Good Friday: “Into Your Hands, I Commend My Spirit”

hands

Of all the words that Jesus speaks in the final hours of his life, the single word that I keep thinking about this week is the word “hands.”

He says it in his final sentence. He says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

That resonates for me because I’ve been remembering just how many sets of hands have been part of the story of his final night and day.

There were the hands laid on him since his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before.

There were the hands of Judas.

The hands of the Temple authorities who arrest him, put him on trial, then strike him, taunting him after his conviction, saying “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:68).

There were the hands of the Roman soldiers, who literally strip him, beat him, and mock him.

There were also the hands of Pilate, which he washes before the crowd, declaring that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood, and that they are the ones who have convicted Jesus to death.

There were the hands that crucified Jesus and cast lots for his clothing.

The hands of injustice and cruelty have been hard at work to discipline this body…this bad subject of the Emperor…so that any others tempted to make their own unfortunate little displays of whatever might think twice.

These are the hands that hit and strangle, the hands that serve to administer injustice. The hands that so easily wash themselves of any of us when they start to feel unclean.

Many of us know these hands.

Yet as Jesus feels himself getting weaker…as he recognizes perhaps that it is getting harder and harder for him to breathe…that the end is not far off…it is not those hands he talks about.

Instead, he talks about God’s hands.

Jesus proclaims that it is God’s hands that will hold him now — that now his spirit is in God’s hands alone.

There is defiance in that.

It’s a proclamation.

He’s proclaiming that the agents of Empire, with all their violence, with all their rigged systems, with all their hypocrisy, selfishness and sin, might have taken his poor body, but despite all that, they have not taken his soul.

They have not won.

He has not been silenced. He does not love Big Brother.

That makes me think.

Because you know, we say that there are things far worse than death in this world. It’s easy enough to say.

It is easy enough to say that the things that kill our souls are worse than anything that might happen to our bodies.

But what gives us the strength to live that out?

Especially, what gives us the strength to proclaim it with our lives when the hands of hatred have been…are…on us?

That kind of defiant hope can only come out of the spirit.

It can only come as this voice, this sense, this inner certainty that whatever might befall us, truth still matters. That goodness still matters…that who we are before God still matters.

Even when darkness has us in its clutches, it is the something that reminds us that the Kingdom of God is never as far away as we might think.

It’s what holds on for dear life, knowing that the power to change hearts and minds and even the work of hands is far greater and far closer than it might first appear.

Eternity is already at work.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” it has been said, “but I know who holds the future.”

Good Friday pushes us to reflect upon the work of our hands — our own shortcomings, our own sins, our own dark inclination to join the crowd.

Defiant hope is what life looks like when we know that we are in God’s tender hands, come what may. And that the world is in God’s hands, too, whatever may happen to us.

So today we remember that, with his hands outstretched upon the cross, Jesus reaches out.

Jesus reaches out to lift us all.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Being Human in the Face of Inhumanity

saulendor

There’s a story in the Old Testament that we don’t usually tell as part of Holy Week or as a moment that seems to anticipate the person of Jesus.

It’s a story from the life of King Saul, who was the first king of Israel and had the dubious distinction of being selected and then un-selected by God for the job.

Power corrupted Saul — it made him not only less inclined to trust and to follow God, but more narrowly paranoid, and murderous even toward those who wanted to help him.

When the young shepherd David is first brought into Saul’s court, it is David’s music, indeed, perhaps David’s music alone, that seems to soothe Saul’s troubled mind, if only temporarily…and yet before long, David becomes such a figure of envy for Saul that he ends up turning David into the very enemy he most fears.

They begin to fight a civil war for control of the country.

And then finally, on the last night of his life, Saul does a very strange thing.

He knows, for the most part, that his cause is doomed, and that likely he will die.

But he breaks his own laws and seeks out a soothsayer from outside Israel…a woman who follows other gods…a woman who could be put to death for practicing her own faith openly in the neighborhood…a woman with little to gain by helping Saul, and everything to lose…

It’s an odd choice to go ask her for help, but that’s what Saul does.

He is hoping she will be able to raise the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel…the prophet who had originally been led by God to find him, and to crown him king.

