I planted some lettuce seeds the other day! There is a planter out in front of the apartment building we live in, and the first year, when we saw it sitting fallow, we asked the owners permission to plant some herbs and greens, which, after they got over their shock and surprise, were okay with, and so it continues to supplement our summer salads ever since. Yet, never before have I planted this early in the season. May 1st, I believe, is the suggested frost free day for planting in our Zone here. But when we had had three or four days in a row of record high temperatures, and another week of 70’s and 80’s predicted, we looked at the pack of lettuce seeds left over from last season and said, why not?
The soil was still quite good, so I simply made a few rows with my fingers and scattered the seeds, covered them up and gave them a drink of water. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain,” said Jesus. “But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It’s that dying part that always brings a shadow of doubt to my mind, and makes me wonder, will these seeds really sprout and bear fruit?! Not all seeds make it, if the conditions aren’t right. But five days later, Kim announced, “the lettuce is up!” Sure enough, the dead seeds had sprung to life, in the middle of March. Wonders never cease!
Jeremiah, the so-called “weeping prophet,” because of all his lenten-like themes of sin, judgment and repentance, offers up, a brazen hopefulness in a renewed future in chapter 31, that God’s chosen people will be lifted up and restored. “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.” And he goes on to explain, ‘why.’ That after the chosen people had broken the covenant God made with them, in the Ten Commandments, God reveals a new plan, says Jeremiah. Because the Sinai covenant was written on stone tablets, and people learned how to blame God, or one another, for the demands that were not perceived to be of their own responsibility, now God will write the new covenant, with God’s own finger, on our hearts, within us. There won’t be any excuse anymore! Everyone will know God, from the least of us to the greatest. And it will work because, in an unprecedented turning, never known before, God will “forgive” their failures of the past, “and remember their sin no more.”
Is it even possible to forget sin? Not to remember anymore? Can we do that? ‘Forgive and forget?’ Is it humanly possible, or even healthy?
I remember visiting my grandmother when she had finally been admitted into the Nursing Home because of her Alzheimer’s. She was stuck in a stage, of looping around, and reliving a particularly difficult moment in her life – when her husband, my grandfather, had made the impossible decision during the Depression days that they couldn’t take in a cousin in my grandmothers’ family because of the fear it would bankrupt the family. They were already raising three small children at the time. My grandmother wanted me to help her convince my grandfather otherwise.
The next year when I saw her, she was in a new stage, happy and not quite sure who I was. But when we parted she said this: Can you tell everyone, even though I can’t remember my family, I still love them. Grandma could remember us no more, none of our hurts or sins, but her love endured and remained strong.
Is that what God means by “I will remember their sin no more”? It would seem God does love us that emphatically, but not because God has been stricken with Alzheimer’s! God will declare our sin forgiven, dead and buried, like so much seed scattered in the cold dark earth, so that we may be lifted up and arise to new life, full of fruitfulness to live in Christ, in the new covenant of his body and blood.
As we journey these 40 days to the Great Three Days of Jesus death and resurrection, God turns us, and transforms the cross from a sign of death and humiliation, a symbol of judgment for criminals, into a sign of life & liberation, a sign of the new covenant of forgiveness, written on our hearts.
Still, how hard it is, for a parent, to forgive and forget the loss of a child, especially the murder of an innocent 17 year old boy, like Treyvon Martin? In the wake of his death, the ugly stain of prejudice and racism have once again come to light. How can a young man returning from a run to the grocery store, end up dead at the hand of a neighborhood watch capta in?
A helpful media interview for me this week was with Donna Britt, columnist for the Washington Post, and her two grown sons. Steve Inskeep on NPR interviewed them about, “the talk.” The talk, said Britt, an African-American woman, “is what many black parents have with their sons - and daughters, but… probably more often, their sons. It's a preparatory explanation and a warning, to let them know what's out there for them. You know, when they shift from the adorableness of childhood into, …, their early preteen and teen years, where they can be perceived as dangerous, as threatening, as things that most of them really aren't.”
Obviously, Inskeep, in cooperation with Britt, was helping us, to bridge the gap – especially those of us privileged simply by the color of our skin, not to have had to have “the talk” – helping us to understand a cultural difference, of a horrible racial divide. And then as we listen to the 911 tapes, we hear Mr. Zimmerman with new ears, as a profiling of Trayvon, describing him as suspect, basically for wearing a hoodie, while black.
