The Foolish Farmer – Sermon, 7.13.14

Let those who have ears, listen.

A farmer went driving in her tractor – set out to sow seeds. But she drew stares. Her method was – odd, shall we say. the_sower_-_painting_by_van_goghReckless, even – she rode around, not looking, throwing seed everywhere. Over her shoulder, off to the side, up in the air.

Some of that seed fell to the east of here – big houses, all looking the same, falling onto families as they shuttle off from music rehearsal to sports games, to board meetings. Though their busyness made them swiftly moving targets, the seed hit them all the same.

Some of that seed fell far west of here – in small towns, people who believe in guns and agriculture, suspicious of cities and books and government.

Some of that seed fell here in Lawrence, in the student ghetto as undergrads sloshed back their trash-can punch, and some fell in the halls of academia as professors and students chased ideas from books into thesis statements and term papers.

Some of that seed fell far South of here – along borders – on people who are motivated by desperation and hope – on persons with names who are categorized as ‘illegal’.

Some of that seed fell in bigger cities, which feel worlds away – on people speaking other languages, wearing clothing that wouldn’t quite match in rooms like this – and yet who bear similar joys and concerns.

Some of that seed fell in the ICUs of major hospitals – on patients clinging to life, on doctors who operate and diagnose, on families who wait patiently in that thin, holy space between news of life or death.

Some of that seed fell on refugee children – children who run and play and jump and laugh, but whose young lives are already marred by the realities of war and violence and scarcity.

Some of that seed fell on government buildings – on men and women in suits and on cell phones, moving at the speed of business. The seed fell as they made decisions of economy, justice, human rights and development.

Some of that seed fell on the lucky – the people whose lives seem easy – too easy – folks whose cares seem minor to the jealous onlooker.

Some of that seed fell on the unlucky – folks who receive pity upon pity for all their misfortune – unable, it seems, to catch a break.

Some of that seed fell on the stay at home parents, who mend scrapes and kiss bruises, and shuttle families between school and sports and music and work.

Some of that seed fell on working parents who struggle with the pressure to “have it all,” struggling to feel adequate when holding up the world’s measuring stick of success and perfection.

Who is this farmer riding her tractor, indiscriminately throwing seed on all people and all places? Doesn’t she know the ins and outs of farming? Doesn’t she know that she must first inspect the land – and till it – and nurture the soil? What a waste of seed and soil to scatter the seed where it will never grow.

Doesn’t she know? Surely not. Or maybe she does.

Maybe she knows more than the master gardener observers.

Certainly the first century audience had similar trouble suspending enough disbelief to listen to Jesus’ story. Then he gets to the end – and the harvest is equally unbelievable. The harvest that is promised at the end of the parable doesn’t just make for a pretty good year for the farmer. The manifold harvest makes for a downright miraculous year.

Hearers of this story might chalk this up to hyperbole on the part of the story-teller. But for a Jesus who commanded his disciples to cast their nets again, resulting in more fish than they could carry, it’s just the kind of unpredictable thing for which Jesus is known.

Abundance – unbelievable – miraculous – those are our measurements. But notice how thoroughly unsurprised Jesus is – perhaps we ought to recognize this as the abundance that is normal for our God of grace and love.

So maybe the sower doesn’t know what she’s doing – or maybe, just maybe she knows something deeper and truer than we can grasp. Maybe she knows that an abundant harvest can grow just about anywhere seeds are sown.

That doesn’t mean – or guarantee – an abundant harvest everywhere – but it does perhaps mean that we will be surprised where the seeds are thrown and where the plants will thrive. “We may want to entertain the possibility that this sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that ‘anywhere’ is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity.”[1]

We also assume that it is obvious from the beginning which soil was which. What if it hadn’t been? What if this farmer threw her seeds everywhere in order to discover the good soil – to find where the seeds would take root?

Where are we in this parable?

We often think about this parable as though we are the sowers – and treat this as a cautionary tale about picking the best mission fields or target people groups. I believe we miss the point – the deeper and truer point – if we place ourselves as the sower.

Really, we are the soil – but even by that reckoning we aren’t to take this parable and apply it to individuals, groups of people, other nations and try to figure out who is good soil and who is not. Because, if we’re honest, we are always going to find some way to play us vs. them.

We will find a way that we are the Good Soil, and they are the rocks or birds or thorns. The soils aren’t categories – they are ways of understanding all the ways we ourselves respond to and receive God’s word and let it in our lives – or not. Can’t we all identify at different points in our lives ways we grew quickly, but then lost steam, like the seeds who grew in the rocky soil? But I still don’t think the soil is the most important character in the parable.

The story is good news – but the story’s best news is found when the Sower is the focus. The Sower is not us – the Sower is God. The story could really be called the parable of the foolish farmer, because the way God sows is indiscriminate and foolish. God’s word and God’s grace go everywhere – they are for everyone. Not because God is a stupid farmer, but because “One never knows what may come of profligate grace.”[2]

The story is good news because of what we learn about God. While this sower seems reckless and indiscriminate – “what is she doing throwing seed everywhere?” – that’s not the point. The point is – or at least one of the points is – that God – the sower – promises abundant harvest. That God’s promise is Good Soil will be found.

If it were up to us – if we were the sowers – we clearly wouldn’t be so foolish. We are often stingy sowers – not wanting to waste our seeds. We prefer to wait until we are confident – until we can predict, or be sure of a successful outcome. What this story is saying, it seems to me, is that confidence, success, certainty – those are not the point. We wouldn’t be wasteful – our sowing would be measured, budgeted, planned; it would be strategic – and we would consider ourselves Exemplary Stewards. But that’s not how God works. We want to do good business, but the story serves as a reminder that God is the sower – not us. The story serves as a reminder that God is the one who sows goodness out of places only we deem as wasteful or unlikely or undeserving. The strange – but good – news of the parable is that the Gospel is bad business.

