OF WILD BEASTS AND ANGELS
February 21, 2021 – Lent 1
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As a child, I was given to horrible nightmares – vivid, technicolor visions of my worst fears. These dreams were so real that I would sometimes startle awake and run to my parents’ bedroom to ask to sleep with them.
Lots of kids have nightmares, but I had them all the time. And so at some point, my parents started to worry and to look for answers. My father, in particular, seemed determined to make me face my fears and thus, he hoped, to vanquish them.
One day, our dog disappeared. Pepper used to run free at night, but always came back in the morning. But that morning, he didn’t. All day long, we searched and worried. That evening during dinner, a neighborhood kid knocked on our door and told us that there was a dead dog on the road to the gravel pit near our house. He thought it might be ours. “Come on,” my father said, “let’s go see if it’s Pepper.” And so, we grabbed some flashlights and a shovel.
But I was afraid, and so before we left, I tried to convince my dad that we should wait until the morning light. I didn’t want to walk down that very dark gravel road to the gravel pit. But my dad was insistent.
I couldn’t see much of anything as we walked alone, the gravel crunching under our shoes on that quiet summer night. Eventually, we came to the spot where the dog was. And sure enough, it was Pepper. And so my father and I buried him beside the road.
I wish I could say that that late-night excursion helped to free me from some of my fears. But it didn’t. I continued to be afraid of so many things that, after a while, fear was simply my default mode. And the only tool I had to resist it was my faith. My faith became a talisman of sorts; a means to protect me from evil. As long as I stayed close to Jesus, I thought, those things I was most afraid of simply could not get me. I would be protected.
In churches like ours, we may not say that as plainly or as boldly, but on some level, we believe it. There is an implicit understanding in most churches that if we just believe the right things and do the right things; if we are humble and loving, then God will protect us from those things that frighten us. And yet we still get sick sometimes. We still lose jobs. Some relationships crumble. Geopolitical realities threaten. We pray, we ask, we hope - but more often than not, those things we fear are still with us. So, what are we to make of that? Are our fears signs of a lack of faith? Or are our fears just part of life, and something that lives alongside our faith?
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels. Mark is not into flowery detail, and he loves the word “immediately.” He has Jesus rushing from one event to another with hardly a breath in between. And that is certainly true of how he tells the story of the Temptation of Jesus.
This story is always heard on the first Sunday in Lent, because the symbolism is too rich to ignore. Jesus was tempted for 40 days. And our Lenten journey is 40 days long. Jesus faced his mortality, and in Lent, we face our own. Jesus was tempted to find ultimate comfort in the material world. And in Lent, we seek to be more conscious of those riches that are not material.
Mark’s temptation account starts with the baptism of Jesus - a dramatic event during which the heavens are ripped in two and the Spirit divebombed like a bird of prey. Then the voice of God announced that Jesus was the Beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased. It was a moment of pure joy and clarity of purpose.
But it didn’t last long. Mark reports that immediately afterwards, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The Greek verb “to drive” is “ekballo” and it is very strong. In other words, Jesus was thrown out or cast out into the wilderness, implying it might have even been against his will.
Once there, he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. But Mark gives us none of the details that the other Gospels do about what those temptations were. The point seems to simply be that Jesus was tempted, as we are. In that way, he identifies with us, and we with him.
But then Mark adds a unique detail, found in no other Gospel. All the gospel writers mention angels coming to minister to or feed Jesus, but Mark alone adds this intriguing tidbit: “and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
In the entire New Testament, the wild beasts are only mentioned two other times. And each time, the implication is that they are deadly and dangerous. Imagine, if you will, Jesus in the middle of the night, out in the wilderness, surrounded by the glowing, beady eyes of wild beasts. Maybe he heard them rustling in the brush or panting in the dark.
In the other Gospels, the angels arrive only at the end of his Temptation. They are his reward for a job well done. But in Mark, there is no sense of a strict chronology. Mark seems to put the angels and the wild beast together: “… he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” wild beasts and angels - together.
And doesn’t that mixed bag sound familiar, surrounded as we are by the wild beasts of illness and loss and unemployment and loneliness. And then there’s COVID - a beast so ferocious that fear of it has shut down our world; a beast so relentless that almost 500,000 Americans are dead.
But the wilderness is also the natural habitat of angels. Fear is far flashier and gets more press. But that doesn’t mean the angels of God are not there. Wild beasts and angels, grace and fear, want and plenty: they all live side-by-side. Our lives are not neatly divided between good days and bad days. They are simply messy, complicated days. And that makes the Gospel very good new indeed.
I am still sometimes afraid of those things that go bump in the night. I still have my moments when fear grabs me by the throat and throttles me. There are specters that still haunt my dreams. I still try to avoid them. But the Spirit keeps driving me into the wilderness, where those wild beasts dwell. But so do the angels.
They come with extraordinary kindness when we were sick. They comfort us when we are confused. We meet them in a hand on our shoulders or in a gentle hug or a shared tear. And sometimes, there is even a peace that surpasses our human understanding, and we have known something of the divine presence.
I wish I could tell you that you will always be rescued in the way you want to be. But I can’t. What I can tell you, however; what I can promise you is that you will never go to that place of wild beasts alone. There will always be angels there to minister to you. And there will always be Jesus, who traveled this road before us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
GROANING WITH HOPE
Sunday, July 19, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Humans are made in the very image of God. This is a foundational belief for Jews and Christians, and one which has strongly influenced my own theology for years. For many people, however, to say that humans are made in the image of God is to also imply that we are the only ones who are. But I wonder if that image of God is not imprinted upon the whole creation.
As a child, I loved plants and animals. And I also loved rocks and dirt and sunsets and the smells of the seasons. Looking back, I guess I was a bit of a child mystic who saw God everywhere, and who saw image reflected a thousand different ways.
That makes me an outlier of sorts. It’s true that a theology of separation between humans and everything else has dominated the thinking of the church for centuries. But here’s one thing to remember when talking about human made theology: even when it’s popular that doesn’t make it necessarily so.