Soon after this, Geraldo Rivera spoke up on the subject, calling for parents to ban their children from wearing hooded sweatshirts, because “the hoodie can’t be rehabilitated,” he said. Or can it? In NYC hundreds of supporters marched in favor of making the hoodie a sign of solidarity, chanting, “We are all Trayvon Martin!” A similar group rallied in Washington D.C., and now other gatherings around the country have been scheduled.
The hoodie is being transformed from the sign of intimidation and death, used by criminals and gang-bangers, into a symbol of life and a demand for justice, as God continues to make our crosses into resurrection moments for the world, and our seeds to bear much fruit.
In Jesus on the cross, God forgives our past unfaithfulness, and remembers our sin no more, transforming the cross into a symbol of life, so that we may be filled with forgiveness and make a stand against injustice, until that day when it will no longer be necessary for parents to have “the talk” with their children. And this is why God has made a new covenant with us! For, “the day is surely coming, says the LORD,” when everyone will know God, from the least of us to the greatest of us, when everyone has the law of love written on their hearts.
The earth’s axis is turning upright. This Tuesday at 12:14am, the Spring Equinox occurs, and we’ll spin perfectly centered, northern and southern hemispheres, nights and days, of equal length. And then we slowly tip and turn toward the solstice and the longest day of the year in June. The weather, however, already feels like the summer solstice! For a whole week, we’ve had temperatures above average, more like June, which is both delightful, and eerie, at the same time! The benefits of global warming in our region, are a tearing and striking for others.
John’s gospel is tuned into the turning we make, from night to day, darkness to light, death to life. “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…” John can make us crazy with his simplistic polarities and opposites, if we take him too literally. But knowing John’s orientation to signs and symbols, can open us up to a deeper truth. We see it in the corresponding contrast of “the world” and, the gift of “life everlasting.” For John, the world is often a fallen place, the realm of chaos, full of imperfection and people who do evil, a Domination System [Walter Wink, “Engaging the Powers”]. And he contrasts this with the “life everlasting” that the loving God sends, or in this case, the coming of the light into the world, to change and transform it.
Jesus, of course, is that light. Remember John’s prolog, his gospel’s introduction? Jesus was coming into the world, and he is for us the light and the life, and nothing is created without him? Instead of Jesus born humbly in a barn, and wise men coming to visit, guided by a brilliant star-lit night, we meet Jesus – light itself, coming into the world – which is intentionally evocative of Genesis Ch. 1, and the creation of light. Jesus is the light that overcomes the darkness, the “life everlasting” which has invaded the world, and come to save it.
And so, there is a sense in which we are incapable of doing what is true and good, before the light of the world arrives, whether historically or religiously. But when the light comes and the world is illuminated, evil deeds are suddenly exposed: hypocrisy, prejudice, greed, privilege. None of it can stand, for now what is “true,” shines like a beacon for all to “clearly see.” And this transformation creates a crisis, a moment of decision. To believe or reject the light.
Simple! Yet immeasurably complex. Darkness and light, like the two sides of our world at the spring equinox, are inextricably woven through us, as unsearchable as a DNA strand without a microscope. Or as Luther said, we are a paradox, “both sinners and saints at the same time.”
In a fascinating report from the BBC called, “the myth of the eight-hour sleep,” both scientific studies and historical data reveal that our understanding of night-time, is really based on culturally created values. In a study done in the 1990’s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, he invited test subjects into a controlled environment where for one month they lived with 14 hours of darkness each night. When their sleep patterns were allowed to regulate themselves, which took about 3 weeks, they found that people naturally fell into a pattern of a ‘first sleep’ for four hours, and then wakefulness for one or two hours, before falling into ‘a second four-hour sleep.’ Then, about 10 years later, the historian Roger Ekirch published a paper, which came out in book form in 2005 (At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past), showing his research into more than 500 references to this same segmented sleeping pattern: About two hours after night fall, a first sleep began, followed by a waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. “It’s not just the number of references,” as the author says, “it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge.”
So what did people do during the 2 hour sleep break? Lots of things! Reading in bed, praying, writing, some got up to go to the bathroom, or smoked tobacco. Some even visited neighbors! Dream interpretation was popular too. And, doctors, advised couples that it was, the better time to conceive, and more enjoyable, than trying when first going to bed after a long days work.
