Archive for March, 2015

The Judas Syndrome

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Judas Syndrome
Mark 11:1-11
Steve Hammond
Palm Sunday 2015

Mark’s story says that Jesus sent two disciples into a village on the way to Jerusalem to find the donkey he was going to ride into the city on. We have no idea who the two disciples were. I don’t think this is an insignificant detail in the story, though, because it gives us, I believe, some deeper insight to the forces that were about to clash in Jerusalem.

Any thoughts on who the two disciples might have been? There are no wrong answers because everything about this is pure speculation, including the scenario I have developed. I think Judas was one of those two disciples and the other one was whoever Jesus trusted to keep an eye on Judas.

There is lots of intrigue in the story of Holy Week, beginning with this business of fetching the donkey. It wasn’t like Jesus just assumed that some donkey would magically be available that he could donkey jack. Arrangements had been clandestinely made with folk who were evidently a part of, at least, a somewhat underground network that was trying to get this donkey ride into Jerusalem pulled off without the Roman occupiers getting wind of this. They would never have allowed such a blatant challenge to their rule happen. And who best to be in the middle of some anti-Roman intrigue than Judas? He had lots of experience with underground movements that were working against Rome.

This was not the only procession into Rome that was going to be taking place. Because it was the Passover and so many people were flocking into Jerusalem, security was on high alert. What better time for the Zealots and other groups fighting the occupation to stir up trouble? So to intimidate the people and remind them that Rome was in control, a few days before Passover the Governor, Pilate, you may have heard of him, rode into Jerusalem with a whole bunch of Roman soldiers. There were infantry and calvary and chariots and lots of weapons on display. The clank of armor, beating of drums, Roman standards blowing in the wind, the Eagle which was the symbol of Rome on prominent display. The Governor was all decked out in his uniform and was riding a white stallion that was bred for battle. It was political theater, and Pilate expected to be greeted by adoring subjects who were waving palm branches and extolling the glory of Rome. He didn’t care how his Jewish collaborators got the crowds there, just so they got them there.

This is why the bit of political theatre that Jesus was planning for the other side of town, that was obviously a parody of what Pilate was doing, had to be planned under wraps. But it turned out, even to the surprise of those participating in that anti-Roman street demonstration, most particularly Judas, perhaps, that this was more than a parody. Jesus was taking all that Pilate was trying to demonstrate about the violence that he could unleash if there was any trouble and turned it upside down. He wasn’t going to have their little laugh at Pilate and then gather the Zealots and start a popular uprising against Rome. That donkey was more than just a jab at Rome. It was a new way of looking at how you challenge the powerful in this world. Jesus was going to meet the power of violence with the greater power of non-violence. A donkey, and perhaps a nursing donkey when you read Matthew’s story, was much more Jesus’ style than a war horse.

Getting into Jerusalem was not the only bit of intrigue, of course, during what we now call Holy Week. Judas was in the thick of a lot of it. He was not simply a double agent, plotting to hand Jesus over to the authorities. He was, in effect, a triple agent. He wasn’t secretly working on behalf of the religious establishment when he turned Jesus over to them. It is not so much he betrayed Jesus, but the ideals of Jesus. I think a pretty convincing argument can be made that Judas never expected Jesus to be captured. He may well have not been turning against Jesus but trying to force Jesus to fight back, to actually start this revolution that Judas had so longed for. And it’s not that Jesus was surprised Judas would try something like that. There is a reason the word zealot has stuck. That’s why, if my imaging that Judas was one of those sent to get the donkey, that Jesus might have sent someone else along to make sure Judas didn’t have something else up his sleeve.

Judas and so many others were devastated when Jesus refused to fight for his freedom and the freedom of all Israel that week. They did not see how the way of Jesus could challenge the way of Rome. Nor could they see that Jesus had something more than Israel in mind. Maybe the most intriguing part of the week was when Pilate tried to figure out what kind of King Jesus was. “My kingdom,” Jesus told him, “is not like the kingdom you are used to in this world.” Pilate kept trying to figure that out but, like Judas, he only knew one way of running a Kingdom, through brutality.

Even though Jesus was so clear that his way is different than the ways of the empires of this world, there are still many who don’t understand how things could be any different. Look, for example, at the end times scenarios that are so common in much of the church in this country. In their view there is no place for a donkey when Jesus returns. Instead, he will borrow Pilate’s war stallion and reap death, destruction, and chaos on the enemies of God. Everything Judas, the betrayer, hoped for.

One more thing I find intriguing about Mark’s story is that it has such an anti-climatic ending. He’s left the crowds behind and he walks onto the Temple grounds. No palm branches, no cheering crowds. He doesn’t start turning over of the tables or driving out the money changers. Not yet, anyway. He just looks around and then goes back out of town to be with his friends, including Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. What do you think was going through his mind as he stood in the temple that Palm Sunday night?

This is from Jan Richardson from her website

After all this, Mark—alone of all the gospels—tells us that Jesus goes into the temple and looks around at everything.

He does not teach. He does not preach. He does not heal. He does not confront or challenge. He does not even speak; neither does he cross the path of anyone who requires his attention. Mark conveys the impression that here, in this sacred space that lies at the heart of his people, Jesus is quite alone, and that it is night.

