Beautiful in God’s Eyes

Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8-14


A couple weeks ago I asked you all for some help with my post-Easter worship planning, and I asked what you’d like to hear a sermon on – whether that was a favorite passage from the Bible, one you had a question about, a certain topic, or just an attempt to stump me.  One of the first responses I got was, “Have you ever preached on Song of Solomon?”

I had not, so, here we are.

First of all, I’d like to hear what you all know about Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, as it is also called.  When you hear that title, what comes to mind?

Here’s just a little background on the book.  First of all, it was not written by King Solomon.  It was common in ancient literature to attribute a work to someone famous, but the Hebrew is too late for when Solomon would have lived (the same goes for Ecclesiastes, which is also attributed to him) and it also refers to Solomon in the third person a bunch.  It was probably attributed to Solomon because it is love poetry, and Solomon was said to both write songs and be quite the ladies’ man. Secondly, its alternate title, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew way of saying “the best song” or “the ultimate song.”  Third, as mentioned, this is love poetry, the kind we might see from a number of others Ancient Near Eastern or Middle Eastern cultures.  When I read it I think of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (though he wrote much later): “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”  Song of Solomon may be one long poem or it may be a collection of little ones, put into the voices of a man and a woman who are lovers.

You just heard one passage, which I picked because that is the one passage from Song of Solomon that ever appears in the lectionary, but can I read you some others?

“The song of songs, which is Solomon’s,” the book opens.  “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” speaks the woman’s voice.  “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is perfume spilled out.” (1:2-3)

“How beautiful you are, my love!” says the man, a little later in chapter 4.  “How very beautiful!  Your eyes are doves behind your veil!  Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead!”  (I tell you, guys do not talk like that anymore.)  “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing….Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.”

We get the sense at times that this is a forbidden love – both in chapter 2: “There [my love] stands, behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice” and later, in chapter 8, with the woman’s brothers threatening to “barricade” her.   There’s a Romeo and Juliet vibe going on here.  The lovers plan their escape.  “Come, my love,” says the woman, “let’s go out to the field and rest all night among the flowering hennas.  Let’s set out early for the vineyards.  We will see if the vines have budded and the blossoms opened, see if the pomegranates have bloomed.  There I’ll give my loving to you.” (CEB)

It gets even steamier at times, and instead of expanding on that, I will simply recommend chapter 5 for your own devotional reading at home.

It’s beautiful poetry, even if some of the metaphors strike us as a little strange today, like the whole “your hair is like a flock of goats” bit.  We get this picture of love blossoming between two young people at the same time spring is blossoming all around them.  The world is coming alive, and so are they.

But it does kind of beg the question of what this is doing in the Bible.  God is not mentioned at all in Song of Solomon, and nothing really seems to distinguish it from secular poetry of the same genre, and besides, like chapter 5, some of it can be a little awkward to read in church, like you want to tell the speakers to get a room.

All that plays into why I’ve never preached on Song of Solomon before, and why it probably doesn’t get preached on a whole lot in general, mostly just read at the occasional wedding.

Yet there was a first century rabbi, Rabbi Aqiva, who famously said, “All Scripture is holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

For centuries, what made Song of Solomon holy to people is reading it not as love poetry between two people, but between God and Israel, or later between Christ and the church.  Personally I think that any claims that that’s what it is meant to be are a little overblown, attempts to take something that seems inappropriate for church and make it appropriate for church (or perhaps synagogue.)  Then again, we do find some similar imagery other places in the Bible, like the prophet Hosea, where Israel is depicted as God’s wife.  (I do not recommend reading Hosea for a wedding, though, and if you read it, you will know why – and, maybe you’ll have some more questions for me to preach on.)  So maybe those of us, like me, who are quick to dismiss any interpretation of Song of Solomon that seems to over-spiritualize things, are also just a little bit uncomfortable with the image of God as lover.  Parent, we got that one, that’s OK – but lover, that’s a little awkward.

What I believe, though, is that Song of Solomon gives us the best of both worlds: a celebration of very human romantic love, and a fresh way to encounter the love of God.

If we take it at face value – that it is love poetry depicting the relationship between two young lovers – then isn’t it kind of beautiful that that sort of thing gets canonized in Scripture?  To think that God celebrates that kind of love, the kind that brings joy to the souls of two people?

So many of the relationships we read about in the Bible are so far from the one depicted here.  In the Old Testament we have women who are essentially traded between men, fathers and husbands.  We have stories where one man is married to multiple wives and drama ensues, like with Sarah and Hagar or Rachel and Leah.  We have rules in books like Leviticus: here are the ways romantic (or at least legal and physical) relationships are supposed to and are not supposed to look.

But in Song of Solomon, we have a relationship characterized (as many commentators have pointed out) by both mutuality and fidelity.

