Living Hope

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Living Hope” 1 Peter 1:3-9

On Monday of this past week, President Biden signed a bill putting an end to our National State of Emergency in response to COVID-19. The US Department of Health and Human Services had already determined that their pandemic public health emergency would end in just a few weeks on May 11. Restrictions are easing. Perhaps you didn’t need your mask this week at the hospital. My doctor’s office sent me a letter stating that before I have a colonoscopy in August, I won’t need to take a COVID test. As we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, we are learning that these past three years have not only been hard on our health, with more than 104 million reported cases of COVID-19, they have also been hard on our hope.

We all need hope. It’s the expectation that we’ll have positive experiences or the confidence that a threatening or negative situation won’t materialize, or if it does, it will ultimately resolve in a good way. When we are hopeful, we believe that our future is going to be better than our present. Hope is tied to optimism and a can-do attitude. It serves as a buffer against negative stressful experiences. Hope motivates us to get out of bed in the morning, feel good about what is next, and plan for the future. Christian hope trusts that we belong to God in life and in death.

Researchers have found that the COVID-19 pandemic put a dent in our American hope. It’s true for all ages. 37% of High School students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. 44.2% say that they experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. A whopping 20% considered suicide. School closures, distanced learning, social isolation, family stress, and fear of illness for themselves or others were contributing factors to those scary numbers. 

The pandemic rattled the hope of folks in the workforce, too, whether they were laid off, working from home, or standing on the frontlines of the epidemic. Nurses, for example, saw a 29% increase in feelings of hopelessness, thanks to those high-stress, long hours in crisis. Grocery store workers, first responders, and even clergy have all voiced feelings of hopelessness and despair. We may be emerging from the pandemic, but many are experiencing burn-out or have left their jobs.

Even retirees are feeling less hopeful these days. Research has determined that depression levels among older adults have worsened considerably. Fear of disease, uncertainty about the future, and social distancing are contributing factors. For most seniors, social contacts, like family and friends, community centers, churches, and part-time jobs, are away from home, and when those social lifelines got stretched or cut, their hope suffered. Just ask our friends at Will Rogers who have just experienced another wave of COVID and the consequent lockdown. How is your hope this morning?

Our reading from Peter’s first epistle suggests that those exiles in the Diaspora were short on hope. The Apostle was writing from Rome to Christians in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These were former-Jews and Gentiles, who trusted in Jesus as their Messiah. Their belief had brought suffering. The synagogues had thrown them out with charges of blasphemy. They were alienated from family and friends who would not accept their faith. They were viewed with increasing suspicion by their neighbors, who spread rumors that they drank blood and ate flesh, like first-century vampires. As time passed, Christians attracted the scrutiny of the empire. Local officials were troubled by news of people who reverenced a man executed as an enemy of Rome, and they really didn’t like the Christian refusal to worship Caesar at the imperial shrine. That official scrutiny would eventually explode into persecution. It must have been hard to keep the faith in a world that wanted to change you back, shut you up, and strike you down.

The Apostle Peter had known feelings of hopelessness. He had been the first to see that Jesus was the Messiah, yet an unholy alliance of Temple and empire had dashed those dreams. On Good Friday, Jesus had been publicly, brutally executed. What may have felt just as bad for Peter were his personal failings. Peter had slept when Jesus asked him to wait and pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the soldiers came, Peter had taken up the sword, even though Jesus had called for peace. Then, before the cock had crowed twice, Peter had denied Jesus three times. On the first Easter morning, before the women returned from the tomb with their startling news, Peter had been about as hopeless as a man can get.  All that changed on Easter evening. There in the Upper Room, behind their locked doors, Jesus had appeared—living, breathing, eating, reaching out. Jesus had given the disciples the gift of hope. Jesus breathed new life into friends who had felt as good as dead.

Today’s verses allow us to listen in as Peter wraps language around what he named “living hope.” He believed that the resurrection allowed Christians to hope, even in times of suffering. We could trust that God would have the last word. Jesus had risen. Christ had won the victory over sin and death! Because we have faith in Jesus, we can trust that God is at work for good in our world and that good will reign triumphant in the world that is to come. That’s right—we have a precious inheritance, imperishable, uncorrupted, unfading, kept in heaven for us. Peter believed that we are called to a living hope. The hope we find in Jesus has legs. Living hope shapes our lives and empowers us to support the lives of those around us. That living hope inspired Peter to preach powerfully, heal the sick, pray with strangers, plant churches, and pick up the pen to write to exiles in the Diaspora who were desperately in need of hope.

Peter knew the importance of hope, an importance that we are still learning to better understand today. Researchers at Harvard University have determined that we reap big benefits when we have high hope. We have more positive emotions. We have a stronger sense of purpose and meaning. We have lower levels of depression. We report less loneliness. We even have better physical health and reduced risk of mortality. That’s right: we have fewer chronic illnesses and lower risk of cancer.  We also have fewer sleep problems and stronger relationships. I like to think that when those exiles read and re-read Peter’s words, their hope rose from the embers of isolation and fear. Their hope was fanned into flames that would bring strength and encouragement to face head-on the very real challenges they knew.

The COVID-19 state of emergency is coming to an end, my friends, but those widespread side-effects of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness may be with folks we know for the foreseeable future.  We all know people who are suffering lasting effects of the pandemic. They are permanently fearful and unable to relaunch social contacts. They labor joylessly in jobs that no longer feel fulfilling. Their good grades have taken a tumble. They feel lonely or depressed. They are plagued by the fuzzy thinking, fatigue, pain, and shortness of breath of long-COVID. They are our family members, friends, and neighbors.

