When All Are Welcome Isn’t Enough

Open and Affirming in the United Church of Christ

Why become an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation? Well, historically, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) people of faith have experienced emotional and spiritual injury in churches that condemn their capacity to love or seek love. And as a result, they’ve learned that “All Are Welcome” usually doesn’t apply to them.  And this reality means that LGBTQ people simply cannot assume that all churches will be safe for them or their families. So, how do we let these folks know that our church is different; how do we let them know that this is a safe space for them and their family to worship and to be fully included in the activities and leadership of our faith community? I believe that making a public ONA statement is the answer. In addition to the hospitality aspect, I’ve also outlined three additional reasons for us to consider adopting an ONA covenant.

A public welcome by an ONA church sends a clear message to LGBTQ seekers that they have a home in the United Church of Christ. A congregation’s affirmation and support through an ONA covenant can be a life-changing and life-saving experience—especially for LGBTQ youth.

A public welcome helps churches grow. New ONA churches attract new members. Many of these new members are straight people who identify with the values ONA represents. And often, they’re young couples starting new families who want their children to learn the faith in a welcoming environment.

By adopting an ONA covenant, a congregation is taking seriously the inclusive actions of Christ. He welcomed people from all walks of life to join him on a journey of healing, compassion, and transformation. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7, CEB)

The Cable UCC church board voted (unanimously) in their last meeting to begin the ONA process here in our church. We are in the early stages of this process.  The first step is to form a “ONA Covenant Team.” The Covenant Team will be responsible for prayerfully leading us forward in this process by determining the steps to be taken, setting the timeline, and communicating openly with the congregation.  If you are interested in joining the Covenant Team, please contact either Pastor Phil or Kathi Jensen.  May our path forward be blessed as we continue to be and become a community striving to share the Peace and Justice and Love of the Living God.

Now What

Mark 16:1-8

“The Resurrection is not a single event, but a loosening of God’s power and light into the earth and history that continues to alter all things, infusing them with the grace and power of God’s own holiness. It is as though a door was opened, and what poured out will never be stopped, and that door cannot be closed.”[i] These beautiful words, penned by Megan McKenna, represent an important understanding of why were here today; why we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ every Easter.

Remember now, resurrection is more than mere resuscitation! It’s about transformation! It’s about having faith in what’s possible even when others are convinced that it’s impossible. Resurrection is about having the courage to love others even when they don’t love you back. It’s about showing compassion even when others are heaping judgment.  A living resurrection is about having the ability to live in peace even when others are being violent and to work for justice even when others are working for wealth. A living resurrection is finally a call to respond with gentleness even when others are reacting with rage. It’s a calling to trust that a life well-lived, even if it’s short-lived as in the case of Christ, is preferable to longevity without virtue.[ii]

This is the on-going resurrection that McKenna espouses.  When she writes that resurrection is an on-going event and that God continues to alter all things in our world today, she’s making the case that God is still-present, still-creating, still-speaking, and, in a very real way, still being resurrected in the world today. Or, as in the words of Pope Francis, “Jesus is the everlasting ‘today’ of God.

But, does this mean everything is perfect? Of course not.  The Peaceful and Just Reign of God isn’t complete yet. But we are being called as individuals to participate in bringing it about.  And we are being challenged as a community of faith to be a part of ushering in this new life, this Peaceful Reign of God, this “new spring” of existence.  But what might that look like in real time?

Well, I wrote an article recently in which I held-up the virtues of the Latin word, “viriditas.” I came across this term while reading a devotion[iii] about Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Christian mystic, who often referred to this concept in her writings. Now, viriditas is best understood as “the greening of things from the inside out.” Spring, of course, is the first thing that came to my mind when I heard this definition.  I mean, think about butterflies leaving their cocoons, or the sap running in the maple, or the burgeoning leaves, as the chlorophyll begins to push forth from deep within the tree causing the “viriditas” of the leaves. It’s the perfect descriptor.

