Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: "Imitating Jesus"

A Meditation on Philippians 2:1-13
The Fifth Sunday in Lent 2018


This morning I want to trace two arcs across the six weeks of our Lenten journey.  In the first, Yael has asked us to consider what it is that makes us come alive.  I hope you’ve had a chance to do this, and that you’ll continue doing it.  What makes you come alive?  You know, Jesus goes out to the desert, for forty long days, to work this out for himself.  What makes him come alive.  He meets the Hinderer there, the Satan, who tests and tempts him, tempts him to choose an easier way, a quicker fix, even a power trip.  But Jesus looks to God and chooses life and love and deep joy.  His own unique vision and his own precious ministry.

So Yael asked you and me, you remember; she asked you and me to do the same.  To spend this Lenten season discerning joy in our lives, and creativity in our hearts.  And there’s a bright and glorious poster in the narthex this morning, a poster bearing witness to all the ways you’ve responded.  All the pursuits, all the ministry, all the practices that make you come alive.  As human, connected, spiritual beings.  Later this week, by the way, a stunning art show will take over this very space, this same sanctuary: and next week, next Sunday, you’ll catch a glimpse of the wildly diverse energies that stir in our many hearts.  We come alive in a thousand different ways!  So that’s the first arc we trace, this arc of discernment and temptation and joyful practice.

The second begins on Ash Wednesday, in the humility of prayer and the ashes we trace on one another’s foreheads.  “Child of God,” we say on Ash Wednesday, “you come from the good earth, and to the good earth you shall one day return.”  And this second arc extends across the Lenten season, day by day, week to week, all the way to Maundy Thursday.  Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday.  As disciples of Jesus, we turn to his own example, to his humanity, to what Walter Brueggeman calls the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.”  He too was a child of God, a frail and hopeful, broken and joyful child of God.  He too came from the good earth and returned, in the end, to that same good Palestinian earth. 

On Maundy Thursday, then, eleven days from today, we trace this second arc all the way to an Upper Room in Jerusalem: where Jesus ties a towel around his waist and kneels by a basin of water; where he washes the feet of his friends—much to their surprise and even frustration.  “If I’ve washed your feet,” he says that night, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”  We make meaning in our lives, we find purpose in our faith, by kneeling in kindness before our friends, by humbling ourselves as servants and lovers and prophets. 

Again, it’s Walter Brueggeman who says that “Lent is a time to face the reality that there is no easy or ‘convenient’ passage from our previous life to a new, joyous life in the gospel.”  No easy or convenient passage.  So from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday, we look deliberately, intently, prayerfully at the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.”  Preparing ourselves for the moment we too might fall to our knees and wash one another’s tired, dusty, human feet.  The second arc.              


Obelisks, Meteora, Greece
As I think about these two arcs—the one about joy and creativity, the other, humility and human connection—I’m reminded of the moment four years ago when I fell in love with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  I was sitting on a huge boulder outside a quirky Orthodox monastery in the steep hills of Central Greece.  Not far from Corinth and Athens and Philippi, cities Paul himself had visited and served.  I had my writing pad with me that day, and a new book about Paul and his legacy to read.  It was a sweet, shimmering, sunny day in the hills, and ancient obelisks rose up from the Greek plain, in every direction, forming a kind of holy cathedral of rock and cliff and light and shadow.  From deep within the monastery itself, I heard monks chanting an old Greek liturgy.  “Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.”  That’s the day I fell in love with Paul and his Letter to the Philippians. 

It’s important to note that Paul wrote this letter, and the passage we’ve read this morning, from a Roman prison cell, somewhere in the Mediterranean basin.  Maybe Ephesus.  He wrote it to friends in Philippi to encourage them in a difficult time, a conflicted time, to urge them to build a community of mutual care and common purpose and collaborative spirit.  He’d spent time in Philippi sometime previously, preaching Jesus’ gospel, creating a new church, growing leaders.  And now, from prison, he recalled an old hymn, maybe one they’d learned together, to offer Jesus’ example to his friends.  It may be the oldest hymn in Christian memory.  It’s set apart in verse form in your bulletin:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote.

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
         But he emptied himself
                  by taking the form of a servant
                  and by becoming like human beings.
         When he found himself in the form of a human,
                  he humbled himself by becoming obedient
                  to the point of death, even death on a cross.

         Therefore, God highly honored him
                  and gave him a name above all names,
                  so that at the name of Jesus everyone
                  in heaven, on earth, and under the earth
                  might bend at the knee
                  and every tongue confess that
                  Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God.

