Ah, love, love, love, love. Anybody here ever been in love? You know what it's like. I want to read you a little bit, a famous piece of scripture this morning, to start out with. "If I could speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love. I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes, all things, endures all things. And now faith, hope, and love abide these three, and the greatest of these is love."
The Bible teaches us that love is the greatest spiritual attribute that we can achieve within ourselves. The greatest attribute that we can pursue in this world. But I saw a lot of hands go up when you all said that you had been in love. When you were in love, did it all sound like that stuff that Paul was talking about? Just the greatest thing ever? Patient and kind and oh, just smooth sailing all the way? No, absolutely not.
We all know that love is complicated and it can be extraordinarily painful at times. It could cause us to do some crazy things. It can lead to some of the worst examples of bad behavior that you have ever read about in the tabloid pages or the Hollywood gossip rags. I mean, love can really do a number on you. The Bible, as it commends love to us, it's not naive. The Bible knows that love can be difficult. That is exactly why Paul says, "Well, let me give you this long laundry list of the things that do describe love." Love is patient and kind. It is not envious. It is not boastful. Because Paul understands that love is hard and that we don't always get it right?
And so, in the resurrection of Easter, that first Easter, is a wonderful moment. Jesus pops into the disciples. They've gone out fishing and Jesus shows up on the shore. He's telling him, "Hey, fish, over there," and they get a bunch of fish. He says, "Hey, come on in." They all come in and Jesus has a fire going. They sit down and they roast their fish together and they do just the most mundane thing you could ever imagine. This is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What do they do? They have breakfast together. Isn't that a wonderful thing?
After they're done with breakfast, Jesus starts asking about love. It's a little bit confusing exactly what's going on here. He asks him three times. In the first time Jesus asks Peter, he phrases it like this, "Do you love me more than all these? Do you love me more than all these other people? Do you love me more than these disciples? Am I number one in your life? You got to love me the most. Do you love me the most? Peter says, "Yeah, I do. I love you. You know I love you. I love you that much."
How would you answer that question? I'm not sure that Jesus just is fully satisfied with Peter's answer. Are you? If He was satisfied with his answer, I think He would've just asked him one time and Jesus would've said, "Yo, I love you the most. I love you more than all these other suckers. Forget about all of them. They're nothing to me. You are everything to me. Don't even think about them. I can be done with them in a minute. I'll give up everything. I'm all for you. You, you are number one. You're my number one passion. You're the only one for me." Well, Jesus would've said, "Well, okay. That sounds pretty good." But that is kind of what Peter says. He says, "Yeah, I love you more than all of them." But Jesus keeps asking him.
There was a time where I was exploring Zen Buddhism and it was a conversation partner to me, well, with my Christian faith. I wanted to learn more about another faith tradition radically different from the Abrahamic tradition. And so, I began to learn and to practice and to meet with Zen Buddhists. One of the things that you do in Zen Buddhism is after you meditate, you might go in and speak with the spiritual master. I would go in and I would sit down. One of the first questions that the spiritual master, the monk or the nun, would ask me is they would point to a bell and they would say, "What is this?" I would say, "Oh good, I got an easy one." I would say, "It's a bell." They would say, "What is this?" I would say, "It's a bell."
They would say, "What is this?" I would say, "It's a bell." And they would say, "I think that's enough for today. Why don't you go back out and meditate tomorrow?" I had not gotten the right answer. It took many months of meditation and listening to talks and participating in the community before eventually I started answering all kinds of things. I was thinking, "Geez, it's a piece of metal that rings. And they would ask me again, "What is it?" I was just coming up with all kinds of philosophical answers and wild answers. They would ask me again and again, "What is it? What is it?"
Finally, one day they asked me, "What is it?" I picked up the little ringer and I rang the bell, and they didn't ask me the question again. Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me more than everybody?" Peter says, "Yes, I love you more than anybody." Jesus, I don't think is happy with that answer. I don't think it's the right answer. I also don't think that the answer, "No, I love everybody more than you," is the right answer. Neither one of them are good answers. Jesus is pointing us to a higher calling and Jesus doesn't want to say to Peter ... He's resurrected Jesus. He's gentle. He doesn't want to say, "No, you got it wrong, you bonehead. You constantly get it wrong." He just gently redirects him. He says, "Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep."
You got to understand poor Peter's perspective here. When the crucifixion happened, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus was arrested and tried and crucified. All during that night, Peter said, "I don't know him. I don't know him. I'm not associated with him. I'm not one of his followers. I never saw the guy before in my life." He realizes that he has betrayed Jesus. He's not there for Him. And so now, Jesus is giving him this opportunity for redemption, and Peter is not going to miss out on this opportunity. So when Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Peter says, "Yes, I love you more than anything. More than anything. You are number one. You're my everything. I love you. I love you passionately." He's ready to defend Jesus. He's ready to hold on to Jesus and never let go.
But you know, the interesting thing about Jesus is Jesus never asks us to defend him. Frankly, I don't think that Jesus needs us to defend him. Now, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Incarnate One, the Logos who was there before the beginning, through whom everything was created. Jesus doesn't need me or you to defend him to the world. The kind of love that Jesus asks us for is not to defend Him or to stand up for Him, but to imitate Him. That's what Jesus asked us for.
It's understandable that Peter gets it wrong. He thinks, "I ran away from Jesus, and at that crucial moment in His life, I didn't defend Him." But what was really wrong is that he didn't imitate him. When he denied Jesus, he wasn't showing his love. Jesus doesn't ask for defenders. He needs people who can imitate him. And so, when Peter says, "I'm going to love you more than I love anybody else," Jesus says, "Feed my sheep. Imitate me. Put the love that you have for me into action. Put it into action. That's how you love me. And that's what love is. Don't beat people up with me. Imitate me. The love that I have given to you, give it to the world and then you will be my follower."
I had a wonderful relationship with my mother, Roberta Sabella Mansfield, who died about a year and a half ago, a little bit more, but I was lucky to have a mom like her, but you know, moms, we didn't always get along. It wasn't always easy. Especially growing up in the middle years, like once I hit puberty and became even more stubborn and wanted my independence and I found my mom to be at times a little bit controlling and smothering, and she seemed to want to stop me to try doing the things that I felt it was normal for a kid to do as he was growing up and trying to figure himself out. She wanted to protect me. She wanted to keep me close.
And I think just genetically, I am an independent person, and especially at that stage in life where those hormones are kicking, and you're trying to figure out who you are as a young man, I began to really sort of resent this and it became the deeply troubled time of our relationship where I wanted to be free and she wanted to hold on as tight as she could. And I didn't try to understand it. And she didn't try to explain it. It just seemed like this was the natural dynamic in our house between mothers and sons. And it caused a lot of pain for both of us.
I was about, I think I was 20 years old, I came home for Christmas break from college and my sister was still in high school. She was home. And we were just kind of chilling in the living room. I remember we were watching TV and my mom came into the room and she said, "Kids I have something I need to tell you." And we said, yeah, like anything your mom ever tells you is worth listening to. And she said, "Well, it's really important." And we just kind of, I think we maybe turned the volume down on the TV. I don't think we turned it off all the way, but we said, go ahead.
And she said, "Well, when I was 20 years old, I became pregnant. And the father of my child took off and I was on my own. And my father was embarrassed by the fact that I was pregnant because of the values of our family, and so he sent me off to a home that was run by the Catholic church, by nuns, for young women who become pregnant. And I went into that home. And the deal in that home was, is that I would stay there and hide out the entire time that I was pregnant. And when it came time for me to give birth, my child would be taken away and given up for adoption. And I tried everything I could figure out as a young woman about how I could keep my baby, but the social workers and the nuns there, they just told me, there's no way that it can happen. You can't do this as a single mother.
And my family wasn't supporting me and the father ran away and I didn't have a job. And I just eventually realized that I had to go along with it. And so I gave birth and I held the baby, it was a boy, and I held him for a few minutes and then they came and took him away."
And as my mom told me this story and opened up this pain to me, it was like my entire life and my entire relationship with her was a giant jigsaw puzzle. Right. And in the middle of that puzzle was one missing piece. Now you could tell by looking at the rest of the puzzle, exactly what that centerpiece was going to be, right. It was a pain, it was a wound. It was something that she couldn't get away from. Something that had grabbed a hold of her and was influencing our relationship. But I just never really looked at it. I just kept glancing over it.
And now I just felt in that moment, like that middle piece was pushed into place and I understood everything. And it was like, my mom was not just this pathological crazy person who wanted to smother me to death. She was a human being who had been through struggle and pain in her life and was doing the best that she could.
And I sat there just sort of in stunned silence as time kind of slowed down as I was realizing what she was telling me. And she said, "So recently I've been thinking about this and I wanted to find my son. So I reached out to the adoption agency that handled his adoption, and I spoke with them and he actually released his information to me if I ever came looking for him. So they gave me his phone number and I called him up and I spoke with him and I met him for the first time last week. And he's coming over here to meet you in a little bit less than an hour, you should probably know that his name is Josh and by the way, you should probably know that he's black. And like I said, he'll be here in less than an hour." And then she left the room.