Saul disguises himself and knocks on her door, on the outskirts of the village of Endor. But the woman is the real deal, and she knows exactly who he is, and how risky it is for her that he is there.

Nevertheless, she lets him in, and she conjures the spirit of Samuel, who is perhaps even less delighted to see Saul than the woman had been.

Samuel gives it to Saul straight. He is doomed. God has un-chosen him. There is no path forward. By that hour on the following day, his ghost will be down in the underworld with Samuel’s.

Saul is devastated.

And then the story offers a curious detail.

It says that the soothsayer of Endor, this foreign woman who lives on the edge of town, trying to keep a low profile just to survive, actually takes pity on King Saul.

She cannot change the future. She cannot change the truth. That he is there with her, at all, is dangerous for them both, but especially for her.

Nevertheless, she shows him kindness. She gives him something to eat. She sits with him. She lets him grieve.

This is all the more remarkable because he doesn’t entirely deserve it.

If you read his story, it will be clear that while Saul is a tragic figure, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. Too many of his wounds are self-inflicted…too much of his bravado has rung too hollow for too long…too many of his choices have led to the deaths of too many.

But that doesn’t matter in this particular moment.

In this moment, he does deserve it. He deserves care. Because any of us would.

Because what matters in this moment is that she recognizes him, not as an enemy, not as the follower of a different God, not even as a dangerous, flailing, broken king.

She recognizes him simply as a person in pain.

It’s something, let’s admit, that he would likely never have done for her.

But be that as it may, what matters is that in this moment, this woman, in her own small way, stands up for life. She stands up for decency. She tends to his soul.

In a very pointed irony, her gentle hospitality shows more about what faith is supposed to be about than Saul has seen from the so-called religious people all around him in a very long time.

It’s a story worth remembering.

It’s a story not unlike the one Jesus would tell in Luke’s gospel, when he talked about the Good Samaritan — another outsider who showed more of the true spirit of faith than any of the people who passed by.

Moreover, it’s a story worth remembering tonight, when we tell the story of the last night of Jesus’ own life.

Jesus experiences fear, too. He clearly understands what lies before him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks God for some sort of path forward — to no avail.

But unlike Saul, Jesus is not a perpetrator of violence…he is not a corrupt king.

There’s a more fundamental difference too.

Because if Saul’s visit to Endor is able to humanize him, then the story of Jesus from his arrest until his death is a story of being dehumanized — in being mocked and beaten and jeered at and killed.

It’s horrible because it is so easy to picture: in the eyes of the Romans, and the Jewish leaders, Jesus is not a man, but a problem to get rid of.

In the eyes of the crowd, Jesus is not one of their own, anymore; he’s something between a scapegoat and a cheap thrill.

How stupid they had been to cheer for him earlier that week. Well, no more.

Goodness can be so fragile, and fear so powerful for any of us.

When you put them up against our fears, virtues such as kindness and restraint, patience and perspective can come to seem like luxuries we don’t have time for.

They can seem like the paths of dangerous weakness.

And there is no disputing that they make us vulnerable. They are risky ways to live.

And yet, Jesus believed such vulnerability was the only way forward for us.

He believed that it was only in our willingness to risk such vulnerability that the Kingdom of God could ever take hold.

In the face of the world’s dehumanizing tendencies, the choice to be human…the choice to be kind…the refusal to hate…the refusal to be afraid… all that was a radical way to live.

Who would love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them? Who would offer supper to a doomed king?

It was crazy. It is crazy.

And yet, Jesus teaches us that this is the holiest life. And it is through such holy lives that God is actively tending to the world.

We remember it tonight because it was tonight that our dehumanizing tendencies led to the arrest and death of God’s own Son.

That should remind us of other things we need to remember tonight.

Tonight, there are people on t.v. saying any form of extremism is permissible, so long as its Christian.

Tonight, there are people saying that our enemies, foreign and domestic, are little more than animals.

Tonight, there are children hurting physically and emotionally because someone has seen fit to punish or diminish them, perhaps acting out of their own brokenness or merely out of a sheer love of doing the punishing.

Dehumanizing in so many forms is alive and well tonight–a perennial temptation before us and within us.

