The Tenacity of Resurrection

Luke 24:1-12

Not long after I came to Arlington Temple a wonderful woman from my previous church sent me a plant for my office.  It was nice to be thought of, and I was happy to get it, because I like the look that a plant can bring to an office.  However, I also knew that it would die.  My mom had a cactus garden when I was growing up—this is the sum total of what I know about how to take care of plants.

And I wasn’t wrong.  In two years and some change this plant has died many deaths.  If you look closely you can see where its branches are gray and broken off in a lot of places, and where one of the leaves is turning brown at the tip.  Other brittle brown leaves litter my floor around where this plant stands.  Basically, I’ll be good about watering it for a while, and then I’ll go on vacation, or I’ll just get busy and forget, and the plant will start to die, until I notice it and desperately water it again, and somehow, life comes back.

I was sure when I came back into the office after New Year’s and saw how sorry this plant was looking that it was the end for real.  I picked off the dead leaves and there were hardly any left, maybe two branches’ worth.  It stood there, sparse, accusing.  Out of guilt, I became really good at watering it for the next few days, not really expecting anything to come of it.

But then a few days later I saw these tiny, baby leaves appear.  And they began to grow.  And soon this plant, in spite of all my incompetence, was looking a little more alive again.  This plant was determined to live.

This plant stands in my office as a reminder of the tenacity of resurrection.  Resurrection, you see, is a stubborn thing.

 

We are told it was early morning, when it was still dark, that the women came to the tomb with their burial spices.  Jesus had died on a Friday, just as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin, and there hadn’t been time to give him a proper burial then.  But they had not forgotten.  Even if they couldn’t do anything else for him, they could do this.

They knew what they were expecting: a quiet garden, a sealed tomb, a linen-wrapped corpse, the stench of death.  Death was death, after all.

Instead, they found the stone rolled away.  Their hearts must have quickened as they went inside, wondering what was going on.  Had someone taken his body?  Why?  What had they done?  You can imagine their growing panic as they confirmed his body was nowhere to be found.  When they turned they saw two men, or at least they looked like men, except they were glowing.  The women cowered in fear—again, not knowing what was happening, but knowing it wasn’t normal.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” one man asked.

“He’s not here,” said the other; “he’s been raised.”

That is not what they came there expecting.

Death, we think, is the most stubborn thing in the universe.  Death is the one that is universal, the one thing that can’t be made better, the one thing there is literally no coming back from.  Death is the end of all ends.

But that morning, three women discovered that there is, in fact, something more stubborn even than death.

 

Have you ever been in a situation that it seems like there’s no coming back from?  I don’t just mean literal death, which none of us have yet experienced, but maybe a prolonged illness, or grief over the loss of a loved one, or an addiction, or depression, or a period of life when simply nothing seems to be going right and everything is getting worse?  Have you ever been in a situation where there is simply no life to be seen, no matter which way you look, and where it seems like there’s no hope for things to be different?

I believe that’s a story we can all tell at one time or another in our lives.  Some of us can tell it looking back on it.  Some of us might be still living it.  The darkness seems to be closing in around us, and somehow, nothing can stop it.

It’s hard to believe that God is still at work, even in a situation like that.

But that’s what three women thought when they walked to the tomb that dark and quiet morning.  And they found, in fact, that life refused to yield to death, and that God’s love and goodness couldn’t be stopped—even by the one thing with the power to stop everything.

 

There was a man who used to stop by the church a lot to meet with a homeless outreach worker.  This man never smiled.  I’m not sure if it would be correct to say he was always angry, but he always looked and sounded angry.  If the outreach worker wasn’t there he would knock loudly on my door and complain in words that made no sense to your average person about how everyone was giving him the runaround.  This had been going on for years.  I thought we would do this forever.

But this man got housing earlier this year.  We saw him at church on the morning of the day he moved in.  He still didn’t smile, exactly, but you could tell he was happy.  He actually told me, “Thanks for bearing with me.”

And there was new life, where I never thought I would see it.

He is one of a number of our homeless neighbors who have gotten housing with the help of A-SPAN in the past year or so.  There’s another woman who was here a lot, but it often seemed like she wasn’t really here.  It varied by the day, but it was hard to have a conversation with her that you could follow.  But not long ago I saw her for the first time since she moved into her new apartment, and I had a clear, coherent conversation with her for maybe the first time.  It felt like I was talking to a new person.  And I hadn’t been sure that was possible.

So many forces came together to keep these two of our neighbors down—forces of poverty, and mental illness, and the wear of life on the streets—and those forces were powerful, and persistent.  But in the end there was something that was even more powerful, and even more persistent.

Of course it’s not always simple as just showing up and finding an empty tomb.  For Jesus, and the women at the tomb, resurrection happened nice and neatly: he was dead, and then he was alive.  At least that’s the story as it was passed on to us.  Hope was lost, and then it was found again.  In John’s Gospel Jesus’s clothes are even nicely folded in the tomb.

We never do find out what happened Saturday—probably because no one knows.  What did it look like for death to give way to life?

One day, after we die, we may wake up to find that everything has been made new.  But in the meantime, resurrection isn’t always that neat and dramatic.  Sometimes it’s more like one new bud on a dead plant.  It’s one day sober.  It’s the first time you laughed after the divorce or the death.  It’s the first step you take when you can finally make it out of bed.  It’s one reason to hope when for so long there has been no reason to hope.

It seems our lives go through cycles, sometimes, of death and resurrection and death and resurrection.

But because Jesus lives, because he died and got up, we have reason to believe that death will always give way to life again, even when it’s not as dramatic as an empty tomb on an early morning.  Jesus lives, and God’s power of resurrection is still at work in this world around us, not only promising us life after death, but present wherever love and life and grace refuse to give way to the forces of evil and sin and darkness and death.  Wherever, despite all appearances to the contrary, life claws its way out of the tomb.

