My mom started growing African violets when I was a kid. We had a number of them in her garden window in California. I now have several in a south facing window in our home in a garden tray my husband gave me for Christmas one year. They bloom constantly - even through the winter which brings color to our home in an otherwise colorless time. This little African violet came to me last December. It had been left behind by its previous owner and wasn't in the best shape. The leaves were small and discolored and there were no signs of any blooms on it at all. It would be easy to blame the condition of this violet on the prior owner’s neglect, but that would not be true. The prior owner watered and fed it and I have a “brown thumb” – I have even killed cactus! I mean, who kills cactus? Well … I do! It wasn't neglect, it was isolation. You see, these are “social” plants. They flourish when grouped together and wither when isolated from others. This week, on the same day the Baltimore riots started, this little violet bloomed. This made me I think about what this little plant and the readings this week say about Christian community.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Abide in me.” He didn't say, “Abide with me” or “Abide next to me” or “Abide somewhere over there at arm’s length.” No … he said “abide in me.” In so doing he makes it clear that to be a Christian means being incorporated into a mystical connection to him and with each other. It means being connected to people not like you and me – even people we may not like very much, people we don’t understand and people whose world view is very different from ours. It reminds us that this week’s riots on the heels of Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police affected us. Maybe the riots did not directly affect us but because we abide in Christ with our sisters and brothers in West Baltimore, the riots affected us. Perhaps they spurred some sense of outrage over how a man whose only apparent “crime” was to make eye contact with a police officer could end up dead. Maybe the riots made you angry at the rioters because you don’t understand why they would trash their own neighborhood. They affected me because I served a church in West Baltimore and I count the people of St. Luke’s as my friends. They were caught up in it and I was concerned for their safety. They have deep  seeded problems in their neighborhood – neglected schools, drugs and addiction, crime, lack of decent paying jobs, lack of access to fresh food, and a legacy of segregation. There is a lot of frustration and it reached an explosive point this week. I cannot excuse what happened, but I can understand why it happened. As Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These sisters and brothers who abide in Christ with us have been unheard for years … and we have been complicit in ignoring the problems. When I saw people who consider themselves good Christians posting comments on Facebook calling the rioters “thugs” and “criminals”, the words of John came roaring back to me: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Posting things on social media which label and call names isn’t part of the solution – and I can assure you many of our sisters and brothers in West Baltimore were as angry at the rioters and looters as we are.

It has been relatively safe for us to sit back and observe the riots and violence done to our sisters and brothers in Baltimore from a distance and it is hard to approach the enormity of the problems they face … it can lead us to be paralyzed where we are and do nothing. I confess I am overwhelmed by it. I asked some friends on Facebook message what we can do besides pray. They told me they don’t even know yet, but prayer is a good place to start. I think also we can take a hint from today’s story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Here is a story of Phillip encountering someone vastly different from himself. Think about it … we are talking about a story of the baptism of a gender queer African! He’s different from Phillip on at least three points: he’s African not Jewish, he’s a eunuch, and he’s in a different socio-economic status as a high court official. Phillip is led by the Spirit to go down to Gaza from Jerusalem when he is guided to approach the chariot. The Ethiopian eunuch is apparently headed the same direction. He may share the Jewish faith as he is reading from the prophet Isaiah and while we don’t know for certain, he may have been at the temple while in Jerusalem. Phillip is guided to approach the chariot and, before he engages the eunuch, he hears him reading. This is crucial because he now has a visual confirmation this person is different and, upon hearing his voice, Phillip would have known he was gender queer – a grown man with a high pitched voice would have pegged him as a eunuch immediately. But this didn’t stop Phillip from reaching across what obviously divided them to engage the eunuch. He accepts the invitation to get into the chariot and takes the opportunity to begin a relationship with this man by first listening to him! They discuss the Isaiah passage and Phillip shares his faith that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic text. When they come upon some water, the eunuch asks the million dollar question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” It’s a profound question because of his gender queer status. You see, as a eunuch, even if he were a devout Jew, he would have been only allowed into the outermost Court of the Gentiles in the temple compound. He would have known exclusion based on his gender queer status. While it brought him the privilege of working in the queen’s court, it also came with a burden. Phillip doesn’t let any of that get in the way – they go down into the water together. The answer to his question isn’t, “well, baptism is for everyone except …” This answer is “Nothing … absolutely nothing prevents you from being baptized.” Nothing prevents you or anyone else from abiding in Christ … and he came up out of the water rejoicing!

Phillip followed the Spirit’s call to reach across the divide of race, gender identity, and socio-economic strata to engage someone very different from him. Engaging is listening … not apologizing or defending your view, but listening first and remembering you abide in Christ with these sisters and brothers whose lives are very different – you are part of their community and we are part of theirs. Like this little African violet, we flourish when we are in community – and not just with people who look like us and live in our same zip code. We are called into deeper communion with Christ and each other when we enter into deep and meaningful connection with others who are different and who challenge us.

This morning, we have been asked to step outside our houses of worship for a moment of silence and prayer for our sisters and brothers in Baltimore. As things progress over the next few days, weeks and months, other opportunities to engage will emerge – but today we can begin with prayer … and we can begin to be like Phillip and reach across that which divides us to be a community who more fully abides in Christ.
 