Wow. Suddenly my entire relationship with my mom's side of the family made more sense about why she seemed so estranged from people and why there was so much stress and strain in her relationship with her father and why she had the relationship that she had with me.
It reminds me of this moment in our gospel story, where Jesus comes forward into the room with the disciples, especially to Thomas that second time, and he shows Thomas his wounds.
Jesus is resurrected, he's alive, but the holes in his hands and his feet, the spear wound in his side, they are still there. And Thomas says, I don't know that I can really believe it's Jesus, unless I put my finger in those wounds, put my hand in the wounds." And Jesus comes and says, "Thomas, let me show you something. I'm not ashamed. I know what you need. These are my wounds. And why should I be embarrassed? In fact, I will use these wounds to heal our relationship, to bring us closer. This is not the day of my crucifixion. I have been resurrected and healing has occurred. I am ready to let you touch these wounds and have it draw us closer together."
I felt like that was what happened with my mom that day. She said, "Kids, I'm going to show you the wound that has defined almost every day of my emotional life since it happened. And I'm going to ask you to be a part of this healing with me." We live in this culture that is just so obsessed with image, right? And so much of this image is about being strong and powerful and beautiful. And everything on the social media is about how great your life is about how activated and motivated and successful you are. And we all know, we all know as we look at these social media feeds, and we know it in our own lives, it is all baloney. It's garbage, it's meaningless. And as social scientists and psychologists are actually studying the effects of social media upon us. They're telling us that it's garbage. It's not doing anything for any of us pretending to be whole. It's not as healthy as admitting to people that we are broken, that we all carry wounds.
And it is those wounds that enable us to be whole people. Not pretending that we've never been hurt, not hiding it away, not the shame and the embarrassment, the ability to show the wound. That's what Jesus is asking us to do.
Don't be afraid of the pain that you carry with you. Don't be afraid of what's been done to you, about what you've been through. Respect it, you're carrying it with you. Respect that, but don't be afraid to let it help you get closer to people. Don't be afraid to help you heal others.
When my mother finally admitted her wounds to us and broke that secret open the healing cascaded through our family. It was healing to me, it was healing to my sister, it changed the course of my relationship with my mom, it changed my mom's relationship with my dad, with our wider family. Nobody knew about this. It changed Josh's life, my brother, it changed his adopted family's life. It changed Josh's wife's life and his children's lives that they had a grandmother and that they are connected to us. It was just a cascade of resurrection healing because my mom finally said, "They told me I should be embarrassed and ashamed about this wound, but I refuse to do it anymore. I'm going to show it to everyone."
Beloved, we all carry wounds. And the question is not how to hide them, but when is the right to time to show them. Not right away, but in time when it comes, when they have healed enough that you can show them to others and to heal others and to draw yourself into intimacy with others, not by being perfect, not by being undented, but by being wounded.
When I handed out little red Easter eggs to all the kids during the children's sermon, Luke said, "Wait a minute, is there anything inside this egg?" And I said, "No, it's empty." How did that make you feel, Luke?
It's a little bit disappointing when you think that something is going to be there, and you open it up and it's empty. I've always sort of felt the same way about the Easter morning story and that empty tomb. In fact, if you gave me just a little bit of information about Christianity, and I wasn't a minister and I'd never heard the story before, and you say "Well, someone comes to Earth named Jesus. He's the Messiah. Son of God. God incarnate. He does all sorts of wonderful things, but then his people reject him and he goes on trial. It's a sham trial, and they convict him and they crucify him and he dies. But then he comes back to life." And I was going to rewrite that story.
I don't think I'd put an empty tomb in it anywhere. I think it would be something like this: Jesus is up there on the cross, and he dies, and the Roman centurion looks out at the crowd and says, "He's dead." And then Jesus's head rises up, and the sun breaks out of the clouds, and the earth begins to tremble. And the nails go shooting out of his arms and feet, and he levitates off the cross and says "I was dead. But now I am resurrected." And the angels pop out of the sky and everybody sees what Easter is really all about out.
Or maybe if you wanted to give it a little more time, you could have Jesus go in the tomb so everybody knows that he's really good and dead, but then when the women go to the tomb, instead of just finding an empty, open tomb, maybe the stone is still in front of the tomb, and when they get to it, they say, "How will we ever roll the stone away to get to his body?" And at that moment, boom, the stone explodes in a giant fireball. And as the smoke disappears, Jesus walks through the smoke and says, "I am risen." And he flies up into the sky. Well, that would really show people, wouldn't it?
I don't think if I were going to rewrite this story, that I would put an empty tomb anywhere near it, but that's what God does. God chooses an empty tomb, with all the fear and confusion and downright ambiguity that you find in there. God could have proven resurrection to the world, but instead God chooses the empty tomb, and I wonder why. Why? I think that maybe the empty tomb... More than any other scenario that we could possibly imagine, the empty tomb is the crucible where real faith, true faith, is formed.
Now it makes sense, doesn't it? It makes sense that God would choose, or prefer, faith over certainty. Of course God prefers faith over certainty, but you and me, we'd prefer a little... We'd appreciate it, just a little bit of certainty some of the time, something that we can just cling to and know, yes, this is the way it works. This is the promise. And there's not a doubt in the sky, not anywhere. But God chooses faith.
I think that there's something essentially human about faith and that's why God chooses it for us. There's something about who we are as creatures, created creatures. We need faith. There is so much that we could do as human beings when we get together, right? There's almost nothing that we can't achieve. We can send people to the moon, and to Mars, and beyond. We can come up with vaccines in just a few months that save millions and millions of lives. We can found universities and think tanks that come up with all kinds of amazing ideas. We have the Hubble telescope, and now the James Webb telescope, peering to the very beginning of creation. What is there that we can't achieve? If there is a limit to what we, as human beings can know or can accomplish, we haven't come anywhere close to that limit yet.
But you and me, as individual people, as individual beings in our own little slices of experience, we don't know it all. We don't always know which way to go when it comes to our lives, the purpose of our lives, the meaning of our lives, what we're doing, the relationships that we're in, are we supposed to go left or right, should I go forward or back? What's the right thing to do? What's the thing that's going to make me happy? What's the thing that's going to save my marriage? What's the thing that's going to make my name? We don't know all the answers. We never know all the answers. And somehow we have to get through that.
Without the opportunity to act and to work on faith, and to hope beyond hope, and to persevere, we cease to be psychologically and spiritually healthy human beings. We need faith, in some ways more than we need certainty. We cease to be human without it. We've all met someone who knows everything. My wife, Bonnie, can attest to that. She's definitely met somebody who thinks he knows everything. But we've all met somebody who thinks that they know everything. And in fact, as we've all been glued to the news cycle lately, we've been hearing all of these analysts and policy experts talking about Putin, about how he is a person who has surrounded himself only with certainty. And if you're going to succeed in his circle and in his service, you can only affirm his worldview and you have to hide all of the bad news from him so that this war in Ukraine is really a war about Putin's false sense of certainty, the certainty that he has amassed around himself without any doubt.
But the people of Ukraine, are they living by certainty right now, or for the last six or seven weeks? Have they been sure that they were going to be victorious? Have they been absolutely sure that they were going to survive? No, the people of Ukraine are fighting and surviving, if they are fighting and surviving, by faith alone. We've all met somebody who thinks that they know and everything. And we've all seen people who a long time ago should have laid down and just given up. And yet they continue to stand up and fight, despite the odds, despite the circumstances, and despite the evidence stacked against them.
Now God forbid that you and I should ever be without a little bit of that kind of faith. We need it. And we need the doubt, don't we? We need the doubt that by definition must come alongside that kind of faith. Doubt is the waiting room of faith, just like the empty tomb is the entryway into Easter. God chooses as the very first experience of the Easter faith, not proof and not certainty, not some public televised event, but an empty tomb, and all the fear, and all the doubt, and all the loss and confusion and disbelief and idle talk. And the possibility in the empty tomb, the possibility of something so new, and so amazing, something so wonderful that it cannot be contained by certainty. It can only be pointed to by faith.
You cannot be a psychologically and spiritually healthy human being if you only believe in and work for the sure thing, because not everything in life is the sure thing, and if you convince yourself that it is, you're going to head down the wrong path. For the biggest questions in life, for the greatest challenges of life, we must learn how to let the possibility of hope glimmer to us, shine out, sparkle, just a little bit, amidst the loss and the chaos of this world. We must let the empty tomb speak to us. We have to know how to sit inside the empty tomb. It's not an accident. It's not just bad timing that Jesus slipped away before the women arrived at that tomb. We need the empty tomb.
Life is not a journey from one certainty, to another certainty, to another certainty, to another certainty, is it? Life is a series of complicated and often painful transitions, even when it's a transition into good news. Progress in our lives requires that we don't run away from transition. Faith, not certainty, is what gives us the strength to persevere through transition. Beloved, Christ is risen, and isn't the sight of him standing there amongst us again, alive and well, a little worse for the wear, but beautiful and resurrected, just a wonderful sight? It is. Hallelujah. Yes. But do not forget the empty tomb. Don't skip early Easter morning. The empty tomb is where a faith stronger than certainty is born again and again and again.
