Easter 6B: The Happy Paradox of Voluntary Servitude

The Readings for this Sixth Sunday of Easter:

First Reading         Acts 10:44–48

Psalm                    Psalm 98

New Testament     1 John 5:1–6

Gospel                   John 15:9–17

It’s sooo hard for us to understand and accept true freedom. It’s so hard for us to use it well.

Our Monday evening online Bible study (you are welcome to email me for an invitation) has been studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is a case study in this human dilemma. Paul scolds the gentile Christians for falling back from freedom to servitude. He explains that the Law of Moses, as well as every other kind of human religion, is twisted when it traps us into thinking we gain God’s favor through our efforts. “If you slip up, just try harder.”

But Paul has proclaimed the freedom of the gospel. Christ, who was so full of God’s love, was crucified as a violator of all rules, laws and prescriptions for trying harder. So, God was in Christ, freeing us all from the curse of just trying harder. It is a curse like that of the Greek god Sisyphus, who was condemned to an eternity of trying to roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as he neared to top. Luther says rightly, “The law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done. Only faith can see that it’s already done for you as a gift of grace.”

Through Christ God gives us the favor we so long for. God gives us dignity, and self-worth, and belonging—all as a gift. In so doing, Christ sets us free from the curse of Sisyphus, from our contorted view of the purpose of God’s Law, and from every prison of sick, constricting religion.

Our story from Acts is about the gentile, non-circumcised people of Antioch. It was obvious that the Spirit of God was blessing these people before they jumped through any of the religious hoops that the first, Jewish followers of Christ thought were pre-requisites. They were just like the Galatians Paul wrote to. The powerful gifts of the Holy Spirit were proof that the hoops weren’t necessary. And the great good things happening in the lives of these gentiles weren’t the cause, but the result of God’s favor.

So, the Good News—the Gospel—is that all the hoops, the restrictions, the formulas for getting God to love you—they are all swept away. When you follow Christ into such freedom, it is radical. You, like Paul, are dead to the law and to the cosmos—i.e. to the false religion and false reality that you earn your belonging.

But then our readings from 1 John and from the Gospel of John speak of the commandment to love. What is that all about? Are free to leave one cosmos of constraint for another?

 Martin Luther wrote an amazing essay early in his reforming career: The Freedom of the Christian. In it he stated this paradox:  

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

When Jesus commanded us to love, it both freed us and constrained us.

It freed us from loving to be loved. In other words, it freed us from the paralyzing worry and distraction of striving to do what makes us look good to God or to others. It frees us to live in voluntary servitude to love of others–to do what is right and loving for love’s sake. And 1 John has reminded us in last week’s lesson that God is love.  

So, on the other hand, trust in Christ puts us under a new constraint. We are commanded to love. Loving one another as God has loved us is the only hoop to jump through—the only rule for our life. It is not a matter of choice, or of lifestyle—it is a matter of obeying the God who is love.

This is the paradox that is so hard to come to grips with. It is the single thing that makes Martin Luther and Lutheranism so hard to understand and cope with—even for Lutherans. Only when we understand that God’s favor, or “righteousness” or “justification” is not something we achieve through our effort, or through faith with the added ingredient of our good works. It is, and must remain always, a gift. We are always accepted and in God’s favor. And this favor is the only thing that enables us to love with an enduring and pure love. It empowers us for the voluntary servitude of being a “perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

Today we hear arguments of false freedom: “I have freedom to be vaccinated or not, wear a mask or not, hire homosexuals or not, say what I want in texts, on social media, or in my rants.”

All of these are false, because they are not the freedom of the gospel. The gospel freedom—the only true freedom, is to put ourselves at the service of others. That is the kind of freedom Christ died to give us.

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It’s Life! Lambs at Heatherhope

Consideration of torn ligaments, aching joints and joint replacements have caused Connie and me to not breed and lamb these past couple of years.

The absence of lambs has left a hollowness in our lives each spring. Because, like all shepherds and sheep breeders, we delight in mothers and lambs in the good and gracious green, and the frolicking and the prancing, and the pronking of the little rascals. We feel as though we are joining the Great Creator, who daily delights in Lady Wisdom’s earth-forming handiwork (Proverbs 8:30).