What if the sower doesn’t see the soil the way we do- as rocky or weedy or Good? What if all the sower sees is potential? I like to think that all the soil looked a little broken – but the sower trusted and threw the seed everywhere – and surprised everyone when the seeds grew – when the seeds found the good soil.

Another promise that I hear in this story is the good news about our own rocky and weedy soil. It turns out that the sower will reap abundant harvest where we might never plant in the first place – our mistakes and our failures may actually be the perfect Good Soil – the breeding ground for God’s work and God’s word to take root.

Where is the brokenness in our lives – where is the strange and foreign and unlikely of places for the holy to break through? Where do we feel undeserving of God’s grace? This parable seems to suggest that it is precisely those places where the seed of God’s word – God’s love – God’s care – God’s grace will find the Best Soil.

What if we let ourselves be surprised by the moments and seasons in our life that we are quick to label as bad soil – and let God find good soil in their midst? Do we believe that this is possible? Do we believe that God is working for Good – that God is a God in the business of Resurrection and new life?

I know I want to. I want to make the choice to cling to this promise every day. And it is incredibly difficult some days.

Some days I wake up and step out of bed and place my feet on soil so rocky it feels downright dangerous to my frail and feeble bare feet.

Some mornings I walk out of my house and make my footprints on soil that I can barely see because of all the weeds (both literally and figuratively).

And some mornings I walk through my life on the Best Soil – confident and secure in God’s promises and God’s abundant grace.

The parable reminds us that God’s grace is free – but asks us how we will respond. To be sure, much is required of us – how are we going to cultivate our own soil? How will we nurture and care for the seed of God’s work and word?

But we know that the Good news is that it isn’t up to us entirely. And that God will always surprise us with goodness when we have ourselves convinced that we will only and ever be tangled up in weeds or carried away by birds. How do we cultivate our soil? Do we find ourselves seeking God’s face? Are we convinced that we are too busy or too independent for spiritual growth? Are we waiting until we feel ready or until we are guaranteed some kind of success?

The surprising message of this parable reminds me of the truth that all of it is a gift – all of life – even our rocky ground is gift – and we are called to cultivate our soil, and trust in God’s goodness. We are supposed to believe in God’s abundance – in the promise of the harvest. We’re supposed to plant our feel on that soil.

I love this story because it reminds me of one of the things I know for sure. What I know is that God is always a God of surprises – “God is up to a little mischief, giving a winking reminder,” that God is always working for Good and Resurrection.[3]

I also know that God is also always a God of Goodness – with a capital G. A God of goodness is always making things new. Surprising us with Good Soil where we expected rocks, or weeds, or birds.

We hear this parable and we get it: we get that the odds are enormously stacked against the success of the seed taking root. We often feel like the odds are stacked against us – to keep up with life – wondering if we can possibly be the Good Soil for God’s goodness and grow and thrive.

This is true for literal seed-sowing too. Especially if the seed’s success is dependent on me – quite literally – I am terrible at keeping plants alive. Which seems beside the fact, but it isn’t. Just as we act like we are both the sower and the soil, we also act like it is completely up to us. It isn’t. And that’s the reality of God’s grace – God’s surprising and mischievous goodness and newness.

I know for sure that God is a God of Goodness and Surprises because I’ve lived that truth. And I’m grateful for it.

I’m grateful for a God who surprised me by calling me to Kansas – a place I couldn’t have imagined calling home just a short time ago. I’m confident that God is working goodness and newness in this place – in each of our lives – in places and moments and seasons where we would expect and predict the exact opposite.

I’m grateful that the God of surprises surprised me with this congregation – with you – and I’m confident that God will continue to surprise us with goodness breaking through as we are all created and re-created and working to cultivate the Good Soil.

 

[1] Theodore Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word, Year A, volume 2, p. 239.

[2] Peter Woods, http://thelisteninghermit.com/tag/the-unconditional-grace/

[3] Russell Rathbun, The Hardest Question, 18, July 2011, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary17gospel-2/

A Letter to FBC Lawrence

Dear First Baptist Church Family,

I am writing this letter to you to tell you I have accepted a call to be Minister of Membership Development at Country 

Meredith Robe 1Club Christian Church, in Kansas City, Missouri. My last Sunday with you will be July 13.

For many of you this news will be accompanied with surprise and sadness. Please know that I, too, grieve leaving you. This decision and this call follows several months of very difficult discernment, and I have sensed the call of God to a new congregation. As many of you may know, my personal life has gravitated more and more towards Kansas City, and as I look to the future, that is the place where home will be.

I would like to offer my gratitude to you for my time with you the past two years. Thank you for all the ways you welcomed me so immediately into your faith community. You allowed me opportunities to grow – as a preacher, a teacher, and a leader. You shared yourselves with me – in laughter, in tears, in frustration and in joy. Thank you for the ways you have loved me – as your pastor and as your sister in Christ.

You are a congregation of insightful and tenacious people. I have confidence and faith that you will welcome, worship, work and wonder as God’s family. Things you were already doing before I came, and I am confident you will continue in the future. I pray you will find yourselves open to the Spirit’s leading as the building undergoes its transformation. May you, as persons and as a congregation, find yourselves open to the ways God is transforming and re-creating.