Peter reminds us this morning that we are called to be the living hope in this post-pandemic world.   The hope that we have found in Jesus needs legs. The hope that comes with the resurrection must find expression. When we go forth in hope, we make a difference. Those same researchers who have documented the benefits of hope have also found that hope needs social support. Said simply, to be hopeful, we need hopeful people around us. We need people who show up, share their optimism, speak words of encouragement, and demonstrate their caring. This world needs people like us, who have a living hope.

Churches like this one—small, vital, active, engaged, loving—are hope factories. Indeed, if we are looking for hope, we have come to the right place.  When we gather on Sunday mornings, we get inspired by the Word. We feast on the fellowship. We remember that God loves us enough to die for us. We know that we have a friend in Jesus.  We feel connected and blessed in the shared prayers, the holy fist-bumps, and the swapping of news. We feel that we are welcomed and cared about. We find the courage and the fresh perspective to go out and face the week in a world that for three years felt long on the state of emergency and short on hope.

Perhaps, like Peter, we can resolve to make a difference this week. We could wear our hope on our sleeves. We can take up the pen or pick up the phone or simply reach out to those who need what we have to give in abundance. We could even invite them to church, welcoming them into this hopeful community that rests in the love of God, revealed to us long ago in Jesus Christ. This world may be plagued by those lasting effects of the pandemic, but we have the antidote. May we go forth to be the living hope.

Resources:

Richard Jensen. “Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9” in Preaching This Week, March 30, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Daniel Deffenbaugh. “Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9” in Preaching This Week, May 1, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Judith Jones. “Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9” in Preaching This Week, April 23, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Camille Preston. “The Psychology of Hope” in Psychology Today, October 24, 2021. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.

Traci Pedersen. “Why Is Hope So Important?” in PsychCentral, September 26, 2022.

Sherry Everett Jones, et al. “Mental Health, Suicidality, and Connectedness Among HS Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic” US Dept. of Health and Human Services/CDC, April 1, 2022. MMWR, vo. 71, No. 3.


1 Peter 1:3-9

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.


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The Gift

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee

To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.

I watched his lovely face and not the blade.

Before the story ended, he’d removed

the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,

but hear his voice still, a well

of dark water, a prayer.

And I recall his hands,

two measures of tenderness

he laid against my face,

the flames of discipline

he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon

you would have thought you saw a man

planting something in a boy’s palm,

a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Had you followed that boy

you would have arrived here,

where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down

so carefully she feels no pain.

Watch as I lift the splinter out.

I was seven when my father

took my hand like this,

and I did not hold that shard

between my fingers and think,

Metal that will bury me,

christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,

Death visited here!

I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.

I kissed my father.

in Rose: Poems by Li-Young Lee. New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986.


Li-Young Lee is a poet, essayist and memoirist. His work is marked by the spare elegance of traditional Chinese poets and the mystical edge of Eliot, Keats, and Rilke. He thoughtfully and sensitively explores themes of family, spirituality, and belonging. Lee’s family fled political persecution in China and Indonesia before emigrating to the United States, where his father attended seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Lee began writing poetry and discovered his life’s work. He received the American Book Award for his lyrical memoir The Wingéd Seed: A Remembrance. In an interview with Tina Chang of the American Academy of Poets, Lee reflected, “If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What’s another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So, everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can’t possibly fathom but am embedded in.”


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“Ahead of Us”

Sabbah Day Thoughts — Matthew 28:1-10 “Ahead of Us”

Lupe Gonzalo rises at four or five in the morning. She piles into the back of a truck with other farmworkers and is driven to Florida fields in need of harvest. There, she is given a bucket and told to fill it with tomatoes or strawberries or beans as many times as she can during the course of a long day of backbreaking labor. Some days, there are no bathroom breaks, no lunchbreaks, no water breaks. “That’s your job,” Lupe says, “That’s what you’re there to do.” For women, like Lupe, the work carries worse problems than hunger and thirst. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are common—and speaking out about your experience can cost you your job. It feels hopeless.

Manuel Nazario and his people the Weenhayek have fished for a living for longer than anyone can remember. They ply the banks of the Pilcomayo River that rises in the foothills of the Andes in rural Bolivia. They wade in the water and cast nets, just as their ancestors did before them.  But these days when he casts his net, Manuel worries. Climate change, irregular rainfall, drought, and runoff from mining operations in the mountains have troubled the waters. His catch is far less plentiful than it once was, and it only seems to be getting worse. He wonders how he will feed the twenty-seven residents of his village, who depend on him for leadership. He feels powerless.

Smitha Krishnan a Dalit—an untouchable—woman, was accustomed to a life lived on the margins of Indian society. As part of the lowest social class, she was unable to draw water from the common well, prevented from attending school, and forbidden from entering temples. Then her husband died, just before the last tsunami. Then, when the storm came, her thatch and mud house, with everything in it, was swept away, including the sewing machine that she used to earn a living as a seamstress. Widowed and homeless with five children to care for, Smitha despairs.

As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary walked to the tomb in the darkness before dawn, they knew how it feels to be hopeless, powerless, and filled with despair. They had accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover. Earlier that week, their beloved friend had been welcomed like a conquering hero, with the singing of psalms, waving of palms, and the spreading of cloaks along the way. But with each passing day, tension had mounted. Powerful enemies had emerged among the Pharisees, scribes, and priests. They challenged Jesus’ authority and feared his charismatic appeal to the people. Betrayal had come from within their ranks, as a trusted friend traded his loyalty for thirty pieces of silver. In a trial orchestrated under the cover of darkness, Jesus had been falsely accused, condemned, and turned over to the Romans for execution. At the judgment hall of Pilate, the same crowd that had welcomed Jesus rejected him, shouting for his blood.

On Friday, the Marys watched as the one they had hoped would redeem Israel was beaten, scourged, spat upon, mocked, and marched through the city streets to his brutal death, flanked by criminals. The women knew all about hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair. Even so, on Sunday morning, before the sun had risen in the east, they found the courage to offer a final kindness. In Matthew’s telling of this story, there are no anointing oils or burial spices. Just two women, vulnerable and alone, who came to the grave to hold vigil, to weep and lift their voices in the wailing cry of grief.

