Wave Those Palm Branches

Palm Procession Psalm for Palm/Passion Sunday

This coming Sunday is both Palm and Passion Sunday in the church’s calendar. Let us, for the moment, concentrate on that first part.

 

This time of pandemic we are almost all confining ourselves to our homes. But let us, for a special moment, let our imaginations soar. Let us take up our palm branches and join the throngs of ancient Jerusalem as they welcomed their Savior.

 

The psalm appointed for this moment in the Sunday ritual is Psalm 118. We are instructed to pray the first two verses, and then skip down to pray the last ten—verses 19-29. But do read those intervening verses, 3-18, because they are so instructive for this time when we are surrounded by an invisible, threatening army—i.e. the virus.

 

James Luther Mays, in his “Interpretation” commentary on the Psalms, directs our attention to the central point of this psalm, with a note about echoes of this central message in Psalm 56 and Romans:

 

The most wonderful truth a person can know is: “The Lord is for me.” The cry of the celebrant [in psalm 118] was an expression of that knowledge, and the Lord’s answer its vindication (cf. 56:9). That knowledge opened up the marvelous possibility of living by faith instead of fear. Human strength is vulnerable to the power and threat of adversaries. It is better not to rely on it, even if it belongs to princes. The Lord’s help is a power in which one can take refuge from both human weakness and human threats. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31).[1]

 

We read, see, and hear, with great anxiety, a daily flood of stories about the battle between the virus and the “front line” in this battle—our global health care system. And the death tally reminds us that our human efforts come up short. We fail in so many ways. We weren’t ready with the tests. We don’t have enough ventilators, not to mention the simple masks, face shields, and gowns for these heroes who step up to defend us. Even if we get our act together, the modeling says millions will still die.

 

The psalmist takes note. It is not wise to put ultimate trust in any mere mortal—not even a prince (vv. 8-9). There is not a president, governor, doctor, expert of any kind, who can guarantee victory.

 

But the one who is riding in this Sunday on a donkey comes in the name of the Lord. This one is absolutely and infallibly for us! This One has answered our cries for help, and has become our salvation (v. 21)!

 

The masses that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on that first “Palm Sunday,” were expecting a prince, on a white horse, at the head of an army, that would vanquish the Romans and deliver peace and prosperity to Judea. When Jesus rose from the dead, for a short time, his followers thought, “The Messiah has come, but the job isn’t done. He must come again, and then all our dreams will be fulfilled.” The second coming, or Parousia, will be the Big Moment.

 

But soon the church experienced things that helped them recognize something profound: Our Big Moment has indeed already come. It came at the resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead; and we know it because he is working acts of power every day among us. In the resurrection Jesus has already taken his throne as Son of God, King, Son of Man, and Christ. All authority is his as the Resurrected One, and he is not only for us, he is with us as we go to baptize and teach all nations (Matthew 28.16-20). And when we reach out from our socially isolated places by phone, text, email, Zoom, prayer, or whatever, miracles of Christ’s New Age are already happening. Right here. Right now!

 

There will come a day when we will be able to gather again to wave palms and hug and shake hands and celebrate. Yet we will have to prepare for another wave of infestation. But, meanwhile, the One who comes in the name of the Lord, is both for us and with us always. Until the end of the age.

 

Lets wave the palms and start the celebration—even if just in our imaginations.

[1] Mays, J. L. (1994). Psalms (p. 376). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

 

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Sméagol Rules the House

Sméagol is a house cat. That means he rules the house. Photo by John

Sméagol is a house cat. That means he rules the house. Photo by John

In a time of pandemic it is good to “shelter in place,” and practice “social distancing.” But it is also good, with those who are part of the household, to cuddle. And cuddle big time.

Our “circular shaped” cat, Sméagol, is famous to all who visit Heatherhope. Connie delights in demonstrating how talkative he is. He has a soud for every occasion and every one of his needs. He is one of those that Bill Staines wrote about in his perky little song, “A Place in the Choir.” Look it up on Google and have a blast singing along on YouTube.