I think one of the most hopeless-seeming situations in our world right now is the ongoing violence in the Middle East and all the refugees it has created.  We’ve all heard the horror stories—true horror stories—of children drowning as they swim to shore and families being turned away at borders and living in miserable camps as they wait for anyone to say yes to them.  It seems like there is nothing to be done and it seems like evil and hate and destruction, in that part of the world, have simply won.

But I read about the welcome refugees are receiving in Greece, of all places, which has had so many of its own problems to deal with recently. Greece has seen an influx of around 50,000 refugees so far and is expected to see up to 100,000 more.  I read of one couple handing out chocolate-filled croissants in a refugee camp on the Macedonian border.   I read of a chef who works at a luxury hotel on the coast drives to the border four times a week to feed people.  Of a man who doesn’t drive, who takes long bus rides to the camp to deliver necessities.  Shopkeepers whose profits have been destroyed by austerity measures are donating supplies.  People who don’t have much are opening their homes.  I even saw, attached to this article, a picture of people from the island of Lesbos helping pull a boat full of refugees into the shore.[1]

Their actions may not change things on a global scale, but you can be sure God is still in the business of resurrection in this world wherever love stubbornly refuses to give way to hate and fear, wherever grace and generosity stubbornly refuse to give way to sin and greed, wherever life and light breaks through in the midst of death and darkness.

Everything may seem lost, everything around us may seem hopeless, but if we pay attention, we might just see the dawn breaking, and the first sounds of a stone being rolled away.

 

That Sunday morning, three women made their way to a tomb, burial spices in hand.

They knew what they were expecting: a quiet garden, a sealed tomb, a linen-wrapped corpse, the stench of death.  Death was death, after all.  There was no escaping or reversing it.  Death is the most stubborn thing in the world.

Or is it?

Where God is at work, it turns out, there is something more stubborn even then death.

Where God is at work, life always breaks through.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/12/refugee-crisis-greeks-strangers-migrants

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Good Friday: “I don’t bear any guilt for this”

Scripture: Isaiah 53:1-12; Psalm 22; Mark 15:25-37

I don’t know how you feel about good old-fashioned guilt on Good Friday but when I was in seminary seeking out a Good Friday service I knew I wanted to find one where they really laid it on thick.  I wanted solemnity, and I wanted to confess my own failure and cowardice.  I wanted to be accused of driving those nails into Jesus’ hands myself.  That’s what I went to church for.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about Good Friday that pulls me toward that guilt and darkness.  As much as any deep theological truth, I think it’s partially a sense of drama: that’s what helps me fully live into this retelling of the last week of Jesus’ life, and what helps me to experience the contrast between the bittersweetness of Thursday’s last supper and the glory of Easter, and today, the lowest point, death and betrayal and grief.

There is, of course, some deep theological truth in that.  Our lives consist of all of these things.

But on days other than Good Friday I’m not always so big on the guilt.  Every other day of the year, I’m pretty happy to just be an imperfect yet fairly good person who is trying her best.  I want to live in the knowledge of grace and divine forgiveness and know that no matter what, I’m covered.  And I’m loved.  And of course, there is some deep theological truth in all of that, too.

But today is a day for our darker truths.

In 2008 I was studying for the summer at a seminary in India, and I ended up making a connection with this Gandhi scholar who led an interfaith group and ran an ashram in the area.  I spoke at two of his events.  The second of these events was scheduled for my very last day in India.  A week or so beforehand, this man, this scholar, called me at my guest house to give me details.  He reminded me that the talk I would be giving would fall on the anniversary of the US dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki—the second bomb—at the end of World War II.  I say reminded me, but the truth is it had never occurred to me, nor would it have otherwise.

He said, “I think it would be very healing if you would say something about that.”

I thought, Wait a minute. Healing? But I didn’t do anything!  Regardless of how anyone feels about President Truman’s wartime strategy choices, that happened almost 40 years before I was even born.  That was not my fault.  And now you want me to stand there, a lone American, in front of a group of Asian people, and say something healing?

I told him, “Sure.”

But inside I was saying, I do not bear any guilt for this.

But in the next week I did some thinking and I thought about how my story is about more than just me.  How that bombing was part of the heritage and the history that is a part of me.  How the narratives that allowed for it and grew up around it, narratives of exceptionalism and scientific progress and collateral damage, are still part of my American narrative today.  How my country, out of necessity or not, still drops bombs on people whose names I don’t know and whose faces I can’t see.  How I don’t really think much about that.

I started to think that maybe I bore some guilt for this, after all.  Not because I played a part in it, but because I play a part in the brokenness that allowed for it that is still all around me.

When I look at the cross it reminds me of the same thing.  I, of course, did not personally crucify Jesus.  And who’s to know, really, whether I would have betrayed him, like Judas; or denied him, like Peter; or run away, like the other disciples?  Who’s to know whether I would have been in the crowds shouting “Crucify him!”?

None of us can know that, of course.

Yet I’m told that Jesus bore my sins on that cross; not just Judas’s or Peter’s or the disciples’ or the crowds’.

That’s because, in the grand, cosmic scheme of things, it wasn’t any of their actions that crucified Jesus.  It was the sin and the brokenness of the world that God entered into.  Because when pure good and pure love bump up against the fear and greed and bigotry and pride of this world, something has to give.  It would have been the same in any time and place.   Including ours.

All we have to do is watch the news to see the shambles that this world seems to be in all around us.  Bombs are going off in Brussels and Ankara.  Iraqis and Syrians continue to flee their homes only to be turned away at other borders.  Around the world, and even close to home, people live in poverty.  In our own country hatred and fear of the “other” seems to be on the rise.

