Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
A great deal of importance was placed on burial in the Jewish religion in ancient times. Ordinary citizens, military personnel, and even criminals had to be properly buried, according to religious law. It was an old Jewish custom to place the dead in the sepulcher, which would remain unsealed for the space of three days, during which period the body was frequently visited by members of the family in the hope that signs of a return to life would be found.
Many men and women had traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Never did any of them imagine when they set out from home to follow the one who embodied their hopes and dreams that their journey would take them to Calvary instead, reluctant witnesses to Jesus’ death.
Matthew tells us that, of all the disciples who had made the trip, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were the ones who were still around when evening came. Only they were present to watch as Joseph of Arimathea, in accordance with Jewish tradition, prepared Jesus’ body for burial, laid him in a tomb, rolled a big stone across the entry, and then went away. They were the sole ones to witness that Jesus’ body had been properly respected, the last ones to mourn publicly for him, and the only ones to keep watch for any signs of life.
The very next day, in spite of the fact that Jesus already had been crucified and died, some of the religious authorities must have been afraid that burial might not be enough to keep him down. They went to Pilate, pleading that he order the tomb to be sealed and the grave secured until the end of the third day. It is interesting that Pilate did not actually issue such an order. Instead, he told the authorities that if they wanted such an unusual thing (actually sealing the tomb) to be done, they would have to do it; and so they did. The religious authorities themselves went to the tomb, sealed it, and posted a guard on loan to them from Pilate to keep watch. And so it was in this way that everything that could be done was done to ensure that the one the authorities had killed would stay dead.
Until preparing this reflection, I confess that I had probably paid too little attention to that which took place on the day after Jesus was crucified and buried. Perhaps because of the deep sadness I always feel on Good Friday and the absolute joy that courses through me on Easter, the fact that a whole day came in between had just never before carried any significance for me. That has now changed.
I think of the times in my own life when someone intentionally put an obstacle in my way that they believed I would never overcome. I think of the occasions when others did everything they could to make sure that my dreams died, never to rise again, and when people just gave up on me. I even think of the moments when I was the one with the power and sealed another’s fate. I also think of when I’ve been in what I call the “in-between times.” This is what I call the period between the time when one door closes and another one opens or the time after “what was” and before “what’s next.” Regardless of the surrounding circumstances or anyone’s intention, the impact of all these kinds of situations is often an emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual death experienced as struggle, suffering, and conflict.
The good news of this Gospel is that even when it seems as though the circumstances are killing us, we do not have to die. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The hotel owner Sonny says to his disappointed British guests: “In India, we have a saying: ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ So if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.” Outward appearances are often deceiving. Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better. Do not give up too soon.
One of my favorite life coaches is Iyanla Vanzant. When writing about where God is when someone has seemingly sealed our fate or when we are in those in-between times, she offers these words of wisdom:
I once read that struggle, suffering, and conflict are like magnets that draw us closer to God. It is not until we feel totally helpless, confused, sometimes desperate, that we become willing or able to turn to the awesome power of life and living our Creator offers us. We may know God exists. We may understand our connection to God. Yet it seems that it is not until we are down or on the way down that we invite God’s presence and power into our life. It doesn’t have to be this way. God not only offers emergency care, S/He is a source of preventive care.
Your Creator always wants the best for you. Your Creator has a mission, plan, and purpose designed just for you. Sometimes when things are going our way, when they are comfortable or easy, we forget about God. We get off track, out of line; we move away from the plan, mission, and purpose. Difficulties in life are not meant to break us or break us down. Our greatest challenge may be a simple reminder, the only way we will remember that there is a Higher Authority to whom we are accountable. The real challenge we face is to keep God, God’s word, and God’s way in the forefront of our mind — in good times as well as bad.
From Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace
by Iyanla Vanzant
Our challenge this day is to enter into a state of acceptance — to know that all is well, even when we do not see or understand how it will turn out. God’s compassions never fail and are new every morning. Even when we are behind sealed tombs, we can trust that God is up to something good.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Rev. Elder Ken Martin
Tenebrae is possibly the oldest continuously observed liturgy in Christianity. Dating from the third century, it is a solemn commemoration of communion traditionally observed on Good Friday. In this service, eight candles are gradually extinguished, taking the worship space slowly from light to darkness. Tenebrae means darkness, and the candles symbolize the denial and flight of Jesus’ disciples and friends during his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Recently, I passed a wreck on a country road near our home. I could see the flashing lights far ahead, but there were so many cars backed up, it was hard to see what had happened. Traffic was backed up not because the road was closed but because everyone wanted to see. People slowed down to stare at the crushed metal, the broken glass. They looked around for victims or survivors. We’ve probably all done that.
Today, the wreck is right here. We have all pulled over to see what has happened. It is horrible, but we can’t look away. We want to know what has happened, but in the end, it will defy our understanding.
There will always be someone ready to give a simple, easy answer. Some will say things like, “The only way to appease God was with innocent blood. So Jesus had to die because he was innocent.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about God. Others will say, “We are all born guilty, so unworthy and stained by Adam’s sin that the only way God could save us was by sacrificing Jesus.” They will say that without ever stopping to think what that says about us.
I admit it. Every year when we get to this part of our faith story, I want to skip it. The wreckage of the cross breaks our hearts because we know that, of all people, Jesus does not deserve to be there. Why can’t we just go from the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday to the glory and hope of Easter? It is because God insists that we cannot understand and experience Easter until we have entered fully into what has gone before.
When we are faithful and tell the whole story of the life of Jesus during this week, it makes almost impossible emotional demands of us. These events evoke the most fearful and abhorrent feelings we can ever imagine. And then literally over night, we celebrate a hope and joy we could never have imagined. This is a story of the most extreme and dramatic tragedies and joys that life can hold. Jesus lived these extremes so that we would never doubt that he is capable of understanding anything that we might experience. Because of Good Friday, we never have to doubt the presence of God as he did. The one who was abandoned promises us that we never have to be alone. What could we ever say or do that would shock him? How could we ever question God more deeply than he did?
The one who suffered most becomes the comforter to those who suffer now. In the darkness of Good Friday, we are asked to look at the things we dread and fear the most: denial and betrayal, fear and suffering, rejection and abandonment…and finally death. These things are real in our lives and in the lives of those we love. And yet, through it all, we are asked to be faithful. For those few closest to Jesus 2,000 years ago, the question of faithfulness and loyalty versus betrayal and abandonment was to him personally. Would they stand with him in his suffering? Would they remain true to what they were beginning to believe about him? Or would they run out of fear and indecision?
We were not there then. But the question still remains. Will we be faithful to the promises we make? Will we flee when we are called into Christian community that holds us accountable for our lives and actions? Will we run when we are asked through prayer and service to be with those through whom Christ is suffering today? Where are the crosses standing in our world today; who is being crucified today? Who is suffering at the hands of the same injustice, greed and power that crucified Jesus? Who is being despised and rejected and oppressed? Will we be faithful to create a church in the name of Jesus Christ where they are not forgotten?
There are almost as many question marks as periods in this meditation. I suppose that is an admission that Good Friday still defies my understanding. Except for this…at the end of the Tenebrae service, when darkness appears to have overcome the Light, there is a ninth candle. It stands alone, its tiny flame struggling to hold back a world of darkness. Its little light holds the only promise that can make any sense of Good Friday. It is this…with God, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Rev. Elder Hector Gutierrez
In the religious experience of the Latin American people, Holy Week has a privileged place, yet has increasingly lost more ground to people taking days of rest or vacation, opting to reserve these days to enjoy themselves on the beach with the family. On the other hand, Holy Week still retains all of the experiences of suffering and accompaniment of Jesus on his way to the central mystery of our faith: “Passion, Death and Resurrection.” There is that intangible something about the approach of the suffering and the cross, which combines almost seamlessly with how our Latin American continent suffered life.
