“It’s an obsession, but it’s pleasin.”
Among the first tapes I was given when I began officially trading Grateful Dead concerts, as opposed to purchasing bootlegs in the then newly emerging CD market, was a pristine version of 5/8/77, the legendary concert at Barton Hall, Cornell University. I still remember listening to the second set opening Scarlet>Fire for the first time, with Phil sliding up and bounding down fret, and feeling like I’d never really heard the song before. The show lived in my car’s cassette deck all summer as I drove back and forth to work trimming ivy in Princeton. Though some decry it as overrated, 5/8/1977 is an outstanding concert. It was one of the fabled four, including 5/5/77 in New Haven, 5/7/77 in Boston and the amazing 5/9/1977 in Buffalo.
In a little more than a week, the concert(s) will be 40 years old!
So I just turned off my phone and enjoyed a Sabbath Day. I spent most of it, in one way or another, listening to the first three shows. (I’m listening to the second set of Cornell as I write). All morning I covered the phones in the church office (which rarely rang) and reading, with New Haven playing on my desk. (I know, that’s not really a Sabbath rest, but it had to be done).
I then took a long walk while listening to Boston – I just had to be moving. I put in my earbuds and walked to the store and bought new lightbulbs for our bathroom, and walked home to install them. I sat under a tree eating beef jerky and waving at neighbors. I walked through the blooming cherry blossoms, taking pictures, while jamming to the music. I went grocery shopping, and to the bank. At the nature center I left August with the animals and went walking in the woods. It was a beautiful day, and a pleasure to be moving through it.
To mark the anniversary of the concerts, and the commercial release of of the original Betty Boards for all four shows, Peter Conners has just published Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of The Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall. For Cornell University Press, naturally. It’s a quick read (I read it today), and largely manages to keep its focus on this single show, while trying to describe the show’s cultural significance. Through interviews and anecdotes, it is constantly entertaining. He aims too high in his epilogue by trying to give the Dead’s music cosmic significance: “There is a place in the universe where Dark Star is always playing,” in the sense that “Dark Star is woven into the fabric of the universe,’ part of a “larger truth” at “play for all eternity.” OK. This music absolutely feeds my soul, but remember: this is the guy who also wrote Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead.
For larger truth, I turn to another new book I am reading this week, Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Christie draws on contemplative traditions of early Christian desert spirituality and monasticism, contemporary ecological writings, and practitioners of attention to explore how “these traditions can help us cultivate the simple, spacious awareness of the enduring beauty and wholeness of the natural world that will be necessary if we are to live with greater purpose and meaning, and with less harm to the planet.” Music plays its part. Blue Sapphire is a book to be read slowly, turned over and digested with time.
There are no unsacred places,”
the poet Wendell Berry has written.
“There are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
All outdoor photos were taken at Greenburgh Nature Center today.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday after Easter / Emmaus Communion and Brunch, April 23, 2017
On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus (far left) meets the disciples, who invite him to share dinner within the walls of the town (right). Ninth Century Ivory, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection.
Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 24: 13-35.
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’
He asked them, ‘What things?’
They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Please join me in prayer:
O Lord, where can we flee from your presence?
You hem us in, behind and before.
Such knowledge is too wonderful.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts;
Test us and know our thoughts.
See if there be any hurtful way in us,
and lead us in the way everlasting. Amen.
Two weary travelers trudge along toward home, discussing the grand drama they have witnessed, and in which they played their own small or larger parts. They ruminate as they walk, speculating about what it all might really mean in the long run.
They have seen incomparable beauty and frightful ugliness; they have witnessed acts motivated by craven greed, but also brave self-sacrifice. They have seen the virtuous and principled rise up against those driven by lust for power and gold. And it all culminated in terrifying violence. Now, they are going home. They think the story is over, but it is really just beginning.
Now, as they reach the crest of a hill and gaze homeward, the taller one turns toward his companion, as the other speaks these words:
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
I hope you realize by now that the story I just summarized was not today’s Gospel reading, but was, rather, the ending to The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. The two companions are Gandalf the wizard, and Bilbo Baggins, a small creature called a hobbit.