We know how it feels to be hopeless, powerless, and despairing.  Those feelings find us when we stand at the grave of our beloved.  They leave us weeping over unforgiving hearts and broken relationships. They find us as we contend with mental illness.  They trouble us as inflation surges and we worry about money. They keep us up at night when we ponder the future of our warming planet, and they rob us of peace as we read of the seemingly unending cycle of gun violence.  Some days, it feels like the pain and suffering, the cruelty and greed of our world are more than a match for us. Some days, we feel like the two Marys. Some days, we feel like Lupe Gonzalo, Manuel Nazario, and Smitha Krishnan.

At the tomb, the two Mary learned that hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair are no match for God. The earth shook, the stone rolled away, the guards fainted, and an angel, flashing like lightning in the half-light of dawn, told them a mystery. God’s love had won the victory over sin and death. Jesus lived, and even now he was going on ahead of them to Galilee. There was work to do—good news to share. Then, like a big exclamation point on the angel’s astounding words, there was Jesus! He filled them with joy, quelled their fear, and sent them forth as the first apostles with the assurance that he would be with them, just a step ahead, waiting for them in a world where death no longer had the last word.

Matthew likes to remind us that Jesus is with us.  In Matthew’s gospel a holy messenger warms the cold feet of the reluctant Joseph by telling him that Mary’s baby will be Emmanuel, God with us. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus assured his friends that wherever even two of them gathered in his name, he would be there. In the last parable that Matthew recorded, the Lord told his friends that wherever they encountered people who were hungry or thirsty, sick or in need or imprisoned, he would be there, too. Jesus lives, at our side, in our midst, a step ahead.

As the women ran with fear and joy through the streets of the waking city with news that would forever change the world, they trusted that Jesus was with them. If they had any doubts, if their hopelessness or powerlessness or despair threatened their mission, those feelings were swept aside in the Galilee when Jesus met them and sent them forth to the ends of the earth with good news and great love. Jesus lives. He’s always a step ahead of us. It’s a message that we need now more than ever, as we weep at the grave of untimely death, and lament the brokenness of our relationships, and mourn the future lost to mental illness, and despair over a warming planet and the ubiquitous news of guns in our schools. Yes, there is hopelessness and powerlessness and despair in this world, but there is also Jesus. He walks with us still and calls us to be good news in a world bowed down by the powers of sin and death.

One of the enduring ways that this congregation has followed Jesus amid the world’s hurt and pain is through One Great Hour of Sharing. Whether you saved your change in a fish bank throughout Lent, or you chose to use those offering envelopes, your contributions have brought good news to neighbors in this country and around the world who struggle with those familiar feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair.

Your offerings allowed Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to work with local partners on the ground in India to help Smitha Krishnan. With our help, Smitha found shelter, a sewing machine, and other essentials. She now lives with her children in a permanent, disaster-resistant home. Smitha says, “Because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing, I am able to feed and clothe [my children], and when they get sick, I am able to take care of their medication, too.”

One Great Hour of Sharing also helped Manuel Nazario, that indigenous fisherman in Bolivia. Through a generous grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Manuel’s people are learning new ways to thrive, despite climate change and environmental degradation. Working with local partners, the Weenhayek people are developing irrigation systems and collecting rainwater. They have seeds and gardening tools. They are learning to grow fruits and vegetables organically and sustainably. With a diversified diet and enough to eat, they no longer depend on the traditional practice of casting their nets to ensure their future.

One Great Hour of Sharing has helped Lupe Gonzalo, too. The Presbyterian Hunger Program partners with farmworkers to ensure that those who bring food to our tables do not go hungry or work in inhumane circumstances. We support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human-rights organization that works to bring safety and justice to the fields where our food is grown. Lupe appreciates our generosity. She says, “For us farmworkers, the support from Presbyterians across the country has meant the world to us . . . we don’t feel like we’re alone . . . we’re walking together.” 

On Easter morning, Jesus, continues to go on ahead of us, my friends, sending us forth to be bearers of good news.  He’s out there still. And when we rise to respond to his calling, there is something Christ-like in us, something that no grave can ever contain. Jesus awaits. Let’s go forth to make this world a little less hopeless, powerless, and filled with despair.

Resources

Greg Carey. “Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10” in Preaching This Week, April 9, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Melinda Quivik. “Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10” in Preaching This Week, April 20, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Kathryn Schifferdecker. “The Foundation of Christian Hope” in Dear Working Preacher, April 2, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Easter Courage” in Dear Working Preacher, April 16, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

–. “A New Day for Farm Workers” in Special Offerings: One Great Hour of Sharing. Accessed online at pcusa.org.

–. “Restoring Dignity to India’s Most Oppressed” in Special Offerings: One Great Hour of Sharing. Accessed online at pcusa.org.


Matthew 28:1-10

28 After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


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Via Dolorosa

Throughout Lent and into Holy Week, I’ve been sharing weekly devotions based upon my travels to the Middle East. This is the sixth and final meditation in the series.

“So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”

— John 19:16b-18

The Via Dolorosa — Way of Sorrow — follows the path that tradition tells us Jesus walked to the cross. The practice of walking the Via Dolorosa dates to the fourth century when Byzantine pilgrims gathered across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives, descended to the Garden of Gethsemane, climbed the road to Jerusalem, and followed the steps of Jesus to the cross. Over the centuries, stops or stations were added to the walk as travelers paused at places that scripture or local lore maintained that Jesus had also stopped, like the spot where Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to carry the cross (Luke 23:26) and the location where Veronica is believed to have wiped the face of the suffering Christ with her kerchief.