In closing, I am reminded of Pastor Matt’s Easter sermon about the women who left Christ’s empty tomb “with fear and great joy.” It is with fear and great joy that I communicate this news to you, and with fear and great joy that I anticipate God’s call on my life in this transition. May we all with fear and great joy live into the work of God’s call in all our days, and particularly these days and weeks of transition.

With gratitude and hope,

Meredith Holladay

“Because of Biblical Women” – Sermon, June 1, 2014

Proverbs 31.10-31
Judges 11.34-40
Luke 7.36-50

Did you hear the news over the holiday weekend? Perhaps now it seems like old news. Perhaps now, a full week past, we have already forgotten – if we stopped to pay much woman with veilattention in the first place.

I don’t blame you if you tune out the news. I tend to do so most of the time. It’s as though my ears and my brain just can’t hear or absorb any more words. Anymore, it seems hard enough to sift through the headlines and sensationalist breaking news to find where the news actually is.

But if you were paying attention, perhaps you heard about the shooting. Another shooting.  In the dark of night, in California, last weekend. Elliot Rodger killed six people before turning his gun on himself. Rodger leaves a legacy of angry You Tube videos and a 137-page manifesto, wherein he declares his hatred for all women, because he has been rejected over and over again in his overtures toward them. It is clear that he sought revenge because women he lusted after rejected him and denied his advances. Those who have read and commented, analyzed, his manifesto point out that, while his words are obsessive, and the product of an imbalanced mind, they call to question the patterns in our society, where beauty and strength receive recognition, and women are still regarded as prizes to be won. Those who are rejected, lonely, poor, outcast, are rendered invisible.

Buried even farther back (because it’s been over a month) in our news is the story of the Nigerian girls. In mid-April, approximately 276 girls were abducted from a Government Secondary School in Nigeria. The kidnappings were claimed by an Islamist jihadist group, Boko Haram. This is not the first time the group has perpetrated such crimes against children. They have been known to kidnap young girls – particularly from schools – because they do not believe they should be educated. So, they take them and use them as cooks and sex slaves. These kidnappings are just one piece of the story – so far Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed over 4,000 people this year. News broke earlier this week that the Nigerian government has located the missing girls, but cannot yet rescue them, because it is unsafe to use force.

Following last weekend’s shooting, the trending response on twitter – or one voice of it – argued that “Not All Men” are like that. It is true. Not all men are violent. Not all men are sexist. Not all men are abusers. And thank God for that.

And yet. Sexism and violence linked to sexism, and sex-related crimes are far too common. 1 in 3 women have experienced or will experience violence in their lifetime. The counter-response to “Not all Men” was in a hashtag “#yesallwomen” – because  not all men are “like that,” but yes, all women understand the reality of sex-based violence. This internet response revealed the deep and pervasive sexism throughout our culture and the world.

Likewise, another hashtag, #yesallbiblicalwomen emerged – calling to mind the ways that the Bible often forgets, or our interpretation and translation, have manipulated, twisted, forgotten the stories of women throughout.

Part of why I wanted to read Proverbs 31 – or at least the part of the Proverb we all know so well – today is because we so often misunderstand it. We so often misunderstand much about the bible – not least of which is how the bible portrays women.

I remember hearing in college other females talk about how they wanted to be a “P-31 woman,” referring to Proverbs 31, which was essentially code for “a submissive and domesticated housewife.” With this association, it will surprise no one that I resisted anything related to Proverbs 31. Submissive and Domestic I am not. And so I threw the biblical baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

A couple of years ago, Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian blogger took on the project of rediscovering, and exploring what exactly biblical womanhood is all about. The primary assumption she debunked is that there is only one specific definition or understanding of “biblical womanhood.”

The Bible depicts all kinds of women – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. It also depicts all kinds of men – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. The Bible does not show us only one way to be man or woman – but brings to light and life the myriad ways there are to be human – the reality that we are all broken. And we are all loved.

In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans spends a chapter delving into Proverbs 31. She discovered many things –some of the most important include:

The verses from Proverbs 31 we heard today are poetry. It’s meant to be read and understood as such – not as a job description for all womankind. Genre matters.

Second, the target audience for these verses is not women; it is men. Evans discovered that men would memorize the words of this Proverb in order to sing praise to the women in their lives – not to offer a requirement list around the home. These words were not read by women as a laundry list (pun intended) to keep their husbands happy. Evans further notes that, the only instructive verse is this one: “Praise her for all her hands have done.”

Third, the verses primarily are set up to celebrate valor. “A woman of valor who can find?” Valor isn’t about what but how. Therefore, it isn’t about completing a checklist, but doing whatever work you do with valor. [1]

Rachel Held Evans’ work has reminded me – and been instructive for hosts of other men and women – that we still have work to do to understand what it means to see all persons as equal as God sees us.

We still have work to do to understand what the biblical portrayal of personhood. We still have work to do to understand the Bible as a text that has been interpreted and translated over millennia and demands our critical reading lest we rest on the comforts of mere surface reading.

The reason I mentioned the hashtags earlier (though I know much of that is just gibberish to many of us) is that it has reminded me that there are so many names and voices of women in the Bible and part of our Christian heritage that have been silenced and forgotten. If I am being perfectly candid, I had to google more biblical women’s names and stories than I care to admit. I’d like to spend some time reading (or paraphrasing) some of the content from Twitter. I’d like to take the time to hear these names and stories out loud as a reminder of the work we have to do, and as a way to honor the women who are part of our family tree who have been neglected, abused, forgotten.

Because we know so few biblical women’s names

But their stories matter…

And matter a great deal – Sarah, of whom God told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.” She matters.

Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel birthed the covenant, but are left out of God’s name – God who is often referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It matters because of stories like Tamar’s – whose half-brother raped her, and her uncle helped him.

And because the Levite woman was offered up by her father for rape by his guests.

These stories matter because Laban thought so little of his daughter Leah, he tricked Jacob into marrying her, even though he really wanted to buy Rachel.

And when Hannah prayed differently she was judged and called a drunk.

Jepthah had the right to use his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, the story we heard earlier this morning.

These women matter; women like Hagar, alone, pregnant, in the desert, names God and finds faith, and yet is barely mentioned today. She named God, El-roi, asking, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?”

Because women saved the lives of countless Hebrew baby boys, and yet are often ignored in our preaching about the Exodus.

And because Miriam was more than a sister with one song – she was a prophet and a worship leader.

We need to tell stories like Esther’s, the queen who first had to win a beauty pageant first in order to have a platform from which to speak to prevent a genocide.

And Queen Vashti, whom Esther succeeds, is remembered as wicked and vain, rather than strong and powerful, when she refused to come and parade in front of the people, at the King’s drunken command.

We need to hear the voice that cries out in Ramah – to hear Rachel weeping for her children. And we need to hear God’s promise to turn her mourning into dancing.

The stories of women continue to matter in the New Testament record –

Jesus had four scandalous women in his family tree: Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba and Ruth.

Women were first at the crib, last at the cross

Their stories are worth revisiting and reclaiming…

Because we consider Mary Magdalene a prostitute even though we don’t have evidence, but we fail to consider her an apostle even though we do have evidence.

We hear Jesus say of the woman who anointed him at Bethany that she would always be remembered, and yet we do not know her name. But we have heard her read story today – and heard how Jesus honored her.

The ways we understand biblical womanhood matter because Martha criticized Mary for sitting and listening to the end of the sermon, rather than get to the chores in the kitchen. And because we so quickly assume that Martha’s work is cooking and cleaning – women’s work.

It matters because the Samaritan woman having 5 husbands says less about her character than it does about the misogyny of her time and place.

We know that Jesus trusted a woman first to proclaim the resurrection and some churches still won’t let women preach – or even teach.

We need to hear these names: the name Junia. Paul calls her an apostle in Romans, but her names has been frequently re-translated as the masculine version, Junias.

And the stories and names of women have continued to matter in Christian history.

We call to mind the names of so many women in the past two millennia who were denied priesthood, but became Saints all the same. And other women who served the church without recognition.

Because women leaders in the church are treated as an anomaly, while the texts prohibiting women leaders are the anomaly in scripture.

Because women pastors are still referred to as women pastors, not simply pastors.

It matters as Christians that we speak up for women – that we listen to women’s voices – that we resist the culture of sexualized violence.

It matters because women are told not to let men treat them as objects, but so rarely do we teach with the same emphasis men the lesson that women are not toys.

Because we still have politicians who cling to lies that a woman’s reproductive system can resist rape: otherwise she was asking for it.

Because we still have politicians who believe that woman “ask” for rape.

Because we still so often teach our girls how not to get raped than teach our boys not to rape.

Rachel Held Evans notes that the way we talk about women in the church still matters, “Because the emails I get from women whose abuse was justified as “biblical submission” stopped surprising me 2 years ago.”

We tell these stories – we hear these names – to understand that biblical womanhood is about smartness, boldness, fearlessness; not about submission and being subdued. Biblical womanhood is really about biblical personhood.

We could continue this morning. Perhaps – and likely – what we have heard this morning is overwhelming. It is understandably more than we can absorb. But these names and these stories are worth naming and hearing again and again.

But here’s why else it matters – Because there is room for all of us in the Kingdom of God.

Because the Kingdom requires all of us. We are all called to full humanity – which also means seeking the full humanity of our neighbors, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

 

 

[1] Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31

“Around This Table,” Sermon, May 4, 2014

The_Road_To_Emmaus

“Around This Table”
Luke 24.13-35

The two men shuffled along. On the road somewhere. A village called Emmaus….

A stranger sidled up beside them. Curious. “What are you talking about?”

It took them a minute to answer. The Gospel writer puts it plainly: “They stood still, looking sad.” Who wants to be the The_Road_To_Emmausfirst one to explain? To find the words, which will force them to relieve the painful reality. Finally, Cleopas answers with something like disbelief: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem….?!”

They explain. They explain that Jesus – a “prophet mighty in deed and word – was handed over to be crucified.” And then he explains…“We had hoped…” “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

They are disappointed. Angry. Confused. Grieving. This thing – this promise – this person – in which and in whom they had staked everything was gone – the promise: gone. The hope for the future redemption: gone. Now what?

They’re shuffling along the road – they had hoped…

I can only speak for myself, but often in the days following Easter – the weeks where we proclaim Easter is not yet over! It’s still Eastertide! – and I feel some of the same pangs of disappointment. It’s hard to believe, and I am left with the words “but we had hoped…” Maybe Easter would feel different this year. Maybe we’d finally understand – or feel more.

Here we are shuffling along the road with the two travelers – we are having a hard time with our belief. The men on the road talk about the women who shared their tale of the empty tomb, and yet they find no hope in their story. It’s deeper than disbelief – it’s the hollow aching of grief and loss that has left no room for hope and faith.

We wander down the road and feel their disappointment.

Their loss is so powerful and palpable that they nearly missed Jesus in their midst.

Did you catch what happens next?

First, this stranger (who we – with a wink – understand to be the risen Christ) begins interpreting scripture to them – which is odd, okay?