What a great story! One of the wonderful things about reading great literature as a child or young teen (and, yes, I consider The Hobbit to be great literature), is that it stays with you for a lifetime and helps form your identity and character. I first read this story when I was in eighth grade, and in all these decades I had not re-read it until this week, (although I’ve kept my beloved and well-worn copy all this time).
As I was beginning my preparation for today’s sermon with a close reading and careful exegesis of the Gospel text, thinking about roads and where they lead, I could not get this rhyme out of my head. After all these years it came back to me: The Road leads ever ever on. And I remembered.
I remember now how inspired, how engaged, and how happy I felt when I first read The Hobbit, as if everything had just fallen into place and made sense, how my heart burned within me.
I now know, what I did not know as a young teen: J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and his writings expressed all of his deep love of language, his immense fascination with Norse and other mythologies, and also his heartfelt and absolute commitments to the essential Christian themes of hope, fidelity and kindness. However, unlike C. S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, his stories are not allegories, for there is no one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the stories and the Christian story. But the Christian virtues are woven into every part of his stories.
I also clearly remember the first time I heard the story of two travelers on the way, joined by a mysterious figure, who dispels their confusion, grief and longing, explaining that what they have witnessed was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. (Now this time, to be clear, I am speaking of the Emmaus story from the Gospel of Luke, not The Lord of the Rings.) I was an adult, but somehow I had never heard this astonishing story before. Although I grew up in a church tradition that stressed reading the Bible daily, the passages that were selected for study were always taken out of context to prove some moral or theological point, never presented in the context of a story. Rarely I had a glimpse of the smaller stories, such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den, but I never saw the overarching grand sweep of the story that unifies our Bible.
Sitting in church that morning when I heard the Emmaus Road story, I was fascinated by the mysterious, hidden figure of Christ. I imagined him with a twinkle in his eye as he asked, “What things?” When the disciples recognized the risen Jesus “in the breaking of the bread,” suddenly resurrection made complete sense to me for the first time. Suddenly, the whole Christian story began to make sense in a deep way of knowing that had moved from my head into my heart. Of course Jesus immediately vanished! Because you just can’t hold on to that kind of numinous, powerful presence—a presence experienced as much in the aching longing of absence as in palpable heartwarming positive experience of literal presence. That is why the memory of such experiences is so incredibly precious.
This is what great stories do for us, and why they matter! Stories carry meaning in ways that we are able to receive. Psychological research has been recently exploited in business marketing strategies, showing convincingly that humans are literally made for stories and that stories are made for us. The best way to convey meaning, to teach, and to understand ourselves and our place in the world is through story. Stories delight us; and stories heal us.
Luke’s Emmaus road story is also a great story, one that conveys much meaning in a lean narrative framework. We don’t know exactly why these two disciples are headed to Emmaus: they might be going home, or running from what happened in Jerusalem, or perhaps they are on some other errand. But we do know that it is Jesus who has sought them out. “The initiative in encounter belongs to the Lord. But if we open the door of our being to him, we shall share his life, his supper. “ (Gustavo Gutiérrez) Sharing his life means being found, being fed, rejoining the community, and extending his mission “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)
The travelers extend hospitality to the mysterious stranger, reminiscent of many stories of entertaining angels unawares, and before they (or we) realize it, the tables have been turned, and it is Jesus himself who is acting as host by taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. They recognize him now, and he vanishes. They are transformed by this recognition and rush back to be with the others who are in Jerusalem. Perhaps the clearest and simplest lesson we learn from this story that the spiritual presence of God is not a private gift, but it is to be found in offering hospitality to strangers, and is meant to be shared in community and with the world.
We might ask if the events in a story like this actually happened, but we don’t need to ask if the story is true, because we recognize the truth of it by the warmth of our enlivened hearts burning within us. Through the right stories, we may come to know truth in a deeper way. When we are moved by such stories, we have the sense that we have apprehended something real, something true, something important.