Walking the Via Dolorosa today will take you along narrow, cobbled streets worn smooth by the centuries. Modern-day pilgrims move to the rhythm of reverence and remembrance. Some carry symbolic crosses and sing sorrowful songs. Others stop to mark the stations with prayerful solemnity. Amid the heady aromas of fresh baked bread and Arabic coffee, tourists pause to haggle with shopkeepers over the price of fresh juice or hand-woven carpets. In the quantum-moment, Jesus still walks the way of immeasurable sorrow and limitless love — bloody, battered, dying.

How will you walk with Jesus along the way of sorrow?

Please pray with me . . .

Almighty God, we are pilgrims all, walking the Via Dolorosa and following Jesus’s path to the cross. Quiet our minds and open our understanding to the way of sorrow that Jesus chose to walk. May we dare to imagine his pain, to feel the weight of the cross, to hear the insults hurled. As we face our sorrow and the sorrow of our world, may we hear your voice, calling us by name. Raise us from death to life and send us forth with good news of a love that is stronger than death.  Amen.


“His executioners made vulgar jokes about Him, called Him filthy names, taunted Him, smacked Him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on the common gibbet—a bloody, dusty, sweaty, and sordid business.” — Dorothy L. Sayers

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”― W.H. Auden

“The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
― T.S. Eliot


Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward

Poem for a Tuesday “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward” by John Donne

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,

The ‘intelligence that moves, devotion is,

And as the other spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,

And being by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my soul’s form bends toward the East.

There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endless day beget;

But that Christ on this cross, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for mee.

Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own lieutenant, Nature, shrink;

It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink.

Could I behold those hands which span the poles,

And tune all spheres at once pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endless height which is

Zenith to us, and our antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, ragg’d, and torn?

If on these things I durst not look, durst I

Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,

Who was Gods partner here, and furnished thus

Half of that sacrifice, which ransomed us?

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

I turn my back to thee but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O think me worth thine anger; punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.

In the Norton Anthology of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970, pp. 189-190.


John Donne

Poet, writer, and clergyman John Donne was born in 1576 in Oxford. As a young man, he studied law, traveled as a gentleman adventurer to Cadiz and the Azores, and served as the secretary of Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England. His secret marriage to Lady Anne More in 1602 led to a falling out with the Egerton family which put an end to his service to the household and blighted his professional opportunities for a number of years. Plagued by a sense of his own unworthiness, he was reluctant to become a priest. Ordained in 1615, he soon became a celebrated preacher. When his wife died in childbirth in 1617, Donne committed his energies to the church. He was elected dean of St. Paul’s in November 1621 and frequently preached before the king at court. Although his work was immensely popular during his lifetime, he fell out of favor during the Restoration and was little read until the late 19th and early twentieth century when his poetry was rediscovered and championed by T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats.


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The Cross or the Gun?

Sabbath Day Thoughts “The Cross or the Gun?” Matthew 21:1-11

We heard news this week of yet another school shooting. On Monday, a former student shot out the glass doors of The Covenant School in Nashville. Armed with two assault rifles and a handgun, they began shooting indiscriminately. Police, tipped off about the attack, were on the scene in eleven minutes.  The shooter was dead at fourteen minutes. In the aftermath, we learned that three nine-year-old students and three staff members had been killed.

It’s the latest incident in a long series of school shootings that have prompted our thoughts, prayers, and tears. There have been 456 shootings at schools since the attack on Columbine High School in 1999. It’s part of a larger epidemic of gun violence that has infected our nation. There have been 134 mass shootings in America so far this year, taking the lives of 196 people and wounding a further 470. The growing violence and mounting death toll are an intolerable fact of life in this country, a fact that we have grown hardened to. There seems to be a lack of political will to bring real change, perhaps most clearly demonstrated by Tennessee Congressman Andy Ogles, who represents the district of The Covenant School. He offered his thoughts and prayers for the families of victims this week while defending his controversial Christmas card showing him and his family posing with assault rifles in front of their Christmas tree.

Today in Nashville, there is a small shrine that has taken shape outside The Covenant School with flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, and messages of remembrance and love. Flags are flying at half-staff as an expression of mourning. Families are grieving and planning funerals. Palm Sunday worship is underway. Worshippers wave palms and sing “Hosanna” in the Palm Sunday parade. Today in Nashville and all across our country gun violence is the leading cause of death for our children.

That first Palm Sunday parade was a peaceful protest against the violent occupation of Israel. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan teaches that there were two parades that Passover week in Jerusalem. One parade approached the city from the east. There Pontius Pilate and the Roman Army rode into the Holy City from Caesarea Maritima.  At Passover, when the Jewish people remembered the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, it was always prudent to beef up the security in the Holy City, just in case anyone had Messianic pretentions. Pilate’s parade waved the imperial standard of the Roman Empire. Pilate and his officers were mounted on splendid war horses. Foot soldiers marched in cadence, armed with swords and knives, spears and javelins. A twenty-first century version of Pilate’s parade would have those soldiers brandishing M4s and driving Bradley armored fighting vehicles with TOW missile launchers and twenty-five-mm chain guns that can fire 100 rounds per minute.

Jesus’s parade was carefully staged to be the antithesis of Pilate’s. Instead of riding a war horse, Jesus rode a donkey, just like the Prince of Peace that the Prophet Zechariah had promised would one day come to break the battle bow and put an end to war (Zech. 9). Jesus’s “soldiers” spread their cloaks on the ground, like the generals who once hailed Jehu their king. They brandished palms, like the jubilant crowds that welcomed Judas Maccabeus after he defeated the Greeks. Instead of marching songs, the pilgrims sang hosanna and blessing. This was no violent insurrection, it was a peaceful revolution that anticipated the Kingdom where love for God and neighbor would be the rule of the land, where God’s people would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Anyone who has ever gone out early to claim your favorite sidewalk spot for the Winter Carnival Parade can testify that parades need people. We look on and clap, smile, sing, wave, and get swept up in the grand celebration.  Jesus’s parade would have had enthusiastic onlookers and participants, those who knew him, had heard him teach, had experienced his miracles, and those who asked, “Who is this?”  Pilate’s parade would have had its own audience, a crowd that turned out to watch the pomp and welcome the procurator. Some may have been collaborators. Some may have profited from the occupation. Most probably turned out because we all love parades, and we grow numb to everyday injustice. Some days, any excuse is a good one if it will appease the powerful and make the best of a bad situation.