These are the sins that Jesus bore.  This is what Jesus died for.

And it’s easy to stand at arm’s length from any of those things and say, Not me, not my fault; but we, too, have let fear dictate our actions, and we, too, have justified revenge, and we, too, have turned away those in need, and we, too, have had plenty when other people have gone without.  And we, too, have found it hard to care.

We have denied and betrayed and run away and shouted Crucify.

These are my sins that Jesus bore.  This is what Jesus died for.  I am guilty.  We all are.

But in the cross the brokenness of the world meets, for the last time, the power of sacrificial love.

So in this cross God asks us to see not just guilt, but redemption.  God asks us to see not just the judgment of our own brokenness, but the promise that there is more than that.  That we can’t escape the reality of our own sinfulness, but that it also doesn’t have the last word.

In this cross is the promise that God is doing a new thing, and that all that brokenness—all our brokenness—is about to be transformed.  And we get to play a part in that, too.

Holy Thursday: The Last Commandment

Scripture: John 13:1-15; John 15:8-12

Recently we’ve been talking about commandments, about the things Jesus told his followers to do, the rule of life he gave them.  As I was reading through the Gospels looking for these commandments that Jesus gave, I quickly realized that most of them came from Matthew and Luke, from the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain.  Some of them were echoed in Mark, but hardly any came from the Gospel of John.

John isn’t really the kind of Gospel where Jesus gives us definite and specific rules.  John is the kind of Gospel where Jesus makes spiritual and other-worldly sounding statements, like “I am the true vine,” and “I am the bread of life” and “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”  The Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel is simply not very concrete.

But here, tonight, in a borrowed room in a crowded city; here, tonight, as Jesus and his disciples share a meal for the last time; here, tonight, as he washes their feet, Jesus has one commandment to leave them with.

“Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you.”  This is his last will and testament.

The truth is it’s still not very concrete, and maybe we would like some more specifics on what that all entails, and what exactly is required of us.  But the thing about love is that it isn’t very exact at all; it’s more than just a set of requirements for us to check off.  And in a sense, it’s not something that can be commanded at all.

These disciples are a motley crew of poor fishermen from the backwater of Galilee, insurrectionists who were ready to fight the empire at a moment’s notice, and tax collectors who worked for that same empire.  They’ve certainly been through a lot together in the past few years, but Jesus isn’t crazy to worry that perhaps there won’t be a lot to hold them together once he is gone.  If they were held together by anything, it probably wasn’t going to be their deep, enduring warm feelings for each other.

But I guess love isn’t really about that either.

Here’s where I would normally say that while Jesus is talking to his disciples, commanding them to love one another, rather than the rest of the world, he really expects us to broaden that to include everyone, disciple or not.  I believe that, and I think Jesus demonstrates that expectation throughout his life.  But maybe there’s a reason he puts this commandment in these words.

Often I think I have a harder time loving other followers of Jesus than I do loving people who aren’t.  If someone’s not a Christian it’s easy for me to accept that they probably have a somewhat different worldview from me.  But when other Christians believe different things from me and live out their faith differently from me, it makes me mad because they’re wrong.  Sometimes I even resent the way they make other Christians look to the rest of the world.  Sometimes, these are people I know in person; sometimes they are just people I see on TV or read about online.  Sometimes I want to disown them, to disassociate myself from them, so that people don’t think we are the same.  Sometimes, the hardest thing for followers of Jesus to do is to love one another.

And it’s those people Jesus expects me to kneel on the floor next to in humility and service, because I am not better than them.

Sentimental love, perhaps, can’t be commanded; but service can be commanded, and respect can be commanded, and reminding ourselves that we don’t have a claim on the entire truth of what it means to follow Jesus can be commanded.  Listening to one another can be commanded.

In the book Blue Like Jazz which I’ve been rereading over Lent there’s a story that reminds me of this.  Don Miller, the author, had grown up in church, but it was a church where love had conditions, where you had to fit in to a certain mold in order to feel like you were one of the family.  But he spent a summer as a young adult living in the woods and working at a ranch, and there he met a group of hippies, as he called them.  They were a little out of the box, for him, but what he discovered is that they were really good at loving each other.

What really struck him is that they were interested in him.  Not just polite, or respectful of their differences.  They wanted to know about him.  They wanted to know what he loved and what he hated, how he felt about things, what his dreams were and where he had been and what his story was.  He said, “They loved me like a good novel.”  And he said that real, genuine interest made him lose all self-consciousness about how he was dressed and his mannerisms and how smart or interesting he actually was.  And he said when he began to lose that self-consciousness, he began to gain that same kind of interest in other people, worrying less about himself and wanting to really know others.

And that struck me as a good, good way to love one another: to start by listening to one another, which itself can be an act of service, regardless of how we feel.  To want to know each other, what makes us different and what makes us the same, and where we’ve been, and what our dreams are.  And if we don’t want to, to do it anyway.  That’s a kind of love that can be commanded, until perhaps it doesn’t have to be anymore.

I think Jesus wants his followers to love one another because only when we know we are well-loved can we really start to let go of ourselves enough to love others.  We abide in Jesus’ love by keeping this commandment and being part of a community where love is the rule—like it or not.  And maybe only when we really love each other can we really love the rest of the world.  Maybe together, we can help each other love the right things.

In a Gospel where Jesus doesn’t command much, he commands this.  Love one another.  That’s what he leaves his disciples with.  He knows everything else begins there.

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 10. Take Up Your Cross

Scripture: Luke 9:23-27

The disciples must have been bursting with pride that day.

