Atonement Reconsidered

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Texts:  Leviticus 16: 3, 5-11, 15-16, 20-22; Matthew 27:50-51       

“The Old Rugged Cross” is a hymn I sang at many bedsides while I was a nursing home chaplain.  It might seem like just another dusty old hymn to teenagers, but it is a beloved classic for me and for many of you who were born long before me.  The familiar refrain says, “I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”  This is a great statement of hope for us.  But why is the cross of Jesus Christ so important?  What really happened there?

In the midweek Lenten worship gatherings at the church I am serving this spring, we are taking a closer look at the event on Golgotha—that “hill far away”—that is the focus of the Christian faith.  Although we might be tempted to avert our eyes from the terrible suffering of Jesus, we will not look away this time.  We need to know what we mean when we say that he died for our sins.

Although it is our most beloved religious icon, the Roman cross could be considered the most unreligious of all objects.  It was meant as a deterrent to the people of Israel.  Anyone who dared to threaten the iron rule of the Romans through crime or rebellion was seized and tortured to death on that gruesome invention.  The crosses bearing criminals were posted along the road, their bodies rotting away, exposed to carnivorous birds.  It was an effective warning to passersby: do not do what these fools did, or you’ll meet the same fate.

I wonder.  How did we go from an instrument of torture and death to singing “Jesus paid it all,” to using the cross as a decorative shape for our walls and purses and blue jeans?  I hope we can explore its meaning and conclude that the use of this symbol deserves more thoughtful treatment.

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The cross I chose for the Power Point today is a stained-glass window, a depiction of the story of Jesus’ death.  I chose this image, because it shows that the cross is more than a symbol.  It is a story that defines us as God’s people.  And our stories are somehow gathered into the story that shape represents.

The cross is at the very center of our faith.  Jesus didn’t come to earth merely to sweet talk us into being good.  There are plenty of wise teachers who can do that, and they have their followers.  Jesus came to address the sin that enslaves us and kills us.  There was no convincing us of our need for this.  And so Jesus put himself in the path of sin’s deadly force to render it impotent, unable to kill us in the end.  He took the punishment to satisfy the judgment our sins place us under.

The Scriptures declare this function of Jesus’ death on a cross:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”  (1 Peter 3:18a)

“[John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”  (John 1:29)

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:22b-25a)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The idea of Jesus taking on the punishment we deserve is called atonement.  Atonement is a meaningful word.  It means that the guilty one has received a just punishment for their wrong.  An embezzler spends time in jail and also has to pay back the money that was stolen.  A murderer is given the death penalty, in some states; and in others, she lives imprisoned with her shame for the rest of her life.

The atonement is Jesus paying the penalty for our sin.  In Old Testament terms, Jesus is the ultimate, perfect sacrifice for our sin, so that the sacrifices described in Leviticus are no longer required.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul tells us. (Romans 6:23) Somebody has to pay.  It seems to be a component of a civilized society.  If we don’t punish people for doing wrong, we will fall into anarchy, won’t we?

I wonder.  How much is our sense of just punishment dictated by an innate compulsion for vengeance?  Revenge takes root at an early age. Take a toddler’s toy, and he will hit you or bite you.  We punish children for taking vengeance, but he impulse remains in us.  Take my daughter’s life and the first thing I’ll want to do is to hunt you down and kill you.  Somebody has to pay.  We don’t always act on those feelings, but our sense of justice demands punishment.

In the passage from Leviticus that we read today, we find that there were not only sacrifices to be made for the sin of the people; there was also a scapegoat.  It is an interesting concept.  My understanding is that it was a provision for the sins the people didn’t like to admit, the sin we can’t bear to acknowledge because either it seems harmless, or it feels too shameful to name.  Those sins are supposedly assigned to a goat that is driven away, out of sight.  The people can go about their business again…except that, when the wind is in just the right direction, there is that faint sound of a goat bleating out there in the dark.  The guilt won’t go away that easily.