Viriditas, however, has a deeper theological meaning as well.  All throughout the season of Lent, we’ve been 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 spiritual resurrection that follows our metaphorical death. We expectantly look for signs of a new 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 on-going faith, emerges. Just like the cycle of the seasons, viriditas reminds us of the cycle of life.  A cycle didn’t end at a fixed point of time 2000 years ago on a cross, or in a tomb, or even with a single resurrection event. “But the loosening of God’s power and light into the earth and history continues to alter all things, infusing them with the grace and power of God’s own holiness.”

“Now, that’s nice and very theological,” you might say, “But Now What?”  “What difference does this concept of ‘greening’ make in the real lives of real people who are really struggling?” Well, consider some of the problems we face as a nation and as a global community. There’s war and terrorism, on-going violence against woman and marginalized communities; violence in general.  We face the horror of unchecked genocide, of extreme nationalism and the underlying racism that fuels it.  Across the globe hopelessness and poverty and hunger plague humanity, and of the ever-intensifying threat of global climate change poses are very real threat to our very existence.  These are the seemingly lifeless branches on our global tree.

But what if these branches aren’t dead? What if instead, they’re simply 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. My friends, God is still-speaking, still active, still living in the world today and God, the Spark of the Divine, the very breath of God, is within all of us, all of humanity and all creation. What does that mean?

It means, that as a community of faith, we are being called 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. It means we are being invited to be God’s representatives; God’s hands and feet and God’s heart and voice in the world today. 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?

I would like to leave you today with a poem simply entitled Spring.

God’s fragile mystery of resurrection; yours is the over-flowing beauty of young oaks’ filigreed foliage, of pendant ash flowers and the fiery emergence of poplar leaves in all their wet-eyed wonder. You are nature’s embryo, a silent exaltation of all that is soft, tender and beautiful; a golden effusion of love and heaven, of stillness and freshness, the Spirit’s greening time, when Earth’s rebirth foreshadows our own. Each spring approached with joyful reverence becomes an epidemic of mystery and resurrection; an epidemic to which through God’s grace we shall succumb![iv]

May you have a happy and blessed Easter Day! And my prayer for you is that you may experience and participate in the process of ushering in God’ Reign of Peace, Christ’s resurrection of Love, and the Spirit’s viriditas of Justice for all.  May it be so. Amen.

 [i]  Megan McKenna.  And Morning Came: Scriptures of the Resurrection. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[ii] Bret Meyers. Easter Encouragement for the Journey. (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2018

[iii] Molly Baskette. Viriditas (www.dailydevotional @ucc.org) 2018

[iv] William L. Wallace. Spring. (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2016

The Poor of the World are My Body

2018 Maundy Thursday Message

John 12:1-8

The smell of an evening campfire wafts through the air, and suddenly, you recall a childhood memory of summers spent camping with your family. Or perhaps it’s a whiff of apple pie or the scent of the perfume your grandmother wore or maybe the smell of an old church takes you back to your childhood, and memories come flooding in. Is this an experience you’ve ever had?

Scientists say that while words go to the thinking part of the brain, smells-fragrances–go to the emotional part. That’s why a whiff of Grandma’s perfume produces an emotional response. And the narrative that we have before us this evening was also intended to touch the emotional part of our brain; it’s a “fragrant” text.

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes a container of very expensive perfume and with it she anoints the feet of Jesus. Mary then wipes the perfume into his feet with her long, flowing hair. Now, if we remain in the thinking part of our brains, this can become an odd, if not awkward, scene. If we stay in our heads, we might become concerned about boundries, or how outside the norm this behavior would have been.  If we approach this narrative with our heads instead of our hearts, I fear we’ll miss the point of John’s emphasis on the fragrance that filled the room; I fear we might miss the emotional experience, the touching, emotional recollection captured in Mary’s sacred act of compassion.

So, how do we, the rational western thinkers that we are, get out of our heads here? Well, I think this is a place where Matthew might help us out a bit.  In his version of this event, he recalls an additional remark from Jesus: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to those gathered that evening, “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what [Mary] has done will be told in memory of her.”