My theological training has been greatly impacted by the work and reflections of Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian theologian, who was requested to travel to Rome to explain one of his major works “Jesus, An Experiment In Christology.” The Vatican wanted him to answer only one question, “Was your idea to write a new Gospel?” Schillebeeckx replied, “Quidquid recipitur ad modo recipientis recipitur.” (What is received, is received to the mode of the container). He explained that it was his intention to communicate his experience, his Christology and its way of relating to and with Jesus. One of the main themes of Schillebeeckx’s theological thought was that while the first followers of Jesus left us stories of their experience, their experience with the Messiah, these same stories are still used to create the current followers of Jesus. I believe that we are called to write, precisely what he proposed, our Gospel, our vision and spirituality in accordance with the Jesus whom we follow.
Holy Thursday reminds us of the memorial of the last supper, which we celebrate and remember each week when we gather and worship in each of our local communities. We proclaim that it is central to our being UFMCC. The celebration of the memory of this day, with our eyes steadfast on Easter Sunday, is the crucified and risen Christ, to whom we remember in our act of holding the table open, so that all are welcome to participate. We recall that the Gospel offers us the healthy practice of Jesus sharing meals with his friends and disciples. At MCC, we recover this privileged sign of common-Union, which on the one hand reminds us of the sacrament that Jesus performed, as it also commits us to remain responsive and always ready to welcome all, especially those who want to participate in the approach to the Altar of Jesus Christ.
We, the men and women of MCC, are stories of God. We have to write in our lives and communities, our experience and contemporary spirituality. We must commit ourselves to continue to carry forward the liberating message, the mandate of the fully inclusive love. We are called to transform ourselves as we transform the world with the message of the new gospel that we are called to write with our lives, our testimonials, our efforts, our projects and our faith.
This Maundy Thursday, we have the opportunity to renew our response to the call that God has for us, to be fearless in participating in your table. Let’s be daring to accept the invitation, but above all, let us move forward courageously with the invitation of Jesus to have him in our lives, to present the good news in our interactions with others, to be the presence of the Christ in the world today.
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
For many years during the month of October, my spouse Deb and I would make a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo. It is a little church nestled in the village of Chimayo, New Mexico, USA, about 30 miles North of Santa Fe. According to legend, a man by the name of Bernardo Abeyto was in the nearby hills doing penance during Holy Week in 1810 when he suddenly noticed a strange light several hills away. He went to see the light and saw that it came from the ground, so he started to dig and found a wooden cross with the carved image of the Black Christ of Guatemala.
Twice, Don Bernardo, along with a priest and other pilgrims, formed a procession and took the cross to a nearby village in Santa Cruz. Each time, the cross mysteriously returned to the hills, and after its third return, they decided the cross wanted to stay at the place of its origin, which is Chimayo. So, Don Bernardo Abeyto built the santuario in 1813 to house the miracle.
To this day, people make pilgrimage during Holy Week, walking barefoot for miles to El Santuario’s doors to ask for healing. The original cross is still in the main church, and there is a prayer room off to the side of the chapel with the sacred pit where Don Bernardo first found the crucifix. The pit is a low-ceiling room with a hole in the stone floor. In the hole is holy dirt known for its healing powers. People kneel and pray there and are allowed to take some of the dirt. There is a sign that reads, ‘Limit, one bag of holy dirt per family.’ The prayer room is filled with crutches and braces left behind by the healed, and there are hand-written notes of testimony to the power of this holy place.
On Palm Sunday, we wave our palms in order to remember Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem the last days of his life. Some of the Palms of this day will be dried and burned to create ‘Holy Dirt’ — the Ashes for next year’s Lent — and some of the Palms will be fashioned into little crosses to remind us how quickly our cries of “hosanna” turn into “crucify him.”
Originally this day was called The Sunday of the Passion, and it began with a procession and palms, which were only a dramatic prelude to the day. The real focus was on the reading of the passion of Jesus, which would then be read again on Good Friday. Over the years, the palms have been separated from the passion. We find ourselves, as one writer has said, ‘seduced by the palms.’ I wonder why? I think it has to do with our ‘passion threshold.’ We know Good Friday is right around the corner, so we hold off as long as we can, because it is an unpleasant experience. We don’t want to go there!
This Sunday is an invitation to enter into the passion of Jesus. It is a threshold experience that offers opportunity for transformation — ours and the world’s. The way we enter into the passion is to enter into the mystery of pain and brokenness — Jesus’, our own, and the world’s — to discover we are not alone. Entering into the passion does not mean stoically bearing the burdens of life. It does mean identifying so completely with others in their pain and struggle that your presence, your solidarity, your being-with, is redemptive. This is a mystery which claims God is not the author of suffering but is with us in our suffering as we are present to one another.
