we imagine a God so in love with us that God will make the “we are sorry” offering of our repentance on our behalf so that this same God who breathes life into our nostrils with the inspiration of God’s own Spirit-breath, can get on with the business of forgiving us?

Who knows, says the prophet? Who knows?

We know. We are those people who know. That is why we are here. Even if we cannot worthily lament our sins, we are here because we can imagine God will stoop to help us lament and help us make offerings and help us to rend our hearts and open our hearts so that God can move in and make us well again – make us whole again.

As far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our sins from us. “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and magnify thy Holy Name.”

Who knows?

We take time this day to know so that we can say, “Yes, Lord, we know! We know you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. We know you are the God of all mercy, and love, and compassion. Who knows? We know!”

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Radical Astonishment

The 28th verse of the Ninth chapter of Luke’s gospel begins, “About eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up to the mountain to pray.”
“These sayings” includes telling them he would die, he would be raised again, that to be a disciple of his we need to pick up our cross daily, and that it is necessary to lose our lives to save them. Knowing that is what had been said makes it more readily apparent why he went up on the mountain to pray. In many ways, this story we call The Transfiguration, is the whole story wrapped up in one mysterious episode. [Luke 9:28-43a]

Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling white as the three sleepy disciples look on. The change in Jesus’ appearance would certainly be reminiscent of those many times Moses had ascended the mountain, entered the tent and met with God face to face. His face would so shine that the people could not look upon him when he would come back down. [Exodus 34:29-35] This all makes it seem quite natural that under such similar circumstances Moses would appear, with Elijah, he of the blazing chariot, to pay Jesus a visit before his “departure” in Jerusalem.

The Greek word for departure means Exodus. They were talking about his Exodus which would occur in Jerusalem: Jesus would die, as he had told them, and in three days depart the bonds of death. This is his Exodus and why we call Jesus our Passover. His deliverance from the bonds of this world was soon to take place. So, we can think of Moses and Elijah paying a pastoral visit, assuring Jesus that they have been here before, and that sure enough, just as it had been in the wilderness, just as it had been in those days of famine, just has it has been throughout the history of our people, God does provide a way out.

God would provide Jesus an Exodus, an escape route, a way out of bondage, a way out of the hard times, a way beyond and passing over death to a life lived with God all the time. Eternal life with God. This way would come to be called Resurrection.

Peter does not miss the importance of what is going on in the least, and suggests building three booths. A highly technical term for a shelter resembling the temporary shelters in which the people Israel lived during their wilderness sojourn. A shelter that can be picked-up and moved down the road. The kind of shelter in which all of Israel is commanded to live one week each year during the Festival of Succoth, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which we know Jesus and his disciples faithfully observed each year.

A festival which celebrates the very fact that in the wilderness God provides, and that we must in turn be grateful. So, to remember that and to show thanks, to this day the Jewish people build a Succoth booth for an eight-day remembrance. It must be built so that one can see the stars through the roof, and rain must be able to get in. During this eight-day celebration, one gathers together what are called the Four Species: branches of citron, willow, myrtle and Palm.

Palms, like those we gather from our last Palm Sunday which will be burned for ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday. All except the citron are bound to the Palm, making what is called a lulav. With the citron in one hand, the lulav in the other, they are waved in all four directions, north, south, east and west, then upwards and downwards to indicate that God is everywhere! In the synagogue the lulav, or Palm, is waved in the air as everyone dances around the bimah, the platform from where the Torah is read.

The Eighth Day of the Succoth festival is known as Shemini Atzeret, the day of assembly, or the “day of holding back,” stopping and waiting; or as Simchat Torah, the day the weekly Torah readings are completed, the scroll is turned back, and there is a huge celebration and procession with everyone getting to carry the scroll, waving the branches, singing and praising God.

The significance of Atzeret, or holding back, is quite interesting. The sages say that the reason for this eighth day celebration is related to this parable: God is like a king who invites all his children to a feast to last for just so many days; when the time has come for them to depart, he says to them: “My children, I have a request to make of you. Stay yet another day; your departure is difficult for me.” Which brings us back to that which Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking about: his departure or exodus.

It is often overlooked that they obviously spent the night on the mountain and did not come down until the next day. And the fact that none of the versions of this story says Peter did not build the booths. Raising the obvious question, what did they do all night? Celebrated Succoth and Simchat Torah/Smini Atzeret with God! God knew that he had to send his son to Jerusalem, but wants to keep him back for one more night because “Your departure is difficult for me.”

So difficult was this Exodus for Jesus that it did not end on Good Friday, any more than the great escape from Egypt was not the end of that first Exodus. Exodus is just the beginning, which is what the eight days of Succoth would remind Jesus and his disciples every year that they celebrated the festival. Waving the Palms North, South, East and West would remind them every year that wherever we are, God is.

And that our God is the one God who always wants just one more day with us. And one more after that. Eventually, of course, we all need to come down off the mountain, the exuberant celebrations need to end, and we all need to get back to the work God calls us to do – to heal a broken world; what is called Tikkun Olam.

Whatever might be said about Jesus of Nazareth, he shows us all how to live a life of Tikkun Olam, repairing a broken world. We sense his impatience with his disciples when they fail to heal a young boy. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” he blurts out. [Luke 9:41] Then he quietly and patiently takes care of the young man, and we are told, “All were astounded at the greatness of God!”

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of reminding us, we could all do with a little more astonishment in this world. Perhaps it begins by leaving the seemingly endless stream of chaotic events that distract us day and night, withdraw from it all as Jesus does, and pray.

In such moments of prayer perhaps we will be re-energized to open our eyes and see the work of God’s hand all about us. And perhaps if we spend one more day with the God who does not want us to leave, we too will be astounded at the greatness of God. And we too will find our exodus out of chaos back into the world of resurrection, and celebration and endless astonishment like those three disciples did on mountain top with Jesus one night long ago.