The travelers on their way to Emmaus think the story has ended, but it is only beginning, when they recognize Jesus, their risen Lord, in the breaking of the bread. Similarly, the wonderful story of The Hobbit ends, but it turns out to be the prelude to the sweeping drama of The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo recites another version of his Road song, as he prepares to depart for a very long, perhaps permanent holiday. Now his nephew Frodo takes up his quest and his song, giving it his own interpretative accent.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.
Gandalf gently probes Frodo’s meaning, as did Jesus in the Emmaus story, asking, is this not Bilbo’s old song? Frodo replies, yes, and recounts his old uncle’s familiar peripatetic patter:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?
Indeed. You might end up anywhere. It might take you to places where people are imprisoned, poor, hungry, sick, or oppressed. Follow this road, and you will probably find yourself taking up the causes of kindness, love and justice and the healing of all creation, one way or another. This road might take you to a Black Lives Matter March or a Women’s March, or a Science March. It might take you down other paths of service, hard to see from right here and right now. For the Unseen Author of this story has a plan.
If we meet Jesus on our own Emmaus Road, “open the door of our being to him,” and seek to follow the risen Lord, the road goes ever, ever on, and we must follow if we can, because each of us has a role we are meant to play in the larger unfolding story of God’s salvation and the healing of all creation. May it be so!
This was a marvelous day, spent mostly outdoors.
Morning coffee was spent with an absolutely beautiful book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. This was a birthday gift from my wife last year which I keep re-reading. Wohlleben writes out of his experience as a forester in the Eiffel Mountains in Germany. His description of friendship, community, and language among trees is so deeply moving that I never get very far into the book before wanting to go walk among trees.
Which is what I did today.
Mid-Sixties and sunny, I took an eight mile stroll through White Plains and then along the Bronx River Pathway up to the Kensico Dam and back. I stopped to take photos of trees and flowers, along with ducks, geese, and cranes; woodpeckers and robins; a beautiful red-tailed hawk and a few other surprises I will hold for another post.
While walking I listened to a three hour podcast by Corey Olsen on the Ainunlindalë and Valaquenta portions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. I’ve been re-reading Tolkien recently (aloud with August), and working my own way through the twelve volume Histories of Middle Earth. Much to ponder and inspire here.
After school brought August and I to the nature center and some good talks.
A day of beauty, myth, life and nature, and family. Happy Sabbath.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Day of Resurrection / Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
(The scripture is read before the children’s message and intervening hymn). Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Prayer: (having just sung this hymn before the sermon). Because you live, O Christ, the garden of the world has come to flower, the spirit bird of hope is freed for flying, the rainbow of peace will span the whole created world. Indeed! Our imaginations are alight with unexpected possibilities when we consider how you move among us to bring light to our darkness, reveal hope where we despair, and instill courage where we fear. The stone has rolled away and death cannot imprison, indeed. In deeds. In us, this day. May it be so. Amen.
“For I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul was writing to friends. He was reminding them of the gospel he had preached among them, a gospel of life in the midst of death, of freedom from fear, and strength in community as they lived out God’s way justice, love and peace.
For Paul, the gospel was not a story or collection of stories about Jesus. The four stories we have come to call ‘gospels’ were not even written yet. Instead, for Paul the gospel was a proclamation of good news, passed on from one person to another.
In fact, what Paul presents appears to already be a well-established tradition, although the tradition can’t be that old as Paul was writing a mere 20 years after Jesus death. His proclamation of the gospel comes in two parts, a confession and a testimony. In the first part of the tradition, a three-fold confession:
- Christ died for our sins
- in accordance with the scriptures,
- and was buried,
- and was raised on the third day
- in accordance with the scripture
No mention is made here of how Christ died, or how he was raised, what scriptures the tradition is referring to, or when this took place. “On the third day” is a formulaic statement meaning “after some time.” The tradition simply proclaims the unexpected news that death was not the end of the story.