I've been to a lot of parades in my life. I'm sure you all have too, but I think the moment that I realized just how powerful a parade could be was when I led a march of about 100 people through Midtown Manhattan to protest the working conditions inside of one of celebrity chef Mario Batali's restaurants in the Meatpacking District.
Well, you have to know a little backstory is that I wasn't always a minister in a church. There was a time where I was a minister out on the streets. And I was a laborer organizer. I worked for a worker's center called the Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York. And we were organizing workers in one of Mario Batali's restaurants called Del Posto. And if you know anything about Mario Batali, you know he's had a tremendous fall from grace in the intervening years since the Me Too movement came along. But at the time we had heard all kinds of stories from the workers inside the restaurant about racial discrimination on the job, wage theft, the stealing of tips and sexual harassment on the job. And the workers were beginning to get organized so that they could fight the conditions at their workplace. And part of that was that I, as the organizer, was leading this grand march of about 100 people from Midtown Manhattan. And all of them, because of my religious connection, were church connected people. So it was churchy people and seminary people and we were going to support the workers.
And we were marching sort of two by two through Midtown Manhattan and everybody was kind of clapping and chanting and they were singing songs. And as people were watching us march through the Meatpacking district, they started, they were turning their heads, like, "What are you guys doing? Where are you going?" And this is a true story, I did not expect this to happen, but people joined the parade. They joined the march. They came with us.
When we got to Del Posto, we started with like 100 people. Now we had, I don't know, 125 or more people. And we were spread out in front of the restaurant and we had signs and people were singing and chanting and making all kinds of noise and diners were walking up to the restaurant and asking us what's going on. And we were telling them about why we were there and they were leaving or they were going inside and they were complaining to the managers and the managers were coming out. They came out with money. They said, "I'll pay you to go away. Just go away. This isn't the right night." It was like a Friday night.
And it just became this scene out there of people just chanting and singing and expressing what they felt in their hearts for what was going on for the workers inside. And there were a few workers who were out there with us who weren't on the job that night. And you could just kind of see it in their faces, this sense of pride and power that, "Yes, we are going to overcome. We are going to make a difference." And as I watched this scene, I just realized, my God, how powerful a parade can really be in the life of a movement or in the life of an individual person.
I was kind of high off that all weekend and just feeling really great about what we had accomplished. And I knew it had just made a big impact at the restaurant, that they were going to have a conversation with us about this. This was an attempt to get them to the table. And I walked into the office, I think it was Monday. And there was some paperwork that was waiting there for me at the office. And I opened it up and it was from Mario Batali's lawyers and it said, "We are suing you for $6 million for inciting a riot, destruction of property, intimidation of employees, slander, libel, and defamation. And in that moment, I realized even more just how powerful a parade could be, but I also realized how risky a parade can feel. Because when I looked at that number and it said, "Jeffrey Mansfield, $6 million," and the blood kind of drained out of my face and I realized the commitment that I had made for myself for what I believed in.
And you can feel that tension between power and risk in the Palm Sunday story that we just read. Jesus and His disciples, they're kind of on the down low to begin with. They're up on the top of the Mount of Olives. They're not making a big deal about this thing. They know that they're going to have a procession into the city, but they haven't even gotten a horse yet. So they send some of the disciples off to find a donkey, which is kind of Jesus' sly way of making of the sort of snubbing his nose at kings. He's not going to be a horse riding conqueror. He's going to be a donkey riding servant. And He says, and the disciples say, "Well, what if we're taking somebody's donkey? And they ask us what to do with it."
He says, "Just give them the secret password. The Lord has need of it and they'll let you take it." And they go and they find this donkey and they bring it in. And Jesus starts riding this little donkey into the city. And the people begin to come out and they begin to shout and they begin to sing and they begin to demonstrate and lay down their cloaks and lay down the palm branches. And the crowd is growing and surging and the Pharisees run up to Jesus with their hearts in their throats.
It's not that they don't believe it's just that they're terrified. And they say, "Jesus, tell them to be quiet. Don't you know the risk that you're running?" And the risks were very real. This was exactly the kind of thing that the Romans loved to crucify people for. I mean, this was insurrection. This was a Messiah riding into one of their cities to say, "I am the true king of these people." That's exactly the kind of thing that got you crucified by the Romans and they had all sorts of experience with this kind of thing happening. This was Passover and Pontius Pilate came into the city with the Roman garrisons for Passover to keep the peace.
Well, keeping the peace didn't mean anything except making sure that these insurrectionists didn't get any ideas and try to rabble rouse during Passover when everybody's blood is up. "We don't want anybody saying anything that would undermine our authority here." And they knew that this could be the kind of thing where a Roman garrison could come into this parade and just lay everybody down, cut them down, kill them all. So they say to Jesus, "Jesus, be careful, make them be quiet. Don't you know the risk that you're running?"
And Jesus said, "If they were silent, then the very stones would shout. If they were silent, the very stones would shout." That's an incredible response to a very real risk. I want you to think about that. I want you to think about how you think about risk and putting yourself out there in a public way and taking risks, real risks, with your position with, with your family, with your life, with your reputation. Because there are times that we are called to really put it on the line, to put it on the line for our faith, to put it on the line for God or for our neighbor. We're called to stand up and step out and say, "No. Enough is enough." Or to step out for something that we truly believe in and to hold our head up high for the rights of others, for their humanity.
And sometimes there's a real risk with that. There's a real risk to going out and marching on the streets. I've gone out and marched on the streets and I've been arrested. I've known people who have gone out and marched on the streets and they came home with a concussion. There are people in other parts of the world who have gone out to march on the streets, it's even happened in this country, and they've died. They've been killed. And how does Jesus respond to the risk? Jesus simply says, "If they were silent, the stones would shout."
Have you ever felt that way in your life? That God was calling you to take a risk? And the only thing that you were leaving out of that calculation was the power of the truth of the message that had been given to you. Jesus is saying the most important variable, the most important factor, when you calculate that risk, is the truth. Because sometimes the truth has to come out and if it doesn't come out of you, what's going to happen? The very stones themselves are going to shout.
I wonder what that sounds like when the stones begin to shout? What would that sound like in your life? Jesus, when we think about Palm Sunday, we think that Palm Sunday is all about Jesus' divinity. He is marching into the city a kingly God, and all of the people are recognizing Him. It's, Jesus' sort of most heroic movement, moment, in all of the gospels where he really looks like a traditional hero, somebody riding high and being recognized by everyone and the whole city coming out to support Him.
But it's not just about Jesus' divinity. There is something that Jesus is doing here that is so unique to His humanity. And you're have to remember that Jesus is fully God, but Jesus is also fully human. And I don't think that Palm Sunday is just about the God part. It is also about Jesus' human part. And this is something that is unique to us as human beings. As human beings each and every one of us has something within us. It's inside of you. It's a truth. It's a power. It's an identity. It's a calling of vocation. There is something inside of you, by definition of you being a human being, that you are being called to bring out and show to the world and give to the world. It is a gift, a power, a meaning, a reason for being. Each and every one of you has that inside of you.
And in fact, if you're a human being, as you travel through the journey of your life, you discover things about your identity, about who you are, about what it is that's inside of you that you're being called to do. And in one moment, it may be this, and three decades from now it may be that. But because you are human, it is inside of you and you are expected to bring it out.
How do you bring it out? How do you get it out when it's hard, when it's risky, when you don't know the way? Jesus says you get on your donkey and you just keep riding forward. You just keep riding forward. Palm Sunday isn't about being the Messiah, the King, the Son of God. It is a demonstration to all of us of this fundamentally human condition. Each of us has something within us that must come out all the time. In every stage of our life, there is something that we are meant to give. And if we don't give it what will happen in our lives? The sound of the stones shouting will follow us everywhere. We will feel it, that there is something in us that is trying to be born and we are not giving it an exit. We are not giving it an opportunity.
And the reason that Palm Sunday is so powerful and so beautiful is because it is Jesus accepting who He is, His deepest identity and purpose on display for the whole world and all the risks be damned. He is who He is. He is called to do what He does. And nothing is going to stand in the way.
It's easy for us to think about the perspective of the people on the streets following Jesus. We can put ourselves in their mindset, waving their palms, and bowing down to Jesus and giving Jesus worship and honor. We can get into the perspective of the Pharisees, the doubters, who say, "Shut up, be quiet. It's too risky. Don't do it." We've all heard that voice in our heads. We can even get into the perspective of that donkey, walking along with Jesus on his back, looking at this crowd and trying to imagine what is going on here?
But very rarely do we put ourselves in the perspective of Jesus, the one that we are called to follow, who was bringing His identity out of Him in demonstration to all of us that we have a gift and an identity that needs to be brought out at all costs. And the question for us is how do we throw ourselves a parade? How do we experience that power despite the risks in our lives? And that's what I hope that you can go out into Holy Week and the Easter season with that question on your hearts. This gift that I have been given, and you know that you've been given one, this identity that I am being called to birth, this truth that I must speak. How do I throw it a parade despite all the risks?
