Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yes, Lisa, there is a resurrection

(The following is my letter to Lisa Miller after reading her article [link above] adapted from her forthcoming book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife.)

Ms. Miller, have you ever read Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan? That the resurrection stories can be true without necessarily being factual? That any parable (yes, parable) can have meaning without having to ask the question of whether it really happened? That most parables speak about God's nature rather than anything about us?

And saying that the statement "We cannot know what God has in store for us" is a theological cop-out sounds theologically cranky to me. Easter and heaven are about joy--so is life on this earth. Ms. Miller, self-avowed "literal-minded skeptic", you're seeing exactly what you're looking for. Resurrection is one of those "radical acts of grace and kindness" for which you're leaving the door open a crack. My hope for you is that you open the door wide.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The road you came in on

Entry into Jerusalem, 2nd half of 15th c.,
Master of the Thuison Altarpiece, France.

Psalm 31: 9-16; Luke 19: 28-40
******** United Church of Christ
March 28, 2010 – Palm Sunday

In the past 11 years since I have lived in Connecticut, I have observed a curious phenomenon. In the town of Monroe, in Bridgeport, in Wellesley, MA where my mother lives and even on Cape Cod, I have seen street signs with names that relate to significant aspects of my life.

For instance, in Monroe there is a Lorraine Drive, my mother’s name. Every day on my way out of my neighborhood I pass Heather St. (our former interim director of Christian Ed.). In Bridgeport there is a K. Rd. not far from where my husband DK has volunteered for Habitat and there is a ******** Ave. (same name as the church) right next to our favorite Turkish restaurant. On the route for the CROP walk in Bridgeport is a Maplewood Ave., my address in Monroe. In Wellesley, MA there is another K. St. only a short drive from my mother’s house. On Cape Cod there is even a K. Beach! And in the Cape Cod town where we go for vacation every year there is a Monroe Ln. and even a Captain B. Rd. (name of the former pastor).

Most folks would chalk this up to coincidence, but I, on the other hand, tend to lean toward serendipity or synchronicity. I don’t think it is coincidence or accidental. I’d rather think of it as affirmation of the path I’m on, that I’m on the right road, if you will. Sometimes it feels as though we’re just going from one thing to the next or staying motionless in one place with no end in sight, wondering at the meaning and the purpose of it all. But I’d like to think it’s not random; instead, that God’s wisdom (rather than God’s will) can be perceived through the roads we’ve travelled.

I don’t think it’s any accident or coincidence that in Luke’s gospel the road on which Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem leads away from the Mount of Olives. It was here that Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, wishing that he could gather the whole city in his arms as a mother hen broods over her chicks. Bethany is the village where his good friends Mary and Martha welcomed him into their home and served him. It was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus and the disciples would have a nightly retreat during the coming week in Jerusalem. On the night of his betrayal and arrest he went to the Mount of Olives to pray with his disciples and it was there he returned with his disciples after his resurrection and ascended into heaven. It is from this direction, from the east, from where all things begin, that Jesus chooses to enter the city where he will meet his death.

The Mount of Olives was also the place that King David fled to when his son Absalom was conspiring against him. Absalom had turned the people’s hearts toward himself, away from David, so much so that Absalom’s treachery to be proclaimed king instead of David might have succeeded. Today’s psalm of David from the lectionary could easily have been David’s prayer as he escaped his son’s armies, wondering if he'd ever see Jerusalem again:

“I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”

As a sign of his faithfulness to God, David had his priests return to Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant, praying that one day God would bring him back to see the ark himself in the place where it belonged. When the priests had departed with the ark, we read this In 2 Samuel 15: “But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went.”

And it is on this road that the disciples of Jesus throw their cloaks, something that is only done for a king. And no longer is it only the twelve but now a whole multitude of disciples. In a loud voice they proclaim “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” These words echo the angels’ and shepherds’ praise at the birth of Jesus at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The crowd recalls Jesus’ deeds of power, the roads he has travelled in order that he might come to this place, to Jerusalem and in this manner.

Christians walking down from the Mount of Olives reenacting the biblical story of Palm Sunday.

What would be the names of the roads and streets of Jesus’ life? Healing Avenue. Unconditional Love Boulevard. The King’s Highway. Peace and Justice Court. Bread of Life Circle. Bright Path. But also Narrow Way, Poverty Hollow, Lonesome Valley. Crucifixion Alley. Death Row. Resurrection Road. And they all had the city of Jerusalem, the city of God and of kings as their final destination.

