We’ve been living in an eternal Lent. Well, what feels like eternal, as it’s been since March of last year that any of us has lived life normally. To preach on Lent, what it means, and ‘giving up’ of oneself almost seems laughable at this moment in time. We gave up our social connections, habits, and haunts. We gave up our church buildings and onsite ministries. Some people just gave up.
Jesus talks about this giving up every year during Lent. He reminds us that, “To love one’s life is to lose it, and those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, JC, I get where you’re coming from but c’mon man…we’ve been giving up so much in the last year that there isn’t much left of us. How then can we preach to congregations concerning ‘giving up’ when we don’t feel like we have much left in our lives?
This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me.
Our creature comforts have often become roadblocks on the path to Jesus. We rely on bars and restaurants; movies and sporting events; in person worship followed by coffee hour; dates with partners, moments with family…the list goes on and on. With all of these moments simultaneously stripped away, our lives have become seemingly less, somehow—at least on the surface. Loneliness and separation have cost people loss of life in multiple ways, so how can we continue to lose what we don’t have?
I think to preach on loss is important, even if we feel the way mentioned above. Christ didn’t ask us to forgo movies for faith; Christ asked us to live lives filled with faith in God instead of faith in penultimate joys. For us, the job of asking folks to continue to lose is one of reframing the word ‘loss’ into the word ‘sacrifice’. We haven’t lost anything, really. We’ve had to sacrifice for the greater good—we have made these sacrifices to keep our loved ones’ safe and healthy, and they have done so for us. We have ‘died’ to worldly ways, sacrificing comforts for well-being. How have we filled those empty spaces once inhabited by those comforts? Have we been able to seek God in the midst of all this chaos, or have we retreated into the holes left by our sacrifices and hidden from hope and prayer? Have we recognized that Jesus Christ can be worshiped from a computer screen just as faithfully as he can from a pew—or have we fallen away from worship altogether because we feel abandoned? These are important introspections that I believe we all need to encounter, if we already haven’t, and our people need us to admit our sense of sacrifice so that they can approach theirs.
After all, Jesus’ was the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes our minds concentrate so heavily on the sacrifices that we’ve made that we gloss over the sacrifice God made. Being a season of penitence, my hope is that we will preach sacrifice and not loss—while still acknowledging that we have lost loved ones, jobs, and other important facets of life, we must also note the sacrifice we make so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We sacrificed our lesser freedoms to do our part for the rest of humanity…
God sacrificed God’s entire human life to save it. Let’s remind people of that.
If you listen closely, I suspect you could hear the collective sighs of preachers near and far who, in their preparation to preach, saw that John 3:16 was among the lectionary texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Now, don’t get me wrong: John is my absolute favorite Gospel to preach on, to study, or just to sit down and read! I am not alone in my love of John. In fact, there is something of a cult-like following of the Fourth Gospel among preachers.
Alas, as every preacher knows, the more familiar a text is, the more difficult it can be to preach on! Sometimes, it seems that everything that can be said about a text already has been said—and by someone who said it better than I can! Nowhere is this more clearly the case than with John 3:16. Martin Luther infamously called this verse, “The Gospel in a nutshell,” and for better or worse, it has been emblazoned on billboards and bumper stickers, sewn into throw pillows and baseball caps, and it has even appeared tattooed into the skin of more than a few actors and athletes.
A more fruitful homiletical pathway might lead us to explore the verses immediately preceding verse 16. They are undoubtedly some of the most unfamiliar verses in the New Testament, and they draw our attention to a rather opaque section of Torah—namely, the book of Numbers, which the People of God hear from three times in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. The story to which Jesus is referring picks up with the Hebrew people who, having long been liberated from the Egyptians, are nonetheless still wandering in the wilderness, in search of the land which has been promised. The longer they wander, the crankier they become. They take aim at God and Moses alike, crying out in petulant frustration.
All told, Numbers depicts five of these so-called “murmuring episodes” wherein the Hebrew people grumble and complain about an assortment of perceived grievances. They don’t like the food; they want more water; they’re tired; they want to go back to Egypt; they’re sick of camping. Picture a minivan loaded up for a road trip with a gaggle of disgruntled toddlers kicking the seats, throwing popcorn, and screaming, “Are we there yet?” and you won’t be far off!
