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]
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.
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?
Exodus 17:1-7 † Psalm 95 † Romans 5:1-11 † John 4:5-42
So last week we met Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who snuck out in the middle of the night, face hidden, phone off to ask Jesus his questions. He had a lot to lose, after all. He was a man among men. A community leader. A member of a club that had stacked the deck for themselves. So he had to come at night.
Sometimes it is like that for us too. Some of the questions that we want to ask, people around us don’t want to hear. Questions about deep things, questions that show our flaws and our doubts aren’t always welcome at the gym or around the dinner table at the retirement home. Vulnerability doesn’t play well in corridors of power that have a lot to protect.
The problem is, even in our churches we sometimes get the message that some questions are out of bounds, that you have to be a certain thing, think a certain way in order to show yourself in the light of day.
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?
Exodus 24:12-18 † Psalm 2 † 2 Peter 1:16-21 † Matthew 17:1-9
We had a little bit of excitement this last week. Barb was out of town, so it was Pete and I and the dog at home. Sunday morning, we left for church and all was well. Pete got home before me. I was down at Panera having lunch with a few of you when I got a call from my remarkably calm and clear-thinking son. Now this is generally true anyway of Peter. But once I found out what was going on I was even more awestruck by his capacity as a 17-year-old to keep his head.
As I was sitting, relaxing at the table, digesting a lovely meal, Peter was on the other end of the phone, by that point probably dripping wet, but not yet as drenched as he would be in a minute or so after following my instructions.
You see, Pete got home, and I think it was the sound that caught his attention first. Then he came into the kitchen and saw water everywhere, coming from under the kitchen sink. I think he may have investigated a bit first, leading, no doubt, to his initial baptism. Then he called. That’s when I sent him back under the sink to see if he could see his way through the torrent to shut off the water at the source. Let’s just say he immersed himself in the task—he was talking with me pretty much the whole time. Not sure how he did that, but it was impressive and, I gather, cold.
It turns out the knob that I had him looking for that would have turned off the flow of water, was actually the thing that had failed. It was lying somewhere among the cleaners and food waste under the sink and no turning at that point was going to stop the water.
Well, long story short, we eventually got the water turned off and spent a good part of the afternoon cleaning and drying and replacing aging valves to prevent another flood. And I thought we had dodged a bullet.
Matthew 21:1-11 • Isaiah 50:4-9a • Philippians 2:5-11 • Matthew 27:11-54
A few months ago I went with a friend to the desert—Death Valley to be specific. I wasn’t exactly sure why I needed to go, except that I had an opportunity for a break, of sorts, and the desert seemed right. We brought along a book as a companion, a book about desert and wilderness and wholeness with a great title: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 • John 11:1-45
We are a confessing church. We have a tradition of saying what we believe. We witness to what we understand about God, and who we are as God’s people, by confessing, by saying out loud, what we believe to be true. This tradition goes back to the very early days of the church and it is rooted in the stories of scripture.
The earliest creed that the Presbyterian church, along with many others, accept as a statement of what we believe is the Nicene Creed. It dates to the early 4th century. The Apostle’s Creed is from at least as early as the eighth century. Many of you will have heard one or both of these creeds before -- we say them together sometimes in worship. Both are broken into three sections….I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen; and then they go on to state our belief in Jesus Christ and what we accept about who he was and is; and then there is this end paragraph that lists our belief in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Many of us have heard these, right?
St. Andrew Sermons