This theology of the supremacy of humans, or as I call it, a theology of domination, has had some very bad consequences. Domination theology becomes a convenient excuse for us to do with earth as we see fit; as if we are God. We bless all sorts of selfish and destructive actions, we blithely call “progress.” And then we slap God’s name on it as if that will excuse our actions.
And then to make it all worse, we get lost in ideological arguments that keep us stuck where we are, while the earth convulses and species go extinct and sea levels rise, flooding Florida neighborhoods on sunny days. But we still insist on domination and the illusion of control and the absolute love of money above everything else. And then we have the audacity to claim that this is the way God intended it to be.
In his foundational epistle to the church at Rome, St. Paul uses graphic language to describe the suffering of creation as it waits for us to grow up. He likens this suffering to the pain and blood of childbirth. But like childbirth, Paul has a vision of something new being born; a time in which the suffering of creation is relieved.
Listen again to his words: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility… (But) the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”
So there it is – a description of the suffering of all creation, along with a promise that creation will be saved as we grow more and more into our potential. Very lovely words indeed, but how are we to understand this incredulous promise when we are bombarded daily with predictions of doom? Does it simply mean that God will rescue us from the messes we have made? Or does it mean that we have a role to play in salvation? And if we play a role, then hope must be a major building block of our theology.
Does this all sound like crazy talk, new age babble, theology run amok? Well, it’s actually some very old theology. The church has not always and in every place taught a theology of domination. The great Francis of Assisi, converted to Christ as a young man, saw intimate connections between us and creation and the God who made it all. He referred to his Brother Sun and his Sister Moon and his Mother Earth. These were not metaphors for Francis. They were expressions of praise and adoration and intimacy and connection.
For Francis of Assisi and the Celtic Christians and others in history, humans do not dominate or stand above the creation. Humans are of the earth, formed of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). And this earth, from which we come, does not belong to us. The earth is the Lord’s. (Psalm 24:1). Therefore, every act of conservation and preservation and ecological advancement is an act of praise for the One who made it all.
It’s too late, some say. There is nothing I can do about it, many others say. We are afraid. We are overwhelmed. We are in deep denial. Cynicism is our most natural defense mechanism. But it’s not the most faithful response, because Christians have always been called toward hope. Despite whatever is happening around us; despite what we cannot see, we have been called to live in hope - not magical thinking, not head in the sand, not denial, but hope.
We are not the first people to be called to live in hope despite our fears. God’s people in every age have lived with dire existential threats. They have lived under the crushing brutality of Empire and hideous years of war and the threat of famine and the specter of epidemics and the terror of annihilation. But in each of these times, God’s people have been called to lean into what has been promised, and then to do what we can, in our own place and time, in our own corner of creation, to make those promises a reality. We do what we can.
In the 2014 film The Man Who Stopped the Desert we see what hope in action can actually do in the face of overwhelming odds. Yacouba Sawadogo is an illiterate farmer from the West African nation of Burkina Faso. But this simple man has done more to reverse the ravages of drought, brought on by over-farming, deforestation, and climate change than any Western intervention. Sawadogo’s unorthodox methods have turned 50 acres of harsh desert into lush forest. How did he do it? Well, it was all rather simple. First, he dug something called “Zai holes.” They are much deeper and wider than what is usually used for planting. Then he filled the Zai holes with water-absorbing compost. Then he used small stones to create pathways for the rainwater to fill the holes. Then he planted trees and vines and crops in those Zai holes. Whenever it rains, the stone paths direct more water to the holes and when it doesn’t rain, the compost retains the dampness necessary for the plants to thrive. In the beginning, the other farmers mocked him in his hopefulness. Government officials tried to dissuade him. But Yacouba persisted. The end results? He and others like him now enjoy “food sovereignty.” And because of him and his hopeful connection back to creation, the desert blooms and rejoices, to use a phrase from the Bible. And in his tiny corner of the world, the groaning of creation has eased.
Fear paralyzes us, making us believe the poisonous lie that there is nothing we can do. But hope, which is the gift of God to every person, moves us into action, no matter how small. And hope is a far more efficient fuel than fear. It lasts longer and its source is inexhaustible – because “our hope is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 124:8)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Sunday, June 28, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
America is a land of superlatives. So much of our popular culture has been defined by the language and concepts of advertising and consumerism. A basic principle of sales is that you must convince people that what you have they actually need; that what you have is so much better than what they currently have. The result is a throwaway society, wasteful in the extreme, choking creation to death, and still never able to achieve the illusive level of happiness promised by those who sell happiness.
And the American church has, for the most part, bought into this model hook, line, and sinker. You might be surprised (and a bit disheartened) to learn that the clergy are not excluded from this kind of thinking. Clergy gather in groups and brag about the size of the congregation and their endowment earnings and their plentiful programming, as if it’s a winner-take-all contest.
Of course, none of these measures of success has anything to do with Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. In fact, one could argue, rather convincingly that the church as we know it, with its elaborate structures and careful polities and professional clergy is not anywhere close to what Jesus imagined when he first sent out his disciples into the world.
That’s the setting of today’s lesson. Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. And he tells them what his version of success looks like. First, Jesus gave them some very practical advice about ministry. He said things like: “Travel lightly.” “Don’t expect everyone to like you or what you’re doing,” “Don’t be surprised if the life I’ve called you to will be misunderstood by everyone, even members of your family.” But in these three concluding verses, Jesus said something more esoteric: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
This last bit is one of Jesus’s more famous saying. Lots of people have heard this adage about “a cup of cold water” even if they don’t know where it comes from. But fewer people have contemplated the transforming spiritual wisdom contained in in the words before the adage about a cup of cold water.
In fifteen words, Jesus masterfully summarizes the concept of the absolute spiritual unity of all things. Now I know that’s a mouthful, so let’s break it down. Notice that he makes no distinction between himself and his disciples, between himself and us, and between us and God. Listen again: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” It’s all woven together like a seamless piece of fabric. God in me and God in you and you in God and the cosmos in all of us – and all of it unified.
