For 9:30 class on 4/14: Holy Week Explored

We’ll go through Holy Week and explore its incredibly rich texture–a weaving together of emotions and perspectives spanning great contrasts. The only reading is the gospel narrative of Holy Week in Luke, 19:28 -24:12.



5th in Lent (4/7): “Embracing Mortality in Christ”

The last and most depressing of our studies in Ecclesiastes, bringing out something interesting in Paul. We tried serving communion using the cross as a table, which seemed to go pretty well. 

Ecclesiastes 3:18-22

Philippians 3:4b-14

Lent is inevitably colored by the awareness of our mortality, and that color is ash. Lent begins with the gesture of receiving ashes, a sign in the Bible of repentance but also mourning, which when combined with those words, cut us to the heart: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If you think those word are difficult to hear, and they are, try saying them to the two people you love above all others. Those words are from Genesis 3, but I was surprised to find them echoed in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher seems to relish the old saying momento mori, remember you are mortal, as much as any beast./ It’s good that we receive the ashes, and take our mortality to heart. Ecclesiastes finds in it another call to enjoy our work. We shall see that Paul is not saying something completely different, although he does have more to say.

Not many people are comfortable thinking about death; it is quite the impolite topic of conservation. But when faith can speak to what people fear and are uncomfortable about, and address that not in a pompous, we-got-it-all-figured-out kind of way, but with vulnerable honesty—as does Ecclesiastes at his best—then words spoken from faith can take us and others to a place of tremendous power. The power of faith is the power of truth, truth that includes, and does not exclude, doubt, especially in the face of death.

Who could say that our culture does a good job being honest and humble about mortality? OF course we fear it; that’s natural. So we distract ourselves from it, busying ourselves with work and entertainment as if time just goes on and on. But we’ve also developed an elaborate industry that provides fake triumphant encounters with death, by which we try in effect to stick our tongues out at it. In our action movies the hero cheats death in ever-more miraculous ways. In horror movies, we cheat death by walking out alive, feeling like we dodged the bullet. Dare-devil sports work the same way—sky divine, bungee jumping and the rest. But bigger than any of those, especially with you young ones among us, video games entice you to kill freely and without consequence, and die just as easily, only to pop back up on the screen as if nothing happened. Much of this is fun, truly, and it speaks to our courage to confront mortality—but honestly? It’s all as cowardly as it is courageous. None of it comes close to the brutal honesty of Ecclesiastes.

And our religious attitudes often evade that honesty. We talk of floating away to go to be with our loved ones, as if after death we simply perpetuate our life of middle-class domestic pleasantries. “That’s just what happens,” someone told me recently, and it seemed as if Jesus or even God had nothing to do with it. Is all this just an evasion of the reality of death, as well as the reality of suffering? Should we count on God to perpetuate our privileges into eternity, when those privileges are so unfairly shared across a globe, with so many suffering and dying unjustly?

Paul was a good, pious, middle class Jew. But then he came to know Christ Jesus as my Lord, and he counted all that middle class privilege as loss, as “rubbish” according to our polite translation (my Greek-expert friend Peter translated the word as “turds.”) Paul had no interest in hanging on to what he’s got, on “taking it with him.” Indeed, he has lost interest in having even a “righteousness of my own,” as he says, preferring to be found in Christ. Thus Paul took on suffering, persecutions, imprisonment, and the rest to be Christ’s instrument in transforming this world. For to know Christ is to share in his sufferings and to “Become like Christ in his death.” Faith is no “floating away,” no evasion of death. Faith leads you to it, but now with purpose and on behalf of others.

To die in conformity to Christ is as much Paul’s hope as resurrection. It’s not that giving up his privileges and even his comfort is the price Paul is willing to pay for resurrection. Both come with the knowing righteousness in Christ. When it comes to resurrection, Paul shows no certainty of his reward: “If somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” Paul is not sitting back counting his reward like money in the bank. Faith in Christ makes him press on, “strain forward.”