Incredible! Jesus said that whenever the Gospel story is told–wherever it is told–the thing that Mary did will always be remembered. and sure enough, two thousand years later, in a place half way around the world, as part of a communion service in Cable Wisconsin, Mary’s compassionate act hasn’t been forgotten. The emotional echo of the Anointing of Christ lingers somewhere deep within us.

Let me explain.  I think Mary wanted to demonstrate that she loved her close friend Jesus and that she understood, as he set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the pain he was about to bear. So, she broke open that perfume knowing that the fragrance of that moment would endure and become an everlasting reminder of the Anointing of Jesus, and by extension, the love of God that would be poured out upon the cross. And that “the smell of perfume amid the stench of betrayal, jealousy, and looming violence provided a sweet moment of stillness amid a gathering storm; an outpouring of homage amid the onslaught of hatred.”[i]  Am I reaching a bit here? Perhaps. But only if we’re in our heads.

You know, someone once said, “Love expressed is not sufficient; it needs to be heard to have any meaning.” In other words, it’s not adequate for you to say you love your wife or your husband or your partner or your children; although that’s a good start. You must get into the mind of your beloved and find out what’s most meaningful to them; how they recognize and receiving love and then love them in that way. Love expressed is not sufficient; it must be heard and then acted upon to have deeper meaning. Mary expressed her love this way and we are invited to do the same. This evening we are invited to express our love for God in this deeper, emotive sense as well. We are invited to close our eyes and breath in the fragrance of Christ.

But the anointing isn’t the only reason we need to be in heart mode this evening.  There’s the exchange between Jesus and Judas to consider.  Judas states that all this perfume pouring and foot wiping is a waste of money. Money that could have been used to feed the hungry. And rational thinking would most likely agree with Judas. Did he have an ulterior motive here? Probably. After all he did go on to betray Jesus. But regardless of the underlying motive, I could see our rational selves seeing this as a waste of resources when so many were in need.

But this is where a heartfelt understand of Jesus’ response to Judas becomes important.  He said, “the poor will always be with you.” Now, this statement has been misused across time to minimize the importance of our calling as people of faith to care for the poor and outcast.  I say “misused” because it’s important to note that Jesus’ response here is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, the entirety of which reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

So, rather than minimize our obligation to care for the poor, Jesus quotes a verse which explicitly commands it.”[iii] He seems to be saying here that we can, at the same time, “opening our hand to the poor” and affirm Mary’s anointing. Because, in the end, the two are not mutually exclusive. Mary’s act of compassion and Christ’s compassion for the poor and oppressed are intrinsically intertwined. Or, as it’s so wonderfully expressed by Sydney Carter in the hymn Said Judas to Mary, “The poor of the world are my body, he said, to the end of the world they should be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you will know you have given to me.”[ii]

One final thought this evening. The symbol of God’s love, whether it’s being poured out on the feet of Christ or radiating forth from the hang’in tree on summit of Golgotha; the love of God extends across the boundries that human create.  God’s love reaches people from all nations and stations in life, all races and skin colors; God’s love transcends gender and religion, and it doesn’t discriminate by age or ability; God’s love is finally, as the prophet said, “engraved upon the hearts of humanity.”

So, as we continue our holy week journey, and as we partake of the sacred meal this evening, may we turn off the rational part of our selves, if just for a little while, and invite the grace, the compassion; the very Love of God to touch our hearts.  And may we all, experience the fragrance of that Divine Presence deep within our being.  May it be so. Amen.

[i]  Alyce McKenzie. Extravagant Holiness (www.patheos.com) 2013

[ii]  Sydney Carter. Said Judas to Mary. (New Century Hymnal: Pilgrim Press, 1995) 210

[iii] Lee Koontz. First Look (www.reflectious.com) 2010.

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.

Amen.

[i] Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus (www.journey-endurance.blogspot.com) 2007

[ii] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Love in Our Hearts (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

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

[iv] Stan Duncan Written on Their Hearts (www.homebynow.blogspot.com) 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.

Amen.

[i] Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (100bestpoems.net)

[ii] Carl Gregg, #Occupy Church, (www.patheos.com) 2012.

[iii] John Petty. Progressive Involvement, (www.progressiveinvolvement.com) 2012.