And the second part of the tradition conveys the testimony:
- Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
- Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
- Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
There’s no mention of the empty tomb. No mention of the women who never abandoned him even at the cross and who were first at the tomb to meet the resurrected Jesus. No mention of Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, the first one sent by Jesus to deliver good news to Peter and the others. If Paul knew the details of this story, he never says.
- Last of all, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared also to me.
Christ appeared to Paul in a dream, or vision, or what some scholars now translate as ‘a flash of insight’ that changed his life and turned his world upside-down. Paul tells this story in his letter to the Galatians and to the Philippians, and it is remembered three times in the Acts of the Apostles, but its importance is in every case to point to the power of God at work in the world for our salvation. [i]
“For I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
Easter day and the Easter story shaped one of my earliest religious experiences. I’d like to share with you part of my own story this morning, a story that sits at the core of who I am. If you were to peel me like an onion, it is the mysterious center that gives meaning to all the subsequent layers. In traditional terms, it you might call it part of my testimony. And while it is by far not my earliest memory of church, it is, I believe, my first profound religious experience. It has shaped my experience of the world, my trust in God, and my sense of wonder.
When I was four years old, my grandfather died. My father’s father. My Papa. He was at the time one of my best friends. And he was my next-door neighbor. Pictures in my baby book record one of my fondest memories of that time, riding on my papa’s lap on the green John Deer tractor, him helping me turn the large wheel, and change speeds from turtle to rabbit on the lever down between my little feet, as we cut the lawn together each weekend.
My grandfather was one of the founders of the church my family attended at the time. And he was one of the builders of our sanctuary. There still exists a super-eight film of probably two-year old me with a shovel in my hand, helping set the cornerstone for the new church building beside my dad and his dad. My grandmother sang in that church, my mother played the organ, my father was in the choir. Worship on Sundays was not just the gathering of God’s people, but literally for me a gathering of family – my aunts and uncles, cousins, were part of the church community. And then we gathered again after service for dinner at my grandparents’ house.
And it was there, as we were all gathered at his home after Easter Sunday worship, that my grandfather died suddenly, unexpectedly. The songs of resurrection were fresh in my mind and in my heart, (songs like Up from the Grave he Arose, and Jesus Christ is Risen Today); and as the Easter proclamation of New Life was seeking some foothold in my life – I watched my grandfather have a heart attack. He died a little while later at the hospital, a hospital where my mother worked.
I remember this story so well not just because I was there, but because the contrast between life and death, between faith and all that seems to contradict it, was (and remains) so vivid. It haunted my own father for the rest of his life. Death, where is thy victory? asks St. Paul. At four, and five, and six, for me it was right there each week as the grass grew and someone else had to cut it.
(This is my story. But you have yours. Everyone does.) We all have experiences of illness, disease and loss that seem to threaten God’s gift of life. The sudden discovery of a suspicious lump or the prolonged recovery from an injury, the regular pain of arthritis or the gradual decline in memory, the death (at any time) of a friend, partner, spouse, parent, child.
I don’t remember my grandfather’s funeral. I know where he is buried, but don’t remember ever visiting as a child. A couple of years after my grandfather died his mother-in-law, my great grandmother, my Mima, lay dying. She had been sick for several years, spending her last year in a hospital bed set up in the middle of what used to be the dining room. We knew when death was approaching and went to spend the evening in the house. It was the middle of the night when she died, and I remember my mother waking me up so that we could cry.
And I remember this funeral. I remember sadness, the tears, the trip to Kentucky where the family was from, pulled pork sandwiches, my stuffy, uncomfortable clip-on tie. At the viewing, I was afraid to approach the casket, because I was afraid that what I would see would confirm that my Mima was gone, and the love she had for me and the love I had for her gone as well.
There was a young minister at the funeral home. I have no idea where he came from, but he entertained me in the lobby. You see, he was not only a minister but a magician. He asked me if I believed in magic. Well, every boy I knew believed in magic, or at least owned several tricks to amaze and astound the willing family theater. This guy had a thimble that he could make disappear with the wave of a hand, and it would reappear out of my nose, inside my ear, from thin air. For some time, I was laughing, wondering, and believing in magic.
