Sunday, March 25, 2018

Do not be afraid.

Scripture: John 12:12-16 NRSV

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
    the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15  “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
    sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Do not be afraid . . .  

The crowd is gathered, shouting Hosannahs and covering the street in front of Jesus with their cloaks and palm branches, so the feet of the young donkey he rides on don’t have to touch the ground.  They are celebrating the entry of their king!  Why then, is John ’s telling of this celebratory event interrupted with the words, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.”?  You know, I’m not entirely sure.  Because when I looked up this prophecy, which comes from the 9th chapter of Zechariah, none of the translations I could find said, “Do not be afraid.”  Almost every one began with “Rejoice greatly!”   When John wrote his gospel, some 60 or more years after the  events took place, he knew what was coming, of course.  But he also knew the Scriptures, and the words of the prophets, so it’s hard to say why he chose to report Zechariah’s words just this way.

Zechariah was a prophet living after the fall of Jerusalem, after the exile.  The people were despondent, living far from their homes, enslaved and in despair over whether they would ever see Jerusalem again.   Zechariah knew that they would soon be reunited with their homeland - for God had told him so, and he reported God’s words to the exiles, saying, 
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Stop worrying and celebrate, people of Jerusalem!  For your savior is coming, and you will see an end to war and to your suffering under his rule.  And indeed, they would be liberated when Babylon suffered defeat at the hands of Cyrus the Great, who would return them to their homes and even help them rebuild their temple.   The region would know relative peace for close to 200 years, when Alexander the Great conquered Cyrus’ great empire.  

And in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem, indeed all of Judea, was occupied by the Romans.  The people were oppressed, enslaved, and wondering why they had been abandoned.  They were worried and fearful, waiting for their savior to come, and they couldn’t understand what was taking so long.  They were expecting  someone like David, who had united the tribes and kept them all safe from outside threats, or Elijah who defeated the priests of Baal, or one of the judges who defeated their enemies and kept things going for 40 years or so before the next invasion, or even maybe someone like Cyrus.  They would have been telling each other the prophecies.  They would have been reminding each other that God always always sent someone to save them from their oppressors . . . so when Jesus appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, riding a young donkey . . . here, at last, is the fulfillment of prophecy!  Here is the one who is coming to rescue them - like the judges of old, like David, like Cyrus.  Here is someone who will toss out the Romans and return them to the way things were!  Yay!  We don’t have to worry any more.  Hosannah!   

When John wrote his gospel, he needed to remind the people listening just what a difficult situation Jesus was riding in to, because by the time this gospel was written Rome had destroyed the Temple and much of the city.  In Jesus’ time, the people of Jerusalem had a lot to worry about.  They didn’t know, whenever they left the house, if they would come home safely again, or if the Roman soldiers would decide to rape them, or take them into slavery, or punish, even kill them for some imagined crime, or a crime someone else did.  “A Jew did this thing.  You are a Jew, therefore you are guilty, and it doesn’t really matter at all whether or not you are the actual criminal.”  Jewish lives simply didn’t matter to the Romans.  Even the nobility and the Temple leaders were fearful and could not allow anyone to call their authority into question - for their authority, even their lives, rested in the hands of the Romans, and in their own ability to keep the people pacified.  The people of Jerusalem had a lot to be fearful of - a lot to worry about.  And by the time John wrote his gospel, Roman persecution of Jesus followers had begun.   So, it does make sense that John would replace, “Rejoice!” with “Do not be afraid” in speaking to the people of his time, a time of trouble and great fear. They were worried.

I was kind of amazed to discover that the Wikipedia entry for Alfred E Newman is quite lengthy.  Since he made his first appearance on the cover in 1954, he has appeared on all but two issues of Mad Magazine, a humor magazine which makes fun of pretty much everything and everybody - and which was totally banned in my house!   (Needless to say, I grew up on Mad Magazine.  Because my brother hid it under his bed along with the Playboys he “borrowed" from my father, and was happy to share his contraband with his little sisters.)   But even before that, since the first recorded appearance of this iconic face in an advertisement for mince meat in 1895, he has been symbolic of a person who has not a care in the world.  His tag line,  “What? Me Worry?” is almost as famous as his face is.  He has sailed serenely through a bunch of wars, the Cuban missile crisis, riots, 9/11, lots of elections . . . even 1967’s Summer of Love couldn’t faze this guy.  Given all of that, I can’t imagine any situation in which this face might become worried or fearful or even a bit nervous.   