A great irony of Holy Week is the great shifting of allegiance. Those who danced in Jesus’ parade would abandon the ranks. They traded their songs of hosanna for shouts of “Crucify him!” The Prince of Peace would meet a violent end—beaten, scourged, mocked, crucified. On Good Friday, as Jesus was marched to the cross, it would feel as if Pilate’s parade had prevailed.

On Palm Sunday, we are caught between the two parades. We know the Way of Jesus. We can quote, “Blessed are the peacemakers! Turn the other cheek! Love your neighbor!” There is no question about what Jesus expects of those who will march with him.

Yet we live in a culture that is addicted to violence. We see it in the cop shows that dominate prime time tv and the video games that preoccupy our kids. We see it in our national obsession with guns. The United States is the only nation in the world where civilian guns outnumber people. There are 120 guns in private ownership for every 100 Americans. The annual number of US deaths from gun violence is eighteen times the average rate in other developed countries. With numbers like that, it should be no surprise that no other developed nation has mass shootings at the same scale or frequency as we do.

On Palm Sunday in America, we are caught between parades: one leads to love and life and the other has been a source of immeasurable heartbreak and death.

Shane Claiborne is an author and founder of The Simple Way, a new monastic community in Philadelphia. He’s one of the best spokespeople I know in describing the tension between life as we know it and life as Jesus calls us to live. In his book Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, Shane argues that we have a gun problem and a heart problem in this country. With artist and blacksmith Michael Moore, he dramatizes the biblical call to beat our swords into ploughshares by turning guns into garden implements. In gun-blighted communities, they invite mothers who have lost their children to guns to come and weep and beat AR-15’s into rakes and shovels. It’s a carefully staged antithesis to our national love affair with the gun. It’s a little like Jesus’s carefully staged peaceful ride into the Holy City, a ride that invited—and still invites—the world to turn from death to life.

In response to the shooting at The Covenant School this week, Shane wrote, “As a devoted Christian, I am convinced that the gun and the cross give us two very different versions of power. One is about being ready to die. The other is about being ready to kill. There comes a point where we cannot serve two masters. We cannot love our enemies as Christ commands, and simultaneously prepare to kill them.” I know that there are people who feel that they are devout Christians who will argue with Shane. They will say that guns are the best way to keep America safe. They will insist that we should arm teachers in classrooms—even though there were teachers who had guns at The Covenant School. They will feel great sorrow at mass shootings. They will think about it. They will pray. They will quote Jesus and send out Christmas cards with their nine-year-olds brandishing assault weapons. But when all is said and done, the choice is really quite simple.  Will we choose the gun or will we choose the cross? Will we march with Pilate or will we follow Jesus?

There was a parade on Thursday in Nashville. More than 1,000 people—children, teens, parents—turned out. They entered the capitol building and lined the hallways. They chanted simple slogans like, “Save our children,” “Never again,” and “Not one more.” They filled the gallery of the legislative chamber, holding signs that said, “I’m nine years old” and “Gun Reform Now.” Some carried pictures of the victims of Monday’s shooting. There are more protests planned for the coming days in Tennessee, including a student-led march on the capitol scheduled for tomorrow. I’m sure it will be quite a parade. I’m sure Jesus will be there.

Resources

Adam Tambourin. “Large crowds gather in protest at the Capitol” in Axios, March 31, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.axios.com/local/nashville/2023/03/31/large-crowds-gather-in-protest-at-the-capitol

Jonathan Mattise, Travis Loller, and Holly Meyer. “Nashville shooter who killed 6 drew maps, surveilled school.” AP News, March 28, 2023. Accessed online at https://apnews.com/article/nashville-school-shooting-covenant-school-5da45b469ccb6c9533bbddf20c1bfe16

Ariana Baio. “Tennessee lawmaker defends 2021 Christmas card of children brandishing guns in wake of Nashville shooting.” The Independent, March 29, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/tennessee-lawmaker-defends-2021-christmas-card-of-children-brandishing-guns-in-wake-of-nashville-shooting/ar-AA19bISA

Kara Fox, Krystina Shveda, Natalie Croker, and Marco Chacon. “How US gun culture stacks up with the world,” CNN News, March 28, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/26/world/us-gun-culture-world-comparison-intl-cmd/index.html

Shane Claiborne. “Christ, Not Guns: A Reflection on the Nashville Shooting” in Red Letter Christians, March 31, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.redletterchristians.org/christ-not-guns-a-reflection-on-the-nashville-shooting/

Veronice Miles. “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Andrew Prior. “Tell the Story” in One Man’s Web: Becoming Human in Australia, April 13, 2014. Accessed online at https://onemansweb.org/tell-the-story-matthew-21-1-11.html

David Ewart. “Matthew 21:1-11” in Holy Textures Year A, 2011. Accessed online at https://www.holytextures.com/2011/03/matthew-21-1-11-year-a-lent-6-palms-palm-sunday-sermon.html


Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


Image credit: Alexis Marshall WPLN News. Accessed online at https://wpln.org/post/episodes/community-responds-to-the-covenant-school-shooting/

Jesus Wept

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Jesus Wept” John 11:1-45

We all know grief. It finds us as children when our best friend forever moves far away, or when our first pet crosses the rainbow bridge, or when that grandparent who always made us feel so special dies. Grief also finds us in adulthood. We grieve the end of our college studies, the loss of a favorite job, or our move from a favorite home. We grieve the lost future that accompanies infertility or the end of a once-hopeful marriage. Nothing truly prepares us for the grief of losing a parent, even when we know the time has come. Grief accompanies us as we age. We mourn the loss of identity that comes as our years of professional work draw to a close.  There is grief in our diminishing ability, when we can’t get around like we used to or we can’t seem to remember like we once did. There is the brokenhearted grief in losing our beloved to death.

