Gardner Jesus and the Renewal of Creation

So, this winter, I’ve watched a couple of dystopian TV shows. They’ve felt a little like documentaries to me, just more interesting. Like, here’s one crazy, but not entirely unbelievable, version of our future. 

One of them is called The Last of Us. It imagines a world that’s been destabilized by pandemic – it’s fungal, not viral, and it’s far more devastating than covid. It doesn’t just make you sick when you get it, it turns you into a zombie. And in The Last of Us, the small bands of remaining uninfected humans are with their fear and grit, trying to find ways to survive. 

I’m not necessarily recommending the show – it’s really scary and grim. But what I find compelling is that despite all that, life keeps finding a way. The Last of Us universe is a greener world than we know, as grasses, moss, and trees reclaim our urban ruins. And unlikely friendships are forged. Old griefs try to slowly heal. People fall in love when they didn’t think that was possible anymore. New creation keeps growing up out of the dirt. 

At the heart of the whole show is this human vessel of new creation, a teenage girl that just might hold the hope of human healing and new life. She too has been infected by this zombie-making fungus, but unlike any other known human, she has survived. And people hope that her body might hold the key to humanity’s salvation. 

There’s this one episode where Ellie – that’s her name – has made a sweet friendship with a kind of surrogate little brother she’s met. Only, he gets infected too. He knows, we know, this is the end. But not Ellie. She’s like: hold on, I can save you.

She thinks just a little bit of her blood, entering her friend’s body, can infuse him with her immunity, make him whole. And I’m on the edge of my chair, like: come on, Ellie, and your blood of salvation. Let it work. 

But of course it doesn’t, and I’m about as devastated as I can get from a TV show. Why do I care so much? 

I care because in a world where things fall apart, in lives that have had many reasons to shed tears, there are so many places where I long for things to be made new. 

And I care so much because Ellie reminds me of Jesus, and I hope that there’s still something in the story and spirit of Jesus that can help save us all.

Friends, Easter has room for us however we got here today. Easter has room for all our fear and grief and grit. On Easter, we remember a day that began with tears and terror, with hopes unfulfilled and dreams dashed. Today’s Bible text we’ll read takes place by a tomb, where the human some thought make all things new was buried. 

And yet Easter insists upon resurrection, that where death has increased, life can abound yet more and more. Easter says that the risen Jesus is among us still as a gardener, tending to the seeds and shoots of new life among us, daring us to cultivate them in hope.

On Easter, amidst all the grief and wounds and scars and fear, the Spirit of Jesus comes to us still, asking us:

Why are you crying? What are you looking for?

And calling us by name, saying friend, all can be made new. Drawing us toward the peace of hoping, believing that it’s true. 

Let’s read this Easter text from the gospel of John, and let’s talk about its new creation theology of resurrection, and how we can lean into it in our times.

John 20:11-21 (Common English Bible)

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb.

12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.

13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”

20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 

So there is a lot here. We could talk about anti-semitism. This line that gets repeated in John, “the Jewish authorities” has for centuries fed violent Christian anti-semitism.

But Jesus and the great majority of other people in the gospels are all Jews. There are rivalries and conflicts among the people, they get worse and worse over the years. But anyone who calls themselves a Christian owes their faith, their Bible, their Jesus to the Jewish people. So Christian anti-semitism is an affront to one’s past and an offense to God. And beyond that, hating on other faiths out of insecure anxiety about the truth or supremacy of our own is something we’ve all got to grow out of as a people, isn’t it? 

We could talk about hopelessness. Jesus’ disciples are in hiding. One of their friends has ended his life in despair. The rest have watched the Roman state execute their teacher, their friend. Now they think that leaders among their own people are coming for them. And Mary, another friend of Jesus, out here, working through her own grief, just looking for a grave to tend. It’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s heart-breaking too.

We could talk about the tenderness. Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. Post-resurrection, no one does. But Jesus doesn’t give her a hard time. In fact, Isn’t it like Jesus to ask her questions, to be curious and draw her out? The tears of grief, the stunned confusion, the cry of relief – my teacher – and then when she recognizes her friend, the embrace. It’s all so tender.

We could talk about the slow spread of hope. If I was crucified by my powerful enemies and then if I came back to life and got another chance, I’d want a big and bold vindication. I’d want to come after somebody. But Jesus seems delighted for vindication to happen differently – person to person encounters where faith births hope out of the ashes of despair. It’s more humane, it’s what love looks like. 

So we could talk about a lot. But I want to focus on what seems like a little thing, the little mistaken identity moment when Mary thinks Jesus is the tomb’s gardener. 

“Thinking he was the gardener….” It’s a funny little moment, but I think it’s not so much a mistake as a clue. It’s a clue to the story John wants to tell about Jesus and new creation.

From the beginning of the gospel of John, he’s been telling us that Jesus is here for just this, to renew all creation. 

The first chapter of John is a remix of the Bible’s creation story. It starts with the same words,

“In the beginning…”

In the creation story, we read that amidst a watery chaos, God spoke order and beauty and life into being. John tells us that in Jesus, this Word of God has become flesh. The invisible God materializes as a human being, the poor son of a carpenter on the Eastern edge of a mighty empire. 

And John says this same person is light and truth and grace. Jesus is a human life giving expression to all the creative goodness of God. 

And then throughout John, we see Jesus doing these oddly provocative and beautiful things John calls signs. They’re rooted in Jesus’ Jewish tradition – stuff about wine and shepherds and bread from heaven and new life made out of the muddy dirt. But in each sign what’s happening is that God is empowering Jesus to make new creation possible. To say and do things that transform our ordinary, earthy experience for the good. 

And it all comes to a climax in these final two chapters of resurrection. Jesus appears as a gardener, tending to the birth and growth of peace and joy and possibility in his friends, encouraging them to do the same throughout creation. To make the whole earth green with hope and love and life. 

Pastor Ivy gave this great sermon earlier this year on this same text. She taught us a word drawn from the First Nations Potawatomi people, the word puhpowee. It’s a word for the power that makes mushrooms burst forth from the ground. It’s a word for “the unseen energies that animate everything.” It’s qi. It’s spirit. Life force.

Mary discovers, as Ivy taught us, that God’s puhpowee is at work in Jesus now, who has sprung to life from his tomb. And as Jesus commissions his friends to peace amidst distress, and to love and feed others on his behalf, Jesus says

this force can be in you as well.

He breathes his Spirit onto his people, shares his puhpowee force with us all so that we too can live resurrection life. 

Friends, we are alive in a moment when we could use the vitality and peace of God in us, aren’t we? Where would we love to see this greening, this renewal, of creation? 

The Boston Globe published a piece a couple weeks back around the biggest fears of students on area college campuses. And they are serious, serious stuff our young adults are wondering about. 

Stuff like:

  • Can we afford to live?
  • Is racism getting worse?
  • Will A.I. make us irrelevant? 
  • Can I find work that has real purpose? 
  • Is there enough help for all our anxiety and depression?
  • Sex and dating is a hot mess right now, isn’t it?
  • And will climate change ruin everything, for all of us?

Heavy questions, aren’t they? I expect you could add more of your own. 

  • Is a hopeful disposition about life reasonable? 
  • Is God still making creation new or not?
  • What can grow from all the ashes of our age? 

Everything, Jesus says. Everything.

On the way into Jerusalem, just a few days before his death, Jesus tells his own little puhpowee eco-story. He says:

I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This is the way of wheat. Seeds don’t bear fruit unless they are buried in the ground, shed their coat, and then in a miracle of biochemistry… puhpowee, burst forth as something new. 

It’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection life. Betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated, terrorized, crucified, yet he is risen – scarred but very much alive, and bringing delight and peace, restoration and purpose in every one of his encounters. 

It has also been our experience and certainly the experience of our ancestors – those in our own lineage and our ancestors in the Way of Jesus as well. We have hit the end of our rope, absolutely run out of resources or next steps, rock bottom all around, and life has found us. 

Maybe it hasn’t happened to you recently. But you’re here and alive because it happened for your ancestors, and the Way of Jesus persists 2,000 years later because again and again, those that came before us in the faith have found the dying but risen Jesus come through for them. 

I’ve been thinking lately about one of the times this happened for me. It was one of the saddest and loneliest times of my life. I was 14 years old. I had very few friends. I was sitting with some significant trauma that had come my way but that I hadn’t managed to tell a single soul. 

I was kind of brilliant but I was bombing my high school classes, not doing any of the work. I was sad and scared and no one knew it. 

But one day, in this high school chorus I was in, with like a hundred other kids in my school, the choir director called on me to lead the little solo that was part of our warm ups. How did she do this? Get high school kids to sing on the spot solos in front of nearly a hundred of their peers?

I have no idea, but you didn’t say no to Ms. Sunny Prior, you just did it. So I sang. 

Alleluia.

I was so nervous, and I know a lot of people speed things up when they’re nervous, but I slowed way down. 

Alleluia. 

I was almost done. People were repeating after me. One more.

Alleluia.

And then silence. Ms. Prior started getting this energy in her face, everyone was looking at her now, and she burst out –

that Steven Watson, listen to that boy sing! 

I am sure my face lit up red in embarrassment. But it meant the world to me. 

She saw me and called out what I didn’t know was there in me. I auditioned for a second choir with her the next year. And then I joined a third and fourth choir, higher and higher levels, and tried out and got the lead in the school musical.

On the one hand, extracurricular activity – who cares? But it was much more than that. I was getting attention for this thing I enjoyed and was good at, and making friends and feeling more confident and connected. And these then ended up being the same years that I started to find a more personally meaningful faith in God.

