Sermons For These Times
I Have Seen the Lord
“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord…” (Jn. 20).
Mostly we live on the shallow surface. We usually assume we understand the facts, that the everyday world exists in the way that it appears to us. But at certain moments we the vast depths of our unconscious life startles us. Out of seemingly nothing there arise titanic fears, desires and feelings that we do not understand. These forces grip us. They shape our thoughts and actions. Yes, we are rational beings. But there is so much more. In many respects we are a mystery to ourselves. Karl Barth writes that for us the truth is like a butterfly escaping through the fingers of a child (471).
If you asked me how I was last week, I would have gone on about how I’m adjusting to this totally new form of life, how great it has been to have our children home at various times over the Pandemic, that it won’t be long now until we can be together. But sitting here in the Cathedral this week I saw what was really in my heart. Deep sorrow.
I thought of close family members who almost died of COVID and our niece’s brain surgery. I remembered others who did die during the pandemic: my godfather, the college friend who was godmother of our children, two beloved uncles, another friend from my wife’s high school, a close family friend who I knew from the time he was ten. I helped him prepare for confirmation. He was a member of this congregation. And we still have not buried him. There is so much more that I cannot even tell you about.
But I don’t need to because you still remember: collecting bulk food, the flashing signs saying to stay at home, a spree of buying guns, the sirens in New York City, the people dying alone. Instead of regarding masks as a way that we can all protect the most vulnerable we turned them into another symbol of tribalism and politics. Although Americans make up 4% of the world’s population we account for 20% of the world’s COVID deaths. We have been hating and distrusting each other to death. We see new ways that race and poverty kill people.
We continue to roll from tragedy to tragedy. This week after all the new gun violence and anti-Asian racism we heard the testimony of those traumatized witnesses of George Floyd’s murder. It is enough for us to break. We have made our home in a kind of tomb.
That day here when I looked up past the immense columns I watched the dappled sunlight streaming through the stained glass window of Mary Magdalene. And it was almost as if she looked at me with great kindness and whispered, “I have seen the Lord!” God is God of what we see and of what we don’t see. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
And Jesus gives us more than just ideas or beliefs. Jesus brings us nearer to God. This happens through practices, rituals, symbols, words, stories and prayers that help us. Jesus takes one of the worst things ever invented, a torture device called the Roman cross, and makes it into the tree of life, a sign of hope that God is with us in the worst suffering we can imagine.
Jesus gives us a way to navigate the depths that we experience in our existence, that mystery that we can only approach through symbols and intuitions. This morning I want to talk about the way John’s Gospel acts as a kind of guide through this world. I am going to talk about the big picture, the focused picture and our picture. So let us enter the world of John’s Gospel together.
- The Big Picture. A mystery lies behind the Gospel of John. We do not know who the author is. But this writer is completely clear about the purpose of the book. He says that it is written, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). I think this new life is the purpose of Easter.
There are no accidents in John. He uses an elaborate and rigid structure with recurring themes (like the struggle between light and darkness). These connect the various incidents he describes. He uses seven titles to refer to Jesus (like “Son of Man,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” etc.). Jesus speaks about himself using seven “I am” statements (like, “I am the true vine… the bread of life” or “the Good Shepherd,” etc.). There are seven signs or miracles that help the reader understand who Jesus is.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first Jesus teaches and heals people. The second records the last days before his death and resurrection. Between these, two sisters convince Jesus to bring their brother Lazarus back from the dead and out of the isolation of his tomb.
At his later trial Jesus tells the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” (Jn. 18:36). And indeed it is not. At his last supper he washes he followers’ feet and shares a meal with them. He teaches that it is more important to serve others than to have power over them (Jn. 13). He says I tell you these things so, “that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11). There is a kind of Epilogue to the Gospel in which the disciples are fishing and the resurrected Jesus tells them to throw their nets over the other side of the boat. Suddenly the nets fill to a breaking point. It’s an illustration that Christians are most effective when they listen to Jesus.
- The focused picture begins after Jesus’s body has been broken and laid in the tomb. It begins in the mysterious darkness of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene arrives to find the stone rolled away. She runs to tell Peter and the Disciple who Jesus loved. This Beloved Disciple is the one lying reclining closest to Jesus at his last supper (when Jesus announces who will betray him). Although Peter denies him three times, the Beloved Disciple has a secret power. It makes him fearless in the face of death. And so the Beloved Disciple is present at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
On Easter morning the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter but waits outside the tomb. This is where things get a little complicated. The author uses three different Greek verbs for seeing. First, there is an empirical seeing which can include perceiving something beyond sense experience. This is the word the author uses to describe Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple’s first experience of the tomb. Second, there is a form of detached seeing, as spectator does. This is the way Peter is described as he sees the linen wrappings in one place and the face covering in another. Finally when the Beloved Disciple experiences the same thing, the author writes, “he saw and believed.”