The truthfulness of faith makes us lose our taste for falsehoods about mortality. And striving still further, faith in Christ, knowing him in his suffering and death as well as the power of his resurrection, makes us loose interest in preserving ourselves, attuning ourselves instead to the call of God to make ourselves gifts to the world.



9:30 Class for March 31: Romans 1:15-2

We talked about Paul’s difficult passage on the origin of sin in Romans. A few quick points:

  • Everything he asserts about sin is the obverse (flip side) of the meaning he finds in Jesus (justification by grace, verses 15-16).  So it’s belief in grace that drives Paul to take a hard look at the human condition.
  • His description of the origin of sin is hard to follow (or it hardly follows!). But it provides four human faults that often lie behind sin. We do these things:
    • Not honoring God
    • Not giving thanks
    • Futile in thinking, mind darkened: can’t see the way, can’t figure it all out
    • Claiming to wise when we’re not
    • Putting something else in an ultimate place where only God belongs

That’s a useful way to diagnose where sin comes from; but Paul’s purposes are rhetorical and should not be taken as a complete account.

And then there’s the infamous passage on homosexuality. I offer the following statement, since this passage has been cited by those who disagree with our congregation’s stance on being Open and Affirming:

Paul uses same-sex relations as an illustration of the mistaken “exchange” he sees in idolatry (which is the real sin, as far as he is concerned). Like many in the ancient world, Paul sees gay sex as “unnatural,” as a sign that something has been knocked out of whack. But it’s really just an illustration, perhaps meant to gross people out. It is also a swipe at pagans, whom Jews like Paul would associate with all kinds of immoral behavior (not always fairly). Romans were famous for their sexual libertine ways, and so were the Greeks (where homosexual practices would often have fallen under our category of statutory rape).

There is much written on this topic. It is important to note that Paul does not harp on homosexuality–he does not return to it in his lists of sins. Nor does it come up in the gospels. And frankly the Bible is not going to be very helpful on this issue. No one before recent times has considered the possibility of regularized, monogamous, even marital same-sex couples. And in our experience, it seems to work out fine! The fact that the Bible does not consider what no one considered for another 1900 years is not surprising. Nor need it be disturbing–no more so than that the Bible nowhere questions or condemns the institution of slavery. Including Paul.

Next Sunday (April 6) we’ll continue in Romans 2 (up to 2:15). And we’ll see the whole conversation does a flip!

4th in Lent (3/31): “Nothing—New—Creation”

Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17

How much of your life is, or has been, a relentless chasing after the new? There are new products, new technologies, new therapies. Yes, technology is impressive, except that about 80% of it is just hype. Speaking of hype, there’s the news. I confess that I am ritually addicted to my NPR and New York Times news feed. These are moderately skewed, according to ratings of news sites (available once again in the narthex). So I could do worse. And good journalism is noble work and so essential. But growth in the media market has been toward the hyper-partisan sources, which are helping to rip apart our social fabric—and we feel that here. So during Lent I’ve tried to just turn it off, once I realize that not much happened today that I really need to hear about.

Then there’s all the other buzz we are fed: advertisements for the latest products, the hot new series on tv, the waxing and waning of professional sports seasons, the endless stream of facebook feed—what’s with all the feed, anyway? It makes our screens sound like something that belongs strapped on a horse. It certainly doesn’t sound like the food and drink of enjoyment in Ecclesiastes, not to mention the bread of life which leaves us never again hungry, as Jesus promises in John’s gospel.

It is good to stay connected and involved, I suppose, including in the lives of friends through Facebook. But it is sadly conducive to artificial presentation, if not outright hate speech; you can’t get away with that in face-to-face embodied relationship.

But it’s no wonder that our media system and the economy that sponsors it overplays the new and news: our economy depends on an endless output of things we don’t own or know yet—the new. Classics, including Scripture, don’t make anyone much money. But the new and the news is a bottomless goldmine. And fearing that we might wake up to the fact that it’s mostly pretty empty, the ad people give us the added incentive of competition, of us against them: follow us and you’ll know something those other fools don’t know, you’ll get the real story, the story those liberals or those conservatives or those elites don’t want you to hear.