In Song of Solomon, the woman isn’t simply the subject of a transaction between men.  She has a voice (in fact, it is the most any woman is given a voice anywhere in the Bible.)  She initiates the relationship as much as the man does.  And in Song of Solomon, faithfulness of one lover to another is celebrated.  “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” says the woman.  “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon,” the man says in chapter 8.  “One would bring in exchange for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.  My vineyard, my very own, is before me.  You can have the thousand, Solomon – with two hundred for those who tend the fruit.” (8:11-12 CEB)

Amid all the other examples of relationships that might be questionable from a modern standpoint, it is pretty nice to have this one part of the Bible that many of us can relate to, at least as an ideal.  This kind of love, Song of Solomon seems to tell us, is not something to be embarrassed to include among more spiritual pieces of writing.  Instead, it’s something to celebrate as an aspect of the abundant life that God wants for us.

Now to be clear, that’s not to say that you’re missing out on God’s grace and abundant life somehow if you are not married or in a romantic relationship, either by choice or by circumstance.  God’s grace and blessing can be known in many aspects of life and all kinds of relationships, including family relationships and friendships and there is nothing wrong with not being part of this particular kind, at any given time or forever.  Neither, as far as we know, was Jesus.  Or the apostle Paul.

It’s also not to say that God expects your marriage, for instance, to maintain the level of passion you may have once felt.  Love changes and matures over time.  I’m pretty sure God knows that, and also calls it good.

It’s just to say that when it comes to love and romance and partnership, Song of Solomon may give us a better picture of what God wants for us than, say, the story of Jacob working for seven years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage from her father only to be tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead and working seven more years for Rachel: love that is mutual and life-giving for everyone involved.

But the other thing I think this book of the Bible does have for us is the chance to hear these words, this love poetry, as if it is from God.

A few weeks ago I preached on the question Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”  And I told you that the kind of love Jesus was looking for wasn’t romance but commitment.  And I’m here to tell you today that maybe I was wrong.

Like I said before, I’m not sure that’s always a comfortable image for us.  When I was applying to seminary, I had to go interview beforehand for a scholarship I was trying for.  I wrote my essay for this scholarship application – and I’ve actually preached on this here before – on the Gospel according to Bridget Jones’s Diary, and how when Mark Darcy tells Bridget, “I like you very much, just as you are,” that that’s how God feels about us.  Well, that day I sat before my interview committee made up of a couple professors and seminary admins and maybe a previous scholarship recipient, and one of them asked me, “So, is Mark Darcy like God in any other ways?”

It was one of those questions you know you just don’t have a good answer for, since I had spent my whole essay writing about this one way which I thought was pretty brilliant.  I mumbled something about Mark Darcy working for justice, since he was a lawyer in the book.  It was clearly not the answer anyone was looking for.

So the professor prompted me, “Is God like a lover?”

And I sat there awkwardly and just said, “Well…that’s not really my image of God….”

And it wasn’t.  But for a whole lot of people in the Christian tradition, it has been their image of God.  In medieval times the mystics sought spiritual union with God in terms they described as the love of a lover.  Julian of Norwich, for example, in her book A Revelation of Love, writes of Jesus, “I saw him and sought him; I had him and wanted him.”  If we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about human romantic love as if it is holy, maybe we also shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about the love of God as if it were romantic and passionate.

I think maybe when we talk about God’s love our language is so common that it becomes trite.  We know God loves us, right?  But it’s God, so it doesn’t really count.  “Smile! God loves you.”  Or as the bumper sticker reads, “God loves you.  Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.”  (It doesn’t say “jerk.”)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…got it.  We memorized that one in Sunday School.

God loves you.  We either hear the words and barely register them, or we believe them in some distant, benevolent sense that doesn’t really touch the soul like the poetry it is.

Listen: God loves you.

Sometimes we need the love of a caring, protective, comforting Father or Mother, and God is there for us.  Sometimes, we need the love of a best friend, and God is there for us.  But sometimes we need to hear that we are beautiful, desired, the one and only – and when that is the case, God is there for us too.

I wonder what it would be like to really hear these words from Song of Solomon as if they were from God: “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.” “How beautiful you are, my love.”

Have you ever doubted that you are loved?

Have you ever thought that God is Romeo to your Juliet, or maybe Juliet to your Romeo, or however you’d like to put that – coming around at night and peeking through the lattice (but not in a creepy way)?

Can you imagine?:

God is taking another route home today, hoping to run into you.

God is writing poems about you and doodling your name in God’s notebook.

God is staring at the phone and waiting for you to call.

God still sometimes feels butterflies when God looks at you.

God is so, so happy just to be in your presence.

God thinks you are beautiful, and wants nothing more than just to look at you for a while.

God is willing to sacrifice everything for you, to pick up and move across the world to be with you, even to die for you.