Alfred E Newman doesn’t worry about anything because he really doesn’t care about anything.  He is, after all, not an actual human.  We, on the other hand, care - about a lot of things.  And we worry - about a lot of things.  We worry about our health, our financial situation, the state of our city, our children, the future of our church - this particular church or the Church as a whole.  We might worry about our relationships, about whether we are ever going to find “the one.”  We might worry about spending our golden years alone or whether we’ll make it through the rest of the semester - or Holy Week.  We all have a lot of things to worry about.  And while there are those who would say that worrying is a sign that you have no faith, that’s not exactly the case.  Worry and fear are feelings. They are physical responses to actual situations, and there is nothing wrong with having those responses.   Faith, however, is seated in our hearts and is that which helps us get through those feelings and emotions.  Even Jesus was fearful and worried about what was to come - we know this from these words in Luke 22:42-44:  42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Yes, Jesus worried, but at the same time, he had faith that no matter what, God would bring him through to the other side.  He had faith that, no matter what, God would be with him.  His faith enabled him to walk through his worry and fear, and continue on the path that he was about to travel, the path that he knew was ahead of him.  His faith kept him from being paralyzed by his fear and worry.   Just as the angel from heaven strengthened Jesus, our faith can do the same for us.

It would not be good to be like Alfred E. Newman, never knowing fear or worry.  They are things that help us know we are human.  Nor is it good to allow our perfectly legitimate fears and worries to paralyze us.  Again, we look to Jesus for answers and for our example, whose humanity is made so very clear in the events of  this coming week.  The week to come is without doubt the most powerful of the Church year - filled with experiences of joy and celebration and love and fear and worry and great pain and suffering and grief - it is filled with every emotion known to humanity - even jealousy, because surely that is what impelled Judas to betray his Lord.  My sisters and brothers, I invite you to live this week in all of those feelings.  Walk with Jesus from today’s triumphal entry to Friday’s death and entombment.  Allow yourselves to feel those feelings - and know in your heart, in that place where your faith lives - that God will bring us through to the end.  

Let us stand and sing together, the story of the week that is to come.  

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ear witness testimony

Scripture: John 12:20-33 NRSV

 20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Some weeks ago, there was outrage all over the internet about reports that a teenage boy in Hanford had been pushed out of his motorized wheelchair by another kid, and then a bunch of kids ran away from the scene.  He was hurt pretty significantly.  His father posted lots of pictures of his injuries to Facebook and thousands of people were ready to go find those kids and administer “frontier justice.”  But the boy said he hit a rock and fell out of the chair. The police say that if there was a person or persons involved, they want to apprehend him/them, but there simply is no evidence of that, and no credible witnesses.  His father said he might have posted too quickly because of a rumor he heard.    …..  Did it happen?  Or was it gossip?

And who among us can forget the infamous shooting at a Selma High Football game in September, 2016?  - which actually didn’t happen at the football game, but on a nearby street, had nothing to do with the high school at all, and in which no one was injured. Within minutes of the gunshots, my Facebook feed blew up with posts insisting that it happened in the stadium, that there were injuries . . . there was even one post saying “Someone was killed!  The Coroner’s Van is there now!” and which many people believed, but which was totally untrue.  I spoke with someone who was in a position to know what had actually happened, and tried to stem the tide of gossip, but we all know that sensationalism is always more interesting than facts.  *sigh*