In ways I can’t explain, that was connected to the singing too. I wouldn’t have had any of these high-faluting words for it at the time, but it was like I was finding hope, faith that there was beauty, that there was goodness, that Creator God and loving Jesus hadn’t passed me by.

Sunny Prior was part of saving me. 

It was a puhpowee, resurrection moment in my story – life bursting forth out of death. It saved me.

In John, the resurrection means that the new creation work of Jesus continues. It means that the Spirit of God we come to know through Jesus can breathe resurrection power into our lives and times still. It means that the Spirit of Jesus is still gardening among us, inviting us to welcome new life and partner with God in making it so. 

That’s my story. That’s the story of our resurrection faith. And that’s what I’m counting on still. 

Friends, this Easter season, I want to encourage you to look out for signs of resurrection, and I want to encourage you to get out a hoe and start gardening.

Here’s what I mean. 

Look for signs of resurrection.

The other week, I was telling my pastor about what most discourages me. And I talked, my grief and anger was coming through. Like Mary:

they have taken my Lord – where is he?

I was going over my disappointments, asking:

what is happening here? Why isn’t God coming through? 

And my pastor listened and talked with me, but eventually he said:

can I share a perspective?

And I said,

of course.

And he said:

actually, I think what you’re seeing is resurrection.

And he pointed out that in these people and areas where I felt God’s absence, I was actually seeing more signs of life than were true a year ago, significantly more. I just was frustrated by how much more I wanted. I was frustrated by the slow spread of hope.

And he reminded me: what’s one thing we know about the risen Jesus? It’s that he rose with scars. He shows his friends his wounded, healing, still scarred hands and side. 

And isn’t all resurrection like that, he suggested. New life bursts forth – a gift from God – but the scars of our wounds remain. 

And that has changed me. It’s given me a new set of lenses I can put on when I look at the death-scarred discouragements of my own life or our larger world.

  • With these lenses of resurrection faith, I can ask, where is God making new life possible?
  • Where are the beginnings of resurrection, even if it’s marked by scars? 

 It’s encouraged me to look for signs of resurrection, look for possibilities of new creation life everywhere, even in the bleakest places. 

Because as Ilio Delio says, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future,but it is the power of the new being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow.

Friends, in your greatest discouragements and disappointments, don’t try to put a happy face on things. Be real with yourself and be real with God. But do ask… are there seeds or even first shoots of resurrection here. Where are the signs of new life?

You’ll usually be able to see them. If you can’t, friends can help you. But it will make faith real to you – to hope and believe and bear witness to new life in all the ashiest places of death. 

So join Mary in looking for signs of resurrection. And then also, join the risen Christ, and get out a hoe and start tending to the renewal of creation yourself.

This is where our guest speaker Randy Woodley left us a few weeks back. He’s like, you want to learn from indigenous wisdom, you want a more holistic faith, you should garden. 

So maybe that’s it. Plan a tree. Grow some tomatoes. Or maybe it’s more too.

You’ll notice Mary gave Jesus a big embrace, and then Jesus was like:

don’t cling to me, go tell the rest of the friends too. Be a recipient, but also be an agent of new life. 

Bear witness to the resurrection you’ve experienced. Go tell the story. 

Ilio Delio again:

We who say “yes” to the dying and rising of Jesus Christ say “yes” to our earth, our lives as the stuff out of which the New Creation can emerge.

You go be the gardener too. There’s a cynical, pessimistic world that needs some unguarded, unmeasured, uncynical love, hope, and encouragement. Each of you is unique as a child of God – unique gifts, unique opportunities, unique calls. But each of you needs to let your light shine. Love deep, sew wide, encourage big!

And just you wait and see what God grows through that. 

Now is the moment of resurrection. Now is the beginning of a new earth. Live by the power of love alone. Act as if you were now free. Begin to trust in this freedom to do new things. Because Christ is risen, and God is making all things new.

The Threat of Hope

Good morning! I’m Ivy.

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the last week of Lent.

Palm Sunday commemorates the entrance of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, where crowds laid the road with cloth and leafy palms and waved them in excitement and praise for the king they were waiting for – one who would ride in on a donkey. It’s an ancient story, where “Hosannas” filled the air. Hosannas as cheers, of prayers, of pleas and of protest  – and it is a present day story, where we are invited today to wonder afresh – what gives shape to our “Hosannas?”  

I have a friend who regularly checks in on me. At any point in the day – they send a two-word text that says, “Vibe check.” It’s an invitation for me to pause for a second, and think about how I’m feeling… how the day’s going… a true pulse on where I’m at…  it often feels like a pretty sacred exchange.  

The vibe of the Palm Sunday we read in scripture (and we will in just a moment), is often regarded by many of us as celebratory –  a scene where audible joy and jubilant energy is manifested by a hopeful crowd.

And we can feel that alive in us today too – how it feels to hope for something for a long time and finally see it come into view. This crowd has been waiting for a Savior, one who could make their hopes and longings – their history and lived experience of oppression – into a new story. To help them believe that a different world, a new world was finally possible – and it comes into view, as Jesus enters those gates of Jerusalem.

Except an actual vibe check of this crowd, would likely reveal more. Palm Sunday while it is the cusp of joy and hope – is also the cusp of watching the world as they knew it crumble. 

And even as the cheers of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest” reached a fever pitch in the crowd – they are quickly eclipsed by the threat of the Roman Empire.  

Palm Sunday holds more than excited palm waving…it is the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, of betrayal, denial – of threat, his arrest, and violence/ crucifixion.  Palm Sunday, with all the excitement and hope, leads directly to Good Friday. And that is part of our story too – and the ongoing story of our faith.

A faith that is riddled with hopes and threats – and hopes and threats – in our everyday lives.

This morning we’ll read this story in scripture and consider what it is we hope for these days? How it is we might live our way into this ancient cry, “Hosanna!” with integrity – with an energy that flips what threatens our hope – into a triumphant story where the threat of hope – keeps us moving along this road of life with Jesus. 

Prayer:
We praise you Jesus. We bless you – for being the One who comes among us – and is still coming. For the one who walks down our streets and enters our neighborhoods – for the one who disrupts the thoughts that threaten our hope – for the one who helps us disrupt the real forces and powers that threaten our hope. This morning hear our prayers – the ones that are beyond words – the prayers that we are hoarse from shouting – -the prayers that are fresh and the ones that feel ancient.  Thank you for being among – between and in us. Amen.

SCRIPTURE | Matthew 21:1-11 (Common English Bible)

Let’s read the story of Palm Sunday together  – we’ll read Matthew’s version in Chapter 21:

“When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion,Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.  The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted,
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”  And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Like so much of scripture – there is scripture within scripture here. Right in the middle of this story we have a reference to the Old Testament – to the words of the prophet Zechariah 9:9… who predicts this moment – saying,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey …”

And many of those gathered in the crowd likely knew this prophecy. Because the setting here is Passover. And upwards of 200,000 people from all over Athens and Egypt, Babylon, Damascus and Galilee – join Jesus and his followers in Jerusalem to observe and celebrate this most important Jewish holiday.  Passover celebrates the exodus from slavery in Egypt – it is a festival of freedom. Freedom that God intended for everyone… and one they are still longing for.

At this time the Jewish people were under the brutal empire of Rome.

“They were a colony; a subject people – living in a new kind of servitude, a new kind of bondage. Now, not in Egypt, but in their own land.” (Bishop Michael Curry)

So while Rome allows the Jewish pilgrims to gather for the Passover festival – any real action, any real resistance that would push against that power of Rome – call out the oppression –  would not be tolerated. And just to make sure that is communicated – that complete loyalty and submission is obeyed – they send Pontius Pilate and Roman agents into the city with a full entourage – soldiers, horses, calvary, weapons. The Roman Empire puffing out its chest, making its greatness, its power shown through intimidation and threat. 

Jesus enters Jerusalem with a rag-tag bunch, no cavalry – on a donkey – a procession of what many would regard as the  “powerless” and the “explicitly vulnerable.”  Where strength and power are demonstrated through subversive action, humility, nonviolence, and hope. And Jesus invites those in the crowd – some of whom had witnessed his recent healing miracles (and some who hadn’t), some who still hoped for a savior (and some who couldn’t), some who knew who this man on a donkey was (and most who didn’t) but nevertheless Jesus invites them ALL to find their way into this song from exactly where they are at,Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”  

Jesus’ entrance – riding in on a donkey doesn’t just offer a parallel picture of what a “king” or a “savior” or a “hero” could be –  it is a move to counter everything – the common expressions of authority and intimidation of the emperor’s norm. (enfleshed.org)

Historians tell us that it is likely that, Pilate entered the city from the west and Jesus entered the city from the east.

A meeting of sorts –  a meeting where the power of authoritative threat and the power of indelible hope face off.

Now here’s the thing – the threats for the Jewish people are real… not just empty intimidation. Ever since the time of exile  – the Jewish people have – for most of that time – suffered under some sort of foreign power. Just a few decades earlier the Romans crushed an attempted rebellion of the people  – where 2,000 of those suspected in the resistance movement were crucified. Their lives have been impacted by fear and violence for a long time.

And yet the crowds watch as the words of Zechariah unfold in their streets, and the hope of their spiritual ancestors rises, the cries of “Hosanna!” swell. These voices echoing a proclamation of trust in a different type of power, a different type of LORD and King.

