Saturday, April 26, 2014

But Soft

Four hundred and fifty years after the man who first penned those words was born, we still recognize them.  But soft.  Some of you can even continue the monologue: But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, / Who is already sick and pale with grief / That thou her maid art far more fair than she.

Ah, that Romeo, he had it bad.  This is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with this week’s bible text, but I thought I’d through that in.  Just for a literary reference.  Just for a little culture.  And because when I thought of our Eastertide theme, those words are the ones that came to mind, oddly enough.  But soft.

We are moving on to the third Fruit of the Spirit that Paul enumerates in Galatians 5:22: Peace.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love”, we knew that, have experienced that.  “Is love, joy,” well, duh, joy tumbles along after love.  The end result of loving is joy, even in the midst of the heartache which also comes from loving.  Joy is there because a sense of rightness, of being brought out of yourself long enough love something, someone else.  Joy is the out come of other centered love.  “Is love, joy, peace ...”  Really?

I’m on board with love and joy being partners, of one leading to the other.  But peace?  It seems the more we love the more we lose our grip on peace.  Even when the object of our love is God, it seems we are driven to more action, more activity - good as it is, joyous as it is, it just seems like stirring more things up.  The opposite of peace, don’t you think?  I mean, isn’t peace about kicking back?  About letting it ride, about not getting worked up, about no conflict, no agitation.  Isn’t peace like a Sunday afternoon nap?

But soft!  That’s peace, isn’t it?  Soft stuff, easy stuff, gentle stuff (I know gentle is coming up later, we’ll get there.)  How in the world can peace be much of a hope in these troubled times, in these busy times.  Even we who have things going in our favor seem to still be struggling to get through each day.  How can that be peace?

How about it James?

James 3:13-18   Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.  

Evelyn Underhill wrote that it was interesting to her how the time that Jesus wanted to offer his followers peace was when they were on the threshold of the most tumultuous time of their lives together.  “Peace I leave with you, peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  Then he went out a died a most painful death.  Then we was betrayed and denied and abandoned.  Then he was beaten to a bloody pulp and hung on a cross to suffocate and die, to be mocked and spat upon, sneered at and ignored as one more example of how not to live in peace.  “Not as the world gives.”

Maybe that’s our problem.  Maybe we just don’t understand peace. Maybe we’ve defined peace as the absence of something, of conflict, or worry, of trouble, of doubt; but Jesus wants us to define peace as a presence.  Peace is not what we’ve emptied from ourselves, but what we’ve filled ourselves with.  And what we’ve not filled ourselves with is ourselves.  At least according to James.

James doesn’t like all this hanging around waiting for stuff to happen.  He wants to get to work.  James is a doer, a worker.  And he says we are going to fill ourselves up with something, we are going occupy ourselves with something, it might as well be the right things.  There are the heavy things, says James, the things that weigh you down, the things that are never satisfied, never enough, the things that always want more, that measure your worth not by what you have but by what you don’t have, or what someone else has.  We can occupy ourselves with filling that bottomless pit in our souls that is never content but will use any means, will break any bond, will step on any toe to get what satisfies that gnawing hunger that won’t ever go away.

Or, James says, praise be to God there is an or, we can make peace, sow peace.  We can work peace, says James.  The peace that says I am not the center of the universe, even the universe of my own understanding and experience.  The peace that says while I am loved and valued, I understand that best when I love and value others, when I act out of respect and hospitality, when I cede center stage so that I might applaud another, when I give aid and comfort, when I bind up and heal, when I mentor and teach, when I pour myself out in the name of God into lives of those I love around me.  

The harvest James mentions is not peace.  Did you notice? Peace is not an end.  I know we pray give me peace.  Jesus even said there in the Gospel of John, I give you peace, my peace I give to you.  But it isn’t so that we can become peace hoarders, so that we can stock up on peace for the lean times, the difficult times.  Peace is the mode of action.  Peace is the methodology by which we choose to be at work in the world.  We sow in peace, we make peace, we bring peace, we toss peace around like seeds, like cool drinks of water on sweltering days, we plant peace in hearts - our own and everyone else’s.  