Jesus became our sacrifice for the sin we admit to, and the scapegoat for the sin we would rather gloss over or hide. Sin comes so naturally to us that we don’t recognize its shape nor its impact.  It was perfectly described in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God by trying to put themselves at the center in place of God.  “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”[1]

The atonement is about sin, plain and simple.  Now one of the problems that we can have with this is that it seems to imply a God who is cold, almost a Scrooge-like character who is watching every penny, so to speak.  A God who stands ready to lower the hammer when we do wrong.  Well, at least the good news is that Jesus bore that punishment for us.

Yet it still leaves us with a God who is to be appeased more than anything.  Take care of business, make sure you go to heaven when you die, but is that record-keeper a God you really want to know?  The Scriptures show us a God who is determined to care for us, and wants us to care for one another.  Those sacrifices that God commanded in Leviticus made us realize the gravity of our sin, but they couldn’t soften our hearts toward God.

David the psalmist said as much when he gave voice to God’s dreams for us.  We read it just last week, on Ash Wednesday.

“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Psalm 51:16-17)

God wants our hearts to be broken over our sin, not because it makes a mark on our record, but because God’s heart is broken over it.  Sin hurts us, hurts other people, and so it hurts God.  The atonement is directed not toward a wrathful, divine punisher, but toward the outcome of our sin, because that is the focus of God’s wrath.  God is righteously angry when greed leaves whole tribes of people dying of hunger, when perversion and entitlement enslaves young girls and exploits them.  War, abuse, pornography.  We want a God who is angry about these horrible manifestations of our sin.

And it is our sin.  See, the cross is not so much an antidote to your bad habits as it is God’s response to a world gone wrong.  Our bad habits are the seeds of the greater sin, make no mistake.  It is our participation in the world’s darkness that Jesus addresses on the cross.  That is worth his suffering, and it must be dealt with.  Otherwise we would continue to think that we are in charge, that we know what is best.  In our narrow, self-centered, warped version of what makes sense for the world, we will keep hurting and killing one another.

It is possible that the sacrifices required in the generations of God’s people that began with the escape from Egypt were a step in a process.  Were they meant to show us that sacrifices cannot ultimately bring us to God?  That our innate desire for revenge is not the last word on God’s righteousness?  Because punishment is an endless cycle, never effectively dealing with the sin that keeps enslaving us and killing everything in its path.

Why does the cross matter?  What difference does it make to you this afternoon, when you watch the basketball game on TV, or tomorrow when you go to school or work?  I’m glad you asked.  You don’t have to live under a cloud of shame, because God took the anguish of sin’s shame and removed its power by forgiving us.  Because Jesus died on the cross, you don’t have to spend your life striving for respect or significance.  Jesus considered you worth rescuing from the clutches and deadliness of sin.  The cross matters because the evil in this world might be horrifying, massive, and deadly, but it cannot ultimately kill all those God has claimed as his own on the cross of Jesus.

But this is only one aspect of what was accomplished on the cross of Jesus.  There is a lot more to think about, rich colors and layers of meaning that give us every reason to cherish that “old rugged cross.”  And so we will examine it from other angles.  But even as I strive to explain it, to point out the beauty and profound meanings of the cross, we cannot really break it down into tidy theological points.  In the end, all we can do is come to the cross with nothing to say for ourselves.  We simply gaze at our suffering Savior on his cross, and know that this brutal, mysterious piece of history is the source of our life, our faith, our hope.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Stott, John.  “Naked Pride” in Bread and Wine, 2003.  (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House), p. 217.

Praying Through the Neighborhood

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Please come with me on a tour of the neighborhood in Sebenikoro, a suburb and poor cousin of Bamako, the capital of Mali.  We will be tagging along with my friend Maly “Bibi” Sangho, director of the Ase Mali Orphanage.  I arise while it is still dark to meet with her for prayer.  She greets me at my bedroom door and asks me whether I slept well.  When I reply in the affirmative, she tells me that there is someone in the house this morning who did not sleep so well.