And it’s a gritty – graspy- sort of hope. One that recalls God’s great works – of manna appearing in the wilderness, of the Red Sea parting …and the struggle, death and oppression – it’s a holy remembrance – one that forms an active, courageous cry of “Hosanna” – a resolute present day cry that protests injustice.

And the Roman powers feel this … they are threatened.

Many in the crowds hold on to a faith that is not run by militaristic conquering authority – but on the power of justice – the power of collective hope that has formed over anguish and centuries – through the bones of their ancestors –  that sticks to their spirits as they stand on that dusty road to Jerusalem.

And everything they do  – from  raising their palms to shouting “hosanna!” are subversive acts and messages to the empire. A message of hope that threatens and puts Rome on the alert  – as much as Rome had hoped to do with their war horses.

INDIGO STORY

It’s why celebrating Palm Sunday is worth it – even when we know how Holy week plays out.

It’s why harkening back to our spiritual ancestors matters. Because sometimes we need to re-tell a story, even re-enact a story of our history that reminds us – and tells us again – of how good and faithful God has been  – a source of life-giving hope – even when it isn’t realized in our story yet.

Vernee Wilkinson was up here last week leading us in a participatory service – along with Reverend Laura Everett – that centered around the plant, indigo. Indigo, the source of blue dye that you recognize in your jeans. And she shared that as a descendant of enslaved people – her ancestors were likely forced to plant, tend and harvest the cash crop of indigo.

Their lives likely bought and sold with indigo. Lives that were threatened and terrorized. And yet these ancestors gathered together for hope, for the promise of liberation – they sang songs together – they cried out “Hosanna” in their own ways for a freedom that is still sought  – and fought for today.  And today, Vernee turns to indigo for healing, to make new things as a prayer of protest. – Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” –  To suggest that we, collectively, can reclaim, redeem, make reparations – return Indigo to its healing properties, honor its potent artistic expression and WORK TO free it from a history of violence and oppression.  

The leaves of the indigo plant are dried, crushed and fermented  – placed in a big vat of liquid-y solution that becomes a live –  living thing.  It speaks of a history and story full of threats and violence – and – hope/beauty and freedom.

PALMS

The palms that were laid in the streets and waved in the air,  by the crowd that surrounded Jesus spoke of the same. Before Roman occupation – there was a time when the Jewish people had been free and self-governed – and they had their own currency. On their largest coin – a palm branch was prominently displayed – a symbol of Jewish rebellion. 

The choice to cut palm branches and lay them ahead of Jesus was an act of defiance and a message to the Roman authorities. “We want to be free – we want liberty.”  And they look to Jesus – Jesus who learned early

“how to resist an unjust system. His entire life plays out in the shadow of empire. All his teaching and storytelling, his healing and preaching, his praying and miracle working – all of it takes place under that same shadow of the occupying power of Rome. (Tim Hart – Anderson)

And so they think – maybe this Jesus can help us, can save us. The scene that day in Jerusalem is not particularly religious. The palm-waving is not part of a worship service – but a welcome for a hoped-for liberator that is meant to stand up to the dehumanizing power of empire and privilege. 

HOSANNA 

And so they shout “HOSANNA! HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST” as they wave palms, a freedom song. They do not recite the Roman pledge of allegiance which was, “Caesar is Lord” – but instead say Jesus is Lord – “Hosanna”! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  They hail a new king.

A subversive action.  

The word “Hosanna,” is not only a cheer – or only an expression of adoration. It is a political and religious word – made up of two Hebrew words: hōša῾and nā.  Hōša means “help us, save us, deliver us,” and nā which means “we pray” or “now!” “please!” (Tim Suttle, www.patheos.com).

They remember this word “Hosanna” – from their ancestors which we can read in Psalm 118 where they say,

Lord, please save us!  Lord, please let us succeed!”

Words that the pilgrims would sing as they came into Jerusalem, and as Jews would recite on the Passover holiday. And their hope hung that day, on those words as they walked into Jerusalem – as a ritual of faith – a hope woven into their story – unfolding as a direct challenge to Roman authority.

HOSANNA is a risky word.

  • A vulnerable cry.
  • An exhausted plea.
  • A protest prayer.

An ancient word – a modern word – a word that bridges and connects us to a cloud of witnesses, a company of saints, lovers of God and lovers of people. All connected to the life-giving source.


It’s how the past becomes present on Palm Sunday – and our ancestors’ words, our own. (Enfleshed.org)

…… and how they still hold an urgency to them.

This crowd is shouting,

Save us! from Roman occupation, economic struggle, hunger, poverty.. And do it now.”  

It’s desperate, it’s real, it’s the vibe of this crowd. 

And it’s our vibe today. 

We cry –

“Save us! Oh God! Please! We long for freedom from all that destroys life.

God hear our cry.”

And help us hear the cries of others.

THIS WEEK we had another mass school shooting – *firearms, now the leading cause of death among children.*

Trans rights are threatened.

Women’s rights are threatened.

Affordable housing & affordable healthcare is threatened.*SO. MUCH. LIFE. IS. THREATENED.*

We are still on the road to Jerusalem today my friends.

So much to right. So many crowds to push through.

So many of us are anxiety-filled, stressed, tired. . . crest-fallen… 

Held in the bondage of poverty, racism, misogyny, corruption.

And we fumble to gather our words into a “prayer” – our emotions pour out over the top of the bitter cup of sorrow… it’s too much … it’s too much to swallow…. Alone.

Jesus as he entered Jerusalem wept over the city –

he knew he would not immediately fulfill the hopes of these people, and violence would ensue. (Luke 19:41)

We too walk along the road as much as we fall along the road, and we believe and shout in adoration – as much as we weep and grieve in disbelief.  Hope can feel futile – foolish even.

The interesting thing about indigo is how that rich blue color comes to be. It is all about how many times you return to that big – live – fermenting dye vat. How many times you return to dip your cloth into the mix of sugars, bacteria, and plant leaves – is what deepens and enriches the color. 

This is the invitation of Jesus on that Jerusalem road,

Keep returning to the source – it’s where you will be strengthened.”

It might not look like you thought it would… but keep reaching to God, your ancestors, one another … there we can find a vat of love – of courage – of vision – that strengthens and multiplies our capacity to hope in the face of threat.

Last Sunday many of us folded our prayers into these indigo dyed cloths. ((Hopefully if you were here last week – you were able to grab yours on the way in this morning.))  These prayers were left to rest – to breathe this week – to deepen in our spirits –  as they were laid in the company of one another’s prayers. 

It was in preparation for us today  –  for the Hosanna’s we will shape as a community, the body of Christ together. Because as much as “Hosanna! – help us“ is a cry to God … it is also a cry to one another. 

“I need your help, we need each other’s help – to keep walking this well-worn road of life – to fix our gaze upon Jesus and figure out what our Hosanna’s even mean.”

This is how the song of collective hope is sung.

Standing alongside one another – lifting each other up when we can’t see Jesus at all in our days. Sending one another vibe check texts – dipping ourselves elbow-deep in the ferment of God’s love and promise of freedom … So that we can cut through the empires of despair – of oppressive lies…. So we can change the world we live in. And believe that this road to Jerusalem isn’t a forever road to Good Friday – but one that leads to resurrection.

A resurrection that releases unchecked hope into our world which is dying for it.’ (THA)

In a few minutes we will sing the song “Hosanna,” together.  And however you find your way into that word this morning – whether it’s out of defiant joy, or a hoarse whisper…  know that we are naming – above all else – what we love in common – Jesus. A God who has saved. Will save. And does save us today. Reminding one another that Jesus will forever be riding into our lives in the most unexpected ways – and we are here to help each other notice as best we can along the journey. The poet, Ross Gay says

noticing what we love in common is a practice of survival.

It’s how generations that have gone before us – have survived.
Pleading, singing, praying, shouting – together- “Hosanna – Hosanna in the highest.”

It’s how the generations that will come after us – will survive.

Pleading, singing, praying, shouting -together- “Hosanna – Hosanna in the highest.”

 And it’s how today on this Palm Sunday, we form our Hosanna’s  – with pleading, singing, praying and shouting – together… so that our hopes will survive. We know things are not resolved, and far from fixed… we know the days ahead in our holy weeks still hold more work, more sadness, more threats…

But today – we rest and we breathe – we come alongside one another  – with the Spirit of God, with our ancestors and we strengthen.

And we wave our palms today – our indigo cloths – our hopes. 

We cry, “Hosanna, Save us!” with remembrance that the God we cry out to lives within all of us. And that when “Hosanna, Save Us” – departs our lips – it is a calling of truth to power to the imperialistic forces in our day. And it is a call to the power of hope. The power to right injustices – to steady our quaking ground – to revive us again…a power that is not commanded from a king on HIGH – but one that is altogether mighty, as it rises up from deep within us – as we gather here right now –  and in the streets of our neighborhood, our city – our schools – our workplaces… our abiding places and our in between places. Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!

VIBE CHECK: Where are you? Where is Jesus? Where is your hope?  

Prayer: Today God – we offer our “Hosanna’s” just as they are. We ask you to break open our hearts for what breaks yours in this world. To revive in us the imagination, strength, courage, to believe that your steadfast love does endure forever. .that it isn’t foolish to hope . . remind us how much we need it. Remind us how much we need you. Amen.

Indigo Service: All Things New

Indigo’s presence in America – like so much of our history – was carried on the back of enslaved people. Historically a crash crop on plantations, indigo was weaponized as a form of lucrative economic benefit for slave owners. This service is an invitation into the promise that God makes all things new, into redeeming the beauty of indigo, its artistic expression, and healing potential.