Years ago I asked Judi Elliot, wife of Scotts shepherd, Bill, why the pair of them looked forward to lambing time each spring, when it meant weeks of ’round the clock hard work. Her immediate and heart-felt reply: “It’s life!”

So, Connie and I, and visitors to Heatherhope, are delighted that Gordon and Kerry Watt took us up on our offer to bring back for the summer the seven ewes we sold to them last fall, along with their lambs. It was a very nice 200% crop of healthy lambs; so we have 14 little tykes sharing with us God’s delight.

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Easter 5B: What the World Needs Now is Love

The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading         Acts 8:26–40

Psalm                    Psalm 22:25–31

New Testament     1 John 4:7–21

Gospel                   John 15:1–8

Hal David wrote the lyrics, Burt Bacharach the music, and Jackie deShannon sang the song. Sure it was sappy and idealistic, but the nation needed it as it witnessed the first 3,500 American combat troops being sent into the gaping monster that was the Vietnam Conflict while thousands of their brothers burned their draft cards. The nation was hungering for sappy love as hundreds were having their heads bashed in on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama because they marched for the rights of Black folk to vote.

What the broken and bleeding world needs is love, sweet love.

Perhaps the song was; but is love itself really so idealistic? Is it not the most practical thing we can do? When our heads swim with all the contrary proposals we need to fall back on something solid. When every call to awakening is shot full of holes by the opposition, isn’t it time to hear of the single, simple thing we all need if we are going to listen to each other and cooperate? Perhaps the solid, single, simple thing we need to build upon is love.

It’s downright startling that the Psalm Mark and Matthew tell us Jesus prayed from the cross—the lament that starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ends with one of the strongest affirmations of universalism in the Bible (Psalm 22:25-31). God holds dominion over all space and time—over all nations and families around the world, and over all the dead and the coming generations. God owns them, and their whole purpose is to serve God—so, the Psalmist and Jesus stake their lives on this: “I will live and die for the ultimate destiny of the universe.”

At this stage in my long life, I embrace such universalism. I like it. Yet many would disagree. “Surely we must make exceptions. Surely God’s dominion doesn’t include everybody and everything! Surely some people and things are out of bounds.”

I also like Acts. “Look, water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” says the Black, Ethiopian eunuch to the Hellenized Jewish Jesus follower who is on a wilderness road to Gaza (You remember Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinians live like prisoners in their own land?). Here too is a call to universalism that I find powerful and persuasive; but you may disagree. Where are the months of catechesis that the church requires? Where are the creeds? Has this man been reborn? Does he have a personal relationship with Jesus? Does he really fully grasp the meaning of Scripture or of the sacraments when he only has the Old Testament to study? And how can this Hellenized Jew, who, like Stephen, probably doesn’t think God dwells in the Temple, begin to teach about the Temple-centered Scriptures?

But Acts is a bulldozer of a story of the Spirit doing things in a windy, unpredictable, and unmanageable way. The Word of the Lord grows as it blows past boundaries of geography, language, culture, religion, politics, and base human jealousy. Nothing seems to prevent baptism when the Spirit is in charge. Sometimes the Spirit is poured out and so we then baptize. The protocols are all blown apart. Sometimes the baptism comes first and we must catch up and lay hands and impart the Spirit.

It’s a universalizing jumble, and I like that too. But you may disagree.

And I like John 15 and the image of the vine and the branches. I like it because it talks about abiding—a word that, both in Greek and in English, is vague. What does it mean to “abide” in Jesus as he “abides” in us? It means to stay in one place, but for how long? A day or two? A year? Or for now on?

I like vague; and the Bible is very often vague. But this may not please you at all.

That’s why, of this week’s lessons, I like 1 John the best. The Bible is vague and hard to figure out. For every solution that people shout about from the streets, and every solution that Biden recommends, there is a smear and a jeer and a think tank full of contradictions thrown up. How far do we go with defunding police? How fast do we go in cutting down on greenhouse gasses? How hard to we push to make people get the vaccination and wear masks?

