Tuesday, March 24 – I’m still here!
Friends, I am sorry that I haven’t had a chance to update this blog in the past 11 days. These last two weeks have been a challenge for all of us. Suddenly everything feels uncertain. There is the potential for real danger, and for things to end up changed in ways we didn’t see coming. The political anxiety is heightened. Religious leaders struggle to make meaning and to adjust to the unexpected drama. This is the kind of emotional backdrop that would have been present in Jerusalem in Jesus’ last days. Even that residual skepticism we may about the pandemic (is this really happening now, or has it been exaggerated?) would have been present in Jerusalem in the days of Holy Week. Over the years of my ministry I have thought and read about about Jerusalem in those days feeling like a “powder keg” of anxiety and pressure. But I had never experienced it until now. This kind of anxiety and pressure can be exhausting and debilitating, and has the potential to bring out the worst in us, as it did in Jerusalem long ago.
But here’s my advantage over the folks back then. I know how the Big Story turns out. I know that the worst DOES happen that long-ago week in Jerusalem. And what actually happened was FAR worse than anyone in Jesus’ circle could have imagined. But the story didn’t end with “worse than we ever imagined.” God’s imagination is far greater than ours. Jesus walked out of the tomb anyway.
So how does this help me go forward in this time in which you can practically feel and hear the anxiety and fear crackling in the air? Because I know that however this story – even a worst-case-scenario version – turns out, I don’t have to be afraid. God is at work in this, and God’s imagination for good is far, far greater than mine. God can turn even death into life. And knowing that God is at work, I can participate in bringing healing and hope and connection when we are literally isolated from one another and afraid. And so can you. We can let it bring out the best in us.
Friday, March 13 – Not Knowing How the Story Turns Out
Friends, I don’t know about you, but I feel a little bit as if I’m in the opening/background sequence of a disaster movie. In the last week or so I’ve seen all the stock characters: the ignored scientists, the early stock-pilers, the naysayers, the just-barely-holding-it-togethers, and the people like me – eternal optimist, reluctant (but not unwilling) to believe that the crisis is as real and as threatening as the ignored scientists insist.
I thought back to my sermon last Sunday about Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to Jesus in the night. (I don’t have my sermon text, but here is a link to the podcast episode that Kurt and I did last week.) Last Sunday I encouraged us not to be like Nicodemus, who was afraid to risk anything in his encounter with Jesus. Jesus was the Big Threatening Unknown to the Religious Establishment. If he was the Messiah, then the world as they had known it was about to be up-ended, a vision Jesus brought to life by turning over the tables in the Temple. Nicodemus wanted to investigate this Big Unknown Threat himself, but he didn’t want others to know, so he went by dark of night. Later, trying perhaps to slow the growing consensus that Jesus was a fraud, he challenged his fellow Pharisees to follow their own legal procedures before they condemned Jesus or the crowds who were following him. The final mention of our friend Nicodemus is a sad scene. Jesus has died and Nicodemus meets up with Joseph of Arimethea to bury Jesus. Nicodemus brings with him 100 pounds of myrrh and other spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial – 100 pounds. One hundred pounds of myrrh and other oils were worth a fortune in his day – probably$150,000 to $200,000 in today’s dollars. I think what that big bad really represented was 100 pounds of guilt and regret. Why had he not believed what his heart was telling him about Jesus? Why had he been so afraid to risk his reputation and social standing to speak up directly? Why hadn’t he done something when he still had the chance? Why, why, why?
So I’ve been thinking about Nicodemus and wondering what I’m willing to risk to follow Jesus in this time of Great Big Unknown Things That Are Scary. Will I stay fairly well protected, under cover of night? Or will I venture out in the day, boldly, to go where Jesus is in the world? Will I speak up directly even when I might lose face and challenge the naysayers of our day? What am I willing to risk for the Gospel?
We know how the story of Jesus and Nicodemus turned out, and it’s easy to think we wouldn’t be like Nicodemus. But it’s quite another thing to answer that question honestly when we – like today – don’t how the story turns out.
In this story with you,
Thursday, March 5 – Aching for a Savior
I’m still not sure exactly how this blog will work. I mean, I read the first chapter last week, but only wrote about the book generally. And I haven’t had time yet this week to write a second entry where I actually start to dig in to the book. I’ll find a rhythm – I’ll make sure I find a rhythm – because this book and this blog are my primary Lenten disciplines. But while I’m confessing the lack of time I’ve made for this spiritual journal, and my lack of clarity on how I’m going to run it, perhaps I should add that over the last week, I and an unidentified co-conspirator ate two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that had been left here by a parishioner. (Replacement cookies are on the way; I’m not a complete criminal). So, just so you know, my efforts at making space for the Holy isn’t working so well this Lent. (Space for Thin Mints? much easier.) But I digress.