Alima is in the living room.  I met her yesterday at the home of her mother, who died suddenly that very morning.  Dozens of women gathered to sit with  Alima in her grief, while a few feet away, the kitchen crew stirred huge pots of rice and beans over the fires in the open air kitchen.  I joined Alima and her friends in a crowded room while they quietly chatted in Bambara, a language unfamiliar to me except for the frequent word of assent and empathy I have picked out: Ah-wo.  As Bibi’s friend and a bona fide pastor—the female version is unheard of here—I was asked to pray for the family of Bintu, Alima’s late mother.  I pray slowly not because that is my habit, but because I am praying carefully in French.  After the “Amen” and the response of “Amina” by those present, we sit a while in companionship and shared grief.

Later, when Alima escorted us away from the gathering, she confided in Bibi that this is the third of three crises in her life.  The first was related to her small soap factory.  Alima manufactures soap from good quality materials but charges a minimal fee so that poor families can afford it.  She has enabled a few young women to start their own soap-making operations.  She was the guarantor for one of them in taking out a large loan for materials.  The young woman did not handle the supplies properly, so they were ruined.  Now Alima is in debt to the bank, with no means to pay it back.

Crisis number two came through a traffic accident.  Alima’s brother-in-law is a driver of a cambion, one of the large trucks that pass between cities in western Africa.  Another man rides along as the “little driver,” fielding phone calls and communicating with suppliers, customers, etc.  Trucking is treacherous in Mali for two reasons that I could see.  The roads are riddled with huge, deep potholes in some long stretches.  Those potholes might have something to do with the lack of weight limits resulting in damage to roads as well as top-heavy trucks overturning.

Alima’s brother-in-law and his partner were in an accident which killed the little driver (the partner).  The main driver was found responsible and thrown in jail.  So Alima’s sister and her children are left without support, not to mention the father in the family.

So, Bibi encouraged Alima to visit us for prayer, and she didn’t waste time in coming.  We sat with Alima for about an hour, and I prayed for her.  He situation seems impossible, but we called on God who loves and provides for us.  We cried together.  The two friends chatted quietly, Bibi assuring Alima that God can handle anything.  She knows what she is talking about, having developed this orphanage from nothing, purely by the grace of God.  Ah-wo.

The sun was shining by the time we said farewell to Alima and saw her on her way in a taxi.  Bibi then invited me to go with her to deliver a piece of equipment to a neighbor. An old but functional wheelchair for Bibi’s use when she has trouble with balance was replaced with a better one.  So we wheeled this one through the bumpy streets and around the corner, to the home of Saran.  This old woman is blind and lame, living in a single room next to several neighbors who rent their own small spaces and share the same courtyard.

Bibi went past the other doors to peer into Saran’s room, a cheerful voice ringing out from the darkness.  The neighbors gathered to help put Saran in her new conveyance, clapping with joy at this surprise for their friend.  I prayed for the smiling old woman, and everyone gathered expressed their thanks.  It seems that the neighbors take it upon themselves to care for their old friend, so they naturally shared her joy at her good fortune.

We were all smiles, too, as we left the little courtyard and its inhabitants.  We greeted mostly children and teenagers on the dusty street, each of them polite in the exchange of “Ca va?” and “ca va bien.”

We stopped next at the home of one of Bibi’s best friends, Molobaly  It is her mother’s home actually, and there were several women in the courtyard preparing lamb, onions, and rice for a baby shower this afternoon.  Molobaly’s brother and his wife have a new baby girl.  We sat in the courtyard with Molobaly and her mother Kumba, an outgoing, cheerful woman who has worked hard to raise three well-trained children.  I was seated next to Molobaly and was asked to pray for her situation.  She has been divorced for ten years, and her children are grown.  Her daughters are going to college.  She is lonely and wants to have a stable, happy life with a new husband, but that is hard to do at her age since all the good men are taken, as Bibi explained.

I prayed for Molobaly to find a husband who will love and support her, but also to know the love and support of God who sees her and understands.  Bibi’s tears flowed freely as she interpreted the prayer for her friend.  Molobaly raised her head after the “Amen,” drawing her hands over her face, and declaring that she feels much better.  She offers many thanks, and walks with us partway down the street before turning back to help with the party preparations.