 
Theologian Karl Barth once said that in order understand the scriptures one must have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He strongly believed the scriptures to be speaking to our time and I couldn’t agree more. But I think if he had lived long enough, he’d now say you need the Bible in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Isn’t that where most of us get our information these days? Sometimes it may even be the Bible in one hand and Facebook on your smartphone in the other! That happened this week for me as I was contemplating why these first two readings in the Easter season seem so fixated on wounds. I received a message from a colleague in the Chicago area – a fellow RevGalBlogPal who serves a community church there. She asked my prayers in a private Facebook message for a clergy friend who had died by suicide this past week. We often believe clergy are immune to things like suicide – after all, we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, right? Well, no … it’s not like that at all. We can fall into despair just like anyone else and we are not immune to any of the sufferings that others have. My colleague was mourning and shaken. Later this same colleague sent me a link that some of you may have seen on Facebook – a piece of news that I otherwise might not have seen since it happened outside our geographic area. It was the story of a third grade teacher who did an exercise with her class called “I wish my teacher knew …” She had her class fill in the blank of what they wished their teacher knew and the results were startling. The answers were raw and honest: “I wish my teacher knew that nobody plays with me at recess.” Ouch! “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my daddy since I was three because he was deported.” Wow! These are third graders! We somehow view childhood through rosy glasses and forget that all of us – no matter how old we are – are carrying wounds … serious wounds.

This week’s gospel reading from Luke appears to be a repeat of last week’s reading from John. Last week we heard of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples and especially to Thomas who refused to believe unless he saw and touched them. This week we hear of Jesus showing up with the same words, “Peace be with you” and once again showing his wounds with the words “Touch me and see.” Then in true Luke fashion, Jesus asks for something to eat … this is the gospel where he’s accused of being a drunk and a glutton! But all of this talk of wounds and showing wounds isn’t something we generally like to talk about, is it? We would rather avoid wounds all together, right? Wounds frighten us – we are afraid of our wounds, our own and those in others. But I think Jesus’ invitation to “Touch me and see” is an invitation to us to touch our wounds because in them is the hope for healing and resurrection.

The fear we have over wounds comes from our culture. We tend towards a social Darwinism touting “survival of the fittest” and that kind of thinking doesn’t make room for anyone to be hurt, does it? My experience tells me wounds are not easy for anyone, but they are especially hard for men in our culture. It’s OK for women to be wounded … we expect women to be “weaker” don’t we? But we really don’t make it OK for men to experience weakness and wounds. This is where Jesus defies the culture! He gets real and shows his wounds and by them, the disciples are healed. Even in the midst of their “disbelief” as Luke tells us – and seriously, who wouldn’t be confused and disbelieving? – the disciples begin to be healed precisely because Jesus is willing to show his wounds.

Franciscan spiritual leader and author Richard Rohr speaks of our troubled relationship with our wounds. He says that we can basically do two things with our pain. The first is to allow it to transform us – allow ourselves to experience our wounds and pain, work through the suffering, and allow the experience to transform (resurrect) us. The second option is to transmit our pain onto others. Sadly, most people take the second route because the first is scary and hard. Most people are pain transmitters because they have never done the deeper work of letting their wounds be a path to deeper transformation and healing – they are frightened of their wounds and pain. But letting it transform us allows us to become what Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers” – he actually wrote a book called The Wounded Healer. If we stop trying to run from and deny our wounds and instead let them be what they are and transform us, we can become wounded healers instead of “wounded wound-ers” (that’s what we are when we transmit our pain onto others). Being transformed, resurrected if you will, into wounded healers who offer hope to others who are suffering is part of our call as Christians.

I saw this happen last night. Last night, we held our first 12 Step Eucharist for Recovering People at Grace Church. We kept the publicity for this very low key to respect the 12th Tradition of anonymity in recovery. We put it on our Facebook page, I invited some folks I know in the recovery community to spread the word, and we handed out some flyers. Fourteen people showed up and we had an awesome speaker in Eric who likened recovery to his learning to fly a plane. What I seen in the rooms and what I saw in our gathering last night is the fact that people in recovery are brutally honest about their wounds. They know what addiction has done to them and their loved ones. Those committed to sobriety, from whatever addiction they are addressing, show their wounds to each other in the meetings and here last night. In their stories lies hope for recovery for others who are also wounded.

You see, Jesus was resurrected not as the “new and improved” version of himself but rather resurrected as one still bearing his wounds – one whose wounds have been transformed for the sake of all of us. This is also what can be true for us too. When we get real about the wounds in our lives, experience the pain of them, pray for the risen Christ to heal them, and are willing to share our resurrection experience to offer strength, hope and healing to others, these wounds become agents of grace and mercy to a hurting world.

So as we continue celebrating the hope of the resurrection this Eastertide, I invite you to examine your own wounds. Start with ones which have been healed well – those are the easier ones to address. Where might those healed wounds offer hope and encouragement to another? Where might you be hearing the invitation to show them to someone who needs the hope of resurrection in a tangible way? Now take a look at the wounds which may be more raw – the ones that may still be really hard to face because they are so fresh. You may not be ready to share those because they are not yet transformed and sharing them would make you a “wounded wound-er.” Take those to Christ in prayer. Ask for healing of those wounds and offer them to Christ as a gift. Yeah, I know that may sound weird and not the kind of gift we would normally give … but do it anyway. These wounds, offered in prayer and humility, can be transformed if you allow them to be so. And one day, you may very well be able to say to another person who is hurting, “Touch me and see … resurrection is real!"
 
 
“Just give me a reason, just a little bit’s enough. Wait a second, we’re not broken just bent – and we can learn to love again. It is in the stars, it’s been written on the scars of our hearts that we’re not broken just bent – and we can learn to love again.” Some of you recognize that song from Pink and you may even hear it played on our local radio station in the morning when our organist Dj is back in the booth at Key 103. I couldn’t get this song out of my head this week as I meditated on the gospel reading for this morning. You may not realize but this reading about the disciples being gathered and receiving the Holy Spirit from John’s gospel (yes, the one with “Doubting Thomas”) is always read on the second Sunday of Easter. So let’s just say, I’ve preached it a few times over the years. If a parish has a seminary intern, this is the Sunday the rector will pass on preaching in favor of giving the seminarian some air time. Its sheer familiarity becomes problematic to preaching. But this year, I want to look at it from another angle: one that incorporates what was addressed in the opening collect for the Second Sunday of Easter – the covenant of reconciliation and how our wounds can lead us into reconciliation where we can learn to love again.