Sméagol, and all of our “critters” are also celebrated in the much older hymn of Cecil Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Give your favorite household critter, two– or four-legged, a BIG HUG, and sing along:

    • Refrain:
      All things bright and beautiful,
      All creatures great and small,
      All things wise and wonderful:
      The Lord God made them all.
  1. Each little flow’r that opens,
    Each little bird that sings,
    He made their glowing colors,
    He made their tiny wings.
  2. The purple-headed mountains,
    The river running by,
    The sunset and the morning
    That brightens up the sky.
  3. The cold wind in the winter,
    The pleasant summer sun,
    The ripe fruits in the garden,
    He made them every one.
  4. The tall trees in the greenwood,
    The meadows where we play,
    The rushes by the water,
    To gather every day.
  5. He gave us eyes to see them,
    And lips that we might tell
    How great is God Almighty,
    Who has made all things well.

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Epidemic Advise from Martin Luther

We just had a Great little Zoom online meeting of our weekly church study group we call “Lunch and Learn.” A big part of the learning for me was a quote from Martin Luther about a similar time to ours (Thanks, Ken, for sharing it!).

Turns out we aren’t the first to go through difficult days like this.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, had killed at least a quarter of the population of Europe in the mid 14th century. But it wasn’t done wrecking havoc, and came back many times. In 1527 it hit Luther’s Wittenberg and the surrounding region. Pastors who were following Luther’s reforms in the Breslau area soon sent a letter through Pastor Johann Hess, asking if it was ethical or proper for any of them to flee the plague’s ravages. Luther replied with a letter, which he knew would be published. It soon was distributed widely as a 14 page pamphlet, and circulated to an anxious public.

I think we can all learn and grow from these excerpts from this bit of advice, written by a man steeped in the Gospel, written from a time much like our own, 493 years ago.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

…Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death. “Whoever loves danger,” says the wise man, “will perish by it” [Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach 3:26]. If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die. On both counts this is a grievous offense to God and to man—here it is tempting God; there it is bringing man into despair. Then the one who flees, the devil will pursue; the one who stays behind, the devil will hold captive so that no one escapes him.

…learn through God’s word how to live and how to die…

May Christ our Lord and Savior preserve us all in pure faith and fervent love, unspotted and pure until his day. Amen. Pray for me, a poor sinner.[1]

[1] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 43: Devotional Writings II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 43, p. 138). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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At the Tomb of Lazarus

John 11:1-45

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Several times a day my wife and I scan the New York Times on line. These days, of course, we find that almost every article is more bad news about the current pandemic—each story worse than the last. Perhaps the most disturbing article of all was the one today titled “When You Die of Coronavirus, You Die Alone.”

 

I wanted to put an exclamation point on that headline. It shook me by bringing to mind an interview I heard with Sherwin B. Nuland, a physician, who years ago wrote a bestselling book about the clinical, biological, and emotional aspects of dying in our modern world. At the end of the interview his interlocutor asked, “What is the worst way to die.” I thought the doctor might suggest a horrible accident or lingering disease like bone cancer or Huntington’s disease. Instead, he quickly answered, “Alone.”

 

And, tragically, when patients are diagnosed with this hated and feared virus, they are immediately put into isolation. And, if they are hit hard enough, there they die. Apart from family and friends. Alone!

 

And yet, that’s the way we all die, isn’t it. Dying is an integral part of human life. We prepare for it from the moment we are born. For each of us it is a supremely solitary thing that we are doing as we negotiate this thing called life with the inevitability of death inexorably dawning on us. We are peeling back all of the layers of dishonesty: the euphemisms, the denial, the avoidance. We are peeling away every defense mechanism: the ways we hide ourselves in the religion or the philosophy or the public opinion of those who surround us in our world. We have to work it out our own way. As we prepare for death, cope with death, unravel the mystery of death…and die, we are alone.

 

That old folk/gospel song got it right:

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody else can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.… 

 

And death looms large at the end of our journey of faith. This Lent we have followed the dramatic stories of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man born blind. Each of them had to move, by stages,  from the shadow into light, from misunderstanding to enlightenment, from indecision to risky decisiveness. Jesus moved them into ever more profound trusting and trustworthiness. But Lazarus in his shroud and tomb represents the climatic and final stage of faith.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of this in his poem “Stations on the Way to Freedom.” Bonhoeffer is well known as a German, Lutheran, Christian, who stood out from the masses of German, Lutheran, Christians who abandoned their own souls to follow the monster they thought of as their great man and savior: savior-man Adolf Hitler.  Of course, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his principled resistance, and eventually executed, just weeks before the “liberation” of Germany by the invading allied armies. As he awaited his hanging, Bonhoeffer wrote his poem and sent it to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, as the only birthday present he could give.  In his solitary cell he thought of the stations on the way: discipline, action, and suffering—all things that the Fourth Gospel would certainly agree are essential along the road to eternal life. But here is the last stanza:

 

Death

Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal, death, lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures

walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,

that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.

Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, action,

and suffering.

Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.

 

Bonhoeffer knew these were not rungs on a ladder of ascent to God. They did not represent a formula for earning God’s favor. They were, simply, the stations along the way that Jesus was calling.

The disciples, Mary, and Martha, and the other mourners at the tomb, disturbed—even angered Jesus with their persistent misunderstanding. He was from above, and he wanted his own to understand that physical death is not the enemy. And revivification is not the victory. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still in the grave clothes. He will yet die a physical death. Along the way to freedom and eternal life he, and all of us, are still deceived too easily and fettered, and hindered, from seeing.

 

But Jesus is disturbed. And so he fights for us and gives of his life. But when he steps out of his tomb, the grave clothes stay behind. He has come from above to then show us the path ahead. He awaits us there and lays out for us the highest of feasts. Along the path of freedom physical death is only sleep. Living eternal life the virus can, ultimately, do no harm to us, but only provide the opportunity to see the works and the glory of God.

 

This extraordinary time of global pandemic does indeed shake us to our core—it turns our attention in a brutal way to our own mortality, and the one valley we must all walk through alone. But Jesus says to us, “Come out of this valley of darkness and see the light of the Life that I am giving you. The Life of freedom. The Life that death cannot touch.”

 

Let us now lean forward to Easter when we can sing “Alleluia” once again for that glorious promise that awaits us!

 

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The Man Born Blind: Baptism’s Daily Significance in Decision

We call the present COVID-19 pandemic a crisis. Crisis can be thought of as a moment that makes decision necessary. We are pressed in a corner and must choose one way out rather than another.

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent was meant by the author of this work as a deep meditation, in dramatic form, on the daily significance of baptism. Martin Luther said, in his Small Catechism, that baptism isn’t over till it’s over, and that happens when we die. From the moment the living water of baptism touches our heads, till the day we die, baptism works its way in our lives when we die to our old selves and rise to new selves.

That’s the way Luther put it. The author of the Fourth Gospel puts it in dramatic form, with the man born blind showing us what it truly means to be baptized.

This blind man sees the light by being anointed with the water of the pool of Siloam. The name “Siloam” means “the one sent.” Jesus, of course, is the One Sent par excellence—sent from above–from the Father.

But the sight comes in stages as this man is tested. When he first sees physically he is asked by onlookers how his healing happened. He knows only that a man named Jesus did it. Brought before Pharisees who press him and his beliefs further, he then concludes this Jesus was a prophet. Threatened then with expulsion from the synagogue, his eyes are opened further and he recognizes Jesus is from God. Finally, after he is fully expelled from the synagogue (and, thus, probably from family), he has an ultimate encounter with Jesus who presses him to the end: “Do you believe in the Son of Man.” He answers, “I do.” All of this questioning and deciding and answering, is a part of the ancient rite of baptism in the church.

This dramatic theme takes us even deeper, because, while this blind man takes us all on the path of deeper and deeper sight, faith, and life, the Pharisees are undergoing their own crisis—a division in their ranks. Some are certain, despite all they do not know, that the blind man is a sinner by virtue of his handicap, his disobedience to the traditions, and his trust in Jesus. They know Jesus is also a sinner because he worked on the Sabbath. Others wonder how a sinner could possibly perform such signs of healing—when healing is God’s work?

The crisis is all about interpretation of Scripture and holy tradition. Israel had been made to work clay and make bricks as a part of their slavery to Pharaoh. The Lord then transferred their slavery from Pharaoh to himself. Part of that covenant of transference was a command that Israel not do work on the Sabbath. Working clay was the old kind of slavery—menial work that should be forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus broke that law of Moses when he made mud with his saliva to heal the man; so Jesus was violating a sacred taboo, founded on Scripture.

But some Pharisees gave Jesus the benefit of the doubt: Isn’t there a great difference between menial working of clay, and life-giving working of the same clay.

Jesus said he came from above to do the works of the Father. He recognized that he was, at the same time, reinterpreting Scripture. He was shining light, and that light at first can seem harsh and blinding to the religious. But it was necessary for people to be healed—to come into the light—to see things more and more as God sees them.

