When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that afternoon on the back of a colt, on one level he was looking for a rumble. The Palm Sunday procession was a protest march, a calculated bit of street theater that appropriates a series of metaphors from the prophets, the psalms, and the pages of the daily news. In the 10th century BCE, the Psalmist wrote, “Hosanna (or in English ‘Save us!’). Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The prophet Jeremiah wrote two centuries later, “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious… humble and riding on a colt.” And not too long before Jesus, a people’s revolt led by Simon Maccabeus had been celebrated with parades and the waving of palm branches. The stage and the props and the actors were set.
But Jesus’s battle was always with structures, not people—from beginning to end he believed that any individual could choose being good over being right. Surely one could see that the well-being of all was better than victory for some? Turn over the tables, then, if a system has become death-dealing! He showed his followers that religious observance and social status were not nearly as important as the authorities would have us believe. It was how you treated others that mattered most, and the depth of your loving was the measure of your worth. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and you will be changed—and the world might change along with you.
Jesus spent the next week in the Temple courts in an increasingly difficult dialogue, holding the powers that be accountable for their actions, seeking justice and healing for all, inviting peace as a better and more lasting alternative to winning. And we know the rest of the story. As it turned out, the people didn’t want a man on a colt bringing peace, asking them to take salvation into their own hands. They wanted a king, and the authorities wanted a puppet whom they could control. Just about everyone was either disappointed in him, or angry, or both, and the mob grew thirsty for his blood.
The people who knew Jesus firsthand wanted salvation, but like most of us, they couldn’t grasp it when it was offered. We want to be delivered from our distress instead of being saved through it. Do you hear the difference? But there is no way around Good Friday, right, only a way through it? And for what it is worth, we have a companion who has gone there before.
What if the story of Jesus is that we have what we need to make the changes that we long for? What if the story of Jesus is that God is working through our agency the salvation of the world? What if the story of Jesus is that we are healed by love not only for ourselves but in order to love the other?
A God who suffers with us has shown us what it means to be truly human. Compassion is what saves us.
Ever since the dawn of the period called The Enlightenment, most Christians in the West have related to God in one of two ways. God was either a distant clockmaker with no real concern or activity in the sensory world (as the early American deists would have it) or a moral principal or concept of police/judge (to keep everything in order and society humming). No one concerned themselves with the former image in daily living and only the latter one when necessary to keep a clean conscience. Either way, intellectual assent to a set of dogma or laws of the Church was all that was needed. That assent was coined “belief.”
When we look at Western Christianity today, especially the current so-called evangelical Christianity in America, we can begin to perceive why both interpretations of that Holy Mystery who creates, redeems, and transforms missed-the-mark. We have only to see how most of us current Christians actually model our lives after Jesus of Nazareth. The fruit we bear speaks our Truth…not the words we say.
The biggest lie believed is the one that says we are separate from GOD; or that any of creation is separate from GOD. Out of all the “Omnis” we say about GOD, I wonder how we have maintained this falsehood in our psyches for so long. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, why in the world are we so afraid to live in intimate relationship with GOD (i.e., in Grace)? It is our minds that have chosen separation; our souls cannot separate and know better.
As the old obviously Christianity dies a slow and painful death, a new way of living is poised on the horizon to be birthed. It is Christianity as a lifestyle instead of a religion. It is Christianity embodied by its practitioners in the world. It is the actual Beloved Community, conceived not only as peoples, but as all that exists. We finally come to perceive that we are one with the rest of creation in GOD. After all St. Julian of Norwich has said, “We are not just made by GOD, but we are made of GOD.” This realization will finally destroy any reason for us to rape the earth or its people because of this truth. The cross of Christ does– has done this work. But first we must reconnect with God as GOD IS and not as we want GOD to be.
In his fascinating book, THE REBIRTHING OF GOD, John Philip Newell, describes the categories of reconnection needed for GOD to be born anew in the Christian faith. Among them include our need to reconnect with the earth, with light, with spiritual practices, with compassion, with love and with non-violence. He contends that when we reconnect and discover Christ in all these things, we will be born anew, and I believe he is correct in this matter.
As we begin to experience ourselves connected more and more to the eternal ONE that IS, we realize life as we perceived it is bigger, more grace-filled and more delightful than we might have first imagined. As we intentionally reconnect to the whole…to that which is larger than ourselves—we take on an entirely new way of existing in the world and THAT my Friends IS Good News!
So, I have arrived at the conclusion that this being born again thing is a continuing process. We shed the old skin that no longer fits, for new skin that does. As the COVID pandemic moves into its waning life in the world, the previous months of isolation and our new emergence offer us opportunities to come forward as new and different people. I, for one, am looking forward to it!
I am especially excited about our celebration of the Feast of the Resurrection together this year. It is a new day and a new time. The events of the past 12 months have forced me to reconnect in wonderful and different ways. What about you?
In her TEDTalk “12 truths I learned from life and writing” (which as of today has over 6.2 million views), writer Anne Lamott says, “…the first and truest thing [I’ve learned] is that all truth is paradox. Life is both a precious unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s [also] impossible here, on the incarnational side of things … It’s filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together ….”
I was struck by this truth as I — along with hundred of others (over 2000 by the end of the day) – stood in a seemingly-endless-but-slowly-and-surely-moving-line to get my COVID vaccination shot this past Saturday at M&T Stadium (clergy and other essential church personnel fall under the 1c category of eligibility in Maryland).