Thomas Merton has said that while Christ’s physical body was crucified by Pilate and the Pharisees, Christ’s mystical body is drawn and quartered from age to age by the disunion of our souls through selfishness and sin. Merton states, “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of Broken Bones.”
I have never had a broken bone, but I understand that in order for the break to heal, for the bone to become one piece again, it has to be reset, and that is a painful process. When we are with each other in our suffering out of love, we reset the broken body of Christ. This Holy Week, I invite us to cross over our passion threshold.
Rev. Elder Lillie Brock
Have you ever seen a movie preview that was so compelling it made you want to rush out and see the movie right away?
Have you ever rushed out to see that movie, only to find that everything compelling about the movie was in the trailer?
Sometimes the trailers aren’t what they seem, are they? Anything that is only a snapshot can often be misleading.
So, however we experience the preview of a story, there is almost always more to it than the trailer can ever convey.
At this point in the Lenten season, we enter what the Christian Church has regarded for centuries as Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday, and this beginning makes for a very compelling preview to the experience of Holy Week. This story is a good trailer. It’s not filled with fluff or misleading scenes but rather with all the preparations for what is ahead. If you and I are willing to be in the story of Palm Sunday, then we will be infinitely more prepared for the journey toward Easter.
The world on that day wasn’t unlike ours. On one side of Jerusalem, the Roman army marched with its chariots and horses as a warning to the Jews who were there to celebrate the Passover. Intimidation by force and suspicion led the parade on that side of town.
On the other side of town, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey while peasants cheered for him and waved palm branches. The Jewish leaders were suspect as this man Jesus spoke of himself as the Messiah. The Romans tried to intimidate the Jews to silence them, and the Jewish leaders tried to intimidate Jesus to silence him. While the Romans marched in on one side of town, Jesus rode on a donkey in peaceful protest to violence, an unfair tax code, and injustice to the poor. Does that sound familiar?
As Jesus rode in on the donkey and down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the Jewish leaders asked Jesus to silence those who cheered for him. And Jesus said, “even if they were quiet, the stones would cry out.” Since there is a cemetery along this route on the Mount of Olives, it could be that Jesus referenced the stones that were piled high in the cemetery. In Jewish tradition, the stones were not only used to build grave markers, but when people visited the graves, they left a stone as a symbol that the person buried there would not be forgotten and their words and life would continue to speak.
So when Jesus said, “the stones will cry out,” he called on the voices of those who had gone before to testify to this moment of peaceful protest.
She got on the bus one day. She was tired, exhausted really. She was tired of being sent to the back of the bus, so she sat in the front. The people protested and tried through intimidation to silence her. But Rosa Parks, in peaceful protest, kept her seat in the front of the bus. The stones cry out.
He walked for 340 miles across the state of California (USA) in peaceful protest to the treatment of migrant workers. His people were being poisoned by the pesticides being put on the fields while they worked hard, long hours and got paid a pauper’s wage. Caesar Chavez stood up to say that this was unjust and marched into the capital city of Sacramento to speak for those who had no voice. The stones cry out.
He and his wife were awakened to the bombs thrown in their window. Their children were unhurt but horribly frightened. With everything on the line, Dr. Martin Luther King insisted on peaceful protest and led a march from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama, USA) so that justice and equality might be a reality for everyone. The stones cry out.
She stepped from slavery in Africa onto the podium of the convention floor to give voice for slaves and women. She endured the hissing and abuse that came from white men in order to speak words of freedom and truth. Sojourner Truth kept standing in protest against those who tried to silence her. The stones cry out.
We stand at a place in history where we know the end of the story about Jesus. He knew that if he stood with those who were hungry, sick, poor and in need of grace, it might cost him his life. Jesus knew that he was entering the city to cheers from those who needed his voice. He also knew that he would meet the voices of those who wanted to silence him.
Jesus gave us a preview alright. In one morning of peaceful protest on top of a donkey, Jesus introduced us to the contradictions that exist in life when we speak for those who have no voice and we stand for those who cannot find justice.