We head for home, but as we pass by a small shop, Bibi senses that we should turn in and visit the proprietor Nakorian.  We are led through the tidy store to the back, and into a lovely courtyard and impressive house with steps leading up to a veranda.  We are ushered into a large living room, where we are greeted by her husband, an elderly, smiling gentleman.  We have no more than settled near him, on a sectional that could seat twenty people with ease, when two little granddaughters grab our hands and insist on taking us to see something.  Their grandmother does not shoo them away, but instead encourages us to follow them.

We are led to a back bedroom to find a beautiful, tiny baby girl sleeping on the bed as her mother works nearby.  I am asked to pray for little Vivienne, so I gladly gather her in my arms and ask God for health, a happy life, and faith for this tiny child.  Her sisters are delighted with her, and Vivienne’s mother and grandmother are grateful too.  At this point Bibi informs Nakorian that I am a pastor.  Her reaction is typically incredulous: a woman pastor?  She asks me then to pray for her husband, who is a devout Christian man even though she has remained a Muslim.  So, we make our way back to where Alexander is perched daily, his books and implements neatly lined up next to him.  He peers at me through thick glasses and smiles.  He is pleased to learn that I am a Christian pastor, and happy to have me pray for his health and long life.

Meanwhile I keep returning to Nakorian’s face.  She has such kind eyes and a broad, warm smile.  She reminds me of my father’s cousin’s wife Eunice for some reason.  I tell her that she has an American “twin,” and explain that Eunice means goodness.  Ah-wo.  This seems fitting, since Nakorian seems to have a good heart too.  I am rewarded with another lovely smile.

Again we head for home, but we are not finished yet.  A half block away is a family where there are two of the sponsored children who go to the orphanage for food and care every day.  Another sad story: there we find little Isa, a baby boy born on Christmas Day.  His name is the equivalent of Jesus, but I am told this is a coincidence.  Isa’s mother died in a moto accident, leaving her bereaved husband and young daughters behind.  Isa is named after her father, the baby’s grandfather.  Again I get to hold a new baby and pray for a good life for him.  The father’s name is Malamine.  His previous job of repairing televisions is no longer relevant, so they are struggling with his unemployment.  I encourage him to choose strength over bitterness every day.  He seems kind and smart, and I think he understands well what that means, having already made this choice many times.  Ah-wo.

Finally we return to the orphanage where we check on the children and staff.  Bibi has to correct one of the matrons who has allowed a few children to run too freely in the neighborhood.  She also instructs one of the men on staff to get pictures of several children for their sponsors in the U.S.

It has been four hours of hearing stories and praying.  Bibi says that she didn’t plan to stop at all of those houses, but once we began praying, she wanted to keep going.  She knows her neighbors and their stories.

I am humbled by the privilege of praying for these people.  It is a small thing for me, but it is big for them.  They are deeply grateful.  I remind each one that God loves them, and God sees their needs.

What are the stories in my own neighborhood, among my acquaintances?  Who is suffering silently behind each door on my street?  Will I have the courage and compassion to ask them about their stories, and to pray for them?  It is a simple enough task.  It is simple, but it is big.  Ah-wo.

Flying Kites in Sebenikoro

Need ideas for the lectionary (RCL) text this week?  Go to “Menu” and “Lectionary Sermons” for my weekly posting.  

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A child flies a kite made from discarded plastic bags.  Toddlers stretch their arms toward me, their eyes begging for me to pick them up.  A never-ending drum beat advertises a wedding celebration a few houses away.  Scores of people gather in a neighboring house for the six-month-anniversary prayer gathering to remember the deceased, the women cooking huge pots of rice and beans over charcoal fires.  Barefoot boys play soccer in what looks like a deserted lot strewn with half-buried rocks.  The traffic consists of donkey carts, women carrying oversize bundles on their heads, and students chattering or driving motos as they pass by on their way to the vocational school next door.