This story takes place on the day of Resurrection – we are back on Easter Sunday. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene has already seen the risen Christ but, true to form, the guys don’t believe her. Peter and John run out to the burial site and see an empty tomb, but nothing more. Put yourself into their shoes for just a moment. You have thrown all caution to the wind in following this itinerant preacher who has been spreading a message of radical inclusion and love without measure. He healed lepers, gave sight to the blind, and he even raised his friend from the dead! Surely this was the promised one … but then came an arrest, false charges, a rapid conviction, crucifixion, death and burial in a tomb. Everything you had pinned your hopes on is gone – dead and gone. And how does that sit with you? Do you feel heartbroken? Sick? Feel like your trust was betrayed (“I thought he was the real deal and he’s just another fake!”)? Confused? Afraid? “Now what?” But then, when it looks like all hope is lost, Jesus appears. He said, “Peace be with you” and then he showed the disciples his wounds. This is crucial … he shows them his wounds and only after they see the wounds do they rejoice. John is pointing to something very important here. Jesus reveals his wounds to the wounded disciples. Their wounds are emotional and spiritual, and Jesus meets their wounds with his.

But Thomas was not with them when this happens. John tells us that Thomas wants to see Jesus too, but notice what he talks about: Christ’s wounds. He gets pretty graphic in saying he wants to touch the wounds of Jesus or he will never believe. Now due to a translational issue, when Jesus does show himself to Thomas, he will get forever branded with the word “doubt.” Doubt is not the issue – unbelief, faithlessness, lack of trust is the real issue Jesus raises with Thomas. “Do not be faithless, be believing” is how it is rendered in other translations. When Jesus shows his wounds to Thomas and meets Thomas’ emotional wounds with his own, then a new way forward – a new way to love again opens up.

One thing I have found to be true is how our wounds, our being broken and bent, can be instruments of reconciliation and healing. It seems counterintuitive. We do not like to be wounded or weak, do we? Our minds immediately go to the wounded gazelle in the herd on the Serengeti Plain being picked off by the pack of lions, don’t they? Survival of the fittest says “don’t be weak” and “don’t be wounded” … or if you are never, ever admit it! The problem with that approach is it never leads to healing – it only leads to denial and the wounds going deeper and getting emotionally and spiritually infected.

Being honest about our wounds is a first step in healing a broken relationship. You’ve heard me preach about “capital D ‘death’ and capital R ‘resurrection’” – or what I call the “final exam” when you take your last breath and leave your body behind. But there are lots of “small d ‘deaths’” and “small r ‘resurrections’” throughout our lives when things seem to fall apart. Maybe it’s the end of a marriage or the collapse of a friendship, or a rift between siblings. There are lots of times when relationships undergo a breaking apart and in the wake of that pain, we often wonder if we can learn to love again. It hurts … it sometimes feels like it hurts too much and we’ve been too betrayed. Reconciliation is a form of resurrection for these “small d ‘deaths’” and it begins by being honest about our wounds – physical, emotional and spiritual ones.

Need some proof? Look at South Africa and their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When the governmental system of apartheid ended, both the oppressed and the oppressors were given the opportunity to tell their stories of what happened to them in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was very instrumental in this process. Afrikaaners who had taken part in oppressing the African tribes spoke candidly and graphically about the torture and killing they did to maintain their privileged status. Black Africans spoke of the terror they experienced – beatings, rapes, murders. Anguished stories brought forth tears … and in this process, over time, a way forward began to emerge where the former oppressors and the formerly oppressed began to move forward into a future together. It was a reconciled and resurrected relationship only possible when both parties could see each other’s wounds in a process which provided a safe container for those wounds to be honored, felt deeply, and healed.

This morning, I am wearing a stole which came from Sarajevo. Some of you remember when this region was torn apart into warring factions: Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox all killing each other after their leader died. It was a horrible conflict but the long term healing has happened in the wake of bringing the formerly warring and now wounded parties together to find a way forward. This stole was embroidered by a Muslim woman … with clearly Christian symbols to be worn by a Christian minister. It is a project bringing Muslim, Christian and Orthodox women together to rebuild their country in peace.

When Jesus shows up and meets the wounds of the disciples with his own, a new and reconciled relationship begins: a relationship where the Holy Spirit is poured out and fear is taken away. These disciples would go out to take the message of resurrection and reconciliation into the world regardless of the personal cost to them. Most would lose their lives for this. Extra biblical literature and oral tradition tell us that Thomas went to India to spread the gospel and he is revered as the founder of the Mar Thoma Church (with whom we are in full communion).

This gives us hope for our future and the wounded, bent and broken relationships we have in our lives. If we can meet the wounds of another with the honesty and humility of acknowledging our own wounds, the gift of reconciliation can open a new way forward and we can, in spite of the hurt, learn to love again.
 
 
Do you ever think about how stories match particular personalities and people? Maybe it’s a character in a story who reminds you of someone you know or a story line that seems lifted out of your own life or your family’s. Or maybe it’s the narrative style of a story that brings to mind a person or situation. This is the power of stories – they reach out of the pages and bring to mind our own lives. I was thinking about this the other day in light of the narrative style of the Gospel of Mark – a fast paced, action packed gospel that ends on this unresolved weird note – and suddenly I thought of a particular person … Ron Popeil. Yeah … I know … how random is that? For those of you who don’t know that name, I know you know of him. Ron Popeil is an inventor, salesman par excellence and pioneer of the television infomercial. While you may never have bought a Pocket Fisherman, a Veg-O-Matic or a Showtime Rotisserie oven, you know Ron Popeil. He knew how to generate excitement and enthusiasm about the products he invented and sold and he used phrases that have wormed their way into our cultural language: “Isn’t that amazing?” “Set it and forget it!” and the granddaddy of them all … “But wait! There’s more!”

