Into Jerusalem

Mark 11:1-11

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This is of course The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. And I began with this poem today because the concept of divergent roads looms large in this text. Let me explain.

In our Palm Sunday story from Mark today, we see Jesus entering Jerusalem from the east. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, however, suggest there was also another parade that day. There was a Roman procession entering from the west, a military parade, featuring the governor Pontius Pilate. Now, the comparison of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast. One came as an expression of empire and military occupation whose goal was to make sure Israel’s oppressed masses didn’t find deliverance. It approached the city with mighty horses, weapons and helmets gleaming in the sun, proclaiming the power of empire. But the eastbound procession was quite different. Jesus came in on a donkey, the humblest form of transportation (after walking I suppose) And the crowds, the crowds were spreading cloaks and laying branches on the road in front of him, all the while calling out, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven.” The west road was about spreading fear. But the Traveler from the east, he came proclaiming the peaceful reign of God.

Now, historically speaking, these two competing parades are well documented. We know they both took place. But theologically speaking there’s another road I’d like to consider. The one less traveled as it were. And that road is the road to Emmaus. You remember the story.

Jesus appeared mysteriously to a couple of disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of his Resurrection. The disciples thought he was just another a pilgrim heading home. And as they were traveling along, these two disciples tell the incognito Jesus of their shattered hopes and dreams. A dream of liberation from Rome and a hope that rested on the shoulders of the great prophet who they thought would redeem Israel. Remember now, the concept of redemption for these disciples, and for many other Jews including Judas Iscariot, meant that a conquering, sword-wielding Messiah would come and lead them to freedom. They wanted a warrior messiah. So, you can understand why their hopes and dreams had been crushed by the death of Jesus.

But, that’s when it happened. Jesus, still a stranger to the disciples, proceeded to explain that their expectation for a Messiah had been accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But they still hadn’t identified him at this point. Upon arriving in Emmaus, however, the disciples invited the stranger into their home to share a meal and stay the night. Jesus agreed. And when it was time for supper, he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. And it was in that moment, that they recognized the Risen and Living Christ.

So, here we are. We have three roads; three journeys; three different messages. Pilate’s message was “might makes right.” And he could back up his claim with the mightiest military force on earth. But Christ’s message was a little different. Maybe we could say his message was, “right makes might.” You see, as he mounted the donkey that day, as he began to move into Jerusalem, he knew what lie ahead. He knew he was headed toward the cross; toward his execution; toward his death. But he went anyway because he knew it was the right thing to do.

But the story doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end at the cross nor does it end in the tomb. Remember, the third road; the road to Emmaus. Now, this narrative has often been viewed as a message of faith or as a reflection of the sacrament. Others have lifted-up the hospitality of the two men and used them as an example of how to offer a wide welcome in our communities and churches today. And all these applications are correct. But I think it goes deeper than that, especially considering the parade of palms. You see, on the road to Emmaus Jesus was moving outward, away from Jerusalem; symbolically moving away from the cross of death and toward the resurrection of life. So, this story is finally about taking the good news out; taking out a message of hospitality, and sacrament, and faith. Do you see what I’m driving at here? The road to Emmaus is a completion of triumphal journey.

It’s a completion of Christ’s journey in this world, but not ours. Our journey continues. And it continues as we attempt to live-into our covenant with God and as we live-out our faith in the service of others. And as we “hit the road” today, we can ask ourselves a couple of key questions that may facilitate our journey. Questions like: As a congregation, what palm leaves have we spread? In other words, how have we make a difference, both as individuals and as the church, in the world? Or, on a more individual level, where have you seen Jesus? At a stop along the road? In the sacred, healing bread of communion? In the giving or receiving of hospitality? Have you shared our faith by extending an invitation to someone out there, to join us in here?

As we once again move into Holy Week, my prayer for all of us is that we too come full circle, complete our Lenten journey, by encountering the Risen and Living Christ on whatever road we choose to travel.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Robert Frost. The Road Not Taken. Taken from The Poetry of Robert Frost ed. Edward Connery Lathem. 1916

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week. HarperOne, 2007.