If you ever doubted it for a moment – God doesn’t just love you, God is in love with you, and no matter what anyone tells you, you are beautiful in God’s eyes.

That’s what this love poetry, and its inclusion in Holy Scripture, has for us to hear.

A lot of times I know people like it when a sermon has a takeaway, a challenge, when it charges them with something to do.  And yes, it matters how we respond to this love.  But that’s not for this week.  This week, there’s no charge.  There’s nothing to do.  There’s nothing you even could.

God loves you.  Sometimes, I think, we just need to be reminded.

Easter Sunday: Practicing Resurrection

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10


To tell you the truth, I was having a hard time writing this Easter sermon.  To be honest, even this time yesterday, I didn’t really know what I was going to say, as much as I had tried to plan ahead and outline and clear my head to hear God speak.  Because of that, this may or may not have anything to do with the sermon title that is in your bulletin – that’s what happens when the bulletins need to be printed first.

It’s always a little hard to write Easter sermons: what is there to say that compares to the story itself?  Jesus died, and now he is alive.  God wins over sin and fear and death, all of which seemed to have the upper hand on Friday.  God wins, love wins, life wins, grace wins, hope wins, and in Christ we have eternal life.

That’s about the long and short of it.

And yet I think that many of us do come here with the question, what does this story mean for me?  What difference does it make for my life, as I deal with all of the things I may be going through now – homelessness, or depression, or divorce, or the illness or addiction of a loved one, or the everyday stress of life that keeps wearing on you until you just can’t anymore?  And what difference does it make to a world where war seems to loom increasingly closer to home – though, of course, it has been very close to a lot of people’s homes for a long time now?  Does this nice story make any difference to my life?

The other, and not completely unrelated, reason that I was having a hard time writing today’s sermon is that I’ve simply been feeling distracted.  It’s often hard to feel very theological and spiritual, at least in my experience, when you have an almost-seven-month old and life is always about the immediate, often bodily need right in front of you: a hungry baby, or a poopy diaper, or the laundry that has gone way to long without getting put away, or the work that needs to get done in a very limited amount of time because I know I won’t have time for it later.  Many of you know that my father was in the hospital recently and continues to face some health issues, so that’s been in the mix, too.  These are the things that demand my attention these days.  Many of them have been good fodder for prayer, but they have been less good fodder for contemplating the meaning of resurrection.

If it was Christmas, I found myself thinking yesterday, then I would be set, because Christmas is all about incarnation, about God becoming flesh and bone and entering into this life of worry and stress and distraction – and joy, of course, but often worry and stress and distraction – but Easter seemed to demand something more spiritual than that.

But that was silly of me – as if we could separate the work God was doing at the birth of Christ to the work God was doing in his resurrection.  Because, after all, the Easter story is not a story of Jesus dying and floating up into some heavenly realm – he does do that, later, but it’s not what he does first.  The Easter story is the story of Jesus being resurrected back into the same life he left, and that was a life where people got scared and friends betrayed each other and people got sick and needed care and healing and, of course, in hundreds of villages all around Israel, the laundry wasn’t going to do itself.

It was into this life of worry and distraction and beauty and joy that Jesus came back to.  Real life.

And that means, I realized, that resurrection isn’t really that theological at all.  It means that God’s promise of new life is a promise for right here, right now, in the midst of everything that we have to deal with and that sometimes threatens to get the better of us.

When I reread Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, I actually heard this message in a new way.

First of all, did you notice the differences between Matthew’s account and Mark’s account which we heard at the beginning of the service?  I mean, they agree on the main point, of course, but they do differ a little in the details.  And that’s OK, because each Gospel offers us a unique perspective on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and what it all means.

In both accounts, the women head toward the tomb on Sunday morning.  In both accounts, they know what to expect.  They had been there on Friday.  While the rest of the disciples had fled and scattered, the women stuck around, and they kept vigil as Jesus’ limp body was carried to the tomb and placed there and the tomb was sealed.  On Saturday, they kept the Sabbath.  But Sunday, they came back, with every expectation of finding things just as they had left them.  That’s how death works, after all.

As Mark tells it, the women approach the tomb to find that all is not as it was on Friday – the stone has been rolled away!

In Matthew’s account, thought, the two Marys do arrive at the tomb to find it much the way they had left it.  They had believed in Jesus and the abundant life of love and grace that he called them to – but in the end, he was just another man with some healing powers and some good stuff to say.  The brokenness of the world in all its sin, failure, fear, betrayal, and helplessness before the powers that be had, in the end, gotten the better of him like they get the better of all of us.  Real life had caught up to this man who preached that there was something more to all of it.  They had seen it happen, and as of Sunday morning, nothing has changed.

But then all of a sudden the earth begins to shake.