This brings us back to the mystery of John. At the end of the Gospel the author reveals that he himself is the Beloved Disciple. My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen believes that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus who Jesus brought back to life. And that seeing the same kind of face covering in Jesus’ tomb reminded Lazarus of his own resurrection. For Herman that face covering also refers to the one Moses wore in the presence of God. He explains that when it was removed, there was nothing that would conceal the glory of God as it shined through them.
We may be able to learn from someone who came back from the dead, but the abyss of experience that separates us from that person makes it hard. After the two other disciples return home we have Mary Magdalene still waiting at the tomb. When Mary first turns she sees or fails to see Jesus in the same way that Peter did. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. But when he says her name “Mary,” she understands who he really is. She goes back to the others and says, “I have seen the Lord” (using the same word the Beloved Disciple did).
When we are in the dark, when we are lost or confused or feeling hopeless, Jesus seeks us out like this. Often it happens through the church as the body of Christ on earth. But God can do this work through a friend, a memory, a fresh loaf of bread, the shimmering leaves of a birch tree or a stained glass window.
- Our picture. All my life I have not paid much attention to the role of the face covering in this story or to the way that masks – actual ones and metaphorical ones like race – conceal the glory of God that should be shining in us. But there has never been a year like this. We are nearing the end of a period of unprecedented isolation. Over this time it has become far harder for us to communicate and understand each other.
The preacher Frederich Buechner writes, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.” Rowan Wiliams the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes, “When we say that Jesus is risen, we mean that there is no sense in which he belongs to the past; his life is never over. When we celebrate the Eucharist we do not put flowers on a memorial slab; we meet a living and active presence.”
At Bible study this week a member of the Cathedral congregation talked about being hit as a pedestrian by an SUV and hurled 10 feet in 2010. It seemed almost certain that she would die, and if not doctors expected that she would be just a shadow of herself. But Jesus came to her in the form of another person who had been in a similar accident. She says, “It was not a near-death experience, but an encounter with transcendence. I was pretty devout before but all of a sudden I began to see the peace, unity and love that lies so near and all around us.” That joy and wonder is so tangible in my friend, my sister in Christ.
On my way here today I ran into three congregants at different intersections and I felt that same thing. My heart leapt with joy to see them in person. When we see each other next we are going to look a little older and a little more uncertain and awkward about how we reach out. But the glory of God will really shine through us again, because we have life in His name. His joy is becoming complete in us.
I have seen the Lord. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T & T Clark, 2004) 471.
 Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T & T Clark, 2005) 409-418.
 Peter W. Marty, “The Post-Pandemic Church,” The Christian Century 24 March 2021.
 Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a Time of Pandemic (London: SPCK Publishing, 2020) 11.
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Deep gratitude wells up in me for the invitation to be with you this morning. I am a continent away at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School, yet feel a special kinship with you at Grace Cathedral. That is because I have visited there on many occasions, especially when my husband John and I lived in Berkeley for three years making the Journey of the Universe film with Brian Swimme. The Cathedral has been a beacon for so many of us yearning to weave the moral force of religion with ecology and justice. One of my visits to the Cathedral was during the Global Climate Action Summit that Governor Jerry Brown convened in September of 2018. We showed our Journey of the Universe film there and attended the interreligious service with 100s of others. I should also mention that Bishop Marc Andrus and his wife Sheila have been friends for many years, as have longtime parishioners, Robert and Ellen McDermott, and Reverend Sally Bingham. My greetings to them and to you all. John and I look forward to being with you tomorrow evening in our Winter Forum conversation with Dean Malcolm Clemens Young.
On this 4th Sunday of Lent we are on the cusp of the spring equinox, leaning toward Easter. We are coming out of a long winter of upheaval on many fronts. The return of the light is a welcome feeling, isn’t it? As is the rebirth of flowering trees and plants in the city of St Francis, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. May the beauty that surrounds you sustain you going forward in these challenging times.
The readings today give us the salvation story from the Exodus of the Israelites to our redemption through Christ. As we know, this is a historical narrative of epic proportions. The first reading brings us into the challenges of the Exodus of the Chosen People wandering in the wilderness. There was little water and tasteless food, if any at all. Complaints were abundant and snakes infested the camps. At God’s prompting, Moses devised a bronze serpent mounted on a pole – a homeopathic symbol to protect and heal the Chosen People from the cruel fate of poisonous bites.
The next reading of Psalm 107 picks up the theme of deliverance from such scourges. It invites offerings of thanksgiving and songs of joy for healing.
John’s Gospel carries this forward with the promise of salvation. This is embedded in the iconic verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Ephesians completes the arc of redemption with the powerful line: “For he has made known to us… a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on Earth.”
These readings present the well-known narrative of salvation history. It is still moving to encounter the struggle through the desert to the Promised Land. I value this story and many of us have heard it since our youth.