Legend says John the Evangelist grew old and worn out and couldn’t say much when they moved him from church to church to preach—the last of the living disciples. So he boiled all theology and his message down to these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Whether it was the same guy or not, who wrote both the Gospel of John and 1 John, I like to think the letter does benefit from further thinking. In the Gospel there is no ambiguity. It is light or darkness, life or death, God or Satan. In the Gospel  the cross of Jesus is not shame but glory. It is not defeat but victory. Nobody takes Jesus’ life from him—he gives it up. All very neat.

But in the letter, the very community that wholeheartedly subscribed to all of that is confused and divided. People find plenty of grey areas and things to disagree about. And, I think the author of this letter is saying, “Yeah, we can choose to believe different things, but we have no choice when it comes to love. Because God is love.”

If the pandemic has taught us one thing it is that we are confused and divided. And from our silos—each with its own separate reality—we come up with vastly different solutions. But there is a special power in 1 John’s argument that what the world needs now is love. And when we get right down to brass tacks all of us think with something ultimate in mind—a Higher Power—an ideal worth fighting and dying for, or a god. But 1 John says we must not cling to any ultimate that is not love.

And abiding in love may seem vague, but isn’t it an invitation to give it a chance? Whenever you find your instinct telling you to despise and belittle the person with a different solution, try love instead. Whenever you find yourself confused when someone says, “Follow the science,” and another says, “Well my science proves you are an idiot,” try a little love.

Don’t try it for a fleeting moment. But abide in love. Stay there a while; after all, it’s the only way for love to be love. And, if you believe in Christ, and God, and the cross, and the resurrection, you will find that when you are loving, there is both the cross and the risen Christ right by your side.

The Apostle Paul put it all together for us back in 1 Corinthians 13.  He was writing to a bitterly divided congregation and he pulled out all the stops of his theological mind to say, “Everything God has done in history and in Christ was to build us up and make us one people—one Body. So, if you have problems with what I say, that’s fine; just remember: now we see things in a mirror, darkly. One day we will see face to face. One day we will know it all—not now. One day we will know completely. Today we must find peace in being perfectly known by God.

The Corinthians are all in a tizzy about who has the biggest array of spiritual gifts, but Paul says boldly in chapter 13, there are lots of gifts, but just three that abide—faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of them all is love.

The wounds of division that have crippled our nation and world, and keep us from being global about tackling the global pandemic, have come about because love has dropped out of our conversations and debates. We are seduced into believing those we disagree with are not people, but enemies. They are not of a different opinion, but ignorant, evil, and a waste of time to deal with. But any “gift” we imagine we have, of always being the wisest and best, cannot stack up to love, the greatest gift of all. That’s becau se with love we can keep working with each other.

Global problems like pandemics, injustice, and racism, must be solved globally. And that’s why what the world needs now is love.

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Reflections on the Derek Chauvin Verdict

The institution held. Thank God the institution held.

I wept the night of January 6 when the United States Senate voted to accept the certification of Joe Biden as President of the country.

I wept again when Judge Peter Cahill read the jury’s verdict, that Derek Chauvin was guilty of second-degree murder in the death of George Floyd.

I wept because our nation is in the process of tearing itself apart because of racial and political divisions. But these institutions of the Congress and the Judiciary, though battered, have held…for now.

Civilizations change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. The United States has shown that it can become better and less bigoted and vicious towards its own. But it has also, at times, become worse.

But we are better when we are not cut adrift in an ocean of rage. And it is the precious institutions of government that give us time to breathe and think and return to our better angels. We need to keep improving our institutions, and we need to be able to trust them.

When Donald Trump was president he tore at the fragile fabric of our institutions in his arrogant tweet storms and many of his actions. We have a better President now; but Joe Biden and Maxine Waters should have shown more restraint and more deference to the institution of the judiciary than they did in these past few days. They disappointed us all. They both deserve to be censured; and I hope they think better of it in the days ahead.

But today, April 20, as on January 6, 2021, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

The institutions, for now, have held. Thank God!