And all of a sudden an angel descends from heaven like lightning, and slowly, dramatically, rolls back that stone from the entrance to the tomb, and sits on it in triumph.  The guards posted at the tomb tremble and faint.  And the angel announces to the Marys, “I know who you’re looking for, but you won’t find him here.”

I mention the differences between Matthew and Mark because every time I read Matthew I find myself thinking, “An earthquake?  Really?  I did not remember that part of the story.”

It’s arguably the account that, in all of its godly drama, seems the farthest removed from any real-life scene that we could imagine.

But then the angel continues: “Go tell his disciples that he has been raised, and he’ll meet you in Galilee.”

He has been raised: God wins, love wins, life wins, grace wins, hope wins, and in Christ we have eternal life.  Go tell the others.

Jesus does, in fact, meet up with the Marys as they run to go tell the disciples.  But the disciples themselves, who don’t get the benefit of any of this holy action, will have to wait.

I thought about what it meant for Jesus to meet up with the disciples back in Galilee.  It’s Jerusalem, of course, where all the holy drama of the past week has taken place: Jerusalem that Jesus rode into on a donkey, Jerusalem where he turned over the tables in the Temple, Jerusalem where Jesus and his disciples shared their last supper and where he washed their feet, Jerusalem where he was betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem where he was subjected to a sham trial by night and Jerusalem where he was executed.  And, now it is Jerusalem where the ground shakes and angels descend from the sky and where stones roll away from sealed tombs.

Jerusalem is holy ground, in more ways than one.

But nothing quite that dramatic ever happened in Galilee.  I mean, Galilee certainly had its moments, its healings and its miraculous feedings, but it was also just Galilee, where the disciples caught fish, where they listened to the stories Jesus taught them about the Kingdom of God, where they went around and talked to people in villages about who this man they had been hearing about really was.

Jerusalem was holy ground, but Galilee was real life, and that is where Jesus will meet the disciples.  That is where they will discover resurrection for themselves.

There, among the regular people with their regular people needs and their regular people problems, among men catching fish and women baking bread, among sick people and depressed people and people preoccupied with their own failure and people taking care of their children and their elderly parents and people who can’t catch a break and people simply hoping to lay low and avoid war with the Roman Empire, among distracted and worried and not highly theological people, is where Jesus appears and says, “This is where new life happens.”

Here and now, in real life and all that it demands of us, is where the resurrected Jesus promises to meet us.

He meets us in the stranger who helps us or welcomes us when we thought no one cared.  He meets us in the people who support us and remind us to keep the faith when times get hard.  He meets us in anyone who shows us grace when we don’t deserve it.  He meets us in the people who, when we are surrounded by rumors of war, remind us of what it means to work for peace.  He meets us in the hungry, and the sick, and the refugee, and the neighbor in need – anyone who reminds us that our own problems and distractions aren’t the be all and end all of this life, and that God calls us out of ourselves to be in community with others.

Not in the holy ground of Jerusalem, but in Galilee – that is where we see God’s promise of resurrection fulfilled.

I got back to thinking about the role of the Marys in all of this, as the ones who got to pass this message on to the rest of the disciples.  Most of the time when we read the Bible we identify with the disciples – that is, in fact, what many of us call ourselves.  And there is definitely an invitation here to have our eyes open to meet the risen Christ in the world around us, and a promise that he will be there.   But in this story I also hear a call to be like those disciples we don’t hear about as much – the female ones, who were there at the tomb on Friday and came back as the first witnesses to the resurrection on Sunday.  I hear a call to be those who bear the message of resurrection to others, who help others to see the power of God at work in real life.  We might call this, in a nod back to the original sermon I thought I was going to write, “practicing resurrection.”

Not that resurrection is ours to do, of course – no story involving earthquakes and angels who flash like lightning and roll away stones will allow us to imagine that we can be the ones to bring new life in the midst of old life and worldly brokenness.

But we can be part of the resurrection story that God is writing, just like the Marys got to be.

Here in this bowl I have a number of cards.  On each card is a way to help someone else, or perhaps yourself, see God’s promise of new life in the midst of real life.  Some of them involve preaching the Gospel with words, and some of them involve preaching the Gospel with actions.  You might call some of them “good deeds” but I believe they are more than that – they are small ways of living that testify to our belief in the reality that God, hope, love, life, and grace win.  (I’m going to put this bowl somewhere for you to take a card as you leave – anyone brave enough to take a card without looking at them first?)

That Sunday in Jerusalem, God said no to all the things that put Jesus on that cross: no to hate, no to fear, no to our own sin and brokenness and the brokenness of the world around us, no to death itself.

And God said yes: yes to love, yes to grace, yes to hope, yes to life that is both real and abundant, if we will accept it.

And you don’t have to look far to find it.