[1] Ibid. Frost.

The Greening of Our Faith

I came across a wonderful term this past month: “viriditas.” The visionary medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen often referred to this concept in her writings. Viriditas is a Latin term which is best understood as “the greening of things from the inside out.” Spring is the first thing that came to my mind when I heard this definition.  I mean, think about the burgeoning leaves as the chlorophyll pushes forth from deep within the tree causing the viriditas of the leaves. It’s the perfect descriptor.

Viriditas, however, has a deeper theological meaning.  All throughout the season of Lent we are like those dormant trees; frozen, leafless, gray. And it’s during this season, this winter of introspection and hopefully change, that we anticipate the viriditas of Easter. We await once again the resurrection that follows death. We expectantly look for signs of a spiritual spring as humanity and creation respond to the mystical Divine energy as it’s once again unleashed on the world. And it’s from somewhere deep within our being that this viriditas of the spirit; this resurrection of life; this greening of our faith, emerges.

“Now, that’s nice and very theological,” you might say, “but what difference does this concept of ‘greening’ make in the real world?”  Well, consider some of the problems we face as a global community.  The horrors of war and terrorism, on-going violence against woman and marginalized communities, unchecked genocide, extreme nationalism and the underlying racism that fuels it, the hopelessness of poverty and hunger, and the ever-intensifying threat of global climate change, just to name a few.  These are the seemingly lifeless branches on our global tree.

But what if these branches aren’t dead? What if they’re only sleeping? That would mean somewhere deep within the tree of life the chlorophyll is gathering, waiting to push forth the leaves of change; the spirit of resurrection. So, as a community of faith, what would it look like if we were to be agents of this coming change and participants in this spiritual resurrection? What if we were to take seriously the challenge of the gospels to share the love of God, the compassion of the Christ, and the unity of the Spirit with all humanity and all creation? Where might this greening of our faith; this viriditas of our being, take us? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out?

Shalom and many blessings as we continue to journey together

Pastor Phil.

Deep Within Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The great theologian Henri Nouwen once said, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. [But] the mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[i]

“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.”

In a way, this statement by Nouwen get to the very heart of what it means to live-into our covenant with God, to live-out our shared ministry as the church, and what it truly means to be in relationship with each other. We’re invited, according to Nouwen, to use our understanding of Christ’s wisdom, his teachings, and his healing acts to demonstrate the very depths of divine love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, right? But what if we fall short? What if my love for others isn’t as unconditional as God’s love is for me?

Well, in truth, we simply cannot be adequate conduits of God’s love; not on our own anyway. We’re far too fragile, too afraid, too, well, human. But herein lies the beauty of covenant.  Covenant is a two-way street.  We are in covenant with God, but God is also in covenant with us. So, while we may not be perfect in our love for others, this covenant that we have with God; this intrinsic, inherent, deep within our hearts knowledge of God’s love that Jeremiah espouses, will finally be enough. I say that because I believe, with every fiber of my being, that God goes before us and is there with us in all situations.

How do I know this? Well, let’s look at the history of covenant. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about covenant; from Noah and the rainbow, to Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants, to Moses and the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, through David and the Davidic line that finally leads to Jesus.

But in this week’s reading from Jeremiah, we see a significant change in the covenant.  In this short passage, the prophet reveals a covenant that’s not carved in stone, or somehow external, but instead, one that’s written deep within each of us. And it’s through this change in perspective that Jeremiah helps us to understand God’s covenant as an on-going process. In a very real way, God’s covenant with us and our response to God’s promises are constantly forming and reforming, developing and changing. Covenant is always in the process of becoming more.

Now, contextually, Jeremiah was speaking to the people of Israel while they were still in captivity, still in exile, still steeped in loss and grief. Their city had been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon had carried many of them away to the far-off capital of its powerful empire. So, by the time we get to the 31st chapter, Jeremiah was no longer scolding the people for their sin or their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, he was bringing the people a new message from God. A new message of comfort and hope and compassion. God’s heart, according to Jeremiah, had been touched by their suffering, and, God had forgiven them.