Yes, this was a preview. It ends with Jesus saying to the Jewish leaders, “even if you silence these, the stones will cry out!” In other words, no matter what you do, the stones will cry out for justice and peace.
I suspect that you, like me, often ignore the stones that cry out. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and Sojourner Truth walked the path of Holy Week.
They understood what it meant to be stones that would cry out through the ages. Their voices live on, and the life of Jesus cries out loudest of all. When we listen to the stones, what do we hear? If we are honest, most of us want to get to Resurrection without having to take the trip through Holy Week. But we live in a world of relativity where joy doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known sadness, and hope doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known despair, and life doesn’t mean much unless you’ve known death. At the very heart of God is the invitation to engage in our humanity, with all its contradictions, so that we might know new life.
My friends, it takes courage and an extra measure of faith to listen to the stones cry out. We live in a culture that encourages us everyday to have more, spend more, seek more comforts, climb more ladders to the top, and get all that we were meant to have. But Holy Week challenges us to dig deeper.
The stones are crying out . . . are you listening?
Rev. Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson
One of the most interesting features of this gospel story is its location: between the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a little interlude of sorts, a family dinner not unlike other family dinners in the past — except, of course, now they were harboring fugitives and enemies of the Empire and the religious establishment.
Unlike a similar story in Luke, the story of a woman anointing Jesus with extravagantly costly oil is not about a stranger with a bad reputation, but it is a family argument, a sister pitted against a disciple of Jesus.
Just as in the other story in Luke about Mary, though, Jesus defends Mary’s choice. In Luke’s story, her choice is to be a disciple, to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn, leaving her sister to do the “women’s work,” being transgressive in her role. Here, she decides to lavish the gift of her affection and service in a physical and materially costly way. . .also transgressive in its own way.
Even though John reads back into this story hints of Judas’ betrayal (in ways that would feed anti-Semitism for millennia), the story is really about Jesus’ extended family of choice having an argument, not unfamiliar to all families, about priorities, generosity, and duty.
If you are poor, have ever been poor, or have ever lived with poor people, you know this argument and all the impulses. The grinding discipline of poverty yields several conflicting impulses — sometimes, just to deny oneself everything for the sake of survival; or counter-intuitively, to spend that little extra cash impulsively on a luxury, just to feel like one is not trapped or constantly deprived. To do something so seemingly irrational is to break out of the prison of feeling like one has no choices.
The other phenomenon, however, is to give extravangantly to another in need, or to a cause, unreasonably, as an expression of one’s dignity and humanness. It is not that poverty makes one more virtuous, but, as Jesus often taught, poverty gives one the opportunity to risk giving beyond “proportionality,” to give deeply with risk, trusting in God. This is the story of the widow’s mite, of the boy offering his meager fish and bread, and so many other gospel stories.
When liberation theologians talk about “the epistemological privilege of the struggling poor,” this is what they mean, what Jesus meant: being poor gives you the opportunity to see God’s provision first hand, to see what your generosity, paired with God’s, can do to help a neighbor or a stranger. Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic anarchist/socialist, became a Catholic because she said, “so many poor are Catholic — they must know something!” She also said that the Church drove her to the communists, but the communists drove her to God!
Mary’s heart was overflowing that day, and she didn’t give a damn how much that oil cost. Jesus risked everything — his own life — to heal and bless others, and to raise her own brother from the dead. All of their lives were threatened now (as you see in the verses following this passage), and what were they holding on to this oil for anyway? He was tired, and for a moment, safe in their home, maybe relaxing just a little bit before the next ordeal. She would offer soothing, anointing oil; she would offer love and tenderness to One whose days were numbered on this earth.
In so doing, she was throwing off, for a moment, the tyranny that poverty can be and exercising her authority as a disciple and friend of the One who had made her heart soar with his teachings, who healed her broken heart of grief.
Jesus does not allow her to be rebuked for this. That his words, “You will always have the poor with you,” have been distorted to mean that crushing, structural poverty is beyond our ability to change is madness! Jesus taught and lived solidarity with the poor, the outcast, those whose hopes had been crushed. He became poor, and in so doing, “let the poor say ‘I am rich!'” For a minute, he allowed himself to receive her gift that empowered her and comforted him. To give and to receive, extravagantly, is what makes us fully human and fully divine.