My question is, and I wonder if it is yours too, How can this Biblical story be expanded? What is our Exodus experience now? We are between worlds, as the poet Yeats wrote so eloquently, “one dying, the other waiting to be born.”
The pre-pandemic world of a year ago and the post pandemic world on the horizon invites us to think more expansively; to imagine more creatively; to wonder how shall we change our way of being.
Might we move, as geologian Thomas Berry called us, from a singular focus on several thousand years of salvation history to embrace Earth history? From Biblical time to ongoing creation time? From the biological and geological time of our planet’s unfolding over 4.5 billion years, to deep time of the universe’s evolution over 13.8 billion years? What does this opening to the fullness of time entail? We are being invited into the sacred continuity of cosmos, Earth, and humans. To image ourselves dwelling in evolutionary time and ecological space is the call of our Exodus moment.
This is not an impossible task. Indeed, we note many who have been leading the way over the last half century:
John Cobb and other process theologians are bringing us into evolutionary time. Matthew Fox has urged us into creation centered spirituality.
Ecofeminist theologians, such as Sallie McFague, call us to see Earth as God’s Body while Rosemary Ruether invites us to embrace both Gaia and God. Mark Wallace and Catherine Keller ask us to enter the depths of the spirit, pneuma, from the beginning of time. Liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff and Yvonne Gebara, are highlighting eco-justice. African-American theologians, like Melanie Harris, call for healing with the Earth and Willie Jennings, our colleague at Yale Divinity School, asks the question: Where is our Doctrine of Creation? Without it, he wonders, how can we protect the Earth and all its creatures? And there is more, for he affirms, as have indigenous peoples, that the Earth is animate and communicative. Earth is alive and interrelated! What a marvelous challenge for Christian theology and ethics!
We have a lot to draw on here, don’t we? There is now a robust lineage of thoughtful Christian eco-theologians and ecojustice ethicists who are calling for an expansion of our tradition. They are wondering how can we embrace human suffering and redemption within the larger context of the Earth and cosmos. How can this not be part of the post pandemic world waiting to be born?
Isn’t there a widening sense of the cosmic Christ that St Paul notes and Teilhard de Chardin highlights? The Christic light shining through the universe is both spiritual and physical for Teilhard who was a Jesuit and a scientist.
And what of the Logos at the beginning of time, the inner ordering principle of all reality that we hear of in the opening of John’s Gospel? This is the sacred dimension of all matter within the evolution of the cosmos and the Earth. This is why Teilhard says that matter has a “within”, what Thomas Berry called interiority. As Berry noted everything in the universe is differentiated, everything has subjectivity or interiority, and everything is in communion with everything else. For him this is the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Imagine the effect of exploring this in in our theology and ethics, in our liturgies and our prayers?
So, again, this is my question for us today.
As we dwell in this Exodus time – moving from late winter to early spring, from Lent to Easter we find ourselves between seasons, between worlds. Might we ask what is shifting, turning, calling us forward?
Is this not a moment to image ourselves into Earth time and Cosmic time – what Ephesians speaks of as “a plan for the fullness of time”? We are living within the seasons of nature’s life and dwelling within the great transitions of Earth’s life – from the emergence of the first cell, to the explosion of flowering plants, to the rise of amphibians, birds, and mammals. Can we imagine ourselves not only within 2000 years of Christian history, but also rising from the savannahs of Africa some 6 million years ago to become homo sapiens 200,000 years ago? Doesn’t this perspective release new energies for the work ahead? This evolutionary context gives rise to wonder and awe, which in turn inspires commitment and action for transformation.
Here is a basis for enlarging our sense of belonging, not just to our family or friends or nation, but to the living Earth community. Within our planetary system we are surrounded by a solar system and galactic systems that broaden our identity beyond anything we could have imagined. This gives us a new zest that Teilhard hoped to evoke from humans. This zest is the human energy needed to establish transformative societies – ones that will care for the wellbeing of people and the planet. This is the invitation of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si – to embrace an integral ecology where the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are truly heard.
What does this mean for our moment today as we are expanding our consciousness and our conscience? It means we are awakening simultaneously to deep time and to comprehensive compassion. As we sense ourselves belonging to something this large and this vast we also feel ourselves drawn toward a more tender love, a young love – alive with discovery and yearning for justice.
We bring this love back to Earth with a broader sense of community…
Can we imagine moving from pandemic time to after-time when live music will lift our spirits in concert halls and clubs.
When theater and arts and sculpture will explode once released from confinement
When schools will be open places of genuine learning and growth.
When nurses and doctors will be celebrated
When workers in stores and factories will be thanked
When farmers and teachers will be valued
When minorities subject to prejudice, imprisonment, and death will achieve voting rights, jobs, and health care.
When the Earth is allowed to heal and even flourish.
When the cosmos speaks to us through the luminosity of the stars, the steady movements of the planets, and the ever expanding universe.
Isn’t this all part of our new story?
How do we get there?