Now surely the Pharisees would have remembered their own history, of how a son plotted to overthrow his father, the true king, the greatest king in Israel’s history. We can hear the fear scrambling the minds of the Pharisees as they order the disciples to stop. Is Jesus the son overthrowing the father or the rightful king, the new David? Is this an opportunity to right a terrible wrong of the past or is this the terrible wrong of the present time? Which road should they choose?

They choose silence and to silence those who would proclaim Jesus as king. But Jesus will have none of it. Even if his disciples were silent, justice demands that some part of God’s creation proclaim what needs to be said. Even stones—the most silent of all God’s handiwork, used to mark roadways and the graves of the dead—would cry out the praise of God.

Each of us is headed toward our own Jerusalem, in our own way. This church is headed toward to its own Jerusalem. Perhaps we’ve seen the markers, the signs on the roads; perhaps the very stones are ready to cry out with what needs to be said. What is your Jerusalem, your place of trial and transformation and for this church? What are the roads and streets that have brought you and this church to this time and place in your story, in God’s story? Some of these roads have been well-established routes; others have been arduous, painful, even dangerous for some. Some of us are on a direct course while others are on the scenic tour. Some of you have had many companions on the way; others have travelled alone for long distances, now to feel as though you have come home.

None of this has been random or by accident or coincidence. God’s wisdom can be perceived in your journey, just as it can be perceived in the life of Jesus. Jesus’ journey was a hard one but it was also joyful, healing and loving, and it created another pathway that leads to God and to a changed life. We too are on that same road that leads to God, one certainly not without its bumps and valleys, but one that can be a signpost to others, that not only would our lives be changed but also make a difference in the lives of others.

Trust the road you are on, that on that road you will find God and that God will find you. The road we travel is in God’s hands. As we move through this week with Jesus, let us have the courage to go with him, all the way through Death Row and beyond that we might meet him on the Resurrection Road. Amen.


"It's the road you came in on, the path you walk along
That brought you to this loving, sacred place.
God is working through all the people who
Fill our lives with hope and care and grace."

--from the song "The Road You Came In On", a Silver Lake song written by Tim Hughes and Bob Smith.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The fragrance of love

John 12: 1-8
******** United Church of Christ
Sunday, March 21, 2010

(I preached a sermon very similar to this one three years ago in a different setting. On this occasion I asked some questions of the children and youth, as well as the adults, and their responses are in italics. I also had some fragrant oil in a diffuser on the communion table, and you guessed it, it filled the whole house.)

“If God was a smell, what would God smell like?”

The woods.

The ocean.
WindSong and Old Spice.
An old attic.
Ice cream.
Freshly baked bread.
Babies and baby powder.
Everybody. (Someone said they hoped this was wrong.)
Cut grass.
Sweet wine.
Earth after rain.
The fragrant oil.
Everything together and separate.

Our sense of smell is one of the most potent of the five senses, because it has the power to bring us back in time to a place, a person, an experience and make it real for us. For instance, I love the smell of celery and onions sautéing in butter because it reminds me of my mother making her Southern cornbread dressing and of her cooking in general. The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying takes me back to my grandparents’ house in Mississippi when I was a little girl. Whenever I am in an office supply store, the smell of Scotch tape and ink and paper remind me of my childhood church and the office that contained a mimeograph machine on which the Sunday bulletins were printed.

Human beings can recognize more than 10,000 different scents or odorants. We have hundreds of olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal passages, each receptor encoded by a specific gene. If we do not possess a certain gene, then we have difficulty picking up particular scents.

The sense of smell is an important character in this passage and in the one leading up to it. In chapter 11 in John’s gospel, Jesus arrives four days too late to save his friend Lazarus from death. When he asks to have the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha, the sister of the dead man, says to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” The body has already begun to decompose; according to belief, this was a sign that the spirit or soul had left the body and resuscitation therefore impossible. But for Jesus, with whom nothing is impossible, this permeating odor of death is but a mere whiff of the perfume of resurrection to come. He then prays to God and calls forth Lazarus, who emerges from the tomb, the smelly graveclothes still clinging to his face and body.