Remember this.  Paul, writing this, remembering this, singing this hymn perhaps, was in a Roman prison cell.  He wrote to the Philippians from that cell.  I can’t imagine Roman prison cells were anything but miserable, dark and scary.  There was no doubt, on the inside, who was in control, and who wasn’t.  So Paul had firsthand experience, grim, personal experience of Roman power and pride.  And he knew that any resistance to Roman authority, any critique of Roman theology was met with quick and crippling force.  Paul did both: he resisted authority and he critiqued the empire’s oppressive theology.  And for this, he paid a price.  Rome said that empire was the ultimate force in the world and Caesar the bearer of the only meaningful salvation.  Paul said, Foolishness!  There’s a better way.  There’s a holy way.  There’s a life-affirming, justice-honoring, community-building way.  And it’s the way of Jesus the Christ.   Paul’s preaching is clear.  The kingdom of God stands against the kingdom of Caesar. 

So on that brilliant day in Greece four years ago, I considered the old hymn and Paul’s celebration of the hymn in a whole new way.  I confess that I’d often bristled at the notion of all knees bending before Jesus, or the idea that every tongue had to confess his name.  As if the whole point of Christianity was uniformity of thought or conformity of practice or the triumph of one way of life, one idea of divinity, over all others.  I’d heard Philippians used in just this way by evangelical preachers on TV and even the great Billy Graham himself in a college auditorium.  “Let every knee bend before Jesus,” he’d crooned that night, “because bending knees are saved knees.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sermon: "Uprising!"

A Meditation on John 3:11-18
Sunday, March 11, 2018
The Fourth Sunday in Lent


What you’re looking at—the byzantine fresco in your bulletin—is titled “ANASTASIS.”  You can make out the Greek letters at the very top of the picture, above Jesus and the circle of light around him.  “ANASTASIS.”  It’s Greek for “resurrection.”  And in this 14th century fresco, the Resurrected Jesus reaches out, boldly, purposefully, for Adam on his right and Eve on his left.  And the energy of all this, it’s even better in color, in person, the energy of the great eastern fresco suggests that he’s coming for us too, that he’s reaching out for us too.  “ANASTASIS.”  
"Anastasis" (Chora Church)
Down below, beneath the two graves, we see a chaotic assortment of chains and locks, bolts and weapons.  See where I’m looking?  Jesus is stomping all this stuff.  In the 14th century, this stuff was the detritus of misery and oppression.  Chains and locks and weapons.  If artists were reproducing this tableau in 2018, they’d most certainly include AK15s and AK47s, and ballistic missiles and syringes bubbling with opiates.   The idea seems to be that Jesus rises from his own grave to free Adam and Eve (and our whole human family) from fear and cruelty, from slavery and exploitation, from all the systems, all the habits that entangle human spirit and warp human community.  This resurrection—in the old fresco, at least—is an uprising.  “ANASTASIS.”  And indeed, “uprising” is another meaning for the Greek word.  “ANASTASIS.”  This is a particularly eastern—as opposed to western, Roman, Protestant—vision of resurrection.  Jesus rises from the grave to lift us from all that shackles us, from systems and ideas that bind us to anxiety and suspicion.  This eastern Jesus is in no hurry to rise out of the world and settle into his heavenly throne.   This eastern Jesus is movement and energy.  This eastern Jesus is connected and relational.  Easter is his uprising.  And ours.  Adam and Eve are essential to the project.

Now I hadn’t seen an “ANASTASIS” like this, in all my life, until I stood with a museum guide in Istanbul four years ago, and listened, in rapt attention, as she pointed to this very fresco in the Kariye Museum.  And I imagine you’ve not seen one like this either, unless you’re an art history buff, or you’re spent time in Greece or Turkey or the Middle East.  You and I are more likely to be acquainted with the other “resurrection” icon of the middle ages: the icon that prevailed in the west, and across Roman Catholicism and into the Protestant traditions.  I didn’t print that picture; but it’s probably familiar to you.  Jesus is freed from death, freed from his grave; and he rises (in this western version) or really floats above that garden tomb, and above the stunned soldiers and angels and disciples below.   He’s on his way to heaven.  He’s on his way to that special seat (a cushy one) beside God, to live and rule in paradise, for ever and ever amen.

And in a sense, that’s the image that’s shaped western imagination for centuries, the image of a singular Christ, freed from death, rising to heaven for his reunion with God.  Transcending the gritty details of life below.  Rising above the earthly realm, the soldiers in the garden, the puzzled disciples, even the baffled angels of Easter morning.  And if that was Jesus’ resurrection, maybe we could come to expect something like it.  Life after death, a better world than this one, transcending the gritty details of life below.  But you set that western icon alongside this eastern one, and you begin to see a more complicated theology of resurrection, a more complicated experience of resurrection in early Christian communities.