What can we hope to do in such a world as this?

Jesus taught that we can start by pushing ourselves to see, by committing to engage, and so far as we can by risking to love–enemies and friends, strangers and kinsmen, victims and perpetrators.

It is a vulnerable way to live.

But tonight, we remember that it is the only way forward.

It is the only hope there is.

Tonight, we remember Jesus gave his life to point us not to death, but toward building a world finally worth living for at last.

It is the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness cannot overcome.

It is the light of Christ, who comes to redeem the world.

 

Amen.

 

 

From the Newsletter: Palm Sunday and the Victory of Nuance

palmsunday

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Palm Sunday is such a strange, even ironic holiday.

It’s ironic because it is such a celebration — Jesus and his followers enter the capital city to great fanfare.  The crowd looks on and cheers, reveling in the thought that, one way or another, it’d be a hot time in the old town tonight — and yet, within days, all appearances will seem to suggest that the party’s over. Jesus will be dead, his disciples hiding, the would-be revolution stopped in its tracks.

Palm Sunday invites us to rekindle the hope and joy of freedom on that first march. For many of us, it’s not all that hard to do.  After all, it’s a hope that so many still yearn for, and it doesn’t take much for most of us to imagine being in that crowd, cheering ourselves hoarse for the great reckoning that it seems to promise.

But of course, now we also know how the story unfolds from there.  We know that the road to the future has not turned out to be nearly as simple as it might have seemed on that first Palm Sunday.

Most of all, we know what happens next to Jesus.  The first reckoning turns out to be his.

Which means, in part, that the ultimate reckoning isn’t only Rome’s.  It’s also ours.

We know that because the freedom Jesus wanted us for us was, in the end, something much bigger than simply throwing the bad guys out and putting the good guys in.

But the crowds weren’t interested in that kind of complexity.

Instead, what interested them was religion’s power to simplify — to curse — to demonize.  They craved righteousness, but sadly, the only righteousness they seemed to recognize turned out to be of a kind made in their particular image.

Jesus had no time for ersatz righteousness.

He wanted to offer us nothing short of a new world — and one that operates according to different rules entirely from the old world.

He saw a way of living with compassion and sacrifice, truth and fairness at the center, not only of our personal lives, but of our common life.

As we know, that’s not the kind of life that everybody has in mind, or the kind of freedom that animates them. That’s always been true.

In the last week of Jesus’ life, it became clear that liberation — liberation in the way he meant it — turned out to be a much bigger proposition than many in that original Palm Sunday crowd were able to imagine, or were prepared to work for.

It asked them to imagine a world wise enough, patient enough, and confident enough to love enemies, pray for persecutors, and stand up for nuance.

He knew that to live that way was to live unshackled by fear and ignorance, and the self-interested persuasion of the wicked.

When the crowd cheered him on Palm Sunday, little did they realize that it was this deeper kind of freedom that Jesus was proclaiming.

As he rode on the back of the donkey along that royal road of palms, Jesus went straight into the heart of the city.

But more than that, he went straight into the heart of God — praying that we might follow and seek him there.

That’s where he waits for us even now.

Hosanna.

 

See you in church,

“Far and Away” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

ireland

Personally, I have never had much of a relationship with St. Patrick’s Day.

I mean no offense by that.

To those among us who remain rooted emotionally to the old sod, I think that’s great.

I’m looking forward to corned beef and cabbage and dancing right here later today.

I grew up watching movies like “The Quiet Man” — we always liked the Duke in my family. And later, of course, “Far and Away.”

The Irish-American writer, Frank McCourt opens Angela’s Ashes, his wonderful memoir about early life and of his mother, by noting that “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Who isn’t hooked by a line like that?

But there are things I’ve never really understood.

Once when I was in college, I went to a winter formal or something, and someone’s date who I didn’t know was sitting at my same table, wearing an elaborate white dress covered with Kelly green shamrocks …and it was like old home week to sit with her. All kinds of people, most of them strangers, came over to pay their respects, as if she was some sort of celebrity.