With poetry, prayer and imagination guiding us.
Within this broadened context our prayers and our poetry will also be wider. We have heard this in Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and many others. I will conclude today by sharing a prayer-poem by Catherine de Vinck. She wrote these inspiring verses just a few weeks ago when she celebrated her 99th birthday on February 20th.
On my Birthday – 99 Years
Catherine de Vinck 2/20/21
I bow to the North and to the South
to the East and to the West.
I bow to the sky enameled blue
and to the plump, traveling clouds.
I bow to the ancestors:
women tracking the bison’s herd,
men building shelters, making fire.
I bow to the children, born and unborn
holding the future hidden in their genes.
I bow to the animals, to the fox trotting
in the woods as well as to the snail
housed in its porcelain shell.
I bow to the light ascending every morning.
I bow to the night, to its dark portals
and to the pale moon ever at work
pulling the tides, mirroring the sun.
I bow to the rain dripping from the roof
feeding streams released to the sea.
I bow to the stars, to their fiery tremors
held in the immense vastness of space.
I bow to the plants and trees, to berries and apples.
I bow to all that is open and welcoming:
the calix of flowers, the heart of lovers.
I bow to all my years, past and present.
I bow to death waiting at the corner
ready to take me to a new way of being
to larger territories of exploration.
I bow to the one we call God
unknown to us, yet more here than
what we feel and touch and smell.
I bow to life and all its history and shape.
I bow forever in thanksgiving and love.
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex. 20).
Today we will talk about why it is important to go to church, to keep sabbath. But before we get to this I want to share a story about one person’s answer to the question, “What are your reasons for loving life?” Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) made this the subject of his biography in a book translated from French called: And There Was Light.
In short, light was what he loved most. He writes about his childhood experience of light, “I saw it everywhere I went and watched it by the hour… on the balcony there was light. Impetuous as I was, I used to lean patiently on the railing and watch the light flowing over the surface of the houses in front of me and through the tunnel of the street to [the] right and left.”
“This light was not like the flow of water, but something more fleeting and numberless, for its source was everywhere. I liked seeing that the light came from nowhere in particular… Radiance multiplied, reflected itself from one window to the next, from a fragment of wall to [a] cloud above. It entered into me, became part of me… This fascination did not stop when night fell. When I came in from outdoors in the evening, when supper was over, I found the fascination again in the dark. Darkness, for me, was still light, but in a new form and a new rhythm. It was light at a slower pace. In other words, nothing in the world, not even what I saw inside myself with closed eyelids, was outside this great miracle of light.”
Then at the age of eight an accident at school made him totally blind for the rest of his life. Almost immediately however, he realized that there was a source of light that was not the sun. It came from within and he was flooded by it. He realized that this light made it possible for him to feel the presence of others. He writes about smelling and tasting colors, and understanding the shape and tone of a wall without touching it. The people he encountered projected a unique color arising out of their personalities.
Lusseyran learned German and became a leader in the French resistance during the occupation of Paris in World War Two. Ultimately the Gestapo sent him away to Buchenwald where he was repeatedly tortured. In the concentration camp Lusseyran saw men broken and killed, and others who became possessed by evil. Only 30 of the 2000 other French prisoners in his group survived. He writes that in order to make through torture there are three things to remember.
“The first of these is that joy does not come from outside[,] for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.” The third truth is the importance of friendship. Being close to others makes it possible for us to survive, to stay human.
The way that Lusseyran describes “light” feels very similar to my daily encounters with God. When I am not distracted by worries and ambitions I sense God’s presence in all things and especially in the people I meet. This doesn’t mean that God is somehow at my disposal as a kind of cosmic servant. But God is present in the world as the source of all things. The shortest answer to why I keep the sabbath, is that I need to listen, to set aside time for seeking God, for understanding how the Lord is directing me.
The theologian Karl Barth writes that God does not speak as one who is a stranger to us. He describes God as a kind of watcher on the threshold (of our awareness, of our life). He also calls God the frontier toward which we move as we get older. This moving toward God is sabbath work.
Keeping the sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments. It functions to set aside one seventh of our life for the purpose of seeking and experiencing the presence of God. In the process of creation God rests on the seventh day. We need to do this also. Practically speaking we observe sabbath by participating in church. The sabbath reminds me that my life is limited. It is like a tiny island in the vast ocean of time. Sabbath helps me to see things from the heights, to perceive the bigger picture of what this all means and what I am meant to do. Let’s briefly talk about three ways the sabbath functions. They can be summarized with three verbs: renounce, grow, commune.
- Renounce. The sabbath sets a limit and gives us the chance to obey God. It is important that our work or other activities do not own us, that our achievements and failures do not define us. We are children of God who forget the most crucial truth about who we are. Sabbath gives us a pause, a rest, an interruption to reflect on God. It gives us a chance to consciously participate in the salvation that comes from God.