It’s odd. But it certainly got their attention. Although – they still don’t quite realize who this stranger is. They might have had some clue – some sub-conscious inkling, but they don’t know. Here’s where it gets really good.

They invite him in. They invite the stranger in, which maybe seems radical enough for some of us – inviting an odd stranger into our midst. They invite Jesus in – and after settling around the table, Jesus takes the ordinary bread on hand for the meal. He takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the men at the table.

A-ha!

They see immediately. They understand. They recognize Christ in their midst in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the meal, in coming to the table together.

Jesus was there all along.

It’s interesting to me that after Jesus leaves the room – leaves their presence after the meal – that the disciples engage in a bit of revisionist history. They didn’t recognize him until he broke bread – and then they say “Were not our hearts burning…?” Surely we weren’t that dense to miss the risen Christ in our midst. Surely even as he walked with us we knew. And yet – they did not. The loss and disappointment was so deep it clouded their vision. (We know this experience well.)

In order to recognize Christ they had to gather around a table.

In my estimation, for my part, the table is central to how I understand this Christian faith. It is central to understanding my identity and my call – not just my vocation as pastor – my call as a follower of Christ.

In order to recognize Christ in our midst, we also come to the table. We must come to the table. We must all come to the table.

Around this table – we encounter the risen Christ.

The table points to the entirety of the Gospel – and the entirety of our faith.

Around this table we learn who we are and whose we are.

Around this table we welcome – we are welcomed, invited, by Christ, and we welcome others. We call it the Lord’s Supper because it is first and foremast Christ’s table – it is his meal to which he welcomes and invites us. When we offer an invitation to the table, it is not our table, but an invitation to join us at Christ’s table.

Around this table we share – we are one – we find unity. We call it Communion, which is to say we find unity – we are made one when we share the meal together.

We find unity as a community gathered in the name of Christ. The way we take communion – the form of the meal matters. We didn’t always take communion from individual wafers and grape juice in miniature shot glasses. And we didn’t start taking communion with individual wafers and miniature shot glasses by accident. (And by “we” here, I generally mean most Protestant churches).

Here’s a little history lesson. The shift away from a common cup and a common loaf (what we so gracefully refer to as ‘intinction’), and the shift from wine to juice, emerged out of social movements that began in the church, but sought to change the entire society.

The move away from wine as the assumed contents of our Cup began with the Temperance movement, led by a host of lay Protestant women. (I’d like to point out spear-headed by the Methodists and Presbyterians – we Baptists joined in but did not instigate!) The temperance movement began in the early 1800s, and took root in evangelical Protestant circles as a movement not just celebrating moderation in drinking, but complete abstinence.

In 1874 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed, and one of their banner issues was ridding churches of wine at the Communion table – they promoted the use of grape juice and provided it for churches. (Conveniently enough, Charles Welch, a Methodist, was getting his start as a grape juice maker, motivated by the Temperance cause. Welch’s grape juice dominates the market today because of Christian Temperance and shifts in substance of our Communion Cup.)

As the contents of the cup changed, so did the shape and size of the cup itself. The individual communion cup emerged as a result of sanitation concerns, which “revealed deep anxieties about cleanliness and the borders of the church and of society.”[1] Now that the cup was filled with juice, and not wine – which contains germ-killing alcohol, fears intensified about contamination and disease.

Physical cleanliness and purity were not merely associated with godliness, they were equated with it – the cleaner and purer the person in physical forms, the cleaner and purer their soul. What better way to represent and preserve this than keeping communion contained, clean, and pure?

Other people nervous about the common cup were squeamish about “sharing a Communion cup with strangers – particularly the poor and other social outcasts.” The shift to individual cups, one social historian observes, has resulted in a shift in the meaning and theology of communion, “making it a solitary sacrament rather than a communal one,”[2] by “focusing on the Communion of the individual and God rather than the Communion of the entire church.”[3]

I find this history interesting for many reasons, partly as trivia, but also because it points to how important even the things that we call mere symbol can be. The Communion meal that Christ instituted was a meal, shared among friends – how different would it look to him today to observe bites of bread that could barely sustain and individual cups – and a ritual where we barely have to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters – our fellow children of God.

How much are we really sharing at all?

The meal is intended to bring us together – in the shared cup and the shared loaf, we find equality and unity in our identity as called and blessed by Christ as God’s children. The ways we share in communion as this body can help us understand that (or prevent us from the same).

We ought also to recognize our unity at this table with Christians around the world – with all persons – all persons created, known and loved by God. Instead, our churches have so often used the table as a weapon, or a way to build walls between who belongs and who is left out.

We welcome only those who are like us, leaving out those whose theology is different. How heartbreaking it is that we have, throughout the two millennia of the church, used the table as a means of radical exclusion than radical inclusion.

We have decided that others cannot come to the table for various reasons – because they do not believe the right things, because they do not belong to the right tribe, because they aren’t members of us, because they aren’t old enough because they do not know the right three-point summary of what it all means.

Around this table we are not passing a test – at the table we embrace mystery.

Tasting the bread, sipping from the cup is not about knowing some kind of secret information – could any of us really know what it means – do any of us really understand what we are doing when we gather – when we break bread and eat together? Of course not. There should be no barriers on the table – age, gender, race, class, orientation. Those are our barriers, not Christ’s.

Around this table we find liberation. We call it Eucharist – which is a fancy way of saying it is a table of Thanksgiving. Remember that Passover is a time to celebrate, remember and re-enact God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. It was during the Passover festival that Jesus broke bread with his disciples and now we celebrate and remember. Likewise, even in this post-Resurrection meal in this Gospel story, the disciples were liberated from their grief and their false expectations. Christ was in their midst – they were free to share and tell.