And let’s face it . . . most of us find gossip kind of irresistible.  That’s why gossip magazines are so popular.   We want to know what’s going on with everyone we care about, and in the place where we live or work.  And certainly there is nothing wrong with sharing news with each other. It becomes gossip when it is mean spirited, or when it may not be entirely accurate.  For instance, recently Mac and Natalie shared with the whole congregation the joyous news that Gloria is expecting twins!  So when those of us who were present say, “Did you hear?  Gloria is expecting twins!” that is news.  However, if someone notices that some young woman of their acquaintance has put on a little weight, and guesses maybe she might be pregnant, and then shares that guess with someone else, who tells someone else as if it is a fact - that is gossip. It’s an unsubstantiated story, not necessarily true, and depending upon that young woman’s circumstances, could be terribly damaging.   It is important, when we talk about others, that we know whether what we are saying is true.  And even if it is true, is it necessary to tell everyone?  Among the many famous fake Buddha quotes is this, ““If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?  Although this quote does not actually appear in writings attributed to the Buddha, it certainly sounds like something he might have said - or that Jesus might have said, for that matter.  If one is to truly love others, one will not repeat stories that might be hurtful, even if true.  (And please note, I am not speaking of testimony in court or other occasions when even hurtful truth must be told.)  

And please, if you don’t know, don’t guess.  Don’t share your opinion on what might have happened.  If you don’t know, say you don’t know.  “I don’t know.” is actually a good answer, if it happens to be true.   I know how hard it is to stick to your guns when someone pesters you saying, “But what do you think happened?”  But please don’t go there.  

Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable - just ask any police officer.  I imagine ear-witness accounts might be just as bad.  
Verse 3 of the hymn we will be singing in a few minutes is “Open my mouth that I might bear gladly the warm truth everywhere”.   NOT gossip.  Not guesses. Not what we think might be true.  But Truth.    The crowd who were surrounding Jesus all heard exactly the same thing - the voice of God speaking in response to Jesus.  But they all heard it differently.   Some heard thunder, some heard an angel speaking.  None of them really understood what it truly was they were hearing.  Because, really, who would expect God to speak out loud like that?  

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”   And so it had.  Next Sunday we will celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with palms and psalms.  And then will come that hour Jesus speaks of here, when he says “My soul is troubled.”  He knows what’s ahead.  He also knows he has to go forward to the end, or his work won’t be completed.  Indeed, Jesus speaks about as plainly as he ever does when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.“  He is that seed, which indeed bore much fruit.  This is a farming community.  We are surrounded by vineyards and orchards and fields of crops.  We should all be pretty clear about how things grow.   The seeds we plant are dead things, but they have the potential for new life inside them.  So it is with Jesus’ words and actions.  If they are simply words and stories written in a book, they are dead things. Interesting, but dead.  But once they are truly heard, and enter into the fertile soil of our hearts, they can take on new life, changing us and, through us, changing others.   If Jesus had just been another of the many self-proclaimed Messiahs who gathered followers and then died at the hands of the Romans, we wouldn’t know his name any more than we know most of theirs.  Their words have blown away on the wind, like chaff from the threshing floor.  But his still live.  His words continue to spread and to change hearts and lives.    Unlike the words of all those other would-be Messiahs, Jesus’ Word is Truth.  Not always easy to understand.  Not always easy to accept.  But Truth nevertheless.  

So when he says,  “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” he is speaking of the difference between those who are enamored of the ways of the world and those whose love is for spiritual things.  He doesn’t mean that you must go be a hermit someplace and give up bathing and such.   But he does mean that those whose primary focus is on stuff, on gaining wealth, on being popular or powerful for their own gratification, will have a really hard time being faithful.   We know this to be true.  In 1870, in a letter to an Anglican bishop, British historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton said,  "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”    We can easily think of some exceptions which serve to prove the rule, hence his statement that great men are almost always bad men.  For example, I think we can all agree that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Billy Graham were great men who were not bad men, although each had his faults.  Their faults do not make them bad men, merely humans on a journey.  Their love of Christ and of humanity came well before their love of the trappings of power.   But in general, Sir John’s words bear out what Jesus said. If you would be his follower, you must not love the world and its ways.  You must love God, and God’s Word, and your sisters and brothers, and put them first in your life. 

The difficult Truths that Jesus speaks - like his prediction of his own death - even the voice of God speaking to him, tend to go unheard, or ignored, or passed off as incomprehensible.  “It’s thunder,” say people in the crowd.  “No, it’s the voice of an angel,” say others.  None were able to hear the Truth, that it was God speaking.   Even his followers weren’t able to accept the Truth, that soon he would be gone, that he would die a dreadful, painful, shameful death before he could be resurrected, before the glory of God would be made clear in his resurrection.  Even we, who believe that he is the Son of God and that he was resurrected, have trouble with the death part.  We really would rather not deal with that, thank you very much.  We want to pretend that didn’t happen.     But without his death, there can be no resurrection.  Without his death and resurrection, Jesus would simply have been another of those many would-be Messiahs, forgotten by most everyone.   