Likewise, early in my teaching days, I had a boss who had been surprised with the gift of a doll with bright red hair and a green dress with a tam o’shanter. The doll was sitting up on a chair in her office, and if you were there for a meeting, which I was, the doll was sitting there kind of as if she was part the meeting, too, with her head turned as if she was thinking about the last point someone had just made.

I said something non-committal about like, “Nice doll,” and my boss picked it up lovingly, with her eyes suddenly a little moist, and said meditatively, “Isn’t she Just. So. Beautiful.”

And still to this day I have no idea what that was about…but on some level, it seemed to be vaguely about Ireland.

All nations have their quirks, of course. I grew up with people who seem to feel kind of the same way about Red Label.

Over the last several weeks, you may have seen the movie, “Black Panther,” or read about its incredible resonance with many, particularly in the African-American community, and particularly in its portrayal of the mythical African nation of Wakanda.

Wakanda is a place of tremendous beauty and unique natural resources, deliberately cut off by its leaders for its own protection from the rest of the outside world, except for its scholars, who are sent all over the world to learn and return, which has made the nation one of the most technologically advanced on earth.

Closed and therefore free to flourish, Wakanda is able to give birth to and to nurture men and women who become remarkable heroes and heroines.

On some level, of course, this is fairly familiar science fiction kind of fare, and yet you’ve probably seen that for many viewers, the movie “Black Panther” has tapped into something very real…something very personal.

It has tapped into a particular kind of dream of home — a dream of a world that should be.

If you see it that way, it seems clear that the nation of Wakanda is much more than a comic book kingdom.

It is a myth in the best and deepest sense.

Some people seem to think that to call something a myth is a put-down. It’s a way of saying that a story isn’t true.

But that’s not right.

It’s much more accurate to say that myth is a way of talking about what things mean, instead of simply about what happened when…which if you think about it, is often really the least of it.

Think what a profound question it actually is when someone asks us, “Where are you from?”

The true answer to that question can be so hard to explain.

II.

It can be especially hard to explain in the case of Jesus, of course.

Jesus was sort of from Nazareth, but sort of from Bethlehem; sort of from Galilee, but sort of from the Jerusalem Temple, which as a young boy, he called “his father’s house” and seemed surprised that anyone would be looking for him anywhere else.

To his own disciples, he was clearly from God, although they weren’t entirely sure what that meant while he was with them, and as it turned out, Easter ended up showing that because he was from God, he still was with them…but that’s something that turned out to introduce a lot more questions than it answered.

Jesus’ mother and siblings seem to have been part of his circle at least now and again during his ministry, though at one point early on, we’re told that they show up to try and take him home to Nazareth — and it’s at this moment when he says that they aren’t his true family, at all — that now he sees that his true family is not his flesh and blood, but really the company of seekers he has begun to gather.

His true family is the circle of those in search of what things mean.

Blood may be thicker than water, but for Jesus, insight into the true meaning of things is stronger than death.

As he would prove with his own life.

But through it all, there shines this longing for home.

A home that Jesus understood we could only truly find in God.

III.

We should note in passing that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, thought that, too.

You don’t need to believe in the traditional understanding of saints to recognize that by any standard, Patrick was a remarkable person.

Patrick lived in the late fifth century, not in Ireland, but on the island of Great Britain, and he was captured around the time he was sixteen by Irish pirates and taken as a slave for six years, during which he mostly cared for animals, before escaping and finding his way home.

He came from a Christian family, although his faith before his enslavement had not been particularly strong. Yet his time in exile was important for his faith, and when he returned home, he decided to become a priest.

One day, he had a vision. He saw a man coming and sensed that he was coming from Ireland, and he was bearing a letter to Patrick that said, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

And so he did, becoming the most important apostle to the Celtic tribes of Ireland… the very place of his own abandonment and enslavement.

Where do the courage and commitment come from that would enable someone to do something like that?

Why didn’t he just go home and find some very safe place that was sure to be beyond the reach of any pirates and live out his days there?

We don’t know — not in terms of the historical record, anyway.

But it seems clear that for all that Patrick had been through, he knew that his true home was not Britain, or even Ireland.

His true home was in God.

And he knew that whatever fears he might harbor given all that he’d been through, even so, the place where he belonged now was among the people who longed for their own true home in God.