Each episode follows a predictable pattern: the Hebrew people complain, God gets angry, the Hebrew people realize they’ve made God angry and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf, Moses does, and God calms down. Then, a few chapters later, another tantrum erupts, and the same pattern unfolds. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Finally, their sniping reaches a boiling point. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they grumbled against God and Moses, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
If you listen carefully, you’ll catch the level of absurdity underpinning their whining. “There is no food and water,” they moan in one breath, and then, “we detest this miserable food,” they carp in the next breath. In response, God punishes them for their insolence and sedition by sending venomous snakes into the encampment.
Now, at this point, some of us may be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God. Those snakes bit people, and some folks even died!” But we must leaven our reading of Scripture with a bit of theological imagination.
The Hebrew people were faced with a choice. On the one hand was a life-giving relationship with God that challenged everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked and pushed them to greater depths of faith and obedience. On the other hand was the monotony of slavery in Egypt which would surely lead to death, but at least it offered some semblance of consistency and predictability along the way.
Over and over again, the Hebrew people voiced their desire to go back to Egypt and pick up where they left off as slaves to Pharaoh. In one scene, they actually hatch a plan of sedition: “…Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Num. 14:4b) At least in Egypt, they knew how the system worked. With God, there was no telling where they would be led, or what they would be asked to do. So enough with this “chosen people” stuff, we’ll take our mundane life of slavery back, thank you very much!
And yet, the narrative arc of the Old Testament in particular, and Scripture in general, is one of a relentless and undeterred God doing whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with humankind. Even here, as the Hebrew people are hell-bent on marching back to certain death in Egypt because they feared what they did not know and couldn’t predict, God is ultimately and inexorably the source of life. As the Hebrew people repent from their foolish and seditious ways, God hears their prayer and once again sets before them a wellspring of life and healing.
But the way God chooses to do it is what makes this passage even more strange: God tells Moses to craft a venomous snake and put it onto a pole so that those who were bitten could look at it and be healed. Moses did as he was told, and crafted a venomous snake from bronze, put it on the pole, and set it in the midst of the people. Whenever a snake bit someone, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.
In fact, the statue worked so well that it became a kind of cultural icon among the Hebrew people. The statue was passed from one generation to the next until, centuries later, it winds up in the temple in Jerusalem. By then, it had garnered both a name (Nehushtan) and a cult-like following, which prompts King Hezekiah to have it destroyed. (2 Kings 18:4)
Although there is little hope that this unfamiliar and bizarre tale will make it into the Vacation Bible School curriculum anytime soon, at its heart is a universal truth: there is no venom quite so deadly as fear.
Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death—nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear. It corrodes faith, cuts off our pathways for giving and receiving grace and mercy, and if it is left untreated long enough, it gives way to hatred, recalcitrance, hardness of heart and soul, and leads ultimately to death.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, there may be no more important time for us to take account of the ways in which each of us are afflicted by the venom of fear. Only when the Hebrew people brought that which they feared most into full view, were they made whole.
The same is true for us. As we come into full view of the cross and the reality of death, it is only by walking headlong into death’s dark shadow that we come to know the fullness of Christ’s resurrected life.
Luke 2:22-40 shares the story of the Presentation. In it, we discover the holy family on a pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem fulfilling their requirement “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v 23). That is, to offer their firstborn to the Lord through the sacrificing of a small bird.
The Presentation not only marks the time when the young Jesus was presented to God in the temple, it formally marked the Son of God taking on our nature and giving itself back to God the Father. This theodrama played out when Sts. Simeon and Anna announced that the glorious return of Yahweh to his holy temple had happened right before their eyes – For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation (v 30). In today’s Gospel, the young Jesus has now come of age. Entering into the temple court again, he now passes judgment on it and declares that his very body had become the new temple. A few days later, this new temple would give his final sacrifice on the cross, offering himself yet again to the Father for the redemption of the world.
We’re at the point in this season of Lent where the image of Christ’s cross begins to take shape. If Epiphany is the season to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, Lent is the time to come alongside Jesus with his cross. Remembering is challenging. Even his closest followers could not comprehend the cross. St. Peter would not fathom the Messiah undergoing suffering and death (Lent II).
Today (Lent III), we learn that it was only after “he was raised from the dead” that his disciples “believed” (Jn 2:22). Two thousand years later, are we still like Peter? We know the story, and like the disciples, we remember what is written (v 17). Like Peter, we often deny that we will one day die and even ignore the truth that our closest friends and family will do the same. Forgetting we are dust and to dust we will return is prevalent in our culture, even as we have experienced significant death this year due to the ongoing pandemic (Gen 3:19).