Can you imagine this scene with me for a minute, just let it really run through your imagination, and let go of all your preconceived notions that if it's printed in the Bible it must be a scene of piety. Because when I hear about this scene, I do not see in my mind a traditional scene of piety, and I don't think that people living in Jesus' time or the people sitting in that room, would've thought, "Yeah, this is the kind of thing we do all the time." Sure. There were two sisters living in that house, one was named Martha and one was named Mary.
Martha was doing exactly what a woman of her day and age was expected to do. She was serving and she was a marvel servant, and we respect that. As church goers, as people who want to make a difference, as Christians, we admire those who know how to serve. Didn't Jesus come to serve? And didn't he call himself a servant? And so, there is Martha serving and doing exactly what she's supposed to do. And then her sister Mary, steps out from beside her, leaves the serving plates and all that work, and she does something very unexpected.
She walks into a room full of men, a sort of a public place, a place where she is not supposed to be necessarily moving freely, and she takes down her hair. That's the first thing. She takes down her hair. We have a phrase now, "Letting your hair down" while it comes from the times when wearing your hair up and braided was the only way you were allowed to wear it and taking your hair down was not the way that you were supposed to be seen in public, especially if you were a woman. In fact, if you were to go out onto the street, the women on the street who wore their hair down in public, they would've been identifying themselves as prostitutes. It was a strange thing to take your hair down in public, an intimate thing, an awkward thing. And she walks in with a pound of perfume.
Have you ever been on a plane or something or you're on a train or you go out to a restaurant and there's somebody sitting nearby you who is just wearing like a touch too much perfume or cologne? You've been in that situation, you've smelled it, right? And you thought, "Man, you just went, a little dab'll do ya." That's the rule, a little dab'll do ya and you did maybe three dabs and it's just a little bit too much. And here comes Mary, into, what I assume is, a small enclosed place where people are trying to eat, with a pound of perfume. One pound. Can you imagine that? How extravagant that is? How ridiculous that is? It's absurd. It's almost obscene and it costs $300, 300 denarii to have this much perfume in her possession. And if you look into it, 300 denarii, that was about a year's salary for an average worker at that time.
A year's salary on a pound of perfume, with her hair down. And from there, it just gets a little more awkward because she gets down on the ground, where Jesus' feet are. His dirty, disgusting feet. This man walked around all over Palestine, and Israel, and Jerusalem, and Galilee, in sandals and bare feet. Can you imagine how dirty this man's feet were? How calloused? How rough? And she gets down there in the dirt, with his smirky, dirty feet. How many of you would be comfortable taking your feet out in public? Just putting them up here, maybe plopping them right up on the pews, taking your shoes and your socks off, and just let somebody just start massaging them.
How many of you would feel comfortable if Dorothy did it, and you all just had to sit there and watch? It's weird. It's over the top. It's wild and extravagant. And down there on the ground, rubbing that pound of perfume into his feet, the fragrance filling the whole room, she takes that hair which was supposed to be up and she starts to rub her hair on his feet. And we have now crossed the boundary from awkward into, wow, that's not piety, that's intimacy, that is something special, that is something that I have to turn my head away a little bit, because it's so intense. And then Judas asks, a question that I think that all of us would ask.
The author of the gospel of John, really tries to make us doubt that Judas, that this question is one that we should even think about, before the question starts he says, "It's Judas, remember the guy who's about to betray Jesus. Remember, don't forget that. So don't listen to this question too carefully." And then after the question comes, the author reminds us, "And remember Judas doesn't care about poor people, he's just a thief. He wanted the money for himself. So she must, he wanted that money to go into his purse so he could steal it." But the question is a perfectly practical question. "My God, this is too much. I mean, we're all thinking it, this is too much a year's salary. This big show, all of this perfume. What is the point? Tell me. What is the point when we could have taken that money and we could have done what we know we're supposed to do with it, which is to give it to the poor." Jesus has been telling us to do that all along. And don't we want to ask that question?
We who do so much to raise money at antique sales, and rummage sales, and with our mission and justice work, raising money and giving it to where it really needs to go, when we have our kids drop their coins and their dollar bills into a giant bottle to go to Ukraine, how could this be acceptable? Is this what Christian service is? Why does Jesus not just accept this extravagance, but almost seem to prefer it? He defends her. He says, "Yes, this is okay." I think, the answer has to be, that this is more than an act of service, that it is an act of love. And sometimes, and I think, all the time when Jesus is talking about love and the gospel. Love has to break the rules. Love sometimes has to go a little bit too far. Love has to show itself so big that it grabs our attention, because at that time, and in our world today, we live in a world where there is so much that is shocking, and obscene, and heartbreaking, and raw that grabs our attention, and breaks our hearts.
How do we respond? Is it just by sending a check over to the tragedy? Or do we need to create a world, a vision, an opportunity for the opposite, to express love and as big a way as tragedy expresses itself? I think that's what Mary was doing. She knew that Jesus was going to the cross, Jesus knew it, that tragedy, that every holy week, seizes our entire imagination. And she said, "I'm going to produce something beautiful, that can stand in front of that cross and hold its head high. I am going to love, and I am going to do it so extravagantly, so beautifully that it is going to shock you. It is going to draw your attention. You're going to want to look away, but you're not going to be able to, you're going to be stuck there, looking at that expression of love, extravagant love, not practical love."
In our lives, in the work that we do, in your passions, in your ministry, are you doing the practical thing all the time? The practical thing is the right thing to do most of the time. But we have to remember that there have to be moments of extravagance, of wildness, where magic fills the air, where we grab people's attention, we shock them, maybe beloved, we even offend them a little bit with this good news that we have. Because the good news that we have is a good news that flips the entire world on its head. And so there should be moments, when we express that good news, that it flips people's expectations out and they say, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don't know, should that be happening? I don't know about that. It seems like too much. It seems too big. It seems too wild. Settle down, settle down. What's the point?" And then we can tell them what the point is. The point is love.
This is how we're supposed to love. Like Mary loves. As a church, I think that we are a well respected institution. We do things the right way. There is nothing in this church, and there are many wonderful things about this church, and there is nothing amongst those many wonderful things that I think would cause anybody any offense, wouldn't shock them. I don't even think it would surprise them very much. We are a place where you can expect good things. I wonder if we could add to that one little bit here and there of wild extravagance, where we grab people's attention with the force, and the power, and the expression of our love. I wonder if you can do that in your life.
Don't just send the check out. Love. We are called to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And if that just looks like practical ministry, just doing the best little bit that you can. There is nothing wrong with that, but there should be always something a little more, that big, powerful, bold expression of God's love. That's how God came to us, in the flesh, in Jesus, on the cross. How do we express that good news? How do we show that extravagance?
Let us pray. Holy God, thank you for all of the practical ways that you have given us to serve. Fill us with your spirit and help our love to shine out to this world in a way that will fill it with a fragrance of love and joy so powerful, that no one will be able to look away. Amen.
I have some questions for God. And, oh boy, I just saw about 50 people go like this in unison. I have some questions for God. I was at my office hours on Wednesday at Cafe Agora and Janet Dobbs was there. And she was telling me about a relative of hers. Someone who had suffered just so much loss in their life, had seen so much suffering from the people they loved, and had lost so many. And when somebody asked this relative about their faith, Janet remembered they had one sentence. I have some questions for God. And don't we all have some questions for God.
The images and the news coming from Ukraine have shaken us, many of us, right down to the very core. What we have seen. What we have heard. How can God let that happen to people? How can a maternity ward be shelled? And how can pregnant woman, so, so pregnant be taken. And we look at that image and we see God, are you seeing what we see? And to hear that she lost that baby. And to hear that after she lost that baby, she said to the doctors, let me die. And to hear that she died. Oh, I have some questions for God.
I think Linda Woodbury summed it up very well in the E-news this week. She was writing about our response to Ukraine and then came this line. Our faith is challenged by these events. And isn't that true? And what kind of a faith would we have? What kind of hearts would we have if we were not challenged by events like this in our world, by news like this, by images like this? We've always been asking God this question. I mean, always. This is the great historical question that people yell up to God. Why? What is wrong with you? Why is this world the way that it is? Why didn't you step in? And we keep on asking it.
And none of the answers that we receive are very satisfactory, are they? We hear well, God wants to give us freedom. And so freedom means a lot of terrible things. And we say, well, what about an earthquake? We didn't do anything to cause an earthquake. And what about that maternity ward in Ukraine? God couldn't have just blown up that one shell about 30 seconds earlier. So it blew up in the sky instead of landing in the middle of that hospital. That wouldn't have stopped anybody from being free from shooting it. God would've just stepped in and taken care of it so that no one was hurt. If God is all powerful and God is all good. How could God not do that? I'm not all good. I'm lousy a lot of the time. I'm certainly not all powerful. But I could tell you if I could have stopped that shell from hitting that hospital, I would've done it. Wouldn't you have done it. Wouldn't you have stopped it from hitting that hospital. Then why didn't God?
This is an age old question. And we're not satisfied by the answers because we keep asking the question?