On that day, all eyes were on them.  Or at least, all eyes were on the man they were with.  Even though he rode a donkey, the crowds greeted him as if he were a warrior, a hero, riding in on a majestic stallion.  They cheered and they shouted and they pushed toward the front and the little kids sat up on their parents’ shoulders to get a better look.  People took off their coats and they laid them on the ground, a makeshift red carpet for a surprise celebrity.  And they pulled branches off the nearby date palms and they waved them in the air and they spread them on the ground, too.

And the disciples were with him.  His inner circle.  The people everyone wanted to be.  And soon their leader would be victorious over all the forces that oppressed them, and he would sit on this throne and rule his kingdom, and they would rule alongside him.

It was a glorious day.

It would have been hard to know, at the time, that by the end of the week things would look very different.  Gone would be the crowds and the hero’s welcome.  And gone would be any sense of pride and glory in being associated with this man.  Instead of the shouts of Hosanna there would be the silence of a garden at night, and the footsteps of the men who came to arrest him.  And instead of walking beside him with their heads held high, they would be scared.  They would run.  They would deny ever knowing him.  And they would watch him die.

It was a week that promised glory, but ended at the cross.  Who could have known?

But if the disciples had stopped to think, they might have remembered a conversation from not so long ago, and it might have given them a clue.

“Who do others say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples, one day, apropos of nothing, before they headed toward Jerusalem.  “John the Baptist,” the disciples replied, “or Elijah, or another ancient prophet.”

“And who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus?  “You are the Messiah,” said Peter.  It was the first time anyone had uttered those words.

He told them not to tell anyone and he told them what that meant: that he would have to suffer, and face rejection, and die, and rise again.  Of course, at the time, it was hard to take it all in.

But then Jesus continued: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  This suffering he spoke of was not just his reality, but theirs, too.

This is the tenth commandment of Jesus: Take Up Your Cross.  It’s the tenth because I’ve arranged things that way, but it seems particularly appropriate for the Sunday we look ahead to Jesus’ death on the cross.

In the passage he’s addressing only his inner circle of disciples, but he also universalizes it: “If any want to become my followers.”  A few chapters later the crowds are following him and he turns to all them and he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

It’s safe to say that this includes us.  That it is not just his reality, but ours, too.

Like with other of Jesus’ commandments, we sometimes use this one to mean things it doesn’t really mean. The phrase it’s just my cross to bear is one we often use or understand to mean things we have no choice but to put up with, like a long-term illness or a person we don’t like but can’t avoid.

This summer a woman I had never met came into the church to pray, and when she was done she came to talk to me.  She was on vacation, but she wasn’t happy.  She told me about her husband and how he spoke to her, how he told her she was fat and unattractive and worthless, and how she was starting to believe him.

My heart broke for this woman, especially when she told me she believed it was her duty as a Christian to stay with him.  “We all have our cross to bear,” she told me.  I had heard of people using this phrase to justify their own abuse.  I had never actually heard it before.

“I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant,” I told her.

“I think it is,” she told me.

I wish I could say I had been able to convince her that this kind of life wasn’t what God wanted for her, but I couldn’t.  But hopefully I can convince you: that’s not what Jesus meant.  Jesus is talking about losing your life in order to find it.  He’s talking about dying in order to be reborn into something new, and more real, just like Jesus himself was.  I didn’t see anything life-giving about this woman’s situation.

Taking up your cross isn’t about just grinning and bearing the bad things that happen to us, even though there may very well be some spiritual lesson or benefit in how we face sickness or unhappiness or roadblocks in our way.  Taking up your cross is something you do willingly, not something that happens to you or is foisted upon you.  It’s something you take on freely for the sake of Jesus and the life he offers.

For others of us taking up your cross might invoke images of martyrdom, and I think that’s at least closer to the truth.  After all, Jesus is saying these words to his disciples who, according to tradition, will go on to actually die for spreading the word about Jesus, some of them on their own literal crosses.  Sometimes a life of discipleship might really mean dying, whether you are the Apostle Peter, crucified upside-down at the hands of Emperor Nero, or Martin Luther King Jr., shot on a balcony, or Rachel Corrie, the young woman who died standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.  Jesus’ words are sometimes less metaphorical than we would like them to be, but the truth is that following Jesus means living for something we are willing to die for—just like Jesus did.

One of my favorite movies is Romero, about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and in the last scene of the movie you see him in church, blessing the elements for communion, as the car you know holds his would-be assassins pulls up slowly outside.  They shoot just as he is lifting up the chalice of wine, and he falls to the ground.

Romero really was assassinated while saying mass in 1980.  I once went to his house in San Salvador, and there is a painting there, this powerful image of him with his arms in the air as the blood of Christ spills down on him.  This picture gives me chills.

But at the same time that was only one day, only one scene; and for the rest of the movie, and the rest of his life, he lived faithfully as he stood up for the rights of his country’s poor, and preached and advocated on their behalf, and knew them, and helped them, and loved them.  And it strikes me that all of that before his martyrdom was just as much “taking up his cross” as when he finally died for the way he lived.

Luke seems to acknowledge this, even more than the other Gospels, because where in Matthew and Mark Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross,” in Luke he says, “Let them take up their cross daily.”  And that changes things.

What Jesus means, I think, is not so much that all of his followers are called to be martyrs, but that in the words of the spiritual classic the Imitation of Christ, “we are called to live a dying life.”[1]

The preacher Fred Craddock writes, “We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1000 bill and laying it on the table.  ’Here’s my life, Lord.  I’m giving it all.’  But the reality for most of us is that [God] sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1000 for quarters.  We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there….Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”[2]

If you like big words there is a word I like: cruciform.  It just means “cross-shaped.”  To take up our cross, daily, I think, is to live a cruciform life.