Grief packs an emotional wallop. It may come upon us in intense waves of profound sadness, yearning, and tears. It can trouble us with feelings of panic and anxiety. We may find that the little things that once brought quiet joy or pleasure to our everyday living no longer move us.  Food can lose its taste. Comedies no longer move us to laughter. We have no interest in playing music or going for a hike. Grief can mess with our minds, making it hard to concentrate and replacing certainty with confusion or forgetfulness. Grief sometimes looks like anger as we cast blame or lash out at those who just don’t get it.

Grief is often little understood, appreciated, or accommodated in our culture. The average length of bereavement leave from a workplace is one to three days.  Just a quick break to get all that paperwork out of the way, host out of town guests, handle the phone calls, and respond to cards. Just a few days to figure out our finances and get the kids settled. Dr. Mary-Frances O’Conner, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona studies grief.  O’Connor has found that grief is lingering and difficult because it calls for essential changes in our brains that can take a while to make. That old saying that when we lose a spouse or a beloved child, it is like losing a piece of ourselves is both emotionally and biologically true.  Our brains struggle to evolve a new set of rules for operating in a world that is no longer complete.

Our reading from John’s gospel brings us a lengthy story of grief. As tensions had mounted in Judea, Jesus and his disciples had retreated to relative safety across the Jordan. But then a letter arrived from Mary and Martha with news that Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus was near death. Jesus needed to come immediately. If it seems that Jesus is callous in tarrying two days before heading to Bethany, it might help us to know that Lazarus was probably already dead – the euphemism that Jesus used, saying that Lazarus had fallen asleep is elsewhere used in scripture to speak of death. Indeed, when Jesus and his friends arrived in Bethany after two days delay and a long day of travel, they found that Lazarus was really dead, four days in the tomb.

The scene that John describes as Jesus arrives in Bethany is overwhelming. First, Jesus encountered Martha, sounding hurt, betrayed, and a little hopeful. Then, Jesus met Mary, who was filled with despair, tears, and “If only you had been here, Lord.” All that took place as grieving neighbors listened and professional mourners wailed. Before long, Jesus was at the tomb where the enormous capstone had sealed the beloved but decomposing Lazarus in darkness. Through all this, we witness the emotional turmoil going on within Jesus. We learn the extent of Jesus’ love for the dead man, who must have been like a brother from another mother. John says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. A closer translation of the original Greek words tells us that Jesus’ spirit groaned. He felt agitated, upset, troubled, even incensed. Jesus wept. He lamented. He grieved right along with Mary and Martha.

We affirm that Jesus is fully human and fully God, but it is perhaps only in the handful of scenes like this that we appreciate what it means for Jesus to share our humanity. Jesus knows what it is like to feel as we do, to suffer as we do. Jesus knows how it feels to be heartbroken and sad, troubled and shaken up, yearning, bereft and a little angry. Jesus’ tears and grief speak to us.  Indeed, his choice to be with Mary and Martha, his deep feelings for Lazarus, his compassionate care for those who mourn, all these details are an assurance for those of us who call Jesus our friend.  We recognize that Jesus is truly with us in our times of painful loss and all-encompassing grief.

When our BFF moves away and we are sure we will never ever find again a friend so dear, Jesus weeps with us.

When the love light dims, the spouse walks out, and our dreams die, Jesus weeps with us.

When we lose our job, we aren’t sure how to pay the bills, and we don’t know what to do next, Jesus weeps with us.

When we lose our ability, and we cannot do what was once so easy, and we aren’t sure who we are anymore, Jesus weeps with us.

When our beloved one dies and we feel like we have truly lost our other half, Jesus weeps with us.

In all our brokenhearted hurt and deepest grief, the Lord weeps with us.

Jesus accompanied Mary, Martha, and the mourners to the tomb. There, he commanded that the stone be removed. Then, he called Lazarus, four-days-dead, to rise and come out. We can only imagine the shock, yielding to joy, as the no-longer-dead man stood in the doorway of death and greeted the friends who unbound him. A few verses later as John 11 draws to a close, we learn the costliness of this miracle. When Jesus’ opponents heard the news, they resolved that he must be die. Lazarus rising is a miracle that anticipates and precipitates the crucifixion. It would not be long before Jesus’ friends would weep for him.

In our times of grief, we long for the sort of miracle that Jesus worked in Bethany—spectacular and immediate. Give us back our loved one, Jesus. Restore our diminishing abilities, Lord. Fix our irreparable marriages. Give us back our job with a pay raise to boot. Every once in a while, the extraordinary does happen. That new treatment works. The coach gives us a second chance.  Our ex realizes they’ve made a huge mistake. We thank our lucky stars, and sometimes we may even thank God.

More often, our miracles slowly unfold. The Lord who weeps with us awakens us to hope and, bit by bit, we find renewed and abundant life, even in the presence of death. Our brains change. Those intense waves of grief come less frequently. We begin to sleep through the night. One day, we are surprised to hear the sound of our own laughter. There may still be a hole in our hearts, but we find that, with the Lord’s help, we can live around it. Just outside the edge of our awareness, we hear Jesus. He calls to us with great compassion and patience, saying, “Come out!” Somehow, we rise and begin again.

