Numbers 21:4-9 † Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 † Ephesians 2:1-10 † John 23:14-21
I wonder if today’s unique selection of lectionary texts don’t illustrate at least a part of the challenge of finding our way on this ancient path of faith. Think of it this way: Where we start has a lot to do with where we end, and it can have everything to do with how long we might choose to stick it out, and what and who we might meet along the way.
Surely, we are all familiar with this verse from John that, for a time, made it on more posters in more stadiums than we care to count. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”
Many who have never set foot in a church could recite the rest of it in their sleep. And for good reason, it speaks in concise language what we hold onto as the heart of the gospel—the love of God that pre-empts all else. The light of God that fills our way with light. And the next verse may be even better. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Exodus 20:1-17 † Psalm 19 † Corinthians 1:18-25 † John 2:13-22
Nikolas Cruz was not mentally ill. Let’s say it more accurately: any mental illness Nikolas Cruz had, under current law, would not have qualified as justification to taking him off the streets or taking away his guns.
The 19-year old shooter who walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people, who on Valentine’s Day denied these souls and their web of family and friends and loves their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who on Ash Wednesday added meaning to the affirmation that you are dust and to dust you shall return, does not appear to have had a mental illness that would or should have ever led to his commitment into an institution.
This is not to say he wasn’t deeply troubled. He had a long history of violent and disturbing behavior that gave light to a sea of unsettledness, violence and despair. And in November of last year, all of this rage was multiplied exponentially when he lost his mother.
Many had tried to intervene. “His mother made a major push to have him lead a normal life,” said Paul Gold, a neighbor of the Cruz family who remained in touch with Nikolas up until his mother’s funeral in November. “But toward the end of her life, she really had given up,” he noted [i]
All of these red flags. All of these warning signs. Nicholas Cruz was not mentally ill. He was out of control, and he was in mourning after losing his mom November 1st.
Gold said he believes a host of factors contributed to Cruz’s instability: his mental illness, the bullying, an obsession with violent video games, his mother dying, no safety net.
“None of this is an excuse for the horrible, horrible thing that he did,” Gold said. “None of it — but if you wanted to create a kid who was a serial killer, this is how you would do it.”[ii]
2 Kings 2:1-12 + Psalm 50:1-6 + 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 + Mark 9:2-9
“When I was six or seven years old,” writes Annie Dillard in her luminous book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.[i]
Annie Dillard is thinking here about seeing, about being aware of what is around us. She is making the point that “free surprises” and “unwrapped gifts” lay all about us in the world, in the same kind of way as does the poet Mary Oliver who asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”[ii]
I think Dillard’s childhood memory may be helpful for us today as we take a look at this story of Jesus’ transfiguration—as we follow the arrows written in the dirt up the side of the mountain. SURPRISE AHEAD. A free gift from the universe. COME AND SEE. It makes me wonder if God in this story isn’t a bit like Dillard’s giddy six or seven-year-old self: SURPRISE AHEAD. Follow the path! LOOKIE HERE: my son, my son. Listen to him! Do you see what you’ve got here?
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 † Psalm 111 † 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 † Mark 1:21-28
According to those who have spent their lives studying the subject, mosquitos are, as it turns out, really quite smart, and also therefore, as it turns out, really quite trainable. Mosquitos identify who is good to eat based on how they smell. Clearly, they love my own sweet smell of coffee…and Scotland. They smell that hearty Northwest base of Pike Place roast laced ever so subtly with exotic notes of heather, and shortbread, and maybe a little peat bog, and they can’t help themselves. and who could blame them.
But here is the thing, if when that mosquito is buzzing close by and I swat at it, even if I miss, which I usually do, they feel the vibration of my hand tearing through the air, and their hunger pangs turn to alarm bells. If I keep at it pretty soon they associate my unique perfume with danger and they steer clear. Smart little pests, as it turns out. And also quite trainable. What I am hoping is that some dedicated scientist will spend their life working out how to teach these clever little pests how to communicate and then they can spread the news about which smells spell danger and I’ll be bite free. In the meantime, I’ll flap away happy to know I am contributing to a more highly trained mosquito population.
A number of colleagues and mentors have, at various time, told me, that when you are in the swamp you must stay vigilant, hold steady – it’s not the crocodiles that’ll get you, its the mosquitos. It’s the little things, the close things, the hard to get to, buzzing in your ear things, that’ll take you out, that’ll keep you from where you want to go, and who you want to be.
Jonah 3:1-5,10 † Psalm 62:5-12 † 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 † Mark 1:14-20
Our family has found ourselves in something of a stealthy pen pal relationship with a neighbor girl. It all started early this week when there was a knock at the door. Now, we don’t always rush to the door when we hear a knock anymore because half the time it seems it is a delivery, someone dropping a box, a quick rap on the door and then they are off to the next stop without waiting for an answer. This time, though, we were just in the back room. I headed straight away to the door, but found no one.