I usually don’t work out on the sabbath. I spend the afternoon with family, friends or reading. The point is not to be inactive but to do something different than the other days. We pause our work not for our own sake but for God. It is time set aside for celebration, joy and freedom. The word eucharist means thanksgiving. Sabbath is the day for thanksgiving. No matter how deep we are in Lent, every Sunday is a feast of our Lord, an occasion to celebrate.
The theologian Karl Barth writes that this commandment explains all the other ones. The sabbath interrupts our immense fascination and preoccupation with our own self and redirects our attention to what God does for us. You may have noticed that in our liturgy we do not as often refer to God as Lord as we once did. This is done so that we do not mistake God as male, but what is lost is the sense that our relationship to God is as servants. God does not exist to fulfill our fantasies. We exist for God. We are on this earth for the sake of loving each other and creation according to God’s command.
In San Francisco when you go to church you might be missing out on brunch with all of your friends. You might say to yourself, “everyone takes a break from church during college.” We all know that it is inconvenient when you are on vacation to find a church, to get there and miss what everyone else is doing that day. And frankly sometimes we just don’t feel like church. Perhaps the clergy and congregation might include people who irritate us, or the music doesn’t touch us. During COVID it might be easy to say that we are taking a break from church until we can all gather in person.
But sabbath reminds us, or to put it more strongly, it forbids us from simply having faith in our own plans, aspirations, achievements and desires. It reminds us that we cannot save ourselves. And the sabbath gives us the opportunity to serve God, and in this way to know ourselves only through faith. Make no mistake, it is hard to renounce our ego. But when we do, we begin to hear at the heart of creation the “Yes” that God speaks to us. The future does not lie within our power, but in the Holy One who says “Yes” to your life. In this sense it is a way of practicing living and dying.
- The second reason for the sabbath is to find direction, to grow spiritually. It is to receive our true self. When the sabbath is working it sets the pattern for what the following week will be. I tell our musicians Ben and Chris that often their music is just below my consciousness well into the week, surfacing at moments when I need to hear it again. Thomas Sheehan writes, “Beyond all our seeking for things that can be found we find ourselves directed to a ‘more’… We remain fundamentally an act of questioning to which there is no answer.”
Liturgy is the form of worship. Nathan Mitchell writes, “At liturgy, we do not invent or assert our own identity; we receive it. That is why Christian worship begins only after all participants agree to act as impersonators, traveling to a “strange land” under assumed identities, on another’s passport: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The liturgy’s first words do not announce who we are, but inscribe us to Another.”
The reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was fond of calling God’s word the sanctuary above all sanctuaries. He says, “what time a man handles, preaches, hears, reads or meditates on God’s Word, he and [that] work are thereby sanctified.” In worship on a conscious and a deeply unconscious level we seek and find direction for our life. I think this is what T. S. Eliot has in mind when he writes about, “Music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music…”
I do not quote the priest George Herbert because changes in the English language make us a beat behind when we read his poetry. But I do want to remind you of his poem on prayer. He says, “Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, / God’s breath in man returning to his birth, / The soul in paraphrase, / heart in pilgrimage, / The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth…”
- The final reason for the sabbath is to form the community that follows the way of Jesus. We say that we “go to church,” but really this is not right. We, or more accurately, through us, God forms the church when we come together. In our individualistic world we might miss that this is a unique communal experience. This is the reason that it is so important to really participate by volunteering to help (as an usher for instance). It is crucial that we fully participate by saying the responses, and especially by singing (even if we think we are terrible at it).
During the week you will meet and support the people you choose (or have) to help. But the sabbath invites an entirely different kind of experience of others. We didn’t invite the people who come to church, but somehow God brings us together. So we celebrate Sundays by making closer contact with this kind of other person. We open ourselves to new experiences. We listen and speak in a different way that is informed not by what is in it for us, but wondering how we might be of service to others.
This is why church is not an “escape.” What we are talking about is so much more than a personal spiritual quest. It is another example of why faith is a challenge and not a crutch to make us feel better.
There is a source of light that is not the sun. Renounce, Grow, Commune. Let every sabbath day of your life move you more completely into God’s light and love.
 Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light tr. Elizabeth Cameron. Cited in Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009) 88-95.
 This paragraph is a paraphrase from Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009) 90-1.
 Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009) 93.
 “When God speaks to man in His command, He does not speak to one who is completely strange to Him. Even the transgression of man cannot alter the fact that God is his Creator and has always been his Preserver, Companion and Ruler. Nor can man hear the command of God as though it were a completely alien command.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 The Doctrine of Creation tr. A.T. MacKay, T.H.L. Parker, H. Knight, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T&T Clark, 1961) 566, 570ff, 589ff.