The absolute unity of all things - that’s shocking to hear for lots of people because the church has built most of its history on the idea that there is an absolute separation between God and us. This is the theology that most of us grew up with. It’s the theology that much of the Western Church continues to propagate. It’s a theology built for the accumulation of power and control.
But the truth is that it’s only one theology. Simply put, it’s the side of the theological argument that won. But other Christian theologies, like those of the Celtic church and Franciscan theologians teach a much closer communion between God and us. These theologies teach the essential goodness in humans as a reflection of the divine image. They see nature as intimately connected to us and to God. In Celtic and Franciscan thought, these words of Jesus are to be taken literally: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me (literally), and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me (literally).” God in me and God in you and you in God and the cosmos in all of us – and all of it unified.
And if that is the truth of what Jesus taught; if we are all connected like one seamless piece of fabric, then the smallest act of kindness on any of our parts reverberates throughout the universe. And that means that a cup of cold water given to a thirsty person is a direct interaction with the divine. And if that’s the truth, then how we treat others – whether for good or for ill – is exactly how we treat God.
Can true religion be boiled down to a simple act of kindness? Can the Christian faith be summarized as radical hospitality and the unity of all things? Is it really that simple? Do the little things actually matter in an eternal way?
The Rev. Dan De Leon is a UCC pastor in Texas who told this story in a sermon. He and some of his parishioners were on a mission trip in Mexico. While there, they met a man who had crossed the U.S. border illegally, only to be caught immediately and sent back. And this is the story the man told: “Penniless and humiliated, he started over. He… took the horrendous journey again, and this time he made it into the United States where he found work. He worked ten-hour shifts with no breaks making less than minimum wage, never stopped even when he cut his hand open washing dishes... And since he couldn't speak English, he couldn't express his needs, let alone defend himself under harsh treatment. After three years of saving up a little money under these conditions, he went back home, where he met his now three-year-old daughter for the first time.”
De Leon continues, “At this point I looked over at his wife. She was still knitting, still looking down; and then a tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly wiped it away, as if it (were) an enemy to which she refused to succumb. Finally, an (American) student in our (mission) group, moved by the man's testimony, asked, "How can we help? What can we do…?" And (the man) looked at us and said, "Just be nicer. Don't treat us like we're horrible. Be kind."
Be kind. Be kind. It’s so simple. It’s not at all flashy. It’s not the biggest and the brightest mission of the church. But kindness changes lives. It is absolutely transformational – for the one who gives it and the one who receives it – because we are all one. And kindness gives life, it refreshes - like a cup of cold water on a hot summer day.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
April 19, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
When I was growing up my church taught me that doubt was the mortal enemy of the soul. Doubt was an existential threat to our complex system of belief. Each stone of doctrine was built upon the other. And because each stone held up the other, the house of faith was actually very fragile. If you pulled out one brick, the whole thing fell apart.
And that is exactly what happened to me. I began to have doubts about all kinds of things. And when I finally pulled out one of those bricks, my house of faith collapsed. At first, it seemed like a terrible tragedy. But in the end, I came to see that the demolition of that system actually saved my spiritual life. It made Jesus less of a concept and more of a lived experience. And it was blessed doubt that paved the way.
Today is celebrated by many of the world’s Christians as “St. Thomas Sunday.” You may know him better as Doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas is among the questionable cast of characters that are part of the Holy Week and Easter stories. There was Judas who betrayed him; Peter, who denied him; and Thomas, who wouldn’t believe that Jesus was alive until he had seen it with his own eyes.
John reports that on the evening of Resurrection day, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, for “fear of the Jews.” A more accurate interpretation of that phrase “for fear of the Jews” would be “for fear of the religious authorities” because that is exactly who is being referenced here. Think about it. The disciples were Jews too. And they were not afraid of their families and friends and neighbors. They were afraid of those religious authorities who had conspired with the Romans to put Jesus to death. I point this out because the Gospel of John has sometimes fueled anti-Semitism, but only when Christians ignore the Jewish-ness of Jesus and his followers.
So, there they were, locked away and fearing for their lives, when Jesus suddenly appeared. And his very first words to them were “Shalom” – “peace be with you.” Notice the striking lack of recrimination. His first words were not “What are you doing behind locked doors?” or “Didn’t you believe I would rise again?” His friends are lost in grief and failure, doubt and denial. And Jesus says to them: “Peace be with you.” I hope you can remember that lack of recrimination the next time you are lost in doubt and denial.
So, Jesus appeared, with peaceful words, and showed them the scars in his hands and feet and side. But Thomas was not there when all this happened. I wonder where he was. Wasn’t he afraid too?
When Thomas returned, the disciples exclaimed: “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas, an apparent party-pooper, rained on their Easter parade by proclaiming: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And it this statement that damns Thomas in many people’s eyes. They see his demands for proof as a sign of weakness and lack of faith. Maybe. But I sometimes wonder if something nobler wasn’t going on? Was it just doubt or stubbornness? Or could it be that Thomas simply refused to just take someone else’s word for the truth. He wanted to experience Truth for himself, like his friends had. He wanted to see the Risen Christ with his own eyes.
And if that is the case; of that was his motivation, then Thomas is the spiritual father of any of us who have ever set out on this journey of faith, unwilling to just take someone else’s word for what we’re supposed to believe. Maybe Thomas was the original Congregationalist, insisting on the validity of his own experience of Jesus Christ.
A week later, the disciples were once again closed up in a room. Even though they had seen the Resurrected Jesus just days before, apparently their fear had gotten the better of them again. And quite frankly, isn’t that a relief to know? Even for the disciples, who walked and talked with the Risen Lord, the highs and lows of faith were natural. Like us, they could go from confidence to fear in the blink of an eye.