And you don’t have to go far to bear that good news to others.


Questions Jesus Asked: Do You Love Me?


Scripture: John 21:15-19


First of all, I have to tell you that we have a little bit of a time-warp going on here.  We began today’s service with Palm Sunday, Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds; we will end with Good Friday and Jesus’ death on the cross; but here in the middle, we’re jumping forward to one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples.

Spoiler alert: he comes back to life.

Holy Week is already a bit of a whirlwind even if we take it in reasonably chronological order: within a week, Jesus goes from celebrated King and Savior of a people to someone deserted by even his closest friends and followers at his arrest, to a convicted criminal, and then an executed one.  We go from the joy of Palms to the utter silence of the grave on Holy Saturday.  We don’t need an extra time-warp to make our heads spin.  But I chose this Question Jesus Asked for today for a reason, and that is that I suspect it may be the most important one.  So important, in fact, that Jesus asks it not once but three times in a row.

It may also be a question we’ve never really asked ourselves, despite being kind of an obvious one.  I think of the song from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, to whom his marriage was arranged, the same question: “Do you love me?”  And she says, “Do I what?”  In all those years of taking care of him and their daughters and the household, it’s a question she never thought to ask, and it’s possible that, even as we go to church and read the Bible and do our best to be good people, neither have we.

Not “Do you believe in me?” We talk about that one.  But, “Do you love me?”

Those are different questions.

I also think this question has a special kind of resonance for Holy Week, even though it comes after it in the Gospel narrative.  People loved Jesus on Palm Sunday.  Or at least, they acted like they did, probably even thought they did.  By Good Friday, the Passover crowds in Jerusalem had done an about-face.  Sometime during the week, something changed.  What was it?

What does it mean to love Jesus – and if we love him on Palm Sunday when it’s popular and easy, do we still love him on Good Friday when the bandwagon has dispersed and both the religious and secular leadership are on the lookout for those who answer wrong?

It is, in fact, in the wake of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus that this conversation takes place.  It is after the resurrection and the disciples, for whatever reason, are back to fishing on the Sea of Galilee.  It’s been a pretty fruitless expedition until a stranger shows up on the shore and tells them to try casting their net on the other side, at which point the net is filled with fish, and the disciples’ eyes are opened to who this really is talking to them.  Later, they sit talking over a breakfast of roasted fish and bread, and just as they finish, Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

He doesn’t specify what “these” are – presumably the other disciples – but Peter doesn’t go there, he simply answers, “Yes, of course, you know I love you.”  I’ll point out that Tevye needed to ask his wife multiple times before she said she supposed she did love him, but Peter, to his credit, is ready with his answer the first time.

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus says.

Peter must still be puzzling over this when Jesus breaks the silence and asks again: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” says Peter, probably wondering if he’s having deja vu: “You know I love you.”

“OK,” says Jesus, “tend my sheep.”

Peter’s brow is still furrowed when Jesus says again: “Simon son of John.  Do you love me?”

This time Peter knows it’s not him going crazy and he gets a little defensive: “Lord,” he says, “you know everything.  You know I love you.”

And Jesus simply says again, “Feed my sheep.”

It’s a bit redundant, maybe, but it’s also a question – and answer – that is hard for us to miss.  And then again, three times did have some significance for Peter.

Last week our question was “Who do you say I am?” and I told you that the story turned on that question: the disciples are forced to confront and answer it as the scene shifts from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to Jerusalem and the conflict that will build there until it reaches its inevitable end on the cross.   Maybe there’s a reason that that question comes at the point in the story and this question, “Do you love me?”, comes at the end of John’s Gospel – because I suspect that what comes next, after the end of the Gospel, hangs on this question.

Where will the disciples go and what will they do from here?  Well, that depends – do they love him?

Here’s a question – have you ever done something dumb for someone you loved?  (I’m inviting actual stories here.)

What about something positive that you wouldn’t have done otherwise, in the name of love?

Here’s a more neutral example but I did join Model UN freshman year of high school because a boy I liked was in it.  That crush was short-lived but I ended up doing Model UN all four years and going on to get a degree in international relations in college.  In any case, the point is that love has the power to change our behavior (maybe it even necessarily changes our behavior) – what we do, where we go, how we live.

So do you love him?

Because love has implications for our lives.  Love gives us work to do.

The work Jesus gives Peter to do, based on the fact that he answers yes, is to take care of Jesus’ people.   Some hear in this a commission to lead them, which it could be, but it could also be that this is fact the same commission for everyone who answers yes to this question: Do you love me?  Take care of each other.  Feed my people.  Visit them when they’re sick.  Clothe them when they’re cold.  Welcome them when they need a place to be safe.