If we are church-going people today, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. But those who wrote down God’s Word in ancient times interpreted it for certain circumstances. Israel wanted to remember that they were slaves of God, and of no man. So, no working of clay on the Sabbath. But Jesus demonstrated that there is another kind of working of clay, for the sake of God’s healing. All of this presented a crisis, or moment of decision, for the Pharisees. Those who could accept that God does new things—that God keeps changing to stay the same loving and healing God, made the right decision, and came to saving faith. The man born blind realized he was blind, both physically and spiritually. He recognized the obvious, that this must be a man from God—the Son of Man. He had to decide against traditional interpretation of God’s Word, and move into the light.

(One of the ongoing decisions we must make today is to think of the very few biblical passages about homosexuality in a new way. Are these few passages for all time and situations? Isn’t it true that believers have, for all time, reconsidered Scripture in the light of the new? We have decided that ethnic cleansing, slavery, and treating women as property are all wrong, in spite of the fact that the Bible does not condemn them, but in fact seems to endorse them. We have decided that, by faith in Christ Gentiles can be just as “chosen” and “treasured” as Jews. We have learned from good people of other faiths and of no religious faith at all. We have joined them in living for God’s work of justice. All of these crises of justice and morality are times Jesus calls us further up and further in.)

During this pandemic crisis we will have many decisions to make. Will we continue to see only fellow Americans as worthy of concern, or learn that the virus and God above, see us all alike? Each day, will we think only of our own needs, or will we think of others? Will we allow fear to guide us, or will we trust that the God who anointed us, and claimed us in baptism, is faithful, and ultimately in charge of this world? Will we let the Son of Man open our eyes? Will we die to our old selves and arise to New Life in Christ?

 

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The Samaritan Woman: Life That Gushes

We are still playing catch-up on the great dialogs of the Fourth Gospel appointed for Lent. Last Sunday was the Third Sunday of Lent, and the appointed Gospel reading was from John, chapter four, which features Jesus’ dialog with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

 

I subtitle this the “Life that Gushes.” Jesus asks a woman to give him a drink. She is amazed that he, a Jew, would even speak to her in public, much less ask for a drink of water from her.

 

Jesus replies that she is being held back by her lack of knowledge of God’s gift, and of him, the Giver.

 

She protests that Jesus seems to be arrogating to himself a power and prestige greater than Jacob’s. As a Samaritan, and heir of the legacy of the Northern tribes of Israel, she sees her own identity as shaped by the heritage of Jacob, even more than King David with his headquarters in the southern/rival city of Jerusalem.

 

Jesus then says those dramatic words: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

 

Spring-fed, gushing water! The same Greek word is used to translate Isaiah’s picture of the fantastic redemption and renewal when God will bring back the exiles from Babylon. Luke must have thought back on that passage when he described the “leaping up” of the crippled beggar that Peter healed in Jesus’ name.

 

Gushing water is very much like the wind-like Spirit of God that Jesus spoke of with Nicodemus in the last chapter.

 

All of this is a meditation that John gives us on the deeper meaning of baptism—deeper because full baptismal life completely surprises, confounds, and overwhelms us.

 

The Fourth Gospel’s dramatic portrayal of this dialog shows us many examples of the kinds of channels or ruts that this gushing water breaks through. The Samaritan woman is hemmed in by many of them. First of all, she is a Samaritan. Her blood and ancestry hems her in because her people had been conquered by the hated Assyrians centuries before. And the Assyrians planted five colony cities of other captive peoples, and brought in five different pagan religions to obliterate the identity of her people. (This may add meaning  to the woman having five husbands since Aramid for husband and a deity are the same.) The Samaritans tried to hang onto their pride and their religion, but the Jews, who they might have found common ground with as fellow Israelites, despised them and separated from them as much as possible.

 

She is also hemmed in because she is a woman. Samaritan custom was much like Jewish, in that it stipulated that men should not talk with women in public. Besides, as the conversation reveals, this woman has had five husbands. Jews, and probably Samaritans as well, forbade more than three marriages in succession. And this woman was now living with a man out of wedlock. The wisdom book of Sirach, a part of the Old Testament deutero-canonical works, shows how dangerous women—especially disreputable ones—could be:

Do not give yourself to a woman

and let her trample down your strength.

3     Do not go near a loose woman,

or you will fall into her snares.

4     Do not dally with a singing girl,

or you will be caught by her tricks.

5     Do not look intently at a virgin,

or you may stumble and incur penalties for her.

6     Do not give yourself to prostitutes,

or you may lose your inheritance.

