Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
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]
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16† Psalm 22:23-31 † Romans 4:13-25 † Mark 8:31-38
Christy Ma began her newspaper article about a day filled with extraordinary events like this: “Valentine’s Day was a day of love, passion and friendships.” The first line flowed easily, but it took a few more days to get the rest together for the student newspaper the Eagle Eye. She and her co-author Nikhita Nookala drew guidance and reinforcement from each other and from the encouragement of an adviser to get it put together.[i]
Christy and Nikhita, you see, are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and they were writing stories about one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history—a shooting they had experienced. They were covering the shooting and the candlelight vigil that followed, even as they were living it firsthand.
Genesis 9:8-17 † Psalm 25:1-10 † 1 Peter 3:18-22 † Mark 1:9-15
Cognitive scientists Steven Solma and Philip Fernbach have spent many a year asking anyone they can find if they know how a toilet works? How about a zipper? They want to know. Or a coffee maker? Do you know how those work?
Yeah – yeah I have a reasonable idea how they work is the answer they would first receive. So then they follow up. Okay, can you explain to me exactly what it takes? How that toilet bowl empties, how the water in the Mr Coffee gets to the pot and how it gets heated, how those little prongs attach when you put on your favorite hoody. Then they let the person think for a while and try to explain as best they can how these processes they engage every day actually work. Finally they ask – so tell me again how would you rate your knowledge of how that toilet works?
These researchers have spent time and effort measuring these dynamics very precisely - lots of well-designed questionnaires and sophisticated coding and exacting measurement - and what they have found is that in the vast majority of cases when we take the time to examine our understanding of some of the mechanisms around us we realize that we actually know quite a bit less than we think we do - on almost every subject.
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.
Exodus 12:1-14 † Psalm 149:1-9 † Romans 13:8-14 † Matthew 18:15-20
Do you remember the Somali pirates? They made news about 5 years ago with a spate of ship hijackings off the horn of East Africa. The story gained some traction in the news and lots of mixed reaction, even inspiring the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” played by Tom Hanks. The movie tells of a 2009 Somali hijacking—the first of an American cargo ship in 200 years.
I remember because it was one of those stories that seemed to appear in the news out of nowhere, and then disappear almost as quickly. Piracy in the modern world? Where did this come from? And why? And why now?
It turns out political instability—essentially a decades-long civil war had resulted in a missing-in-action Somali government. In the vacuum of leadership and the dismantling of the local navy, foreign ships began to exploit the coast, invading local fishing grounds and poisoning the waters with illegal waste that further decimated the fishing population. It effectively ended the fishing trade that had provided a living for these Somalis and their families.
They turned to piracy out of desperation, holding crews hostage for ransom.
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 28:10-19a † Psalms 139:1-12, 23-24 † Romans 8:12-25 † Matthew 24-30, 36-43
It is important for us to remember who this Jacob was. First of all, he was a “heel-grabber”—a usurper, an ambitious, despicable, cheat. He exploits his brother’s hunger for his own gain. He defrauds his brother of his rightful inheritance, and deceives their father to seal the deal. If anyone is a weed, this is the guy.
And for the first time in the story about him, we find him alone. We shouldn’t be surprised. He’s now on the run from his twin Esau. He’s burned all of his bridges. And now, with nothing but a rock for a pillow, his hardness and his vulnerability are on full display, and, in the deathly silence under the vast stars of the sky, he is surely confronted with his own character.
But there’s more on display as well. There is this place. Six times, the place is mentioned—so often in this short story that it is awkward, or significant. Place, and with it, earth and land five times, and stone three times. And after his dream when the heavens open and the chasm between heaven and earth is closed, and God shows up with that promise once again, Jacob doesn’t miss the significance of what is hiding in plain sight.
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?
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 † Psalm 32 † Romans 5:12-19 † Matthew 4:1-11
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I long for clarity. I ache for it. Things seem to get so complicated, so muddled. I don’t know which way is up anymore. I need wisdom.
I often find myself grateful for—and maybe a bit envious of—those friends and guides who have this moral clarity that enables them to say so economically and emphatically what they know to be true.
If you watched the show West Wing back in its day—one of my all-time favorite shows—the writer Aaron Sorkin had these characters who always seemed to be able to do just this. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett always had the best lines, the best comebacks, the best words to not only put his opponents in their place, but even more importantly, to set the audience back on our feet, to right the ship and remind us of what mattered, what is important, what is reliable and trustworthy and life-giving—at least as far as Sorkin was concerned.
More than the fictitious President Bartlett, though, I have friends who are able to do this, and how I admire them for it. My memory is full of those moments when a conversation snapped me into place as someone named something for what it was—especially if I had wrestled with it, haunted by a sense of wrong, but unable to name it. And then a friend would, and immediately I’m back on my feet. Suddenly I’m freed from this cloud of uncertainty, able to see clearly again.
How do we know? How do we find our way to moral clarity in the midst of such a complicated existence?
St. Andrew Sermons