Jesus simply looks around. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

The gospels vary in their account of Jesus’ relationship with the temple, and how much time he has spent there. Taking together their accounts, we know Mary and Joseph took him there as an infant for the rituals that occurred forty days after a birth. He made the journey to the temple every year with his family for Passover, most memorably at the age of twelve, when his parents, missing him on the way home, went back and discovered him in conversation with the teachers. Matthew tells us that the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, urging him to jump, that angels would catch him. John in particular emphasizes Jesus’ presence at the temple earlier in his ministry, where the temple features in such stories as Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. It is at the temple, according to John, that Jesus proclaims himself as the river of life and as the light of the world, beginning to take into his own self, as Richard Hays has pointed out, the purpose of the temple as the focal point of the liturgy and life of the people of Israel.

This is the place that holds the memories of Jesus and the collective memory of his people. And it is to this place that Jesus returns, after the palms, after the procession, after the shouts of proclamation have vanished into the air. He will come back tomorrow, Mark tells us, and he will turn over the tables and drive out the buyers and sellers and castigate the people for turning this house of prayer into a robbers’ den. He will return yet again over the next few days to teach, to provoke, to watch a widow drop two precious coins into the offering box. And soon he will die.

But for now, for tonight, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus merely looks. He peers into this sacred space that is inhabited and haunted by his own story. And perhaps it is this story he sees again this night. Perhaps he sees Mary and Joseph coming out of the shadows, carrying their infant son. Perhaps he sees Simeon gathering his young self into his arms, singing about salvation and a light for revelation, joined by the old prophet Anna, who raises her voice in praise. Perhaps Jesus sees again the twelve-year-old who conversed with the temple teachers, and the tempter who tried to lure him to fling himself from the pinnacle of this place. Perhaps a woman, once trapped and terrified, stands before him again, this time with the light of forgiveness and healing shining through her eyes.

And perhaps in this place, where Jesus is alone-but-not-alone, they gather about him, reminding him why he has come, calling him to remember, offering their blessing for the days ahead. Perhaps in this space, after the palms and before the passion, Jesus is able simply to rest. To remember. To breathe. To be between.

And you? What are you between? Where is the space that invites you to be alone but not alone, to allow the memories to gather and bless you, to offer strength for the days ahead? What is the place that beckons you to breathe, to rest, to look? What is it that you see in that space? What stirs in the shadows?

Blessings to you in the spaces between.

Longing and Living

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

John 12:23-26
March 22, 2015
Mary Hammond

Our hearts long for spring. Even 35 degree weather feels heavenly to our winter-battered souls. We rejoice when green grass, or even brown grass, peers out beneath snow-covered lawns. We search for spring’s promise budding on the trees. We hear the forgotten music of birds who have wisely wintered elsewhere. We ache for new life, for resurrection.

Winter’s nakedness, its raw vulnerability, has done its hard work. Planting season arrives. Seeds one day stir from their long slumber, preparing for the great push beyond the safety of their earthen home into the morning light. We watch and wait.

The story of the seed in John’s Gospel provides a metaphor for the final climactic days of Jesus’ journey on earth. Like the seed, he will die and rise to glory and new life. The disciples of Jesus, as well, are invited to partake in this journey for themselves.

I invited Anita Peebles to offer reflections on this biblical image. She spent a lot of time her senior year as a Religion Major at Oberlin College, looking at parables and stories of Jesus, challenging anthropocentric, or human-centered, interpretations. In her work, she searched for insights that could better link nature and humanity in one unitary Community of Creation.

In exploring this particular passage, Anita confessed her discomfort with the metaphor of “dying” as a pathway to “living.” Traditionally, she said, it has been interpreted to mean that one should “ignore the self and selfish desires to be able to clear heart, mind, and soul enough to follow the life of Christ.”

Alternatively, Anita suggests that we understand this metaphor in terms of transformation. An example she offers is the buckwheat seed which her preschoolers in Atlanta are planting. She comments, “Buckwheat goes to seed if not eaten or cut. If it doesn’t serve that purpose, it propagates itself and becomes seed again.”

I have to say a couple things about John’s use of the phrase translated in English, “Whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal” (GNB). With the word “hate,” think hyperbole, or exaggeration. Jesus often employs words and stories designed to shock his audience into reflection. This statement is no exception. Remember what else Jesus does and says about the journey of discipleship. Remember God’s deep embrace of the whole Community of Creation and God’s longing to redeem all of it. Remember the beginning of John 3:16, which we discussed last week, “For God so loved the world…”

Consider Anita’s image of the transformation of the seed. Remember Jesus’ story, culminating in death and resurrection. Recall Jesus’ calling to the disciples, to follow him. The only way those disciples can move forward with Jesus is to let go of all that they hope he will be and embrace all that he turns out to be. They have to “lose” the Warrior Jesus beating Rome at its own game. They have to “find” the Servant Christ who washes their feet. They have to “lose” their dreams of jockeying for the top positions in the Realm of God. They have to “find” their place smack dab in the muck and mess of life as servant leaders. We all have “losing” and “finding” to do, the whole journey through.

How do we accomplish this, and keep doing it? For me, the key that makes the most sense is “surrender.” For you, that might be a scarey word, just like “hating your life” could be a scarey phrase. Other ways to describe this paradox is “letting go” or “falling into God.”

If such words are not adequate descriptors, nature calls us back to her imagery. We can take the tiny seed into our bare hands, place it lovingly in the soil, cover it gently with the moist earth, and then watch and wait. The day comes when we sense the awe and wonder of rising, flourishing, and new life. This is our story, too.