We are to celebrate, remember and re-enact this transformative meal. In celebrating the Eucharist along with the risen Christ, as we do like Cleopas and his fellow traveler, we project our hopes for the coming Kingdom of God – already in our midst, and not yet fully realized.

As Brian Wren puts it, “The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of small historical victories, but a token of the final and full realization of the Kingdom of God. Thus it is not only a subversive memorial, but a source of hope and the beginning of transfiguration.”[4]

Around this table we share a meal – we are invited to be fed, and then we are called to feed. Jesus shared meals with all kinds of people – eating together, he recognized is one of the most intimate things you can do. Don’t we all know, that it is often over a plate of food that communion happens – conversation, sharing, laughter, tears, togetherness, hopes and fears. In the same way that sharing food with strangers can transform us into friends – and sharing food with friends can transform us into family – the communion table invites us into not just a ritual where we barely get a snack, but is an invitation to a radical and transformational meal – with strangers, friends and family – where we are all transformed because we are all called children of God.

And then we are sent from the table. It is only after they share the meal – they are fed by Christ – that the disciples are compelled to go out and share. They call of Christ, though, is not merely to go and tell – it is to go and share, to go and feed. Because Christ invites us to the table, we invite others to the table. We break bread with others and are fed together.

The table is missional – meaning it points us to our mission. To break bread with other people – with all people, and to welcome all people. The table of Christ is a table with room enough for all. The kind of hospitality that we respond to at the table, and that we, then, imitate is one of “expansive welcome.”

When Christ invites us to share this meal with him, he is inviting us to transgress boundaries. This was never meant to be a safe table. This was never meant to become mere ritual. I would even posit that this was never meant to be mere symbol. It is a radical act – and is radical every time we share a common loaf and a common cup – even something as ordinary as that is revealed as incredibly counter-intuitive in the midst of a culture that tells us to remain safe, insulated and independent.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the two disciples invite Jesus in. They invite Jesus to their table – and at the table Jesus is revealed to them. Or more to the point, their eyes can finally recognize the risen Christ in their midst. What they realize is that the table to which they invite Jesus is Jesus’ table all along. They extend hospitality to the stranger and find Jesus in their midst – they find Jesus inviting them into sharing a meal of grace. We understand that our own acts of hospitality offer us “doorways to grace.”[5]

The table points to the heart of it all – it points to the presence of God in our midst. At the table we are fed – with real food, in community with one another. Our spirits are fed – in community with one another. At the table we meet the risen Christ – he is in our midst in our invitation and inviting us to share and share again. We are sent from this table – to feed others, to offer nourishment of body mind and soul.

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 11.

[2] Sack, 35.

[3] Sack, 57.

[4] Brian Wren, “Justice and Liberation in the Eucharist,” Christian Century, 1 October 1986. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1051

[5] Molly T. Marshall, Feasting on the Word, 422.

Good Friday Prayer

Sorrow and Love, O God, Sorrow and Love –
Flowing mingled down.

This day we look to the cross, we tell the ages-old story – it resonates with grief anew. God, it’s hard to see love when we look to the cross, when we see the sky grow dark, in-the-shadow-of-the-cross1and feel the very earth trembling beneath our feet.

It’s easier to feel sorrow, yes, and fear – not understanding what we have done. How did we get from palms and parades to darkness, earthquakes and death?

We walk in the shadow of your cross. We stand, we hide, we look away… ashamed, confused, and alone.

You suffered because of us and on our behalf. Your cries of anguish and abandonment echo. We pray that you, too, may be comforted in your suffering. We pray for your wounds and your pain and your agony.

You traveled a journey of suffering – you invited your friends to stay awake, to join you, to stay by your side. Your journey led you and you alone to the cross.

We stand in the shadow of your cross and see that you suffer alongside us. May we find consolation in our own anguish, our own loneliness, our own pain.

As we walk in the shadow of your death, may we sense the light that glimmers in the darkness, darkness that exists because of our own doing.

This night, in our quiet and in our wondering, let your truth echo deep within us, that:

“beyond sin there is love inexhaustible, beyond death there is life unimaginable,
beyond brokenness there is forgiveness incomprehensible, beyond betrayal there is grace poured out eternally.”[1]

 

We return our gratitude to you this night – with sighs too deep for words, we look to your cross – we see sorrow and love flowing, and offer our thanks to you.

Amen. 

 

[1] http://godspace-msa.com/2014/04/15/a-prayer-for-holy-week/

Holy Week Prayer

Creating and Sustaining God – We continue to walk this journey of holy week – from palms and hosanna to cries of fear and punishment.

Help us remember the wonder of your love, the wonder of your life, the wonder of your presence.

We walk the journey from the shouts of crowds to join you at the table. You invited your friends to share a meal with you. It is in the breaking of bread that we recognize you euchin our midst. May that be so. May we continue to find you working and living in our midst.

In our brokenness – meet us in the work of your healing peace.

In our darkness – meet us in glimmers of light that flicker hope.

In our arrogance – meet us in the vast expanse of your love that we may wonder anew at the world and your works.

In our ignorance – meet us in the eyes of a stranger – may we recognize your image in and beneath their skin. May we recognize your image in our own being.

In our complacency – meet us in the work of your Kingdom yet to be done. 

In ways new and old may we be struck profoundly by the wonder of the depths of your love – a love big enough for all corners of creation, and a love personal enough that it meets each one of us in bread and wine. Sustain us again with your meal and your presence.