The Galileans in Jesus' day, they were also asking this question. They asked it of Jesus in our scripture reading this morning. They were asking him about those Galileans, whose blood Pilot mingled in their sacrifices. We're not entirely sure about the historical event here, but from the context and from the history, we can imagine what happened. There were a group of some number of Galileans who were down in Jerusalem to offer religious sacrifices. They were basically in church at prayer. And we've seen this happen in our modern world, somebody came into the place of worship. In this case, it was the state, the Roman Empire, Pilot. And while they were at sacrifice, while they were kneeling down in prayer, he slaughtered them and their blood ran into the blood of their sacrifices. And everyone wanted to know how can God let something like that be done to people at prayer. And what is Jesus' response? It's very interesting response. Repent. Or you will perish the like they did. I don't know about that answer. Is that satisfying to you? Let's try and think about that answer a little bit.
One of the things that Jesus says here, before he tells us all to repent, is he asks them. He says, do you think that they were somehow worse than everybody else? And that's why this happened to them. This was a big worldview in ancient times. That people to whom terrible things had happened, the way you could explain it is those people must have done something to deserve it. Blame the victim. Now I wish I could tell you all that we had evolved out of blame the victim, but if you look at any shooting of an unarmed black man in recent history, we all know that we continue to do this. Well maybe if he had just spoken more respectfully or maybe if he had just gotten in the car like they were asking to do. Maybe if just this, maybe if just that. Maybe if just this, maybe if just that. Maybe. We still blame the victim and Jesus is telling them don't blame the victim. They weren't any worse than you. They didn't do anything more to deserve it. Stop it. That's interesting.
Jesus is turning this back on us a little bit, as we try to turn it towards God. Now we continue to do this, even in more subtle ways. I had a friend recently who lost her sister to COVID-19 And she posted on Facebook about her sister's death, announcing her sister's death and just letting everybody know she died because of COVID. And she had to take the post down. And I bet you can imagine why. I bet you can imagine what that Facebook post became obsessed with. People asking one particular question. Can you imagine what that question was? Was she vaccinated? So sorry to hear this? Oh my gosh, was she vaccinated? Was she vaccinated? And what's it matter? She has died. Why do we need to know at this point, whether she was vaccinated or not. I'll tell you why we want to know, because we want to believe that she did something or didn't do something that got her killed, and that God doesn't let people who do all the right things die of COVID-19. Right?
When we hear about a family who loses somebody unexpectedly, maybe they're a little bit young and they don't say what happened. We all want to know why. Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened? Now in part that's because we're loving and faithful. But in part it is because we want some sort of information that we can latch onto and say, oh, that's why they died. They were addicted. He died of liver failure. Well, how did that happen? We want to know that he was an alcoholic. So then we can say, But I'm not an alcoholic. And therefore tragedy like this, God won't let it happen to me. God won't let that happen to me. It was a tragic car accident. Was he drinking? Yes, he was drinking. Oh, then I know why God let that happen to him. And I know why God won't let it happen to me. And what does Jesus say? Stop it. Stop it. You're not any different. You're not any different from them.
Jesus is asking us to stop blaming people for their suffering, and to stop imagining that we are somehow special or chosen or doing all the right things that we can escape that suffering. We even see this when tragedy strikes and it's a near miss. When the tower falls and there's a hundred people in the tower and one comes out alive. And we all rush to that person after they've been dug out out of the rubble, and we ask them, how did you survive? How did you survive? What does the faithful person say? God saved me. What about the 99? There's an implication there, when we say God saved me. About all the people whose prayer wasn't answered in the same way. It's a way of separating ourselves.
And it's a way of saying that God's salvation, which we should all be talking about and which we should all be thankful for applies to the one who is blessed and healthy, more than it applies to the one who's had a bomb dropped on their maternity hospital. And that's not true. Jesus says, stop looking to God For the answer of why things are bad and turn to yourselves. Repent. Don't separate your selves from that suffering. Don't try to put a wall between you and the people who are getting hurt. And the people who are having towers dropped on them, and the people who are being oppressed, and the people who are being slaughtered at prayer. There is no difference between you and you need to repent to remove that wall. All to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in that pain.
One of the problems here is that we don't understand the word repent anymore. Repent for us is synonymous with feeling really lousy about just how absolutely lousy we are. And there's a reason for that. In the ancient world, I've preached to you about this before, language was different. It was a little bit simpler. There wasn't a big division between the idea of regret and repentance in ancient languages. But in the Greek, when Jesus says repent, the word is metanoia. And that literally means, not feel bad, but change your mind. Change your mind not in some superficial way, but change your mind fundamentally. Change the way you think. Change the way you operate in this world. Change the way you think about that person on the other side of suffering. Change the way you think about yourself when you have escaped suffering. Bring yourselves closer together, turn yourself around, come closer together. Repent.
In the Hebrew, which Jesus would've understood, the word for repent, it means to feel sorry. It means to repent. And it also means to offer comfort to someone. There's no difference here. When Jesus says, repent. He's not saying feel bad because you're lousy. He's saying stop the separation. Don't let that come between you. There is a wall, tear it down, come to them, comfort them. Be with them. In faith, we want to turn the blame on God. And let me be very clear with you. I have some questions for God. I am not saying you're wrong to have questions for God. And one day I'm going to stand before God and I am going to let God know that I have questions, that this isn't easy for me. Just like it's not easy for you.
But here's what I think Jesus is saying to us when Jesus comes to us. Jesus is saying, and it's hard for me to say this, because when you're mourning and when you're hurting and when you're suffering, this is very difficult news to hear. And it should never be separated from the fact that God loves you. That God is with you. That your church is with you. That your church is responding to you. And that the world should be responding to your suffering and your pain, and that we are with you. But what Jesus is saying to us is that your desire to live in a world where God fixes everything, and everything is just nice and hunky dory all the time is infantile. Grow up, Repent.
You see somebody suffering and you turn to God and you say, why isn't the world perfect? It's literally psychologically infantile. And Jesus came to us to say, I do not need spiritual infants. I need spiritually mature people to respond to the suffering in the world. Yes, you have questions. Don't get stuck there. Get back into that world, respond to those people. And remember that you are no different, no more blessed than them. You are your brothers, your sisters, your siblings, you are with them. Repent.
And then Jesus tells us a parable, and parables are wonderful things. And I hope as we close here that you keep this parable in mind this week.
There is a landowner who has a fig tree that he is not happy with. There's no fruit on it. And there is a gardener who says, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, don't cut it down. Let me do some more work. Give me a little more time. Let me dig around the roots. Let me pour the manure down there. And then there's this tree. And I'm not going to tell you that God is the landowner, and Jesus is the gardener, and you're the tree. That is for you to struggle with and to figure out. Are you the gardener? Are you the landowner? In what ways are you the tree? What is your manure? That's for you to work out. But I am going to talk to you about one way of thinking about this parable.
Jesus is asking us to find our fruit. In the face of tragedy, Jesus wants us to produce that fruit. And yes, it's hard. And yes, we have questions. But God Has given us a little more time, a little bit of amazing grace. A little more time to tear down that wall, to turn ourselves around, to be no different than the people who suffer.
So, Jesus was baptized. The Holy Spirit drives Him out into the wilderness and He doesn't eat or drink for 40 days and 40 nights and the devil shows up to tempt Him. After 40 days and 40 nights of not eating, the devil says, "Hey, look, why don't you turn some of these stones to bread?" Jesus refuses and so, the first big question here in this piece of scripture for us has to be, why? Why is this a temptation? Is there something wrong with bread?
Well, we know that there's not. In a few minutes, later in the service, we'll be praying the prayer that Jesus taught us. What was the prayer that Jesus taught us? Give us this day our daily bread. After that, we're going to be partaking in the sacrament, the meal that Jesus left for us, and 50% of that meal is bread. There's nothing wrong with bread, so why is this a temptation? Why is it a temptation? Jesus says, "One does not live by bread alone." What does that mean? What does that mean to you? One does not live by bread alone.
Some years back, a married couple came to me for some couple's counseling and they'd basically burned themselves out under the pursuit of the great American dream. They had burned themselves out chasing after the big, important positions at work and going after the promotions and the raises. Just the rat race of climbing that ladder and having a really nice home and stretching themselves maybe a little bit more than they could. Getting the private school for the kids and the boarding school for the kids and just working so hard each and every day to keep up.
I said, "Well, maybe that's the problem," and they said, "No, no, it's a problem in our relationship." I said, "Well, maybe it's a problem with what you're doing in your relationship." They said, "I don't think so, this is what everybody we know is doing." I thought that was very insightful. I thought, "Yeah, they're right. This is what we're all doing." We're all running after the material.
So, I decided to break out the social science. I said, "The social science is very clear about this. The more that people test as materialistic, pursuing those material goals and the less they test in the gratitude spectrum of things, the more likely they are to be depressed. The more likely they are to report anxiety. The more likely they to report lower life satisfaction. The less likely they are to have meaningful friendships and relationships. The less likely they are to be involved in community." I said, "The social science is just telling us the spiritual science that Jesus gave us 2,000 years ago, one does not live by bread alone. When you put bread in front of everything else, things can fall apart."
They said, "But we believe. We're here talking to you and not to a therapist because we believe in Jesus." I said, "You believe in Jesus and I know you do, but is your behavior in line with your belief? Are you layering that belief on top of the American dream? Or are you putting the American dream, the pursuit of that material wealth, keeping up and being on top before God?"