Seeds start out small. When fully matured, they explode with life beyond imagination. This is true for the buckwheat, the acorn, Jesus, his disciples, you and me.

I love watching trees. Not just birds in trees, or squirrels scampering up trees. Just trees, doing their thing. Treeing. Standing tall, or subtly swaying with the breeze. Silent witnesses to the ages. How many Oberlin College graduations have the trees at Tappan Square attended? How many bugs, birds, and squirrels have found their homes there? How many lovers have sat beneath the trees on blankets? How many children have climbed them? How many bikers have rested in their shade? What stories do the trees have to tell?

All these fruits of life, abundance, and growth begin with a small seed. Creation is hard-wired for resurrection. Like the earth in its longing, we, too, yearn for springtime within our lives. What seeds are buried deep in the fertile soil of our hearts, yearning to take root and blossom?


When we risk losing our lives for Jesus in order to find them, we free fall into the arms of God. We follow where Christ leads–stumbling, getting it wrong, skipping, getting it right—all along the way.

However we get there, the journey itself is quite a ride. Amen.

John 3:16?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

John 3
March 15, 2015
Steve Hammond

It’s been a long time since I have watched sporting events on TV, but I am wondering if people still hold up signs like this one in the stands.[Show the John 3:16 sign]. That’s a curious thing if you think about it. This makes absolutely no sense if you don’t know what it means. If you weren’t familiar with the Bible how would you know that this sign has something to do with the Bible? And even if someone told you it was from the Bible how would you find it? And if you know what it means, what’s the point? I guess it’s supposed to be some kind of evangelism thing, but it only makes sense if you already have been evangelized.

What’s your experience with John 3:16? It seems to me that for most of my life I have been told that this verse is key to my salvation. Believing in Jesus is the key to getting to heaven. From the God so loved the world part, how many times do you see the word believe or believed? So believing in Jesus is a pretty big deal in this story. But, believe what?

[If substitutionary atonement comes up, spend some time with that. Do you think it’s really true that the only way God can love and accept us is for Jesus to be tortured and killed? What’s that say about God?]

Maybe we are supposed to believe the creeds. But have you ever stopped to think about how the historic creeds of the church talk about the birth of Jesus (born of the Virgin Mary)? How he died (crucified by Pontus Pilate)? But nothing about how he lived and what that might say about how those of who follow him might live. But do the creeds offer us a kind of minimum of what it means to believe in Jesus? Do you think Jesus is looking for minimum?

What does Jesus tell Nicodemus about what he is supposed to believe? Nothing. There is not another conversation like this in any other gospel. I don’t mean another account of this story, but a time when Jesus calls anyone to believe in him. Instead of saying ‘believe in me,’ he says ‘follow me.’

Let’s look at the story a bit more. There is another of Christianity’s greatest hits here. ‘You must be born again.’ Or is it ‘born from above?’ Actually, it’s both. It turns out that the Greek word used here actually means something like being born again from above. English doesn’t have a word like that so the translators pick one or the other. But it may be that Jesus is saying something like to believe in me is to believe that I bring you the possibility of living in a whole new way that is patterned after how God’s Spirit knows we can live in this world, a spiritual birthing. That sounds like a good way of talking about atonement to me. Suddenly that turns believing in Jesus into something more than just about heaven, but very much about this earth.

What else does Jesus talk about with Nicodemus? There is all that talk about loving the light. Does believing in Jesus mean something about the light he brings into the world? Is bringing light to our darkness another way of talking about redemption, salvation, and atonement.

As you probably remember Mary and me saying lately, the word translated believe could just as easily be translated trust. Does the story take on a different meaning when the focus is not what we believe about Jesus, but what we trust about Jesus? Do we trust what he told us about love being the greatest commandment? Do we trust that stuff in the Beatitudes? Do we trust that Jesus was right about God being a God of life and not death. Belief is easy. Say the creed, sign the statement of faith, nod in the conversation, say the Amen, stand for the truth. Trust is harder. It’s one thing to believe Jesus when he says “I am the resurrection and the life,” it’s another to trust that.

The church has a long history of building communities of belief, but I think the greater challenge is to build communities of trust. Communities where we help each other trust God, trust what Jesus said, trust each other, trust ourselves, and trust this world. We can build communities where we trust each others’ motives and intentions, even when we mess up with each other. We can trust each others’ love and support even if we can sometimes be unloving and unsupportive. We can build communities of trust where we know people look to what’s best about us an not what’s worse. It’s a risk to live in this world with trust as the default in our relationships, but I think Jesus showed us that trust or belief in God and each other is what he was talking about when he said we could be born again from above. [ask someone to play the trust game where they fall backwards and I catch them. Do they believe I will catch them or trust that I will catch them. It’s called a trust game not a belief game].

One of the interning things about this passage is that Jesus may have never said some or most of what we read toward the end of this story. No it’s not that this is disputed text, but that it starts out as a story. ‘There was a man named Nicodemus…’ Since they didn’t use quotation marks in those days we don’t know if the storyteller meant that Jesus said all these things or that beginning at verse 16 Jesus is no longer talking but the storyteller is commenting on what Jesus just said. There is some debate about this in the commentaries, though the overwhelming consensus leans to these all being presented as spoken by Jesus. Does it make a difference to you if John 3:16 is actually meant to be understood as the words of the writer of John’s gospel rather than the words of Jesus?