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Easter 4B: Good Shepherd Sunday and Earth Day

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is part of John chapter 10–Jesus discourse on himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18).

Wendell Berry distinguishes between farmers who are married to the land and others who rape the land.

I see the latter as of the Present Age, and heirs of an old American tradition of thinking the earth’s resources endless and its geography amenable to exploitation followed by moving on.

The former—those who are married to the land—are agents of the Coming Age. They have, as their patron saint, our Lord, Jesus Christ. They have as their example the good shepherds of all time.

Jesus says the difference between him and the “hired hand” is that he cares for the sheep. The rent-a-shepherd is like the mercenary—a person who has no lasting allegiance to any employer, or concern for the lasting effects of his or her labor.

This Sunday is Earth Day, a day when we think of the virtues of being ecologically “woke.” Such folk care for soil, water, climate, and the whole shebang. But let us not forget how easy it is for us to “be into” the environment. It is so easy to join the personality cult of Greta Thunberg. But, while Greta has paid her dues in a long-lasting commitment to climate concerns, we who coruscate on the thin ice of fashionable environmentalism will make scarcely a dent in the armament or the walls erected by the captains of industry who are devoted to preserving their systematic rape of God’s creation.

Wendell Berry complains that many so-called environmentalists don’t know how to grow a potato. They don’t know the practical implications of what they are advocating, and so they can’t possibly contend with those “captains of industry” who at least know how to make things, even if they don’t count the costs to the whole life-support system. That’s why these environmentalists so often rail against farming and farmers and those who raise livestock in a blind and unproductive  way.

Christ the Good Shepherd, as well as good shepherds through the ages, are married to the environment. They care that all God’s creatures are sheltered and fed, and for the Creation that makes it all happen. Thus they have much to teach us.

Sheila Chamberlain, the wife of such a good shepherd in Shropshire England, told me once how she could not abide the smell of brandy because it reminded her of critically ill young lambs. Her shepherding parents would take such lambs into the kitchen and nurse them back to health with the aid of a teaspoon of brandy along with the mother’s colostrum, milked by hand from the mother’s udder. Sheila’s husband, Jack, had a thousand sheep to tend, yet he would work through the night to save any single sick one that he had the power to save. Though a shepherd, and not a farmer who owned the land, Jack was not a flash in the pan, rent-a-shepherd. He cared for the sheep to his dying day. Sheila’s way of putting it was that, “Jack takes it personally when a lamb dies.”

Let us all, this Earth Day, care for the Earth in the same way; not as members of a cult of personality, not as those who flit between fashionable “causes,” and certainly not as those who rape this good land by carelessly pouring on chemicals, killing off all life that does not profit us, and fouling the air that is breathed by neighbors near and far. Let us care because we are married to this beautiful world God has given us. Let us learn from good shepherds and farmers through the ages. Let us take Earth day, and our stewardship of the life around us, personally.

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Easter 3 B: Ambiguity and the Sense and Sensibility of Faith

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading         Acts 3:12–19

Psalm                    Psalm 4

New Testament     1 John 3:1–7

Gospel                   Luke 24:36b–48

Ambiguity drives us to distraction. We want black and white answers to questions like “How did the pandemic start? Who is to blame? When will it all end? What do we do now?”

This agitation can also make us enemies of faith. If the fundamentalist assertions of absolute certainty repulse us, the only alternative is atheism, whatever that is.

The New York Times recently featured a  son, Abraham, of is a prominent evangelical pastor and theologian named John Piper. The son has posted over 300 videos on the platform TicToc and has gained close to a million followers there. These videos are characterized as “…irreverent critiques of evangelical Christianity aimed at others who have left the faith.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/us/abraham-piper-tiktok-exvangelical.html?action=click&module=In%20Other%20News&pgtype=Homepage

The online world has become a prime breeding ground for ever more entertaining and simplified attacks on fundamentalism, but also on the Christian faith and on religion in general. This genre is surely trending.