Use this handout (featuring the wisdom of Rev. Laura Everett and Reservoir member, Vernee Wilkinson) as an invitation into our history, the dyeing process and the power of the plant, indigo.

Slow Time

Thank you for the good and holy word, Rose J. Percy. May slowness be treasured here. We’ll continue exploring this invitation, “May slowness be treasured here” in the sermon today. 

I’m Cate Nelson (she/her) and so glad to be with you today. Greetings from Philadelphia! Reservoir Church is such a special place to me – thank you for having me, and thanks to Pastor Ivy and the team for inviting me!

I’m grateful to be joining you all in this season of Lent at Reservoir Church. The focus of this year’s season is “Earth,” and exploring what we call ecotheology—a way to understand the interdependence of all things on earth, and to look at Jesus’ words and teaching through his value and love of the earth. 

Let’s begin today with two scripture readings from the “Seeds” chapter in this year’s Lent Guide, Earth. 

From MARK 4:26-29

Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.”

The kin-dom of God that Jesus talks about is one that connects the slowness of the earth to bringing forth fruit.

“This is what God’s kin-dom is like,”

Jesus says. Seeds are scattered to the ground. The earth moves through the slow time of days, nights, a stalk, a head, the full head of grain. Jesus treasures the time it takes between the labor of planting and harvesting, the work of dirt and water and sun to bring forth a stalk and a full head of grain. Jesus naming this treasured slowness of the earth and time as central to his understanding of the goodness of God made visible in and with the world. 

We go on to read MATTHEW 13:24-30

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.”

The folks who work in the field are concerned about this, and ask if they should pull up the small weeds that are sprouting alongside the grain sprouts.

“But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest…’”

Jesus is pointing towards the slow work of the earth to make clear what is fruit and what is weed, and the time and the patience to let roots take hold. Seeds take time to become strong enough to become fruit to harvest – and to separate from the weeds that grow up alongside them. Sometimes slowness needs to be treasured to let things grow up to what they need to be, to be mature enough for harvest, or to discern (divide) the good fruit from the weeds. Jesus treasures that this is how the earth bears fruit – slowly, with time and discernment. 

The thing about treasuring slowness, though, is that it sits in a tension – that we actually often despise slowness, and we despise the earth for being slow.

This week, the UN put out yet another alarming report about our earth and climate change. Unless industrialized nations cut emissions of greenhouse gasses in half over the next decade, and eliminate the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, the earth’s temperature will increase to a critical degree such that climate disasters, crop failures, and species extinction will become increasingly the norm.   

* https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/20/climate/global-warming-ipcc-earth.html

We have seven years folks, seven years, to slow down our collective reliance on fossil fuels. We humans have despised slowness, and dishonored the rhythm of regeneration of the earth’s natural resources. We have enacted this fast, frenetic extraction and consumption that allows our lives to continue moving fast. (examples: fast food, packaging, amazon, heat, etc.) It will take a willingness to embrace a slow earth – rather than demand the earth keep pace with our frantic pace of extraction – to push against the capitalist and supremacy structures that teach us to despise the earth and its luscious slowness. 

How can we treasure slow earth? I love what Rose says in her poem:

We can choose the journey of gestation, to witness the miracle of being whole that only seeds, dirt, and water know. -Rose Percy

We can choose the journey of gestation.

We can consume less. We can move at the pace of the earth, putting our feet along an outdoor path or using our hands to grow food. But really, there is a collective world we need to enact together. For our local, national, and global policies and social practices to reduce our use and dependence on fossil fuels. No amount of individual practice or commitment can respond to climate change.

We need to be a Beloved Community, and find ourselves in communities that share resources such that we don’t need to irresponsibly pull them from the earth. To treasure the earth is to treasure slowness – and we see how Jesus treasured slowness in his love, care for, and understanding of the earth. May a slow earth of seeds and grain be treasured here, that we might witness the miracle of being whole.

Jesus’ words about seeds also relate to time. The slow time it takes for seeds to grow and bear fruit. So let’s talk about treasuring slow time. 

To treasure slowness is to practice treasuring slow time. Time itself is neutral – in the sense the sun rises and the sun sets, giving cadence to the rhythms of the earth and all living things. Time is also political, as it has been given days and weeks and hours and seconds to govern our sense of living. While time as a baseline is neutral, our experience of time and how we use it is not – it is marked and it is measured.

I share a sense of many of us here in the modern and postmodern age that time moves really fast. The default is that there are a lot of demands on our time, there is a lot of activity in our lives, to move quickly from one thing to the next – and part of this that we experience here in the US is the demands of a capitalist system that requires production and productivity. I call this fast time. Living in the frantic, urgent, rapid pace of everything that needs to be done. 

And yet the invitation from Jesus, from Rose’s poem, from the wise sages of our world is to treasure slow time. And by slow time, I mean when we can live with room, and space, and cease from our frantic and rushed relationship with time. 

One way slow time has been practiced over the centuries is through Sabbath. Sabbath, or what our Jewish siblings call Shabbat, is perhaps the most time-honored “time” practice in our faith tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, YWHW commands and commands to us a practice of keeping Sabbath – six days to labor, and a seventh day for all humans to cease from labor, to rest, to connect with others, to worship God together and to celebrate the goodness of life. 

We read in EXODUS 20:8-11 

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 

Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your children, your servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 

11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The entire community is called to Sabbath. This practice of marking a slower time is an interdependent practice. If someone is still working, it’s hard for everyone to rest. If everyone’s pace is fast, we feel pressure to keep up. 

Writer Judith Shulevitz* reminds us that Sabbath was never meant to be experienced alone. It has always been understood as a communal, collective practice. She says that’s why any of our efforts to practice Sabbath—or really any form of slow time—by ourselves can be a very lonely effort. The call is to rest together, to worship together, to celebrate together. Shulevitz points out that Sabbath keeping would be a whole lot easier if the larger communities of our towns and cities practiced it too – if the options of activity were limited so that we might choose each other and choose rest. 

*Judith Shulevitz’s wonderful book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”

Slow time can happen beyond a practice of Sabbath. We can do it throughout our days and weeks. I find that playing with kids is a tender way to treasure slow time, as is time for prayer or meditation, a long meal shared with friends, or a gentle walk just for the sake of walking. Rose Percy says:

Lay slowly, you are treasured here: Take up compassion for your withering, you who make haste and cut corners, fold into rest for a day or two breaths…. -Rose J Percy 

So even now, for two breaths, we can fold into slow time and rest. 

I wonder where in your world – whether in your home with housemates or family, in your community group, or even here at Reservoir, there can be shared experiences of slow time—that center rest and joy. Matt Henderson is leading the final Pause Service of Lent not this Wednesday but next – Wednesday, April 5. That might be a place to enter into slow time with others.

It is the interdependence of a community and what it treasures that makes experiences of slow time sustainable over the long haul. 

One place where I see Cambridge treasuring slow time is in the longstanding tradition of closing car traffic along Memorial Drive on Sunday mornings and afternoons (and in some recent years, Saturdays too!). This has been happening for 40 years! Cars are diverted to Storrow Drive, and from Gerry’s Landing to Western Ave., the slow, joyful movement of pedestrians, roller bladers, folks in wheelchairs, and kids in strollers and on bikes, and dogs on leash are given right of way.

It is a place where Cambridge celebrates slow time together, transforming a space marked by the fast time of commuting and running errands and hustling kids to activities and allows it to take a deep breath and become a place that honors slow time, valuing connection and play. Slow time is treasured here.

*Sara Hendren, a Cambridge based designer and academic, has a great article about this in the New York Times. What she called ‘designing for time’ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/opinion/cities-reopening-time.html

Our bodies can also be a way to experience slow time. Particularly when we come into sickness or disability, pain or aging, and our bodies become a prophetic testament to slow time – and an invitation to those around us to enter a slower experience of time than the default culture of fast time. One of my sibling’s disabilities means their body moves at a slower pace – and so my relationship to time is altered when I am with them. To treasure his body is to treasure slow time. When I attempt for us to move too quickly, or do too much, the treasuring of slow bodies and slow time is forfeited and needs to be reclaimed. 

Like these little seeds – our slow bodies are to be treasured. Like the grains of wheat – the earth needs time to bear fruit. Like the seeds – our lives need slow time to nurture and care for one another, and to celebrate the goodness of life. 

Let’s rest a day or two, even now. 

Here in our breath is the holiness and the earthiness of slow time,

“settling scattered parts of us into a rooted remembrance” (Rose J. Percy). 

May you treasure slowness in the days ahead, dear friends. 

Amen.

 

Letting Jesus Be Our Teacher

We’re entering the second half of this season of Lent, invited to sit with some of the teachings of Jesus through this year’s theme of our connections to the rest of the Earth. 

Last week, we heard from indigenous wisdom teacher and theologian Randy Woodley. He taught about the Bible’s way of shalom – harmony, wellness, just peace – and the Way of Jesus as it is contextualized into the indigenous cultures from which we call home. 

Part of why I so love the work of my friend Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha, is that the same is true for her. She is animated by the love and wisdom of Jesus, but in Asha’s work our church supports, serving destitute Hindu and Muslim residents of urban North India, she and her team contextualize the Way of Jesus into an empowering way of life that does not require religious conversion to participate in. 

I’m also meeting people throughout the country who are doing this in the weird religious moment that our world is in. Amidst growing rigidity and fundamentalism, in response to change and fear, amidst the increasing revelations of abuse of power and harm in the American evangelical movement, a national church network I’ve been invited to participate in is getting off the ground.