My sisters and brothers,  let our words and deeds always reflect our faith in Jesus.   Let us be the sort of eye and ear-witnesses whose words of what we have seen and heard can always be believed, planting the seeds that bring new life in Christ to those who hear the Word we share.  Let us stand and sing together, a prayer that God may open our eyes and ears, so that we may always speak his Truth.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Where your heart is . . .

Scripture:    John 2:13-22 NRSV

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 

18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


We all seem to have an idea of what some of the Bible stories must have looked like.  Most of us have a image in our minds, for instance, of a skinny 12 year old boy with a slingshot going up against someone the size of the Jolly Green Giant, only neither green or jolly. Whereas David was actually an adult who had spent years facing down and killing ferocious sheep-eating beasts with that slingshot, and Goliath, who was undoubtedly a greatly renowned warrior, was possibly only as much as 7 feet tall.  A giant, like Andre the Giant of WWE fame and the Princess Bride, but not quite a big as some artwork would have us believe.   

Likewise, from the time we first heard today’s story as children, we have had the impression of a whip wielding Indiana Jesus wading through a crowd of evil moneychangers, snapping his bullwhip with one hand and flipping tables full of gold coins high into the air with the other.  Probably not.    

What the Bible says is that Jesus made a whip of cords or rope, and used it to drive all the sheep and cattle out of the Temple Courtyard.  He also poured out the coins on the money changers’ tables and knocked over their tables.  He told the people with caged doves to take them away.  No humans were whipped in the making of this story.    Which is a good thing, because beating people with a bullwhip just doesn’t seem like something Jesus would do.  Neither does cursing a fig tree, but that’s an adventure for another Sunday.

Tables lined the walkway on the way into the sanctuary.  One was covered with nuts for sale, and one with T-shirts, another had candies, while yet another had pretty things that were all handmade by the ladies of the Ruth Circle.  I always felt like I was running a gauntlet, frankly, because they all knew my name, and although they knew that I rarely had any “extra” money, they also knew I was a sucker for any kind of worthy cause.  And please understand this didn’t happen every now and then, like at Christmas time.  This was weekly.  There were always tables set out for fundraisers, every single Sunday of the year.   I asked the pastor one time if it didn’t kind of remind him of the whole money changers and livestock for sale in the temple thing, and he replied, No.  These are not inside the building, in the narthex. These are outside of the church building.  So it’s nothing like what was going on in the Temple.

Later on, when I had learned a bit about Temple worship, I realized that the tables lining the walkway into worship truly weren’t anything like what was going on in the Temple, because I didn’t need any of those things once I got inside.  I didn’t have to pay upwards of a day and a half’s wages to purchase the dove I needed to sacrifice that day.  I didn’t have to change my foreign currency for Temple currency in order to buy the dove, because foreign currency wasn’t acceptable currency for sanctified things.   If I had any self control at all I could get past the salespeople - oops, I mean church volunteers.  But there were cute little artsy crafty thingies, and chocolate . . . And I could convince myself that I was giving to the church when I bought these things.  After all, the money was going for important ministries, like camp scholarships and the local women’s shelter and new carpeting and curtains in Fellowship Hall . . .

Temple worship was also nothing like the worship that God had decreed in his instructions to Moses.  Because Moses was leading a nation of nomads, herdsmen and hunters.  So when they were asked to sacrifice a dove, they hunted one (probably with a slingshot).  When they were asked to sacrifice a sheep or a calf, they simple took one from their own herds, or bartered with a neighbor.  Cash in the form of coins, etc. was neither readily available nor needed.  But the Temple was built in a city.  Urbanites don’t have livestock, so a trade in the sorts of animals required for sacrifice grew up, with the market taking place in the Temple Courtyard.  And, because the Temple insisted that only its own coinage was acceptable, people had to change their Roman coins for Temple coins in order to buy those animals.  Quite the lucrative business had grown up to support Temple worship, and I imagine the Temple got some sort of “rent” from those merchants.  And Jesus knew that it was distracting from actual worship of God.  He knew that the important things were being overlooked in the constant worry about making sure the right rituals were done in the right way, when God had told the people once already that incense and burnt offerings were not what God wanted - that what God requires from us is justice and kindness and humility.  