I think that what this couple was facing and what Jesus was telling us when He said, "One does not live by bread alone," is the first temptation that we all face in this culture. It is the temptation to feel material value is the most important thing in our lives, the most important thing to pursue. There is a tendency to get a little bit of a narrow focus rather than a broader focus. To just focus in on what I have, what I need, that treadmill of consumption and going for more and more and more rather than broadening our view and saying, "Yeah, I need a little bit of all that, but what does it mean? What is the value of my life outside of the things and the power that I have collected to myself?"
Right now, all of us are very concerned with two things in the news. The war in Ukraine is at the forefront of our minds and just behind that, we're all thinking about inflation. Man, it's been something to see how messing around with the value of the dollar can bring everybody together. Left, right, conservative, liberal, whoever you are, we all agree, we don't like inflation.
Imagine if we could respond with the same energy that we're responding to the devaluation of our dollar, to the devaluation of our ideals and our values. Imagine if we were able to respond and get behind in the same way the devaluation of our dollar, if we could get behind the devaluation of our democracy, of decency in our country, of proper political discourse, isn't that being devalued? Imagine if we could have the same energy for the devaluation of our environment, the continued devaluation of black lives.
I'm not saying that the dollar doesn't matter, the dollar matters. I mean, people, this has real impact on people's lives, but Jesus said, "One does not live by bread alone." Aren't there other things that we value? I think that Jesus probably worries a little bit about a culture that can only agree on the value of the material and doesn't even know how to talk anymore about the value of the things that go beyond the material, the value of the things that really matter to a people, to a democracy, to a faith.
I think what Jesus is telling us when He says, "One does not live by bread alone," is that, if we have all the bread that we could possibly ever need, our needs are satisfied, that is the time that we need to stop working for bread. If we have all the bread that we could possibly need and something else doesn't happen, if there is still some other missing ingredient, then we are not truly alive. One does not live by bread alone.
If you have all the bread you need, and if you have more bread than you need, but you do not have something else, you are not alive. And so, the question of Lent, is not a question of making yourself miserable. The question of Lent is the core vital question of your life, are you truly alive? Are you truly alive? Where does the value of that life lead? Where is it? Lent isn't about making yourself miserable. It's about re-centering ourselves, re-centering ourselves in God, coming truly alive.
If I have all the bread I need, it's time for me to stop working for bread, and it's time for me to start working for something else. For the deepest hungers, not of my body, but the deepest hungers of my mind and my spirit. The deepest hungers and needs of my community. Once I have enough to support myself and I have a little bit of extra energy for something else, that energy does not go into bread, I start working for God.
That's why Jesus is out in the desert, to work for God. He's just been baptized. He is beginning His ministry. He's got to get His head on straight. He goes out to start His work for God. Lent is a season where we follow Jesus's example. We put down our bread and we align ourselves, we align our spirit, we align our hunger, all of our consent, all of our love to God. We don't just layer it on top. We allow God to take the proper position.
Bread is important, but God rules the material world. I have to work for my bread, but bread does not rule me, God rules me. That's what it means to be human from the Christian perspective. I am not ruled by the material world. I do not serve the material world. I serve God. 100% of the consent of my soul goes to my savior.
So, I want you to imagine that you're in a desert and you're surrounded by stones all of which could easily become bread through your work. You have just enough bread to live and be comfortable and be safe. What will you do with your energy? What will you do with your time? Will you spend it turning stones to bread or will you choose something else? How will you respond? How will our church respond stones to bread or something more? One does not live by bread alone.
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
When I moved to Glen Ridge, I had this, all of a sudden coming from Brooklyn, enormous backyard. And I thought, oh man, I am going to just go to my roots like my grandfather before me and I am going to grow tomatoes. I'm going to grow so many tomatoes. And I wasn't going to just plant them in the ground of course. I built a garden bed and I filled it up with only the finest soil. And I got this organic cow manure. Can you imagine that I spent the extra money on making sure that the cow manure was organic? And I filled the bed entirely with this stuff. And I got these beautiful plants and I built these giant cages around them. And I put that bed ... I mean, I calculated the angle of the sun and I wanted to make sure it was going to get lots of sun, but not get too much sun.
And I had the hose going out there so that I could water them every day. And those little plants shot up like weeds. You wouldn't believe it. They grew and they grew and they grew. They surpassed the cages. They were towering above me. And I was just imagining tomatoes the size of grapefruits that I was going, my family was going to be dining on, because nobody knew how to grow tomato plants like I did. And summer just kept progressing and there was nothing on these plants and everybody else had tomatoes that they were trying to give away, they're bringing by the house, "We have so many." And I didn't have nothing. So I asked a gardening expert friend of mine. I said, "Look, I did everything right. How dare these plants not produce any fruit?"
And my gardening expert friend said, "Yeah, that's exactly the problem. You did everything right. You treated them too good. You gave them too many nutrients. You gave them too much water. You gave them just the right amount of sun. I mean, there is no reason for this plant to worry about reproducing, about creating fruit. It just feels like this heyday is going to go on forever and ever and ever. And it just wants to grow bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn't think that summer is ever going to end, because you've made things too perfect. You need to make it less perfect."
And he said, "You've got to stop watering it so much. You've got to cut back. You got to prune these things away. You got to pull these things off. You got to cut back on all this. You got to put some sand on there." And we got a few tomatoes at the very end of the season because I stopped treating them so well and I made them struggle a little bit. And then the squirrels ate all my tomatoes and I didn't get a single one. But that was Glen Ridge at the time. A lot of squirrels that year.
That's an interesting thought for Lent, this idea that we're not going to produce any fruit if we don't have to struggle a little bit, at least. I mean, why do we have to have Lent? Why do we have to come back to it year after year after year? Why do we have to look into the face of sinfulness? And why do we have to look into the ashes and to be told from dust you came and to dust you shall return? Why do we have to go all the way to Holy Week and to the Cross? Why do we have to take that Cross up? Why do we have to deny ourselves? Why? Wouldn't it be better if life was just a heyday, a summer that never ended? Well, my tomato plant says no. And I think Jesus says, no. I think that God says, no. There's got to be a little bit of resistance. There's got to be a little bit of a pull, a little tiny bit of a struggle that causes you to produce your best work, your best life.
I was at my office hours this morning, and the people receiving ashes at Agora cafe. And I got a chance to sit with people and say, Hey, what do you think Lent is bringing to us this year? And it was very interesting to hear what people had to say, because in general, people were feeling like a lot of times, Lent is about turning inward and getting a little bit introspective and praying and maybe quieting down, taking things down a notch, denying ourselves, right? Maybe putting a fence up a little bit with some stimulation and some pleasure. And what people were saying to me is "I don't know if that's that's quite the right feeling for this year." And I had to kind of agree. And I was talking to Amy, one of our members, and I asked her what her feeling was for Lent. And she said, "Well, you know, I feel like I want to get out more. It's almost like a feeling of being a flower opening up." And what we came to together was this idea of blooming, blossoming.
And when I heard her say that, I thought about something that I've been thinking about this Lent. This phrase was in my head "Calmly plotting the resurrection," Calmly plotting the resurrection. Every year, I've got to come up with some sort of theme to just sort of coalesce my preaching around. And that was there. And it didn't really make sense. And that's ... Sometimes it's a good thing because as a minister you can come out, you can say this thing that doesn't make much sense. Then you can explain it. And then you look like you're a really smart guy, right? But I couldn't explain this one. It was just rolling around in there. But when Amy said this Lent was feeling like a blossoming, it made me remember where this quote came from in the first place. And it came from E.B. White, the children's beloved children's book writer, Charlotte's Web and his wife was a world famous gardener who wrote all these books about gardening.
Her name was Katherine Sergeant Angell White. And in one of the last books that she published towards the very end of her life, E.B. White wrote the introduction. And in that introduction, he was reflecting on the fact that his wife didn't have much more time to live and reflecting on her life. And this is what he said about her: "Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat, much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director's chair. A folding canvas thing that had been placed for her at the edge of the garden plot. There, she would sit hour after hour in the wind and the weather while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basket full of old ones ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. The small hunched over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."
So I'll leave you with that this evening. Lent maybe a time for us to struggle in the right ways, not to pull everything back. You can't take all the water away. You can't take all the nutrients away. You can't cut the plant all the way down to the ground, but to just find the right little resistance. The place where you are working, the place that you are churning through, and invite God into that resistance, that struggle, that hardship with you. Sitting there at the edge of the garden planting the bulbs. Calmly plotting the resurrection and waiting for something to blossom.
We're here at the tail end of Black History Month. We're here at the tail end of Black History Month, and I decided to expand my horizons a little bit. I was realizing in Black History Month, I was thinking about all of the names who weren't the big names. Not the Martin Luther King Jr and the Rosa Parks and the Malcolm X. Who are some of those other names of people from our black history in our country who are very meaningful to me. And I started listing them all out and they were all ministers, poets, novelists, civil rights folks. And I realized, oh, that's just sort of my lane. That's the lane I ride in. And I thought, I want to learn something about somebody completely outside my wheelhouse. And I got interested in learning more about Muhammad Ali, the greatest. I mean, what an interesting individual he was.