But I wonder if this trend is not also beholden to a concomitant feature of our digital existence. If today we can work miracles with CGI in the movies, and produce convincing fakes of voices and faces, tomorrow won’t we discover that every real and true thing must be reducible to ones and zeroes—either yes or no? And if this is so, are we not warranted in cancelling and tearing down any notion that feels like both yes and no at the same time?

Ambiguity drives us to distraction.

Enter 1 John, admitting ambiguity from the get go: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.And boy, is this letter full of ambiguous stuff, such as that anyone who says they have no sin is a liar, soon followed by the assertion that no one who abides in God sins.

In the memory of the Gospel writers the risen Jesus did something to give peace to his followers after his death. He was dead, you see. But he also reached them with peace. How did he do it? Yes, he spoke words that they heard. But John’s Gospel tells us he also breathed on them (John 20:22). And our reading from Luke and John (20:27) agree that Jesus also invited disciples to touch him—especially his wounds. He also ate with them, and in breaking bread the eyes of their minds were opened to understand obscure things hidden in writings from centuries before (Luke 24:35, 41-45) Then we have Paul, who has the audacity to claim that he too is an apostle, and that at the time when he was a raging hater of the Christian heresy he had the same kind of experience that the original disciples had when Christ “appeared” to him (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). But what kind of empirical experience could that have been? Give me an answer—a yes or no I can wrap my little head around.

Peace through words, tastes, touches, and breath itself. What kind of peace? And so, what sort of truth claim are these Gospel writers making?

All this “new atheism,” whether it is in imposing books or TicToc videos, seems to me to be blind to nuanced spirituality—to the universal journey of believers who have the capacity to suspend suspicion long enough to be changed in many ways by new experiences and new narratives of reality.

One irreducible truth of human life is ambiguity. We want things we can touch, smell, taste, see, or hear right now—things that can give us absolute assurance. Yet we must learn to with and through the sensibility that comes through channels that run deeper. Sensibility must tap into our instincts, not about what and where and how, but who. Sensibility tells us whom we can trust with our lives.

Yes, fundamentalism’s real weakness has a great deal in common with the digital desire for certainty. It pretends a great deal of certainty. But the heart of the Christian faith—the part that saves—that lifts us out of the prison of our own need for certainty and control—relies on sensibility as an insight to get us through this life so full of ambiguity.

Jesus speaks, breathes, and opens his wounds to us. And so there is much we don’t know. But we follow someone we can trust.  

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Easter 2 B: Resurrection Oneness

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter are

First Reading         Acts 4:32–35

Psalm                    Psalm 133

New Testament     1 John 1:1–2:2

Gospel                   John 20:19–31

Throughout all my years of ministry if I had a choice of things to do with the youth of the parish I would take them to the wilderness.

In confirmation classes, church dances, or big youth gatherings in hotels, the kids were all on the make. Boys were competing for the girls’ attention. Girls were competing for the boys’. Acting out and acting mean as hormones raged. Everybody felt on edge and awkward; especially me.

In the wilderness of the high Rocky Mountains, or in the Boundary Waters we had to help each other and work with each other. Why? Because we are all we had. You might not even survive at all if you don’t survive together. You could say the wilderness opened our eyes to how precious we were to each other.

This kind of awareness and togetherness is a rare thing in America today. On top of the social isolation we have all lamented, we have created for ourselves forms of social polarity and divisiveness that are doing far more damage. We have inherited pernicious inequities and forms of segregation; but we have invented industries that have wedged us further apart and walled us off from each other with well funded, well organized, and well practiced lies about the feared and hated “Other.”

The message from God that comes our way through these lessons for the Second Sunday of Easter must awaken to God’s church both to how we need each other, but how this unity is a gift from God. Christ rose from the dead to enable us to make it work.

So, in the collective and ancient wisdom of the Lectionary, three key texts of Oneness come up this Sunday.

Psalm 133 is effusive: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together I unity.” Two key Hebrew words jump out at us. First, we are ahim, or kindred. We didn’t make ourselves this—God did. We are related by blood, fellow tribesmen—we are all in this together. Second is the word yahad, or unity or togetherness. The Psalm has us praying about how beautiful it is when we quit acting like competitors, or enemies, and get along so we can survive this difficult thing called life. Sure, the psalmist herself may have been thinking of her next-door neighbors in her village. But the whole epic of Israel makes it plain—through grandpa Noah we are blood kin with EVERYBODY. And what a relief when we stop shooting arrows at each other and start trading and bringing in the crops together.