By his actions Jesus tried to draw attention to the intended purpose of the Temple, a place to worship God and to be restored to wholeness.   For example, after a woman had given birth, she needed to sacrifice a dove and participate in a ritual bath so that she might be pronounced clean by the priests and once again join her family at meals, go to the well and the marketplace.  Likewise, anyone who had been ill of a skin disease (aka leprosy), or had simply touched someone who had been bleeding, or sick from certain illnesses.  The sacrifice and ritual bathing were necessary to restore them to wholeness, to bring them back into communion and communication with the rest of society.  It was about much more than simply buying a dove or a sheep or a calf.  It was about community, and somehow that meaning had gotten lost.

It’s kind of a normal progression, for people to go from simple worship to all out amazing spectacle!  From tent worship to a Temple filled with gold and treasures, from house worship to great cathedrals with spires reaching into heaven and stained glass bringing the Bible to life with incredible beauty, from simple wooden meeting houses to megachurches made of glass and steel, from simple psalms sung by the congregation to performances by massive choirs accompanied by a full orchestra.  And I hope, although I don’t know, that so long as our focus remains on worship - on what worship is really for - we won’t have to worry too much about Indiana Jesus coming through to straighten us out.  

Mind you, I love the beauty of this place.  The stained glass, the wood, the way the sanctuary is decorated for each season, all of those things fill my heart with joy every time I walk into the room.  I love the congregational singing and the musical performances dedicated to God’s glory.  I love the rituals around the lighting of the candles and the Lord’s Table.  It is easy to feel God’s presence in a place that is so obviously dedicated to worship.  Just as it is easy to feel God’s presence on Thursday mornings at the SMART Center, and anytime at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and Wednesdays at Christian Cafe, and Saturdays at Block Parties, and while making valentines for the patients at the Selma Convalescent Hospital.  Hopefully, what you feel here is what sends you there - out into the world to do good for no reason other than because it is right.  And maybe what you feel there is what brings you back here, to worship and give thanks to the God who fills your life with so many good things.  

We are focusing this week on materialism - the belief that possessions and physical comforts are more important than spiritual values and altruism - the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others.  Materialism, for example, might be giving money for a building (like a school or hospital) and putting your name on it, whereas altruism would be naming it for someone who inspired you, or endowing a scholarship in the name of someone who inspired you - with the important part being not the name recognition, but the help that your gift will provide.  Obviously, most of us here won’t be endowing hospitals or university buildings any time soon - unless there are some billionaires here I don’t know about?  And if there are, can we talk later? —  but we can give of what we do have in terms of money and time to care for others without seeking recognition or reward.  Most of you are already pretty involved in helping others, but just in case anyone needs more ways to serve our community . . . instead of staying in front of the TV or computer on Saturday, we might decide to go help clean up neglected areas of our city with the Selma Beatification Committee.  We might do something as simple as putting our change in a jar for some mission we find important, or giving just a little more when the offering plate comes around on Sundays.  There are so many ways to give of ourselves, so many opportunities to do God’s work in the world - and God’s work isn’t restricted to church stuff.  Helping out at the animal shelter is God’s work.  Giving to the Children’s Hospital is God’s work.  Any donation or action that will help someone else is God’s work.  Any time we reach out to help another, we are doing God’s work.  Church, and God’s work, are about community - all the community, not just the folks inside this place, but all of God’s children.  

My brothers and sisters, like the Temple in Jerusalem, this is the place where we come to worship and to be restored to wholeness, so that we might go out from here and do the same for our neighbors.  Let us leave behind our focus on the things of the world, and go forth to share God’s blessings with everyone.    Let us take time this week to pause and wonder about what it might mean if we give selflessly, caring only about the wellbeing of those who need our help.  And let us do these things in Jesus’ name.