And that is to say that for those of us who want to be followers of Jesus, we must live lives of sacrifice.  How else can we claim to follow a man who sacrificed everything?

And what are we called to sacrifice?  I guess that depends on what it’s hardest for us to let go of.

For some of us it might be our ambition.  We want to be successful, to climb the ladder, but maybe that’s not the most important work God has for us to do.  Maybe, in fact, it gets in the way of whatever else God has for us to do, when it takes us away from our families and our communities and leaves us less time to notice and help others.  It sounds like no way to live.

For some of us it might be our need for security, and I mean that as in physical security and financial security, and emotional security, among others.  Are we scared to go to certain places or speak to certain people, or to welcome them into our homes or our country?  Are we scared that if we give to others we might not have enough ourselves?  Discipleship never was a secure existence, but fear sounds like no way to live.

For some of us it might be our reputation.  I know on occasion our ministry with homeless folks here at Arlington Temple has drawn attention from our neighbors, who aren’t sure they like the looks of the people who sometimes congregate outside our doors.  It’s a question we’ve had to ask ourselves from time to time: is a relationship with some of our neighbors worth risking what other neighbors think of us?  I’m inclined to say generally yes, because denying Christ in one person for the approval of another person sounds like no way to live.

For some of us it might be our whole worldview—a worldview with us at the center and everybody else orbiting around us, a worldview of “us” vs. “them,” where some people are good and some people are wholly evil.  Dying to self means sacrificing our selfish, divisive, ungodly views of the world around us, and when we have lived that way for a long time, that can be a hard and painful thing to do.  But it also sounds like no way to live.

In our young adult Lenten discussion group a couple weeks ago (I told you we’ve been reading through the book Blue Like Jazz together), the question came up: what do you believe that costs you something?

The answers were varied: one person wouldn’t compromise certain values for the promise of a higher-paying job; one person mentioned time spent on spiritual growth that couldn’t be spent on other things; I talked about money, and my own struggle to live out the kind of generous life I believe Jesus wants from me.

We sacrificed different things, but in everything, there was something to be gained in the losing.

Which is the point: we take up our cross and die to ourselves so that we can experience real, true, abundant, eternal life.

Most of us probably wish, a lot of the time, that we could have one without the other.  That we could experience God’s glory without the suffering and sacrifice God calls us to.  That we could have new life without dying first.  That’s probably why things like prosperity theology are so popular, with its promises that God will shower you with success and honor and riches if you are just faithful enough. It’s why people come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter but not Good Friday.  We want the glory.  We don’t want the cross.

Neither did the disciples.  That’s why it was so easy to walk alongside Jesus on Palm Sunday, and why they wavered and scattered later when things took a turn for the worse.  They wanted to sit on his left side and his right side as he ruled his kingdom.  What they didn’t realize is that resurrection necessitates death, and the road to the Kingdom of God always first leads to the cross.

I took an African American history class in college, and one of our books was called My Soul is Rested.  I remember learning the story behind that title.  It came from the time of the Montgomery bus boycotts at the beginning of the civil rights movement.  Someone asked one seventy-two year old African American woman how she was holding up walking everywhere.  And she famously replied, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”  She sacrificed her own comfort so that she and everyone else who looked like her would see a better day.  In that act of sacrifice, one weary soul found rest.  She found life in losing it, just a little bit.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

Today as we enter into Holy Week, remembering the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, we know where they are leading: to Good Friday, and only then, to Easter.

Even as he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem to the cheers and songs of the crowds, Jesus prepares to take up his cross.  Are we ready to do the same—every day?

Are you living a cruciform life?

Are you prepared to find your life by losing it?

For those of us who want to follow Jesus, there’s simply no other way.

[1] Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, p. 51

[2] http://www.housetohouse.com/HTHPubPage.aspx?cid=2679

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 9. Let Your Light Shine

Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16

When I began this series on the Ten Commandments of Jesus, I told you my method was simple.  I combed through the Gospels writing down everything Jesus just straight up, directly told us to do.  No ambiguous parables, no advice given to specific people in specific contexts, nothing too metaphorical.  I was going for the simplest possible rule of life for someone who wants to be a follower of Jesus.

I’m reminding you of that because I acknowledge that today’s commandment, Let Your Light Shine, breaks my own rule.  It’s metaphorical.  For that matter, so is next week’s, Take Up Your Cross.  We read those and we have to think about them some.  Their meaning is perhaps not immediately obvious, and maybe isn’t even supposed to be.

So this is a commandment that almost didn’t make the cut.

It starts off as not even a commandment at all.  “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  We are in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, right after the Beatitudes, and so it’s possible the “you” in this statement is all the people he has just proclaimed blessed: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers.  Salt, he says, is no good if it loses its saltiness.  Or as one writer put it, “For salt, being salty is not optional.”[1]

“You are the light of the world,” he says.  And light is meant to shine.  For light, also, shining is not optional.  But, light can be hidden, just like salt can be mixed and diluted.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  After all, you don’t light a lamp and then cover it with something so no one can see the light.

You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he says.  That’s not a commandment, it’s just who you are as people of God.  But then he follows it up with this: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I decided that was a commandment that made the cut.

So far we’ve talked about a bunch of specific commandments: Seek forgiveness and forgive others.  Treat others as you’d have them treat you.  Don’t judge people.  Love your enemies.  Resist the temptation of revenge.  All things, one could argue, that are inherent to who we are as followers of Jesus.  Things that, for followers of Jesus, are not optional, whether we practice them well or poorly.

And I think Let Your Light Shine is the commandment that wraps all these other commandments up.   I think what this commandment is asking us to do is to live all those other commandments out loud.  For the world to see.