If we listen to our first reading from the Book of Acts…listen again, listen deeply, for the first time, we will be shocked with the story of the first Christians being thoroughly communist. Not property but cooperation was their holy grail. Their purpose not to get ahead, but that on one goes needy—no one is left behind. And the deepest dimension of it all—they can realize the greatest gift of all, that they live with one heart and soul.

The First Letter of John deepens our appreciation even more. Our whole ethos as Christians is built on the awareness that Oneness is built into our world. Here the Hebrew yahad has melded into the Greek word koinonia that many Christians are familiar with. It is frequently translated “fellowship,” but that word conjures up a rather weak feeling picture of church pot-lucks. Unfortunately we all know that before and after the smiles and happy sounds of church pot-lucks we all too often must endure the squabbles about the color of the table-cloths, who is going to clean up, and, in these times of pandemic, how soon to open the church to in-person worship.

No, koinonia isn’t simply playing nice-nice at pot-lucks. It is thoroughgoing Oneness. It is solidarity. It is working and loving together like our lives depended on it.

John’s letter says we have this Oneness with the Father, and with the Son Jesus Christ, so that we can reach out eagerly to make it real with one another. And, the main point of that whole letter, together with the drama of Jesus breathing Peace and inviting us to touch the wounds in the Gospel, is that truly believing in the real flesh and blood Jesus, enables us to truly believe that his Resurrection means the fulfillment of Oneness among all God’s people. Flesh and blood Jesus enables us to love flesh and blood people at the pot-luck and around the world.

All these varied voices of Scripture, and of the church, are calling to us here at the onset of the Easter season. We know the Resurrection means something. Here we are told it enables us to live the Oneness we have been given.

We, the church, must be the ones to hold out this great promise to our broken and divided world. We are all we have. We are in this together. And it’s time to take full advantage of this. It’s a gift, not a threat. The risen Christ holds out to us this great gift of  Oneness.

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Easter B: Resurrection Questions

The readings for Easter Year B, The Resurrection of Our Lord

First Reading         Acts 10:34–43 or Isaiah 25:6–9

Psalm                    Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

New Testament     1 Corinthians 15:1–11 or Acts 10:34–43

Gospel                   John 20:1–18 or Mark 16:1–8


We all need to be known. We hunger and thirst for being understood by at least one other human being. We long for being seen, and touched.

The suffering caused by this viral epidemic has been made infinitely worse by the ongoing symptoms of the plague of emotional distance sweeping the world. The person who understands us is an endangered species.

The Lord only knows my own sickness of not knowing other people as I should. Content to work the sheep and the dogs here on the farm, and to delve deeply into Scripture, I have become distant from the suffering around me. I find myself turning away from the daily news of depression and suicidal thoughts of children and teenagers who have been cut off from physical contact with their friends. I turn away in disgust from revelers on the beach and in the streets without masks. I turn away because I have forgotten that I was a youth once, and I too needed to chat and wrestle and play ball with my friends to be fully alive and fully human. My turning away from their suffering today is a wound caused by my emotional distance.

And I have been surprised by the high pitch of the protests coming from Blacks and people with mixed race families over racial injustice. Yes, I know racism exists. Yes, I know it’s built into our sinful hearts, minds, laws and systems. Yet every time I am surprised and put off by the degree of rage I am hearing, I must confess that it’s because of how emotionally distant I have become from my brothers and sisters. They have had to deal, every moment of their lives, with being different—with being other and outside—with not being seen and known—with being untouchable third class citizens. They have a story I need to understand if I am going to see them and known them.

Covid-19 can put us in the hospital, on a ventilator, or in the grave. But the disease of emotional distance has been around for a long, long time. And it is the spiritual malady that makes Covid so very much worse.

Enter the question! The best way to come near to those we have been distanced from is to ask questions. Less declaration, more inquiry. Less coming locked and loaded with our own personal truth and certainty, and more thirsting to understand.