Why in the world did I think of Ron Popeil while meditating on the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Mark? Well … ADD only explains a small fraction of it. The more I thought about it, and yes for the record it did make me laugh too, I realized it was because they had some things in common. First, they were both evangelists of sorts – Ron telling good news about the products he was selling and Mark telling good news about Jesus Christ. They both could generate excitement through their words. Ron had those stock phrases I mentioned and Mark had a couple of favorite words – “amazing” (just like Ron … maybe that’s the hook) and “immediately.” Mark uses the word “immediately” 41 times in 16 chapters to get you on the edge of your seat. And then, Mark slows the narrative down when he gets to Holy Week. You hear every sordid painful detail of what happened to Jesus – the last supper, the betrayal by one of his closest friends, the mockery of a trial, crucifixion and abandonment and buried in a borrowed tomb.

And then we get to chapter 16 … it is early in the morning, sunrise. The women go to the tomb to prepare the body and first address a problem … who will roll that stone away for them? But they get there and see the stone is already rolled away … Jesus is gone … a stranger tells them he is not here! He’s been raised! Go and tell the disciples, even Peter who denied him, that he is going to Galilee and he’ll meet you there! Yes!! Just when you think the pace will pick up again … the women flee in terror and amazement and say nothing to anyone because they are afraid. The End! Imagine you hear Mark tell you this around the campfire … what’s your response? “What??!! Wait … what happens next? Mark replies, “Not sure … that’s it … that’s all I got. Good night.” And we think … “But wait! Isn’t there more??”

There’s a disquieting lack of resolution. So disturbing is this ending of the narrative that at least three writers tried to “fix” the gospel by tacking on endings. Two appear in many versions of the Bible and a third appears in a few obscure manuscripts. Both of the popular tacked on endings have Jesus showing up. In the longer of the two endings, Jesus gives a discourse that borrows heavily from later writings and references some pretty odd things like drinking poison and handling snakes won’t kill believers. Nothing says “Happy Easter” like snake handling, right? Thankfully we don’t incorporate that into our Easter rituals! What these tacked on ending tell us is the unsettled ending of Mark really bugged the people in the early church. You’re not alone!

But this abrupt ending has a purpose and the older I get, the more genius I think there is in it. Mark’s gospel has ended with a messenger giving the women a command and a promise. The command is to “go and tell” and the promise is the risen Christ will meet you there. In the case of the women, they are commanded to go and tell the good news that Jesus, the crucified one, is not locked in a tomb but has been raised. He is heading to Galilee and will meet them there. While Mark implies the women did not say anything to anyone, stopping the narrative there begs the question - If the women didn’t tell who would? And this is why we are disquieted because we know the answer … it is up to you and me.

You see the Gospel of Mark ends but there are more gospels being written and they are written in the lives of believers like you and me who are charged with carrying the message forward. We too are receiving the commission through Mark’s story to “go and tell.” And we are also the recipients of the promise that in going, Christ will meet us there - he will meet us in the Galilees of our lives. Wherever we are going, whatever challenges we face, Christ will meet us there because he is already there. This is the gospel still being written – gospels which bear each of our names. Chapters are still being written as you and I live out our baptismal vows in striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being, serving Christ in all persons, and being healers and reconcilers in his name.

You see the genius of Mark’s narrative now? He knows there is more and he knows how to leave you with a cliff hanger that will launch you past his narrative and into your own ministry right here, right now. I do believe Mark’s silence in the end resounds loudly with … “But wait! There’s more!”
 
 
Cringe worthy … that phrase for me describes the Passion of Christ and especially John’s version of it. Cringe worthy. Not only for the coldness and the brutality of it but also for how it portrays the Jews. The Jews shouting “Away with him! Crucify him!” is just … cringe worthy. Passages which are even more difficult for me to read this evening knowing that as the sun was setting, my Jewish friends are gathering at table to celebrate the first night of their most holy feast of Passover – the annual celebration of their liberation from the yoke of Pharaoh. Reading these passages here and being reminded of how over the centuries they have been used to rationalize anti-Semitism and blame the Jews as the killers of Christ. Cringe worthy indeed.

We cannot understand the anti-Jewish language in John outside of the context in which it was written. Scholars believe John to the be the last gospel written – likely somewhere around 100 to 125 C. E. At this point, there had been a complete break between the early Jewish followers of Jesus (those who followed The Way of the Nazarene as it was called) and the Jews who held traditional beliefs and did not accept Jesus as Messiah. Tensions rose as a result of the failed Jewish Revolt which resulted in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C. E. The early Jewish Christian community refused to join in the revolt resulting in the Jewish community feeling betrayed. Tensions continued to rise over the following years so that by the time John wrote his gospel, it was laden with anti-Jewish sentiment. Resentment and hurt spilled into the pages – resentment and hurt which would be later used to justify all manner of violence against the Jews.

While today we like to think we read these texts with the context in mind and that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, don’t believe it. The case of Tom Schweich in Missouri says otherwise. For those of you not familiar with it, Tom Schweich was a gubernatorial candidate in Missouri, a devout Episcopalian and a devoted public servant. A few weeks ago, Tom Schweich died by suicide. He called his priest who happened to be the former senator from Missouri, Father (Senator) John Danforth. In that conversation, Tom discussed how a whisper campaign had been launched by his rival and the head of the state’s Republican party insinuating he was a Jew. The fact that in Missouri, in 2015 no less, the rumor that one was “a Jew” would derail someone’s political career proves we are not over our anti-Semitic tendencies … not over our capacity to scapegoat.

Scapegoating is what we do. The term scapegoat comes from an ancient Jewish ritual described in Leviticus 16 where the priest would symbolically lay the sins of the people on a goat and then the goat would be driven into the wilderness to die. While symbol and ritual are important, the problem of the scapegoat is that in laying the sins of the people on another, it removes the responsibility from the people to face their own brokenness and sin. By removing this responsibility, it becomes easy to project one’s darkness into something or someone else and perpetuate our violence.