The thing is called the Post Evangelical Collective. It’s a community for pastors and churches who have some roots and history in the evangelical Christian movement, but because of the way we’re following Jesus in this age, with radical commitments to justice and inclusion, we don’t fit there any more. And this post-evangelical collective is emerging to resource and connect churches like us all around the country and beyond. 

I’m really excited to be part of this movement and I hope as it gets going, for our church to be part of it too. This May, we’ll be hosting the first New England gathering of the Post Evangelical collective. You won’t see it, because it will be a small thing for pastors, but a mentor of mine and friend of this church David Gushee will be in town for the gathering and we’ll offer some kind of class or conversation in the evening you’ll all be invited to. 

I’m so excited about this venture, that I’ve already started planning for next year’s gathering, and I’ve already scheduled another great national leader to come be with us and also to preach one weekend here at Reservoir. This new friend of ours is Drew Hart. Drew’s a theology professor and a leading speaker and author on antiracism, justice, and activism in the church.

All to say, pray for our church and for this new venture, the Post Evangelical Collective, if you can. That it be healthy, that it be a way for us to better connect with, learn from, and support like minded churches, and that it be a place where the wisdom and love and power of Jesus can sit well and be fruitful in our generation and in the generations to come. 

PRAYER

Alright, as I said, in our theme of earth – about our connection with all of creation, encouraging humility, gratitude, and openness – we spend the third quarter of our guide, starting today, looking at the earth teaching of Jesus. We look at his quaint little stories about seeds and crops and birds and trees and see if the Spirit of Christ, who is always with us, can teach and provoke us anew.

I had planned to have us sit with three or four different teachings of Jesus in this sermon, letting them speak anew to us but I got so deep in the first one, the shortest one to which I was drawn, that that’s mostly all we’ve time for, a little one verse, one sentence teaching of Jesus. 

Here it is: 

Matthew 13:33 (Common English Bible)

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

Last week, I was at a Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. There were some new Board members there and we were doing this team activity about the values we wanted to see represented in the work, and I just wasn’t drawn to all the words on the table like courage and equity and creativity and all that. Nothing wrong with those values, it’s just they seemed kind of bland and abstract. And I’m not believing much in bland, abstract ideas these days, if I don’t see them in action.

Jesus didn’t give people adjectives to live by or aspire to, he told stories. So I thought of values that were embedded in stories. I quoted Howard Thurman, spiritual mentor to the civil rights movement, whose work one of my community groups has been reading. 

And I was like one value I have is “contact, with fellowship.” My group had been talking about Thurman’s phrase in Jesus and the Disinherited, where he talks about the danger of the opposite, how contact without fellowship breeds contempt. This is why white people with superficial, transactional contact with people of color can actually become more racist. Or it’s why some teachers, not most teachers, but some come to hate their young students. 

It’s contact without fellowship. And I was like: I want fellowship, real, respectfully engaged relationships in everything we do.

And the other thing that came to mind with me was this story Jesus told. So I wrote on my values card: a fistful of yeast that feeds a village. 

People didn’t really know what to do with that. Like what kind of value is a fistful of yeast? 

So I told this little story – there was a woman with a fistful of yeast, who hid it in a whole bushel of flour, until it worked its way through all the dough. 

Admittedly, who knows what it means? Single, celled fungi are amazing. Science! There’s one take away.

Or little things can have a lot of power. There’s another, I guess.

But I was like:

How about this? Jesus honors the skill, the labor, the contributions of working class women. How about that for a value? 

It’s a tiny story, but I love it. Jesus picturing this woman kneading yeast into the dough, working it through, picturing all the bread it’s going to make. 

What does he mean when he says this is what the kingdom of God is like? This is the Beloved Community, this is the reign of God.

I wonder if it means the beloved community is about feeding people, about more than enough bread for everyone. 

There’s a bit we miss in translation, this bit about the bushel of flour. This woman isn’t making a loaf, she’s making dozens of loaves, maybe a hundred. A bushel of flour is like 40 pounds or more. Like five-10 of those big bags of flour you find in the supermarket.

It’s an obscene amount of bread, if you’re cooking for a family. It’s just right, though, if you’re cooking for a village. This is bread enough for a temple, a synagogue, a neighborhood. 

When you cook, set a wide table, and make enough for everyone. This is beloved community.

It’s cool that this is in reach of a working class woman. Most people who get celebrated in history are rich and powerful men. When meals get remembered, people talk about the guest of honor, or the folks who had enough resources to hire caterers. 

But most people, with skill and care, can feed a community. A pretty poor person can save up enough funds to buy 10 bags of flour and a few jars of yeast. 

And maybe that’s beloved community too – when you take what you have, and with the help of God and friends and fungal food chemistry, you work it to maximum impact. That’s a story worth telling too.

Or maybe again, it’s just recognizing the power and honoring the labor of working class women, and anyone else that gets overlooked. 

This is why I brought this up in GBIO. We have plenty of workplaces and government units and communities that honor the gifts and labor of the best educated and wealthiest and highest status people among us. 

We don’t need more of that. 

Most of these abuse of power stories I talked about in my sermon on repentance, they wouldn’t have happened, or they would have been cut off fast, if people hadn’t been so trusting and protective of the status of powerful men, if we’d been honoring the voice and power of ordinary women and children.

We need more companies and cultures that will recognize and celebrate the voice and power of ordinary people, of marginalized people.

On Thursday, some of us were part of an action for housing justice on the steps of the state house. It was awesome. More than 300 people, coming to the governor and the heads of the Mass State house and senate, having built a coalition and done our homework to insist on the kinds of funding and policies that ensure dignified, affordable housing for all people, in all our communities. 

If you want to get involved in this work, talk to Pastor Lydia. She was actually leading the action on Thursday. Oh, and friends, you should have been there. Wow, Lydia was on fire! So skilled, so articulate, incredibly moving and impassioned, with brilliant attention to detail. You should be so proud to have a pastor that can lead like that in public life. I was just beaming watching my colleague lead this work.

Really special.

You know what was just as special, though, and maybe even more a sign of the work of the Spirit of Jesus, it was when two working class women, tenant leaders who live in local public housing, advocated for the budget it would take to actually maintain the low income, public housing of our state.

Bishnu talked about what it’s like to be a South Asian, Hindu immigrant and be told you can’t take off your shoes in your own home. All the asbestos, all the cockroaches you see night and day are too big a risk for your skin, so keep your shoes on. 

And at the state house, with crowds of followers, Bishnu told the press and the government, we deserve apartments clean enough so that we can take our shoes off indoors.

And then Arleen talked about growing up as a serial victim of all manner of trauma, moving from house to house only to be abused again and again in other people’s homes. And she called out to the leaders of our state, all of us deserve our own place to call home where we can shut and lock the door and be safe. 

We were led by these working class women whose voices in the past have been disregarded, shut down, told “you can’t” again and again. Not by Jesus, though. The kingdom of God is the power of working class women to effect radical generosity, community-transforming change. 

To these women, Jesus says: I see you. I hear you. You can do it. You have the power. Spirit of God is doing this still, friends. I saw and heard it happen this Thursday. 

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.

It reminds me of another scripture, from the letter called I Corinthians, where the faith leader, apostle Paul, writes, in the first chapter:

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.

29 So no human being can brag in God’s presence. 

I’ve shared before that Reservoir is part of a faith tradition, the way of Jesus, a way that as a religion has been called Christianity, is badly in need of massive reform.

I often call that reform the decolonizing of the faith. Finding all the abuse of power, the controlling theology and ethics, the spiritual and community practices that don’t bear good fruit and replacing it all with what helps us get free. Uncovering the Way of Jesus in dialogue with the times and culture we live in for a renewed, healthy, powerful faith.

Some of that is peeling off a lot of stuff that Christianity accrued over centuries as a European, colonizing religion. It’s the humbling of the Western Christian tradition. Taking a lot of what was considered extra something and reducing it to nothing. 

But I was thinking this week: what’s some of the gold of this tradition we’re keeping. What are the babies of European or Western Christianity we’re not throwing out as we try to drain the toxic bathwater? 

And I was realizing that a lot of this is the good stuff that was born out of humble people. It’s wisdom and power drawn from the spiritual yeast of people who met God in their trauma. 

I think of Brother Lawrence. He was a 17th century monk at a time when prayer was pretty formal, the reading and chanting of words written by others. But he developed this mode of prayer which was not formal at all. In fact, it was not necessarily even saying much at all, but kind of reminding oneself throughout the day, whatever you’re doing, that you’re a child of God and all of you is loved by all of God. 

He called this practicing the presence of God. And he had such great joy and peace from this that people flocked to him to learn his secret. It was disarmingly simple. While he peeled potatoes, or mended shoes or whatever, he’d simply remember:

God is there. And I am God’s child, loved so very much.

And that gave him the freedom to think and feel and say whatever he thought and felt knowing God was attuned to him, paying loving attention to him. And so he felt at peace, and so he loved God too. That was it. 

So simple, but enduringly influential through this day. How did this spiritual breakthrough occur? How did Brother Lawrence learn to pray like this? 

Well, it was born of trauma. 

I was listening to an interview with Carmen Acevdeo Butcher, a scholar with a new translation out of the 17th work of the monk Brother Lawrence, famous for the practice of the presence of God. 