But, over a period of about 300 hundred years, we lost this sleep pattern. With the advent of street lights, gas lamps in the home, and the popularity of coffee houses opening in big cities, the night, found light and life! It started small in the late 17th Century with the upper classes, and by the 1920’s in America, the first and second sleep, had become totally unknown. By then, the idea of the 8 hour sleep, had become firmly entrenched.
And just as the value of sleep experienced a cultural change, the notion of night as evil, and day as true or good, transitioned too. Earlier, night was considered only a time for criminals, prostitutes and drunks to be out and about. But with the advent of street lights and gas lamps, values evolved, and churches were some of the first to change. In the wake of the Reformation in Europe, Protestants and Catholics both became accustomed to holding secret services at night, due to the waves of persecutions. And with the advent of the industrial revolution, efficiency and productivity became more highly valued than rest. Adults, and even children, were encouraged to do away with the second sleep, it was unproductive, so that the eight hour sleep could be accepted as the standard.
The truth is, light and dark, can be either good or bad. Today with the economy in recession, many workers work more than one job, or work split-shift jobs, which is not so good for them. But street lights can be very good for keeping us safe when we do have to, or want to, be up. A well oiled economy can be a good thing for increasing our standard of living. But burning more and more fossil fuels can lead to global warming.
We may never resolve the paradox of light and dark, good and evil, balancing night and day like the Equinox. But we know that Christ has brought light and life into our world. The life that is everlasting is now “clearly seen” because of Jesus. The world has turned, and the Spirit has tipped its hand in Jesus, revealing the God who is pure love and pure life. And each day we have another chance to decide once again, and make the choice to turn to the font of our baptism. It’s a journey we make these 40 days of Lent, on our way to the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a turning toward the life giving light that has come into the world. Even now, let us come and bathe ourselves in this “life everlasting.” For, in the God who raised the Son of Man, there is no death, but only light and life.
If you could travel back in time to take a picture of the church community that first read from the gospel of John, what would that look like? If you could hold up your I-phone and email the rest of us a photo, no doubt it would be a mixed community, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, rich and poor. They would be living outside Jerusalem, possibly in Ephesus, or western Turkey today, near Greece. It would be a rainbow color of people, who embodied a mixture of both eastern and western traditions and values. And, if you wanted to line them all up for a group photo in front of the church, well, they’d look at you with a strange and perplexing stare! No one had a church building at that time.
Still grieving the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 70AD by the Romans, they knew what a beautiful building for worship could offer. But, followers of The Way, as the early Christian movement was often called, they were growing so quickly, that meeting in people’s homes continued to meet their needs quite well.
If you could travel back in time to John’s community and take a digital photo, all you’d see is the people, believers who also understood themselves as evangelists, ready at any time to share a word about why they were the church. They didn’t know anything else, except that, the church is the people.
Jesus’ action in the Temple was, clear as mud to the disciples when he drove all the animals and merchants out, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. But, one thing we can say now, the term “cleansing of the temple” is not totally accurate, especially if we realize that, moneychangers were only providing a service that was needed then, to change Roman coins with the image of the emperor, into Jewish coins, so as not to break the commandment about “making false idols.” And the merchants, as long as they weren’t cheating anyone, were welcomed by pilgrims coming long distances, to buy animals for the ritual sacrifices in the Temple. It would be perplexing if Jesus was simply protesting these ordinary services.
When Jesus arrives during preparations for the Passover, the rivers of blood, of course, would have been flowing. Many animals, especially lambs, would be slaughtered for the feast, and there was a built-in drainage system that let the blood flow from the priests’ blades, down into pools in the ground outside the Temple. But by the time John wrote his gospel, all these traditions had been lost, of course. The Temple itself had been razed, a generation earlier, “not a stone left on stone.” So, this is why “his disciples remembered that Jesus” had said, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They realized “after he was raised from the dead,” that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
Jesus’ anger from that day, no doubt stuck in their minds. But it wasn’t anger over traditions at Passover. Jesus celebrated Passover every year of his life. At this Passover, he gives us a foreshadowing of how at the Passover of his Last Supper, he will transform the symbol of the Cup and the blood poured out, to revitalize God’s word as a Eucharisitic Meal for us – and how he will transform the symbol of Temple, and where God is located. His anger was for the whole system, about to fall. It was a belief that the world was about to turn, which was the story that John was telling to his parishioners. They, were the temple of his body now. Jesus was angry, not at the animals or the moneychangers in the Temple, but at a false system of “trade” that was blinding people from seeing how the world was turning, in and through Jesus. Jesus is angry when we don’t care for the poor, for example, incredulous that we don’t have a fire of justice burning in our hearts.