Contemplating death alone leaves one with a sense of hopelessness. Set this despair up and against the cross of Christ, and death has no sting (1 Cor 15:55). Again, we know the story. God raised him from the dead. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). There are three more Sundays left in Lent. Use this time to not only remember your death but to contemplate the cross.
Each of these passages of scripture stands alone and can be explicated and exegeted into its own sermon. Relationships should not be forced, nor should any passage be forced as the lens through which another is read. That being said, these are excellent texts for any number of Lenten themes. These Lenten themes are not about self-flagellation but are about repentance; they are not about trivial fasts, but renunciation of and dying to the old way of life, raised to new life through grace with Jesus in the Resurrection.
Patrick Malloy writes, “The entire Easter cycle, from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, focuses on the Baptismal Covenant and is directed toward the Great Vigil of Easter. Even the penitential aspect of Lent must be seen as the church’s recognition that it has failed to express the grace God freely gave it in baptism. Lenten penitence is rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.”
The passage from Romans — as does much of the whole epistle — emphasizes that none of us, from Abraham through his descendants has earned God’s love of grace, that it is freely given. As Paul writes, “[H]is faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
While Paul in Romans relies heavily on penal substitutionary atonement, one need not accept it whole cloth to accept the joy of Easter on the horizon: Jesus, God’s Christ, has defeated death and sin. Through that defeat of death, all of the children of Abraham have had death defeated for them as well. This is the grace that is proclaimed and celebrated in baptism, a rite of the church that usually necessitates naming.
In my tradition to begin the specific rite of baptism, the presider declares, “The Candidate(s) for Holy Baptism will now be presented.” Whether the candidate is an infant or an adult, their sponsors say — one at a time, for the whole assembly to hear individually — “I present Name to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.” Later in the rite, they are baptized by name. In some traditions, at Confirmation (which happens at the Vigil as well) candidates take a name for their confirmation. Someone baptized as Alyse may be confirmed as Catherine of Sienna.
As in the Genesis passage to which Paul refers, naming matters. In Genesis 15 the Holy One of Old directs Abram, “‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” Despite Abram’s impatience and his dalliance with Hagar leading to the birth of Ishmael, God still begins Chapter 17 with, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Abram has in no way at all earned God’s promises or love, God’s miracles of not one but now two offspring in his old age.
“Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” In an act of solidifying their covenant, God gives Abraham and Sarah new names and promises to bless them through the goodness of God’s grace.
If preaching on this passage (or any of these passages), spending some extra time on verse 7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” After centuries of antisemitism and supersessionism — the teaching that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s heart and plans — it is worth emphasizing the God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants is everlasting. There are no caveats or asterisks in this covenant between God and Abraham, but there is a sacrifice. God expects Abraham and his descendants not to earn his grace but to respond to it with self-giving (detailed in the rest of this chapter, but not this passage).
Jesus today warns his disciples and followers that following him requires self-giving, being transformed completely, even if their names aren’t dramatically changed by God. Jesus advises, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross Jesus’ followers take up is Jesus’ cross, the cross the leads to death — and its conquering. It is not an allergy or fly in one’s ointment. It is daily preparing to die to sin and be made into the image of Christ. Being made into the image of Christ is an act of God’s grace, unearned like Abraham’s children — but with responses and changed lives in mind.
These passages probably should not be all preached on, certainly not in depth, in one sermon. Rather, each of them lends a nod toward a theme of Lent as preparation for baptism: naming in the rite, the freeness of grace offered and given in baptism itself, and taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, which are encapsulated in baptismal renunciations and promises.
Whether God to Abraham, Jesus to his disciples, or Paul to the Church at Rome, these passages all invite reflection on as Malloy says, “repentance rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.
So much transpires in these seven verses from the Gospel of Mark. We have Jesus’ baptism, his forty days in the wilderness, his temptation by Satan, the arrest of John the Baptist, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclaiming the gospel. Mark’s quick pace and immediacy, seen in his often-used word “immediately,” can make it hard to find a clear and concise message to preach. On the other hand, it provides for the opportunity to find something new to focus on each time the lectionary comes back around to those passages, which is both refreshing to the hearer of the Gospel, as well as to the one preparing the sermon upon that text.