It sounds like work.  Kind of the opposite of what we thought peace was, once upon a time.  The kicking back not really caring kind of peace. No, this peace is the enemy of apathy.  This peace turns the tables on injustice.  This peace brings a sword that cuts through pretensions and falsehood, through prejudice and oppression.  Yes, it is work.  Sowing in peace is an all consuming enterprise.  But it does have an end.  A harvest James calls it.  A result.

Righteousness.  That’s what James calls it.  A harvest of righteousness.  Which is what exactly?  Well, Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.  It is the body of Christ living as though they were a body.  It is a community of faith and faithfulness that lives in love together and builds a sanctuary against the life that tears down and separates.  Righteousness is about being faithful to our relationships, about honoring the covenants, with God first of all, but then also with brothers and sisters - those in the faith and those not yet there.  Righteousness is about living as though God was the determiner of who was worth loving and who wasn’t.  
Peace, like joy then, is an outcome of love.  When we learn to love God we will know peace.  When we learn to love like God then we will make peace, we will sow in peace.  

Now whether we will compare the ones we love to the moon or not is open for discussion.  But soft.


Saturday, April 19, 2014


Why is it that some moments and some places just seem to call for quiet?  There are times when loud voices just seem out of place, offensive, insensitive.  When even speaking at all seems like telling an off-color joke at church, like tromping muddy rain boots across clean white carpets, farm boots in a ballroom.  Like ... well, like something that makes you shiver.  

There must have been a lot of shivering on the first Holy Saturday.  Which, I am sure, felt anything but holy to those who had to endure it.  The silence had to weigh upon them, like an unbearable burden that nonetheless had to be borne.  Trudging through the hush like waist deep in mud, every movement an effort, every action a strain.  

Every beat of their hearts pounded out the wrongness of all that had come to be in the past few days.  Every unspoken word that died on their lips shouted at the cruelty of the world they now reluctantly had to inhabit.  Every tear that rolled unbidden down numb faces bore silent witness to an inner agony of body and soul.  

The hush was a shield that kept the broken reality at arms length.  It was a full body armor that shut out those who couldn’t possibly understand; a cave within which to lick wounds too raw to expose to the elements.  It was protection as well as the pain of emptiness, it was small comfort in an experience of discomfort.  

We are uncomfortable with silence, even when that is all we have.  We feel inadequate in the face of the hush.  “I just didn’t know what to say,” we complain, we confess.  We wanted to fill the silence, but didn’t have any words.  

On the other hand, there is silence and there is silence.  There is silence that hurts, the beats down, that reveals inadequacies and there is silence that heals, that gathers up, that binds hearts.  Easter comes in silence.  Don’t think so?  Take a look.

Matthew 28:1-10  After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."  8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." 

Matthew says the women went to see.  No, carrying of baskets of spices, no task awaiting them, no conversation about the weight of the stone that covered the entrance to his tomb.  They went, with silence clinging to them, to see.  To see if this terrible dream was in fact reality.  To see if all they had come to believe in was now rubble.  To see the stone of death and darkness so that they could dash their hopes against those rocks.  

Matthew the seismologist says there was yet another earthquake.  Were they standing there before the tomb weeping in the silence when the ground began to shake?  Did they see that figure, that embodied light, roll back the stone as though it had no more substance than a dream?   And did he, she, it then proceed to sit on it like a wrestler announcing victory over vanquished foes?  When he spoke did it sound like lightning slashing through the air?  Did her voice make their hair stand on end?

“I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.”  Were they?  Were they looking for him?  Or were they hoping not to see him?  Or were they just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to find a starting point for the rest of their lives?  But then you can see their brows furrow in confusion as the glowing figure announces that they’ve come to the wrong place.  There’s no one here by that description, he tells them.  No one lying decaying on a slab of stone that you might have at one time recognized, that you might have at one time loved with your whole being.  No, not at this address.

But wait, he grins into their confusion, he left a forwarding order.  He left an invitation, she smiles toward them.  First of all, take a look, since I can tell you aren’t with me yet, then go, gather up the gang, and get on the road.  He’s on his way.  The one you came to pay your respects to, the one you thought was lying on a stone slab behind a rock door, that one is up and about and on his way.