Even before we befriend or defend, we should probe and open ourselves, ask questions, and then listen to one another.

It is curious. Mark’s young man in white at the empty tomb, TELLS the women not to be afraid. He offers instant diagnosis and advice. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who isn’t here. But go, tell the disciples to get to Galilee and there you will see him.” All perfectly good diagnosis and advice.

But, in John, the angel and Jesus ask questions of Mary: “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Those questions have echoed down through the Early Church to us. Yet the questioning itself is vital. Their interrogatory form must not be overlooked.

John’s Jesus is divine from beginning to end; and essential to that divinity is his power to see and understand the people he has come to love and serve. In chapter two its Nathaniel that Jesus saw under the fig tree—understanding that Nathaniel was an Israelite in whom there was no deceit. In chapter four it is a Samaritan woman with a troubling sexual and marital history—whose deep identity and suffering would be triply invisible to Jewish men from Galilee. Jesus’ discussion with her doesn’t look on the surface like asking questions, but it IS dialog, and it does grow from the thing that connects them immediately—thirst and water. And so, all through John, Jesus sees and knows people. He knows and loves Lazarus so well that at his tomb Jesus is deeply moved—he is not emotionally distant. And even on the cross he can turn from his own agony to the need of the Beloved Disciple for a Mother—and of a Mother for a new son. Besides being God for us, Jesus is us for God—he models the way to NOT be emotionally distant.

We are told by deep thinkers that questions are more important than answers. But on this Resurrection Sunday we are called to consider how much more important are the questions that come from Jesus. These questions open up Christ’s Resurrection life for us. Rather than limiting our prayers to the laundry list of our petitions, what if we sit in quiet for a time and listen for the questions that Jesus may be asking us: Why are you weeping? Why are you so angry? Why are you so worried? Why are you disappointed? And whom are you looking for? What are you expecting from your God?

Just as important is to employ the power of the question to know our neighbor. Both in our prayer life and in the encounters with people near and far, we can be less anxious and ready with the right answers. Perhaps we should accept God’s deliverance from the need to look good and to say and do the right thing. Perhaps we should be less defensive and more inquisitive. Perhaps we should ask more and tell less.

Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?

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Palm/Passion Sunday B: Meaning Shines Out From Steadfastness

The readings for the Liturgy of the Passion:

Old Testament      Isaiah 50:4–9a

Psalm                    Psalm 31:9–16

New Testament     Philippians 2:5–11

Gospel                   Mark 14:1–15:47 or Mark 15:1–39 (40–47)

Friedrich Nietzsche was a harsh critic of religious belief; but he was right about some things, including the idea that once we lose conviction about ultimate meaning in our lives, we no longer have anything to sacrifice or suffer for.

The New Testament has many ways of speaking about what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection, but surely woven throughout the many readings that we find relevant to Holy Week is this: Jesus’ steadfast resolve to endure the cross flashes in our souls as proof that there is something ultimate—there is something worth living and dying for.

People of faith, from the first disciples to today have turned to the “Suffering  Servant” poems in Isaiah to throw light on the Passion of Christ. From Isaiah 50, one of the readings for this Sunday, we hear that the ideal teacher must also be a steadfast learner. This one understands that sometimes suffering innocently teaches vital lessons both to the one suffering and the oppressor. The Servant utters these lines:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

7     The Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

8        he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

9     It is the Lord God who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

All of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

This Servant never backs down from a fight. But he fights the only way that can win—with the means that flow from the ultimate meaning he lives and suffers for.

Today we have more choices but less moral conviction to direct those choices than ever. Our fabric of community is frayed, our traditions are trashed, and so our sense of moral absolutes have dissolved.  The ones who pull beard, spit, and cast insults, whether in the streets or on social media, are legion becasuse they are the ones who have little sense of anything ultimate. They flail around in an ocean of nihilism.

I am afraid that nihilism has many faces. In the end, the garment woven out of flags and posters and slogans and the “isms” of the hour—be they of the left or the right, will all wear out.