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
Lent is not about our willpower to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ something for forty days. It is about our own dying and rising into who we are as God’s Beloved. It is about waking up to who we are as children of the living God. And what a wonderful story of transformation we find in our gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent: the parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus told parables to challenge people and turn their world upside down. He told parables to invite people to find themselves in the story. Those of us who grew up in the church have become so familiar with this story that we have lost some of its power to challenge. Just like the younger son was lost, was a prodigal, this parable has become the prodigal parable. How might we find a fresh hearing by placing ourselves in this story?
This should really be called the parable of the prodigal sons because both sons were lost. I believe ‘lost’ in this parable means “not living in true relationship to your source (symbolized by the father in this parable) and with yourself.” The younger son thought wealth and the good life were the source of his identity. The older son thought duty was the source of his identity.
Each son comes to a crisis, a kind of inner bankruptcy, when there is a point of diminishing returns on their accomplishments. After spending everything, a famine brought the younger son to his knees. We are told in verse 17 that it was precisely at that point that “he came to himself” — he remembered who he was.
It was the return of the younger son that was the crisis point for the older, because it exposed the lie of his dutifulness. He had failed to see the riches that his father said were already his. He did not have to earn them by “working like a servant.”
Where do you find yourself in this parable? Are you like the younger child? Do you fail to realize your own worth as God’s Beloved because you think your worth is measured in things, wealth, success? Or are you like the older child, thinking you can earn God’s love by what you do?
Did you notice that the parent in this parable never condemns either child? The parent gives each child the freedom to make their own choices and reminds each of them how much they are loved.
Have you ever thought about what the word “prodigal” means? Webster’s unabridged online dictionary defines prodigal as: recklessly extravagant, characterized by wasteful expenditure, lavish, yielding abundantly, luxuriant.
Well, isn’t that what the parent does in this story? Maybe we should call this the “parable of the prodigal parent” because of the extravagant welcome and lavish rejoicing upon the return of the younger son. Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, studied the parable of the prodigal for three years. His guide into the spiritual lessons of this parable was the famous paintingThe Return of the Prodigal Son by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself had lived the lives of the younger rebellious son, the resentful older brother, and the aged wise father. At age 30, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait as the lost son in a brothel. At age 60, Rembrandt painted the story of the return of the prodigal son again, this time using his own face for the graceful father.
That is the comfort of this parable. The challenge is that as children who have experienced this kind of extravagant grace, we grow into adulthood to be like this parent.
Rev. Elder Lillie Brock
In many marginalized communities, the notion of “repentance” may have become a dirty word since it has often been used as a spiritual whipping post. After all, there does exist the tendency of any dominant culture to demand repentance from those who they deem have behaved in a way that is not in alignment with their interpretation of “God’s will.” As such, GLB people have been told to repent of their sexual behavior; homeless people have been told that they should repent because their circumstances are their own fault; transgender people have been told to repent of their turn from the gender that God gave them; women who have had abortions have been forced to repent of their killing of a child; and on and on we could go. But as usual, in this parable, Jesus invites us to turn this whole idea on its head.
The vineyard owner in the parable seems pretty annoyed that after three years, a particular fig tree has not produced fruit. As a result, the owner commanded the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener appealed to the owner to allow the fig tree one more year. The gardener seemed to hold out hope that if tended properly and with great care, the fig tree could, indeed, bear fruit.
This story seems to invite us into relationship with the God of second and third and fourth chances. Taken literally, we might be guilty of saying that we are given four chances and no more when something we are doing compromises our ability to “bear fruit” or be all that we are called to be. But if taken through the lens of grace, we might see the God who has limitless capacity to believe in our goodness, talent, and ability to bear fruit. And when we experience the compassion of this God of many chances, we are forever changed in ways that make who we are called to be, blossom.