And it was during this time of exile that God made sweeping promises to the people of Israel; promises of restoration, of return, and, most importantly, of relationship. Once again, as in so many of the covenant stories that came before this one, God promised to be in relationship with the people. Think again about Noah and Abraham, Moses and David; God promised to abide with them; to be present with them through thick and thin.  And here, in the new covenant, relationship is again at the core of it all. God says through Jeremiah, “I will be your God, and you…you will be my people.”[ii]

And just so we know that this isn’t some temporary thing, God, says, “I will put my instruction within you and engrave it on your heart.” So, even though this covenant is new and continues to develop and progress, it never goes away.  This is what Walter Brueggemann calls the “core memory” of Israel.[iii]

And this is interesting.  It’s interesting because these “core memoires” these intrinsic instructions, this deep, primal understanding of covenant as knowing the law of God, as knowing right and wrong, doesn’t go away either. God’s covenant is always within us.

So, why is this important? Well, it’s important because this internal understanding, our “core memory” if you will, guides our decision making. We somehow know, deep within our being, right from wrong. Yes, I will grant that our experiences, our traditions, and what we have been taught by our elders greatly affect the choices we make in life.  But, I also believe that God’s intrinsic instructions guide us as well.  This is the essence of moral philosophy.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be a liberated people. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. Well, he got a variety of attempts, some close and some not so close. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so on now and behave.”[iv]

Maybe when it’s all said and done, that’s what the new covenant calls us to do; to “go and behave.”  That’s certainly what Jesus challenged the disciples to do after his death and as they began to form those early communities of faith.  Basically, he told them to go and behave like me, right? And what might that behavior look like in our world today? Well, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the lonely, speak up for those who have been silenced, welcome the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant.  My friends, Jesus continues to challenge us to behave according to that intrinsic covenant, that knowledge of right and wrong, that remains deep within us. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.” And I would add, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him by loving all people and all creation are the same thing.”

One final thought on this subject.  In the United Church of Christ, when we talk about the Still-Speaking God, what do we mean? Is there an audible voice speaking in the world today? Some might lift-up the cries of the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed as that voice. Okay. But what if the Still-Speaking voice of God isn’t on the outside? Or audible? What if the voice of God is speaking within each of us?  Maybe that’s finally what Jeremiah was driving at here.  Maybe he understood that sharing the love of God comes not from righteousness or piety or perfection, but rather, sharing divine love comes from within our hearts.  You know, that place where our covenant with God is engraved.

So, as we near the end of our journey though Lent, perhaps the most important “take-away” from all this is love God, love others, love from deep within your being. Perhaps, that’s the meaning of covenant; perhaps that’s finally, the meaning of the cross.


[i] Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus ( 2007

[ii] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Love in Our Hearts ( 2018

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2008)

[iv] Stan Duncan Written on Their Hearts ( 2013

A Consuming Passion

John 2:13-22

The following is an excerpt from a beautiful poem by Maya Angelou called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The free bird thinks of another breeze And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own. But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream His wings are clipped, and his feet are tied So he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom.[i]

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about Jesus, and lent, and our text for today, juxtaposed to Maya Angelou’s words. I mean, who was the “caged bird” in John’s narrative? Jesus? The religious leaders? The disciples? Someone else entirely? You know, there’s something intriguing; something haunting but strangely familiar about the second to last line of this poem, “…and his tune is heard on the distant hill.” I don’t know. Let’s see where this takes us.

You’re all familiar with the story, right? Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover but was upset by what he witnessed.  He saw moneychangers and merchants buying and selling in the Temple. Why? Well, people, devout Jews, were coming from all over as an observance of their religion.  Passover was a time of pilgrimage.  And one of the requirements of this pilgrimage was to bring an unblemished animal to the temple to be used as a sacrifice to God. But over the course of time, people began to realize that is was easier to buy an animal once they got to Jerusalem rather than haul one with them.  Hence, the business opportunists set up shop.  To buy these animals, however, the law required these sojourners to change their money into Roman currency. That was the job of the “moneychangers” we see in this text.