But the Servant conquers, not only because he has a cause that is right, but because he has Someone who is faithful even when he is wrong. He has something more True than a cause. He has a Lord and God to help him.

And by the very act of steadfast suffering, of setting the face like flint, and moving forward from Gethsemane’s revulsion at the cup of suffering, to swallowing it defiantly, this Suffering Servant Christ shines forth with meaning that we all can learn from throughout Holy Week and every day of our lives.

Let this Holy Week good news fortify you to keep on doing what is right for your family, your  neighbor, and the planet. Don’t give up because you are fed up. Keep on keeping on not just for another week or month, or until we have “herd immunity” and are “back to normal.” But set your face like flint.

He who vindicates you is near.

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Lent 4 B: Poisonous Prevention

These are the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Old Testament      Numbers 21:4–9

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22

New Testament     Ephesians 2:1–10

Gospel                   John 3:14–21

The Old Testament and Gospel readings both refer to famous cases of the counter-intuitive. In Numbers we have the Israelites voicing their lack of confidence both to Moses and to God: “You have taken us from the frying pan to the fire—out of our slavery in Egypt to die here in the wilderness! We are sick of you both!”

God then teaches a lesson. But, as Psalm 107 says, they have brought on their own affliction. God sends poisonous serpents to bite at them, killing many. The people then turn back to the Lord and Moses, asking to be saved; at which point the Lord commands the counter-intuitive requirement. “Instead of acting out of fear, and looking down to guide some fancy footwork, have a bit of trust and look at this bronze poisonous snake!”

The Gospel of John takes up this same incident and image, to give us a foretaste of what is to come in his Christ-story. The execution of Jesus, by all that is reasonable, should be a thing of revulsion. Instead it is what we must look to appreciate the radicality of God’s love for us, and to awaken our trusting response.

Ironically the whole idea of vaccination is to administer a poisonous prevention. The vaccines now being delivered don’t contain “killed” germs, but they do awaken the proper immune response by delivering “bits of RNA that code for coronovirus proteins” to awaken our body’s reaction. They are poisonous prevention. They mirror the virus the way the bronze image mirrored the serpent, and the way Jesus’ death on a cross mirrors the death that plagues the whole sinful world.

These readings call upon us to distinguish credulity with Christian faith. Those estranged from religion sometimes cast shade on believers as being naive and credulous. In their mind we are too ready to believe things without good evidence, or indeed, without any evidence at all. Worst still, we may easily become dangerous fanatics who insist we cannot be wrong—not because we have examined any evidence at all, but simply because of assumed authority: “The Bible says so, that settles it.” Our arguments aren’t arguments at all, but circular reasoning, much as an old cartoon I remember:

That guy is Robin Hood.

How do you know he’s Robin Hood?

Because he says he’s Robin Hood, and Robin Hood wouldn’t lie.

But looking to the bronze serpent wasn’t an act of credulity as much as desperation, tinged with awakening. All the fancy footwork in the world can’t get you though if the snakes are wall to wall. And, besides, the Israelites just had to wake up from their pity party, and call to mind the long track record God and Moses had built up with them.

And, when it comes to Christ on the cross, the very pangs of death form a measure for “God so loved the world.”  In the better translation of the Jerusalem Bible: “This is how God loved the world…”

I see myself as anything but credulous. My wife will tell you I’m a very skeptical person. And I read the Bible skeptically, knowing that it is my source of wisdom and guidance, but it also contains some not so edifying material in places. It is, indeed, a millennia old conversation around the dinner table with God.

But when I look to the Jesus on the cross I see much that is both true and revealing about myself, the world, and God. I see myself and the world are driven to death by our fear. Indeed, I am driven too by a bit of desperation: “Where else can I look for the answers? Most importantly, I see God loving me in a way so strong that it overcomes all the fear and death that comes my way.

Christian faith is not vain credulity, but a vaccination against fear and death. We need that kind of vaccination to change us now, so that we can think of others and not of ourselves when we consider whether to eat in that restaurant, drink in that bar, open that school, or wear that mask. Will we choose to die in our pity-party, full of fear and mistrust—or will we look up and live?

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