It was in Jesus’ last speech to the disciples before his arrest that he said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

In fact, Jesus goes on after his last charge to Peter to feed his sheep.  He goes on to describe Peter’s death as a martyr: “You will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.”  Then he matter of factly adds, “Follow me.”

Is that what love means?

If so, do you love him?

Do you love him when love means going against the crowd?  Do you love him when love means making the hard decision because it’s the right one?  Do you love him when the answers aren’t clear?  Do you love him when it’s literally dangerous – when you actually have to risk something?

Do you love him on Good Friday, or just Palm Sunday?

The thing is, for Peter, for him to hear those words and keep going – he really has to love him.  Otherwise, he is not going to get very far.  It doesn’t mean he won’t get scared or make mistakes – we know he already has.  But the answer needs to be yes to move forward at this point in the story,

I read this and wonder, in fact, if what Jesus demands of is demanded in proportion to our love for him.    What do you think?  Maybe not, but, it’s worth thinking about.

We might borrow some words from the Apostle Paul here:

If you have strong faith, the kind of faith that can move mountains, but don’t love him, it doesn’t matter.  It’s not enough.

If you do all the right things that you are supposed to and follow all the commandments, but you don’t love him, then that’s just legalism, and there’s no redemption in that.

And if you have all the right answers to Jesus’ questions, but you don’t love him, it doesn’t matter.  It won’t get you from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.

Even if you are willing to go to the cross with Jesus as a martyr, but it’s not out of love, then there’s not really any redemption in that, either.

So do you love him?

Jesus, we might say: I’ve been going to church my whole life, I tithe, I help people in need, I stand up for what is right, I even invite my friends to church sometimes.

And Jesus says: so is that a yes?

Is it?

Maybe you are sitting there thinking that you know the answer is supposed to be yes, but you’re just not sure.

Maybe you say, I don’t know, I like Jesus, but he’s kind of annoying sometimes, with his ideas about what I should do with my life.

Or maybe you say, I do all those things mentioned above, but I’m not really sure that’s love.

Or maybe you say, I love him Palm-Sunday-style but I’m honestly not sure how my love would hold out for the rest of the week.

Then what?

What if the answer is no?

I’ve been saying that love gives us work to do and that it’s that love that will sustain us as we do that work even when it gets hard, but it’s a little more complicated than that, too.  Because eventually we come back to the question of what love really is, anyway, and to the truth that sappy romantic fairy-tale feelings probably aren’t quite what Jesus means here.

There was a scene from season two of Downton Abbey that I always liked.  Daisy is one of the kitchen maids at Downton, and we know that she likes Thomas, another servant, who doesn’t really care much about her.  Meanwhile a footman named William Mason asks Daisy to marry him and she says yes, even though her heart isn’t really in it, because he’s about to go to war.  She doesn’t really plan to go through with it, but then he comes home injured and dying, so she does.  She marries him on his deathbed and stays with him for the six or seven hours until he dies.

She’s wracked with guilt about lying to him, and at one point admits to Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) that she didn’t really love William, and Lady Violet responds, “So you married him to keep his spirits up at the end?  Well, forgive me, but that doesn’t sound unloving.  To me that sounds as if you loved him a great deal.”

I learned something about real love in my first year of ministry, in Williamsburg, when I met a couple named Carole and Bob.  When I met them, Bob was already sick – in fact, he would die just a couple months later, and that would be my first solo funeral.  But by this point, Bob had already been sick for years, in and out of various hospitals and rehab facilities.  I watched Carole go and sit with him at the hospital every day.  Most of the time he wasn’t even awake, but she went and she sat.

And I thought, “This is what it means to say for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”  Literally this is what it means.  While my friends were getting engaged and married all around me, here was this example of the promises they were making.  Of course, Carole and Bob’s story probably did begin in romance, but their love went far beyond that.

This, I think, is the kind of love that Jesus asks for: love that isn’t romance, but commitment.  Love is listening to a friend’s problems even though you’re kind of sick of hearing about that.  Love is sitting with your spouse or parent at the nursing home day after day.  Love is showing grace to someone who has hurt you.

Love is when we feed some sheep.  Love is when we take a deep breath and head toward our own cross.

Palm Sunday is romance.  Good Friday is commitment.

So do you love him?

Not sure the answer is yes?

Maybe feed some sheep, anyway.  Maybe follow Jesus’ commandments, anyway.  Maybe visit some prisoners and welcome some strangers and care for some sick people, anyway.  Not because you are checking off the boxes, but because you believe that there is something bigger and higher and greater in all those things, no matter what you call it.

The beauty is, I think, that if we start by doing the things that Jesus said, we might just fall in love with him along the way.  I did.

I’m not always sure that love will get me from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, that it’s strong enough to give me the courage to face what it might demand of me.  But I pray that it is, that it would be.

Do you love him?

Well, you’re here, right?

So get out there and feed some sheep.