But Jesus appeared to them again. And this time, Thomas was with them. Once again, the very first words out of Jesus’s mouth were “Shalom” – “peace be with you.” Then Jesus turned to Thomas and said: “Go ahead Thomas, put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.”
There is no indication in this story that Thomas actually did such a gruesome thing. Just seeing Jesus for himself was enough, provoking Thomas to make the most profound confession of faith in the entire New Testament. He looked at the Risen Christ and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God.”
Blessed Doubting Thomas showed us that a mature faith is not based on what someone else tells us to think. It is not based on the creeds or confessions of the church, as important as they may be. And faith is certainly not intellectual assent to someone else’s point of view. Faith is about meeting Jesus in the everydayness of our lives. And a good, healthy dose of doubt is very often the way we get there.
Doubt. It comes easy these days. We doubt that life will ever return to normal. We doubt the wisdom of those who lead us. We doubt the resilience of the economy. We doubt our financial futures. We doubt that our family systems can survive such pressures. And we doubt that our faith is strong enough for this test. We are suddenly locked away in a room called fear.
But dark, locked rooms are a specialty of the Risen Christ. He suddenly appears, not because we have such strong faith, but simply because we need him. He shows us his hands and his feet and his side. He invites us to touch him and experience the truth for ourselves. There is never recrimination for our doubts or our fears or our anger or our confusion. Instead, he simple speaks the words we and this whole world so desperately need to hear: “Shalom. Peace be with you.”
If there is any blessing in this empty church on Easter Sunday, it’s this powerful reminder: one does not come here to find the Risen Christ.
A STRIPPED DOWN EASTER
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
One of my treasured possessions is an antique secretary that my mother gave to me many years ago, when I graduated from college. This secretary was not passed down from one generation of her family to the next. Instead, it came to us like most of the things in our house. It was the product of my mom’s keen eye and her absolute devotion to a good bargain.
She dragged it home one day and proudly announced that she had only paid $15 for it. I remember that my father scoffed when he saw it because, as he said, it didn’t look like it was worth $15. And quite frankly, it didn’t. That secretary was covered by 15 layers of black paint. But like I said, my mom had a keen eye. And she was sure that underneath all of those layers something simpler and far more beautiful would be found. The harsh chemical process of stripping it down would reveal that.
Stripped down. That’s how life feels right now, doesn’t it? Trauma has a way of stripping us all down to what is essential. Crisis clarifies what really matters; and in the process, reveals to us what is truly beautiful. In the midst of this world-wide pandemic, what really matters, we have discovered, are our relationships and families and shelter and food and community. These things are suddenly no longer the afterthoughts of our perfect lives. And all those superfluous layers which we think are so important – our preoccupations with political wrangling and social climbing and mindless spending are suddenly exposed for what they really are – just so many layers of old paint.
Stripped away. Now I will be the first to admit that I don’t necessarily like this process of stripping away. And I especially don’t like what has become of Easter this year with everything stripped away. You see, when it comes to Easter, I like all those layers. I love the drama and the pageantry and the music and the flowers and the churches full of people. But this year, I proclaim the empty tomb in an empty church, to people huddled in fear behind locked doors. And I don’t like it.
But I also suspect, in this odd and disconcerting time, that we are now as close as ever we can be to that first Easter. That first Easter was not marked by full churches and glorious music and festive brunches. Instead, its hallmark was something called “terror and amazement.”
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel and thus Mark’s account of the Resurrection is the first. But it’s a bit misleading to even say that Mark has an account of the Resurrection, because what he really offers us is a description of its aftermath. And his account is really short. It’s only eight verses long and has a very unsatisfying ending. Who ends a gospel with fear?
Mark’s ending was so unsettling to some anonymous monks in the Middle Ages that they added several other triumphant conclusions to this Gospel. You can read both of them in your Bibles; along with footnotes that indicate that neither of these happier endings is original. Meaning that Mark meant to end his Gospel with a very human reaction to trauma.
Early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had purchased in order to anoint the body of Jesus. As they walked along, they wandered out loud who would roll the stone away for them. But when they arrived, the stone had already been moved. And that was unsettling. But more unsettling still was the presence of an odd young man, dressed in a white robe, and sitting on the right side of the slab where the body of Jesus had been. And that just frightened them. The young man must have seen their fear and so he tried to calm them. “Do not be alarmed,” he said, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, this is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him…”
The young man’s speech didn’t seem to work because, we are told, immediately afterwards the women were seized with what the Greek text calls “tromos” and “ecstasis” – trauma and ecstasy. I imagine bodies shaking, minds reeling, mouths dry, cold sweat – all the classic signs of being terrified. They were terrified on Easter Sunday.
As I said, the Gospel of Mark never presents the Risen Jesus to us. The other Gospels do, claiming that people actually saw him - in the garden, on the Road to Emmaus, in a locked room. They not only saw him, but they touched him and ate with him and listened to him. But in Mark, there is only a promise. The young man who told them that Jesus had been raised also told them where they could see that for themselves. He said: “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there (out there in the future, in the living of your lives, in your everyday) you will see him, just as he told you.”
And so they set out on a journey into the rest of their lives, into the unknown of tomorrow, into a world dominated by a hostile Empire that crucified their Lord. They went, hoping, wondering if this outlandish promise could possibly be true. But they went, because the promise was all they really had.
That’s all we really have too. All the other layers of what it means to celebrate Easter have been stripped away. Even coming to church has been taken from us. But we are not bereft this Easter. We are not left on our own this Easter. Like the women, we have the promise that the Risen Christ goes before us into whatever it is that frightens us. It is there that we will find him.
Perhaps this year we can actually grab hold of that promise. Because if this were just like any other Easter, with bonnets and brunches and chocolates and friends, would we really hear that message? Would we come to church and leave unmoved by a message meant to move the whole world? It’s possible. All those layers might get in the way and obscure the truth that is meant to set us free.