Now, in this morning’s passage, the scene has changed completely. Lazarus now washed and clean, is host to Jesus and his disciples for dinner. His sister Martha serves the dinner but not with complaint as she did in the Luke story between her and her sister Mary. There is no resentment about serving this time; the Greek word for ‘serve’ is used in the tradition of a deacon. There are the pleasant aromas of roasted meat and bread and wine and the air dense with the emotions of contentment, joy, and the intense feeling that very soon it is all about to end, for in raising Lazarus, Jesus has signed his own death warrant.

Into all this enters Mary with a jar of perfume made from pure nard. The word ‘nard’ comes from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas of China, India, and Nepal, which explains why it is so costly. Its underground stems can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic, amber-colored essential oil, very thick in consistency. It was a luxury item in the ancient world, something that would be used to anoint the head of a king, not the feet of a poor wandering rabbi. To anoint the feet would be part of preparing a body for burial. And to wipe Jesus’ feet Mary lets down her hair, something a woman would do only for her husband or in grief.

In this story Mary, sister of Lazarus, is the prodigal, which means ‘wasteful extravagance’. In her whole manner we see wasteful extravagance. She unleashes the potent fragrance of love into the dinner banquet, disrupting the heady scent of the meal and the mood of Judas, who reeks of stinginess and the betrayal to come. She does not use ordinary oil but one that is costly and pungent: the whole house is filled with its perfume. She lets loose her hair as a spontaneous gesture of her gratitude for her brother and a sign of her exuberant affection for Jesus. She does not wait for his burial but anoints him now, alive in her home, where she can enjoy his company and presence.

This lavish act of extravagant love is Mary’s prophecy of Jesus’ death: God’s lavish act of extravagant love in human flesh. Jesus’ death is indeed wasteful extravagance; there is nothing prudent or economical about God’s love on the cross. And there is nothing prudent or economical in Mary’s discipleship. In her unrestrained display of devotion we see the portrayal of supreme faithfulness. While Judas plays the role of bean counter (and not a very honest one at that), Mary in her filling the whole house with the fragrance of her love for Jesus fulfills the role of one passionate in love and service. The smell of death may be on the heels of Jesus but Mary witnesses to the overwhelming persistence of God’s love, that God’s love smells sweeter and stronger than death itself.

But I wonder: does God’s love always smell pleasant and sweet? Can God’s love smell like the sweat of migrant workers picking coffee, oranges, and grapes; the sweat of day laborers mowing grass, laying brick, tarring roofs? Can God’s love reek of a person who hasn’t bathed in days or months? Can God’s love stink of prison cells and tenement hallways and dingy nursing homes, battlefields and refugee camps? Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us but not always him. What did he mean by that? Do not all of us deserve a roof over our heads, health care, nutrition, clean water, clean clothes, clean hair, teeth and bodies, to know that we will never have to question these things?

Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 11: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’" The stench of poverty cannot be covered up with sweet-smelling platitudes, like Judas. If God’s love stinks, it stinks of the need for justice, for peace, and for resurrection. The sweet smell of God’s love reminds us of the extravagant gift we have been given, that continues to be lavished on us daily. The rank odor of God’s love is a pungent call to give extravagantly, wastefully to those who are always with us but to give as though there may not be a tomorrow.

If God’s love stank, what would it smell like?

My dog.

A garbage can or dump.
Farm manure.
A skunk.
A turkey sandwich left under a couch for two months.
Low tide.
A school bathroom.
Horses and cows and chickens.
The smell that signifies you need to change a diaper.
NYC subway.
The cat box.
A boys dorm room.
The lack of health care.
Car exhaust.
Lindberger cheese.

One day our opportunity to serve will come to an end; the fragrance of our love will diminish and fade. At some point it will be too late. How is God calling you, ******** United Church of Christ, to give today and to give lavishly, wastefully? How do you as a congregation define waste, extravagance? What sorts of limits have you placed on what you spend or give away or use, that define what is "reasonable," and what is "excessive"? How do you think about your giving and your gestures of love and generosity, the things that come from deepest within your hearts? God is not yet finished with you; how is the day and the moment before you in such a way that your acts of extravagant generosity can wait no longer? What does God’s love smell like in this church, in this time and place?


Men's breakfast at the diner.
Easter flowers.
Coffee hour.
Fragrant oil.
A well-cooked mission or shelter meal.
Tears and hugs.
A smoky fireplace on the women's retreat.
The radiance of a rainbow.
Fresh breeze in the sanctuary.