Jesus was the scapegoat this day. He went up against a political and religious establishment’s rule which served to marginalize and oppress people – rules meant to keep some in and many out. He repeatedly pointed out the sin of the powers that be – and the powers that be struck back rather than face their own sin and culpability. Jesus bore the weight of projected sin, theirs and ours, to the cross.

We know about scapegoating. We do it ourselves and it has been done to us. It is far easier to blame and project our fear and suffering than to face it honestly and let it transform us. Tonight we gaze at a cross – the symbol of what happens when we engage in scapegoating.

This night, I leave you with a reflection from Brother Karekin Yarian who blogs under the name PunkMonk. He is a professed member of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory in the Episcopal Church. I share this with his blessing and permission and it is entitled “Reproaches for the Modern Age”:

My people, what have I done to you
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I sent you a Son to teach you how
to remake the world with Love,
but you married yourselves to power
and bartered that love for allegiance.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

Holy is God!
Holy and strong!
Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

For two thousand years you’ve beaten
my chosen Israel, scattered her to the wind.
You chose gas chambers, and progroms,
and pit the world against my beloved.

Holy is God!
Holy and strong!
Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

I proclaimed freedom to the Nations,
taught you justice by bread and not the sword;
but you made slavery an industry
and turned my children into chattel
and hanged them from trees
burning crosses in my Name.

Holy is God!
Holy and strong!
Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

For your sake I sent prophets
and teachers to bring you back to Love.
But you turned that love against me
murdered those voices and proclaimed me dead.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I led you from slavery to freedom
and you use it to make captives
in prisons, on death rows, by laws
to hold the weakest in their place
rather than raise them up.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I opened the world before you,
but you have used her resources near to death.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I led you on your way by a humble servant,
but you turned him to a warrior King.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I strengthened you with bread and wine,
but you withheld the crumbs from the poorest.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I gave you living water from the well,
but you have sucked it dry from greed.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

For you I humbled kings and rulers.
but you raised up tyrants in their place to scold me.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I gave you a royal priesthood,
but they locked their tabernacles against my presence.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

I raised you to the height of hope for the world,
but you buried my cross beneath a mountain of gold
and used my Name to bless your hate.

My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

(C) 2015, Karekin M Yarian, BSG
 
 
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father … and during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

Tonight we hear of washing feet and a new commandment to love one another just as Christ loved us. Tonight I want you to hear of another dinner party involving feet and love poured out:

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”

All of the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus being anointed by a woman, but their details to not agree. In Matthew and Mark, the woman is from Bethany and anoints Jesus’ head at the home of Simon the leper. The anointing of the head with oil or perfume was a ritual act done by prophets who anointed the kings of Israel and Judah. This was not an act done by women! But in the upside down order of God’s kingdom, it is fitting that Jesus would be anointed “Christ” by a woman in the house of another outcast – a leper. Luke says the story happened at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the woman anoints Jesus’ feet. John appears to borrow from both traditions and names the woman – Mary, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn and the sister of Martha … and Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. I confess I find it frustrating that the gospel writers are so meticulous in getting the details about which man said what to whom and where but mostly neglect to even name the women who say or do anything.

But there is a connection and John is going to great lengths to make sure you see it. His framing of the anointing by Mary at Bethany happening “six days” before the Passover sets both the anointing and the foot washing within the same Sabbath cycle. Early Jewish Christians would have understood – John sees these two events as connected and wants us to see the connection too. Just as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (even the feet of the one who would betray him). Both actions are those of extravagant and sacrificial love. John mentions the cost of the perfume: 300 denarii – a year’s wages! Mary may have been saving this perfume for her own burial or that of a loved one. But now, now she gives it all away – she is all in. She knows at some level that Jesus’ time is short. She lives in a world where she has learned you don’t confront the authorities and you go along to get along. Jesus has provoked the powers that be and nobody does that and lives to tell about it. She empties the jar of perfume without hesitation – and the fragrance fills the house! Likewise Jesus empties himself emotionally and spiritually to wash the feet of his disciples. He sacrifices his ego and his status as their teacher to take the role of a slave and tells them they are to do the same.

It is telling that both of them get pushback for their actions. Matthew and Mark say the disciples as a group were indignant and offended by the unnamed woman’s actions. Luke says Simon the Pharisee was offended. John appears to take Matthew and Mark’s account and assign it to Judas Iscariot – berating Mary for her extravagant waste. If you think about it … Peter is doing something similar this night. In a way, he is berating Jesus for extravagantly wasting his status and trying to preserve Jesus’ “dignity” in refusing to have his feet washed.

Extravagant love is messy. It makes us very uncomfortable. It disturbs our neatly ordered lives because it demands the death of our egos. It demands we let go of everything we think and believe about ourselves – our carefully crafted personas and the various privileges they confer on us. It demands we let go of all the attachments and addictions with which we desperately fill our lives in a futile attempt to avoid pain, suffering and death. Extravagant love is messy because in the end, it means we must die … and that’s the last thing we want to do.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Love one another the way Mary loved Jesus. Love one another with the messy love that began this earthy journey amidst blood and water at a cradle and will end with a flow of blood and water on a cross. Love one another unto death.
 
 
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear this rendition of the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, I cannot help but have John Williams’ theme music to Indiana Jones running through my head. Jesus fashions a whip of cords and drives out the money changers, the sheep and the cattle. Sounds like Indiana Jones, doesn’t it? That was running around my brain … and then Harrison Ford crashed his airplane this week. I sooooo did not see that coming!