 This week the members of my Bible Study reminded me that on several occasions religious authorities argue that Jesus is violating the sabbath or that because he heals people on the sabbath he is somehow in opposition to God. When they accuse his disciples of not keeping the sabbath, Jesus replies, “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 2). This history may be part of the reason for a tendency to not value the sabbath in the way we should. The sabbath is made to enrich our spiritual life and it will not have this effect unless we observe it. We cannot expect to make progress in our spiritual life if we do not set aside time to participate in worship.
 Everything in this sermon is inspired by Karl Barth’s treatment of the sabbath. In Paul Tillich’s three volume Systematic Theology, the sabbath does not appear at all in the index and the Ten Commandments are mentioned only once. Barth is passionate about how sabbath helps human beings to thrive. Ibid., 50ff.
 Thomas Sheehan, First Coming, 172. Cited in Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006) 66.
 Cited in Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006) 45.
 Martin Luther, Greater Catechism cited in: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 The Doctrine of Creation tr. A.T. MacKay, T.H.L. Parker, H. Knight, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T&T Clark, 1961) 62.
 Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006) 45.
 George Herbert, Prayer (I):
“Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.”
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Mk. 8)?
In the 1970’s Werner Erhard (1935-) gave controversial seminars around the Bay Area as part of the Human Potential Movement. He pointed out how difficult it is to really change your life. He offered strategies that might help. Erhard believed that any form of personal transformation begins with language, with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
These often-unconscious pictures shape, what Erhard calls, “the way the world shows up for us.” They are the contexts that determine our actions. Nothing in our life will change until we can begin to question these basic assumptions about ourselves.
Erhard offers a hopeful message. We can change our relationship to our own past so that it no longer controls the future. We do this by dedicating ourselves to what Erhard calls a “possibility.” He defines a “possibility” as a guiding goal for what we hope to accomplish every time we show up. Whenever you enter a room you bring that possibility, that goal for transformation, with you.
For me, that “possibility” is the peace of Christ, the recognition that all people are God’s children and that the world is God’s beloved creation. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus.
The Anglican theologian Donald Allchin sums up the human condition in these words. “We seek what is beyond us, but our desire remains baffled. We are thrown back on ourselves by the enigmas of sin and suffering, of frustration and death. Of ourselves we cannot attain the goal for which we long. It is only when another comes out from the unknown world of eternity to meet us, and opens to us the way through, that we can find the fulfillment of the desire which we know within ourselves. In Christ, God, Godself comes out to meet us and becomes the way which leads into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus meets us this morning in today’s gospel. I have spoken many times about the urgency in the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps we feel this because as Jesus’ public ministry unfolds we see it leading so clearly to his death on the cross. The German theologian Martin Kähler calls it, “a passion narrative with an extended introduction.”
In Mark, Jesus predicts the manner of his death three times. In today’s gospel he teaches the disciples that, “the Son of Man 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” (Mk. 8).
A chapter later in Mark 9:31 Jesus says, “The Son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Then, yet again in Mark 10 Jesus exclaims, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (Mk. 10:32-34).
But this horrible prediction is not all that these passages share in common. In each case, as the story unfolds, Jesus’ friends are completely incapable of hearing him. We have all had this experience in our life. We have all been misunderstood. We have felt unable to accept a difficult truth. But in these stories the confusion seems extreme.
Immediately after Jesus’ prediction in chapter 9 the disciples argue about which of them is the greatest. Jesus’ prediction in chapter 10 leads James and John to ironically ask Jesus to give them special seats of honor when he comes “into glory.” Although James and John do not realize it, the reader knows that these disciples have inadvertently asked to be crucified with him.
All this brings us back to today’s gospel. After Jesus explains what will happen to him, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. Jesus responds saying, “Get behind me Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The Greek is a bit more ambiguous than this. Jesus is emphatically saying to Peter something more like by proposing ideas for avoiding the cross you are not following me.
At the very center of the Gospel of Mark lies a powerful idea. It is that there are two opposing views at war in every level from within our own individual consciousness to the scale of the whole culture or society, perhaps even all history.
According to one perspective, might makes right, the only thing that matters is having power over others. That power could be money, political influence, intelligence or personal beauty or God’s backing in defeating your enemies. The Christian nationalists who overran the Capitol building exemplify this view. They seem to believe that they are God’s army. That they are authorized to use force to make this a Christian nation. But they are not at all the only ones to regard the world in this way. Secular and religious people easily fall into this view power as the only thing worth having. Many people believe that this is simply the way the world works – dog eat dog, money talks, etc.
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus opposes this view with another picture of human flourishing. He shows how God acts outside the official structures of the high priests and their temple. In opposition to the ideal of a self which receives value by having power over others, he asserts that real greatness involves serving others. He says whoever is greatest will be servant of all.
Within us lie two potential selves – one that seeks to exercise power over others and one that gives this power away. This explains the mystery behind Jesus’ statement., “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8). In this case the Greek word we translate as life is psyche, it is connected to our modern word for psychology and means soul.