The fragrance of love is sweet and smelly, heady and rank, perfume and stench. It is seizing the moment to give what we have, not counting the cost. It is uninhibited, exuberant, exultant love celebrated and cherished in the here and now. It is a sacrificial, humble, extravagant gift of God that has the power to permeate our lives, resurrect us, and transform us into new beings. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Joe Jesus

This image, or one similar to it, was published in a school textbook used in northeast India to teach writing. The image was intended as an illustration meaning of the word "idol". A news article about this can be found here.

While I do not advocate glorifying cigarette smoking or drinking, this image does depict Jesus as one of those folks he hung out with--an ordinary person upon whose shoulders the foundation of our society is built.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Swell Season - "Low Rising"

I love this video--not at all how I imagined the song!

If you saw the movie "Once", then you know about this great duo, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. They won an Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song, "Falling Slowly", in the video below.

There's some backstory to these two: Glen was part of an Irish band called The Frames but they're now The Swell Season with Marketa. Mar and Glen did have a relationship but are now friends, so their new album "Strict Joy" is somewhat of the work of breaking up. There may not be another bunch of fantastic songs from these two but then what do you expect after a movie entitled "Once"? The second album (after the soundtrack) is grace, if you ask me. And brilliant grace it is.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Irish blessing

For those of you who are wearin' the green today...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wouldn't you like to be one too?

Head over to Jan's place and 'report' yourself as a social justice Christian to Glenn Beck!

Go on...!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Wired for awe

from Newsweek: March 1, 2010:

History in the Remaking:

Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt and a team of 40 Kurdish diggers have unearthed a temple complex in Turkey that predates the pyramids, about 11,500 years old.

"Schmidt's thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grain and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.

"Religion now appears so early in civilized life--earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct--that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Demanding grace

Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree, Alexey Pismenny, 2008.

Isaiah 55: 1-9; Luke 13: 1-9
******** United Church of Christ
March 7, 2010

There have been some recent deaths that have us praying our grief and shaking our heads. Earlier this week two young people of this town, brother and sister, PJ and A. were killed in a car accident after heading home after a family gathering for a baptism. And the week before, BS, G’s son and R’s brother, thirty years old, married to M., father of D. and C., died at home. A friend of my husband, JL, a fellow Habitat volunteer and a member of ****** Congregational Church, 59 years old, died recently of a heart attack, after coming home from his regular jogging routine. Every one of them, too young, we say. And the question nags at us, gnaws in our bellies, catches in the back of our throats: “Why?” And no answer will satisfy.

In the gospel lesson from Luke there are some folks, with the same urgency, wondering the same question about some fellow Galileans who were executed, whose blood Pilate mingled with the blood sacrifices in the temple. This constituted suffering because the combined blood of the dead and the blood of sacrifice were now considered unclean and worthless. It would be like taking the cremated ashes of a beloved friend and dumping them in the fireplace.

Jesus asks their question for them, even going so far as to provide an example of a recent tragic, accidental death, so he can answer their question but not with the expected response. In the time of Jesus and long before, it was thought that if one suffered, then one did something to deserve it, that there is a cause and effect order to the universe, that is, sin and punishment.

"Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are good person is like expecting a lion not to eat you because you're a vegetarian." --Howard Tullman

Jesus sounds like he is on the same track. Repent or perish. Truth or consequences. But then he goes and tells a parable that sounds as if it has a bit of grace in it. The fig tree that’s not producing any fruit gets another year to prove itself.

This is going to sound prosaic and cliché but nonetheless it still has power: what if you had only another year to turn your life in another direction, to be fruitful, what would you do? We think we have all the time in the world to do what needs to be done, to make a good life and to serve God, and so we spend our money on that which is not bread and labor many of our days in ways which do not satisfy.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, Van Gogh, 1886.

Lent is the forty days of the Christian year where we practice dying in order that we might know how to live the other 325. To fast, to refrain from excess is how we die a little every day, we deny ourselves and pick up our cross. Those of the Quaker tradition believe that it does no good to do without for forty days and then pick up right where we left off on Easter. Every day is a day to remember Christ’s birth, death and resurrection; every day is a day to live modestly and mindfully.

Each Lent I try to do without a behavior that is sinful while also taking on a behavior that connects me more deeply to life. This year I am striving to give up snarky driving: judging other drivers, making snide comments and swearing. Instead I try to remember that I’ve done my share of speeding and wrong turns for reasons that really didn’t matter as much as I thought they did. So I’m trying to smile and bless them on their way.