But not for the show of it all.  Not so we get a trophy or everyone else in the world can see how good and holy we are.  After all, we are in the season of Lent, and one of the traditional texts for the beginning of Lent is Matthew 6, also from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus warns people to go into their rooms when they pray rather than making a big thing of it on the street, and to donate money in secret, rather than trying to act like you’re Daddy Warbucks, and to act happy when you fast, so that you’re not putting on a show of being miserable just so people know you’re fasting.

As you might be able to guess, none of those things count as letting your light shine.  Not if what it’s really all about is you.

This week at Wednesday morning Bible study one of our previously-homeless participants told a story.  His name is David and when he was out on the streets, he said, he had a good friend named Chuck.  He and Chuck would camp together on the streets and under bridges.  They would also get drunk together.

For a long time David had heard people talk about A-SPAN and the fact that there was help for him if he wanted it.  So one day he decided to meet with an outreach worker, and it was the beginning of a long road to recovery.  He got sober.  He straightened himself out.  He got a place to live.   Unfortunately Chuck couldn’t yet tell the same story.

But David and Chuck were still friends, and one day Chuck came into David’s new apartment, and he looked around, and he said, “Man, I want what you have.”

The thing is I don’t think it was just about the apartment.  I think it was bigger than that: what Chuck saw was a life that was back on track.  And David, simply by doing what he knew he needed to do, pointed Chuck in that direction too.  David told us that just the day before he had helped Chuck move into his own new place.

It wasn’t about David.  It was about something bigger than David, which all of a sudden was opened up to Chuck in a new way through his friend.

One writer reminds us, “The primary function of light is not to be seen, but to let things be seen as they are.”[2]

Let your light shine—but it’s not about you.

“God is light,” says 1 John 1:5.  “In him there is no darkness at all.”  This is the same God who went before the Israelites in a pillar of fire by night to lead the way through the desert where they were wandering, and whose very presence caused Moses’ face to glow.

If God is light, and we are the light of the world, then maybe it’s possible our light isn’t our own.  That our job is to get out of our own way enough to let God’s light shine.  To not cover that light up with our bushel baskets of selfishness and entitlement and judgment and fear, but to let it be present in our lives in a way that others can see.  In a way that points them to something bigger.

“Let your light shine,” Jesus says, “so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Again, it’s not just about doing things for others to see.  It’s about not hiding the light that is already in us that comes from God.

Which brings me to my second point: not only is it not about us, it’s not for us, either.  It’s for the benefit of those who are shined on.

I read a story recently—a letter, actually, published by a woman who lost her father.  It was called An Open Letter to the Whole Foods Shoppers Who Consoled Me When I Learned of My Dad’s Suicide.

She wrote that she had been grocery shopping on an average Monday morning when her phone rang, and it was her brother.  She stood in the entryway of the store as she took the call and listened to her brother tell her that their father had taken his own life that morning.  She said she began to cry and scream, and she fell to her knees, shouting “My father killed himself.  He’s dead.”

Her fellow shoppers, on their way into the store for their own average Monday morning errands, could have stopped and stared, or they could have pretended not to see.  Instead, they surrounded her.

“I remember,” she wrote, “in that haze of emotions, one of you asked for my phone and who you should call. What was my password? You needed my husband’s name as you searched through my contacts. I remember that I could hear your words as you tried to reach my husband for me, leaving an urgent message for him to call me. I recall hearing you discuss among yourselves who would drive me home in my car and who would follow that person to bring them back to the store.

“I remember one of you asking if you could pray for me and for my father. I must have said yes, and I recall now that Christian prayer being offered up to Jesus for my Jewish father and me, and it still both brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile. In my fog, I told you that I had a friend, Pam, who worked at Whole Foods and one of you went in search of her and, thankfully, she was there that morning and you brought her to me. I remember the relief I felt at seeing her face, familiar and warm. She took me to the back, comforting and caring for me so lovingly until my husband could get to me. And I even recall as I sat with her, one of you sent back a gift card to Whole Foods; though you didn’t know me, you wanted to offer a little something to let me know that you would be thinking of me and holding me and my family in your thoughts and prayers.

“No matter how many times my mind takes me back to that life-altering moment, it is not all darkness. Because you reached out to help, you offered a ray of light in the bleakest moment I’ve ever endured.”[3]

That, I think, is what it means to let your light shine: to live Jesus’ rule of life so naturally that when there is need and brokenness and darkness in the world, people can see something different.

Of course “living Jesus’ rule of life naturally” is maybe not as automatic as all that: it’s something we do have to work at, and fall down at, and get better at, by God’s grace.

But light shines even through a cracked vessel, and God does give us the grace we need to love and serve and confess and forgive.

The light is there: all we have to do is let it shine.

But there’s one more important aspect of this commandment, and that is that it’s not something we do alone.

It might be tempting to think that we can be followers of Jesus alone, and the other commandments we’ve talked about might lead us in that direction.  We can seek and extend forgiveness in private, one-on-one with someone we’ve wronged or who has wronged us.  We can do good deeds for others on our own.  We can work on our own judgment of others and our own hatred of our enemies and our own tendencies toward lashing out instead of giving freely on our own.  It’s possible.

But we can’t really be salt or light on our own.

What’s one grain of salt on its own?  It doesn’t make anything very salty.  And what’s one candle on a dark night?  It’s something, of course, but why be a candle when you can be a city, lit up on a hill?

The “you” that Jesus uses in this passage is plural.  But “light” is collective.  We all make up that light, together.  We all shine, together.  We all point to something bigger than us, together.  We are, together, God’s people in the world, even as we scatter after a Sunday service.  To witness to something beyond us, we have to be part of something bigger than us.

