Tomorrow is Palm Passion Sunday. It is my favorite day of the year… which might sound a little odd. You’d expect a pastor to say that Easter or Christmas Eve were their favorite days of the year. But if you ask me, it is Palm Passion Sunday that answers the why of Christmas and Easter. In a certain sense, without Palm Passion Sunday, there’d be no need for Christmas or Easter.
When I was a child, that last Sunday before Easter was comprised of nothing other than the pure joy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. It was festive and cheery… Just as the palm parade must have been for Jesus that day so long ago. Attendance was good because, after all, who doesn’t love a parade?
But, as Protestants, not many people returned for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday worship. Nothing cheery about those days. Who really wants to hear the dreadful news that all of Jesus’ disciples ditched him like the sniveling cowards they were. Who wants to hear the ugly description of Jesus being whipped, spit on, mocked and having a crown of thorns pressed into his head. Who wants to think about him hanging from a cross gasping for air.
Years ago, the Methodist Church began to emphasize that Sunday before Easter as Palm Passion Sunday. And now, even if you only go to church on Sunday, there’s no avoiding the ugliness of it all… not to mention the jolt to our systems. Within one hour of worship we go from waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna, loud hosanna” to hearing the pastor speak the words of that first century mob: “Crucify him!”
But is life, our day to day life, really any less jolting? It seems to me that all around us, everyday, people who ought to know better and ought to do better ditch “the better” in order to save their own necks. Anywhere we find the threat of blame or punishment, we can also find a lot of buck passing. We talk about peer pressure among children but watch any adult fold if living out their principles comes at too high a personal price.
People can turn on a dime. I remember the old Bill Cosby monologue about him fixing breakfast for his children. His wife always did it and he didn’t know what to do. Faced with a table of hungry children, he spotted the leftover chocolate cake from the prior evening’s dinner on the counter. He sliced that up and put it on plates in front of the kids who began to chant “Dad is great; gives us chocolate cake…” until his wife came round the corner in her bath robe. Cheering ceased. Even the youngest among us learn quickly how to keep our heads low when things get dicey. After all, it’s just more expeditious to put the blame on one guy than to mess things up for everyone… so said Caiaphas, the high priest who decided it was time to put an end to that rebel rousing rabbi named Jesus.
Fear makes us do ugly things. It’s makes us say things we shouldn’t and go mum when we know we ought to speak up. To put it in a nutshell: fear makes us think first of saving our own skin. So God came, enfleshed among us, to live and to die out of faithfulness, not fear; out of sacrifice, not envy.
For whatever reason when I blog, I usually try to disperse some form of theological knowledge… maybe that’s why I don’t have a lot of followers!
But as I have reflected over the last few weeks, I am more prone to write about what I feel, rather than what I think or have learned.
I have a rather peculiar spiritual practice. Nearly every night – as I snuggle in to my warm, soft bed with a kiss from my husband and my dogs settled in to their dog beds next to mine – I give God thanks for such a simple blessing.
Now before I mislead you into thinking how virtuous and magnanimous I am, I’m pretty sure the impetus for the genesis of this practice was me feeling sorry for myself at some moment in the past and whining at God as I lay in bed at night… until at some point the Holy Spirit or my own common sense (likely both) kicked in and reminded me how good I had it. I have, for all intents and purposes, had a pretty easy life. Not perfect, of course; and none of that proverbial silver spoon stuff; but, as a pastor who hears many stories of people’s struggles and tragedies, if has given me some modest degree of perspective.
And lately, as I lay in bed at night enjoying that privilege of comfort, warmth and safety, I think about the people who struggle so desperately for it.
I am sincerely mystified by our disdain for immigrants and here is why…
I was born in America to parents who provided me with everything I needed nutritionally, spiritually, emotionally, medically, educationally, and on and on and on. And what part did I play in attaining such an awesome life for myself? None, absolutely none. Now granted, eventually I had to choose for myself how I would live in light of those blessings and – my college years aside – I generally chose well. But that does not erase the reality that I played no part in selecting the country in which I was born or the parents to whom I was born. Now (I shudder to say) some might assert that my life was all preordained by God from the get go thereby relieving me of both free will and responsibility… and also creating an arrogance that God must like me better than the people whose birth landed them in much less hospitable circumstances. But I don’t think such an attitude has a theological leg to stand on.