So, the Temple wasn’t bad in itself, but it could be a temptation to turn inward. God would not let King David build a temple, and made the Israelites wait for his son Solomon. Could a structure – even on built so lovingly – contain God? Even then the prophets warned against it, and the beauty of the Temple remained a constant double edged sword: a gift to the people and symbol of the majesty of God, but also an idol of the people, an excuse to turn from the faithfulness of the covenant God made with them. God had chosen them, had set them apart. But, to be a light to the nations. And that covenant, when used as a cudgel, or to be exclusionary, dimmed the light, and the message of God to the world, grew faint.
We have the same double-edged sword today. And so we must continually ask, are our buildings a beacon for our mission in the world? Is this building furthering our vision? Does the message of the gospel good-news reach others through us? Is this Gathering area a public space where the stranger and new comer are as welcome as our closest friends, that all may be fed by God’s Word and Meal, in order that believers may be Sent out to bear God’s grace and mercy?
The world is already turning, whether we are ready or not. I don’t know if you’re aware that there are at least two new church starts in our neighborhood in the past few months? One, Urban Village Church, an Episcopally funded Emergent congregation, is renting space at the Bethany Methodist facility on Ashland Ave. And the other, the Christian Community Church, which began in Naperville and has opened nearly a dozen satellites in greater Chicagoland, has opened its newest, here in Edgewater. It’s easy to see in these communities how the mission and people are front and center. They begin as gatherings of people in homes, and virtually, online, and they expand to buildings only when more space is needed, and even then, usually just renting or leasing in order to leave room as they expand. One of the last things they think about is a building.
I love our church building, especially this beautiful worship space. But it can never take priority over vision and mission. We don’t exist for ourselves. Christianity is not a club, but a public gathering – to proclaim Christ crucified. God is not just here in this place, but everywhere in the world. If you were asked to take a picture of your church, you would probably photograph this beautiful sanctuary, or the brick fortress façade outside. But our picture is missing something if we don’t include the people.
In fact what if you took a picture of yourself where God is with you, at work, or at home, or volunteering somewhere? Yesterday I took some pictures at the All American Nursing Home, of some of the people Trudy, Lynette and I have been visiting. Though they were shy, when I showed them the result, their faces lit up! And then later as I looked at the pictures on our Unity website it hit me, that they’re mostly about church events, here. They’re all quite good, but where are the pictures of you, living your faith all the other days of the week, in all the other settings to which God calls you, where you make a difference as a person of faith, or, struggle against systems that don’t know the realm and kingdom of God, and that need to know of the fire of Jesus’ justice, to wipe away all tears, and to know that the world is about to change? So, I want to invite you to do that. Send me some pictures from work or home, out with friends or volunteering. Places and people you want to share, because you know God is there, or needs to be there – and send them to me, and if you give me permission, I’ll put them on our website – because, God is alive in you, the Body of Christ, in the world, every day! So, get out your camera-phones or your Kodak Brownies! You don’t have to travel in time to do this! God is with us now, and not just in our church building, but wherever we are in the world. The temple of Christ’s body lives in us and through us – for, “the dawn is near, and the world is about to turn.”
On Friday night, where do you turn? I was richly rewarded for attending the Unity Players Directors Workshop, and three, very fine, One-Act Plays! The evening began on “Third and Oak,” at “The Laundromat.” Two characters, opposites in most every way, meet there by chance, in the middle of the night, and are slowly but surely torn apart, and then, find healing from the tear.
Alberta is older, reserved and refined, a former school teacher, educated and persnickety. Dee Dee is younger, very outgoing, lacking both social boundaries and self-esteem, but is smart and yearning for an authentic relationship. What they have in common is that they are both married, and, both lonely, though for different reasons. They antagonize each other with their very annoyingly opposite personalities. Dee Dee is incessantly chatty, and Alberta is the height of decorum and control. They open each other up, while desperately trying to hide things from each other. And finally in the most explosive confrontation of the play, when Dee Dee is ripping Alberta a new one for withholding herself, something new is revealed. "Well, you're either kidding yourself or lying to me,” Dee Dee says, exasperated. “You act like [your husband]'s a saint. Like he's dead and now you worship the shirts he wore." And that’s exactly what Alberta has been unwilling to share, hoping that if she kept the news a secret, didn’t utter the words “he’s dead” to anyone, it may not be actually true. But in that moment, the anxiety and anger give way to the possibility for compassion, and for turning in a new direction - for healing. They both have been hurt by their husbands, and in sharing the hurt, they each, help open up a path toward healing, for the other. Dee Dee, for her part, sees how her cheatin’ husband is denying her a life, and she deserves more, and Alberta, frozen in place by the loss of her husband, has been given the chance to voice her worst fears, and now at least, can envision moving on.