Lawrence grew up dirt poor, he was uneducated. As a teenager, with no school, no resources, he ends up being drawn into the army, as poor people often are. He served for a few years in the Thirty Years’ War, a brutal, long, violent religious war in Central Europe. He was injured in war, permanently disabled. He suffered chronic pain over the next 50 years. He ended up in the monastery because he failed at other jobs. And in the monastery, he had a low rank. He cooked soup, washed dishes, mended shoes. And he said people told him all these complicated ways to pray – that with his low education maybe, with his anxiety or PTSD just didn’t work for him. 

But out of his own need for healing, he discovered he could remember again and again that God was with him, knowing and loving him always, and then he could silently communicate whatever he felt and thought to God. And he described this as a returning again and again to love, a returning to love, and that slowly healed him. 

Breakthroughs in our faith, born out of pain, disability, living on the edges of the tradition. This has been true again and again. People seek God, or they find God seeking them, in trauma, and they become our guides. 

Julian of Norwich, Julianna of Norwich I call her, taught us the mother-love of a God who mostly by then was seen only as male, Father. She had a wildly hopeful, optimistic faith, which disarmed the angry, wrathful God she was taught and helped us see that all of God is love.

How’d she get there? A vision of Jesus while so sick with the plague she thought she was dying. Traumatized by the death that was everywhere around her – some people think she had a baby child who died of the plague – in this grief and trauma, in her weakness, God found her, and she became one of our great teachers of prayer and of the love of God.

Again and again this has been so. 

This is the way of God on earth – working class women with a fistful of yeast to feed a village, or a story to tell that gets housing for a community. A disabled veteran who can’t pray the right way until God shows him a better way. A traumatized young widow on her sickbed, who has a vision of bloody Jesus that becomes God her friend, God her love, God her mother, and she knows all will be well somehow, everything will be well. 

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 

If you ever are accounted by yourself or by others as foolish or weak or low-class or low-life, know that you are the one God chooses. You are the means for the miracle. 

And if you are ever accounted by yourself or by others as wise or strong or high class, know that you might need to look to others to lead you in the best ways of God. 

Jesus says, that woman with nothing but yeast and flour will lead us. The scriptures say a child will lead us. 

Don’t despise weak people and small things. 

A couple weeks ago, a third grader in our church found me on his way outside, and stopped to show me what he had done in kids church that day. With my adult eyes, I was inclined to see a kid’s tiny cheap pot of earth, nothing more. Cute maybe, but a kids’ craft, nothing much. But this child, Junia, he helped me see what he saw. He said: look, a sunflower. I didn’t see the sunflower. I saw a tiny bit of dirt in a child’s hand. But Junia saw a new life he had co-created, a seed in the dirt that was on its way to a giant, golden sunflower that just might get taller than him. 

Is that charming and cute? 

Or is it just true? Is it the Beloved Community reign of God?

We so easily despise the people of the earth we account as weak or small, don’t we. Not Jesus. Spirit of Christ says the Beloved Community reign of God flows from their yeast and flour, their hospitality and voice, their advocacy, their truth, their trauma, their spiritual and religious innovations.

Pay attention. Learn from them. Honor them. If you’re one of them, let your light shine. It just might be the very light of God we need.

And we so easily despise new beginnings. Because new beginnings of Beloved Community, of the reign of God are small. All new beginnings are small. 

If the Way of Jesus is going to be uncovered, found winsome and empowering again in this country, it’s going to start in new beginnings – small but beautiful things like Reservoir Church and the Post Evangelical Collective and our friend Mariama’s beautiful New Roots Church in Dorchester and many other small, but powerful ventures. 

If we’re going to see our world’s massive urban slums become healthier, more just places, where – as the Bible puts it – ash heaps are resurrected to garden communities of hope – it’s going to start city by city, with new life born of seeds and flours like Asha and Cheza sports.

When we learn to pray again, when we learn that God loves us and our faith is renewed, when justice breaks forth like the sun at morning dawn, it’s going to burst forth from the wisdom of the Juliannas and Lawrences, those that met God through trauma, it’s going to burst forth from the powerful truth of working class women like Bishnu and Arleen. 

Friends, every plant, every life is born of tiny, dying seed.

The most beautiful things of God burst forth from people and places some of us considered nothing, a fistful of yeast. 

Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the people and places that some of the world considers low class and low life. Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the parts of your own self you consider nothing.

And friends, don’t ignore or despise small beginnings, because all beloved community, all of the reign of God, every great love story, every miracle of resurrection looks pretty dang small at first. 

When you perceive it, celebrate, give thanks, pour out all your love and hope onto small beginnings. It’s the way of Jesus, it’s the way of the God, it’s the hope of the world.

I Am Because You Are

The other week during the school vacation, I got to take a road trip with my 16 year old John. 

If you ever get to take a road trip with a teenager, do that. Because the world is a beautiful place, and it’s so fun to travel around with someone who hasn’t seen as much of it yet. And teenagers are often learning to drive, and if teaching a teenager to drive is five parts terrifying, then it’s also like 10 parts great because you’re watching them do it, and they’re actually listening to you. Like really listening, hanging on every word you say listening, and you talk but you also just sit there, and this person is actually driving you around for a change. And then there’s something about all the conversation you have when for hours, there are no distractions and there’s nowhere else to go. 

Anyway, it was a great time.

But as I said, John is 16, and he is our youngest. Grace and I had three kids kind of fast, and even though that seems like yesterday, now they are 16, 18, and 20, and they are all starting to find their way in the world.

In the case of John, we were road tripping because we were looking at a few colleges that he might consider applying to. 

Now when you are sending your kid out into the world, a lot of weird things happen to you. I mean, part of me is pumped, like: get going, kids. Leave home. I believe in them. I’m excited to see what choices they make and all the ways they’ll make us proud and make themselves proud. And now and then, I have thought, hey, we’re going to have more space soon where we live, and more time, and more freedom. And sometimes that seems pretty great. Get going, kids. You can do it. But then of course, sometimes that letting go is terrifying. And I felt a little bit of all of that on this trip. Get going, John. But also, stay here, don’t go!

This time isn’t just a weird time for a parent, though. It’s a weird time to be a teenager too, isn’t it? 

I mean, the world has always been telling our teens: go out into the world, it’s time for you to grow up, while also telling them: it’s scary out there, watch out, be careful! And man, have we said that to our teens a lot in recent years, telling them: you can’t go to school, it’s shut down. Actually, you can’t go anywhere. And we wonder that they seem stressed out these days. 

And then for our kids that go on to higher education, the messages the colleges give them are a little weird too. We got this college brochure and in big letters on the front, it just said:

It’s all about you.

It’s all about you.

I think this was supposed to be encouraging, exciting. Like it’s your time to make choices. It’s your time to live how you want, study what you want, pursue your dreams.

“It’s all about you.”

It’s supposed to sound liberating, I guess, but I think it’s not.

“It’s all about you” sounds an awful lot like you’re on your own – no path to follow, no principles to guide you, no one walking alongside, no one having your back. 

“It’s all about you” sounds like a lot of pressure. It’s your time to accomplish, your time to earn, your time to figure out how to stand on your own. 

Be independent. Be successful. Be happy. It’s a lot. I think there’s another way.

This past week, we began our six week season of Lent remembering we are earth. We are mortal, flawed, vulnerable. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

But in the middle of that, we were invited to read a bit of Isaiah 52 as well, where we are told:

Awake, awake, shake the dust off yourself and rise up.

And I asked:

Is there a word of liberation that you need to hear from God today?

As we move into our second week of Lent, continuing to explore how we are earth, members of the fabric of this beautiful creation, I think I have a word of liberation from us.

It comes from a passage in the second week of our guide, day nine. It’s a Hebrew word: hineni, and the message I have for us is:

I am because you are. I am not alone. I am not all about me. I have roots and source. I am connected. 

I am because you are.

Let’s read the passage from Day nine, it’s the beginning of the 6th chapter of the prophet Isaiah. 

Isaiah 6:1-8 (Common English Bible)

6 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.

2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about.

3 They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!

All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs.

7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

When I first learned this passage, I didn’t think about Isaiah or anything to do with the ancient Near East. I thought about myself. It’s all about me. 

Here am I, Lord. 

Am I the one?

  • How are you calling me?
  • How will I be sent?
  • What job will I have?
  • Where should I live?
  • Who should I live with?
  • What role will I play in the world? 

Fair questions, maybe, but it felt like a lot of pressure.

Now in Isaiah, this passage is about the calling of this prophet to really just do one thing with his life: to tell the truth. Before that, though, he has a vision of God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple. This beautiful presence of God is made visible to Isaiah’s imagination for a moment, and then he realizes it’s not just the temple, but the whole earth is God’s temple. 

God is everywhere, and God is so good, so beautiful, so holy. All the earth is filled with God’s glory. 

And once God helps Isaiah move past his fear, his response to God is a single Hebrew word: hineni. Which means Here I am. I’m available. What would you like, God? 

It’s a passage of calling for Isaiah, of the launching of his life work for his community.

But I heard this passage as a young adult the way I heard everything, filtered through our society’s assumptions about individualism.

After all, our society is a product of the modern age where we were told that what it means to be a person is to be an individual. 

You stand on your own or you fall.

What does it mean to be a person? It means to be a thinker, to use your own brain. “I think, therefore I am” is the slogan of modernity. 

And so for me, to find my way in the world was to be independent, a solitary doer and thinker, and my religious sense reinforced this. I stand alone before God, who has a call on my life I need to figure out, so I can get it done. 

When I thought I had it right, it took me to a prideful place, a too big place. One time, when I was in my early 20s, one of my brothers told me:

You know, getting more religious has seemed like it’s made you more full of yourself, like you have the answer to everything.