7     Do not look around in the streets of a city,

or wander about in its deserted sections.

8     Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman,

and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another;

many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty,

and by it passion is kindled like a fire.

9     Never dine with another man’s wife,

or revel with her at wine;

or your heart may turn aside to her,

and in blood you may be plunged into destruction. (Sirach 9:2-9)

 

Then there is the matter of place. We all feel tied to, and tied in, by place to some extent. The sense of home, they say, is where we lived when we were in fourth grade. The sense of the sacred is that place in the woods, or that place with an altar, or that place where we smell beeswax and see the candle flames.

But in this dialog the water of eternal life—the spiritual water of baptism gushes and bursts all the “proper” channels. Blood, heritage, gender, moral standing, sacred place–all are swept away and cannot hem us in.

 

This happens because Jesus reveals himself in his humanity—not particularly in his spectacular, miraculous power. He acts as a prophet. He acts in his passion, or suffering struggle as a prophetic, human force working against the oppressive things that hem people in.

 

Today, in the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are asked, for the sake of others, to socially isolate ourselves. This is a good thing we can and must do for the sake of others. But there are demonic things that perpetually isolate us from others–things that Jesus wants to liberate us from by giving us the gushing water of eternal life.

 

Jesus the prophet ignores the taboo of talking with a suspicious woman. He ignores the taboo against having things in common with Samaritans. He calls her to a true worship of God, in spirit and in truth.  He pours out his humanity to the woman, and she is, in turn, amazed that he knows everything she ever did, as only an insightful prophet would.

 

Then, the dam is broken, and she pours herself out to the people of her town. Perhaps she was always respected there, despite the fact that she was so often married and now living with yet another man. Or, perhaps all that disrepute was washed away now by the power of her testimony. In any event she became a powerful force. While the official (yet another thing that hems us in) disciples/cum evangelists are off scene, this woman does the work of an evangelist. She bears witness to just one fragment of Jesus’ power—“he told me everything I ever did”—and her neighbors are curious and inspired enough to come and check Jesus out for themselves. They too feel the Life gushing.

 

This is the full power of baptismal life—of eternal life—of the Life of a Christian.

 

Every day now, in this pandemic, we feel overwhelmed by a flood of bad news, by the shrinking economy (They call it “quality of life,” don’t they?), and by the social distancing we are asked or commanded to practice. Well, there is a mightier flood than that. If we too dialog with Jesus Christ, and allow him to call us further up and further in, we will ask of him and he will give us living water—a Life that virus and even death itself cannot touch—a Life that breaks through every demonic thing that hems us in.

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The Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus in the background. (Painting by Connie's brother, Arch Leean.

The Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus in the background. (Painting by Connie’s brother, Arch Leean.

Fog and Beauty at Heatherhope

 

 

 

Here’s another reminder that Life goes on during the pandemic.

 

Martin Luther said that one of his weapons for keeping the Devil away was to cut a fart. We can do something akin if, in the midst of the threat of COVID-19, we habitually open our eyes to the beauty and holiness all around.

 

A foggy morning is a good test case. This morning we woke to a thick fog on the farm. But a fog can reveal the haunting beauty of form, as it does when you look at the trees silhouetted against an uncluttered wall of mist.

Beautiful, foggy morning at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Beautiful, foggy morning at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

One of the special treats of having sheepdogs is that they are always up—way up—for a run around the hay field.

 

So, picture one is of the trees along our drive; and picture two is of Nell, who at age 13 is still fit enough to jump on the back of the ATV waiting the run. (I tried Zac first, but he is way too excitable, and every time I backed away from him to get a shot, he jumped down and up on me. He is definitely not the type to settle down.)

Senior citizen sheepdog Nell is ready to roll on this foggy morning. Photo by John

Senior citizen sheepdog Nell is ready to roll on this foggy morning. Photo by John

Be good to each other, and try some novel adventures in the time of novel corona virus!

 

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Nicodemus and Us

This is my second “blog in a time of pandemic.” And it fits also in my ongoing series of reflections on the Sunday readings. (I rely greatly in these comments on the scholarship of the late Raymond E. Brown, and I love his idea that “eternal life” that is featured so much in the Fourth Gospel is “the life that death can’t touch.” Very apropos of this time of pandemic.)

We are so used to shopping and eating out and going to shows and sports events that this Covid-19 business of locking us down comes as a huge shock. More than a shock it presents us with a crisis. Who are we? What kind of people? What shapes our identity and sense of belonging? Will we look out for ourselves, or for each other? Do we live one-dimensional lives, or full-dimensional?