And they haven’t said a word.  Did you notice that?  In all this wondrous encounter, the silence still grips them.  They stumble away from the lightning clad being and start to hightail it out of there.  Going to tell, as they were told, perhaps.  But just getting away from a place of death that wasn’t anymore toward a place of hope they thought they’d lost.  But they didn’t take two steps, maybe three, who’s counting? And a suddenly happened.  Suddenly Jesus.  Suddenly death no longer had the last word.  Suddenly the end wasn’t the end.  Suddenly the certainties of living in this world were no longer so certain.  So they did the only thing that made any sense in that moment.  They fell down.  No, wait, there’s more.  They fell down and grabbed hold and they held on for dear life.  Or they held on to dear life.  The life that had been with them until it was nailed so cruelly to a cross and left to die along the side of a road.  The life that had defined them, had remade them, had claimed them.  That’s the life they clung to on that dusty road that first Easter morning.  And they worshiped.  Him, they worshiped Him.

But what did they say?  What hymns did they sing, what prayers did they pray?  What anthems rang out on that cemetery road, what sermons were proclaimed to the feet of one who died yet lives?  Nothing.  Well, nothing was recorded.  It could have been babbling, or it could have eloquent.  It could have been remembered psalms and prayers, it could have been impromptu praise.  Or, it could have been silence.  The hush of wonder and awe.

Why is it that some moments and some places just seem to call for quiet?  Because words fail us.  As much as we rely on them, as much as we need them to put shape to our experiences and to invite others to know us and be with us, there are times when they fail us.  When there aren’t words to define, to border, to shape our experience so all we are left with is silence.  But not a silence that drags us down, that burdens our hearts.  This is a silence, this is a hush that lifts our spirits and ushers us into the presence - no, the Presence -  of the Holy.  

Oh, there is a time for shouting, and it is right around the corner.  They will get to their feet in a moment and will run with the wind shouting the disciples’ names and the news they’ve been given.  But for now, in this moment... be still and know.  Hush.


Saturday, April 12, 2014


I've never been in a parade. Watched a few up close, tuned in the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving (which, by the way, my brother was in this year, or last year.  He was the really tall one walking behind the Sesame Street float.  Couldn’t miss him.  If you were watching.  For the couple of microseconds that they showed the people walking behind the Sesame Street float.  He was wearing a hat. Remember?  No?  Oh, well.) I’ve never been in a parade.

Doesn’t bother me all that much.  I mean who wants all the attention.  The adulation of the crowds, the cheers and the waves, the throng lining the streets, wanting to be you.  In that moment you are the center of attention, the brightest star in the firmament, the man of the hour, the woman of the year.  Who wouldn’t want to be in a parade?

Do you think that was why he did it?  For the attention, for the adulation.  Knowing what was to come, did he just want to soak up a little bit of honor before subjected to the shame and suffering that was to be his lot?  Who could blame him if it was the reason?  And yet it doesn’t seem quite right, that even here on this threshold, the one who would soon be on his knees washing the dust of the city streets of the feet of those called his followers, would be so self-serving on that first Palm Sunday.

We’ve come around to the parade again.  That odd little celebration marked by palm leaves and shouting in church.  Maybe if you are one of those go all out kind of churches you even bring in a donkey to parade up and down the aisle of your sanctuary, while the trustees keep a wary eye on the trailing end, just in case.  
Here is what we’re remembering this weekend.  Here is Matthew’s remembrance of what took place that day.

Matthew 21:1-11  When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,  2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. "  4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,  5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."  6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;  7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"  11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." 

So many questions come to mind as we read this story.  Was this prearranged or was it somehow mystical, or did the disciples commit grand donkey larceny?  If the crowd was really large as Matthew says, then who was the “whole city” asking the identity question from the fringes of the parade?  Or was this the first instance of a “preacher estimate”?  And how did Jesus manage to sit on a donkey and its colt at the same time?  What the crowd drawn by some sort of divine balancing act?  And did the home owners lining the impromptu parade route complain about the crowd pulling branches off the trees?

More importantly, however, the real question was did they get it?  This was a message Jesus was trying to send.  Matthew got it.  It may have taken him some years after the fact, but he got it.  That’s why he dredges up Zechariah’s words to help us get the point.  The king who comes, not on a war horse, but on a donkey of peace.  Did they get it?