Each of these two expressions of our soul is unavoidably at odds with the other. It is a zero sum game, as one lives the other one must die. With every action and every thought we implicitly choose power, or we choose love.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes that the essence of Nazism was not so much anti-Semitism but the belief that the strong should rule over the weak. Nazism was about the lust for power. Tutu also points out a truth that I frequently mention in pre-marriage counseling. He says love is not a feeling. Love is an action that we choose when we decide to steadfastly care for others. It is acting lovingly that gives rise to the feeling that we associate with love. Instead of evaluating your relationships on the basis of nebulous feelings, we need to focus our attention on what we are actually doing.
My old teacher Cornel West used to be fond of saying that, “tenderness is what love feels like in private. Justice is what love looks like in public.”
What does it look like when a person radically devotes herself to love? It looks like the death of that self which seeks control over others. It looks like taking up the cross. Why do we follow Jesus even when it sometimes means taking up suffering and the cross? Jesus tells people the truth about themselves. He dedicated his life to forgiveness and healing. He unites us to God, the one who perfectly loves us for all time. He draws us into the church which carries us through our darkness. Jesus gives us purpose so that we can live a life that matters.
A few years ago a man armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition entered a school full of elementary age schoolchildren in Decatur, Georgia. Fortunately for everyone involved he took Antoinette Tuff the school’s bookkeeper hostage. Although she is a middle-aged African-American and he threatened her life, she spoke to the young white gunman as if he were a member of her own family. She called him “baby” and told him she loved him.
She promised that if he put down his guns she would stay with him until the police arrived and that he would not be hurt. Ultimately that is exactly what happened. It is all recorded on the 911 tape and you can listen to it on the Internet. At the end she told the operator, “I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life.”
Something in Antoinette Tuff made it possible for her to overcome her fear, to reach across all the boundaries that separated her from that young man and to form a connection. She knew something about suffering herself and told him how human it is to feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope.
But Antoinette Tuff also had something going for her. She had her faith. In church her minister had taught the congregation to “pray on the inside,” and how to “anchor” yourself in God no matter what happens around you. So that is precisely what she did.
As everyone around her viewed the gunman as nothing more than a threat she could somehow and miraculously see him as a struggling child of God. And this helped her to offer him a chance to recognize what he had in common with everyone else in that building. She brought with her a new possibility that seemed unimaginable to others.
I began this morning with Werner Erhard’s observation that in order to really change our lives we need a new story, a new possibility that can create a future that is different than anything we experienced in the past. I talked about that desire for what is beyond us and about how Jesus reaches out to help. We considered the way the Gospel of Mark reveals two opposing voices moving us to depend either on power or love. We remembered that love is an action and not just a feeling. All of this shows how an ordinary person like Antoinette Tuff can be empowered by God’s spirit to true heroism.
What will you bring into being through God’s abiding grace? What is your possibility?
 Therapy, a major life crisis like a divorce or career change, going back to school are ways that people try to transform their lives. These too often involve changing our context or story. I’m using a summary of Erhard from the following book. Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), 14-17.
 Yesterday we celebrated the twenty-sixth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. At that point of departure so long ago, I lost one life and gained a whole new one. I started to live into a new possibility. This week Heidi broke out old picture albums filled with images from those days, of lay people and clergy who hugely influenced the course of my life.
I do not know if I realized this at the time but ordination is all about the future. At its heart it involves creating a new possibility that is altogether different than what the past seems to imply. This happens both for a particular individual and all of creation.
 Donald Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1988), 11.
 Herman Waetjen says a more accurate translation would be, “get away from behind me, Satan.” The word used for how Jesus instructed his disciples and the one that describes how Peter talks to Jesus is arxo which means ruling over. There is a parallel between the “get behind me” and when Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me.” These last two observations are not from Herman Waetjen. Herman C. Waetjen, A Re-Ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014 originally published in 1989) 145-7.
 It is actually quite common to completely misunderstand the way of Jesus. I don’t mean being slightly off in one direction or the other. I’m talking about missing the point entirely.
 Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (NY: Doubleday, 2004), 39, 78-79.
 Stephanie Paulsell, “Emergency Prayer,” The Christian Century 2 October 2013, page 35. Also, Kim Severson and Alan Blinder, “Clerk Thwarts Gunman, 20, at Atlanta-Area School,” The New York Times, 20 August 2013.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1).
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote the following words in the middle of the twentieth century. “The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”
“I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain… The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies…”
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…”
Merton quotes the 5th century Syrian mystic Philoxenos (d. 523) who writes, “You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
This is one way of summarizing the spirit of Mark’s Gospel. In this Gospel Jesus frequently retreats like this to the wilderness for periods of prayer and renewal. He seems to instinctively know that as in the story of Noah, God’s covenant is not just with human beings but with “every living creature,” and all creation (Gen. 9). Of the four gospels Mark uses the most compact, direct and simple language. He speaks in a forceful, abrupt, and repetitive way that is difficult to appreciate in translation.