Back to Ireland he went.

IV.

This morning we heard the words of the prophet Jeremiah from the Old Testament.

He preached, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

It’s a vision, not unlike Patrick’s vision.

It’s a vision of a world where law of God isn’t found in the words written in a book, but rather found in the longing that is written on our hearts.

That longing for our true home.

Admittedly, we are complicated people.

But today we are reminded of how important it is to listen for the longing in our hearts — to open ourselves to the dream of home that lies within us.

Maybe we know it well.

Maybe that longing is even as yet unspoken, unimagined, dormant as Sleeping Beauty, waiting only to be loved into waking at last.

But as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, may we hear God’s invitation to listen for it, remembering how it is through that longing that God calls each and every prodigal back home.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: Easter is for non-believers, too.

womeninchurch

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Holy Week and Easter are a little more than two weeks away — and some of the church’s most powerful services are just ahead. Some are somber and thought-provoking; others are joyful and celebratory; each is distinctive and beautiful.

In particular, Palm Sunday and Easter are often inscribed in people’s memories from childhood, whether they worshipped in impressive city churches with organs three stories tall, small country churches where the flowers came from someone’s garden, or something in between.

Many in our pews for those Sundays remember family gatherings with cherished family members now many years gone,  with church-going serving as just one part of an extended lesson in what it was to belong—to a community and to a family, as well as to God. For some, Easter began weeks ahead of time, when they went downtown to get a new suit or hat, and Easter only ended when the last car pulled out of the driveway, the dishes were put away, and the extra leaves of the dining room table were safely back in their corner of the pantry.

In fact, we know that many who will be with us in the next few weeks may come as very temporary, even one-time-only visitors, coming not so much to “encounter Jesus” or “celebrate the resurrection,” per se, but rather to remember what it felt like to sit next to their beloved grandmother, amid an atmosphere heavy with the scent of lilies and “Shalimar,” and who are joining us now all these years later simply to sing the hymns their grandmother knew and loved.

God bless them. Welcome.

Many of you will also be inviting family to join you who aren’t really sure how they feel about church, or what they might be seen as tacitly endorsing by being there.

Of course, we don’t want it to be that complicated, and we aren’t a “hard sell” kind of place. But that’s easy for us to say. If all they wish to do is come and sit and let their minds wander, God bless them. Welcome.

(And grace and peace to all those who decide, in the end, to stay home.)

Sometimes I worry that we who love churches see our great festivals as a chance for visitors to “get the message” instead of simply feel the love in, among, and through us.

Instead of celebrating God’s love, we’re more concerned with lifting up our own version of churchiness.

Along those lines, we Christians need to do a better job at showing that Worship isn’t something that we have to do (whether in general or according to some particular way) — it’s something that we get to do, and do according to however the Spirit may lead.

It’s not something any of us are born knowing how to do in any particular way. It’s something we come to do, mostly, just by doing it.

But we keep on doing it every week because, in some mysterious way, in doing it we are reminded of what is to belong to someone besides ourselves—most of all, to God.

So is it wrong for us to sit in the pews and remember our grandmother rather than Jesus?

In many ways, it’s a false choice.

Because as Jesus clearly understood, what belonging means for us and asks of us are important to decide. Their are implications — even consequences — to belonging. That is as it should be.

These are the weeks when God showed us most clearly that even death could not stop the power of love, and that in God, there is more than enough love for all of us.

These are the weeks when God showed most clearly that we all belong to Him, no matter what.

Sometimes we find our way to those lessons in a straightforward way, by hearing the Word, singing the old hymns, and praying with especially purposeful focus.

Sometimes it’s by remembering the lives of the saints we have known, who did those things so faithfully that their example still moves us, even in the midst of very different lives.

And so whatever it is that blossoms in someone’s heart and memory at Easter, or whatever it is that tells a passerby to turn the car into the parking lot and come to church, God bless it.

Come. You’re where you belong.

 

See you in church

Sermon: “True Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1)

badadvice

My parents met Liz for the first time just a few weeks after we had started dating.

They were immediately smitten.

