God Our Mother

I didn’t want to do it.

I didn’t want to preach “The Person Who Went to Seminary Sermon.”

This is a sermon I’m sure you all have heard before, maybe from me and I didn’t know it.

This is the sermon with fancy words like “soteriology” and “the eschaton” in which the preacher just has to show off the fantastic theological concepts she has learned and is sure are very, very relevant to everyone if she could just make them see it.

This is the sermon that sounds vaguely like a term paper and might even have footnotes and definitely drops names like Karl Barth.

The eager preacher rushes on earnestly, unaware of the glaze creeping over the faces of the congregation as they stop trying to care about hypostatic union of three persons in one godhead.

Well, like I said, I didn’t want to give that sermon but I think there must be some kind of law that everyone does it at some point.

But I don’t think you’ll find it boring because I think some of you may find it a little controversial.

This is not a dull theological concept, it’s an innovation in prayer that I found quite shocking myself the first time I heard it.

No doubt some of you are already very comfortable with it and others of you will leave here today thinking it’s a load of junk, but I hope many of you are like me—skeptical but willing to hear it out.

I knew that today was the day I must talk about it of all days.

Today I’m going to talk about taking prayer to God the Father and adding to it something new: prayer to God our Mother. Continue reading

Breathing in April

Last Sunday after I got home from church, I called my parents like I do every Sunday.

“How was your day?” I asked them. “How was church?”

“Church was great,” my mom said. “But we turned on the radio on the way home, and honey, there’s been a bad shooting here in town.”

I turned on CNN and there was the bizarre feeling of seeing my hometown on national news.

“Three shot and killed at Jewish Community Center in Kansas City,” the headline said.

My heart sank. The initial fearful speculations were borne out. It was a hate crime, committed by a neo-Nazi man who was a leader of the Carolina Ku Klux Klan.

I was horrified at what had happened, how these people had been gunned down at a Jewish Community Center right before the beginning of Passover.

The day had begun with violence.

We read the passion play in church, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Now here was more violence intended to kill more Jewish people.

It was a grim ending to Palm Sunday, painfully appropriate to enter into Holy Week, the week in which we contemplate the consequences of sin and the violent death of our Savior Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Friday: The Rock and the Handmaiden

All week we have grappled with our dual nature.

It began on Palm Sunday. We started by shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, and ended shouting for his crucifixion.

It’s bewildering and exhausting being knocked from pillar to post, being confronted with our best selves and our worst selves, hardly knowing from one minute to the next who we will be.

Are we Jesus’ faithful disciples, pledging to be with him to the end and actually going through with it?

Or are we his betrayers, selling him out to those who would kill him and running and hiding when the trial comes?

We face the dichotomy of our divided selves one more time today, on Good Friday.

We are two people in this story.

We are Peter, and we are Jesus’ mother Mary.

We are the ones who deny him, and the ones who will not be kept away from him but stay at his feet until the bitter end. Continue reading

Thursday: His Strength Runs Out

They had eaten thousands of meals with friends in their lifetimes.

They had eaten hundreds of meals with Jesus since they began following him.

They had eaten anywhere from twenty to fifty Passover meals in their lifetimes.

And this was their third Passover meal with Jesus.

It should have seemed familiar, comfortable, relaxed.

Just a few days ago, the disciples had seen Jerusalem welcome Jesus with open arms, hailing him as the Son of David and their King.

The disciples, by association with Jesus, were coming up in the world. The world was their oyster.

Or it should have been.

But tonight, something was indefinably different.

There was a palpable sense of discomfort, of unease.

All week, Jesus had had an air about him.

He was no longer the Teacher who thoughtfully explored scripture with them, or the Healer who touched all who came to him with gentle hands and an open smile.

There was an air of determination in him that edged on desperation.

He had the look of a man who had set his face like flint, as Isaiah says, committed to do something no matter the cost. Continue reading

Wednesday: Answering Judas

This scene in our gospel tonight is so painful I don’t even know where to start with it.

There are so many complex emotions in the room.

Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet, a moment of tenderness and love.

They could sense a finality to this supper they were sharing, but they weren’t sure why, and they started to feel an uneasiness that was uncomfortably close to fear.

Where everything had been so right just a few moments ago, enjoying dinner together as they had so many times before, now there is definitely something wrong.

But what?

And then Jesus says it.

“One of you will betray me.”