Mostly, I was defensive when I heard that. No way, that can’t be true. (It was, though, and some part of me winced because I knew that). 

Honestly, though, the bigger thing I felt in my spiritualized “it’s all about me” was isolation and pressure. It took me to a too small place. It’s all on me to be a competent, capable adult. And it’s all on me to figure out God’s will for my life and do it, and do it well. 

That was a dead end, lonely, pressurized place to be. 

One of my mentors from a far, Randy Woodley, names this as a disease of the modern Western world. Randy is an indigenous elder and wisdom teacher, a scholar and theologian, and a follower of Jesus too. He’ll preach to us via video next week, and his voice is part of our Lenten guide Ivy and I put together as well. 

Randy says:

individualism as a way of life, as a worldview, is dead. It hasn’t worked for us. Thinking we’re on our own in the world, and being out for me and mine has brought so much harm to the earth. And even if we spiritualize that into doing what we personally think is God’s world without really humbly learning what will serve the flourishing of the greater whole, well that’s got to go too. It’s a diseased way of being.

Instead, Randy says he and his wife Edith, they are seeking to decolonize and indigenize the Western world. 

Decolonize the Western world – help us let go of our highly individualistic economic and religious ways of being? And indigenize the Western world – learn from the wisdom of the first peoples of the lands where we dwell. And learn from our own, more humble, more earth-connected, more communal indigenous roots, wherever we each come from.

With Randy, and with the scriptures, and with the wisdom of our indigenous ancestors in mind, I ask:

Is there another way to grow up? Besides

“It’s all about you.”

Is there another way to understand who we are in the world? Besides

“I think therefore I am.”

Is there another way to live our faith? Besides

“My call, my pressure, my way.”

Well, there is. And part of that way, I believe, is Isaiah’s response to the glory of God’s presence, filling the temple of creation.

It’s “hineni

Hineni” is Isaiah’s response to God. It means

“Here I am.”

I’m with you, I’m available. “Hineni” is said by other people in the scriptures too. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, it’s what you say to God.

Liturgically, at the most important holidays, it’s the start of a prayer: where one says to God.

Here I am – a vulnerable, flawed person – but here I am before you God, praying for this earth – not alone, but with creation – and praying for your help – not alone, but with you God as well. 

Here I am, part of the whole. 

Or as I’ve heard it put it by the philosopher Aaron Simmons:

I am because you are. 

I don’t exist because of myself. It’s not all about me. 

I am because my parents gave me birth and life. Mom and Dad, I am because you are. 

I am because my ancestors stayed alive and passed on that gift to me. The Elliott peoples of Scotland and Nova Scotia, the Bellottes of France and Germany and South Carolina, the Johnsons of Sweden, I am because you are.

I speak today not because I somehow figured out language but because of everyone I heard speak, who talked to me and in front of me, who read me books and sang me songs. My relatives and babysitters, and Sesame Street and the whole world of PBS Kids, I am because you are.

This is true for all of us, and it is the wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the earth. The South African Zulu word related to this is: ubuntu. I am because I’m part of a whole. I am because we are. I am because you are.

The First peoples of this land were right clear on this too. I am not over the earth, above the earth, I am part of the earth, a member of the human and non-human community of nature, gifted with life because of our Creator.

Divine mother and father, and all of this glorious creation, I am because you are. 

Friends, this ubuntu, hineni connected way of being is what our teenage selves, and our teenage children and friends and fellow citizens need more of right now. 

That road trip with my son, the best part of it was not showing him the colleges where he can enroll as a student and develop his mind, his skills, his vocational and financial path in life.

No, the best part of the trip was opening up space to think about the future in a connected, relational way of being.

We spent hours driving and walking and talking together, by each other’s side like 10, 15, 20 hours a day. Life when my kid was a newborn baby, rarely alone, always accompanied. We can’t physically keep living this way all the time as we grow up, but in an experience like this, we taste it again for a minute and that grounds us. 

And in this trip our best times, the highest impact items were with other people. Our favorite school: the one where the tour guide made a connection with us, spoke a word of promise and hope over my kid’s life. Some of the most meaningful moments: meeting up with family friends and with old friends from my kids’ school, where we talked together about their lives and ours, and how none of us finds our way forward by ourselves.

I am because we are.

I am because you are.

Think about it with me. 

I am because you are. 

Who gave you life? Who brought you into this world? Who taught you or encouraged you or took care of you when you were a kid? What ancestors kept the spark of your DNA alive? 

We are because they are.

This is what the humility that people of this earth are called to is all about, not self-debasement, but belonging, owning our small but important part in the broader whole.

In our daily lives, the homes we live in, the infrastructure we use, the earth that grows the food we eat, the wells and the reservoirs that supply our water, as Barack Obama and our Cambridge neighbor Elizabeth Warren have reminded us:

We didn’t build this. 

This church building that we worship in and those of us online get our broadcast from: we didn’t build this. One of our members, Mark DeJon, who lives in the neighborhood, his wife’s great-grandfather was one of the immigrant brick laborers who built this place a hundred years ago. He built this, not us.

We inherit our gifts, we steward them, we co-create new things in our lives. But we don’t start any of it. We are because they were. I am because you are. 

Humility and gratitude, the humility and gratitude to which God’s people are called, in all things. 

When we remember we are not alone in this world, and the pressure is not all on us, we can look around and say: thank you.

I can eat my dinner and say thank you, God, for the land from which this food came, thank you for animals and vegetables that gave their life for me, thank you for the hundreds in the long chain of people that got this food to my plate, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I can walk in Hudson River valley as I did last week, walk the Catskills where my parents honeymooned fifty-five years ago, walk along the cliffs of the Palisades where my grandfather hiked as a young man 95 years ago, walk the little patch of woods I take my dog to in Boston that were stewarded by this land’s first peoples five hundred, one thousand years ago, and say thank you. 

Ancestors of my life, ancestors of this land, I am because you are.

And creator God, from which all life and all gifts flow, I am because you are.

And even in our life missions, in the places to which we are sent, in the work we come to do, hineni changes the vibe for us. It’s not all about me. It’s not about my success or failure. It’s not about pressure.

All of you all, and our teens and young adults in particular, the living God does not care whether you succeed or fail at what you’re doing. 

Don’t get me wrong, God cares about your feelings. God wants you to not feel like a failure. But God’s not worried about your success or your failure.

Whether you’re a middle or high school or college or graduate student, whether you’re in a new job, or you’re a new parent, or in a new marriage, or learning a new skill, God is not worried about how well you do.

Isaiah perceives the glory of God all around him, filling this earth like a temple, and he’s like:

oh, no I’m not good enough.

Me, my whole people, we are a disgrace. And God’s like, let me change that. That whole hot, glowing coal to the mouth moment of purification – God didn’t need that, Isaiah did. 

So it is with the sacrifice of the cross, and the wine of communion that speaks of the blood of Christ, shed for us. 

God didn’t need that. We did. We need to taste and see that God gives all of Godself to us all, and that we are accepted, forgiven, loved as God’s children. 

God’s not worried about our success or failure. God wants us to show up humble, grateful, open, curious to our lives. To not be gripped anymore in fear, but to be able to stand up and say “Here I am” and to show up with our whole messy selves, saying I’m here. I am because you are. And I’m ready. 

We are not alone.

It is not all about us. 

We didn’t make this. We didn’t build this. And it does not all ride on us. 

We are, our God, because you are. 

Our very existence is a response to a higher call. 

We will show up to our lives, to this earth, to your call, with all we are – and succeed, fail, win, lose, it doesn’t matter. 

We are because you are. 

 

Amen.

From Dust to Dust

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 

16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again!

17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed.

18 I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals

19 because human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals because everything is pointless.

20 All go to the same place:

    all are from the dust;

    all return to the dust.

21 Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth?

22 So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future?

Let me pray for us. Great Divine Love, you have called us here to this moment. Something woke us up this morning and drew us near to this place we marked as set apart and sacred, not because the place is special but because we decided together that we will seek you together. And so we seek you now in word and thought, no matter what we may carry with us in our hearts coming in here, whether in despair or in hope, we seek your love, your truth. Humble us, that we may get out of the way of ourselves, and see you, who tell us that we are beloveds. Help us to hear that deeply in our souls as we seek your word. Amen.

I remember when I became a freshman in college, I felt that I had finally stepped into the real world. Here is the world, not in the small confines of my parent’s house. Not the pathetic life of high school drama, not in the small towns which I grew up most of my life, from a small town in Georgia two hours south of Atlanta where I went to elementary school, from a small town in Wichita, Kansas, literally in the middle of nowhere where I went to middle school, or even Fresno, CA which is endearingly(?) called the armpit of California where I finished high school. I was finally in the big real world, UCLA. There was a mix of pride, of having made it there, but also great insecurity, I don’t know what I’m doing here. 

I remember becoming aware of the public opinion or persona of Christianity, which growing up as a pastor’s kid, it’s the water we swam in. But here at a “secular” university, it was something different.

There was one day, on Bruinwalk, which is the main walkway everyone took from the dorms to get to classes, often littered with flyers for student organizations, clubs, and fraternity/sorority parties, there was a man set up on Bruinwalk with a microphone and a speaker next to him. You could hear this amplified preaching/chastising,

“If you don’t repent, and admit that you are a sinner, you will face the judgment of God in hell.”

I remember hearing the words, thinking,

“I know what he’s talking about, but gosh why is he yelling it on a speakerphone like this.”