We had all gone out to lunch and then I had to scoot a little bit to get Liz to the train back to New York City, so there had not been my family’s usual time to debrief afterwards.

But when I got home there was already a message from my mother waiting on my answering machine.

“She’s great,” said my mom on the message. No “Hi honey, it’s mom…,” mind you. No warm-up about how nice it had been to see me or how much fun we had all had at the restaurant.

My mom was all business.

“She’s great,” she said. And then she continued, “Your father says don’t mess it up.” Click. The line went dead.

It’s not exactly the nicest advice I’ve ever received…but it is certainly among the best advice I’ve ever received. I have been trying to keep from messing it up for years now. But it was and still is good advice.

Through the years, I have also received my share of bad advice.

Early in my teaching career, I really struggled with the humdrum task of recording grades in my official grade book. The teachers among us may well remember those — the brown spiral bound book with the alternating green and white columns and all those little squares.

I don’t know why but whenever I opened that book to write down grades, my heart just sank.

And so my grades were recorded on all kinds of other things — the backs of envelopes, a flyer for a new car wash someone had put under one of my windshield wipers…you know, that kind of thing. And all these scraps lived somewhere in the trunk of my car…except for the ones that had become bookmarks for things I was reading or what have you.

I am not saying this did not need to be addressed.

I knew it needed to be addressed.

The question was how.

Finally, someone told me that I just needed to come clean to my department chair.

I remember it vividly. My friend said to me one of those things that people always say, “Come on, what’s the worst that could happen?”

I heard that. The next day, when the bell rang for lunch, I gathered all my scraps of grading and my empty grade book and I went to her classroom to confess.

…So let me just say that God’s house is not really the right place to share the specific words that my department chair selected on this particular occasion.

I am someone who believes that confession is good for the soul, but that was 1998 and this is the first I am sharing this story, so let me just say: while confession is good for the soul, it isn’t always good for the soul right away.

Nobody quite tells you that when they tell you that you ought to go confess something.

I am living proof of that.

Our days are punctuated endlessly by all kinds of challenges, and the advice, both good and bad, that we receive in how best to meet those challenges.

The world is not short of opinions, is it?

Yet the art of discerning true wisdom from among all those opinions is an art that is not easy to master.

II.

Dale Carnegie taught us, famously, “how to win friends and influence people.”

There’s a kind of wisdom in that.

More controversially, the screenwriter Robert Greene has compiled a book called “The 48 Laws of Power.” Does anyone know it? I think I’ve mentioned it before.

The first law is “Never outshine the master.” The second is, “Never put too much trust in friends, and learn how to use enemies.” Law Seven is “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.” Law Ten is, “Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky.”

And let’s admit something that is hard to say from the pulpit. There is wisdom in this too.

Those of you who toil faithfully in offices surely know people who operate this way, and the fact is, they often succeed.

Worldly wisdom endures for a reason.

But let’s not forget that, if that’s so, it’s because there is so much that is so fundamentally broken about our world.

Let’s not forget that if all our lives are about is learning to navigate and mitigate that brokenness effectively, we aren’t actually living for much at all.

That’s what the Apostle Paul thought.

And so he believed that the wisdom of the world was something we needed to handle with great care.

He worried that, convincing as it was, that kind of wisdom all too often led away from God.

For one thing, he saw that Scripture warns us about that. At the beginning of his words for us this morning, he quotes Isaiah, writing:

“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1 Corinthians 1:19; Isaiah 29:14).

Don’t misunderstand him here. Paul does not hate wisdom, and he does not hate the world.

But he worried that the wisdom of the world, the advice of the world, such as it was, was not enough.

And so what he wants the church to understand is that the wisdom of God turns out to be a very different kind of wisdom.

And because it is, Paul also sees it as no accident that the people who seemed to sense this first are a very different kind of people than the ones the world would be quickest to look to for its own compromised kind of wisdom.

Paul cannot help but note that, when he looks at the church, the people he sees gathered there are not, by and large, the straight A students, or the president of the local bank, or — I’ll date myself — Marcus Welby.

He didn’t see the kind of people that the poet Edward Arlington Robinson once described as “good looking and imperially slim.”