If there is any blessing in this empty church on Easter Sunday, it’s this powerful reminder: one does not come here to find the Risen Christ. He was not in the tomb. And he will not be contained in this or any other sanctuary. He’s out there, ahead of us. He’s out there, in the days of our isolation and fear and boredom yet to be. And he is out there, in those days beyond this crisis. There we will see him.
We are left to imagine that an empty tomb and a strange young man did not quite convince the women that Christ was alive. It was their going to Galilee that did that. They got there to find what we find - that there is no place on this whole earth, no fear so stark, no valley so deep that the Risen Jesus will not appear when we need him most. And when he does, we join the faithful women in proclaiming: The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed!
A WEEPING GOD
Sunday, March 29, 2020 – Lent 5
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
I used to love a good theological argument, especially when I was in seminary. My friends and I would gather for some food and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning, debating and arguing the minutiae of what we thought we knew. But once I got into the parish; once I started to deal with real people’s problems; once I started to deal with my own problems, well, then it just seemed like a colossal waste of time to argue about what we could not possibly be sure of.
Our lives and our faith are full of ambiguity. And ambiguity is always a tough sell in world looking for the next sure thing. It’s a tough sell in the midst of a global pandemic. People want answers and people of faith want a faith that speaks directly to the crisis of our time. They want a God who intervenes. This week alone, I read about a charlatan TV preacher selling a coronavirus cure. I saw a politician claiming that this virus could be eradicated if we would all just repent. Two different approaches, but the same promised result: an answer in the midst of the miasma of this current moment. An answer.
One day, Jesus received word that his friend Lazarus was desperately ill. Lazarus lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha in a village called Bethany, about two miles outside of Jerusalem. One day, Lazarus developed an odd cough. That night, a fever shook him. And with each passing day, he got weaker. Finally, in full-blown panic mode, the sisters sent for their friend Jesus. Surely, he would have an answer.
But despite the closeness of their friendship, Jesus delayed going to Bethany. He delayed and said something odd about the illness of Lazarus being an avenue for the glory of God. But then Lazarus died. And when Jesus heard that he had died, he stayed where he was for two more days while the sisters grieved and wondered where their answer was.
When Jesus finally traveled to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. And that’s a significant detail because Judaism at the time taught that the spirit of the deceased lingered on earth for four days before passing the point of no return. In other words, all hope was gone.
When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching the village, she ran out to meet him on the road. She ran, powered by grief and anger, excitement and frustration. She ran, and as she ran, she wept. When she got to Jesus, she erupted: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” And then perhaps, in much quieter voice, she said, “But I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”
And Jesus replied with these famous words: “I am the resurrection and the life…”
Martha latched onto the hope in those words and ran home to get Mary. They returned to Jesus, a group of mourners trailing them. When Mary saw Jesus, she repeated the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And his death hit them all again with a cruel freshness.
When Jesus saw the depth of despair in the sisters’ faces; when he saw the raw anguish of grief, John says that he was deeply moved. The Greek word implies not only that he was moved, but that that he was angry. And I like that detail very much because it is my own experience that grief is often mingled with anger; that fear is often expressed as anger. And seeing this in his friends, evoked the same in Jesus. And Jesus began to weep.
“Jesus wept.” That is one of the most profound theological statements in the New Testament, for if you take the Incarnation at all seriously; if you believe that somehow Jesus is Emmanuel “God with us,” then that means that God, the Sovereign Creator of all that is, is deeply moved by our pain. But God is more than just an observer of our pain. God’s heart breaks at all human suffering. And God weeps great, copious tears.
Some people don’t like to talk about God like that. They want a God who is all powerful and far removed from the human condition. But a weeping God is the only way that this Christian can make sense of the pain of the world. Theological arguments about God’s power and glory cannot comfort me in the midst of my fears and frustrations. But a weeping God who stands beside me; a weeping God who hung on a cross, that image offers me the kind of companionship that comforts me when there are no easy answers.
Of course, the story doesn’t end with weeping. The story of God-with-us never does. Jesus asked that the stone be rolled away from the opening of the cave. And then he cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come forth!” And Lazarus did, still wrapped in his grave clothes, hands and feet tied, face covered with a grave cloth. It must have been quite a sight. And Jesus said: “Unbind him and let him go.”
I have loved this story for as long as I can remember. When I was much younger, I loved it because it spoke of Jesus’s power to save us even from death. But the longer I live; the more grief I experience, the more that God seems to delay in our moments of crisis, I see a more profound truth in this story of the raising of Lazarus. This is the story of a God who does not always arrive in time table we set, but who does come in surprising ways, and always at the right time.
In the church I served in New Jersey, a young man named Doug hurt his knee in a church softball game. It didn’t heal so he finally went for surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. I went to visit on the day of surgery, but when I entered the room, he and his wife looked stricken. They told me that the doctors had found a malignant tumor on his knee. And not just any tumor. It was a rare and virulent form of cancer with no known treatment anywhere in the world. In two weeks, this young father and husband was dead, leaving a family and a parish in shock.
During those two weeks, I made a lot of trips to the hospital. One day his wife asked me to step into the hallway, and without warning asked me, “Why do you believe in God?” I knew this question was coming directly from her suffering. At in that moment, any theological argument I had ever learned about the problem of suffering was meaningless. All I had, in that moment, was my own experience of God. And I remember that I said something like this: “I don’t believe in God because of anything I have ever read or been taught. I don’t believe in God because of the Bible or because of the church. I believe in God because whenever I have been in the depths of despair, I have known a companioning presence. Sometimes it comes in people. Sometimes it comes in words or in silence. Sometimes it comes in my bittersweet longings and in my tears. And sometimes, God even comes by way of a felt presence. I believe in God because God comes whenever I need God the most.” And her eyes filled with tears and she quietly replied: “Yeah, me too.”
In these unprecedented moments, many of us are afraid. Some of us wonder where God is in the midst of it all. Some of us even feel angry. OK. Because I think that it is in the tears and the questions and the anger that we will find God. The weeping God stands beside us in the midst of our fears. The weeping God wraps us in the everlasting arms as we grieve, and grieves with us. And then, the weeping God stoops down to gather up all the broken pieces of our lives, all those things we count as lost, and from them fashions something new and unexpected. We call that Resurrection.