The first three verses focus on the baptism of Jesus. We begin with Jesus, coming from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan river, where John the Baptist baptizes him. Then, as the waters part for him to rise up newly baptized, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (Mk 1:10). Parting of the water, parting of the sky, as two of the three members/persons of the Trinity meet. And in the midst of this, the third joins in, with a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:11). Three verses, during which the Trinity is revealed, right there in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel! It is an incredibly profound and shocking revelation, made so quickly at the start, and so easily missed. Because immediately, in that Markan fashion, he moves on. So we can be forgiven for missing it. After all, this is the first time we meet Jesus in this Gospel, and already he is revealed in the theological configuration of one of the most difficult concepts – the Trinity. The Trinity that flowed and moved in the great act of creation, now manifesting through the life of Jesus. And this inauguration into baptism then catalyzes his story, with the Spirit [driving] him out into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).
We do not know precisely what happened in the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, at least not in great detail, in Mark’s telling of the story. But it is clear that Jesus does not spend that time alone. In fact, he is tempted by Satan (Mark does not tell us in what way), he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mk 1:13). So, the wilderness served as both the place of temptation as well as the place for community and nourishment.
From here the text takes a markedly new turn, with Mark referencing John’s arrest as an indicator for the passage of time. Jesus returns to Galilee, the region he first hailed from in verse 9. And now he has come with news, the good news of God…saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mk 1:14-15). Repent! That beautiful Greek word metanoia shows up as part of Jesus’ gospel message. And as you can see at the top of this page, it is the very word that makes up the title of this blog. The definition provided in the picture reads as follows: “Metanoia: (n) The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life. Spiritual conversion.” What an incredibly beautiful and powerful word! Most often when people hear the word “repent” or “repentance,” they think of an action, typically made at one point in time, that then restores one to relationship with God. However, the dynamic of metanoia is deeper, calling us to a process, to a journey. It is not a one-time event that must be repeated over and over again, but rather a spiritual discipline that involves life-long amendment of life. As the definition states, it is a spiritual conversion, a conversion that I like to think spirals into deeper and deeper levels as one’s heart, mind, self, soul, or way of life wakes up to more intricate and loving layers. And that change and growth occurs as we continue to orient our lives toward that kingdom of God that Jesus tells us has come near. That kingdom of God that places us, the rest of creation, and God – in that beautiful dance of Trinity – into our own dance of Trinity. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. All bound together by that simple but not easy action and state of being called Love.
And what a beautiful message to receive at the beginning of our Lenten journey! We are ushered into Lent with that icon of baptism – witnessing Jesus’ baptism as we are reminded of our own. Then driven into the wilderness, where we face both temptation and an opportunity for respite and nourishment. What wild beasts might we meet in our forty days? And who will we discover are our angels waiting upon us? Perhaps by the end of our wilderness journey of Lent, we will come to the cross, sit in the tomb, witness the resurrection, and feel the need to proclaim our own gospel message. A message of the nearness of God’s kingdom. A kingdom that requires our repentance, that lifelong journey of learning how to more deeply love. Let it be so!
The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.
On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.
This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.
But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”
Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent” so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.
While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.
This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.
Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.
Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.
As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?
Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?
It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.
The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.
 Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
We hear it every year: “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to (insert evangelist here).” Our people know the story quite well; Jesus is presented for charges against the state, judged by the mob, and condemned to die in one of the most brutal fashions: crucifixion. Preaching something ‘new’ or ‘edgy’ on Palm Sunday can be an exercise in frustration. As preachers, we want to say something of merit. We pore over old sermons and read what others have written in hopes that we’ll find something for today’s context. Sometimes we strike out, sometimes we hit home runs; most of the time, we’re doing well just to touch the bases.
But this Palm Sunday offers a unique challenge in concert with current context. This Palm Sunday occurs during an election year.
For the past four years, this nation has seen the rise of nationalism, racism, ageism, misogyny, and many other horrific human constructs to a terrifying degree. Our populace is polarized, giving diatribe the mainstage where dialogue used to reign. The political wound has widened so far as to not only bleed into the faith-based realm, but to hemorrhage into it—a deluge of theological and political conflation. While these two arenas aren’t mutually exclusive (i.e. social justice), in times past we haven’t seen this level of disagreement. I have to wonder if ignoring the “voting” that occurs within Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion is tantamount to silencing the nature of Palm Sunday altogether.
