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.
[May 1 I’ll begin a new sermon series – Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture. “Call me Christian” begins the series.]
Did you have a nickname growing up? When I was in college, I wound up in the advanced Solfeggio class. [A musical scale… Think of the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti- do song Julie Andrews taught the children in The Sound of Music.] I’m still not sure how I got put in that class. Lots of my fellow students had perfect pitch. I didn’t. I really struggled. It earned me a nickname through the entirety of my years in music school: “Ti-Fa Tracey.” So pervasive was its use that it became my email address: tifatracey.
Names mean a great deal to us. If we consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, we name ourselves Christians. Christian is a term put to extensive use in our country. It’s ironic that a label applied to people who worship a man put to death as an enemy of the state is so tremendously coveted by today’s politicians. In an increasingly diverse world, it seems there is enormous diversity of opinions as to what defines a Christian. In our post-modern American culture, it seems often wed to particular social or political positions.
The Greek form of the word Christian (Christianos) is only found three times in the New Testament and is always used in a negative or derogatory context. (If you’re a Methodist, you might recall that our denominational label was also applied to us by outsiders critical of our religious discipline!) Jesus never actually used the term; but he most certainly names the attitudes and behaviors of those who would define themselves in relation to him. A willingness to love, to serve and even to sacrifice for the good of others seems to be Jesus’ most consistent message. I wonder if that is still what we mean today when we say “Call me Christian.”
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:30
“Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” Do you remember hearing those words when you took exams in school? It seemed to me that there were always at least a couple of questions on every test that I wasn’t quite sure about. After answering what I knew, I’d go back to those questions and turn them over in my mind. But any consideration, any deliberation was over when the teacher uttered those dreaded words, “Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” It didn’t matter if your work was incomplete; you were finished. Tough luck.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ final words (as they are translated in most of our English bibles) are: “It is finished.” But that’s not necessarily the best translation. After all, I may only be “finished” with something because time has run out; like it or no, “time’s up.” Put your pencil down.
In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to his ministry as “work.” In chapter 4, Jesus enters into conversation with a Samaritan woman while he is sitting by a well. In the course of their lengthy conversation, Jesus reveals his identity to her; it is the first time he has openly spoken to anyone about who he is. When the woman heads back into town to tell her neighbors about Jesus, Jesus’ disciples try to offer Jesus something to eat. Jesus’ answer is odd. He says to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”[i] It’s a statement that baffles the disciples. They may have only been concerned about his blood sugar dropping; but clearly Jesus has something else in mind when he speaks of food.
Jesus picks up this thread once again in chapter six. He had (most recently) miraculously provided food for a hungry crowd of 5,000. But Jesus tries to put things in proper perspective giving them a response that goes something like this (my paraphrase):[ii] You are hunting me down just to get another free meal. Forget about wasting your time working on that. Work on pursuing something that really matters. Work on putting your trust in me.
Jesus, throughout John’s gospel, makes clear that he is working God’s plan. Over the course of the gospel, Jesus explains that plan: he will lay down his life by being lifted up on a cross to die. That’s the plan and Jesus has been working it from the start; always aware of what lies at the finish line.
And so, when he reaches the cross, his work is finished. But it is more than finished; it is complete. In fact, that would be a better translation of the Greek word: It is complete. No loose ends; no unanswered questions. Jesus didn’t lay down his pencil; he laid down his life. And when he did, he did so knowing that his work was complete.
[i] John 4:34
[ii] John 6:25-40
John 19:28: After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture) “I am thirsty.” (NRSV)
I heard a curious story on NPR the other day. We are all aware that California has been experiencing a dreadful drought in recent years. But in recent weeks, they’ve received a good deal of rain… frankly, more than the scorched earth can handle. Anyway, who knows how long the rain will continue but finally, at long last, California’s reservoirs are… well, starting to look like reservoirs again. But here’s where the story takes an odd turn… A century and a half ago – long before our modern scientific weather forecasting capabilities – a law was passed in California. If reservoirs exceed 60% capacity, they are required to release their water and reduce it to 60%. Otherwise, if a major storm caught them unaware, the reservoirs could overflow and there’d be flooding. But right now, the law is useless. California would love to fill up its reservoirs, but no can do. What a paradox.
Likewise, it sounds so strange to hear Jesus, hanging on the cross, say “I am thirsty.” Back in chapter four of John’s gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and informs her that he is the source of living water. Later, in chapter seven, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And now on the cross, the self-proclaimed endless source of life-giving water, cries out “I am thirsty.”
Now without a doubt, Jesus would have been thirsty. All that his body underwent likely caused dehydration. John makes clear to us: this was no walk in the park for Jesus. He was fully divine; but he was also fully human and we human creatures suffer terribly when we’re deprived of water. It is excruciating. This “Word [that] became flesh and lived among us”[i] wasn’t any different from our flesh in that respect.
But Jesus is also divine and nowhere more so than in the gospel of John. In John, Jesus embraces his coming death. He is not running away from it. He is running toward it. They’ll be no “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”[ii] for John’s Jesus. No, he takes that cup firmly in his hands. He is ready to drink from it.
In chapter ten of John’s gospel, Jesus likens himself to a Good Shepherd. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I lay down my life… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…”[iii] Later, in chapter 18, Jesus is praying in the garden when Judas brings the authorities there to arrest him. Peter responds in his usual impetuous fashion. He draws out his sword. But Jesus admonishes him, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”[iv] You see what I mean?