That scholar of grief, Mary-Frances O’Connor, says that the best way for us to be with people who grieve is a lot like what Jesus did for his friends Martha and Mary, the non-miraculous work, that is. We listen to them. We allow them to name their experience. We share our feelings. We weep with them. We show up and walk with them as it all sinks in, and the grief waves roll on, and their brains change. We hold onto hope when the future cannot be seen. We trust that at the right time, in the right way, they will come out. May it be so. Amen.

Resources

Berly McCoy. “How Your Brain Copes with Grief and Why It Takes Time to Heal,” NPR Science and Health, Dec. 20, 2021. Accessed online at npr.org

Adrian A. Fletcher. “Honoring Grief and Coping with Loss” in Psychology Today, August 9, 2022. Accessed online at psychologytoday.org.

Meda Stamper. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, April 10, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, April 6, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 11:1-45

11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Call to Serve

Throughout Lent, I’ll be sharing weekly devotions based upon my travels to the Middle East. Today’s meditation is the fifth in the series.

“Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God. So, He got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him.”

—John 13:3-5

The traditional site of the Last Supper is found on Mount Zion in the neighborhood of Jerusalem known as the City of David. In Jesus’ day, it would have been a prosperous neighborhood, home perhaps to an affluent follower of Jesus who made his residence available for the Passover celebration. As early as the year 130 CE, there was a “little church of God” in this location, most likely a house church where Christians gathered discretely in a time when they were strongly persecuted. Many churches have since stood on this spot. Two were destroyed by fire in the years 614 and again in 965. The current building was constructed by the Franciscans in 1335. The “Upper Room,” commemorated as the location of the Last Supper, is simply constructed with vaulted ceiling, Gothic arches, and white-washed-walls. It’s been sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Tomb of David is housed in the lower level of the same building, and from 1524 to 1948 the building housed a mosque.

What Jesus chose to do as the Passover meal began was the work of the lowest status member of a household, a labor normally undertaken by a menial servant or slave. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Perhaps we can imagine him in the golden glow of oil lamps as he rolled up his sleeves, fell to his knees, and moved from one of his followers to another. He cradled their road-weary heels, poured water to wash away the grime of the day, and then gently toweled them dry. The busy chatter that precedes the Passover seder would have fallen silent, the disciples profoundly uncomfortable to have a high-status rabbi like Jesus serving them.

It was an object lesson in humility, setting the example of self-giving love and humble service. Within twenty-four hours, Jesus would set an even greater example, giving his life for the sins of the world.

How will you follow Jesus in the way of humble service?

Please pray with me . . .

Gentle and humble Lord, may love put us on our knees today. Amen.


“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”–Augustine

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
―Therese of Lisieux

“I am persuaded that love and humility are the highest attainments in the school of Christ and the brightest evidences that He is indeed our Master.”–John Newton

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.”― Jana Stanfield


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cenacle_corner_2.jpg

Passage

Poem for a Tuesday — “Passage” by Denise Levertov

The spirit that walked upon the face of the waters
walks the meadow of long grass;
green shines to silver where the spirit passes.

Wind from the compass points, sun at meridian,
these are forms the spirit enters,
breath, ruach, light that is witness and by which we witness.

The grasses numberless, bowing and rising, silently
cry hosanna as the spirit
moves them and moves burnishing

over and again upon mountain pastures
a day of spring, a needle’s eye
space and time are passing through like a swathe of silk.

in Oblique Prayers, New Castle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 80.


When British-American poet Denise Levertov was five years old, she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hasidic Jew who taught at the University of Leipzig. During the First World War, he was held under house arrest as an enemy alien by virtue of his ethnicity. After emigrating to the UK, he converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. Denise said, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.” She was described by the New York Times as, “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving.” She wrote and published twenty-four books of poetry.


Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

Now I See!

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Now I See” John 9:1-38

It’s been twenty years since the death of Fred Rogers. Fred was a college student, home on break, when he saw his first television set and immediately recognized it as a powerful tool for communication and education. Fred later worked as a program manager for Pittsburgh’s first public television station, but he attended seminary classes on his lunch hour. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963 with the unusual charge to do ministry through mass media. In describing his sense of vocation, Fred felt he was called to use every talent that had ever been given to him—writing, music, puppetry, faith, kindness—in the service of children and their families.

From 1968 to 2001, Rogers ministered to pre-school children through 896 episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred tapped into his past experience as a chubby, chronically sick, lonely kid to help children face their own childhood fears and insecurities. He tackled tough topics, like divorce and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He explored how good people could sometimes do things that weren’t so good. Through his puppet Daniel Tiger, Rogers even voiced the grief and alienation that children feel when they sense they are unwanted or unloved. Those 896 visits to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” were an extended tutorial in the core Christian values of caring, inclusion, and kindness.

In our reading from John’s gospel, we meet a visually-impaired man, who had known little of caring, inclusion, or kindness before he met Jesus. Born blind in a world where disability was attributed to sin, people took one look at this man and presumed that either he, as an unborn child, or his parents had violated the Torah and invited the wrath of God. His disability rendered him unclean, unable to enter the Temple to worship or to work and associate with his Torah-observant neighbors. He was forced to beg for a living from a mat stationed outside a gateway to the Temple. There, he hoped that some would do a good deed—a mitzvah— on their way to prayer by placing a coin in his bowl.

Then one day, Jesus and his friends were leaving the Temple. Spotting the disabled man, the disciples asked Jesus a rabbinic question, looking for Jesus to interpret the scriptures, “Who sinned, Rabbi, this man or his parents?” But Jesus refused to engage their assumption that disability was the result of sin. Instead, Jesus stopped, spit into his hand, added some dirt to make a muddy paste and applied it to the man’s sightless eyes. Next, he instructed the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, more than half a mile away. Jesus didn’t even stick around to see the outcome of his kindness.