And so as I lay in my safe, comfy bed, I consider that I could have been one of those children born in a violent city in Mexico or Syria or… well, you get the point. I might have endured my government bombing me and drug cartels shooting up my street. And, if I had, I imagine my mom and dad would have done anything they could to get me out of that.
More than two decades ago, Bette Midler released a song that topped the music charts: From a Distance. (If you’re old like me, you remember it. If you’re too young to remember it, well, that’s what You Tube is for. Check it out.)
The song’s overall message is that all of us, across the world, share a great deal in common. We share common desires for hope and peace and we must learn to share this world and its resources. But I do take issue with the song’s recurring chorus that God is watching us from a distance.
Today is Christmas Eve. On this day followers of Jesus celebrate that God does more than watch us; that our God is not one who monitors the situation from a distance, keeping us at arm’s length. To be a Christian is to reject the notion of a “distant” God. The baby whose birth we celebrate today is a God who came to live among us (see John 1:1-14).
It’s a remarkable thing if you stop to think about it. The God of the universe chose to put on human flesh. And not just any human flesh. He came as a baby… which was particularly bold and risky. In the first century Middle Eastern world, children weren’t adored and doted over as they are in our culture today. From a first century perspective (read some first century writings and you’ll discover this is true) children had little value aside from their potential to grow up and become adults who could maintain the honor of their family and provide “social security” to their parents in their old age. The rate of infant mortality was incredibly high. To be a child in first century Palestine was to be in an incredibly vulnerable position. That’s why Jesus points to children as model citizens in the kingdom of God.
That the God of the universe chose to put on human flesh of any sort is astonishing enough. But to come as an infant makes it even more remarkable.
Right now we are living in a world where everything and everyone seems to be “amping it up.” We’re awash in rhetoric of power and dominance. But, if we believe the Christmas story at all, we must accept the truth that love is expressed (and life is truly lived) through vulnerability. Today is a “holiday” not for the mighty and powerful; but for the most humble and vulnerable among us. Luke (chapter 2) communicates that it wasn’t the Emperor Augustus who showed up to worship the baby in a manger; it was shepherds, blue collar laborers working the third shift. Matthew (also chapter 2) tells us that King Herod never made it in time to see Jesus (and slaughter him as he hoped to do). But little Jesus was visited and worshiped by a bunch of “heathen” foreigners with dubious religious and cultural customs.
Johann Christoph Blumbardt wrote: “The Savior of the world is one of us. He placed himself in the midst of our human condition. He is not like one who stands apart and looks high above us.” Our God is with us.
I know… Thanksgiving is already over – technically speaking.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember learning about Thanksgiving in school; you know, the Pilgrims and the “Indians” all gathered round the table. We traced our little hands to make turkeys. Remember? (Just as a reality check, the first national day of Thanksgiving didn’t occur until 1863, under the presidency of Lincoln. Even after that, it was hit or miss. It wasn’t until FDR signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that Thanksgiving became a National Holiday.)
It’s important to give thanks and count our blessings; but I also think it’s important to have a clear theological perspective. I’m always troubled by those people who, when interviewed after a deadly disaster, give thanks to God for saving them (often adding that God must have a special plan for their life). That will segue into the next interview with someone who lost a loved one in the same disaster. Are we implying God did not want to save them or ran out of plans for them?
Here’s what concerns me most: When all the blessings in our lives become personalized as something God expressly chose for US, it can become an excuse for not doing more to address the suffering and injustice of others.
I’m not sure there has ever been a Thanksgiving when I have thought about this more than this year. I have followed the news reports about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protest over the Dakota pipeline which will run beneath Lake Oahe and could potentially leak and contaminate the Missouri River. There’s a lot of history behind this protest; 150 years worth of treaties the government has initiated and subsequently violated. I guess the Native tribes long ago missed their window of opportunity to build a wall to keep us from crossing into their territory.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Spanish immersion school here in the Midwest. The native speakers were all bi-lingual young people who were first generation Americans. I remember one young woman’s shocking story. Her parents had legally entered the country on a Visa with hopes of immigrating. They didn’t understand the legal process; but they gave all of their savings to an attorney to file the necessary paperwork. The attorney kept their money but never filed any paperwork. They wound up penniless with an expired Visa. Since then I’ve learned of many similar stories and experiences.