Paul says to the church at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”

Again, as he sees it, this is no accident. In fact, he suggests, it is actually part of God’s plan.

As he explains: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29).

What Paul means is that God wants something much deeper for us…something that success as we usually think of it can’t offer us…something that success as we usually think of it might even make it harder for us to find.

And so God “shames” us in the sense that we have to get over our own way of valuing things, and begin to see the world in terms of how God values things.

Second, this is also shameful because when we begin to be transformed, as our lives begin to look and sound different than they once were, not everyone is going to understand.

He wants to urge anyone in that situation not to give up, not to turn back, not to lose heart.

III.

What does that mean for people like us, who have their foot in both camps, as it were?

I don’t think Paul is trying to tell us we’re bad. I think he’s trying to acknowledge that it’s hard.

This is why the advice we listen to, the success we seek, and the wisdom we follow are so important.

Because if standing up for what you think is right is stupid, then the world needs a lot more stupidity.

If thinking about the people who need help and encouragement means we’re weak, then let’s get an army of wimps together.

If talking about the world as we want and hope it will become is foolish, then let’s be the clown car that leads the parade to the future.

We need to hold on, and hang in, and have faith.

The world has a lot to teach us. It’s a beautiful and complicated place. And we are beautiful and complicated people.

But we’re God’s people, and in the end that’s more than enough.

It’s the only success there is. And it’s free for everyone.

In a world where so much passes for profundity, in a world awash with good and bad advice, we often have to strain to hear the wisdom of God.

But our lives can be lived in ways that turn up the volume.

Paul says, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Co 1:23).

May each of us be living proof of that bold declaration.

Amen.

Sermon: “Winner take…what?” (Mark 8:31-38)

monopoly2

I haven’t played Monopoly since about 1981, when my friend Chip and I were playing with his younger sister, Meig, and in retaliation for his landing on one her properties with a hotel on it, we made a rule that “mergers” were possible and then immediately colluded to bankrupt her as quickly as possible.

Meig responded by flipping over the board and shouting for their mom, which we richly deserved.

For many, cheating and making up new rules in the middle of the game is just part of playing Monopoly.

Well, it seems that the people at Milton Bradley have been listening.

This week, they announced a new brand extension called the “Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition.”

In addition to the standard game, the Cheater’s Edition comes with fifteen cheat cards with various little scams for players to attempt during the game — taking a little extra money from the bank, moving someone else’s token during your turn.

If you succeed, you apparently get extra cash or a free hotel for one of your properties.

But if you get caught, there are new consequences.

Either you have to pay out money, or instead of being sent to the “go to jail” spot, in what seems like a distinctly reality t.v. kind of twist, now you also get literally handcuffed to the game board itself.

This is all absolutely true.

Say what you will, it’s a very interesting way to try jazzing up Monopoly, which we’ve all been jazzing up on our own since the Great Depression.

When the game debuts, I’m sure there will be any number of thoughtful op-eds and blogs about what it means that breaking the rules is now officially considered part of the game itself.

But I wonder if that’s really the point.

Part of me wonders if the point is not about giving permission to cheat, but rather about introducing formal punishment for those who are caught doing it.

I wonder if the point is actually to enshrine a new kind of vigilance about the rules.

Because whatever thrill there is to be found in cheating at Monopoly, surely it will pale in comparison the thrill of seeing sweet, swift justice being done–oh, the pleasure of seeing your older brother or his friend now a prisoner, their arrogance finally exposed for all to see!

No flipping the game board in frustration ever again — let the truth be proclaimed to the last hotel on Park Place!

Stepping back, we can have such a strange relationship to winning, can’t we?

We can turn almost anything into a contest.

Maybe the game is Monopoly…or maybe the game is showing the world who your older brother really is…but in any case, let the games begin.

A pastor colleague of mine was once doing a graveside committal service in a cemetery out of his usual area, and he happened to pass by a random gravestone, and instead of name on the gravestone or the dates of a life, there were simply these words: “I told you I was sick.”

Pastor Shawn would probably call that the ultimate troll.

But if gestures like that suggest our strange relationship to winning, the deeper truth is that we have an even stranger relationship to living.

A life with winning at its center — with winning as its purpose — can turn out to be strangely misshapen.