The church, in its wisdom, has appointed for our Gospel readings during the Lenten season (year A in the Revised Common Lectionary), the four great dialogs of the Gospel of John. Chapter three is Nicodemus—to be read the second Sunday of Lent. Chapter four, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, is set for the third. Chapter nine, the Man Born Blind is read on the fourth. And chapter 11, the Raising of Lazarus and the dialogs with his sisters, Mary and Martha.

Though we are already coming up on Lent Four, I will reach back and deal here with Nicodemus, who could be called the patron saint of religious types. If you think of yourself as a regular at church, synagogue, or mosque services, you should think on Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus impressed. If you are a BIG FAN of any celebrity, you might approach them declaring yourself as such in the belief that a little of the celebrity’s sparkle might rub off on you. You might think of yourself as possessing a nice chunk of inside knowledge. If you think of yourself as a faithful worshipper, you might think you are all of the above when it comes to God.

But Nicodemus comes to Jesus at this time by night. The entirety of the Fourth Gospel has been handed down to us from an author and a community that are under pressure. Their friends and family look at them with anything from suspicion to contempt because they trust in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus stands in this story as a kind of  a patron saint of the religious, but also of the religious who prefer shadows to the light of day.

Sometimes you and I would rather not be believers out loud. It’s not cool to be out in front. In private we may feel inspired by Christ, but sticking our necks out in public may be dangerous. We might lose friends and find ourselves REALLY socially isolated.

So, when Nicodemus, speaking in the “we,” to show that he represents here the religious establishment, declares that he and others are impressed with Jesus’ signs, or miracles, Jesus draws him further up and further in. And at the same time he addresses the fear and reticence that Nicodemus has about being an outlier because of his nascent faith. He does this by challenging Nicodemus: To see the kingdom of God one must be born from above. In John, Jesus rarely speaks of the kingdom of God. John probably knew of other gospel traditions that did use that term, just as Jesus must have. But John remembers Jesus using a term that is much more challenging: eternal life—the life that death can’t touch.

The Greek word that John uses to translate Jesus’ thought here is anothen, which is perfect for his purpose, because it can either mean “from above,” or “again.” And John wants to show that this Life Jesus gives is much more powerful and wonderful than we will ever fully understand. And so, ordinary people, like Nicodemus and you and me, no matter how religious we might be, are from below—and we have a long way to go before we actually see things in full dimension. Jesus, however, is from above, and he is challenging us to go there. This is the Lenten journey that begins when we trust Jesus, and which continues as eternal Life.

The reason this is good news for Nicodemus, and for all of us religious people who are too cowardly to move decisively and come into the light and shout our faith out loud, is that Jesus assures us that we belong not by blood and physical birth, but by virtue of birth from above—a new kind of thing. The risk of being shunned or hated by family and friends is a spiritual prison. Jesus may inspire us, but we are afraid to speak and live fully out of that inspiration. We can break out of this prison only when we realize our belonging or identity is not determined by family background or race or popularity, or by anything “from below.” In the next chapter Jesus will talk to a Samaritan woman who is not only socially isolated by her blood, but by her past, and especially by place. No, Jesus says, the validity and power of our worship is not determined by sacred place, but by the Spirit and Truth.

There is hope for all of us religious and reticent people because chapter three is only the beginning of the saga of Jesus and Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel. We will see this man in chapter seven begin to take risks for his trust in Jesus as the Christ and the Giver of Life. When the Pharisees declare that no real Pharisee has or can turn to Jesus, Nicodemus pokes his head up and his nose into the debate by saying the law of Moses doesn’t condemn people who are backed up by good actions. And finally, in chapter 19, after Jesus is lifted up once again to God and glory in the crucifixion, Nicodemus joins another shadow dwelling Joseph of Arimathea, They both act decisively now and come out into the light, despite the risk. Nicodemus brings a wheel-barrow full of myrrh and aloes to give Christ a proper, royal burial.

Just so, Nicodemus is exemplary for all of us. We cannot hide in the shadows and still see, and know, and understand. We must undergo the full treatment that is only signified by Jesus’ miracles and by the Baptism of the church. To experience the fullness of Baptism–to be born of water and the Spirit–is a life-long process, marked by those times of crisis—times, perhaps much like this time of global pandemic—when we must come out of the night and into the day of eternal Life. It is a life-long process in which the Christ keeps beckoning us further up and further in.