They shouted Hosanna, that implies they got it.  Hosanna translates as “Save us!”  So maybe they got it.  Matthew says the crowd was large.  Maybe they got it, or wanted to anyway.  But then the city was clueless, who is this?  And maybe the city and the crowd were marching side by side, maybe the crowd was large but was made up of followers and city dwellers, some who got it many who didn’t.  Maybe they were marching along waving their branches and shouting Hosanna (which scholars tell us came to mean Hooray, or even Howdy by that time, not the prayer of petition that it once meant. Sort of like the word Goodbye, which was originally a blessing - God be with you - but now is nothing more than a wave, a signal, a cipher), but their brows were furrowed and they would turn to the one beside them and say “why are doing this again?”  And maybe the response would be a shrug.  Maybe it would be “That’s Jesus, the guy from Galilee.”  “Oh, right” they would say pretending to know who in the world Jesus from Galilee was.

Did they get it?  It is hard to say.  One thing Matthew is clear about is that disaster was right around the corner.  If there was any hope that Jesus was using this event to soak up a little good will, it would be shattered by the very next verse.  The parade didn’t end with handshakes all around and a few high fives for a job well done.  No, it trundled all the way from the gates of the city to the temple where Jesus turned over some tables and knocked over some dove cages.  It ended with a rumble.  The self proclaimed king of peace engages in an act of violence that left them shocked and confused.  What peace was he announcing?  What peace was he bringing?  And if you are going to strike a blow, why not strike against the foreign oppressors and not the economic machinery of our own people?  

Especially when that machinery will strike back.  Wouldn’t it have been better to keep a low profile?  Couldn’t he have just left a note, made a speech, wrote an editorial for the Sunday Jerusalem Times about the proper use of the Temple?  Wouldn’t that have been better?  Safer, anyway.  Why did he have to provoke?

All kinds of questions come to our minds when we pay attention to the parade on Palm Sunday.  Questions which, if you join us for worship this weekend, we won’t even attempt to answer.  Caught you with that one, didn’t I?  No, this is a listening Sunday.  And experiencing Sunday, not an answer Sunday.  Come and hear what the parade turns into.  Come and hear what steps are taken once he dismounts that donkey.  Come and pick up a branch and see if you want to walk along in this parade, come and see if you have it in you to shout Hosanna, or if the word gets caught in your throat.  Or mixed up with another word, one of frustration and anger, one of despair and hopelessness.  

Listen to his story and to yours.  “Who is this?”

I love a parade.


Saturday, April 5, 2014


A teaching day today.  So now I’ve made the trip to Indy and back, sharing with a group of pastors exploring this thing called preaching.  It was a good day, a long day, but a good day.  I am often inspired by those training for ministry.  No matter their age, and many of them are second career and some are even older than me.  My daughter would have trouble with that last statement.  “Older than you?” I can hear her exclaim, incredulous.   Yes, it is possible.  Anyway, I enjoy and often, as I said I am inspired by them, their calling, their passion, their drive.  Often.  Not always.

Always is a hard word.  In many ways an inhuman word.  Always.  Who says that?  How do we guarantee always in a temporary kind of world?  Who knows what might be next.  I heard tell some years ago of a wedding couple that wanted to change the vows from until death do us part to “as long as love shall last.”  Now it is possible that they meant always.  That they were confident in that love.  It was an Irving Berlin kind of love (yes, Maddie I AM old) “I’ll be loving you Always / with a love that’s true Always / when the things you’ve planned / need a helping hand / I will understand Always.”   

Maybe that is what they meant when they wanted to change the vows to as long as love will last.  Maybe they were proclaiming an Irving Berlin kind of love.  Always.  Too old for you?  How about a Jon Bon Jovi love?  “And I will love you, baby - Always / And I'll be there forever and a day - Always / I'll be there till the stars don't shine / Till the heavens burst and / The words don't rhyme / And I know when I die, you'll be on my mind / And I'll love you - Always.”

Either way, Berlin or Bon Jovi, it is still a big word.  A romantic word, not a very practical word.  Always.  Not a very doable word.  Always.  For now, that fits, that works.  For a while, we can handle that.  But who has the capacity to say always?  Not me.  And, I suspect, not you.  Am I right?