I think that all that is going on in John 3:16 and the story it comes from isn’t quite as simple as those who go around with the signs or talk a lot about being born again imagine. This is something I came across this week from Lance Pape, a Professor at Brite Divinity School, “To “believe that” Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But such simplicity does not honor the larger story John is telling. This is a story about an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness. This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us (John 3:19–20). To “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing that;” it requires “trusting in.” To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story”

What is important to me about the church is not that it is a place where somebody tells me what to believe about Jesus, but that it is a community where I am learning about what others trust about Jesus and what he means for their lives. And I don’t think I could ever come up with a sign that I could hold up at a football game that wouldn’t cause people to end up scratching their heads and wondering what on earth that sign is supposed to mean.

Powerful Wounds and Wounded Power

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

I Corinthians 1:19-25
March 8, 2015
Mary Hammond

Recently, I was furiously pedaling away on the elliptical machine at the Splash Zone when I noticed the words on the back of a T-shirt, worn by someone on a treadmill. The shirt read, “Strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general.”

After wondering for a long time what that particular saying meant to the person wearing the T-shirt, I began to think critically about the theological impact of such a message. What else would a pastor do on the elliptical machine at 6 o’clock in the morning?

There was so much to ponder, with a provocative saying like this. Are stronger people truly harder to kill than weaker people? What does the word “strong” really mean, anyway? Who defines “strength” and “weakness”? Who even defines “kill”? There are ways to kill the spirit that do not kill the body, and vice versa. Who decides what makes people “useful,” and to whom? Usefulness looks very different to the world and to those in power than it does to God. So, too, with “strength” and “weakness.”

The Apostle Paul reflects on such issues as he writes to the Church in Corinth. This community of faith is quite a wild, ragtag group of Gentile believers. They are often getting in each others’ way, behaving contrary to the teachings of Jesus, and generally making for a very disgruntled and impassioned Apostle Paul.

Many in the Corinthian church operate by worldly definitions of power, strength, and wisdom–jostling for position, ignoring the poor in their midst, claiming the superiority of some spiritual gifts over others, even turning a blind eye to gross immorality. Paul takes them to task, lifting up the Crucified Christ as the embodiment of wisdom, power, and strength.

Who could imagine? ‘Not the Jews,’ Paul declares, who look for signs! ‘Not the Greeks,’ Paul asserts, who seek earthly wisdom. God upends the world’s definitions of power. God repudiates the world’s understanding of strength. God tosses aside the world’s treasured and coveted wisdom.

Paul’s letters are sent to a nascent church, where troubles brew as to whether Gentile believers need to follow Jewish practices, where a Crucified Messiah remains a radical reorientation of thought. We who are here today have had two millenia to adjust to the idea of a Crucified Christ. It is an image that has been memorialized through seasons such as Lent, commercialized in the bling of the fashion industry, sacralized in the crosses and crucifixes we place in our churches and museums. And yet, might all this familiarity breed casual acceptance rather than deep reflection?

‘Here is the wisdom, power, and strength of God,’ Paul asserts. It is discovered in weakness, brokenness, and surrender. It is revealed in transparency and vulnerability. What, or who, is more vulnerable than a beaten, naked human being, executed along with other human beings in a public place in broad daylight?

What motivates this display of the wisdom, power, and strength of God? The heart of this revelation is found in Jesus’ resistance to evil and embrace of the good. He stands over and against the powers of both the oppressive State and corrupted Religion. He eschews both the options of insurrection and acquiescence. Jesus does his part to disrupt the marketplace the Temple has become (Mark 11:15-17). Both his teachings and his ministry constantly challenge the status quo. He continues to choose a path of nonviolent resistance and fidelity to God.

Jesus’ powerful wounds are transformed into wounded power. Might ours be, as well? We often resist the word “power” in the church. We associate it with ego and dominance. But there is a Presence, Story, and Gift–a power–that we bring to the world through our woundedness.

I frequently talk to people in very difficult, painful situations. Too many believe they have to “just be strong.” But, in the worst of times, it takes so much energy to “just be strong.” No one is strong all the time. Failure too often leads to feelings of guilt. My advice in such situations is this: “Don’t try to be strong. Just persevere.”

Does Jesus “stay strong” on his way to the cross? I’m not convinced. All those times he heads out to the mountains or into the wilderness alone to pray, I think he is seeking to re-gather his own stamina for the long haul. There are so many days and even years of Jesus’ heart-journey that we know virtually nothing about.

Does Paul stay strong amid his many shipwrecks, imprisonments, and the like? In I Corinthians: 8b-9a, he confesses, “The burdens laid upon us were so great and so heavy that we gave up all hope of staying alive. We felt that the death sentence had been passed on us.” Yet Paul and his companions hang on. They persevere.

There is a Hallmark card that I bought years ago, and have never sent to anyone. The outside reads, “They say you learn the most from your most difficult experiences.” You open the card and it says, “What a stupid system.” I’ve probably never sent this to anyone, because I feel this so at times, and wish it were not so. On the back of the card, it says, “Hang in there.” In other words, “Persevere.”

The Apostle Paul finds meaning in his own suffering by declaring to the Church in Corinth, “If we suffer, it is for your help and salvation; if we are helped, then you too are helped and given the strength to endure with patience the same sufferings that we also endure” (I Corinthians: 1:6). Powerful wounds indeed transform into wounded power, arising from the ashes of humility, bearing the scars of hard-earned, holy wisdom.