It turns out it was a delivery, a very special delivery, though not from Amazon or the mail carrier. Instead there was a bag on the porch with a small bottle of coke inside it, and a note. Well, actually a couple of notes. One was on a Christmas card—I imagine it was an extra from the holidays. On the inside of the card, above its pre-printed sentiments of “warmest thoughts and best wishes for a joyful holiday season,” in large, beautiful, sometimes backward five-year-old hand-writing it said “Happy holidays” except holidays was spelled with a “y” so it actually read “holy days.” And below it, “from Catherine.”
And I think holy days may have been a more accurate sentiment given the youthful energy and generosity that was clearly behind this gift. On the other flap, Catherine wrote “I am have a piano resital. But I want your family to go. I did not now were or time or day.”
It was, in other words, a lovely invitation for our family to attend Catherine’s next piano recital.
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 † Psalm 148 † Galatians 4:4-7 † Luke 2:22-40
“The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.”
The old antiphon, the poetic couplet the church has sung from ancient times during the feast of Simeon captures it perfectly, doesn’t it? The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.
The old man Simeon, who has spent his waning years waiting for a Messiah, for a promise of better times for a people who will outlast him, of God’s goodness and justice, of peace and liberty and vitality once again being unleashed on the world was waiting on the temple grounds, waiting for God to show up. No doubt he had been there many other days waiting. Most days. Watching, praying, expecting.
But on this day when that poor couple walked with their new baby and their meager offering into the temple to have their child marked as God’s and blessed, Simeon knew at once that the promise lay before him in their arms. The Spirit told him Luke tells us—three times to make sure we see the connection, hear the proof. And he reached out and took the child and cradled him, and his heart was full. And as so many actors do in Luke, his heart spilled out in song.
The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 † Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Thessalonians 2:1-8 † Matthew 22:34-46
Tuesday is the day—the quincentenary, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—182,500 days after another Tuesday, another October 31st, the year 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This week Protestant, and even Catholic traditions are marking the day, and asking about its significance.
It is a day to commemorate. Remember. Consider, but not to celebrate, I suspect. What could we possibly find to celebrate about a split, a divorce, a tearing in two. Yet, it is a day to commemorate, an important marker. Our churches, Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Free, and religions throughout the world are becoming more attentive to our need to be together—because we belong together, because we are one human family, and because our survival as a species is dependent on us knowing this, remembering this.
That Tuesday, 500 years ago, Luther posted a long-list of complaints to a church that he loved, a church that had lost its way, neglected its purpose to shape and bless and lead, to draw people to God and to one another. Indulgences were Luther’s primary concern—an arcane notion for us today, but a big deal then—a way of selling forgiveness and of funding the building account. St. Peter’s was not going to build itself, after all.
And a thirty-three year-old[i] priest, professor, composer, and monk decided he had had enough. So he started a conversation that took on a life of its own, and changed the course of history.
Exodus 3:1-15 † Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c † Romans 12:9-21 † Matthew 16:21-28
“The problem is part of the solution,” Richard Rohr tells us.
Jesus was fully at home with a tragic sense of life. He lived, died, and rose inside it. Jesus’ ability to find a higher order inside constant disorder is the very heart of his message—and why true Gospel, as rare as it might be, still heals and renews all that it touches.[i]
There’s something hopeful here, I think, in Rohr’s insight—especially in these days when we are so attuned to political and social unease, to the distress of recent natural disasters and human suffering moving almost as if in slow motion.
Moses finds himself before the bush because God is fully at home with a tragic sense of life. God has seen the misery of the people of another time.
Paul seems to have understood this in Romans. Evil, hatred, persecution are all a part of the familiar landscape of the early church in Rome and true religion. There is no denial of it—things are rough. But there is also engagement with it, a way out, even: “Bless those who persecute you… Weep with those who weep.”[ii] The one that caught me this time around was a little farther down Paul’s list: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them…”[iii]
Genesis 12:1-4a † Psalm 121 † Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 † John 3:1-17
After I became a parent I remembered what a midnight knock on the door meant. Someone is scared, confused, needs to be reassured. Someone I care about has questions that are troubling them, needs to talk something out, needs a safe place.
Many have said that Nicodemus comes at night because he is important. He is a leader among religious leaders. His role carries authority and speaking to Jesus during the day would not have been the “done thing”.
I think that could be true, although frankly I imagine he could have found a way to pull it off if he had really put his mind to it. But even if this explanation carries some truth, it remains the case that to go during the night means that something is really bothering him. Something is unsettling him. He has questions that won’t leave him alone, that visit him when the world is quiet, and that need to find some space to be explored. Nicodemus’ imagination, his sense of what is true is caught by something in Jesus, but who he is - this Jesus - and what he does doesn’t fit, doesn’t align with how Nicodemus has come to expect the world to work. He cannot settle and so he goes knocking on Jesus’ door in the middle of the night. And Jesus lets him in.
The question that Nicodemus brings is one that we will witness other’s wrestling with as we make our way through these ancient texts this Lent. As we move with Jesus towards the cross and that Easter dawn, we will be with others as they ask: What is true? What is real? What can I rely upon?
St. Andrew Sermons