Isn’t it striking that the mob, when presented with the option between two people named Jesus—Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah—choose poorly? This group is so hard-pressed to hang onto previously held truths concerning belief they would rather set a murderer free than turn toward a savior. These people don’t care for change, they only see things as the establishment presents them—the ‘way we’ve always done it.’ Yet, lest we forget, Christ came into the world to challenge the establishment, to throw off the yoke of an oppressive society set against itself. He came to impart change on a world that only cares for those who maintain the status quo; people who live in fear of challenging those in control in order to make way for a better life.
In this moment, we see the “best of times and the worst of times”—the tale of two Jesuses. What does it say to our congregations if we’re unwilling to place our people—and ourselves—in this story? The mob mentality of voting for the person who will change us the least must fade away. Our real goal should be to speak truth, no matter how difficult it becomes. We would do well to remember that ours is a task of proclaiming the gospel by word and deed—something that, due to the decline of church membership nationwide, we can be reticent to do.
Can we ask our congregations whether we have changed so much in two thousand years that we no longer vote along popular lines, but instead vote with conscientious hearts and minds? We may espouse a virtue-based decision-making mindset, but in reality, many of us and many of our people struggle with how to move past espousing actions to actually following through with them. Is the Jesus we vote for nowadays the one who fits us best, or the one who challenges us to be better versions of ourselves? The one who makes us feel warm and fuzzy, or the one who calls us to stand up and speak out against the realities of an increasingly isolationist society? Is he the version of Jesus we hold in our minds so that we can sleep at night? Or do we dare to challenge ourselves, and our people, to vote for the savior we so longingly proclaim on Sundays?
We must ask these questions of ourselves and of our parishioners. Which Jesus will we vote for today? Which Jesus do we want to see out in society—the one who will bring death, or the one who will bring everlasting life? Which Jesus do we want to preach? On this Palm Sunday, the power of that decision lies within us. I hope we choose well. I hope we cease shouting, “Crucify him!” and instead shout something else…
The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.
In the year 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and his forces subjugated and destroyed Judah and Jerusalem. A decade later, while in captivity in Babylon, the Israelites receive word that Babylonian troops had returned to Judea and had destroyed both Jerusalem and God’s temple. It is during this tragic and challenging time that the prophet Ezekiel presents the vision of the Valley of Bones to illustrate Judah and Jerusalem’s state of hopelessness.
Although this event took place long ago in a far-away land, this image isn’t foreign to us. We all have experienced that same hopelessness that the prophet describes. At some point or other, all of us have walked through the Valley of Dry Bones. Can you think of a time when you felt extremely overwhelmed by the challenges of life? Can you think of a moment in your life when you were not able to have a sense of hope? In such moments, I have asked the same question that God brought to the prophet: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3) In other words, is there hope? Will I see a better tomorrow?
As God presents this profound question to the prophet, Ezekiel provides a powerful and refreshing answer: “O Lord God, you know.” This answer reminds me of my favorite childhood superhero, El Chapulin Colorado.
When I think about superheroes, I think about powerful, strong, mighty superhumans, but El Chapulin Colorado was the antithesis of this image. Whenever we turned on the T.V. to watch El Chapulin, a deep voice would introduce him with the following words: “More agile than a turtle, stronger than a mouse, nobler than a lettuce, his shield is a heart… It’s El Chapulín Colorado!” El Chapulin was a small, feeble and accident-prone superhero who seemed to cause more problems than the villains he faced. And yet, whenever he would find himself in the Valley of Dry Bones, whenever all sense of hope was lost, the answer to all his issues came from everyone else but himself.
Just like El Chapulin who experienced the Valley of Dry Bones constantly, Ezekiel doesn’t seem to find answers to God’s question in his own self, but in the other—specifically God.
God: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Prophet: “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezek. 37:2)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 reminds us that life sometimes isn’t easy. It reminds us that we will experience challenges and difficulties that might seem to disempower us. And yet, in the midst of our hopelessness we must remember that the key to life is God. As the prophet Ezekiel says: “Oh Lord, you know!” It reminds us that we don’t need to have all the answers. It reminds us that we must trust God and allow God to work through us.
Finally, as we take a time during this season of Lent to reflect on Ezekiel 37:1-14, perhaps we can take this time to reflect on the challenges that we are experiencing in our lives. Think about the people, the situations, the times in which we have lost all hope. As we come up with a list, give those people, situations and times to God—”Oh Lord, you know!” Allow God to give you the strength and the courage to find hope.