Ecclesiastes can be helpful to kick our can off this treadmill. We already heard him say in chapter one: “There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” It’s true; there’s very little new and unique in our daily life. But in today’s reading he revises a little, conceding that time isn’t just monotony: “For everything there is a season,” his most famous verse. This timeliness comes from God, who has “made everything suitable for its time.” The wise will take advantage. But beyond ebbs and flow, if God has a grand plan in the march from past to future, we can’t know it; we “cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.” So there is nothing really new as far as we can see: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.”

This is a harsh tonic against the foundational belief of the modern world, whose banner is technology: that progress is inevitable, that the future will always be better. Trust in the new, because it is inevitably better than the present. Who needs God, or even ethics, when progress comes of its own accord? Ecclesiastes’ cynicism can helpfully disabuse us of this deeply embedded modern confidence, as well as it’s arch-rival: the olden days were the golden days. He counters that one in 7:10: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”

But having heard all that, is there something we hear in the gospel, the good news, that Ecclesiastes doesn’t know, despite his hedged claims to wisdom? And is there more to hope for than just enjoying life and work in the present, whenever time permits?

Paul speaks in a mysterious way of something genuinely new in Christ. And I think he would say that both our news junkies of today and cynical ol’ Ecclesiastes are stuck in “a human point of view;” literally, Paul says “from now on [that is, from this new point of departure] we regard no one according to the flesh.” The flesh, which for Paul means the old, ego-centered regime (whether that comes out as self-love or self-loathing). Something about Christ tells Paul that the flesh regime is old and has already passed away. And in fact it’s very simple: “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves.” In contrast, the news regime endlessly promises something new for you to possess and set yourself off against those who aren’t in the know. Even Ecclesiastes seems too concerned to distinguish himself as wise against those who are fools.

But notice for Paul: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This new is completely unbounded and includes everything in its newness. It cannot be possessed. It cannot set me off from you. How can this be? We see in Christ that the kingdom of ego has already passed away, it has no future in God: “Because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” All ego is done. And the only way the Kingdom of ego can threaten or entice us is to appeal to or threaten our ego; but it has no power over those in Christ’s kingdom; if you live no longer for yourself, you are free. “If,” as Paul says, and it’s a big IF, “anyone is in Christ.”

Bear with me a little longer while I apply this close to home. Some of us will keep showing up at the Board meeting with our cute little new idea, and that’s good. And then sister or brother Ecclesiastes on the Board will glower, “We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work. There’s nothing new under the sun.” And there is wisdom in this saying. We can still have a good, productive difference of view, but not if both of you are regarding each other according to the flesh, in which case you both think that you alone know the secret to good results. And so it’s a standoff: new blood against the old timer. But if you are in Christ, it doesn’t really matter who, that is, which ego, is right about this or that idea. Arguments over the new direction we should take become just a fun exploration for curiosity’s sake—what if?—not about my view versus your view. /What matters, what’s really new, is that there is no me, no you, no kingdom of ego. That’s where our victory is already to be found, or at least, that’s the future which beckons us—in “the love of Christ, which urges us on;” that’s the new creation which awaits us this Lenten season.



Third in Lent (3/24): “Bearing Fruit Amid Fate’s Time”

I was pleased with this sermon (I say this realizing that I can be wrong!), particularly how the reading I added from Ecclesiastes, in keeping with my series, connected with the lectionary reading in Luke. And the idea of God creating from chaos is a recent one for me, which I have found helpful. One person expressed appreciation for it, but everyone else was pretty quiet. I wonder if Ecclesiastes is just too heavy for some, even though I am deliberately countering it with the Gospel? Tell me what’s going on in the comment option below. I’m also curious whether passing out figs after added anything to it. 