“Did Jesus Have to Die?” Palm/Passion Sunday Sermon, 4.13.14

Matthew 27.11-54

The cross has always been difficult for me. A strange thing to grapple with considering it is the central symbol of our faith – I’ve worn plenty of them around my neck; I have multipleholyweek crosses from different places as decorations in my home and office.

But the way people talked about the cross, and talked around the cross when I was a kid, and young adult, and still today, has often felt more like a speed bump to my faith than food for my soul.

I’d like to share some of that with you today – because maybe you’re like me. My intent is not to give you a new speed bump, but I hope we all learn something by revisiting and asking questions of our faith and its symbols.

One of my first memories of my own seeking comes at youth camp. My first summer at camp I was an incredibly naïve, yet earnest, 6th grader (hard to believe, I’m sure). We drove down to Florida for some para-church organized camp – we stayed in a motel on the beach and had bible study and worship and swam. I don’t remember much else about that week, but I do remember the last night of camp. Like any good evangelical camp, the last night of camp was geared toward life-altering decision-making.

I was surrounded by hundreds of other youth – several were older girls in my own youth group I looked up to (probably way too much, but such is the life of a 12 year old). Many – if not most – of them were crying. Crying ugly tears. Feeling so awful about who they were and (I suppose) what they had done. To be honest, I’m not sure why they were so emotional; I never asked. It didn’t seem like much of my business. But I do remember how I felt. I felt isolated. I felt left out. I didn’t understand why they were crying, but they certainly seemed sorry about all these things they had done and they wanted to be forgiven – they wanted to be saved – or perhaps, worse, they were afraid of what might happen to them because of who they are or what they had done.

Me: I just wanted to fit in. I felt like I couldn’t fit in because I couldn’t muster up that emotion. Which left me wondering if I could be a Christian if I couldn’t pull together a dramatic conversion experience. I needed forgiveness, they said. I needed to repent, they said. I needed the cross, they said.

The thing is I never felt like a bad person. I never felt like I had screwed up to demand the 180-degree repentance that this narrative seemed to demand. I would hear stories when people gave their testimonies featuring drugs and alcohol and violence and sex and probably a little rock and roll and hear about how they “found Jesus”, turned their life around and made everything okay. It seemed at the very least understandable that people with a sordid past with sins that big might need redemption big enough to match.

But there I was a naïve blond haired pastor’s kid mostly afraid of my own shadow. What kinds of things was I supposed to confess in order to know for sure I was “saved.” Was I, too, supposed to experience a complete 180-degree turn?

I kept going back to camp. I loved church camp. I loved the friendships, I loved the Bible studies and songs and being able to stay up late. I even loved camp food. (I guess anything can feel exotic if it’s outside what you’re used to.) But I always dreaded the last night. I never quite knew how to feel, but looking around at everyone else’s tears I was sure I was supposed to feel something.

I would look to the cross and hear people say Jesus died for my sins and wonder if that really included me. Could that mean Jesus died for my sins if I successfully avoid drugs, sex, rock and roll? Maybe I needed to go out and find some sins so I could experience repentance and forgiveness?

It all seemed so confusing and distant.

I didn’t know what to do with the cross.

But I knew I wanted to follow Jesus. I knew I wanted to be a disciple.

So what am I supposed to do with the cross?

Don’t get me wrong. I know that I screw up. I know that I need forgiveness, and I know I have deep-seated brokenness. I am profoundly aware of ways I contribute to the brokenness of the world. I am confident in my own imperfection, and fully assured in my own ability – through things done and things left undone – to help make this world look less like the Kingdom of God.

But I also am confident in the promise that God made me, God knows me, and God loves me. I rest my faith on the claim that God created me – you – her – him – them in the image of God and that means something. That means that we are not despicable. That we are not worthy of the worst kind of punishment on earth. Not in God’s eyes at least.

And so, I still wrestle with the cross and the way we are so accustomed to talking about it.

I grew up surrounded by family members who love Jesus and love the church. We are a hymn-loving family. As my grandmother struggled in the hospice wing of a hospital in Georgia to let go of life, my extended family gathered around her bed and sang “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Hymns have been the common thread in our family that has allowed us to share our faith. I share this with my grandmother, my parents, my extended family, this shared language of hymns and faith. Hymns about the cross were no exception. She loved songs about Jesus and his cross. I adopted my grandmother’s hymns, but I had a really hard time finding my way to her language for the cross. Still do.

I sure do love the Old Rugged Cross, and Nothing But the Blood – but if I can be candid with you – it’s not the words I find so comforting – probably the opposite. And I realize that makes me a bit of an outlier in traditional Baptist circles.

And yet – I still love the cross. I love Jesus and I love my church.

So why is the cross difficult? Why did Jesus Have to Die?

Here’s the question that underlies our bigger question for today. When we ask the question “Did Jesus Have to Die?”, we sense an implicit affirmative answer. Which of course, begs the question “Why?”

For many of us the automatic response is that Jesus Died For Our Sins.

I continue to wrestle with this go-to answer because for me it begs other questions, still, about who God is and how God works.

So, why would Jesus need to die?

In one very familiar understanding, “God, Jesus’ Father, requires Jesus to die. God willfully subjects his son to torture and death in order to fulfill some kind of sin ransom that God’s own self requires.”[1] The problem I have with this, quite honestly, is that God requires violence of any kind. That God would require violence to atone for all the violence we perpetuate.

The good news we continue to proclaim is that God is love. That God is in the business of forgiveness and grace and compassion and all of those things.