The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is part-time rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin and Latino Missioner at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Tester, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Watertown Wisconsin and father of Ezekiel J. Tester-Rozo and Miriam N. Tester-Rozo. Their pit bull is Amos and their Persian kitty cat is Sheebs, short for Bathsheba.
Lent is an especially holy time of the year for me because it is in these six weeks that I find myself drawing closer and closer to Jesus. We know what’s coming. The cross looms ahead. Rather than shake my head in despair, I draw closer to Jesus. It is precisely this time of year that I realize I need something more. My will power is not enough. New year’s resolutions have come and gone. The hum of daily commutes and to do lists have lulled me to a kind of sleep. Winter is not quite ready to release its grasp. Spring has not quite yet arrived. Days are not as dark as they were, but the full sun does not seem to fill the sky. And so, we find ourselves in an in-between place of dusk and shadow.
Lent arrives with the reminder that it is from dust we come and to dust we return. This is the kind of unshakable truth I need to wake me from the daze. There is something dark to this truth, but necessary. For it is in those darkest of places that we realize the true power of light. It is when we seek out these caves and corners of truth that we see that the depth of darkness cannot quench even the smallest spark of light. This is the kind of light I imagine Paul referring to in his letter to the Ephesians. It is not the measure of light that determines its power, but its simple, unrelenting existence. The light does not negate the darkness from whence we came; rather, it draws us out, closer and closer to Jesus.
Maybe the darkness and light are not quite as at war with one another as we like to assume. I often hear the amount of light or dark in reference to a person’s faithfulness. We allow the immensity of darkness to determine the amount of faith we may or may not have. This perspective is harmful because it detracts us from what Paul was actually trying to say. The darkness in and of itself is not the problem to be solved by the light of the Lord. Rather, Paul is speaking of the fruitless hiding within the darkness, which keeps us imprisoned by fear, not free to live in faith. We think we must have only great faith or great light to banish the darkness of the world, but the wisdom of Jesus tells us again and again that it is in the smallest of these elements that great things are done. It is the faith of a mustard seed that will move mountains. It is the one, wild spark that starts a roaring fire.
One of the treasures of Lent is that it offers us the opportunity to focus on the interplay of light and darkness. We are anointed with ashes, we stand in the shadow of the cross, we lament and confess, but we also know the end of the story. Death is not the final answer. True life and light lie around the corner, but we aren’t there yet. We are standing among the long shadows, where truth and lies muddle and merge. It is hard to know what is right until that small, flickering light meets us where we are. It is not blinding or overpowering our ability to see the shadows we stand in, but it does offer just enough light to find the definition of what surrounds us. By this definition, we find hope. A small thing, as small as a spark, but unquenchable. That hope feeds faith. Faith leads us by the wisdom of the Spirit to know what is right and true. We stand in the light and reflect that light to others, no matter how deeply in the shadows they stand.
God, the Creator of the Universe and beyond, celebrates the beauty of both light and dark. It is hard to embrace these dark times of life because they are so often full of pain, but when touched by the light of Jesus, we see them with new eyes. We see the beauty born of pain. We might even go so far as to say we understand the necessity of the dark. Our journey of faith is full of bursts of light and dark, hidden spaces. Jesus meets us in both, exposing truths, healing secrets, and leading us through it all so we may live fully alive, transformed by the promise of Easter resurrection. “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
For Further Inspiration:
TED TALK [16:51]
“Now we have LED, but here you see the latest one, and you see how incredibly small it is. And this is exactly what offers us a unique opportunity, because this tiny, tiny size allows us to put the light wherever we really need it. And we can actually leave it out where it’s not needed at all and where we can preserve darkness.” Lighting architect Rogier van der Heide, Why the Light Needs the Darknesshttps://www.ted.com/talks/rogier_van_der_heide_why_light_needs_darkness
NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
“Ask some of the survivors of the civil rights movement, as I have — survivors who sang these songs for protection and for courage — why ‘This Little Light of Mine’ survives and is still sung in the #MeToo movement and women’s movement,” he says. “They look at me straight in the eye and they say, ‘It is because those songs are anointed.’ As an academic, I have no way to refute that. Nor do I want to.” From ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ Shines On, A Timeless Tool Of Resistance, NPR https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance
Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, ID. She loves her husband, dog, and being an aunt. You can find more of her writing and random reflections at caseykcross.wordpress.com.