Muhammad Ali was not only one of the greatest boxers of all time. He was just one of the greatest sports personalities of all time, a deeply spiritual person, and what a life. In 1960, he won the gold medal in the Olympics. In 1962, he won the Heavyweight Championship. And by 1967, he had been recruited into the army, drafted in the army to go to Vietnam, he became a conscientious objector. He went to court, he was convicted of being a draft dodger, he was sentenced to five years in prison, he was stripped of his heavyweight titles, he was banned from boxing. Now what an arc that is, and what a personality for it to come from. Muhammad Ali, the greatest. If any personality you could imagine as like a mountain top personality, we're talking about what happened to Jesus on the mountaintop. Just that mountaintop moment is that incredible moment of glory, of power.
Muhammad Ali had that personality. And yet when it came time to make a stand on principle and to make a sacrifice, a real sacrifice in his career and in his freedom, he was absolutely ready to step down from the mountaintop of fame, to step down from the mountaintop of safety and to put himself in harm's way. When we hear our scripture reading this morning about Jesus going up to the mountaintop, it's really easy to think that this is just a piece of scripture about going up to the top of the mountain. Oh, but it's not. It's not. It's really easy to think this is just about what happened up there on the mountain, but it's not. It's about that need, the absolute need to come back down the mountain.
What happened to the disciples up there? They got up there, they were looking around. Here's Moses. Here's Elijah. Jesus, you've got the glory of God shining out of your body. This is all that we need. Peter says, "Hey, let me build a couple of little huts up here. We'll build a couple of little huts up here. We never have to leave. Let's stay here forever." And what does Jesus say? Suddenly God's voice disappears. Suddenly the lights go away. Suddenly the ghosts of Moses and Elijah, they disappear. They're just standing there. And Jesus says, "No, it's time to go back down from the mountain." Back down. Back down.
If we're going to follow Jesus, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain. And if we're going to follow Jesus, we have to understand Jesus' perspective. What did he say to the disciples on the way down the mountain? Don't even tell anybody what happened down there. It was just the four of us. It stays between us until after everything is accomplished. And what was it that Jesus was going down to accomplish? It was the work of Lent, it was the journey to Jerusalem, it was the journey to the cross, a journey, not of glory, but of blood, and sacrifice, and pain and service. He said, "Follow me. Don't even think about what happened up there anymore. Follow me. We have somewhere to go." This piece of scripture is not about the mountaintop. It's about what happens after the mountaintop. It's about that decision to come down.
Muhammad Ali was somebody who knew that there was no separation between that mountaintop personality and the personality of the one who goes down and sacrifices and serves. Let me give you another example. There's a man from Kenya. His name is Charles Mulli. I don't know if any of you have ever heard of him, but we should have heard of him because there are few people in the world who have done more good than Charles Mulli. Charles Mulli was born in Kenya. At six years old, he was completely abandoned by his parents. He lived as a child on the streets begging for the ability to survive. And at 17 years old, without family, without support of any kind, he walked into a church. He had a mountaintop experience. The power of God came into him. It was that classic born again, salvation story. That wonderful story that we love in the Christian tradition. He was saved, but that wasn't the end of his story.
He went on from there and he became a businessman and he became one of the richest men in Kenya, a multimillionaire with all kinds of different diversified businesses. And yet, and some people would look at that and say, well, that's because he saved. And this is God's favor coming down on Charles Mulli, but that wasn't enough for Charles Mulli. Charles Mulli said here I am on the mountaintop. It's not enough because every day he would walk through the streets of his city and he would see abandoned, orphaned, poverty stricken children, begging for the ability to eat, just like he was when he was a child, and salvation for him, the mountaintop for him, it was not enough.
And so in 1999, Charles Mulli and Esther Mulli, his wife, sold all of their property and all of their businesses and used the proceeds to establish the Mulli Children's Family, an organization that would create orphanages and programs to support the children who are living on the street, abandon in poverty. And since 1999, when they started this program, they have housed and raised more than 23,000 children. They have been recognized around the world as incredible humanitarians, as people who refused to sit on top of the mountain, people who had to come down. Sometimes we think of Christianity that the whole point of us being here, the whole point is to get to the mountaintop. We want to get to salvation. Let's get to salvation. Let's have that moment like Charles Mulli had in that church where the power of God comes into us, we give our heart over to Jesus, we lay our lives bare, we find that forgiveness, we're in good relationship with God and we are destined for Heaven and forget the rest of the world. What does it matter?
But that's where we make a mistake. We think that mountaintop, that salvation moment is the most important moment, but it isn't. It is the most important moment until you have gotten to the top of the mountain. But once you are on that mountaintop, once you know God, and you have laid your soul bare to God, and you have been blessed by God. At some point, you've got to come back to down that mountain just like Jesus did, to serve. And that's what Charles Mulli did. He was saved at 17. He could have just kicked his feet up and waited to die, but that's not what a Christian does. A Christian is one who has been to the mountaintop and refused to dwell there. Just like Jesus did, just like the disciples did. You come back down to that convulsing child and you heal in the riot and the chaos of this world. That is our calling.
I think of a great example of this is one of my favorite people, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German Christian pastor who was living in New York City at the time of the events of World War II and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. And everybody said to Dietrich, "Dietrich, you're one of the most brilliant German Protestant theologians to ever come. You're one of the most brilliant theologians in the world. We need you here, safe in New York City to speak out against the Nazis. Speak out against the Nazis from here, where you're safe." On the mountaintop of safety. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "No, I'm going home and I'm going to fight. I'm going to put everything at risk. How could a Christian stay in safety when their homeland is at threat and their family is at threat?" So he went back to Germany and when he was there in Germany, he resisted the Nazis as best he could. And it eventually came to a point where Dietrich Bonhoeffer got involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
And Bonhoeffer was an extraordinarily moral, incredible theologian. He understood and he wrestled with the fact that he believed that his salvation would be at risk. He may lose his salvation. Why? Because he was openly plotting to murder someone. And he knew that wasn't right. And yet, as a Christian, as one who was following Christ, he could no longer see a path to avoid it. As one who followed Christ and one who loved God's children, he could see no other path, but to participate in an activity that may rob him of his salvation. And he did it because he understood what it meant to come down the mountain. He understood what salvation meant. He understood that grace and that love. Coming down the mountain.
If you Google the name Kendrick Castillo, I don't know if that name is familiar to you, but you will see a teenage kid, Latino kid, Hispanic American kid. Oh man. The smile on this kid. He's just got a face that draws you in, shining with the glory of God. Kendrick was raised by his parents as a Catholic. He was a good Catholic boy. He deeply identified with his religion and he was involved with the Knight of Columbus. And I think before he was like 17 years old, he had already logged thousands upon thousands of hours of service to people less fortunate than him through Catholic charities and activities. Just the kind of person he was. Somebody loved by his friends, a kid who was on the mountaintop, the precipice of an outstanding future.
And then in 2019, a gunman walked into his classroom at his STEM high school in Colorado and Kendrick who was standing on top of that mountain, had a decision to make. What am I going to do? And he threw himself at that gunman. And one of the reasons you haven't heard about that shooting is because Kendrick was the only one who lost his life. When that shooter intent on killing a lot of people, came into his classroom. How does a 17 year old high school kid make a decision like that to come down the mountain so fast? I believe that he had practiced in little ways. It doesn't always have to be the big sacrifice, the little ways. He had served. He had volunteered. He had given of himself. He understood how to come down the mountain. And when that big moment came, that grand moment came and he had a choice to sacrifice everything for the people he loved tragically and heroically, he was able to make that choice.
Are we practicing to come down the mountain? Are we taking the risks of service to the world that God loves? Or are we clinging to the mountaintop? If you're anything like me, it's a little bit of both, but Jesus is leading us down the mountain. I'd like to just talk to you about one more thing this morning, which is about this little mountaintop right here. The pulpit. There is a way in which I have been very cautious in my preaching with all of you. I have stood at that pulpit most often. And I have had something called a manuscript that I have preached from, I read it. And isn't that a safety device? Oh, yes, it is.
Because when I do that, nothing that you do in this sanctuary has any effect on me. I'm just reading from the paper and oh, it gives me comfort to have those perfectly crafted sentences, that perfectly crafted rhetoric. Rhetoric that Muhammad Ali would've blown his nose on because that guy was a genius. Have you heard some of the things that he said? But pretty good for a minister. But one of the commitments that I'm making this Lent is to come down from the mountaintop and to throw the notes away and to just come into as close as I can to you, and to look you in the eyes and to speak directly to you and to allow what is happening in this room to affect the way I preach and to allow your concerns and your emotions, and even your facial expressions of what I could see of them, to affect the way that I'm going to preach. And this is an invitation to all of you. There's other ways that I'm doing this too. I want to make myself available. I want to come down the mountain as much as I can.