All four gospels relate the story of Jesus cleansing the temple BUT, three (Matthew, Mark & Luke) say he did it at the end of his ministry – after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. These gospel writers posit that the cleansing of the temple was the final act of breaching the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome”, and the final challenge to the religious establishment that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. John, who is always doing something totally different, sets the story at the beginning of his gospel, right after the miracle of the wedding at Cana. Why? Well John, more than any of the other gospel writers, is chiefly concerned about why Jesus is Christ and what that means for you and me. Not that the other gospel writers aren’t thinking this, because they are, but the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke approach the why by first telling us the “what” – what happened, what Jesus said and did, and why what he said and did points to his being Christ. You see the difference? John starts with “why” and Matthew, Mark & Luke start with “what.” So they come at their witness from different angles.

John places this story right after the miracle at Cana quite purposefully. Both stories tell of a complete transformation. First, the element water is transformed by Jesus into wine. Don’t think about the “how” of this, think about it as symbol. An element given by God is changed completely by this one man. A transformation has happened because God has broken into the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The temple cleansing is a similar transformation and we need to see it as John did – from the perspective of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. which was about 30 years before John wrote this gospel. The lens of temple destruction makes John see that the complete breakdown in how God is to be worshiped begins with Jesus upending the system. God would no longer be encountered strictly through the temple sacrificial system because Jesus becomes the temple sacrifice in his death and resurrection. God would encounter humanity in and through humanity itself. This is a radically different understanding of how God encounters us!

This loops me back to our reading from Exodus this morning. You probably recognized the reading as the giving of the Law – the 10 Commandments. We did not use the version in your bulletin insert for a reason. The New Revised Standard version renders the explanation of the second commandment as “You shall not bow down to them [graven images] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me…” Wow! Does this ever paint God as a sadistic SOB, right? That’s right … God is jealous and will smite your children when you screw up. Really?!

While it is legitimate to translate this passage this way, there are other ways to view it. We used the JPS Tanakh … a Jewish translation. I don’t know about you, but when I look at Jewish writings, I think going to a Jewish source is a good idea! The JPS (as well as Everett Fox’s Torah translation) come off with a more nuanced view. JPS reads, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…” Instead of seeing this as God being unfairly sadistic, the JPS picks this up more as an observation of how families perpetuate guilt down through the generations. And we see this, don’t we? If people are raised in homes where domestic violence occurs, they are more likely to become abusers or seek abusers as partners and repeat the behaviors in the next generation. If one comes out of a home full of smokers, the likelihood one will take up smoking increases dramatically. If one witnesses infidelity of parents as a child, the likelihood increases they will repeat the behavior as adults. Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote a book on how family systems perpetuate themselves called “Generation to Generation.” Often these behaviors repeat because they are experienced as normal and we don’t tend to do the reflecting and adaptive work to change the underlying behaviors. We get stuck in seemingly never ending cycles.

But patterns can change and the story of the cleansing of the temple is a reminder that we are not stuck like hamsters in the wheel repeating the same things over and over. There are exit ramps – it is possible to break cycles of behavior that are destructive or no longer work. Sometimes, these exit ramps happen through cataclysmic events.

Have any of you heard of the 500 year cycle in Judeo-Christian culture? There is one and it is an observable pattern that about every 500 years (give or take 20%), something radically new shakes up our civilization and we see God breaking through in new ways. If we go back to about 1,500 BCE, we hear the story of the Exodus. About 500 years later, we find the Israelite kingdom being established under Saul, David & Solomon – finally settling in the land which had been promised to Abraham. About 500 years later, Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians ending the Israelite kingdom – and creating a crisis of faith for the chosen people (“If we are God’s Chosen, how could this happen?”). 500 years after that, Jesus was born – which ushered in a new way of encountering God not dependent upon the temple. About 500 years later, the Roman empire falls (around 476 C.E.) ushering in the rise of monasticism. In 1054, 500 years later, the Great Schism would split the Church based in Rome from the one based in Constantinople – the Roman Catholic/Orthodox split. About 500 years later in 1517, Martin Luther would nail his 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenburg Germany – lighting off the Protestant Reformation. 500 years later … well … I see you doing the math! Yes, we are now at that 500 year mark. What will that mean? Honestly, I don’t know. I think we’ll know in hindsight … likely my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will sort it out. But we do see some shifting going on in what it means to be church and I’ve seen a radical change since my childhood.

Church used to reference the building you went to in order to encounter God and have fellowship with other believers. Our language reflected that: “I go to church on Sundays.” That has changed in my lifetime and, I strongly believe, for the better. Church is no longer seen primarily as place but as people. You and I are the Church. We don’t come here to encounter God as much as we come here to be nourished by the sacraments and prepared to go out through those doors and find God outside these walls. That isn’t always easy. Life is hard. Finding God in everyday encounters takes practice. We come here to have the lens of the eyes of our hearts reshaped so we can see Christ in the world much more clearly and to be Christ in and for the world more consistently. Our paradigm of being Church is shifting and that is exactly what needs to happen. One way of understanding “church” is giving way to a new one – one which is more organic and, in many ways, more like the Church of the early Christians than it is of the most recent ages.

Some are frightened by this because it is a kind of death. When our lives and our beliefs about something get upended, it feels like death … and in a way is it. But it is only through the upended chaos and death that God works out a resurrection, a transformation. Christ came to transform us personally and corporately – as individuals and as a community. So rather than fear the chaos, consider it an inbreaking of the light of Christ. It will be unsettling but Christ walks through and with us in it. As we continue our Lenten journey, I ask you to ponder these questions this week:

What in your life is getting upended, turned on its head, transformed? What in our communal life is experiencing the same upheaval? Pray for the patience and calm of Christ to enlighten you and walk with you in this chaos, trusting God is now finding a new way to lift you up.
 
 
Grace is so blessed with so many people who are willing ministers of the gospel who share their gifts and graces generously to spread the good news. One of our newer groups is the Liturgy Planning Team and, because of our work together, you are experiencing a different approach to our worship this year. Our work begins with studying all of the season’s scripture readings and looking for themes. Sometimes we find themes that seem to tie the readings together. Other times, we find contrasts and this year’s Hebrew scripture readings and the gospel readings seem to be more contrasting than harmonizing. The Hebrew Scriptures have an overarching theme of God’s covenant with his people – one might say God’s faithfulness to the covenant in spite of us. I say “in spite of us” because it is clear that we frail humans break the covenant on a pretty regular basis! The gospel readings, on the other hand, contrast by showing us the scandal of a God who would make a covenant born through us in human flesh.

Last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Noah, his family, and indeed all of creation that the earth would never again be destroyed by flood. This week, we hear about God’s covenant with Abram, who gets a new name in the process: Abraham – father of a multitude of nations. Sarai gets a new name too: Sarah – meaning “queen.” God makes this covenant with Abraham several times: first in Genesis 12 when he tells Abram to get up and go to the land I will show you. This is the second time God restates his covenant promising children to the aged Abraham and the barren and aged Sarah. Now both of them struggle to believe this, regardless of what Paul says in Romans! There will be fits and starts along the journey – places where they even appear to have trouble believing God is going to come through. But God is faithful and remembers the covenant, in spite of Abraham and Sarah’s shortcomings and doubts. This is the faithfulness of our God in spite of our human frailty.

In the gospel readings, we are getting another perspective of God’s covenant faithfulness – one that perhaps is a bit more oblique. Last week, we heard of Jesus’ baptism: the voice declaring him as “beloved Son” and the one in whom God takes great delight. But the scene immediately following is one of trial and temptation, not one of comfort and ease. This week, we hear that Jesus tells his followers plainly that he will undergo great suffering, be put to death and rise again on the third day. Suffering? Death? Testing and trials? This sure doesn't feel much like the covenant faithfulness of God, does it? This is why Peter protests against this vision – it doesn't feel like what God should be up to when it comes to salvation.

The paradox here is this is exactly how God works out salvation – both in spite humanity of and through it. Jesus, whom the writer of Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” shows us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection that the pattern of salvation is counterintuitive to human desires. It’s not the road we want to take, but it is the only road for the faithful – that of death and resurrection.

None of us wants to die – none of us. And I’m speaking of more than just the final, physical end of our existence on planet earth. I’m talking about the dying to self – the dying to our own ego need to control and manipulate both ourselves and others. This takes many forms. Maybe it’s dying to the need to be right and win fights at the expense of others. Maybe it’s dying to never being able to admit you are wrong so that you can truly and humbly seek the forgiveness of others and live in healthier relationships. Maybe it’s letting go of a vision of yourself that isn't true anymore … or perhaps never was. This is what Jesus is speaking of when he tells his followers to deny themselves – deny the ego needs of your self … which always feels like death and it is.

When we do this, we continue the work of Christ as his Body on earth. In our own flesh, God is still working the plan of salvation both through us and in spite of us. We lost one of the people who did this well this week. The Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd died in hospice care in Los Angeles. His name might not immediately be recognizable, but his life was one lived in this pattern of dying to self. Malcolm began his career in film as a producer – even starting a production company with silent film star Mary Pickford. But shortly thereafter, he followed the same call as his grandfather - into ordained ministry as an Episcopal priest. He graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific and was ordained a priest in 1955. He was controversial from the start. Dubbed by a newspaper as the “Espresso priest” while serving in Colorado as a campus chaplain because he hosted conversations on faith in coffee houses and reading his gritty poetic prayers, he ran afoul of the local bishop and resigned his post. He went to Detroit as a campus chaplain next and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a freedom rider and marched with Dr. King. He wrote prolifically. Unlike the Elizabethan language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Boyd wrote prayers from the darker side of life – about people on the margins … drunks, prostitutes, hoods, the poor, people of color. He saw God in nightclubs, slums and in the streets. His best known book, Are You Running With Me Jesus? became a New York Times bestseller, much to his surprise. He ushered in a whole new way of being clergy – blurring the lines between what was thought to be “proper” and “holy” and what was considered “base” or “profane” … not unlike the savior he followed. I daresay Boyd’s unflinching look at God’s presence in the broken places paved the way for other clergy, like Nadia Bolz Weber, to follow in those steps. He was controversial and criticized for his flair for the spotlight. But his most personal and courageous act was telling the truth of his life at an Episcopal convention in 1976 when he came out as a gay man. In a day and time where homosexuality was considered by most a “lifestyle choice,” Malcolm found himself unable to find a call in the Episcopal Church – we weren't quite ready for that yet. An old friend who was rector of St. Augustine by the Sea in Santa Monica hired Malcolm and, while some left in protest, those who stayed found in him a caring priest who could bring Christ to those who felt alienated by “organized religion.” He met his partner Mark Thompson, editor of the Advocate, in the 1980’s and Mark was at his side when he breathed his last this week at the age of 91.

Malcolm Boyd deeply influenced my parents … and in turn he influenced me. As one of our brothers in the Body of Christ, God showed us the continuation of that pattern – covenant faithfulness both in spite of us and through us. Malcolm could ruffle feathers and make you squirm – he was not perfect! But like Abraham, in spite of his very human shortcomings, God was faithful to him and those he served in the course of his life. This isn't to say he didn't have hardships, for he certainly did. Yet Malcolm had a way of confessing God’s presence and through him we witnessed Christian justice making and the radical inclusion of everyone in the kingdom. Malcolm Boyd’s life serves as a reminder to each of us that this pattern is our pattern too. God’s covenant faithfulness is operative in spite of and through you and me … each and every one of us.
 