There we all were … person after person after person after person … some of us bundled up and some of us shivering, following the signs and looking at our cell phones. In the part of the line where I was, there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on. Perhaps we were all still a bit stunned and in disbelief that we had actually made it, to this point: in line, to get a vaccine!!!
As I watched people and made my way forward, bit by bit by bit, a myriad of thoughts danced through my consciousness, including: How fragile, we humans are, needing protection from this invisible foe! How resilient, we humans are, able to combat this invisible foe!
Mostly, I felt gratitude. Gratitude to all the folks around me, honoring their civic duty to show up and get vaccinated. Gratitude to the army of neon-vested volunteers and staff, officers and “helpers”, clearly visible and on-duty, alongside members of our National Guard, directing traffic; greeting and guiding people; informing folks and answering questions. Gratitude to the healthcare workers, techs and nurses, full of energy and focused on making sure that every person was attended to. Gratitude to all the people I never saw, who put up signs, distributed the Purell bottles, set up tables and chairs, thought through logistics, arranged for the i-Pads for electronic check-in … The list goes on and on and on …
As I was waiting for the “ok” to leave, having gotten my shot, I spoke with one of the nurses who was monitoring all of us in that part of the stadium, for any negative reactions to the vaccine. Her name was Rhonda and she was a traveling nurse from Connecticut, who would be staying and working in Baltimore for the duration of this mass vax effort. As I moved my left arm in big, wide circles, working through the soreness, she told me how glad and excited she was to be in Baltimore here with us, making sure we all got vaccinated and doing her part to end this pandemic, so children can go back to school, grandparents can hug their grandchildren, businesses can open, and life can move forward. After 30 minutes, we wished each other well and waved goodbye, as her colleague spoke on a walkie-talkie, “Another one done and leaving …”
Look what we can accomplish, when we all work together, with God’s help and grace.
No scripture is more familiar to us than the tale of the Prodigal Son. Say the opening words, “There once was a father with two sons,” and most of us would be able to provide a sketch of the narrative. Ask someone to describe God, and many would offer the father in this parable as example number one: he runs to meet us when we are still far off! Countless preachers have mounted the pulpit and parsed it word for word, perhaps to a fault. Peter Gomes, former chaplain of Harvard, created a four-month sermon series on the Prodigal. After the sixteenth homily on this single text, a woman greeted the pastor at the door of the church, exhausted. “Lordy,” she said, “I am sorry that that poor boy ever ran away from home, but even more sorry that you ever heard about it!” And yet, there always seems to be more to learn, more to say, more to hear in this mythic story. We try on the various roles in the parable—angry older sibling, forgiving parent, selfish younger son—and find ourselves through its retelling.
The drama is the third in a series that Jesus tells after the scribes and the Pharisees have complained about him hanging out with sinners: about a shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while he went after one stray, about a woman who turned her house upside down in order to find one lost coin, about a compassionate father who dealt graciously with both of his sons, despite their significant differences. All three stories address the Pharisee’s concern that Jesus seems to condone sin by the company he keeps, and all three reply that “God is too busy rejoicing over found sheep, found coins, and found children to worry about what they did while they were lost.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
If you are familiar with the service in the prayer book called Reconciliation of a Penitent, you will know that the parable and this service end with the same words: “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and now are alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all of your sins.” (BCP, p.451) But leading up to this final scene are significant differences between our rather narrow sensibilities and the openness of the gospel. According to the parable, no confession is necessary, no promise expected of better behavior in the future, no apologies needed from those who have sinned against you. According to the parable, “you don’t even have to make it to church. The loving father, who sees you coming while you are still at a distance, will rush out to embrace you,” (Taylor) and forgive you before you can even get a word out of your mouth. And while this is good news for the prodigals within us and among us, it is likely to disturb that part of us that identifies with the older brother. What gives?
Does the father do the math on what his younger son has cost him? The prodigal wants his rights without responsibility, his freedom without relationship, his future without waiting or working toward it. His turning toward home seems motivated more by a calculation of benefit and a state of desperation than a heartfelt recognition of where he went wrong and how he has hurt others. And yet, despite a repentance that we might find faulty or incomplete, the father extravagantly forgives his son and showers him with gifts and loves. Where does this story do its work on you?
Most of us find our hearts pulled in one direction and our heads in another. And if this father is the way God is, that notion both pleases and offends us, depending on whether he is running towards us or our enemies. Most of us have a hard time believing that love can be so limitless and grace that free. Would it be if we were in charge?
How is Lent going for you, three weeks in? I haven’t been too successful with my fasting, and I’m behind in the reading I set out to do. But God has run toward me more times than I can count on Zoom, of all places… Through three extraordinary sermons by my colleagues—listen to them on Redeemer’s blog when your week is dark and you need some light… through the vulnerability offered in Wednesday’s Bible study—it is never too late to join the dialogue… through some difficult truth-telling with my colleagues in BUILD—reach out if you’d like to practice the struggle and grace of difficult conversations… through VOICES focus on our environment—recordings are here (C-Change Conversation, passcode: rq14bms) and here (Blue Water Baltimore, passcode: 4xR##$ym).
When you get a minute, re-read the story of the two sons, Luke 15:11-32. Picture it like a movie in your mind. Take the part of each character by turn. And see how the work of reconciliation reaches out to take your hand.