Jesus has always known how this would end. He understands what he must do and he is ready to do it. And so, when he says he is thirsty, perhaps the meaning goes deeper than his parched lips, his dry mouth, and a yearning for fluid to assuage his dehydration. Perhaps, he is thirsty to complete his work. After all, his final word from that cross will be “It is complete.”[v] Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “’I am thirsty’ is what [Jesus] says, but what he means is, ‘I am ready.’”[vi]
The introduction to John’s gospel tells us that Jesus has made God known to us.[vii] So, here at the end of his earthly life, hanging from a dreadful cross, just what is he teaching us about God? Well, that God will suffer anything to draw you into the fold because that is just how much God loves you.
[i] John 1:14
[ii] Matthew 26:39.
[iii] John 10:11, 17-18.
[iv] John 18:11
[v] John 19:30
[vi] Thirsty for Heaven from Home By Another Way by Barbara Brown Taylor. Cowley Publications; 1999. Page 102.
[vii] John 1:18
[Sunday in worship I preached on Jesus’ first word from the cross. Today through Thursday I’ll blog on a word each day. Join me for a study on the Word of the Day at Star City Coffee House 210 Main St, Lafayette, IN Tuesday through Thursday at 12 noon.]
John 19:26: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”
We’ve all heard the cliché “blood is thicker than water.” Since the dawn of time, family has been the ones who keep us safe; who provide for us; who are there for us when the rest of the world turns its back. Family gives us our identity… for better or worse sometimes. As a pastor over the years, I’ve noticed that, even in the scrappiest of families, they’ll circle the wagons when an outside threat is perceived. Family is about loyalty.
Family was an even stronger bond in the ancient Middle Eastern world. And no family bond was as powerful as the one between mother and son. In that culture, couples didn’t fall in love and get married. Marriages were arranged. And the marriage wasn’t much about the bride and groom at all. It was about their families. Marriages forged family alliances. But, for the bride, it was – initially – a tenuous alliance because a woman was never really considered a part of her husband’s family until she gave birth to a son. A baby boy – so fragile and tiny, swaddled up in strips of cloth – held the power to guarantee security for the mother whose arms’ cradled him.
And so we should hardly be surprised that Jesus’ mother is standing there at the foot of his cross. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for her to see him like that? There he hung; stripped of his clothes, nearly as naked as the day he’d been born… and likely looking – to her, at least – just as delicate and vulnerable.
Nowadays families that are spread out across states come together, at the very least, for weddings and funerals. But, apparently, Jesus didn’t have it that lucky. His mother and one aunt; that was it. Joseph was likely deceased. But, the extended family must have surely been larger than mom and one aunt. Yet on the day that must have certainly been the hardest of his life, all the rest are a “no show.”
And so, Jesus, despite his own agony, is concerned for his mother’s future. She will need the security only family can give. In that culture, a woman without family had two options: begging or prostitution. So Jesus provides for her by inaugurating a new family. He redefines family when he entrusts her to one of his disciples; the one whom he loved… a rather odd description since he surely loved them all. But this one, in particular, was the only one to stick by Jesus to the bitter end. And so Jesus must have known he could be trusted to take care of mom; and scripture tells us he did.
The introduction to John’s gospel makes us a bold promise. By placing our trust in Jesus, we can become children of God… which has nothing to do with flesh and blood according to our gospel narrator.[i] But none of us is ever an only child. We come from a large family (called the Church) and hanging there from that cross, Jesus entrusted us to one another’s care.
[i] John 1:12-13
[Yesterday in worship I preached on Jesus’ first word from the cross. Today through Thursday I’ll blog on a word each day. Join me for a study on the Word of the Day at Star City Coffee House 210 Main St, Lafayette, IN Tuesday through Thursday at 12 noon.]
[Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.[i]
I confess to being envious of artists. In my family, all of the visual arts abilities traveled on the Y chromosome: my father, brother and one nephew. I don’t even do a good job with stick figures. I wish I could draw or paint because, let’s face it; there are some things that defy words; concepts or images so marvelous, words cannot do them justice. Paradise is one of those concepts, I think.
If you could draw “Paradise,” what might it look like for you? My guess is, regardless of artistic ability, we might all paint something different.
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the word we translate as “garden” in the (Genesis, chapter 2) Creation Story is actually the word “paradise.” It is the same word Jesus speaks to the criminal on the cross. It is his promised destination. The Garden (or more literally, Paradise) of Eden must have been a beautiful place. In the description, it sounds so lush and fertile; a river flowed there continually. There were lots of fruit trees, including one called the Tree of Life.
In the last century or two before the birth of Jesus, many Jews began to believe in life after death and many imagined Paradise as the destination. That means long before the old rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, those ancient Israelites believed that “we got to get ourselves back to the garden,”[ii] i.e. Paradise. Like a powerful homing instinct, we yearn for Paradise.
But here’s something curious… In Revelation, the final book in the bible, at the end of time we find ourselves not in a garden paradise. We find ourselves in a city, the New Jerusalem. A river flows through the middle of the city’s main street and on the river’s bank is the tree of life. It sounds like Eden. So, just as you and I might be apt to paint Paradise from diverse perspectives, apparently our bible writers did the same!
So where will we wind up? In a garden or a city? Well, as mysterious and tantalizing as the concept of “paradise” may be, perhaps the best part of Jesus’ promise to the repentant criminal is that he would wind up with Jesus. In other words, maybe when we read that sentence, we shouldn’t read “today you will be with me in Paradise;” but rather, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Could there ever be any better place than with Jesus?