 

YOU CAN FIND OUR OTHER PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING HERE:

http://heatherhopefarm.com/category/pandemic-blog/

Blogging in a Time of Pandemic

Isn’t it a loving God who put inside each of us the yearning to belong—to feel the presence of others—to complete someone else and have them complete us?

Perhaps Covid-19 is the earth’s way of crying out to us. It calls us from our flights, our road rage on the highways, our ball games (I sorely miss the NCAA March Madness!). Surely it has messed with our plans and our entire way of life. But the virus also presents us with a challenge to decide.

I have decided to scratch that itch to reach out to others by starting a “Blogging through the Pandemic” series of postings on our Heatherhope Farm web site.

Right now I plan to post some photos with little tastes of farm life, just to share the Big Reality out there. The life of soil and grass and trees and sheep and dogs and rabbits and hawks and red-winged blackbirds and robins goes on and on. This is because God is good and God is still in charge.

Because I am a pastor, I will also step up the posting of my occasional blog reflections on Sunday readings in the Revised Common Lectionary that many of the mainline Christian denominations use. I am especially hungry to do this because this time of the virus is now overlapping the season of Lent, and this Year A in the Lectionary highlights a series of profound dialogs in the Gospel of John—all of which teach us that the Life that Jesus Christ held out to us all in his ministry (mostly in Jerusalem and Judea) 2,000 years ago, is the same Life he holds out to us today. No matter what crisis we are in—whether it is a viral pandemic or our own personal disaster—we must make critical decisions every day about whose we are and how we are to live. And, if we bind ourselves to Christ in trust, we have a Life that death cannot touch.

So, to start us off, here is a photo I took this morning after putting out hay in the pasture for our sheep to eat. And Bilbo, the guard dog, is faithfully at the ready to ward off any coyotes. It’s a simple scene, but I hope it reminds you that God is trustworthy; and so Life goes on.

YOU CAN FIND OUR OTHER PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING HERE:

http://heatherhopefarm.com/category/pandemic-blog/

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Farm Life and Our Desperate Need of Governing

One thing is for certain on a farm: No one can do it alone. If I had to do the farm chores every day by myself, the way I must do them when my wife is off on business, or to a family reunion, or in the hospital, I would soon collapse. There’s the sheep to be fed and moved in and out of the pasture, the dogs fed and exercised, the food to be put on the table, the laundry to do, the house to be cleaned. That’s not to mention the BIG jobs that come up like medicating the sheep, trimming hooves, stacking hay in the barn, cleaning out the muck, and the intensive watching and working when lambs are born.

I need my wife. I need the dogs. I need a host of part-time helpers who are able and willing. And so, I need to know how to work with others, and how to organize their labors so that we can keep this place going.

All that is for certain. So, how much more are we as a nation in desperate need of people who can govern.

In this presidential campaign year our attention is drawn so very often to the peripheral. The bulk of coverage on TV, the papers, and the Internet, is about debate performances and the ups and downs of the campaigns. But we should be thinking of whether any candidate can actually govern. It is easy to put out talking points and plans. It is easy to ridicule and bully and throw dirt and variously criticize. But it takes real character and skill to govern.

To govern a person has to make it plain to everyone that they do not have all the answers, and that doesn’t go well in debates these days. But, as a farmer, I am looking for someone smart and courageous enough to say just that. And I am looking for someone who shows that character, and has demonstrated that skill, to be focused on real needs, and to be honest with real mistakes—someone who respects the ideas of others, learns from them, and compromises with them in order to move society toward genuine solutions to meet those needs. I’m looking for someone who works harder to make new allies than they do to trample enemies.

Both the critics and supporters of President Donald J. Trump should be able to recognize that the man is singularly unable to govern. Even now he is doubling down on his policies of insulting all critics, ridding his administration of all who see things from perspectives other than his own, and undermining the public’s respect for government itself.  He is determined to alienate all the leaders of the world who value international cooperation and compromise, while he aligns himself, and even does the bidding, of “strong-man” leaders who cannot govern, but only dictate.

But it is time now for those who criticize and oppose Trump to show that they recognize the fundamental problem. It is now time for citizens to watch and see which of Donald Trump’s opponents have the heart and the hands for governing, for cooperation, for honest and practical problem solving.

Have any of the candidates done any farming? Do they truly know how to govern?