I’m also endeavoring to write every day in a book designed to elicit a mother’s life story for her children. I don’t like to think about my own death, but should anything happen to me, my girls and my husband will have this testament of my life. But then again, perhaps if I thought more about my death, thought about my regrets and shortcomings, how I’ve failed the people I love, then maybe I’d figure out how I want to live and live more fruitfully.

The lectionary has been leading us through the first three of twelve steps for the past few weeks; now we’ve finally come face to face with step four, taking that fearless and moral inventory of ourselves. This is exactly what repent or perish means. Those of us who have actually done a fourth step and the steps that follow it know that without the fourth step, there is no recovery, there is no changed life, and that in some way we will die if we continue living the same life. God’s grace is always there for us, but it has no power to change us if we are not willing to turn. Or think that we’re one of the ones that doesn’t have to turn.

Grace is no easy thing. Though God loves us unconditionally, God’s forgiveness is not carte blanche to get away with everything. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this ‘cheap grace’. Grace without repentance is grace without the cross, salvation without servanthood. He wrote: “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

Originally, the Way of Jesus did not focus on the crucifixion and resurrection. It was part of the “Two Ways” tradition of teaching, common to Judaism and many other faith traditions. There is the wise way and the foolish way, the path of least resistance and the road less traveled. One leads to life, the other to death.[1] But, we say, Jesus lived the wise, narrow way and walked the road least traveled and still it lead to death. But it was not a death that comes from the excesses of sin but one that comes from living a life of extravagant love.

Death will come for all of us. We are dust and to dust we shall return. There is nothing we can do to avoid it. The question is how do we want to live? The other half of repent or perish is grace and life. And an extravagant love; a love that accepts us just the way we are and loves us so much as to not leave us that way.

What are some the excesses in our lives that we can do without? What are some practices that connect us more deeply to life that we need to take on? How might we live more modestly and mindfully? In what ways do we as people of faith and citizens of this nation participate in the path that leads to death? What do you as a church need to do in the coming year in order that you might produce good fruit?

God’s grace is amazing but it is also demanding that it might be transforming that we might be saved that our lives would be changed. Thanks be to God.


1. Marcus Borg. Preface to The Lost Gospel Q. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 1996, 1999, pp. 17-18.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Powerless to save

From the base of the altar of a small chapel, called Dominus Flevit, outside Jerusalem on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. Dominus Flevit is Latin for "the Lord wept".

Psalm 27; Luke 13: 31-35
******** United Church of Christ
February 28, 2010

(I had posted this poem not long after I had written it. I use it here again because it perfectly introduced the theme of powerlessness and the rest of the sermon flows from it.)

--written for my father, a UCC pastor, who died at the age of 46.

We had settled into
our nighttime TV ritual
Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe
our favorites.
I was on the couch,
you in your well-worn recliner,
feet up to help keep
fluid out since the pneumonia.
During a commercial
you casually asked me
if I would get you
a pack of cigarettes
out of the kitchen.

I huffed, gave you
one of my looks,
well-honed in sixteen years,
the one I reserve for when
I don’t know what to say.
When I came back into the room
I hurled the heart-attack-in-a-pack
at you, thudded back
onto the couch, arms
crossed, leg over knee.
Now I know what to say.

Next time you want
a pack of cigarettes
get them yourself.

You looked at me, then
at your wife as though
I had unearthed
a hidden truth,
taken off whatever lenses
through which you didn’t see me.

You once took my
little girl rage against
your palms, raised open
like a sparring coach,
small fists slamming
implacable flesh,
the sting of your wedding ring.

If I thought it would save
what life was left
I would have thrown
dozens of them at you,
my love sealed up
in plastic-wrapped paper,
smokes that would
never hasten your grave,
inscribed with that warning
not nearly fierce enough
but just as helpless.

Most of us know what it is like to want to help someone, to save someone from themselves but we are powerless to do so. And many of us know what it is like to want to save ourselves but try as we might, we feel inadequate and out of control. As I have heard it quoted in a movie, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson, it is Jerusalem that eludes Jesus. In Luke Jesus has a special kinship with Jerusalem, which in Hebrew, depending on the transliteration, can mean “teaching of peace” or “abode of peace” or “whole and complete instruction” and in Arabic, “the Holy”. Luke’s gospel begins in Jerusalem with the priest Zechariah foretelling the birth of John the Baptist and ends in Jerusalem with the risen Christ instructing the disciples to wait for power, for the Holy Spirit. It is where Jesus is brought eight days after his birth, where he is found with the priests asking questions, where the devil brought him to the pinnacle of the temple to tempt him for the third time, where he shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time. There are 90 references to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel while the other three combined mention the city only 49 times.