Philippians 4:4-8  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  

Dang it Paul.  Why’d you have throw that word in there?  That unreachable, impossible word?  That always word.  Take that word out and this is a nice little passage about being happy, about finding your joy, about walking on the sunny side of life.  It’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it.  A spoonful of sugar, all that sort of stuff.  But, no you weren’t happy with that.  You wanted something more, something deeper.  You wanted something, (dare I say it?), eternal.

Cover one eye and read this without that scary word.  Just for a moment.  “Rejoice in the Lord.”  Well, of course!  Who would say no to that.  Again I say rejoice.  Sure, keep reminding me, I need the boost.  I also need reminded of the source of this joy - rejoice in the Lord.  Certainly, I can do that.  I have done that.  I remember a time when there was joy in the Lord, in worship, in fellowship.  Sure, it happens.  Been there, done that.

And then, Paul says, let it spill out.  That joy in the Lord is not just for you.  Not just so that you get a boost, a lift, a skip in your step.  Let it come out.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  Gentleness?  Hmm.  Not sure that’s the best word, actually.  A good word, but not the best.  Doesn’t quite convey what Paul is getting at here.  Patience, some say, forbearance if anyone uses that word anymore, magnanimity if you want a real tongue twister.  Peterson’s The Message says, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.”  I like that.  An earlier paraphrase said “Let all the world know that you’ll meet them half-way.”  It’s about hospitality, about welcome, about inclusion, about the fact that we are the judge, we don’t point fingers, we don’t accuse, we dropped our stones long ago, even since Jesus told us that only the sinless can throw them.  We aren’t looking to pick fights, to call names.  What we have to share is joy.  Joy in the Lord.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Everyone? Paul almost slipped in an always there, didn’t he?  Everyone.  Hmmm.

Don’t worry about anything.  Yeah, ok, thanks Paul.  But no thanks.  I mean, how in the world are we going to do that?  It’s one thing to know we aren’t supposed to worry, but how do we stop?  And then because we can’t stop we end up worrying about worrying.  

I guess that’s why there is a comma there and not a period.  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Don’t worry, says Paul, but get on your knees.  Don’t worry, but pour it out.  Don’t worry but beg and plead and pound on the doorways of heaven with both fists, even as you know - not hope, not assume, but know - that you are heard and that answers are already all around you when you open your eyes again and put one foot in front of the other.  Don’t worry because you don’t have time to worry, you are so busy bending God’s divine ear.  Don’t worry because your life is now a prayer and the answers are coming fast and furious and surprising.

Don’t worry because from somewhere comes this sense that maybe, just maybe you are not alone in the universe.  This sense that maybe you do have a place, a home, an identity, an existence right here and right now that is meaningful, useful, transformed and transforming.  From somewhere, who knows where, God, it must be, comes a peace that even on your best days you can’t define or even describe.  It just is, passing all understanding, or your understanding anyway.  Where does it come from?  Stay tuned, that’s our Eastertide theme.

But for now.  Choose joy.  Rejoice in the Lord.  Always.  We’ve come back to that.  It is still there.  We can only squint it away for so long.  We can only ignore it for a time.  Rejoice in the Lord, Always.  Maybe we could negotiate with Paul.  Rejoice in the Lord, when it is convenient.  Rejoice in the Lord when we’ve got the time.  When we’re in the mood, when the world hasn’t taken yet another sideswipe at my confidence.  Rejoice in the Lord when I’ve run out of excuses not to.  Rejoice in the Lord ... Always.  Always?

How in the world do we do that?  Focus on the next one?  No, focus more deeply on this one.  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  Think on, dwell on, meditate on, take your cue from, be obsessed with these things.  Look at the list: True, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praise-worthy.  What is that?  Who is that?  Implied in the directive is the confidence that there is enough of this out there in the world to fill us up.  And not only fill us up but give us joy.  Real joy, In the Lord joy.  Always joy.  Paul says go find Christ in the world.  Go find the one you love, the one who loves you, focus on that and you will know joy.

The fruit of the Spirit love that then brings us into joy, the joy of the Lord, always.  Always.