The season of Lent embraces the idea of repentance in a big way. At every turn, we are invited to say out loud to God and to others that we have behaved in such a way that has compromised our ability to bear fruit. All the traditions of faith in the world have placed some kind of importance on the idea of repentance. Many emotional and physical healing strategies include the idea of repentance and confession. So the invitation of Lent to repent is worthy of our practice, not as a whipping post, but as a sincere exploration of the behaviors that compromise our ability to bear fruit and see our own worthiness.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, says: “We need to understand when and why we hustle for worthiness rather than claim it; and we have to understand the things that get in the way.” The gardener in the vineyard says, let me tend to the tree for another year so that nothing is in the way of it bearing fruit. God reaches out to us and invites us to speak of those things that get in our way, acknowledge those things that have wronged others or ourselves, and in so doing, be forever changed.
Repentance, then, is an invitation to claim our worthiness to bear fruit in God’s vineyard through the simple (though not to be confused with easy) practice of speaking out loud about what behaviors get in our way, compromise our ability to produce fruit, and often harm others.
P.S. And as the community of fig trees in the vineyard, may we learn to see each other’s worthiness, even when we have need of repentance.
Rev. Elder Hector Gutierrez
The season of Lent always brings me fond memories. On one hand, the ritualistic experience of the religious community in which I grew up practiced, to some extent, exaggerated penitence such that it even required us to stop listening to music or watching television during the 40 days and even to stop bathing during the Holy days. Yet on the other hand, I also experienced the most liberating seasons of Lent with my parents. While I still lived in their house, they never imposed the demands of the church. Instead, they taught us that Lent was a season of re-commitment to all humanity. They taught us to share what little we had with those who were less fortunate than us. This was at times something that was complicated yet very enlightening, because we were always members of the lower middle economic class. I am convinced that it is through them that I learned that I had to return to the Christ in our brothers and sisters. It was through my parents that I learned that losing myself and my life in the struggle for justice and solidarity, for the truth and the life, for the respect for the rights of all, is what gives meaning to being human and Christian.
It has always been interesting for me that in Luke 9:18, Jesus asks what seems to be at first a very human question to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Yet, at its core, it is a profound spiritual question. I believe we are still being asked to wrestle with this same question as we address this Sunday’s text. I believe Peter’s answer grasps the larger context of the question as he answers Jesus of Nazareth, “The Christ of God.” As the Messiah, Jesus shares with his disciples that he must suffer the cross, die and be resurrected, through which the glory of God is to be revealed.
I see the journey of what is to happen in Jerusalem, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, as an exodus story for us through Jesus, a new Moses. The witness of Jesus’ prayer, suffering, commitment, death on the cross, and resurrection is a new exodus journey for the early disciples and for our present community. In following Jesus on this exodus, we are not making a meaningless pledge but a vow to live a life in constant solidarity with the consistency of the radically inclusive Gospel.
Luke’s emphasis on the prayer life of Jesus, between the activity of Galilee and the ascent to Jerusalem, highlights for us the importance of prayer in the Christian life. Jesus models for us, not a formulated prayer with empty words, but words offering up our daily life experiences, of commitment, of constant struggle, of achievements, of frustrations, and of future plans, in order to bear witness to an authentic relationship with God.
For me, the Transfiguration is a prophetic vision of what is to come — in essence, a “reverse eclipse” — a light in the middle of the night. As we are transformed, dying to ourselves, our lives become the light of Christ in the middle of the night for those who are searching. It illuminates a whole new meaning to life and death! It makes comprehensible the wonderful reflection of Hélder Câmara who writes: “One who has not a reason to live, has no reason to die.”
Transfiguration, transformation, is to say, “this is what awaits us.” It illuminates for us that offering our life for the sake of the holy work, of the holy exodus of the gospel, is worthwhile. The process of transforming and changing makes sense to us because we have a firm rock, a foundation, in one that does not change and ensures our fruitful life, the “Crucified and Risen One” (J. Sobrino).