It is mid-afternoon, and these are my experiences on the first day of my return visit to Ase Mali Orphanage in Bamako, Mali.  It is situated in Sebenikoro, one of the poorer quartiers on the outskirts of the capital city.  I have come to see my friend Bibi, who runs this orphanage through prayer and donations, without public funding.

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Ase Mali Orphanage, Bamako, Mali

There is a church in Iowa that has taken the orphanage on as their project, securing sponsors for 140 children and raising funds for specific needs in addition to that.  They have poured their hearts into this work, and they have been generous at every turn.  Their second annual delegation left a few days ago.

It is a tricky relationship.  While there are kite-flying and soccer playing children, people who work and study and mourn and celebrate on every continent, the cultures in Iowa and Mali differ with one another in significant ways.  Communication falters predictably.  Accountability and methods must be ironed out.  Patience is critical on both sides.

My relationship with the orphanage is simple: I am a friend and supporter of the director, period.  By contrast, the congregation has jumped in with both feet, and they are learning as they go. Victories are photographed and enumerated in grateful prayers to God.  Mistakes and misunderstandings are painful.  This is the messiness of cross-cultural ministry. What the project will look like in five years will be interesting to see.  For now, God’s provision and guidance are unmistakable.

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But Bibi was here, loving and feeding the children before anyone noticed.  Slowly, people
with financial means in France, Britain, and other countries found their way to a project tucked far behind the street-side, ramshackle stalls of a city and country struggling to survive.  They have opened their hearts and their wallets to feed and care for the children here.  The work will go on, thanks to Bibi, thanks to God who is showing her and her supporting friends in Europe, Iowa, and Africa how to nurture these petits who are oblivious to their nation’s place on the global GDP charts.

Like the child who picks up a plastic bag and sees material for a kite, Bibi and her friends make a life for these little ones out of what they have at hand.  God has multiplied their efforts.  It is working.

Meanwhile, the goats range over the garbage in the street, apathetic to the wedding or funeral observances, or growing children, or dreams of soccer stardom.

Tomorrow, if the wind is right, I expect to see that kite again.

In the Labyrinth But Not Alone

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“Be still, and know that I am God.”  For many of us in ministry, this can be a challenge.  There is so much to do!  But if I take it to heart, if I turn from the clamor and haste for quiet moments in God’s presence, I find that I cannot do without the silent, slow pauses that restores my heart.

Some years ago I was introduced to the experience of walking a labyrinth for spiritual renewal.  This tool appears at first glance to be a maze; however, it differs from a maze in that the path always leads to the center and then back to the exterior.  One cannot get lost in a maze.  Its purpose is to slow us down and focus attention to the present moment for the sake of openness to God.

I had to follow the winding path to the center on a few occasions before my inner gremlins could be appeased and unhurried openness to God settled into my spirit.  Although I do not practice its use often, whenever the image comes to mind, it delights like a precious secret that makes me smile.  It symbolizes the gift of God’s abiding presence that never leaves me; I have only to slow down and allow myself to be aware of it.

When I served as a chaplain in a nursing home for the elderly, I got a lot of daily exercise walking the long hallways back and forth.  One day as I made my usual fast-walking, task-driven way down the corridor, a recent practice in a labyrinth came to mind.  My imagination leapt at the idea, juxtaposing the two so that I could regard the maze of hallways as my own labyrinth.  Was it possible that I could recognize God’s presence and experience renewal even in the midst of my responsibilities?  Could my spirit become more settled and alert if I slowed my steps and relaxed into the present moment as I was beginning to learn to do?

It became a helpful perspective in a place where physically slowing down was imposed upon the residents, like it or not.  I learned to be more present to them, a kinder listener, a better friend to them.  It became my practice so that as I greeted each resident and staff person, mentally I was in the labyrinth with them, conscious of the trinity of presence: myself, my friend, and God.

These days I am taking instruction in spiritual direction.  Currently we are exploring the interior landscape with Gerald May in his book The Awakened Heart.  He encourages his readers to be open to a word, an idea, or an image that God might have for us, a key to unlock a door so that the “little interior glance” of Brother Lawrence can happen at any moment of the day.  This glance calls us back to love, to peace, as we allow ourselves to acknowledge God’s presence in the moment.