Jesus and Peter have an explosive encounter too, veiling and revealing, tearing and healing the tear, in this significant turning point of Mark’s gospel. Turning and returning are key, as when Peter pulls Jesus aside one way, privately, to rebuke him for his passion prediction, and Jesus turns the other way, keeping Peter behind him, “looking at his disciples,” to rebuke Peter. In a sense, Jesus has torn Peter a new one – “get behind me Satan,” he says. Yet he doesn’t cast Peter out, but immediately turns to heal the tear. “Come let us return, return to the LORD.” For, to get behind Jesus, is an opportunity to follow him some more, to have a second chance.
It makes more sense if you read in context, especially the story just before this one, the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. There too, when Jesus first puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him, it doesn’t open his eyes all the way, and Jesus has to lay hands on his eyes again, before he is completely healed. So too, like the blind man and Peter, we may need repeated trips to the well –and to our baptismal font- to be healed of the torn nature we have experienced in this life.
It’s an epic struggle, a war of world’s, going on in our gospel today, which is manifested in this exchange between Jesus and Peter as a monumental struggle between good and evil, God and Satan.
And, it is all spoken “quite openly” at this fulcrum and tipping point of the story, to help reveal to us who the main character is. Half way through, it is not hard for Peter and the 12 to guess that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. But, they’re completely unprepared for the way Jesus turns the meaning of Messiah around. He “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Having heard this so many times, all our lives, it actually sounds logical to us. But for the Disciples, they had an opposite expectation. As an oppressed people for centuries, they were looking for a Messiah-king like David, and for a resistant movement like the Maccabees, those 2nd Amendment rebels, to fight with a holy power and overthrow their oppressors, the Romans, so that their holy Temple on the hill might be liberated, and they might be restored to the top of the world again.
So you can understand a little bit better why Peter, so shocked at Jesus’ call to suffer and die, pulls him aside to disabuse Jesus of this notion. But Jesus will not be tempted to turn down the road of militarism, scape-goating, and lording it over others, just like he overcame the temptation of the devil in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism. Just like he didn’t give in to the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to let the cup of suffering pass from him, but kept going to the cross.
Jesus turns away from all these temptations, so that we can see the realm of God dawning in our midst. Peter’s eyes are not opened all the way, he’s not seeing clearly yet, but we know he will, soon – after the Three Great Days of Jesus death and resurrection. Two steps forward, one step back. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but he is blind to this, world-transforming, Son of Man, Messiah. Jesus tears into him when he’s on the wrong path, but also, he will not let Peter go until he is healed completely. When Peter tried to go ahead of Jesus, he calls Peter to follow behind him.
“What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their lives,” Jesus asks? “Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Nothing, of course! Jesus boils it down to, life in the realm of God, or, following the Tempter. Not always a choice that is clear in our lives! Whatever it means, to take up our cross and follow Jesus, there is no simple prescription, or creed, that guarantees it.
The journey is a halting and hard fought one. It often comes in stages of revelation. We continue to turn, and return, to the font, to receive that holy spittle of Jesus, on our eyes, until the way becomes more clear to us. At the font, like at the Laundromat, we are agitated by its waters, and we meet those who seem our opposite: beneath us, or aloof from us. And yet without the stranger, we are alone, lost. And it is only in connecting up with them, in finding common interests amidst our differences, that we see the opening to our salvation. But this entails risking ourselves, and having the “human things” torn open, that the “things of God” may begin to heal us.
It may not be pretty. But in the laundromat, as Dee Dee ripped Alberta a new one, it opened up her true nature to herself, as well as a truth about Alberta, and her relationship with her husband. And in that most uncomfortable, most revealing moment, they were able to connect and forge a bond that transcended them. Through them, each was able to return to the LORD. Sometimes, an agitating washer, is our baptismal font. God comes wherever two or three are gathered, tearing and healing, as we go from death to life.