So, what’s the problem here? Well, there were a couple of things that got Jesus’ dander up. First, and most obviously, this commerce was taking place in the temple itself. But when we think about the scene, what we envision may not necessarily be accurate.  What do I mean? Well, let’s compare it to our church building. The moneychangers and merchants weren’t in the sanctuary rather the area they occupied was more akin to our fellowship hall. But this is where the comparison breaks down a bit.  It breaks down because unlike our church, not all areas were open everyone.  You see, the temple was set up in an exclusionary manner.

In the center was the “holy of holies.” This was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where God stayed.  The temple theology that the Jews adhered to in that period held that God was exclusively in the Temple, and specifically, in the holy of holies! So, as you might imagine, that area was off limits to everyone.  With one exception.  Once a year, one Rabbi, selected by lot, went in to the holy of holies to perform a ritual prayer.

Now, back to our church comparison. The area just outside the holy of holies might be closest to what we call the sanctuary, but it was limited to select Jewish men only.  The fellowship hall, or perhaps even the entry way outside the fellowship hall was for everyone else. And this is where the merchants had set up shop and where Jesus cracked his whip and turned over tables. Why? Because not only did everyone except privileged Jewish men find themselves unable to worship in the sanctuary, the area they were given, was more like a marketplace than a church.

But, we must be careful here.  New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan emphasizes that Jesus was “not against the Temple as such, and not against the high priesthood as such. It was [instead] a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.”[ii] In other words, Jesus got his dander up not only because of the disparity he witnessed within the temple, but because of the injustice he saw in society.  Jesus was passionate about social justice and equality and liberation! Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for freedom.

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, freedom has long been the song of caged birds since Jesus walked the earth.  I mean, think about those held captive in the holds of slave ships coming from Africa, or the trail of tears, or the internment camps of the second World War, or the holocaust. Whenever religions or government bodies or everyday citizens give themselves over to and cooperate with the greed of imperial control, free birds get caged. Whenever good people let the hate-filled words of racism or the fear-mongering of nationalism dominate their culture, free birds get caged. This was the injustice Jesus opposed and that opposition was the passion that Jesus lived. And this is the passion that he calls us, as individuals and as the church, to demonstrate in our context as well. As a matter of fact, Jesus was so passionate about social justice, that he gave up his own life, his own freedom, to be executed on a cross.

How do we know this? Well, it comes down to the translation of a single word from Hebrew to Greek to English. When the disciples witnessed Jesus get angry, the text says they recalled a line from Psalm 69 “passion for your house consumes me.” However, the word meaning “zeal” or “passion” as it moved from Hebrew to Greek to English, carried with it a definite article. So, a wooden or exact transliteration would be “the passion.”

Now, why is this important? It’s important because the most natural rendering of this passage, because of that definite article, would then be “passion of your house consumes me,” not “for your house,” as we see in this text. So, if this is correct, then the passion of the temple consumed Jesus, which is exactly what happened.

Moreover, this view is more consistent with the over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is not that Jesus was passionate on behalf of the temple, but that the temple representatives, the religious leaders who passionately opposed Jesus would ultimately facilitate his execution.[iii]

So, where does this leave us as we continue our Lenten journey? Well, perhaps, we are challenged by this text to be a more passionate about the things that matter in our society? In other words, what “caged birds” do we encounter every day and how might we participate in acts that lead to liberation rather than captivity?  It may not be easy. Like Jesus, when we challenge the status quo, when we make waves, the anger, the passion of those in charge of the house may be kindled against us.  But, also like Jesus, we are called to be undeterred in our quest for peace and justice, for equality and freedom, for all people and for all nations.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom

May freedom, finally, become a reality for all.


[i] Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (

[ii] Carl Gregg, #Occupy Church, ( 2012.

[iii] John Petty. Progressive Involvement, ( 2012.