I believe God blesses us and saves us. John’s gospel tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16-17). And I also believe that God can bring good out of even the worst of circumstances (Romans 8:28). But I also want to remember that some of my “blessings” of status are the unhealthy by-products of injustice and, while I may not be able to address all those injustices, I can – at the very least – acknowledge them for what they are.
In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a Good Samaritan. It’s definitely one of Jesus’ best-known parables; so well known that all 50 of our states have some kind of Good Samaritan Law.
As a pastor, I always remind people that – when it comes to bible stories – context is critical. And many of us forget the context in which Jesus told this parable. A “lawyer” (an expert in interpreting religious commandments) asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Since the man is an expert in religious law, Jesus tosses the question back to him. The man must be good at his job because he responds to Jesus’ question with an answer straight out of Old Testament law about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Jesus gives him a “thumbs up.” But the story doesn’t end there. The man pushes the question a little deeper by asking “Who is my neighbor?” As someone married to a professional educator, I know teachers love it when students ask clarifying questions. It’s generally a good sign. But, our gospel writer gives us insight into the motivation for this guy’s question: he wants to “justify himself.” That word for “justify” is a relational word. Like it or not, Christianity is a relational belief system. It all boils down to the kind of relationships we have – not just with God, but with other people.
Anyway, Jesus proceeds to tell the lawyer a story about a man who gets the modern equivalent of car-jacked: beaten up, robbed, left for dead on the side of the road. Eventually a priest comes along. But he’s not interested in stopping. Neither is another high ranking religious professional. We don’t know why they didn’t stop. Our gospel writer doesn’t tell us… although people have loved speculating about it. But, does it really matter? Finally a Samaritan comes along. Remember that Jesus was Jewish; his disciples were Jewish; nearly all of the people who followed him were Jewish. And Jews despised Samaritans.
The Samaritan stops; he applies first aid to the guy, then he provides him with transportation and takes him to an inn (no Urgent Care or ER’s in those days). He pays the inn keeper to continue taking care of the guy as he recovers. He even promises he’ll be back that way later to see if there’s a balance on the bill. If there is, he’ll pay it. Jesus’ parable ends with a final question Jesus poses for the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…?” I find it interesting that the man can’t even say the word “Samaritan.” Instead he responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.
I think of the parable of The Good Samaritan every voting season. Have you ever noticed how many politicians proclaim to their constituents “I’ll work for you.” But who is the “you” they’re going to work for? Will they be protecting my interests or your interests? What if my personal interests are in conflict with your personal interests? For what it’s worth, here’s what I think the question of Christians should be when we go into that voting booth: “Which candidates’ policies are most likely to ‘show mercy’ to those in life’s most vulnerable circumstances?” Now admittedly, it’s sometimes challenging to evaluate a candidate’s record. That takes a lot of work and I confess, I don’t always do as much research as I should. But it doesn’t take much research to define those most vulnerable; our bible gives us plenty of clear examples: widows, orphans, foreigners living in our land, the poor, the sick, the broken, the hungry, the imprisoned. Those are our “neighbors;” those are the ones most in need of our mercy.
Jesus asked, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “God and do likewise.” Go and vote likewise, my fellow Christians.
[On Election Day between noon and 1:00 p.m. stop by Trinity United Methodist Church (404 North 6th St., Lafayette to pray for our nation. Prayer resources will be available. Simple brown bag lunches will also be available for those in a hurry to return to work.]
When I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute teacher at school one day. It was a small school and we rotated class rooms (with our classmates) throughout the day to prepare us for Middle School the next year. As we moved along the hallway, students began to whisper about the substitute teacher. She’d never subbed at our school before and she seemed mean and frightened them. I arrived, quite nervously, at her classroom that afternoon. Her behavior frightened me too. When the bell rang, I exited the room with a sigh of relief. A friend was outside the door, waiting to enter. She asked me about the teacher. I confirmed, she was mean and she scared me. Unbeknownst to me, the substitute teacher had exited the room and was standing behind me. Suddenly, I felt fingernails dig into my arm. She grabbed hold of me by my hair (long at the time) and began to shake me as she verbally berated me. I cannot remember anything she said to me. I can only recall my feelings: sheer terror. I don’t even recall how I got from that hallway to the principal’s office. But somehow I did and my next recollection was hearing the principal speaking with my mother by phone. There’d been an unfortunate incident and my big brother (13 years my senior) had been dispatched to pick me up and take me home.