What happened next was an extended public debate involving the neighbors, the man’s parents, and some powerful religious leaders.  Reading this story again this week through the lens of Mr. Rogers’ neighborliness and caring got me thinking about the visually-impaired man—and how the characters in this story are blind to who he really is. To the disciples, the man is an opportunity for a teaching moment. To the neighbors, unable to recognize him even though the man has been in their midst for years, the man is his disability. To the parents, who should be in the man’s corner, he is a source of shame and danger. To the Pharisees and Temple leaders, the man is a sinner, so they ban him from the Temple. A teaching moment, a disability, an embarrassment, a sinner? No one truly sees this man.

It’s tempting to judge the neighbors, the parents, the Pharisees, and Judeans, until we look in the mirror and see our own inability to see. We constantly make assessments and assumptions about one another. Even the best of us makes assumptions that spring from our understanding of gender, ability, race, age, and political convictions, beliefs that we often acquire very early—in our homes, our schools, our communities, and even our churches. We all carry pictures in our heads, whether we want to or not. The big rainbow flag that Duane and I have on our porch may lead you to make some judgments about us, just as the enormous Trump banner that our neighbor has been flying since 2015 may lead you to make some judgments about him. 

In 1922, psychologist and researcher Walter Lippman coined the term “stereotype” to name our inherent bias and prejudice.  We all have a cognitive framework that we fit people into. Indeed, it feels natural, normal, dependable, and comfortable to slip people into that cognitive framework. The trouble is that it isn’t true because we don’t take the time to really consider or understand who people truly are. Lippman rightly described our stereotypes and prejudice as a casual cruelty. We do not see people. We don’t take the time to go deeper, to understand, to know. We can be blind.

The only person in today’s story who truly sees the visually impaired man is Jesus. It’s right there in the first verse, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” The Greek word here for “saw” is ʽorao, meaning to perceive, to know, to have spiritual perception or insight. Behold, Jesus saw the blind man and knew that this man was someone to hold onto, hold close, hold up. Jesus saw the blind man and knew his vulnerability and loneliness, his shame and grief, his isolation and hurt. Jesus saw the blind man and recognized not a disability, not a scandal, not a sinner, but instead someone intended to glorify God.

If Jesus and Fred Rogers were here with us this morning, they might invite us to wonder together. Can we imagine a world where we do not fit people into those convenient mental frameworks of gender, ability, age, race, or politics? It would be a world where we “see” that all people deserve our compassionate care and all have the inherent capacity to give God the glory. It is a world where, in our true and authentic interactions with others, we come to know one another better, and we learn to serve God more truly. That’s what they call the Kingdom.

I think that Fred Rogers did his best to give us a foretaste of that world. He did that by calling us his neighbors. Not his friends, not his little learners, not his flock. His neighbors. He wanted us to honor that great commandment to love God and neighbor. He, like Jesus, wanted us to see one another, in all our frailty and difference, and to know that we are loveable, that we owe one another the debt of noticing, caring, welcoming, and sharing kindness.

 In subtly subversive ways, Fred showed us who our neighbors are. When pools were still segregated in some parts of our country, Mr. Rogers invited the Black policeman Officer Clemmons to dip his feet into a kiddie pool with him. The two even dried off using the same towel.

In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Lady Elaine Fairchild taught us that girls could move past the gender limits placed upon them. They could become managers, doctors, mayors, or even astronauts.

In a time when families of children with disabilities were fighting for access to schools and facilities for their children, Mr. Rogers featured children with disabilities on his show.  One was a seven-year-old quadriplegic boy, Jeff Erlanger. They had met two years earlier when young Jeff was scheduled to undergo major surgery and asked his parents if they could first arrange for him to meet Mr. Rogers. They wrote to Fred and he made time during a promotional visit to Milwaukee to meet with the family. Afterward, they continued to keep in touch.  When Jeff made his appearance on Fred’s show, he explained how his electric wheelchair worked and why he needed it. Then Jeff and Fred sang a duet of that corny-but-deeply-true Mr. Rogers’ song, “It’s You I Like.”

When later asked by a reporter why their five-year-old child would want to meet Fred Rogers before undergoing major surgery, Howard and Pam Erlanger explained that Jeff “always said that Mister Rogers told him that he was special and that he was just fine the way he was, and it gave him confidence and it made him feel good, and Mister Rogers just seemed to love him.” It was as if Mr. Rogers could really “see” Jeff, kind of like the way that Jesus could “see” the blind man. Fred Rogers beheld Jeff, knew that this child was someone to hold onto, hold close, hold up.

Nearly twenty years later, when Fred was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, Jeff surprised him, rolling onto stage to present the award. In true Mr. Rogers’ form, Fred got so excited that he ran up onto the stage and hugged Jeff as if they were the only two people in the auditorium. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Jeff said in presenting the award to Fred, “It’s You I like.”

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, my friends. It’s a day, like every day, made for us to notice and care, love and share. May we go forth to truly see and serve our neighbors.

Resources:

Jason Fraley. “Remembering Mr. Rogers Twenty Years after the Death of Our Favorite Neighbor” in WTOP News, Feb. 27, 2023. Accessed online at wtop.com.

Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 9:1-41” in Preaching This Week, March 30, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Osvaldo Vena. “Commentary on John 9:1-41” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Shea Tuttle. “Seven Lessons from Mr. Rogers that Can Help Americans Be Neighbors Again” in Greater Good Magazine, July 13, 2018. Accessed online at greatergood.berkeley.edu.

Maxwell King. “How ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ Championed Children with Disabilities” in Guideposts. Accessed online at http://www.guideposts.org

–. “About Fred Rogers” in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Accessed online at misterrogers.org.


John 9:1-38

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.


https://www.pbs.org/video/mister-rogers-neighborhood-its-you-i-like/

Click the link above to hear Jeff and Fred singing “It’s You I Like.”