How might we amend that T-shirt that said, “Strong people are harder to kill and more useful in general”? I don’t know. Maybe you have some ideas! Amen.

A lighter, brighter Lent

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Mark 8:27-38
March 1, 2015
Steve Hammond

You think Jesus would have been pleased. Maybe the disciples were finally starting to get it. Up to this point in Mark’s story, it’s seemed more like the work of a reporter telling people about the life, teachings, and reactions to Jesus. But suddenly it gets very personal. Jesus goes from asking the disciples “who do people say I am,” to “who do you say that I am?” Suddenly it was a very different story. The disciples were required to show their hands. Sure they have seemed a bit dimwitted along the way. And reading the story up to this point, you almost are ready to cringe at what the response might be. But then Peter surprises all of us and gets it right.

It went pretty quickly downhill from that mountain top, though. I’m sure Peter and the other disciples thought Peter had gotten it right. Surely that was the answer that Jesus was looking for. But Jesus was never that easily figured out. There was always more going on with him than anyone expected or could handle. So instead of heaping praise on Peter he simply says don’t say anything about this.

That was weird enough, but then he started talking about suffering, being rejected, and put to death by the religious establishment. That was too, too much for Peter. “Are you out of you mind? Here I just thought we had it figured out that you are the Messiah and then you start talking all this nonsense. The Messiah doesn’t die. In fact, he’s the one who does the killing. Everybody know that, Jesus.” You think Peter would have figured out by now that it’s probably never a good idea to rebuke Jesus. So Jesus responded, calling Peter Satan. That’s intense.

We already talked about that very first recorded interchange between Jesus and Satan that happened out in the wilderness shortly after Jesus was baptized. It’s interesting that the season of Lent in the life of the church has its roots based in this temptation story. I don’t think that really works, though, when you think about the story. I want you to take out your hymnals and turn to hymn number 180. (We aren’t going to sing it). But look at the words. It’s about mourning and conquering our sins, and penitence, which are the big things we focus on in Lent. But think about the story. Was Jesus mourning or wrestling with sin? Was going into the wilderness and fasting an act of penitence for him? What was he contending with in the desert as he struggled with Satan? Temptation. Temptation and sin are very different things. And remember how that story ends. It says Satan left him for a time. And when is one of those times that Satan show up again, reclaiming his title as The Tempter? Here in this story where we thought Peter and the disciples were at their finest hour.

What Satan offered Jesus in that time in the wilderness was not that different than what Jesus was being offered by Peter’s understanding about what it meant to be the Messiah; power, wealth, fame, adoration, safety, and triumph over all of his enemies. That was the temptation that was always before Jesus, to take that easier route that Peter and everyone else was holding out for him. Why suffer? Why take the risk of loving your enemies? Why not make yourself a friend to the religious and political establishment? Why align yourself with the outcast and the poor, when the insiders and wealthy had much more to offer, could help you get where you wanted to go much faster? Why die on Pilate’s cross when you could crucify him? And maybe Herod and Caesar on both sides of Pilate.

Jesus knew the way Peter and the others wanted him to go was the only way they understood. They thought he was opting for weakness. They wanted to be proud of being with him, but if he kept on going the way he was, all they saw was shame. So he offered them a way out. They didn’t have to pick up a cross if they didn’t want to. But if they were going to continue with him, they had to pick up a cross and follow him. And that’s exactly what his point was. It wasn’t just about picking up a cross, it was also about following him.

Following means you are on the move. You are in transit, you are going somewhere. And Jesus was going in a whole different direction than everybody else. That’s why we have crosses, to deal with people like him. But Jesus saw beyond a cross on a hillside. He was moving toward what he trusted would become an empty tomb. When Jesus asks us to pick up a cross and follow him, he’s not asking us to die, but to risk resurrection, because that’s what he was doing.

I think, sometimes, we forget that when it comes to Lent. Lent is too often about sacrifice and sin, it gets us too focused on what we give up rather than what we can gain by following Jesus. But the interesting thing about Lent is that it is so seasonally challenged, and maybe there is a big hint there. What’s happening during those days and weeks of Lent when we are looking at the darkness of sin, confession, and sacrifice? Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, as Lent goes along the days get longer and lighter and warmer. Lent is a movement toward life, not death. If your Lenten practices, or even your faith, don’t lead you toward life then you’ve got to find something else. That doesn’t mean there won’t be death along the way. Ask anybody who has picked up a cross. But to be following Jesus, to be moving, in transit, making transitions, being transformed has to be toward life because that’s the only place Jesus is going.

I want to say this gently because we all struggle to get this business of following Jesus right. But, I see too many TV preachers and others who seem to be moving toward death in what they believe and preach. They are still, it seems, looking for the same kind of Messiah that Peter and the others were tempting Jesus to be. It’s almost as if they are ashamed of what Jesus stood for and his loving, non-violent, and inclusive way of living. And there are also way too many politicians who are proclaiming their policies of death and division are based on Christian principles. They aren’t volunteering to pick up a cross and lead the way. Rather they want us to pick up a cross and go away.

It’s not only more conservative Christians who might need to examine themselves, though. We sometimes imagine that following Jesus really amounts to getting involved in progressive coalitions where we save the world through politics. We just have a different politics than the conservatives, but for both sides political solutions make more sense than a cross.