So I asked God for a word or image.  It is not something to be achieved or discerned; it is given.  If it does not arise, it is not necessary in this time of my life.  No worries, then.  Simply be ready to receive it if it comes, I told myself.  God is good, and knows what I need at each point in my life.

I am in Mali, West Africa, as I write this, visiting our Luke Society director Indielou Dougnon.  We first stayed at the mission guest house in Kayes, acclimating ourselves to our environment of western Africa.  We have heard the call of the muessin several times a day mixed with the braying of the ubiquitous donkeys and the voices of the children in the school next door.  We went down to the river bank to ride a pirogue, a sort of African gondola that took us across the Senegal River to the market.

It is a typical African market: the tangy smell of human bodies mingled with the sour odor of fish on display, the suffocating exhaust fumes from the motos.  It is noisy, bustling, alive.  It is hot, the air heavy in the interior stalls.  The vendors call out to us, “Venez ici!”  Come here!  I can’t be distracted or I will get jostled hard by someone hurrying to bring supplies to one of the stalls.   I don’t allow my eyes to linger on any of the wares unless I am serious about buying them, lest the vendor draw me in with a hard sell.

Suddenly a word comes to me in the midst of it all.  “Labyrinth.”  Yes!  I have not thought of it in years, but it instantly rings true as the image God has for me.  My companions and I are deep in the maze of the market, but we will not get lost.  When God is with me, I am always on my way to the center for intimate union, or to the exterior with renewed energy and purpose.  But most of the time is spent on the way itself, and rarely is it a solitary enterprise.  Those I encounter are in it with me, albeit unaware.  I am aware of God’s presence there.  I can see each one with the eyes of compassion and love.  God is as present with me amid the pulsing, clamorous market as in the private, precious moments alone with God.

Indielou takes us out to his clinic in Aite the next day.  It is a bumpy, winding, three-hour ride through the sahel.  We observe the dessicated millet stalks, defeated by drought.  We discuss the distinctive behavior of goats and sheep.   We smile as we finally spot the familiar hill and water tower of the village.  Indielou leads us on a tour the well-kept facility where we appreciate the professionalism and pride of the staff.   Yes, God is here too.  The love of Jesus shines through the dust of an African village as the people are treated for malaria, giardia, diabetes, dehydration, and numerous other maladies.

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Later in the day, Indielou drives us to Aasoum, a settlement where his friends Fatimatou and her husband are the only Christians.  The people greet us warmly, the children eagerly posing for photos and then giggling at the result on the screen of the cell phone.  Smiles are the only language we can speak with them, but Indielou is in his element.  He often visits his friends in Aasoum on weekends when it makes more sense to stay in the bush than to go home to Kayes.

As he drives us back to Aite, he honks his horn along the way at people he knows in each hamlet.  We stop to pick up an elderly couple who, along with their family, have loaded up the donkey carts with all of their possessions.  It is moving day, because there is no more water where they were.  No problem; they can hitch a ride with their friend.

I am in Indielou’s labyrinth.  His, too, is populated with fellow humans in need.  He reveals God’s presence to them.  His smile, his care for their health, and his friendship are the keys that open their lives to God’s love.  His dedication to following the dusty, bumpy path among the Fulani, Soninke, and Moors of west Africa inspires me to keep the interior glance active wherever each day takes me in my own labyrinth.  God is here, among the people.  My way is not hindered by those I meet, but is enriched by the God who loves us all.

 

She Knows

Need ideas for the lectionary (RCL) text this week?  Go to “Menu” and “Lectionary Sermons” for my weekly posting.  

this-is-the-starIt was a fiercely cold, December Sunday afternoon when my four-year-old granddaughter Rydia spent a few hours with me, stirring batter for Christmas bread, listening to the Advent IV Bible story, hunting for objects in an “I Spy” book, playing you can’t catch me.”  We pulled This is the Star from the holiday stack of books to read together.  It is a beautifully illustrated rendering of the nativity in a “this is the house that Jack built” type of poetry.