I have often wondered why the cultivation of the inner life is such a challenge for me. What is it, really, that I am afraid of?
THE JOURNEY IN
Sunday, March 1, 2020 – Lent I
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
On Ash Wednesday, we began our shadowy journey called Lent. It’s 40 days long, not counting Sundays, which are feast days because every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection. But even on Lenten Sundays, there is a certain ominous undertone present. We feast under the looming shadow of the cross.
During Lent, we symbolically reenact the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and steeling himself for the greatest challenge he would ever face. Some of us fast and pray during Lent too, but if we really want to imitate Jesus on his Lenten journey, let me suggest that the best discipline might be something I’m calling today, “The Journey In.”
The idea of an inward journey does not come naturally to us Americans. We are an exceedingly pragmatic people who expect quick results with minimal and targeted effort. We are suspicious of too much introspection, which we derisively call “navel gazing.” We mostly think it’s a waste of time.
I think that sometimes too. This Journey In does not come naturally to me either. I am too lost in and too addicted to my administrative and practical tasks. I think I should be more introspective, but there never seems to be the time. And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that because I imagine that you imagine me in my study, pouring over the pages of Scripture, praying constantly for the needs of the church and the world, and walking down the sidewalks of Cheshire dispensing blessings. And I imagine that you imagine me to have made peace with myself, having confronted my own demons in my own wilderness and coming to a place of tranquility and self-awareness. I imagine that you imagine all of those things. But, in the words of George and Ira Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
I have often wondered why the cultivation of the inner life is such a challenge for me. Why must I always be so busy? What is it, really, that I am afraid of? Because I am afraid, you know. If I’m not reading or cleaning or reorganizing or surfing the web, then I’m lost YouTube or Netflix hole. God forbid I should just be still in the silence. But in the Wilderness, all you have is the silence – a silence so profound it seems to have a weight of its own. And it frightens me. I wonder if it frightened Jesus too.
There are lots of curious elements in the story of the Temptation. First of all, there is the daunting physical challenge of spending forty days and nights without food in what is one of the world’s most hostile environments. I saw this wilderness once. It was 117 degrees that day. The wind-blown sand pummeled my body and forced my eyes shut. It was a desolate and terrifying landscape. And when I saw it, I wondered how on earth anyone could stay in such a place for forty days and nights?
So the setting is curious. But so is the other main character in the story. Satan is not portrayed here or anywhere else in Scripture as our comfortable caricature of a little red man with horns and a pitchfork. Instead, Satan is portrayed as a real force in the world and one to be reckoned with. The uncomfortable implication of his character in this tale is that evil is organized and crafty and brilliant.
But perhaps the most curious element of all is the set-up for this story – how it is that Jesus got to such a place. The Evangelist Matthew tells us. He writes: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Come again? The Spirit of God, the Spirit of life and love and goodness and truth, that spirit led Jesus to that awful place? And if that is true, then it implies a rather strange partnership between light and darkness. Matthew seems to imply that darkness has its function in the spiritual life. And The Journey In will often take us to dark places before we ever get to the light. Maybe that’s why we avoid it.
Well, why wouldn’t we? Who wants to poke around in the shadows if you don’t have to? And so we run from them, and thus, sometimes quite inadvertently, we run from the truth that could set us free. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So St. Matthew and Dr. Jung seem to agree that the shadows of our lives, so often encountered on inward journeys, should be engaged because the shadows have something to teach us.
So there was Jesus, all alone, with his shadows. He was hungry and tired when suddenly the devil appeared with three distinct temptations, and all of them meant to distract him from his shadows. The first was the temptation to satiate his very real hunger. “If you are God’s Son,” the devil said, “then turn these stones to bread. You won’t feel so alone if your belly is full.” And isn’t that the truth? Food is a great distraction from shadows. Second, there was the temptation to test God by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. “If you’re God’s own dearly loved Son, then throw yourself down so that angels can come and rescue you. Then you’ll be the center of everyone’s attention.” Adoration also distracts us from our shadows. And finally, there was the temptation for power and prestige. “Do you see all the glittering kingdoms of the world?” asked Satan. “Just bow down and worship me and all of these shall be yours. Bling and money and toys distract us all from our shadows. And we even think they will dissipate if we just have more.
But that wasn’t true for Jesus and it isn’t true for us. And so Jesus, our teacher and guide and friend, showed us by example that there is power in staying in an uncomfortable and dark place until the Journey In has done its perfect work. Jesus would not, he could not have been ready for the betrayal and trial and cross had he not first gone as deep as he did.
Now, there is one more very curious element to this story. It’s easy to miss it, coming as it does after the drama of the Temptation of Jesus. At the very end of this passage, Matthew rather undramatically states that angels came and ministered to Jesus. The Greek word for angel is diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon, which actually means “one who waits on tables or serves food.” And what a powerful idea that is – bright winged angels with baskets of the bread of heaven, to comfort and sustain after such an inward journey.
In 2005, in the middle of one night, the phone rang. That’s almost never good. Marcos’ mother had died, and so suddenly we were up and packing and calling the airlines and trying to get ourselves to Brazil that same day. It was all so overwhelming and dark and full of the shadowy unknown. We worked until morning, when suddenly there was a knock at our door. I opened it to find a rather new friend named Jeff that we had met at church. Somehow, he had heard our news and had come over to say how sorry he was. He only stayed for a minute. But before he left he pressed some bills into my hand. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but it might as well have been a million dollars. Jeff knew how expensive those last-minute tickets were. And he wanted to help in whatever way he could. I will never forget that because in that moment I understood in a new way, that in the darkness, God sends angels. And they never come empty handed. They bring baskets of bread and wads of bills and warm embraces and whatever else we might need to remind us that we never, ever take these inward journeys alone.