I don’t happen to believe that we can prove the existence of God, or prove that Jesus is Lord, just by smart biblical arguments.  If people don’t already believe that themselves, they don’t care about our smart biblical arguments.  And you can argue all day about natural proofs for the existence of God, proofs from creation, but the truth is, you tend to not get very far with those unless you’re talking to someone who agrees with you anyway.

Some people may have been converted to Christianity because they heard a convincing argument, but I happen to believe that the most convincing argument—for OR against—is simply how we as Christians live our lives.  We’re not going to follow Jesus perfectly, God knows that.  But are we trying?  Are we letting God’s grace work in our lives?

Not long after I first got to Arlington Temple, I visited Central UMC in Ballston on a Friday morning to learn about the meal they host for our homeless neighbors each week.  I met a girl there, a young woman slightly younger than me, who was helping prepare and serve the meal.  She was also part of the young adult group that gathered each Thursday evening to chop vegetables and do the pre-prep for the meal.

I suppose I asked her how she got involved there.  I remember she said, “If there’s a God, I figure this is the kind of thing he wants us to do.”

She wasn’t even sure if she believed in God, but there she was, each Thursday evening and each Friday morning, hanging out at church and helping make sure her neighbors were fed, because this community pointed beyond itself to something bigger.  Because this community was living out its call to follow Jesus in a way that made other people take notice—and want to be a part of it, too.

She wanted what they had.

As you live and love, forgive and let go, confess and give and respond to violence with peace—are you living in such a way that people can see God’s light because you shine?

Maybe someone else will see something they like, too, and they’ll join us in this life that we call abundant.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 182

[2] NIB: Matthew, p. 182

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/03/09/an-open-letter-to-the-whole-foods-shoppers-who-consoled-me-when-i-learned-of-my-dads-suicide/?tid=sm_fb

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 8. Mean What You Say

Scripture: Matthew 5:33-37

One of my first days in Lesotho, in the summer of 2004 when I went there with a volunteer group, I came across what struck me as the most quintessentially Basotho scene.  We were on our way to visit some friends of Ron, our group leader, who had previously spent time in the country in the Peace Corps, and as we walked these dirt roads outside the capital city of Maseru to their house, I saw him: a Basotho man, wrapped in a traditional Basotho blanket, standing very straight and still as he watched over the cattle that were grazing in his field.

Immediately I wanted a picture.

I was, at least, worldly enough to know that you’re not supposed to take pictures of random people like they’re tourist attractions, even if you find them really exotic.  And I didn’t exactly speak Sesotho so I could ask.  So instead I said, “Ron!  Can I take a picture?”

Ron called something out in Sesotho to the man watching his cows and then said back to me, “He says yes.  But he wants you to send him a copy of the picture.”

That sounded reasonable.  “Great!” I said, and snapped my picture, and we all went on our way.

I didn’t send him the picture.  In fact, I never even stopped to get an address.  Of course, I meant to.  In the back of my mind I thought maybe I could send it to Ron’s friends.  But that didn’t happen.

A few years later I was spending the summer studying in India, and I spent a weekend outside of the seminary’s campus with a student who lived in a nearby village.  He hosted me and showed me around and taught me about life in this community, and it was one of the first times during a summer that often felt incredibly lonely that I felt like I had a friend.  I felt like I owed this guy.  So when, in the course of conversation, he asked if I could help him get a book by an author he liked that wasn’t available in India, I said sure.  This time I wrote down the title and the student’s contact information.  I remembered that picture, and I was going to follow through this time.

I never sent him the book.  There was way too much going on when I got back to the US to think about that.

The thing is, I probably tell these stories and they don’t sound like a very big deal.  So I didn’t send someone a picture or a book.  Maybe it would have been better if I had, but in the end, even those of us with great intentions fall down on them sometimes.  Both the picture and the book are probably long forgotten, along with a lifetime collection of cancelled RSVP’s and all the things I’ve totally been meaning to get around to doing.

That’s why it’s perhaps a little bit surprising to find something like “Mean What You Say” among other of Jesus’ commandments such as loving your enemies and doing unto others.  It seems like one of those things that’s good, but maybe not exactly up there in the top ten.  A commandment like “Do unto others” seems core and basic and universal.  A commandment like “turn the other cheek” has some shock value to it that makes us pay attention.  This one makes us go “Yeah, yeah, Jesus, got it.  Tell the truth, follow through.  Things decent people generally do.”

I mean, they’re just words.  Words count, but not as much as actions.  Not as much as loving and serving and forgiving people.

But the truth is the Bible is full of statements about the power and weight of words.  “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives,” Proverbs 13:2 reads, “those who open wide their lips come to ruin.”  Leviticus 19:12 sounds similar to what Jesus is quoting today: “You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”  The prayer of Psalm 19 is, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Moving on to the New Testament, we read Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,” and James 3:5, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.”

And then, of course, there is today’s passage, so concerned about words: “Do not swear at all…[But] let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount, right there with all the important stuff.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus starts off, like he starts so many of his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”  OK, so far, so good.

“But I say to you,” Jesus continues, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no’.”

Truthfully, for all the Bible has to say about the power of words in general, this teaching is fairly specific, which maybe also makes it seem less absolutely fundamental to our lives.  Everyone knows, Jesus says, that if you make an oath, if you swear to God, it would behoove you to follow through.  You should not make such an oath lightly.  That all makes sense.

But again, there Jesus is calling us above and beyond what we know to make sense: and this time, he tells us actually not to swear at all.