For me, it seems like the cruelest bait and switch that the end of the story is really about God’s anger and some cosmic need to assuage the punishment and retribution God would otherwise mete out to the entire world.

So what do we do with the cross?

It is such a familiar symbol with a familiar story – but what happens when we listen to the narrative again, and take seriously its context?

The cross is a Roman instrument of torture and execution.

The cross is not God’s weapon. The cross is not God’s tool.

The cross was a symbol of political power and control. And it was at the hands of political and religious authorities that Jesus met his ultimate consequence – in torture, and execution. Jesus didn’t just die on the cross – Jesus was executed on the cross.

What if in understanding the story, in asking why the cross is so important to our faith, we shift the preposition – from Jesus died for your sins, to Jesus died because of your sins.

And what if we go a step further – let’s change the pronoun. Jesus didn’t die for my sins. Rather, Jesus died because of our sins.

What if instead of understanding the cross as God’s own instrument of death, we reframe it – and see it as the reaction of a sinful system to the presence of a holy God.

When we look a the cross we certainly ought to see sin – but not the weight of sin that God is punishing through one sacrificial God-Man. Rather, we see a painful and powerful and horrifying reminder of our own tendency toward fear, injustice, returning violence for violence, of turning our backs on love, transformation, compassion, inclusion.

I can’t quite reconcile the idea that violence is necessary to do away with violence.

Why would God’s grace and forgiveness be predicated on violence? Could God not have worked out salvation – offered forgiveness, grace and eternal life – could God not have ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven without violence, punishment and retribution?

The answer is yes. And God did do these things without violence.

It is our own stories that have turned it to God’s own doing. It’s our own assumptions about violence being woven into the nature of things – about the inevitability of violence in our society – that has helped give shape and order to this.

Walter Wink names this the myth of redemptive violence.

The myth of redemptive violence is found in the story and stories we keep on telling where victory is one over chaos by means of violence. It’s language of conquest and conquering.

We buy into it when we believe that violence is necessary to negate violence. We live in a world where religion and theology have, in fact, legitimated power and privilege.

Violence is entertaining. Violence is baptized. Our very theology requires it. Think about our moving ratings – think how much violence can be packed into a PG movie, that is otherwise devoid of vices – language, sex, drugs, etc.

Violence has become the solution to human conflict. This has become our narrative.

We believe it – and our heroes are born of this story. We live as though it is truth: might makes right. Wars can bring peace. Our superhero stories abide by this. The heroes are the good guys who defeat the bad guys. With similar strength, tactics, weapons, superpowers. In the end it comes down to a matter of strength and force.

But does it have to be this way?

The message of the cross is that it does not.

The message of the cross is that love sometimes looks like weakness, but perfect love is stronger than all fear, all brutality, all violence.

Because God’s first motive is not punishment but is love. And grace. God’s entire motive in sending Jesus – which is really in sending God’s own self to be among us – is to show us how loved and known we are. And how to love and know others.

One of my favorite movies is The Mission. The movie is about Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary in South America in the 18th century. He builds a mission in the jungle above Iguaçu Falls and ministers to the Guarani tribe. The movie tells the story of the political struggles between the institutional church, the Portuguese colonizers and the priests who have given their lives to the indigenous people.

The end of the story is not a happy one. The mission is attacked by Portuguese and Spanish armies, while Father Gabriel performs the mass. In one of the final exchanges in the film, the priest remarks,“if might makes right, then love has no place in the world.”

The message of the cross is that love has a place in this world. And not just a place in the world, but the place in the world.

Jesus did not come to the earth, I believe, to die for our sins. Rather, he came because God so loved the world. Jesus came and lived and dwelt and died among us to make the reign of God visible – to make God’s love visible.

In many ways Jesus and his death on the cross is a story of consequences and not a summary of his mission. Jesus came and lived with us – suffered alongside us – and because of us – and now we know, we believe, we proclaim, that nothing separates us from the love of God.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God because love was made flesh, was born, lived and died. God who is love personified came to us and found us where we are.

Even though the earthly consequence of Jesus’ life culminated in execution, we know that in he also gave us the Holy Spirit as God’s continued presence with us.

There is good news – and hard struggle in the cross. Sara Miles puts it this way: We must acknowledge today – Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday – all the ways we try to kill our God. In this story, Jesus faces and absorbs “the hard truths of human violence and pride and weakness,” and his response is all love and all forgiveness. The story of the cross, the point of the cross is that sin and death have been robbed of their power.[2]

What we do with the cross I believe, is recognize the depth of love demonstrated. When the world is a broken place – when our sin is what prevents justice, mercy, compassion from characterizing the world, and instead it is marked by jealousy, hatred, punishment, violence – God comes to us still. God dwells among us. God suffers alongside of us. God’s love is what does this.

And God’s love is what is more powerful.

The assumption of those watching all these things unfold – the crowd, Pilate, the religious authorities, is that the power of God would be displayed in forceful rescue of Jesus from the cross.

But that’s not what happens. That’s not what happens at all. Rather, “the power of God is most dramatically operative at the point where human imagination assumes its absence – the brutal death of the unresurrected Jesus.”[3]

The message is that God is always working to bring newness – to bring to life – in places unexpected – even unto death, torture, violence, abandonment.

But you’re just going to have to wait until Easter to hear the Good News made Good.

 

[1] Joanna Harader, sermon, 4.6.14 http://spaciousfaith.com/sermons-etc/new-testament-texts/john-1931-37/

[2] Sara Miles, “Stop Pretending: From Lenten Ash to Easter Light,” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml

[3] Cameron Murchison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew vol. 2, Matthew 27.45-54, 346.