"...actually engaging this book, mixed in with our own experiences of life and love, hope and longing, will not leave us content to stay where we are."
THAT TROUBLESOME BOOK
Sunday, February 16, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
OK, wait. Did Pastor Alison just say, “The word of the Lord?” And did you really just reply, “Thanks be to God?” Were you kidding? What part were you thankful for: threats of hell fire, the restrictive teaching about divorce, or a guide to self-mutilation?
This passage makes me think of my good friend Dean. Dean is a Catholic and loves to tease me about what he sees as Protestantism’s overdone devotion to the Bible, which he often refers to as “that troublesome book.” We Protestants do have the Bible as the centerpiece of our faith. “Scripture alone” or “Sola Scriptura” is one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation. It’s part of what makes us Protestants. But after having heard today’s Gospel lesson, you might be tempted to agree with Dean, that the Bible sometimes is a troublesome book.
Believe it or not, these strange words are actually a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. Just a few moments before, Jesus had said gracious, marvelous, easy-to-preach-on things like “Blessed are the peacemakers…” and “You are the light of the world.” But then he says this!
So what is going on here? And how are we modern people to understand it? Well, context is everything, as is so often the case. These strange words are actually introduced and framed by verse 20, which we heard last week. Jesus said: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” What follows is Jesus explaining what it means to be inwardly righteous as opposed to just outwardly religious.
This passage opens with what scholars call “The Antitheses of Jesus.” Jesus makes a statement based on a thesis of the Law and then provides an antithesis. For example: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’ And then the antithesis: “But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you if you even look at someone with lust, the adultery already lives in your heart.”
Lots of folks interpret these antitheses as new teachings from Jesus that somehow supersede the Law. But that assumption leads to the slippery slope of assumed Christian superiority over Judaism. But remember that Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. So I think that what’s really going on here was something very common amongst the Jews of Jesus’s day. You see, the use of thesis/antithesis was not outside some forms of rabbinic interpretation and practice. Jesus was searching for and unearthing the truth that often lives in, under, and around the words on the page. Jesus engaged in a lively conversation with Scripture, not just because he was Jesus, but because he was a faithful Jew.
But having a conversation with Scripture is not how most of us think of the Bible. When I was a kid there was a popular bumper sticker that my grandparents proudly displayed on the bumper of their Cadillac. It proclaimed: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” In other words, the Bible is not a conversation. It’s an order from headquarters! Therefore, we did not engage in historical or literary or social criticism. And we certainly never thought to add anything to the conversation.
But I don’t think that’s how Jesus read the Bible. Jesus seemed to know that the truth is found in that meeting place between the words and human hearts and imaginations. Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture was very people-focused.
What do I mean? Well, consider this: Jesus brings up the law that forbids adultery. But he doesn’t just repeat it and tell the people they should obey it. Instead Jesus looks for something deeper and more transformative than just keeping your clothes on. Jesus makes the astute and helpful observation that our deceits actually begin long before the deed is executed. Jesus names the fact that an unchecked thought often finds a place to nest in our hearts and minds, long before it ever destroys lives.
And then to make sure the people remembered this teaching, Jesus employed a common rhetorical device from his time and place. It’s called the rhetoric of excess - a purposeful use of irony and humor and exaggeration to drive the point home. Of course he didn’t really want folks to pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands. But he did want them to remember what he said. And his colorful language did the trick.
So what about what Jesus said regarding divorce? Where is the people focus there? It seems like he’s just being a hardliner. --The Law of Moses taught that all a man had to do was give his wife a certificate of divorce and he could be done with her. In a patriarchal society, this left all the power in the hands of the men. And since divorced women were damaged goods, unable to support themselves, they were often driven into prostitution just to survive. So when Jesus said that divorce should be avoided at all costs, it was the vulnerable members of society that he had in mind. In 2020, his words might strike us a restrictive and unenlightened, without nuance or understanding. But if you were a woman in the crowd that day, knowing that destitution might be just around the corner when your husband was having a bad day, you probably heard those words as life giving and life preserving.
These are just a few examples of how Jesus read the Bible in conversation with it. But for the most part, we don’t do that. We have been taught to respect this book, but we haven’t been taught to engage it with our whole selves. We’ve been taught not to question it and therefore, when life seems to contradict it, we have been forced to ignore it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A lively conversation with this book can transform your understandings of God and the world and even yourself.
So how can you get started? Well, let me offer some quick bits of advice for anyone who needs them. First of all, don’t start at the beginning. This is not a novel. It’s a collection of 66 books, in many different literary genres, written over thousands of years by multiple authors. So instead, start small. Read one of the Gospels. Mark is the shortest and the earliest. Or read one of St. Paul’s letters. Or read the Psalms. But only bite off as much as you can chew on any given day. If that’s only one verse, that’s fine.
Number two: follow Jesus by reading the Bible as a conversation. In other words, don’t discount your own thoughts and questions. If something strikes you as odd or untrue, make a note of it. If you don’t like it, argue with it. Arguing with Scripture is an old and holy tradition through which the truth can emerge. And don’t worry - there won’t be any lightening bolts aimed at your head because you question or dislike what you read.
Number three: take your own interpretations seriously. Don’t discount your own experience of life as you read about the lives of others in the pages of this book. The Bible is largely about how humans just like us experienced God. But you have experienced God too. How does your experience help you understand what you’re reading?
And finally – and this one is really important - always read Scripture through the lens of love because God is love. When you read something strange or difficult, ask yourself: how does this passage help me to understand the greatest commandment - to love God and your neighbor as yourself? How does this passage make me a more loving and generous and kind person? And if it doesn’t, then just move on, and come back to it later.
So, back to my friend Dean and his comment that the Bible is a troublesome book. He’s right, you know, because actually engaging the words on the pages of this book, mixed in with our own experiences of life and love, hope and longing, will not leave us content to stay where we are. The living Word of God will call us toward the transformation of ourselves and the world. And that is troublesome, but in the best possible way I know.