It is not that God desires that everyone should die literally, as God is the God of life, not of death. We are called to be transformed, as there is nothing more life-giving than losing yourself to unconditional love, because God is that love. God desires us to offer daily our life of unconditional love as a sacrifice in the work against the lies of injustice, violence, and selfishness that attempt to trap those who live on the fringes of love. We are to offer our life of unconditional love as a sacrifice to those whose exodus for life may involve traveling through death and resurrection. Ultimately what matters is living a life of unconditional love such that God is reflected through it. God’s radically inclusive love is so strong it is willing to die so that others may live — a death that brings life, to so many dead lives…
Rev. Elder Ken Martin
Modern Christians, from the pew to the seminary classroom, love to debate whether the “devil” is real or just an ancient myth. We all know the popular images, from Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” to the ubiquitous presence in contemporary advertising and culture of a red-suited, pitch-fork carrying, forked-tailed, sulpher-breathing creature, selling everything up to and including potted meat products, which have seriously trivialized and may have almost obscured the reality with which Jesus battled in the desert.
What I believe in…whatever we call it…is the reality of evil: a reality that despises God and everything that is good, loving and just. I believe in it because I have stood face to face with it, and I believe in it because I don’t know how else to explain the world in which we live.
The word in today’s text that is translated “devil” is diabolos. Literally, it means “the separator”…something that separates what should not be separated, something that breaks what should remain in tact, something that fragments what should remain unified, something that destroys what should remain whole.
Gray Temple, an Episcopal Priest, writes in his book, When God Comes:
The Saturday before I was to preach on verses referring to the devil, I was standing in my bedroom, musing on the passage, frustrated that I didn’t really understand the reference. So, without giving the consequences much thought, I asked Jesus, “What is the devil stuff really about?” As usual, a whole lot happened nearly at once. I felt myself being coated with the love of God — as if warm oil were being poured all over me, and as though I were being embraced from behind. But almost simultaneously, the very air in front of me seemed to slit open like a curtain, revealing an appalling pitch dark void. As I looked into it, I realized that something alive lurked inside. But the malignancy at the bottom of the pit was vast — larger than the very solar system — and filled with a seething hatred that resembles nothing I have experienced on earth. That impotent raging hatred is aimed at God. You and I are of little interest to it — except that in hurting us it might cause discomfort to God. My initial reaction was abject terror, like a rabbit cornered by a wildcat. But I managed to plunge through the bottom of my terror and discovered a profounder sadness than I’d ever known. It broke my heart that a universe as lovely as ours should contain something so utterly loathsome. I spoke to Jesus again, groping to articulate the insight he’d given me. “When you died on the cross, it was to break the power of that — it was to hurl yourself into the pit, to dare it to take its best shot at you — right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“When you died on the cross, you were really looking over your shoulder at that — weren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said.
It was with this Spirit of Separation, this evil that despises God and what is good, that Jesus contended in the desert. It seems strange to us that God would be leading Jesus into this temptation instead of out of it. But that word has two meanings: it means to tempt and to test. And here is a possible difference: to tempt is to entice someone to do what is wrong; to test is to give a person the opportunity to do what is right. To tempt is to hope for failure; to test is to hope for success.
That is why I am suggesting this experience could be a gift. Because people are like steel. We don’t know what we are made of until we are tested. Every temptation is a fork in the road…it is as much a chance to rise as to fall, to go forward as to go back. God intends to test Jesus, but as always, there was another team on the field. So the outcome is uncertain until the match is over.
These were Jesus’ tests, but they may not necessarily be ours. His were first physical hunger, then making God prove Godself through miracles, then giving in to the desire to have everything without following the path God set for him. While they might not be ours, we can relate to them, can’t we? Here is how they might look in our lives today…first, do we really trust God to provide for all our needs? Then, is our faith strong enough to survive even without proof? And finally, do we accept and celebrate the path God has given us in this life, or do we pretend to be someone else because being the person God created us to be seems just too hard sometimes?
These were Jesus’ tests because they were the things most likely to separate him from God and God’s will for his life. It is up to you and me to discern the recurring situations in our lives that test us.
The Separator said to Jesus, “You don’t have to be the person God wants you to be. It’s too hard and there is an easier way.” But Jesus answered, “I will be who God asks me to be, and I will do what God asks me to do.”
What a wonderful way for us to begin this season of intense personal spiritual inventory…by looking honestly, as Jesus did, at the recurring situations that test our commitment to live authentically and, again like Jesus, to recommit ourselves to being exactly and only the person we were created to be.