There were clearly some—and especially in the east—there were some who experienced resurrection relationally, intimately, corporately.  The Risen Jesus wasn’t a singular judge on a heavenly throne.  The Risen Jesus wasn’t a distant God, triumphant and transcendent.  In this eastern vision, the Risen Jesus was a friend reaching out to the church; he was a companion in service and worship and fellowship; he was an advocate stomping instruments of oppression; he was physically present lifting folks like you and me from gloom and despair.  Lifting us into communion.  Lifting us into community.  Lifting us into God’s presence.


Now here’s where the Gospel of John—which we’re reading this morning—gets really interesting.  In the Gospel of John, resurrection isn’t just a biographical detail at the end of Jesus’ life.  This Gospel doesn’t carve up Jesus’ life in that way: life here, death here, resurrection and we’re done.  In John’s community, resurrection is something like the nature of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and the character of his being, and the dynamic at play in his relationships with all kinds of folks.  And when the Gospel says “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen,” the Gospel means we touch this Jesus in our daily lives; we receive encouragement from his hand in worship and prayer; we are lifted by Jesus from hopelessness and despair.  He’s with us now.  “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.”  Resurrection is Christian practice.  Resurrection is life in the here and now.  Life with Jesus.

And this is the vision, I think, of the eastern icon in Istanbul, “ANASTASIS.”  “God does not send the Son into the cosmos to condemn it, but in order that the cosmos might be healed, might be redeemed, might by blessed by him.”  Jesus rises from the grave not to get out of town, not to rise above all the rest of us, and certainly not to leave us all behind.  Jesus rises from the grave to reach for us, to connect with us, to join us in the sinew and muscle of our lives, in the joys and challenges of the church.  This is the incarnational vision of John’s Gospel.  God in us.  Jesus in us.

I was reminded of this incarnation vision, this incarnational experience, all over again on Friday, as I met with our extraordinary Caregivers’ Circle in the library downstairs.  This is a circle of brave and loving souls, who devote their lives to others, and come together for support and encouragement every month.  We talk about the daily challenges of loving and living in the midst of frailty and illness.  We talk about the walls you hit from time to time, the hopelessness that shows up sometimes, unannounced.  These are honest souls, and their tears flow freely, and their laughter is honest and well-earned. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Benefit for Hurricane Relief!

For more information, go to:

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In the Beginning

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Insult

Undoubtedly, "The Insult" is a story of conflict in a very particular setting, Lebanon, between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees.  Watching it, though, it's hard not to think of the angst and anger dividing so many other societies in 2018--including our own, here in the United States.  Is it possible to speak aloud of our distrust?  Is it possible to create space for grievance and reconciliation?  Is it possible, most importantly, to find some measure of compassion--even for the one whose meanness seems unimaginable and unjustified?  "The Insult" explores--with some depth, I think, and even sophistication--the roots of our hostilities and the stories and hurt we so often suppress.  We're asked to pay attention: to our own wounds, and to the strange and complex wounds of others.

This film speaks to what's happening in Lebanon, to be sure, but also to what's happening in Jerusalem, in Guatemala, and maybe even in Indiana and Texas and Kansas.  No easy answers here, but instead a path into a different future.  A better one.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sing! 8 Days a Week!

SERMON: "Who'll Be a Witness?"

"Who'll Be a Witness?”
A Meditation on Mark 8:31-38
Sunday, February 25, 2018


“Who will be a witness for my Lord?”  There’s a question for you.  Who among us this morning will be a witness for my Lord?  This seems to be the nub of the question Jesus is asking in the text, what many say is the very heart of Mark’s gospel.  What does it mean to bear witness to your faith?  And more specifically, what does it mean to bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ?  Jesus says—quite clearly—that it has something to do with suffering; it has something to do with acknowledging suffering and bearing suffering and maybe even learning to suffer together.  “Who will be a witness for my Lord?”  Jesus says that it has something to do with taking up a cross; it has something to do with denying ourselves and taking up his cross.  And that’s a puzzle.  That’s a strange, paradoxical puzzle.  “All who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.”  Discipleship, you see, is not for the faint of heart.  Discipleship is not a quick theological fix.  Discipleship is a paradox, a puzzle, a pilgrimage.  “Who will be a witness for my Lord?”    

In a lot of ways, it’s been a weekend of witness here at Peace United Church.  Yesterday, Yael and I presided over one of the longest and most intense memorials I’ve ever seen.  It was a memorial for Derek Appleton, a friend of the church these past several years, Linda’s oldest son, a dear soul who suffered mightily the last few years of his life.  Many of you were here.  And I’m so grateful you were.  Linda’s so grateful you were.  Together we bore witness to Derek’s life—his beautiful, generous, complicated, broken life.  His friends told stories—long and complicated stories—about his spirit and his kindness and his struggle.  A few laughed at Derek’s habit of showing up unannounced at holidays, family reunions, even births.  Several struggled out loud with feelings of regret: that they might have said more, that they might have loved him better.  Derek’s life was difficult, his death was sudden.  And together we bore witness to all of that: to his mother’s excruciating pain and Derek’s sweet spirit and our own unimaginable sadness.