I don’t think Jesus was ever looking to be a martyr. His goal in life wasn’t to pick up his cross. He just wanted to keep moving toward life no matter how steadfast and even violent the opposition was to who he understood God to be. And maybe it’s helpful for us to think about the cross not only in relationship to our sins and fears and failures, but also the temptations that we encounter that would try, even in the name of God, to divert us to death or, at least, keep up from moving, following Jesus, toward life.

I am so glad that Joyce incorporated a candle in the piece she created for the communion table for this season of Lent. It’s not all about death and darkness, but like all seasons of the church year, Lent is about life and light. Think about it. Advent, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost all feature light. Why should Lent be any different?

Before you come up for communion, or afterwards, or if you are not coming for communion, you are invited to take a candle and light it from the one up here. What resurrections are you waiting for? What death do you want to leave behind? Not even Jesus could make it all the way as he bore his cross toward life. He had help carrying it. What help do you need as you pick up your cross and follow Jesus? Who needs help carrying their cross? Who do you need to help carry their cross? With that cross on your shoulders who do you say that Jesus is? Where is he taking you as you follow him? Who is with you as you keep moving, keep following during Lent and beyond to that place of light and life?

Sarah Johnson–preaching on work in Guatamela

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Hebrews 12:1-2
Sarah Johnson

Here are Sarah Johnson’s notes from her sermon on the work she will be doing in Guatemala after she graduates.


thanks for having me here today

Mary and Steve are in Jackson Hole, busily posting cute pictures of their twin grandbabies on Facebook

here to talk a little bit about the work I’ll be doing after I graduate, starting in late July and going until May or so.

mostly I want to just share a few stories about my time in Guatemala and what I hope to do while I’m there

Additional passage from Hebrews

Hebrews 12:1-2 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Story 1

talk about the time I went to breakfast with a family for the first time and stayed forever and ever (2 hours) because I didn’t realize it was time for me to leave.

interlude where I talk a little bit about Guatemalan Civil War and work of NISGUA

claimed 200,000 lives, lasted 36 years, genocide, disappearance

US military intervention often in the interests of (even behest of) American corporations

impunity for perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, as well as ongoing disregard for human rights in extractive industries.

but on the bright side, there is fierce resistance to injustice in Guatemala, and it often comes from unlikely places…

Story 2 – Meeting Santiago Chuk

young human rights lawyer from Santa Elena

went to law school and immediately devoted himself to human rights law

Guatemalan Human Rights Law Firm

Dos Erres case

Rios Montt case

brief background on the case – first time ex-head-of-state tried & convicted in his own country, first time anyone was brought up on charges of genocide against indigenous peoples of the Americas

meeting Santiago in his office (him looking exactly like his brother)

Santiago’s name was on the case file as one of the prosecutors

interlude where I talk about what accompaniment is

In the Guatemalan context, accompaniment is one tool used in response to the threats, harassment, and violence faced by human rights defenders. Our role is primarily a supportive one: as international human rights observers, we work to create a climate that is safe for everyday Guatemalan people to exercise their human rights to justice and self-determination, free from infringement by business or government entities. For three decades, NISGUA has been responding to Guatemalan activists’ requests for a dissuasive international presence by training and placing volunteers as human rights accompaniers.

Accompaniers work as human rights observers, providing an international presence at the request of Guatemalans organizing in defense of their rights in a variety of contexts, including precedent-setting genocide cases. Accompaniers work in pairs, travel between the capital and an assigned region, share in rural life, observe and report on conditions, monitor the human rights situation, and provide a crucial link to the international community. NISGUA trains volunteers and matches them with groups in the U.S. that support the accompanier’s stay both financially and personally.”

Story 3 – Father Stanley Rother [2-3 minutes]

Oklahoma priest who spent 12 years in Guatemala near Santiago Atitlan before being killed by a death squad after returning to the country despite concerns about his name being on a kill list

set up a clinic called the Hospitalito, ran their tractor and stopped only for Mass, etc

His Tzutuhil parishoners asked his family if they could bury his heart under the altar and the family agreed

really amazing because a) that’s a big request to grant and b) the Tzutuhil were confident enough that the request would be granted to ask

most of the time Mayan people learn at a very early age that white people won’t listen to or respect their requests, so even being able to ask is a huge, amazing thing

the significance of burying your heart somewhere

the situation in the 1980’s was very different than the situation now, but wanting to go to Guatemala being aware of the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to run the race set before us.
Where is your heart buried?


Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Mark 7:2-9
February 15, 2015
Mary Hammond

Today we conclude our celebration of Epiphany–this time of Light, Showing, and Revealing. We begin the season, remembering the Sages who travel from the East to bring gifts to honor the young child, Jesus. King Herod slyly seeks to make them into “informants,” advising them to return to him and report back on the location of the Child. They defy the King, leaving another way. He is enraged. Stopping at nothing, Herod orders a massacre of the innocents—the slaughter of Jewish boys under the age of two.

Thus the season commences, shrouded in a mixture of Light and Darkness that accompanies life in any Age. A ruthless ruler, potential double-agents, dissident informants, a horrific massacre, and a refugee family, finally settling into a place they begin to call home. Spared from disaster, the boy, Jesus, grows up. He becomes a Teacher, Healer, and Prophet. His popularity with the common people is strong, but among the powerful, he is viewed as a threat.