Questions Jesus Asked: Who Do You Say That I Am?


Scripture: Mark 8:27-30

For a couple years before Evelyn was born I took Korean classes, starting from the very beginning, and so sometimes I would have to write the kind of mini-essay that you might be familiar with if you’ve ever learned another language: “My friend,” it would be called.  “My friend’s name is such-and-such.  She is 30 years old.  She lives in New York.  She likes pizza.”

If you read it, you’d come away knowing a couple basic things about my friend, but you probably wouldn’t come away feeling like you knew my friend.

It would be different if you had a little time and I could describe her to you in my native language: then I could tell you about how we met in middle school and I thought she was one of the funniest people I knew, about the time we got in trouble for talking too much in science class, about the Model UN conferences we went to together in high school and how we kept in touch, sometimes better than others, in college and after.  I could tell you about what makes her a great friend, about some of the hard times she has been through and maybe even some of her flaws.  And you would probably feel like you knew her a little better, but still not like you really knew her.

You’d really have to meet my friend and get to know her yourself.

Which, I think, is what Peter and the other disciples have to reckon with in today’s reading.

And, I think, maybe, what we have to reckon with too.

In today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are walking along in a region a little north of Galilee, maybe to get away from the crowds.  This is after Jesus has been in ministry for a couple years.  And as they are all walking along suddenly Jesus turns to the disciples, and he asks them a question: “Who are people saying that I am?”

It’s maybe a little out of the blue, but it’s not a hard question, really.  People in Galilee are abuzz about Jesus.  So the disciples answer, a simple reporting of facts: “Well, some people are saying you are John the Baptist, returned from the dead.  And some people are saying you’re Elijah, who’s supposed to come back before the Messiah.  And some people are saying you’re one of the prophets.”

OK, fair enough: in my mind, Jesus kind of looks at them for a minute and nods, and they look back at him expectantly, as if to say, “Why do you ask?”

And then Jesus says, “And who do you say that I am?”

And that question is maybe not so easy.

This is the moment the Gospel of Mark has been leading up to, from its opening words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  From the beginning, we know how Mark will answer this question: this man is the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of God – but in the story of the Gospel itself, the question has been lingering.  Who is this man, really?

Sure, we know, he heals people, and casts out demons, and tells stories, and all of those good things:

But who, really, is this person?

And I feel like Jesus’ first question, asking who people are saying he is, is kind of a way of easing into things, of getting the disciple’s minds geared up to answer, of not springing too much on them at once.  “Who do people say that I am?” They can answer that question.  The answers they have heard are wrong, of course, and they presumably know that – but it’s a fairly easy question.

But who do you say that I am?  That one is harder.  Or at least, we can say, it is much, much, weightier.

Martin Copenhaver, in his book Jesus is the Question, compares answering it to saying “I love you” for the first time in a relationship: “We may hesitate, not because we doubt the words are true, but because, having spoken the truth, we can no longer ignore its implications for our lives.” (100)

And in fact, that is true, because from here on out in the Gospel of Mark, the happy-go-lucky days of ministry in Galilee are over, and it is on to Jerusalem – where things are about to get real.  Who do the disciples say that Jesus is?  Well, that’s going to take some reflection on everything they have been through and seen and experienced in the last couple years – but it’s also going to take some looking ahead, because how they answer is going to mean something in terms of what lies ahead for them.

Peter, though, is ready with an answer: “You are the Messiah,” he says, simply, or depending on the translation, “You are the Christ.”

In some of the Gospels Jesus congratulates Peter on getting the right answer, but not in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark, Jesus seems to tacitly accept his answer, but he responds only, “You better not go around telling people, you understand?”  This is Mark’s so-called “Messianic Secret” which scholars still struggle to fully explain.  But we do get a clue of why Jesus might say that in this case in the dialogue that comes next: Jesus tells the disciples that “the Son of Man” will have to suffer and die and rise again, and Peter takes him aside and “rebukes” him.  Hey, Jesus, you know you really shouldn’t be saying these things.

You can imagine that Jesus doesn’t take too kindly to that.

So it appears that even though Peter has answered the question correctly, there are still some questions left to answer: The Messiah, huh?  What does that mean to you?

Now, from our perspective a couple thousand years later, we know that being the Messiah does, actually, mean that Jesus has to suffer and die and rise again, so I suppose you could say we have the correct answer.  I suppose, though, that there could have been a lot of other correct answers (though, of course, plenty of wrong ones, too.)  Peter could have said, for example, that Jesus was the Alpha and Omega.  He could have said that he was the Bread of Life.  He could have said, as Mark does at the beginning of his Gospel, that Jesus was the Son of God.  And all of these things would have been right, and all of them, I think, could have invited that follow-up question: Alpha and Omega, huh?  What does that mean to you?