And I felt embarrassed for him, for Christianity. I didn’t want others to know that I was Christian as to not be associated with him. 

The worst part about it though was, he had this other mic set up actually, a few feet down from him, him on top of the hill, where students gathered around, that could apparently respond on the microphone. And he’d take questions or comments, or so it seemed. I saw students, eager, smart-looking, well spoken, much like students I sat with in my political theory classes, who I respected with awe at their comments in class, respond to him with great logic. And when they did, at some point, he had a button to shut off the mic of his opponents.

He was controlling the mic, turning it on or off, which then obviously frustrated his “listeners,” It seemed so sick to me. I wondered, how is this helpful in evangelizing the love of God to people? I think that’s when I started to get a bit jaded, not about God, but about Christianity and Christians. 

That’s what I appreciate about a text like today’s, Ecclesiastes, a book that many have debated over whether it should even be in the Bible or not. Those books are my favorite! It’s a book of impassioned contradictions. I love a good pessimist or a jaded realist.

I am not one. I am a hopeful optimistic romantic of them all. But an actual realist to go up against, really ruffles my feathers. And that’s what the Ecclesiastes has to offer I think to the hopeful romantics of Easter-loving Christians in this season of Lent. Because before we get to Easter, we’ve got SIX WEEKS of Lent, where this week is about dust. 

all are from the dust;

all return to the dust.

Ecclesiastes is like a good satire or dystopian story, like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parasite, Squid Game, or the Walking Dead. It makes you think and question, well, what is the most important thing about life? And the thing is, when you really start to ask that question about life, it quickly does force you to reckon with the opposite of life–death.

In the Pulitzer prize winning book titled “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, it says that

“the prospect of death… wonderfully concentrates the mind…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for (hu)man.” 

Death is a reality check. I know this conceptually, and I also know that some of you have personally experienced the “wonderful” concentrating of mind at the prospect of death of loved ones or scary health diagnosis. When one of my close friend’s dad passed away about a year ago, when it’s not just a hypothetical situation in a screen or a book, it was sobering to see that it really does both blur everything that’s unnecessary and focuses on the realest things about life. I remember her sharing with us in an update email, as she was approaching her dad’s last days, she said,

It is uncomfortable to talk about death, especially when we’re young, showing off great memories on social media, and just living it up.  And we should live it up!” Ecclesiastes 5 says that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them.” But Ecclesiastes 7 also says: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” This is a wake up call for me.  I don’t know exactly how my life will change from this moment on, but at 42, I’m about halfway through life and it is a good lesson in wisdom to know my days are numbered, that life really is short, and that everyone I love will either go to my funeral or I will go to theirs.  If I don’t learn and change, then my dad’s painful death is in vain.”

As much as I felt embarrassed by the Christian guy on the mic on Bruinwalk, I do think the message of Christianity does have this wake up call kind of warning to many of us who drift through our days and weeks, with great aspirations and guilty pleasures, even with meaning and purpose, but there is this reality check like Ecclesiastes chapter 1 offers,

“meaningless meaningless. All is meaningless.” 

I personally wouldn’t lead with that message, optimistic personality and all, and for the record, biblically, that’s not where it starts. Yes I am going to take a hopeful romantic break before I get back to death, dust, and meaninglessness. The Bible begins with the Creation which is called good, before “the Fall.” Before Original Sin, there was Original Good. Human beings, made in the image of God, to which God called good. How come we don’t talk about that as much when we’re evangelizing?

Okay, back to realism. There is something very compelling and sobering about the reality check of the Christian message. That there is sin. There is “evil,” however we define it. There are limits to humans. That there is suffering and death. I actually think the reason why the Christian message in one sense, is provocative yet widely received in many situations is because it speaks to the stark and dark reality of our world. Yelling into a mic, “You are a sinner” is powerful because we are so entangled in so much, daunting, powerless-evoking, sin and darkness in our world. Coming to terms with that is so freeing! You’re not invincible. You don’t have to be a hero or make something of yourself. 

The “heroism” concept is human nature though. Becker says, in The Denial of Death,

“One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.”

As Erich Fromm has so well reminded us, this idea is one of Freud’s great and lasting contributions. Freud discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it:

luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow…

This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physicochemical, inner  organic recesses he feels immortal (and by he, he means, human beings, all humans, outdated, you get the point). He goes on to talk about the nature of children, their unashamed demands for their wants and needs, which I will tell you that my two year old exerts all his tiny might and power to get my attention, relentlessly and impossible to ignore. 

This week I attended our Ash Wednesday service that our Worship and Arts Director Matt Henderson and some members of our community beautifully and thoughtfully curated. At some point, Jenae, who’s a therapist and a yoga instructor, invited us to grab a handful of dirt in our hands and led us through some prompts.

The dirt? It was dirty. As I was holding it in my hand I was reflecting on how much anxiety it brings me when my little girl wants to play with kinetic sand. I hate Kinetic sand. There’s nothing kinetic about it. It gets everywhere. And I don’t know what life trauma or trigger it touches upon but it makes me completely on edge to let her play with sand.

So when Jenae asked us to feel the dirt in our fingers, all I could think was how gross and dirty it was. And then at some point I realized, oh right, the invitation to Ash Wednesday and Lent is that,

“From dust we all come and to dust we return.”

Dang it, that’s going to be me someday, after I die and decompose. It was humbling. And yet, it was also freeing. Like all the ways I worried about things, really, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing mattered. Nothing mattered that much. Or as my husband puts it,

“nobody cares about you as much as you care about you.”

(He’s that realist I like in my life) Which gets at that both heroism of my own self worth and the macro-perspective of the reality that I am just dust. 

There’s an equalizer here for all. The text does this with humans and animals,

human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals”

it says. Which again, is humbling from our human centeredness and human ego. Death is the leveler for all. Our Lent Devotional guide juxtaposes Scripture with the voice of an indigenous leader, Randy Woodley a Cherokee descendant, and he puts it like this:

“In the western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings with, of course, the human being on top – the pinnacle of evolution, the darling creation – and the plant at the bottom. But in native way of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brother of creation.”” 

I love that our church seeks wisdom from both the scriptures and Christian leaders, which in seminary we called them special revelation, as well as from general revelation, which is in our lived experiences, wisdom of non-codified indigenous voices, which as a woman of color, it is not only in the scholarism of feminist thought that is truth and life for me, but in the daily lived experiences of “uneducated” immigrant, working class, wisdom of a mom, like my own mother that sometimes strikes the greatest chord in me, rather than the smarts of things I heard in the halls of a university. 

The Christian wisdom of this liturgical invitation, of six weeks of this, Lent, where we think about our mortality, humility, death, and suffering, before we get to Easter, I think is brilliant–and hard. Lent is hard for me. I much rather do Advent and Christmas, expecting and celebrating. Not this dreadful thing. 

But if death and suffering is a leveler, I also have experienced it as deepening and expansion of our life as a container. Our text today says,

I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals.”

And to this, in our Lent Guide, Steve writes in the Point of Interest section,

“I have no idea what the author of this text means by God testing us through our mortality… One of those ideas is that maybe God is testing us, or helping us grow, through these challenges. Maybe. But not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

Is God testing us with suffering?

Well, Ecclesiastes, though it is a part of the Holy Bible, says,

“I also thought…”

which is to say, it’s merely an opinion. So it sounds like the writer thinks they are a test from God. Steve says,

“maybe, but not necessarily, and definitely not always.”

I agree with that. Not always, a test. But if you’ve experienced any kind of suffering in your life, it sure is, maybe not a test, but it pushes you. 

How low can you go? How deep is the depths of despair? And when you have seen rock bottom, as they say, you can only go up, and the way up is long. Which means, since you’re so so low, since your suffering is so great, your rise from it can only be so so high. Jesus said this once before a sinful woman that I felt deeply in my soul.

“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

When I heard this, I thought,

“oh you have no idea how much I love you Jesus.” 

You know this in the simplest examples of when you’re sick, and you’re congested and coughing from your chest, it’s hard to eat, it’s hard to sleep, but when you get better, your nose is amazing in its capability to take in breath that is life! You can smell and taste food that is amazing. Your cold has been given away and your love for life has been renewed. You thank the Lord for each breath you take without coughing! 

And many of you know this in more complex ways. If you’ve been through bankruptcy, to have a credit line. If you’ve been through a breakup, to find love again. If you’ve experienced homelessness, to just have a bed and a table to sit and eat at. If your child’s been sick or struggling through an especially difficult time, to see them come through on the other side, gratitude upon gratitude upon gratitude is something that no sermon can teach you. 

So let us not deny death, or our mortality, or even suffering, because for one thing, it’s a sure and absolute final destiny for us all, but also because at the face of the realities of it all, our heart expands, somehow, I don’t know how, with great hope, greater joy, and greater sense of gratitude at life. 

May this Lenten season take you through this annoying knowledgment to Easter when we can genuinely celebrate, not at the denial of death with resurrection, but with clear and well awareness of death and life, both. Let me pray for us. 

Our Suffering Christ, God who went through death just like us, take us through our days. In the most mundane of days, even as it feels like just groundhog day, day in day out… would you walk with us, showing us the beautiful and brokenness of this world. Help us through the darkest of our times, and lift our chins up to see the vistas from the mountaintop. Reveal to us there through it all, you are there, with us, even in the nothingness and meaningless of it all, you hold us. Would you help us to there find somehow uninhibited joy, pure joy, we ask you, would you grant us that we pray. Amen.