Jesus knows what is coming as he continues his showdown with the powers of the Age. By today’s point in the story, he has just begun explaining to his disciples what is to come—not the glorious revolution, turning the tables on Rome and re-asserting Israel’s geographical dominance; but a different revolution, one that passes through suffering, death, and seeming defeat. The disciples cannot bear his words, nor understand them, and Peter rebukes Jesus (Mark 8:31-33).

Thus begins the slow, arduous descent toward Lent, culminating in Holy Week–a show trial, false conviction, torture, and the execution of Jesus. And then—and then–a surprise! If the story is visceral and gritty at the start of Epiphany, it only gets more so as we continue this journey.

It seems fitting that today we would remember the event that has come to be called, “The Transfiguration.” It is an account in Mark’s Gospel of ‘a moment in the life’ of Jesus and three disciples—not ‘any’ moment, but an unforgettable, luminous moment, one of both warning and promise.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a trek up a mountain. This in itself is probably nothing new. The mountains are an important place for solitude, prayer, and reflection for Jesus, and surely he took disciples with him many times. I would wish that there were also some women on this journey. None are mentioned.

Today, however, is different. As the three disciples stand there with Jesus, Moses and Elijah appear! Is it a vision? A dream? Does the veil between this world and the next tear away for a brief moment? Does chronological time collapse into eternal time, where all is joined together in the Sacred Now?

Dazzling light surrounds Jesus as he converses with these saints of old. His garments are shining white. A voice speaks from a cloud, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”

White garments are a sign of power and royalty. In apocalyptic literature, so common in Jesus’ day, white garments are also the clothes of the martyred. This vision of dazzling light and glory has an edge to it—an edge of danger.

Peter, not knowing what to say, blurts out the first thing in his head. How about making a Memorial right here and now? Booths for each of you? James and John seem stunned into silence.

The scene passes, and soon only Jesus remains before the disciples. ‘What just happened?’ they wonder among themselves. ‘Was that God we heard in the cloud? Did we really see Moses and Elijah? What does this all mean?’

Amid the confusion, Jesus tells the men to zip up their mouths and keep this experience secret until after he has died and risen again. They haven’t a clue what he is talking about.

Why does Jesus ask them to be quiet right now? Are these moments subject to embellishment with their continued re-telling? Will such sharing turn the focus away from the significant in favor of the spectacular? Could this story further fuel the peoples’ hopes for a military Messiah who finally delivers the Promised Land of their dreams? We do not know.

We often think of this experience as principally for the disciples, but it could also have been, or even primarily been, for Jesus. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus…in deep conversation. Law, Spirit, Prophet…Story. A Voice sounding so much like the Spirit hovering over Jesus’ baptism. After that proclamation, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is driven into the Wilderness, sorely tempted for 40 days and 40 nights (Mark 1:9-13). After this voice, Jesus is driven into Jerusalem, toward his final confrontation with the powers of this world, toward the inevitable consequences of his radical faithfulness.

How do these luminous, visionary moments on the mountain sustain Jesus through the weeks to come? How do they sustain Peter, James, and John after Jesus’ death and resurrection? We read in the Acts of the Apostles that James is murdered by Herod’s henchmen in a brutal persecution of the nascent Jesus movement (Acts 12:1-2). Tradition tells us that Peter’s life ends by being crucified upside down. John lives a long life, but is exiled to the island of Patmos. We may not know how these moments later sustain Jesus or these disciples, and yet we do know the times that our own luminous experiences of awe, wonder, and holy shock sustain us.

It is easy for Peter’s outburst to distract us from the heart of the story. Amid all the grandeur of the Transfiguration, the crux of this experience lies in the Voice from within the cloud proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Listen. Just listen. Open your ears. Take in what Jesus is saying and doing. Release your preconceptions, even ones like building booths and yakking away about revelations received on mountains. Listen.

As we prepare for the season of Lent, it is not just a time of self-examination. It is a time for listening to Jesus. Peter may want to stay on the mountain and relish the moment, but Jesus is on the move, and so are his people. So is the church. So are you and me.

May our soul feast on these moments, today, as we remember once more the Light that comes into the world. Let us walk closely with Jesus as he travels through days of intense darkness, steadfastly emanating the Light that even death cannot contain. Amen.

Being Normal Again for the First Time

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Mark 1:29-41
February 8, 2015
Steve Hammond

“Isn’t that just how it goes?” someone in the house must have said. “That poor woman was on her deathbed and as soon as the Healer breaks her fever, they have her cooking supper for his gang. Don’t women ever get a break?” It may have been that was what was happening. But it also could have been the woman had been so sick that when she was healed the only thing she wanted was life to get back to normal. And for her that meant getting back to things like cooking.

Now I have been really, really sick only once in my life. But that one was a doozy. There was some concern for a while that that cat bite would do me in. But after all those days in the hospital (17, but who’s counting?), and all those months in physical and speech therapy where I learned to walk again and regain most of what I had lost vocally, there was nothing like things getting back to normal. My only other personal major encounter with the medical system was all those years ago when I broke my foot and had that cast on from my knee down for 10 weeks. But it finally healed, the cast and crutches were gone. Things got back to normal.