Ecclesiastes 9:1-12; Luke 13:1-9

Our reading from Ecclesiastes for today is harsh—well, the whole book is harsh, unsparing, and pessimistic. The Teacher proclaims: “The same fate comes to everyone:” whether good or bad, wise or foolish, religious or irreligious. He summarizes with an often-quoted, painfully beautiful passage: “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

People resist this conclusion. We cling to the belief that everything happens for a reason. We want the world we see to all make sense, and to be fair. We believe this against all evidence to the contrary. And we even import this belief into religious faith: “God always has a reason.” For a long time, I myself hung on to this faith that the world must make sense, but Ecclesiastes helped me think differently. Of course, God is active in the world—more than Ecclesiastes cares to see: active in the creative energy of the world, and especially active in the Word that calls the world into redemption. But God’s action in creation and redemption is mysterious, not automatic; surely Ecclesiastes is right that God’s no puppet master. He’s helped me see something helpful in the story of creation’s beginning in Genesis 1: “The world was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” God calls the world into order out of this primeval, watery, senseless chaos. But the senseless chaos never goes away. Time and chance happens to us all, because time and chance is the very stuff from which all is made. This is what Ecclesiastes shows us.

So does Jesus. He can be just as harsh as Ecclesiastes, especially in chapters 12-13 in Luke, where he said just previously: “I came to bring fire to the earth… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In our reading, Jesus is the gardener, giving this wicked, fruitless fig tree one more chance. Lent is an appropriate time to hear this, and to harshly test ourselves and our “perverse generation;” a time to place ourselves before God’s judgment—provided we are well grounded in God’s grace. Amid his harsh sayings Jesus reminds his disciples: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

In our gospel reading for today, some in the crowd imagine they are getting into the spirit of all this. So they say for Jesus’ approval: “Hey, you remember those Galileans that Pilate had slaughtered? (Pilate was the Roman strongman governor.) They must have had it coming.” They say this with an air of superiority: those wicked fools bought it. But God must approve of us, for here we are alive and well. And God’s in control, right?

Jesus isn’t buying it, and he goes all Ecclesiastes on them: Do you think they suffered because they were worse sinners than the rest of you? And what about those 18 who died when a tower fell on them? (I didn’t know any artist had ever depicted this, but there it is on our bulletin cover.) Are you going to tell me God did that to punish them? Sorry. Time and chance happen to us all. Don’t put that on God.

Jesus sees that the world is subject to senseless chaos. And to brutality: the order that reigns is often at the hands of unjust lords like Pilate and his self-seeking Roman thugs. But Jesus also sees what Ecclesiastes doesn’t. ‘Don’t think for a moment that God is absent, far away, unconcerned. God is judging the world right now—not by the bloodletting of tyrants, or by pushing towers onto passers-by. But by me, and my words, and the conscience in you that I am awakening. God is once again calling this chaotic and perverse world into order. So now is the time to repent. Don’t gloat over the dead, for you too will perish just as they did.’ “Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.”

Ecclesiastes can only commend the simple pleasures: eat, celebrate when appropriate, love your family and friends, and do your work. Jesus did all that too. But he proclaimed the possibility of repentance: turn away from all the unwholesome vanity and wickedness that God never intended for creation. (Take a look at the ways to observe Lent card if you need ideas.) And turn to God for real life.

Every day we participate in the things that perish: food, celebration, friendship and family, and work. That’s fine and natural, for we are creatures. Ecclesiastes is right that we should embrace these pleasures and responsibilities for what they are. But every day we also participate in what kills, mostly slowly and invisibly. It’s time to discern these things and turn away from them. And then turn to God, for every day we can and do participate in what is eternal, what is lifted up into God’s eternal being—that which is true and just and good—the fruit of God’s vineyard, over which God is watching. Live and be fruitful in God.


9:30 Adult class: Genesis 2-3

We enjoyed a rich discussion on March 17, but we only just got started on Genesis. We made it through chapter 2, ending with discussion about what “naked” means. Everyone seemed to agree that it was a symbol, but of what? Most people seemed persuaded to interpret Adam and Eve not as fully formed adults (that’s how Augustine and much of Christian tradition has interpreted it), but as something like children. And we talked about how children go through a clear transition to becoming aware and self-conscious about being naked.

We’ll pick it up there on Sunday, and then break into pairs to see if this story helps us understand our own youthful experiences and our changing relationship with God.