So give us a little shake, Jesus. Wake us up. And then send out to be bright and briny, loving and kind, merciful and just.
BRIGHT, BRINY PEOPLE
Sunday, February 9, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Her name was Patricia Walter and she was my seventh grade English teacher. I loved her, but she terrified many of my classmates. Mrs. Walter demanded strict order in her classroom. Her academic expectations were exceedingly high for our grade level. She had us seventh graders diagraming Shakespeare. She made us memorize the rules of grammar and the parts of speech. And she was famous for her pop quizzes. She would say things like: “Take out a sheet of paper and list the common prepositions. You have three minutes.” And to show you how effective her method was, allow me to demonstrate, lo these many years later: “of, in, by, to, for, with, at, on, from, into, under, toward, between, down, among, over, across, against.”
One day, my father announced that he had taken a new church assignment and that we would be moving. I still remember the morning I walked into Mrs. Walter’s classroom before school started to tell her the news. Her response was to organize a going away party for me. And I vowed to never forget her.
And I didn’t. We stayed in touch for years, exchanging letters and enjoying the occasional visit. Fifteen years after that initial goodbye, I invited Mrs. Walter and her husband Ray to my ordination. They did not RSVP, but sure enough there they stood in the receiving line when it was all over. They had driven four hours one way just to be there. I was so overcome at the sight of her in that receiving line that at first I was speechless and then I burst into tears, sort of humiliating myself. She hugged me and then she took me by both shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and in her voice of English teacher authority, announced: “You can be anything you want to be. You can go as far as you want to go.” And I knew that she meant every word of it.
Those words took root in my heart, as words so often do. Words are living things, and so what we say to each other and about each other have the power to give life or to destroy it. Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary aged children hear about themselves, they will need to hear ten positive ones to restore their self-image. So, words can hurt. But words can also heal and empower.
The Gospel lesson today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount – a beautiful collection of the kinds of words that heal. Jesus had just finished telling that crowd of common folk about how blessed they were even when they didn’t feel like it. He said, “Blessed are you poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.” “Blessed are you meek, for you will inherit the earth.”
But then Jesus shifts gears dramatically. Instead of referencing the people primarily by their frailties and pain (poor, mourning, and meek), he talks instead about what else is also true about them; something not quite as evident to most as our weaknesses. Jesus speaks of their innate gifts and their potential, proclaiming: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”
Do those words surprise you? They’re a bit shocking in that they don’t fit so easily with the dominant theological narratives most often proclaimed by the church. “Jesus is the light of the world, but people certainly aren’t,” we are told. Or, we make these words proscriptive as opposed to descriptive. In other words, this is Jesus telling us to be better – to become salt and to become light. But that is not what he said. He simply announces an identity that most of us are hesitant to acknowledge: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”
Now it’s also true that Jesus warns us in this passage about loosing our saltiness and hiding our light. And lots of preachers focus on that. But consider this: in order to loose saltiness, you had to be salty in the first place. And in order to hide your light, you had to be light in the first place. And that starting point is a radically different take on the human condition than most of us are used to hearing.
But this idea about innate human potential as a by-product of being made in the image of God is actually a very old idea in Christianity. The Celtic Christians and the Roman Catholic Franciscans and Eastern Orthodoxies and others begin their theology with an idea called Original Blessing as opposed to Original Sin. Original Blessing, taken from the Creation account in Genesis in which God pronounces the whole creation “GOOD!”, teaches that before we are anything else we might be; before any of our weaknesses and sins, we are made in the divine image and likeness. And that is our primary identity.
But it’s a hard sell. We simply accept the notion that we are hopelessly tainted and incapable of goodness. And so when a thundering preacher labels us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, we believe it. And we don’t just believe it about ourselves. We believe it about everyone else. We see the world through the lens of the negative. For example: statistics consistently show that violent crime has been on the decrease in this country for some years now. And yet, more people than before think of this world as a fearful and dangerous place. We are suspicious of strangers. We will give up our freedoms for the mere promise of safety. It’s a world defined by a very dim view of others. And yet, Jesus said to all those others: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
So what was Jesus actually saying? Well, it was a mouthful. In the ancient world, salt was a very precious commodity. Entire empires were built out of the exportation of salt. Salt was sometimes used as money. The word salary comes from the Latin word “salarium” meaning salt money. Salt was also used to preserve food. It was sprinkled on sacrifices and understood as a metaphor for wisdom. Salt was rubbed on newborn children as a blessing. So, when Jesus proclaimed, “You are the salt of the earth” it was a declaration of our God-given ability to preserve and to bless creation.
The light metaphor is a little easier for us to understand. Without light, everything dies. Turning on a light can banish our fears. Light helps us to see a way forward. So, when Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” it was a declaration of our God-given ability to facilitate growth and banish fear and bring understanding.
But can we believe that about ourselves? After decades of practiced and self-protective cynicism, can we believe it? And knowing what we do about the human capacity for evil, can we believe it?
Well, maybe it’s not a matter of belief. The Christian faith is not primarily about a set of beliefs or dogma or creeds. Christian faith is a living experience, a transformation that Christ works in us. It’s a way of living in the world that makes the truth self-evident. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “It works if you work it.” And the same is true of our Christian faith – it works if you work it. So maybe friends, these unbelievable words of Jesus would be more believable to us if we thought about them less and acted on them more.
I’m sure the first folks who heard this didn’t believe it either. “What did he say,” they asked one another. “We are the salt of the earth… we are the light of the world?” “Yeah, that’s what he said.” And with those shocking and life-giving words, Jesus took those meek, poor, sad people by their shoulders, looked them in the eye, gave them a little shake and simply reminded them of their true identity as children of the Most High God. And if they could dare to believe it, they could change their world. And many of them did. If we could dare to believe it, we could change our world too.
So give us a little shake, Jesus. Wake us up. Set us straight. Help us to see what you do. And then send out to be bright and briny, loving and kind, merciful and just.