I know plenty of you have had or are having your own health crises. And I can’t but imagine that you would agree with me that one of the really good things about healing or the healing you are hoping for is life getting back to normal or, at least, close to normal. And even if the medical issues haven’t been all that critical wasn’t it a wonderful feeling when you woke up that morning and felt so much better from the flu, the cold, or the sore throat? You were able to get back to normal life. Mary has been dealing with this flu and other stuff that so many have caught this year. I don’t know how many people have said or written something like it took me 3 weeks to what? Get back to normal.

There are lots of healing stories in the Bible, and particularly in the Gospels. One thing, of course, you have to keep in mind when you talk about healing is that healing doesn’t always happen. But sometimes it does. We could spend all of our time today and for the next several Sundays exploring what all that means. But today, the focus is just on the healing that does happen. And miraculous or not, no matter the current state of our health, we have all experienced healing from serious or minor illnesses and accidents. And there is also a lot we could say about what healing actually is, but today I do want to focus on the idea of life getting back to normal. And the caveat here, of course, is that for too many folk in this world, back to normal is not good enough. So that’s why I think a good part of what these healing stories in the Gospels are about is showing us that Jesus was trying to get us to a normal that we have never had before. We just may not realize how sick we really are, and the healing we need.

Now Jesus could surely have made it as a faith healer. The story we just read talked about how he healed people with all kinds of diseases and the many demons that were tormenting them. The disciples could have been his entourage that went for city to city, village to village setting up the tent, putting up the publicity, contacting the local synagogues, and counting the money. If that is what Jesus would have done, Rome would never have even bothered with him, much less torture him on a cross. He would have been harmless entertainment. And if he actually did heal anybody that was even better.

It turns out, though, that Jesus didn’t want to be a healer, or at least that kind of healer. When Jesus healed that leper he told him not to tell anyone. Oral Roberts did not become Oral Roberts by healing people and telling them not to let anyone know. The same with that guy in Akron (what was his name?) or any other of the faith healers that have come along. Jesus wasn’t looking to be a faith healer, but healing was a big part of what he was about. The Healer who wasn’t a healer. Don’t you just love paradox and contradiction? That’s because they make us look at things more deeply and maybe notice some complexity and nuance we have been missing.

Jesus was a healer who refused to claim that title for himself. I think a big reason for that was he didn’t want healing limited to something the faith healers do. Nor did he want to be the only healer. I think Jesus was telling us that to follow him means that we are all called to be healers. And that is much more than casting fevers or demons out of people. Rather it’s more about helping men, women, and children, systems and structures, the trees and air and animals and water and everything get back to that normal we are longing for, the normal we have never experienced.

That wonderful passage in Romans 8 talks about all of creation, that’s us and everything, longing for the revealing of the children of God so everything can be set free from its bondage. All of creation is waiting for healing, for things to get back to normal; that is, what’s normal in God’s eyes. Jesus had such a vision of and such a trust in what God saw as normal for this world, stuff we keep missing. In this world that Jesus understood as normal you can be sick and in better shape than those who think they are well. As Henri Nouwen wrote, we don’t bring healing to this world because we are well, but because we are wounded. We are the wounded healers who are trying to help Jesus recover normal for this world.

How has healing worked in your life? What are the processes of healing? Do you have any images of healing? I know for sure that healing doesn’t happen without others. When I was so sick so many people took care of me. Doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, social workers, so many of you and other PCC folk who were around then, but particularly our daughter Rachel, and most of all Mary. But there were also the medical researchers and the teachers who taught the doctors and nurses. There were the administrators who made sure the hospital was there. There were the secretaries and janitors and cooks and volunteers and all the others who had to be doing their jobs if I was going to be healed. Healing doesn’t happen without each other. And the way this world will find its normal for the first time is with each other. Jesus knew that. He knew that together we could bring the healing not only each other, but this whole world and all or creation needs.

Let’s go back to the story. What do you think it was like in that home where Peter’s mother-in-law was? What was going through her mind? What about Peter? His wife? The disciples? Family and on-lookers? Why did Jesus head to the wilderness when all those folk were wanting him to stay there and heal them? Are there clues from this story or our own stories about how healing comes to us or how we bring healing to this world so we can help it find normal again for the first time?

Healing Peter’s mother-in-law was a big thing. Healing the leper was a big thing. Driving out the demon in the man in the synagogue in that story right before this was a big thing. Healing all the people that were brought to him was a big thing. Healing means something big, especially if you’re the one getting healed. But Jesus had a much bigger thing in mind.

So here’s where I fulfill the promise I made last week about what my original choice was when we decided to change the name of the church. No, it wasn’t Peace Community Church. But I continue to be so glad for that choice. That consensus process that lasted six months even moved me to a new place.

At first, I tried to convince people of the merits of St. Stephen’s, but that really didn’t go anywhere. But my real first choice was Church of the Resurrection. What drew me to that name was the fact that Jesus was always pointing us toward life. Jesus was all about resurrection, not just for himself; but all of us–all of creation. We are so gripped by death in this world. What’s going on in this world that we have ISIS or the militarism that has such a hold on this country? Why are we so bad to each other in so many ways. It’s a sickness that we are called to help heal. It’s death that we are called to challenge with life. You can be sick but still know the healing that comes when you are moving toward life. And you can think you are well when you are so very sick.

For Jesus, God was always the God of Life, not the God of death that so many of us have made God into. I think Jesus more than believed in resurrection, he counted on it. He knew that what is normal in this life is life. So how could things end with death? Life, for Jesus, has the final word. Life is what calls us to find together what it means to be normal again for the first time. And life is what heals us.