I've been holding office hours. Linda and John came to my first office hours. So did Bonnie. Linda, we had a great conversation, didn't we? It was an amazing conversation. And it was a down from the mountaintop conversation. Eye to eye, heart to heart. We didn't agree on everything, but man, did we make progress? It was just a beautiful natural conversation. And I just love being in that kind of relationship with the community. Bonnie and I are also holding a 15 person limit Friday potluck at our house once a month on the first Friday, the first one is happening on March 4th. And you can sign up to come to that. We want to bring community back together. And the other way I'm going to do it is by coming right down here and talking to you without the notes and looking you in the eye. And there are going to be points in the Lent where I allow you to speak back to me so that you really have a chance to interact and that we can really come together as a community and let magic happen in this space again.
Let us pray. God of the mountaintop, God of Lent. Oh, the glory of your shining. Oh, the glory of your service. Lead us up. Do not let us linger. Lead us down into this world. Lead us down into this church. Lead us down into the love of our neighbors. Amen.
Every year at the church I served in Boston, once a year explicitly, we would send out an invitation to all of the drag queens in the Greater Boston metropolitan area to come to church. Come to church and sing in the choir, come to church and do the special music, do the anthems, do it all. It was a huge fundraising event that we called Drag Gospel Festival. It was a big deal for us. It was like Easter number two. We planned for this thing almost all year long. It was just a sort of a wild ride. And it was a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees, who in their countries of origin, it was illegal to be gay or transgender. And they had fled to the United States in just the most harrowing stories that you have ever heard in your life. Fleeing imprisonment, torture, death threats, and landing in the United States with nothing, going into immigration detention as refugees. And then this ministry would help to get them out of immigration detention and get them through the refugee process here in the states. It was a wonderful event.
My colleague from that church, Rev. Molly Baskette, she has a new book coming out in November, and it is entitled How to Begin When Your World Is Ending: A Spiritual Field Guide to Joy Despite Everything. Some of you are probably familiar with Molly's writings. Here are some excerpts from her book in which she wrote about Drag Gospel Festival in 2015:
A few minutes into worship…, I noticed our associate pastor Jeff… sitting uncharacteristically rigid in his chair, staring out, even as bits of feather boas were flying through the air around him. What could possibly be the matter?
I leaned over to him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
He unobtrusively pointed. “That guy over there,” he answered. “Front pew. Left side. He’s very angry, and agitated.”
“I’ll put the deacons on notice,” I said.
As Jeff started reading scripture, I sat next to our twenty-seven-year-old moderator, Ian. I took his hand and asked him to pray with me. “That man—he’s angry. I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” I said.
Because the week before: three mass shootings at college campuses.
And the previous summer: Dylann Roof killed nine people in their own church, for being Black.
And previous to that: that shooting in the Unitarian church, people killed for being liberal Christians.
That was when the man stood up, slowly... He stepped over the front pew into the free space. Turning toward us, he began shouting.
And that was the beginning of the five most terrifying minutes and then most terrifying many months of my ministry. The deacons and Molly and I, we managed to diffuse the situation. This man whose name was Drew—believe it or not, he was wearing a name tag—he was not armed. And after screaming at us that drag queens don't belong anywhere in church and Jesus would never put makeup on his face and condemning us, he left. We were rattled, but we weren't defeated. Worship went on and we raised thousands of dollars for LGBTQ refugees. And it was a success.
But outside, Drew, who ran in some very, very scary circles. He posted these videos and photos of the event onto his social media. And from there, it got picked up by all kinds of people, all kinds of haters, with YouTube channels and conservative right-wing blogs. And from there, the hate mail and the death threats started rolling in for weeks and for months. They came in over the phones. They came in through the U.S. Mail. They came in over Facebook. They came in by email. People saying things like, “Oh, I guarantee you, somebody's going to burn that church down real soon,” or “I sure hope somebody bombs that church,” or “Somebody better do something about these people.”
I was terrified. I was terrified of Drew. I was afraid that he might come back to the church this time armed after getting all this attention online. I was afraid he might show up at my apartment somehow because I was the one he was interacting with most up front, maybe he was thinking of me. I was scared that all the people who are going after us online might figure out who Bonnie was and they might start going after her. We called the police in, but the police weren't able to do a lot in this situation. They said just be vigilant. So I had to be vigilant. I started following Drew on his social media and I put out a Google alert on his name so that I could keep tabs on him. I had to keep tabs on him. Right?
I mean, there's no easy way for me to say this. Maybe I'm even trying to avoid saying it up here. But Drew was my enemy. He had made himself my enemy. He did that to me. I didn't do anything to him. And I had every right to be terrified of this man and what he had done to me and to be angry. I was afraid he was going to try to hurt me. I was afraid he was going to try to hurt my family. I was afraid that he was going to try to hurt my church. I assume that you probably haven't experienced anything quite like this, an online vigilante mob coming after you. But I know that you can just imagine how much stress I was under and how mortally afraid I was for weeks and weeks.
And so in that discomfort, in that pain, I turned to my Lord and I said, "Jesus, what do I do in this situation?" And what was Jesus' advice to me? You heard it read this morning in our scripture reading. "But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Right. So, here I am threatened, afraid, abused. And here comes Jesus, not to make it any easier on me, but to actually make it harder. In the situation I am in, this just makes it harder. What kind of advice is this? I'm the one who's being attacked. How can you seriously ask this of me?
Jesus, do you have some sort of secret plan here? I mean, help me out. Is this like reverse psychology or something like, okay, I'm going to make this sacrifice and I'm going to love Drew despite everything that he's doing to me, I'm going to love these people, despite what they're doing to me. And somehow, the power of love is going to get inside of them and infect them and they're going to change. And it's all going to turn out hunky-dory in the end. That's what love does, right, Jesus? That's the real plan, right, Jesus? And what does Jesus say? What does he say in our scripture reading this morning? “Nope. Give without hope of receiving anything back. Love without hope of it being returned. Doing good so that you're going to get some good outcome is not what I am talking about here.” Well, what is that advice supposed to do for me when somebody calls up the church and threatens to hurt me?
Well, it all died down after a couple of months, but about two years later, Drew popped up in my Google alerts big time. Because Drew went to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that now infamous and deadly rally. And he was identified as one of the white men, walking through Charlottesville with a tiki torch at night and chanting "The Jews will not replace us."
This was a bit of a change in fortune here. I have to to admit, it kind of felt a little bit good because now that Drew had been doxed, as they called it, now that he had been publicly identified and everybody knew who he was, he wasn't anonymous anymore. And I had the online outrage mob at my back, and it felt so good. Drew wasn't anonymous anymore. Everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew the kind of things that he did to good people like me. He lost his job. He was persona non grata. He was done for. And I felt like after what he had done to me, he got exactly what he deserved. Our reading this morning says, "God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." Sure, fine, whatever. How about this for a Bible verse? "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Now you know how it feels Drew. You sow what you reap, couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, as far as I'm concerned.
About six months after Charlottesville, Drew was found dead at home. White nationalist and neo-Nazi leaders and influencers online were suggesting that he had taken his own life because he couldn't handle the online bullying from Antifa. Sitting there reading that news, I felt numb. I couldn't help myself. I felt like I had rooted for this outcome a little bit. I felt like I had been a part of that. I didn't want that. I wanted justice. I just wanted justice. I didn't want a tragedy. I really didn't. But maybe when our desire for justice becomes unmoored from the power of love, we might not always be happy at what the justice we get looks like.
And in that moment, God sat down next to me and God just said, "Do you see now? It wasn't all about Drew. This was about you. It wasn't about just loving somebody to love them. It was about who you are. This is about not letting hate define your character. It's about allowing me to define your character. Won't you allow me to define your character?" And I said, "Sure, I get it. But I still just think it's terrible advice because I just don't think I'm good enough to love my enemies. I don't think I can do it.” And God laughed at me. I heard God laughing. And God said, "Well, maybe it's not as hard as you think."
When my colleague Molly sent me a draft of her book, she reminded me of something I had totally forgotten about on that first day that I met Drew in 2015, this is what Molly wrote:
Jeff and Drew continued to talk at a distance, Drew spooling out his speech, Jeff answering him in love but with healthy boundaries. Finally, Jeff said, “You’ve said what you’ve come to say. You’ve been heard. Now it’s time for you to go.”
“But one other thing,” Jeff said…
“I love you.”
Then Drew, turning to face us, said, “I love you too; I love all of you.”
With that, Drew left. [The deacons] accompanied him down the side stairs, where he started sobbing…
When he was out of sight, the congregation clapped and cheered, but Jeff stayed the cheering with a raised hand. This was a moment of relief, but not a moment of triumph over another human being.
I hadn't remembered that until I read it. I hadn't remembered that I told him, I love you. Now I remember. Now I remember what that moment felt like. It wasn't about being nice to someone who was doing something wrong. And it wasn't about being the perfect man of character. It was about a loving God, so much bigger than either of us stepping in. Do you think you can allow that God to step into your lives?
Well, I'm glad I said it. I'm glad God stepped in. And in fact, I'll let God step in again: Drew, I love you. You didn't make it easy, but I love you. And I'm sorry that I forgot.
Let us pray. God, thank you for being kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, even when I just can't stand it. Thank you for being kind to me when I'm ungrateful and wicked. Thank you for the love that is so much bigger than any of us. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations