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?
Isaiah 40:21-31 † Psalm 147:1-11, 20c † 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 † Mark 1:29-39
It was a shot of darkness that I encountered this week. A blog referenced by an old friend, a single voice attempting to name what we have lost. It began with a familiar refrain, noting that in the past 23 days the United States has seen 11 school shootings.[i] According to Everytown for Gun Safety, which seems to be the source of these numbers, we would need to add nine days to the total and only one more shooting for 12 shooting in about 32 days, which lowers the frequency a bit, but frankly doesn’t feel much like good news.
The point of the blog, though, wasn’t the frequency of shootings or even gun violence in general, but what has happened to us as events like this continue to occur. Umair Haque, the blogs author, is suggesting that American culture is in decline, that this American experiment and with it, our notion of American exceptionalism, seems to be on the way out.
Haque’s diagnosis is sobering. He names five destructive tendencies, five social pathologies he observes in American culture that signal this decline. The first is signaled by this statistic about school shootings—that our kids are killing each other. Haque puts the number of shootings and its frequency in perspective in order to make his point. 11 school shootings in 23 days, or 12 shootings in 32 days, if you wish. It is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan, even Iraq. In fact, this just doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. It is, he suggests, a “new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.”[ii]
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.
Genesis 1:1-5 † Psalm 29:1-11 † Acts 19:1-7 † Mark 1:4-11
I bought an app for my iPhone a while ago. It was the second time ever I shelled out any money for one. I suppose it’s the principle of the thing that typically keeps me from paying for a phone app. It wasn’t a lot of money, just 99 cents, but for what I got, I’m sure you’ll be impressed. It does one thing, and it does it really well. Five times a day it sends a note, a simple reminder, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” That’s it. Pretty cool, huh?
According to the app website, the invitations to stop and think about death arrive at random times throughout the day—at any moment, just like death. The app is called “WeCroak” which, I think you’ll agree, is a refreshingly straight-forward and direct name for a phone app. If you click on the message, it will take you to a quote about death, or, you might say, about life.
Here’s one example from this week, from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
Death arrives among all that sound
Like a shoe with no foot in it,
Like a suit with no man in it.
Or this more didactic one from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.
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.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 † Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 † Romans 16:25-27 † Luke 1:26-38
Would it surprise you to know that this story from Second Samuel, this story of the victorious King David, now settled in his reign, now looking to build a permanent temple for God, would it surprise you to know this passage did not actually come together at a time when “the king was settled in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him”? Would it surprise you to know that it came about much, much later, during captivity in Babylon, when the temple that David’s son Solomon ultimately built for the LORD lay in ruins along with much of the civilization Israel had known at its peak, when the best and the brightest and the most privileged of Israel’s citizens had been forced to resettle as refugees in a foreign land? Would it surprise you to know that it came about when there was no rest, no house, and no king?[i]
Perhaps it doesn’t surprise you. Perhaps it surprises you no more than knowing the story of Mary and the angel Gabriel was written a full generation or two later at a time when this one whose birth is foretold, this Jesus the Messiah had been crucified on a wooden cross as an enemy of the state and a criminal, and this miraculous child John, of the octogenarian Elizabeth, had been beheaded, when the very structure of Jewish life that serves as the backdrop to this story had been undercut, when there was once again no rest, no house, and no king.
What is it about this hope of ours, that it seems to thrive when things are unfinished, that it seems to thrive most in difficulty, in suffering, and in need? What is it about this faith of ours, that it is strongest, according to Romans, when disclosed after long ages of being kept secret? What is it about this love of ours, that it is made perfect in weakness?
Isaiah 64:1-9 † Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 † 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 † Mark 13:24-37
There is no less light in the world. I understand this may be difficult for us to imagine on these days in our Pacific Northwest when light seems to be such a scarce commodity. The comments began soon after we said goodbye to Daylight Saving Time and gave ourselves that extra hour of sleep—a brief reward for the inundation of darkness that now affords us only 8 hours and change of this dripping, gray miasma we now call daylight. If you commute, you probably go to work and come home in this blanket of darkness. The same is true for school. It can be overwhelming. Especially so, perhaps, this year.
But, unless you believe in a flat earth, and the heavens as some kind of a literal canopy above it, we know this is simply a matter of perspective. There is no less light in the world. We are simply spending more time in the shadows these days as our earth has begun that part of its travels around the sun that radiates more energy and light on the southern hemisphere than the northern.
It’s a matter of perspective. The sun shines just as bright. The light is there, along with the dark. It always is. It’s just that we don’t get the same angle on it that we do in those July days when the light lasts for 16 hours and the darkness is almost non-existent to those of us who go to bed by ten or wake up after five.
It’s a matter of perspective, and timing, this relationship we have to darkness of all sorts. There is this tension in us, we creatures who live on this fragile earth. Call it circadian if you wish. We are circadian Cascadians, you and I. We are defined and limited and bounded in time and space. We oscillate between wanting to tear down and wanting to construct. Sometimes the first is necessary in order to do the second. Sometimes that destructive voice is just the first voice—the voice of pain and isolation and vulnerability that wants to tear open the heavens and let the light shine through the darkness, that wants the earth to shake so someone else might feel what you feel, that wants others to taste the tears that have been your bread for so many nights under these stars. Parker Palmer captures this insight, I think, when he suggests that violence “is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.”
So Mark imagines what Isaiah craves: The stars begin to fall when God tears through the fabric of the heavens to come down to earth to fix everything. Wouldn’t that be some good news! All the abusive and opportunistic powers of the world, all the lesser lights give way to the one true light, the one true power, the one true Love that can fix all that is broken.
Ezekiel 34:11-24 † Psalm 100 † Ephesians.1:15-23 † Matthew 25:31-46
It’s all hindsight. All of it. No one was doing what they were doing in the parable because they thought they were doing it “unto Christ.” They were just doing it. It was just what they did or didn’t do. Everyone was surprised, in other words. Everyone was surprised that this would be the thing that would set them apart—right from left, sheep from goats. When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked, or in prison?
Which kind of begs the question. What were they expecting? Not so much for the goats. We know all-too-well the world in which people do “goaty” things, do for themselves, vote for their own interests, look out for number one, shove and claw and occupy and foul more space than they need to. This story is as old as the hills, or at least as old as Ezekiel who sounds like a modern-day prophet for climate change. “Is it not enough,” the prophet asks,
for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?[i]
There’s more than enough of that to go around. And, of course, we know that part in us. Because we all have a little sheep, a little goat—we all have contested space within us, a DMZ between Thanksgiving feeding at the REACH meal and that feeding-frenzy we call Black Friday.
But they were all surprised—sheep and goats together. No one was expecting this. It just kind of surfaced. So if it wasn’t about pleasing, about caring, about serving as a way to meet the holy, to do it “unto Christ,” what was the motivation? Why did they do it? What did it mean? What does it say?
St. Andrew Sermons