 
I have a confession to make. I realize that’s a cheap ploy to get your attention, but it’s true. I grew up in a place where we didn’t have snow days. Nobody living within a few miles of the beach in California ever gets a snow day. But, since I’ve lived in Maryland for 27 years, I have learned about snow days … especially from my kids. You know how it goes, you check the weather and calculate whether or not you’re going to get a snow day and then decide whether or not to do your homework, right? Yeah … well … clergy do this too with sermons and I was thinking I would get a snow day today. Yep … snow day … don’t need to write a sermon … and then … uh … well … here we are … 18 faithful souls and we’re doing church. Now that IS awesome but I didn’t write a sermon. So, what we’ll do today is more of a reflection and we’ll see where that goes.

Today’s gospel reading should sound familiar. If you were with us back in January, you heard it on the first Sunday after Epiphany where we observe the Baptism of Jesus. Same gospel reading … but today we get the rest of the story. After coming up out of the water and hearing the voice say “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”, Jesus finds himself driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. That’s right – no party, no cake, no nothing … just thrown into the wilderness. The Greek makes it sound like he was hurled like a Frisbee … picked up by the scruff of the neck and hurled into the wilderness. And he spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. Now this doesn't sound like something one who is “beloved” should be going through, does it?

One thing that might help us understand this wilderness time is how the Jewish people understood Satan. Much of our views come from popular culture more than the Bible. I’ve been reading Walter Wink’s book Unmasking the Powers (thanks to Susan Brock) and he goes into where the image of Satan as “ultimate personification of evil” came from. Largely, he claims, it came from later extra-biblical writings like Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Jewish understanding of Satan was more imaging him as a prosecuting attorney type: the one who would accuse us of our egocentric and sinful nature. Satan was a creation of God and a necessary servant of the most high God. Therefore, Jesus’ understanding of Satan was not as the diametrically opposed rival of God, but rather his agent who through temptations, digs at the weaknesses of our egos and strips away our false selves, laying them bare before us and God. This stripping away process is what reveals the truth and causes us to know our finitude and frailty so that we can experience the mercy of God. Now that’s a pretty radical departure from what we've been told through popular culture and even some New Testament writings.

Satan thus may be understood as the one who would test Jesus and attempt to strip away any falsehood immediately after his baptism to prepare him for the ministry and, ultimately, his death and resurrection. And perhaps this is a helpful image for us too. All of our readings reference baptism today and it looks like we will have at least one, if not four, baptisms at Easter Vigil this year. Our own baptism is a preparation for a life where we will be tested and tried – where Satan as “prosecuting attorney” will find ways to dig at our egos and lay bare our sin and our wounds. Everything in us will resist this and it isn't fun. But it is necessary so that we can be driven to our own wilderness and in our weakness discover the mercy and grace of God.
 
 
There’s an image I cannot get out of my head this Ash Wednesday. It’s the image of 21 Egyptians … 21 Coptic Christians kneeling in orange jumpsuits on a beach in Libya in front of their executioners – ISIS terrorists in black jumpsuits with their faces covered. 21 men martyred because they were Christians and, as the ringleader of the ISIS executioners said, “They have the cross of Christ in their heads.” They were beheaded because they had the cross of Christ in their heads.

Zack Hunt wrote a blog post that I ran across today where he shares his feelings about this. He spoke of his sense of helplessness, sadness, but most of all rage: pure unmitigated rage. He writes:

"And yet, in my just wrath, I struggle to understand how I’m supposed to respond to the evil that is consuming the Middle East because every urge I have to see those barbaric executioners wiped off the face off the earth is met with a still small voice. It’s a voice I confess I don’t want to hear right now. I want to beat the drums of war and lead the charge to rid the world of these monsters. But as hard as I try to ignore it and no matter how much my heart fills with rage, that still small voice continues to haunt me with words like 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' 'Love your enemies,' 'Turn the other cheek' and “Pray for those who persecute you.'"

This, he confesses, is his greatest struggle with the gospel and I share this too. Because the gospel is hard and it is scandalous in its claim that Jesus didn't just show up to extend grace and mercy to me or even to the oppressed … but also to the oppressors. I won't lie to you … I hate that! The idea that Jesus Christ died not just for the 21 martyrs on that beach but also for their executioners is scandalous and sounds completely insane. And yet, as Jürgen Moltmann so powerfully states:

"The message of the new righteousness which eschatological faith brings into the world says that in fact the executioners will not finally triumph over their victims. It also says that in the end the victims will not triumph over their executioners. The one will triumph who first died for the victims and then also for the executioners, and in so doing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through the vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind with a new humanity. Only where righteousness becomes creative and creates right both for the lawless and for those outside the law, only where creative love changes what is hateful and deserving of hate, only where the new man is born who is neither oppressed nor oppresses others, can one speak of the true revolution of righteousness and of the righteousness of God." – The Crucified God, pg. 178

Like Zack Hunt, there are days when this is so much easier to claim and proclaim – but right now, this is where the gospel just burns me and I suspect it may burn you too. It’s one thing to pray for those who gossip about you or stab you in the back figuratively, but what about praying for those who murdered your family? It’s easy to love “enemies” whose “crimes” against you are taking your parking space or disagreeing with your politics … but what about loving someone who would kill you if only they could? Everything in me doesn't want to love people like that. But if grace and mercy can extend to me, who am I to withhold the possibility of it extending to them?

Don't get me wrong. This isn't about letting these criminals off the hook. But it is to say that accountability and justice have to simultaneously coexist with the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for all. I don’t understand it and it isn't up to me … and on days like today, I confess I don’t even like it! But it isn't up to me, or you, is it? The response of the families of these men who were killed for their faith makes me ask myself if somehow grace showed up on that beach in a way I cannot fathom … and likely never will. Can I trust God’s grace can hold out the possibility of transformational conversion for the executioner as well as the executed?

As we come forward this night, we will be marked with the cross of Christ on our heads and remember this cross is in our heads too. While none of us will likely ever be executed because we are Christian, the cross of Christ in our heads will draw us to die to our ways of living and part of that dying is to the idea that Christ only died for some of us and not all of us. It is a scandalous God who can absorb all of this violence and, in some way I cannot understand, redeem it all.