It’s the difference between knowing something about Jesus, and knowing Jesus.

So I wonder how you would answer these two questions that Jesus asked, starting with the easier one: Who do people say that I am?

Some, I am sure, would say that Jesus was a great teacher – perhaps nothing more.  Some would call him a prophet, as our Muslim brothers and sisters do.  Some writers I’ve read call Jesus “friend.”  To some medieval mystics, he was more like a lover.

What else?

Anne Lamott, describing her conversion to Christianity, compared Jesus to a little cat that followed her around, and lurked in the corner.

We could get theological about it.  Karl Barth calls Jesus the “Krisis” in that he troubles, or judges even the things we think are right, as humans.

I asked some members of a clergy group I’m part of who they would say Jesus is.  (One of them said, “No one’s ever asked me that question.”  Come to think of it, I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me that question either.) The answers they gave ranged from “a person who shows us a way to live, in which we see who God is” to “Jesus is the one who transformed my life.”

I am sure that you like some of these answers, and don’t like some others, and might have to think about still some others: that’s OK.  There are a lot of wrong answers to this question, but there are also probably a lot of right ones, and for now, we are simply getting wheels spinning.

Let’s get biblical about it: what are some of the names and descriptions we find for Jesus in the Bible itself?

Son of God, Son of Man, prophet, priest and king, Great High Priest, Alpha and Omega, teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ, Prince of Peace, I AM, Word, healer, miracle worker, …

In fact, we might even say that each of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – is an attempt to answer this question in its own way.

OK, so, who do people say that Jesus is?  There are a lot of options.

So, now: Who do you say that Jesus is?

I expect that our answers to this will probably differ greatly, and even given the one-line simplicity of Peter’s answer, I think that’s OK.  That’s not to say that Jesus is whoever we want him to be, whether gentle lover or harsh judge.  (Barth, like I mentioned before, would call Jesus the “Krisis” of all of our images and definitions of him.)  But it is to say that no one else can ultimately answer that question for you.

And I think that it is important to think about our answers for two reasons.  First of all, the story turns on this question.    This is a question that moves us from Galilee to Jerusalem, from stories and miracles to the cross.  Are we ready to go there?  Do we really know Jesus – not just know some stuff about him, like I could tell you about my friend – but really know him?  And if so, what implications does that have?  What does that mean for me, especially as the story takes this turn?

As Martin Copenhaver put it– “Is Jesus a teacher?  What would it mean to live as his student?  Is Jesus the one who makes peace possible in the world?  How can I live into his peace?” (106)

And the other reason is, what if someone asked?  I know Jesus told Peter not to tell anyone about him – but that was before his death and resurrection, and I think we have ample evidence that, knowing the rest of the story, we are supposed to tell people about it.  So what if someone asked who didn’t go to church, or maybe just wanted to know what you saw in the whole thing – is they said, “So who is this Jesus guy, exactly?”  What would you tell them?  Would you have an answer, or would you be caught off guard?

I will tell you, I am ready in a second if someone asks me about my call to ministry.  That is a response I have cultivated in many different forms over many years, from the sermon version to the making small talk in line at Starbucks version.  But, like my pastor friend said, I am not sure anyone has ever just come out and asked me who Jesus is, and before now, I’m not sure I would have been immediately ready with an answer.

But here is my attempt to answer that question – to answer, not who Jesus is to everybody else, but who Jesus is to me (and I hope you will use your index cards to respond to the question yourselves):

Jesus, to me, is the embodiment of God’s love in our human life.  He is the one who not just shows me how to live a life marked by that kind of love but offers me salvation by actively inviting me and calling me into it.

Jesus, to me, is a breaker-down of barriers, of the human barriers we set up – of race and gender and class and culture and religion; and whenever I experience one of these barriers knocked down in my own life or read about it in the world around me, I powerfully feel Jesus there.

Jesus is who I believe I meet in the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned.  Jesus is who I’ve met in the women I worked with in shelters in Atlanta, the disabled adults at my church’s Respite Care program in college, in the immigrants I’ve met through ESL programs, in the Muslims who have invited us to work for peace together, in the people who have shown me hospitality in India, Korea, El Salvador, Ecuador, and many other places around the world when I otherwise would  have been lost and alone.

Jesus, to me, is the one who says “Follow me,” and even if it demands a lot from me, and even if I do so imperfectly, who makes me believe that it is worth it to try – because he promises that love wins.

He is the Messiah – the one who calls me to be saved from myself.

And that, at least, is my answer today.

Maybe it will be somewhat different for me tomorrow, just as it is surely somewhat different for you today.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Because in the end, I can tell you; your coworker can tell you; your grandmother can tell you; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, even, can tell you – all of us can tell you something about who Jesus is.

But in the end – you’re going to have to get to know him for yourself.