Is there anything else worse than betrayal?

The reason it hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love.

A stranger cannot betray you.

Someone who hates you and always has cannot betray you.

Any negative action they take toward you is straightforward and honest malice.

But the definition of betrayal is being sold out and given up to an enemy by a friend, someone you love.

The central experience of betrayal is finding out that the person you love doesn’t love you back the way you thought he did. Continue reading

Tuesday: Sir, We Wish to See Jesus

Being there for one another in times of trouble is harder than it appears on the surface.

We often define a friend as someone who will be there for us, but what does that really mean?

Our first instinct when something terrible is happening is to turn away, to run and escape, to get out before the terrible thing can suck us in as well.

If we make the decision that we’re not going to run away but instead stay with our friend who is suffering, our next instinct is to try and fix it, to say, no, look, do this, change this, fix this and you’ll be fine.

It takes a very disciplined and patient sort of love to truly be there for someone in crisis, an art that I sometimes despair of ever mastering.

It is exactly that sort of love that we can often look back and recognize in God’s response to our dark moments. Continue reading

Monday: Saying Goodbye to Lazarus

I wonder what Jesus was thinking as he ate dinner at his friends’ house in Bethany tonight.

By candlelight he shares simple food with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, this set of siblings who love him so dearly and so differently from each other.

Mary, with her extravagant gestures and adoring heart.

Martha, whose love is made of duty and service but is fierce and bright nonetheless.

And Lazarus, quiet and steady, a man who does his job and cares for his sisters, but got sick one day when Jesus was out traveling and preaching.

Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying.

They never had a conversation about whether Jesus was the Son of God.

They were just friends.

Lazarus and Jesus loved each other without having to say it, and Lazarus lay on his death bed knowing Jesus would make sure his sisters were taken care of when he died, and feeling sad he wouldn’t get to see his friend one more time.

Lazarus, a regular guy who loved his sisters and his friend, who got sick and died, and then came back from the dead because he believed.

They’re back in the same situation again. Continue reading

Less Than a Week to Live

Note: This sermon was originally published on Sermons That Work.

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming.

The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment.

To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be.

This is the point of no return for Jesus.

By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many.

The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous.

Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves.

The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified.

The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is.

While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life.

We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away.

They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away.

Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues.

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal.

The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”

The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you.

And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation.

Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers.

There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross.

As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish.

Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens.

Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries.

This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea.

Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us.

He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

At that moment our souls are torn in two.

At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two.

At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday.

The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two.

The record of our sin is torn in two.

The reign of death is torn in two.

And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection.

If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice.

We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live.

Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

Nobody Asks Lazarus

No one asks Lazarus if he wants to be resurrected.

That’s the part that fascinates me about our gospel story today.

No one asks if he wants to return to a broken and hurting body, the tangled relationships that all human beings have, the responsibilities of his finances and his job and his family.

He was a good man. No doubt he had gone straight to the bliss of union with God the Father.

What a terrifying and awful feeling, to be yanked back down to Earth with such suddenness.

Many people who have near death experiences return to life with a new sense of purpose, with joy and awe at the knowledge that there truly is something in the beyond and it is so beautiful and loving.

But for everyone who returns with joy and purpose, there is someone else who returns with a profound sense of despair and rejection.

I saw God, they say.

I saw God and felt God’s love and experienced heaven’s peace, and God threw me back.

God didn’t want me.

God saw fit to return me to this petty human life in this small, limited human body.

How could God do that?

I wonder which group Lazarus was in. Continue reading

A Glop of Mud to the Face: Thanks, Jesus

In the story of the man born blind in our gospel today, I have always pondered 1) what was the blind man’s reaction when some random person spouting religious jargon comes up and starts spreading mud all over his face, and 2) how awesome is it that Jesus actually went to look for this man when he heard that he had been cast out?

But first we begin with another question: what are the Pharisees and townspeople really asking with all these angry questions?

What do they really want?

They want the same thing that all of us want: certainty.

If there is one thing the human mind cannot bear, it is having our well-thought out categories challenged.

The only way we are able to walk around every day without flying off the edge of this chaotic world is because we have constructed an elaborate system of How Things Work and How Things Ought To Be Done.

Unfortunately, Jesus does not really care about the categories we have constructed.

He breaks every box we’ve ever built for others and for ourselves to live in, and he’s not very polite about doing it. Continue reading

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