Deep in the heart of the West Bank stands a stone church guarded by a thin, wizened, Orthodox Christian priest with a long white beard. He has been there for decades, despite living under the constant threat of death, escaping a death plot sixteen times. A crumbling chunk of the wall bears witness to the time someone threw a hand grenade at him. This priest, who spends his days writing icons, lived in the church for 14 years while surrounded by a hostile army, refusing to abandon the treasure he guards. He once refused a $1 million grant from Yasser Arafat to continue construction of the church because he did not want any political strings attached to his mission to keep the church open to people of all walks of faith. This priest is the protector of a treasure of the three Abrahamic faiths, and he fights with his simple, quiet presence to keep the site open to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He is the guardian of the treasure that sits deep at the very heart of the church.
As you enter the church, hundreds of lovely icons greet the eye, but one stands out from the others. It is simple and plain in comparison to the golden saints that gather everywhere the eye can see, but no less lovely for its simplicity.
This particular icon depicts a man and a woman in conversation, their gaze interlocked. She listens intently as he gestures confidently with assurance and authority. He points to the heavens with one hand, perhaps to her town with the other, as if to declare that there is an inherent tension between the two directions. Or perhaps he sends her—commissions her—to tell what he has shared in conversation. Either way, the tension is evident in her body turned toward him even as she appears to take a step away. She remains poised on the edge, almost as if she can barely believe what she has heard, yet yearning for it to be true.
This icon is key to the Christian tradition about the site, and perhaps is why the priest guards this treasure so intently. The priest is the guardian of Be’er Ya’akov, Jacob’s well, a holy site open to people of all nations and faiths. The priest is the guardian of a deep tradition of radical hospitality to the “other,” the hallmark of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is the site where Jesus overcame all social mores and boundaries to encounter a woman in a deep, life-changing moment.
God in Jesus makes a radical statement in his meeting with the woman at the well. She is “other” in every way to Jesus. She is a Samaritan: considered heathen and apostate; he is a Jew: considered devout and Chosen. She is a woman: of low status in a man’s world, undeserving of notice; he is a man: respected as a teacher, noticed by crowds of people. She has a shameful past that distances her from her community (she comes alone at noon instead of in the morning, as women usually would); he is of good repute. She is nameless; he is Christ, the Son of God. Everything about this woman separates her from Jesus and from society: her gender, her religion, her social habits, her personal history, and her lifestyle. In the eyes of the world, she is a nobody.
But in Jesus’ domain, she is somebody—somebody worth noticing; somebody worth saving. Somebody worth filling to the brim with the gift of God, the living water of eternal life. Despite what she has done, Jesus does not turn away from her. Rather, he invites her into conversation, takes her seriously, and lodges in her village. He cares deeply about her welfare and about her community.
This is not just a tale about an individual. The story plays on a geopolitical front as well. Jesus approaches the nations, not just individuals. She represents an “outsider” nation. Samaritans believe in one God, but that God’s holy place is on Mount Gerizim not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believe that they, and they alone, keep the “pure” faith, having preserved the bloodlines, traditions and old ways of worshipping for over 2,000 years. When Jesus tells her “Go, and come with your husband,” we may assume that he speaks to her in the language of the time. In Hebrew, the term ba’al may refer to master, husband, lord, or the particular god of a region. In Deuteronomy 22:22, an ishah ba’al is a married woman. The Hebrew word is also used in Jeremiah and Hosea to depict the relationship of husband and wife between God and Israel. Jesus tells her she has had five husbands (five gods?), and the one that she is living with is not legitimate. He describes her personal story, but also her nation’s story. The gods, traditions, and holy sites worshipped in the past are not legitimate. Legitimacy comes of worshipping the one God in spirit and truth, unconfined to particular spaces.
This is Good News, but also challenging news for the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time, just as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. It is challenging news because it reminds us that the people we think of as nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of God. This text, says Deborah Kapp, “reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We often prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.” What does it mean that Jesus cares as deeply for the outsider as for his own chosen people? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth, when the particulars of tradition and dogma don’t seem to matter much to God?
The example of the priest at Be’er Ya’akov may provide us with the answer. Drinking deeply of the living water of God means having compassion for the other. In fact, as Jesus reminds us, it is at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel. “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If only we could open our hearts as Jesus does! Perhaps then the world would overflow with living water—embodying the true peace of God.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb), as she and they live their faith in their everyday activities. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.