I couldn’t resist reading it the way my mother read another poem to me as a child.  It was a piece about a pig that couldn’t get over a stile, with all sorts of characters pitching in to help.  Mom would go faster and faster as she made her way back to the first line: “Pig can’t get over the stile and I shan’t get home tonight!”  Just so, I sped up as I got to “…that saw the star in the sky.”  Rydia enjoyed this little game.

As we turned the final pages, we paused to marvel at the picture of the tiny baby, as the authors wisely abandoned the verse form and wrote simply, “This is the child that was born.”  A moment of wonder as we looked over the shoulders of the holy family, a magus, a shepherd, and a cow to see the baby nestled in the hay.

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We continued to the last page, then the endsheet and pastedown, where I sensed that the illustrator had us looking through angels’ wings to glimpse the special star.  Rydia asked what it was.  I said, “I think they are angels’ wings.  What do you think?”

“It’s the inside of the baby.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.  It’s the inside of the baby.”

 

Knock, Knock. Who’s There?

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“Somebody ought to do something.”  How many times have you said that to yourself as you marked yet one more piece of evidence that our society is floundering?  I’m just as guilty as the next person of despairing over circumstances, then pushing my anxiety aside, filing it into an overstuffed file of “things I can’t do anything to change.”

Except this time we’re not pushing it away.  Last night several of us gathered for the first of what we hope will be many evenings of dialogue about issues that matter.  Note the word “dialogue,” not debate or argument or unfriending.

If recent years of growing tension in the public square didn’t show us that we have to find a better way of being together, the presidential campaign did.  We are a society of sound bites, Facebook memes, and internet trolls.  I believe that we all yearn instead to know one another more deeply, and to be known.  Our fast-paced lives are dominated by busy schedules and information overload that leave us little time for meaningful relationships.  Yet those relationships are what give us life.  The only reason we dare add one more item to our schedules is because this is an investment in becoming citizens of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “beloved community.”

Exactly one week after the 2016 presidential election, I had what seemed like an epiphany.  I was mulling the idea of a dialogue group after discussing it with my friend Wendy.  The words “Knock, knock” inserted themselves into my consciousness.  I have learned to pay attention to these occasional stirrings, recognizing them as gifts from the Holy Spirit.  (Most of the time, anyway.  My inner compulsions have their voices too, but I can usually tag them as pesky gremlins and move on.)

Hmmm.

Knock, knock.  Well, who’s there?

Exactly.

Who’s there?  We have spent so much time debating the issues and the failings of the candidates, letting the fever pitch of the media invade our personal relationships, we have forgotten to care about the person behind the position.  We have caught the insidious disease of demonizing and objectifying our neighbors instead of asking them why they think and feel the way they do.

We have forgotten that each person has a story.

On the day that I got knocked on my noggin with inspiration, I traveled a few hours to Des Moines to hear Krista Tippett speak at Drake University.  She is the host of “On Being,” one of my favorite podcasts wherein she interviews people from different disciplines about spirituality and the art of living.   The page is described as “Taking up the big questions of meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers — some you know and others you’ll love to meet.”

I have been reading Tippett’s latest book, Becoming Wiseso I wasn’t surprised when she proposed the need to create spaces for civil conversation in our country.  She is bold to assert that the word “love” has been absent from the public square, but it needs to be brought front and center as the ground on which we grapple with issues and listen to each other, probing to understand what is at stake for each person so that we can work together to make thoughtful decisions about our common life.

An epiphany, and a lecture by a wise teacher.  It felt like a calling, then, when these events converged.  It gave me the courage to move ahead with the idea of creating a space where people can come together to talk about political issues, societal concerns, and questions about the meaning of life in a gracious atmosphere.