If I was talking to my spiritual director about this, I would probably admit that I haven’t gone back to the book because I have been avoiding a painful insight that Amy-Jill Levine (since she apparently likes to be called AJ, let’s just call her that here) makes in the first Chapter. After AJ’s fascinating dig into the Hebrew Scriptures alluded to (or quoted) in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s clear that the symbolism of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – at the Passover, on a donkey, with people spreading their cloaks and branches on the ground, calling him “Son of David” and calling out “Hosanna!” – would have told the people gathered that here was a king who represented justice, and compassion, and mercy. That this king was concerned, not with political or military power, but the kind of servant leadership where the king listens and draws alongside the poor and vulnerable. This king is the savior the regular people – those who have been hungering and thirsting for justice – have been waiting for.
So what stings, exactly? Why might I have been avoiding facing this text again? Well, I don’t know about you, but after the last few days of election-related news, and analyses, and trying to explain the health care system and why it might need fixing to our eldest, I literally ache for a savior. I ache for Jesus to just come and fix everything. Now. Seriously. NOW. And AJ isn’t letting me – or those gathered so long ago in Jerusalem – off the hook that easily.
And so we might wonder: from what do we seek salvation? From sin, yes. But also from pain, from despair, from loneliness, from poverty, from oppression. We are all in need of some form of salvation. Indeed, the idea of salvation for most of the Scriptures of Israel is not about spiritual matters, but physical ones: the Passover, the setting of the Passion narrative, is about salvation from slavery. God hears our cries. And the stories remind us that people, still, cry out to be saved. Will our cries be heard by others? Will we hear the cries of others? Will God act? Will we? (pp.32-33)
It is So. Much. Easier. to just sit back and wait for a savior. Or to pick one from a field of many, maybe even donating to his/her campaign. But is quite another thing to be willing to actually hear the cries of those who are still enslaved – by poverty, racism, addiction, mental illness, or by gangs or sex traffickers. Or the cries of people who are still oppressed and threatened and beaten and killed because they are LGBTQ, or undocumented, or just very different. It is quite another thing to hear the cries and to do something other than try to align ourselves with the right savior. AJ asks: Will God act? Will we? Well, we have faith that God will act. We pray that God will act. But what about us? I’m much more content to sit back and should “Hosanna!” at the savior. Maybe throw my coat on the ground. But we all know it is quite something else to risk anything real in service to the savior.
Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, and its Temple. Where are we? Are we in the parade and shouting “Hosanna!” or are we on the sidelines, afraid to take part? When the election is over and the victory is won, now what? Do we expect miracles, or is now the time the work really begins? Can we do more than sing the songs? Can we walk the walk? (p. 41)
Is there anything of real value to me – my time, my reputation, my life – that I will risk to respond to the cries of my neighbors?
Now you see why I went for the cookies.
Thursday, February 27 – Invitation & Introduction
Friends, I am a HUGE Amy-Jill Levine fan. Her book Short Stories by Jesus is one I go to over and over when I am looking for a fresh perspective on one of Jesus’ parables. There have been weeks when I have nearly wept with joy when I found a glimmer of a sermon in the pages of that book. It is loving that book so much that brought me – with great expectations – to this one.
Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University and its Divinity School. She is a marvelous storyteller, and she comes at her work with real academic rigor. But perhaps more interestingly, as a Jewish woman and scholar, she has a deep cultural and historical understanding of the religious tradition she shares with Jesus. Her observations and reflections feel so fresh and authentic to me in large part because they aren’t encased in layer upon crusty layer of Christian theology. I think you’ll love her too – if you don’t already!
I had been thinking about doing a blog as one of my own spiritual disciplines this Lent, but I hadn’t found a focal point, and I didn’t want to just talk about the weekly Bible readings, because Tim and I already do that in the Podcast. Without a focal point, I decided I would save it for another year. And then on Ash Wednesday (just yesterday) I came across this book and downloaded a sample immediately onto my Kindle. A few hours later, one of my seminary classmates told our group chat that her church (she’s United Methodist) is using this book as a church-wide book study during Lent. And another friend randomly recommended it to me as she looked ahead to Lenten preaching. If you ever want to know what the Holy Spirit’s work looks like in the modern world, that’s it. Three seemingly random connections to the same book, when I had just about given up my idea of doing this.
So, if you are also looking for something appropriate to read this Lent, you might join me in reading Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week. I love that it’s a “beginner’s guide,” because I am excited for Amy-Jill to strip off hundreds of years of moldy old theology, and walk us through these stories from the beginning, so we can hear this immensely powerful stories as if for the first time. Or you might just read or re-read the Gospel texts. In any event, I invite you to join me here two or more times a week during Lent as I encounter these stories in a fresh, new way.