It seems a bit over the top.  After all, oaths and vows serve a good social function: oaths of office, oaths of enlistment, marriage vows, the Hippocratic oath, giving sworn testimony in court.  I, personally, am glad that my doctor is bound by the Hippocratic oath, by which he or she is sworn to certain ethical standards.  I’m glad that Jon made some vows to me at our wedding, and vice versa.  I do think there are promises that mean more spoken in a formal setting in front of people than if they are casual, or assumed.

I tend to think Jesus is probably OK with these things, that what he wants us to avoid is vows casually taken, like when we say “I swear to God” just to convince someone that we’re really, really serious.  But there are people who take Jesus literally on this, certain groups such as Quakers who refuse outright to take oaths.  And maybe they’re right.  I mean, who am I to put exceptions in the mouth of Jesus?

So what is the problem Jesus has with oaths and swearing?

First of all, I think it has something to do with humility.  Jesus says, “Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”  To swear before God, and before others, is presumptuous.  We don’t control the future.  Who knows what will happen, and how that might affect our intentions?

I think of my grandmother, who used to always say “God willing,” when she spoke of plans.  Not big, uncertain plans—but, “See you at Christmas, God willing.”  “Talk to you next Sunday, God willing.”  She did this in the same way Muslims say Inshallah when they speak of the future.  I always found it quaint.  Of course we would speak next Sunday; we always called Gram on Sundays, and if any sort of emergency had prevented that, I think we would have both understood.  If one of us was in the hospital, the other wasn’t going to say, “But you said we would talk on Sunday!”

It may have been just a turn of phrase, but there was some humility in that, too.  Who really knows where any of us will be next Sunday?  How can we truly promise something when the future isn’t even promised to us?

I think also of a man named Jephthah, who appears in the book of Judges in the Old Testament.  Jephthah, in a time of war, made a vow to God.  He said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return victorious from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31.)   It’s possible—we can hope—that he was expecting that to be an animal.  Well, they beat the Ammonites, and Jephthah returns home victorious, and there coming out of his house to great him with a song of triumph is his only daughter.

It’s the kind of story where you read along and say, “Don’t do it, Jephthah!”

But he does it.  He says, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

I’d argue that there are some vows, made in poor judgment, that it’s better not to keep.  And yet this story also warns us to watch our words and our promises carefully, lest circumstances change, and we find ourselves committed to something we never meant to be committed to.   In fact, even when we do take some of those socially necessart oaths, we probably need to keep in mind who it is our first commitment is to.

But Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever talk about the future; that we shouldn’t ever make commitments; that we shouldn’t ever give someone our word.  Instead, he says, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no.’” Straightforward.  No fancy stuff.  No swearing to God.  No putting your hand on a Bible.  No “May lightning strike me right now if I’m lying!”  Because in the end, those rhetorical flourishes are meaningless.  Either we mean the things we say, or we don’t.  Jesus says to mean what we say.

In other words, let’s not think that we only have to keep our promises some of the time, when we say some magic words.  Instead, let’s be people who can be trusted, all the time, no matter what.  People who say something and follow through, not because we swore dramatically, but because our word is good.  People you can count on, whether we’re talking big, like marriage vows, or small, like the promise of a picture in the mail.

It’s not a very flashy aspect of discipleship.

Can people count on you?  Can your family count on you to be there when you’ve said you’ll be there?  Can your colleagues count on you to follow through on the work you’ve said you’ll complete?  Can your friends count on your support when you say you’re there for them?  Can your church community count on you to fulfill the membership vows you’ve made?  If you say you’ll pray for someone, do you?

As in everything, none of us fulfill this commandment perfectly.  We forget.  Things come up.  Commitments compete with each other.  We let each other down.  As in everything, there is grace, and as in everything, God expects us to extend that same grace to others.

But underneath it all—is your word good?

I actually believe this teaching of Jesus even goes beyond the limited scope of oaths and understood promises.  When Jesus says “Let your answer be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no,” I think he’s talking about integrity, and authenticity.

Are we the same people on the inside that we present ourselves to be on the outside?

For the season of Lent I’ve been rereading the book Blue Like Jazz with a group of young adults here at church, and there’s a part that I came across in our reading for this week.  The author, Donald Miller, is talking about his friend Andrew, and how he admires Andrew because Andrew really believes in things.  He says on Saturday mornings Andrew sets up a little stand on the sidewalk and feeds homeless people in his neighborhood, and he talks to them and prays with them and gets to know them.  And he does it because that’s what he believes Jesus wants him to do.

“All great Christian leaders are simple thinkers,” Donald Miller writes.  “Andrew doesn’t cloak his altruism with a trickle-down economic theory that allows him to spend fifty dollars on a round of golf to feed the economy and provide jobs for the poor.  He actually believes that when Jesus says feed the poor, He means you should do this directly.  Andrew is the one who taught me that what I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do….Like I said, Andrew is a simple thinker.”[1]

Do I live out what I say I believe?  If I say I believe everyone is equal and beloved in the eyes of God, do I truly treat people the same?  If I rail against America’s consumerist culture, am I making an effort to actually buy less?  If I believe in feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and welcoming the stranger, am I doing it?  If I believe in the power of prayer, am I praying, regularly?

Or am I sometimes saying “Yes” with my words and “No” with my life?

It’s not exactly an oath, but I do think there are times when we try to promise people—friends, significant others, colleagues, strangers, society—that we’re something we’re really not.   And instead, maybe we say ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no,’ by owning our struggles as well as our values.  By being real, and not putting on an act.

We may not always get it right.  Nobody gets it all right.  But here, in this most mundane commandment of Jesus, is a call to do the things we promise to do and be the people we promise to be.  To not make those promises lightly, but to be faithful to them as we trust God is faithful to God’s.

Because if you think about it, everything else we do as followers of Jesus probably starts right there.

[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p. 110-111.