My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says that it is written in the “Hellenistic Greek of the uneducated lower-class residents of the rural countryside.” More importantly he points out that Mark is not writing a biography of Jesus. This is not intended to be a documentary record of the past (in the style of someone like Ken Burns).
Instead this is an aesthetic literary creation. Like a novel it forms its own world. Although Mark uses materials from the first century (places, ideas, political relations, forms of life), his world is not the past world. In many respects it is more connected to us and to our story than an ancient history could be. It is a story of us.
Mark writes about Jesus coming from an obscure, even despised region and being baptized by John in the Jordan River. The heavens are ripped apart. A voice says, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” This spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is “with the wild beasts and the angels minister to him.” John is arrested. Jesus returns to the Galilean countryside and gives his first sermon.
In this symbolically important statement Jesus says four things: 1. The time is fulfilled, 2. The kingdom of God has come near, 3. Repent, 4. Believe in the good news. Let me talk briefly about what each of these statements might mean today.
- The time is fulfilled. This week the people around me are at a breaking point. They are talking to me because they have had enough. They are sick of being at home, of working remotely, of having businesses and schools closed. They desperately miss seeing their friends and loved ones. A few people this week told me the same thing, “I just can’t take this anymore.”
And to us Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” Whatever it is that you enjoy about this strange COVID time, make the most of it, because soon it will be a faded memory. Whatever you want to accomplish during these days, whoever you wish to connect with by phone, do it now because these days will not last. We’re not going back to the way it was before and it certainly won’t be like this for long. This is true of any historical moment and is especially the case right now.
- The kingdom of God has come near. During his lifetime, the Roman Catholic church banned the theological writings of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He died on Easter Sunday in 1955. Only ten people attended the funeral and only one person accompanied his body to the graveyard. No one yet knew that he was one of the most profound religious thinkers of the twentieth century.
Yes, he had made arrangements to have his ideas published after his death. Teilhard believed profoundly that God lies absolutely near at the heart of everything and that the world addresses us by name. He writes, “without leaving the world, plunge into God.” He prays, “O God… in the life which wells up in me and in the matter which sustains me, I find much more than your gifts. It is you yourself whom I find.”
According to Teilhard Jesus helps lift the veil, so that we can see, “the transparence of God in the universe.” We can see God in physical matter. Teilhard writes about what he calls “ex-centration” where we leave behind our ego, become free of our own individuality, so that we can find ourselves in others and in the whole world. Over the years my experience of the nearness of God keeps growing stronger. I love the Lord. I feel God’s presence in prayer.
- Repent. Jesus asks us to repent. The Greek word is metanoia and it means literally to change your mind, to alter the habits which shape how you think about the world and perceive it. For me a person doesn’t repent and then start experiencing the goodness of God. God’s generosity always comes first and then we move toward God in love and this motion changes our way of thinking.
In the 1940’s a blizzard made traveling next to impossible for the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). They performed in Chicago, parked their car in Sacramento flew to Arizona, then Denver, returned to California to pick up the car and from there drove through ice and snow to Columbus, Ohio. They arrived just in time for the performance and went right up on stage without even resting.
The people at the party afterward told them how miserable their work was and asked how they could possibly devote their lives to this. Cage himself wondered why do we go to such trouble for something that people don’t even enjoy. And then ten years later he received a letter from someone who had been at that exact performance who thanked him and said that it had changed his life.
Cage once said, “Thoreau got up every morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.”
- Believe in the good news. The good news is that we don’t have to blinded by ourselves. Like Jesus we can be fully God’s children. And when we are consciously in God – the world, every person and creature in it, will be transfigured miraculously to our sight.
The Dalai Lama tells the story of a king who invited the Buddha and his friends to lunch. On the way, the Buddha passed a beggar who praised the king and talked about the magnificence of the palace. After many courses of rich banquet food it came time for the prayer that would dedicate the karma of the meal. But the Buddha, instead of dedicating the merit to the host, to the king for his generosity, the Buddha chose to bless the beggar outside.
When his senior monk asked what he was doing. The Buddha replied that the king was proud of his kingdom, but the beggar was exceptional because he was able to rejoice in the king’s good fortune. Can we believe in God’s good news so sincerely that we take joy in others’ blessings? Can we begin to realize that we ourselves have and are enough?
My friends during this holy Lent I dare us to not be blinded by our self. Let us live by the rhythms in the world that we have not yet learned to recognize. Let the rain be something new to us. Let whatever is come to us like liquid in a glass.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is near. Repent. Believe in the good news.
“You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
 Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Raids on the Unspeakable (1964) also published in The Norton Book of Nature Writing ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (NY: Norton, 1990) 598-607.
 Ibid., 604. Philoxenos of Mabbug.
 Herman C. Waetjen, A Re-Ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014 originally published in 1989) 1-3.
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperCollins, 2021).
 Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (NY: Penguin, 2012) 192, 187.
 Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2