Discipleship, you see, is a paradox, a puzzle, a pilgrimage into the very heart of human suffering.  “Take up your cross,” Jesus says, “and follow me.”

Ret. Col. Ann Wright
And others of us were here on Friday night for an evening with Retired Colonel Ann Wright.  Ann’s a decorated Army Colonel, an honored public servant and retired U.S. diplomat.  And these days, she’s a bold peacemaker, a practitioner of nonviolence.  And Ann and dozens of others are organizing yet another flotilla of boats this summer, sailing across the Mediterranean—in and out of European ports—for Gaza in Palestine.  At the heart of her life, at the heart of Ann Wright’s faith, is a restlessness born of her compassion for children who suffer in warzones, in occupied territories.  And she’s particularly distressed by her own country’s role—by our country’s role—in perpetuating that violence and misery.  So she’s sailing to Gaza this summer—with women and men from all over the world—to remind the people of Palestine that their suffering is seen in the world, that their pain is felt in other lands, that we are committed to their freedom and their wholeness and their children.

Like Saturday’s memorial, Friday night was all about witness.  “Who among us will be a witness for my Lord?”  In our story this morning, Jesus insists it’s not as easy as shouting his name.  Jesus insists it’s not as easy as fixing him with a title: Messiah, Savior, Lord, even Jesus.  Following Jesus has something to do with paying attention, paying attention to the suffering of children in open-air prisons like Gaza and American high schools like Stoneman Douglass in Parkland, Florida.  Following Jesus has something to do with celebrating peacemakers like Ann Wright crossing the Mediterranean and our own Tecaté Team journeying to Mexico this summer.  Following Jesus has something to do, maybe everything to do, with compassion, our willingness to acknowledge the suffering of others, and meet that suffering with love.

So yes, it’s been a weekend of witness here at the church.  We haven’t solved any riddles.  We haven’t figured Jesus out this weekend.  But we’ve taken steps with him.  We’ve traveled the road with him.  And we have born witness to God’s suffering, to human pain, to our own compassion.  And this, he says in the story today, is the only way; it’s really the only way to know Jesus and what he’s all about.  We can shout is name ‘til we’re blue in the face.  We can argue the finer points of theology ‘til we’ve got all kinds of fancy degrees.  But until we bear witness, until we ache with God, until we meet human pain with love, we’ll never really know who Jesus is.  Or what he’s about.


You know, the first believers didn’t really think of themselves as Christians.  Not in those first years, those first decades of the Jesus movement.  They called themselves “People of the Way”—which is pretty interesting.  And they also called themselves “Witnesses to the Resurrection.”  Think about that.  “Witnesses to the Resurrection.”  Faith isn’t so much about knowing, as it is about seeing.  It’s not so much about intellectual certainty, intellectual sophistication, as it is about moral vision, human kindness, a willingness to see and acknowledge one another.  “Witnesses to the Resurrection” organize flotillas and sail nonviolently to break immoral blockades.  “Witnesses to the Resurrection” weep for the violence in Florida and then march with teenagers to speak truth to power in Tallahassee and Washington and at the steps of the NRA.  “Witnesses to the Resurrection” spend Sunday afternoons making casseroles for homeless guests in our own shelter.  And “Witnesses to the Resurrection” spend two and a half hours—on a glorious Saturday afternoon—listening to Derek Appleton’s friends, listening to their pain, aching for their unanswered questions, smiling with their sweet memories. 

What it means to follow Jesus is just this: to bear witness, together, to his passion; to bear witness, together, to the pain of his people; to bear witness, together, to the price the planet pays for violence and cruelty and war.  In a lot of ways, Jesus isn’t the answer to the world’s hurt: he’s the question that draws you and me into the world’s hurt.  So that we can see it.  So that we can touch it.  So that then, we can imagine healing it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Women's Boat to Gaza 2016

Friday, February 23, 2018

Here Comes the Sun!

Praise for the sun, the bringer of day,
He carries the light of the Lord in his rays;
The moon and the stars who light up the way
Unto your throne.

The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, 
Come, play in the field,
And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

Marty Haugen, "Canticle of the Sun"

In biblical ethics, praise generates devotion, and devotion shapes choice and lifestyle.  How sweet, today, to see the church linking praise and witness, devotion and lifestyle!  Many thanks to our friends at Allterra Solar for helping us make it happen.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Breaking the Siege on Gaza