Though John and the Essenes had rejected Jerusalem and the temple authorities they believed to be corrupt, Jesus could not give up the city to that fox, Herod and the empire he served. In Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem we can hear the ache, the sorrow of powerlessness in his voice: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Christ Laments Over Jerusalem, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, 1846.

But wait a minute, we say. Jesus? Powerless? He can change water into wine, feed thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, cast out demons, calm storms, heal people of their diseases and infirmities, even raise the dead! How can Jesus be powerless?

What Jesus cannot do is turn hard hearts into softer ones, compel human beings to love one another and to live in peace. The blind may see but are our eyes truly open? The deaf may hear but do we really listen? The lame may walk but in what direction are we headed? Our sins are forgiven but what have we done with that grace?

It is this reason, among others, that the vocal and prominent atheists of the 21st century decry anyone who claims to believe in God yet also declare that God is not all powerful. If God is not all powerful, these atheists claim, then God is not God. Archibald MacLeish, in his adaptation of the book of Job, wrote “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.” How can God be God while so much evil exists in the world? If God is good and loving and just, then this God is not in control.

I would bet that this notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is a leftover from the Greco-Roman empire, when the Church was joined to empire. It was Caesar and his empire that was all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere. That’s what it means to be an empire. (Hmm…surveillance cameras, wire taps, military bases in nearly every country, thousands of nuclear warheads…sound familiar?) Caesar promised peace but through victory in war. Caesar and empire are indeed powerful to save.

The God of the Hebrew tradition, from whom peace comes through justice, the tradition from which Jesus came, was the God that gave humankind free will, the ability to choose whether we will follow and love. In my opinion, God cannot be in control and love without condition at the same time. Yes, we were given commandments but that was part of the covenant, the agreement that was made between God and human beings, that we would be joined as one. That covenant has been renewed again and again because human beings have chosen to go against God and God’s will of love, peace and justice. And that is what sin is.

Jesus promised to save us from sin, but as blogger Stan Wilson writes, where did we ever get the idea that Jesus would save us from suffering? Jesus could not save Jerusalem. He didn’t heal everyone or feed everyone or solve all the world’s problems. What he did do was show us how to love and how to love well, freely, willingly, even so far as to spread his wings over us wayward chicks and dying on a cross. And it is through that love that we are saved.

The church (that means you) isn’t meant to spread its wings so far as to save everyone from disaster. The church is not a social service agency, a psychotherapeutic group, or the Red Cross, or as Karl Barth put it, an ambulance on the battlefield of life. We are powerless to save. But we aren’t powerless to love. The rest of that movie quote: “[We] can still love—we can love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand the motives or intentions or choices or actions of others. All of these may cause us pain. But by following Jesus we have chosen to give ourselves over to love—a love which may or may not save another but if we give ourselves over to it entirely, this love will save us from ourselves.

Here again we have the first three of the twelve steps: we are powerless to save ourselves or another; we acknowledge that a power, a love greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; and we surrender our lives into the care of this power, this love that our lives would be changed. Jesus himself learns this surrender in the garden the night before his execution: not his will but God’s will be done. And on the cross, even though he could not save his beloved Jerusalem, Jesus said “It is finished.” His mission to love, to forgive, and by his actions, to bring humankind to the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God—this he accomplished more than amply. But we are still coming to this awareness, each generation learning what it means to surrender to the teaching of peace, to the holy.

Where in your own life do you feel powerless? What about the life of this church confronts your sense of powerlessness? What about yourself or a loved one or this church is it that eludes you? What experiences have led you and this church to surrender to the power of God, which is love? How has your relationship with Christ and with this church saved you? How might this church be a part of bringing to others the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God?

Jerusalem of Hope, Avraham Binder, 1998.

During this Lenten season ask yourselves how might you, how might this church love completely without complete understanding and how would the teachings of Jesus help you do this. Take the first step. Trust and believe that you shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27: 13-14) Amen.


The movie quote is from A River Runs Through It (Rev. Maclean), 1992.