We are built for more than just that.

II.

The Book of Ecclesiastes famously talks about the notion of life having seasons, lifting up “a time for every purpose under heaven.”

That points to Scripture’s view that there is something in us that is bigger than the vicissitudes of daily life…that there is something transcendent about our lives in God.

Ecclesiastes takes the view that God is to be found as much in losing as in winning, and that the point of life is to seek what abides, whatever the circumstances may be.

Our Gospel this morning is in that same vein.

As we’ve heard in Mark’s telling, Jesus has begun to speak directly about what will happen in Jerusalem — to tell the story of Good Friday and Easter that are yet to come.

It’s telling that what Peter seems to hear is just the Good Friday part, and he even goes so far as to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

Peter is not entirely wrong, of course.

The other gospels record that Jesus’ preaching began to grow more foreboding as he got closer to Jerusalem, and that some of those who had been following him began to fall away.

So we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Peter, I think.

“Jesus, we have some great momentum going here. Let’s not blow it.”

“Jesus, we have to keep our focus on people’s hopes, not their fears.”

Peter is a loyal lieutenant who sees how important it is for this movement to succeed, and he wants to keep Jesus on message.

But on some level, maybe he’s also simply afraid of losing.

In fact, he’s so afraid, that he can’t hear that Jesus is talking about this thing that will happen…this moment in the life of God and the world that is going to blow the doors off.

What is about to happen is beyond those little categories of winning and losing, because God is so utterly beyond those little categories, and so utterly greater than these little games that people play.

Peter isn’t quite ready to hear that. He’s going to have to learn that lesson the hard way.

III.

But for us, maybe it doesn’t have to be quite that hard.

For one thing, I’m very certain God doesn’t want it to be.

If we’re having trouble hearing God, I’ve found that usually it’s not because God isn’t speaking…it’s typically because we’re having trouble really listening.

This morning, I’m particularly wondering if the prospect of winning or losing might be preempting much of our regularly scheduled programming, kind of the way the Olympics preempts so much else.

Do you watch for the medals…for who wins, or for who loses…or do you watch for something else…do you watch the games in another spirit?

Do we spend our time and energy focusing on life’s winning moments…or trying our best to steer clear of life’s losses? Or do we seek to live in a different spirit?

If we’re not careful, we can come to misunderstand what the real victories are — and the losses, too.

That’s what happened to Peter.

And yet wisdom is always eager to teach us, if we are willing to learn.

For the last couple of years, our daughter Grace has been involved with Girl Scouts, in a troop that meets right here at the church.

Part of that, of course, is that she is slowly beginning to gather merit badges for various kinds of things.

And there are times I look at her vest with its various badges, and I wonder, you know, what would it be like if we adults walked around with vests like that?

What would our badges be?

Would we only carry the badges of our victories?

“Hey, I see you got the CEO badge! I know you were really working for that one…way to go!”

“Hey, is that a law school badge?” (Or a “first time parent” badge, or a “speaks fluent Spanish” badge?)

Or would we have badges for the wisdom we gain in other ways?

Shouldn’t there be a badge about caring for an aging parent or spouse…a badge for getting downsized at work, or a badge for divorce?

Isn’t there wisdom in those moments? Isn’t there holiness in those moments?

And if our answer to that is no…or not really…then what does that tell us about whom we’ve become?

IV.

As we prepare our hearts for Easter this year, we’re invited to rejoice God’s victory over death and over all that diminishes human life.

Yet it is the victory of a wisdom that is bigger than winning and losing as we typically think of them.

Because in Good Friday and Easter, God shows us that love is always present, always at work, always poised to make a difference.

Whatever the game is, Easter breaks its every rule.

Because God is never finished with us. God is never out to beat us. And life is not either.

No matter what we may do, no matter what may happen, we are never handcuffed to the board.

And so we are invited to live our lives, learning as we go, and finding God in the midst of all of it, good and bad.

In these weeks of Lent, as we live with Easter particularly in mind, may we ask ourselves what it is for us to win and to lose, and invite ourselves to listen for the God who abides with us and loves us above and beyond any contest, any challenge, and any final score.

Amen.