It was not easy for me to get past the violence of that day. Violence never really leaves us. Its remnants are like an unpleasant, sticky residue that settles in our souls.
A few years ago – I don’t remember exactly when – I started a new prayer habit. At bedtime – as I snuggle in to my warm, soft bed with a kiss from my husband and my dogs settled in to their dog beds next to mine – I pray God’s mercy for those who do not know my blessing of a peaceful night’s sleep. It seems such a simple thing; but I recognize that around our world, it is not a blessing to be taken lightly. I think of families in places like Aleppo who cannot possible relax at bedtime as they await the next round of bombing. I think of people in places like Chicago’s South Side who lay in bed uncertain if a stray bullet might find its way into their home and find a target in the darkness. I think of people whose nationality or ethnicity means they must live on “high alert” for danger 24/7, even in their own home. I think of children who live in terror of the family member who will visit their bed in the dark of the night to do unspeakable things. I think of veterans and others who have suffered severe trauma whose persistent nightmares replay their horrors over and over again.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). First century Palestine was a tough place to be. The “look out for number 1” perspective of the religious leaders would lead them to offer Jesus up as a sacrificial lamb to save their own skins. And the “take no prisoners” mindset of Rome would lead to Jesus’ sentence of crucifixion, the most brutal form of capital punishment. Resolutely embracing the value of gentleness meant a lot of hurt and pain for Jesus… Perhaps that is why many of us, as his followers, still don’t seem very keen on the idea.
In a recent small group I led, I asked, “What does it mean for us to live as Christians today in counter-cultural ways?” Someone tossed out, “Is it about following the ten commandments?” Another person responded, “I wonder if it is about living out the Beatitudes?” (see Matthew 5:1-12) Hmmm…
Jesus said: “Blessed are the gentle… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you… on my account…”
[If you live near Lafayette, join us on 9/11 at 3:00 p.m. at Memorial Island in Columbian Park (http://www.lafayette.in.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/Columbian-Park-7) for an Inter-Faith Service of Peace and Unity.]
A while back I heard a TED Radio Hour interview with Frank Warren, founder of Post Secret, the Community Mail Art Project. Warren founded the project in 2005. People mail Warren a postcard of their own artistic design that includes a secret that is absolutely true and has never been shared with anyone. Interestingly enough, new secrets are posted each week on Sundays… a sort of colloquial prayer of confession. As I’ve read some of the secrets and a little about the project itself, it has left these impressions with me… People have a lot of secrets. Down deep, they don’t want to keep them; they want to share them but fear rejection. As human creatures, we invest a great deal of energy into hiding those parts of ourselves that we think others would reject or judge as immoral, weak, ineffective, inappropriate, or just plain strange. One of the secrets Warren shared came from a woman who wrote that she still had saved on her phone the last voice mail ever received from her dead grandmother. Just before grandma died unexpectedly, she had called to wish her granddaughter a happy birthday. She sang a silly little song she made up. The granddaughter was embarrassed that she couldn’t bring herself to delete the message. As a pastor, can I just tell you how common that is?
If there is one thing I’ve learned in 22 years of ministry it is that people in churches are often just as reluctant to share our secrets with one another as is the general public; sometimes more so. Shame is a powerful thing and a destructive thing. Yet church, more than anywhere else, should be a place where we can be honest about who we are; a place where we can be honest about what we struggle with and be an encouragement and support to one another. God never intended for us to go it alone. It’s not how God built us. In Genesis, chapter 2, after God creates the man and places him in the garden, God evaluates: “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) It’s a shame that scripture is often restricted to wedding ceremonies because it has a broader, deeper meaning: as human creatures we were designed with an innate need for one another’s help and support.
In the month of August, I’ll be preaching a sermon series called “Tell Me a Secret.” I’ll be examining four “types” of secrets that are also struggles faced by bible characters. I’m not so sure it really does much good to share our deepest, darkest fears, misgivings, doubts, and shortcomings through an anonymous postcard. But I feel pretty confident that Christian communities are places where people should be able to open up to one another and be who they are and that – if we can do that with integrity and grace – we’ll really become the help to one another that God intended us to be from the very beginning, the genesis of time.