It is my turn to “do something.” And so “Knock Knock” was born as the pilot group met last night and gingerly began discussing an excerpt from an “On Being” podcast titled “How to Live Beyond This Election.”  Those participating shared their longing to understand their family and friends, to navigate discussions thoughtfully and with curiosity instead of devolving into anxious argument.  We tried listening for understanding, and it felt wonderful.  It was only one dialogue, but we were smiling, and asking questions, and verbalizing our concerns, and experiencing a small measure of healing.

Each time we meet, a “Knock Knock” will get our discussion going: an excerpt from a podcast or blog, a news story, a song–an item that gets us thinking and talking.  We will ask what it is in our own stories that resonates with it.  If it is an issue that requires political action, what is at stake for each person?  We will ask the why beyond the what.  We will pay attention to “who’s there.”

With this beginning, we will gain momentum.  We will wade together into the messy issues of our time with tools for dialogue that I believe will be more than civil.  As we shared our hopes and concerns in a wine bar on a cold December night, we all agreed that we have to start somewhere. What better place to start, than with love?

To learn more about starting your own group, go to “The Civil Conversations Project” online, created by Krista Tippett and her On Being staff.  Choose “Act” in the menu.  Go for it!  

 

 

 

 

Advent Oil

Need ideas for the lectionary text this week?  Go to “Menu” and “Lectionary Sermons” for my weekly posting.  

annunciation

In Jesus’ conception, there is one virgin being prepared.  In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared.  In the manner of armchair lectionary critics, I might have placed the parable in Advent.  But there are only four spots to fill, so second-guessing is easy.  Regardless, it has a primary place in my own Advent season this year.

Having been introduced to Malcolm Guite by a colleague, I find myself captivated by his sonnets.   This year I am reading his Waiting on the Word, his selection and exposition of poems for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Today’s reading (December 3), is John Donne’s “Annunciation.”  The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, but even my own slow reading of the piece yields precious insight.  The incarnation is mystery enough to behold for a lifetime, if only by pondering the last line:

Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

In this year’s Advent, my imagination juxtaposes the annunciation with the parable of the ten virgins.  I have always understood the oil in their lamps to be a symbol of preparation for the Day of the Lord.  Be faithful.  Be alert.  Move on to another parable.

oil-lamp
But what is involved in preparation?  The lamps must be refilled.  The wise ones brought
oil with them, but they only had enough for themselves.  The foolish ones had to find another source elsewhere.  They missed out on the advent of the bridegroom, because they did not have enough oil.
Oil in the Scriptures is both a staple and a sign of God’s provision and blessing.  It is used for healing, for lamps, for anointing, and refreshment.  Where there is oil there is life and goodness.

I am in a season of life that is not unlike Advent, so the mood of Advent itself feels especially intense this year.  For some months I have sensed a preparation for something that is to come.  God’s Spirit seems to be painting provocative designs on the walls of my imagination.  My prayers are often wordless yet profound.  I feel a great potential stirring.  A parable about oil lamps being refilled resonates.  Poems and images of Mary bearing a secret touch a deep cord.

The Messianic secret is one of the mysteries of the gospels, yet it rings true for me right now.  There is the oil of life, and also the image of the seed, which in Mary is the beginning of God’s “new thing.”  (Isa 43.19) The small seed of God’s inbreaking needs time in the darkness, time to germinate.  It must take in the nutrients required.  There is no need to hurry; indeed, pushing it to yield its fruit too soon will spoil it.

We bear a secret, disciples of Jesus Christ.  We share Mary’s role as Theotokos, God-bearer.  The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe.  As such, it is not only secreted (hidden) within us, it is also secreted (generated or released) from us in myriad ways.  The “immensity” of God is borne into the world in the tiniest of ways, by a thought or a glance, a soft touch, a word fitly spoken.

And so one more secret bearer is imagined.  Mary poured oil on Jesus’ head (Jn 12.3) at a dinner given in his honor.  Judas objected to the extravagance.  He could not see that her gesture came from a deep place, where love had been pulsing and expanding until it had to find expression.

At Christmas time—at any time—when God’s love is made manifest, may we be ready, filled with the oil of God’s life, so that the flame may be lit and we may see it.