And then he changed my life. He told me that because I was an aspiring magician, he would hand on to me the secret of the trick. This is the kind of sharing only real magicians do with other real magicians. So when he offered to show me the trick, I knew I was being treated with great respect. “The trick is simple sleight of hand,” he told me. “The thing to remember is that there is always more going on than you can see.” He didn’t need to repeat what he had said for me to understand that he was not just talking about the trick. Though he did, go on. He was a pastor, after all. “It’s the same in God’s world,” he told me, “there is always more going on than we can see.”
I went right in and took my great-grandmother’s (mima’s) hand. My love for her was not gone. Nor was her love for me. Because God loved her and loved me and I loved God, everything would be alright. “There is more going on that just what we can see.”
Author Flannery O’Conner says that “the fiction writer represents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery, which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.” And it is with this left over mystery that our wonder thrives. Theologian Craig Dykstra notes that while our lives are real, not fictional, the sense of divine mystery coming through things that have happened to us still prevails. The residual mystery persists through coming and goings, daily life and daily prayers, reading books, creating art, listening to music, deaths, and friendships. “I wonder where it comes from,” Dykstra says, “and some days I think I know.” [ii]
I have a friend who says that God is always dotting our lives with splotches of grace like bright points of paint on a canvas, moments of awe and praise that allow us to see life in all its wonder. Trusting these moments of wonder as revelations of the real world is what he calls faith. The life of faith to which we are called by our baptism is a way of living that tells a story that connects the dots. And the Psalmist declares, “I will give thanks to my God with my whole heart; I will tell of all your works of wonder. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you my God, have not forsaken those who seek you.” What do you have to tell? [iii]
The Apostle Paul said “I hand on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received.”
That task, that joy, that privilege is now ours, to hand on what we ourselves have received, the unexpected revelation – the world transforming news – that the power of God is alive and at work in our world for our salvation and for all creation.
Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
but saving, healing, here and now,
and touching every place and time.
[i] See Bernard Brandon Scott. The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. (Polebridge, 2015). See also Arthur Dewey, et al. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. (Polebridge, 2010).
[ii] Craig Dystra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Geneva, 1999). On this same theme of essential mystery, and close to both my childhood and present heart, see the essay on faerie by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Tree and Leaf”.
[iii] The Rev. William Grimbol. See, for example, The Grace of Love: Meditations and Prayers. (Alpha: 2002), among his many titles. The fabulous photo was taken by my friend Kristi-Ann.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for “Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday” – April 9, 2017. The fabulous photo above was taken in our sanctuary by The Rev. Lynn Dunn
Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 15:1-39
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we wave our eco-palms as our choir processes between the branches to shouts of “Hosanna!” This is the Sunday that we sing, and our children march around the church, and we remember Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. We call it his “triumphal entry”. But “triumphal entry” is a misnomer. For Jesus carefully choreographed this parade to repudiate our hopes for a messiah who will triumphantly save us. [i]
Let’s review the sequence of events.
- Jesus marches into the city accompanied by a band of people
- who had gleaned palm branches from the fields,
- whose rapturous cries escalate the earlier confession
- of now-healed but previously blind Bartimaeus,
- “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
- into a full-blown revolutionary chant:
- “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”
When we hear these words we may have images of the heavenly realm coming upon earth with some recollection of David as an important kingly ancestor of Jesus. But this cry doesn’t seem all that “revolutionary” to us.
It is easier for us to understand the political nature of current statements – such as the cry that emerged during the civil rights and black power movement, “no justice, no peace.” And more recently, “I can’t breath. Black lives matter.” This week saw the emergence, again, of the cry “not my war” in response to the U.S. bombardment of a Syrian airstrip with fifty tomahawk missiles. We understand what is risked, and what is at stake, in these cries. But, hosanna, blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David? To understand why this cry is a cry of resistance, of veritable revolution, we need to remember the context in which this story plays out.
Jerusalem, indeed all of Palestine, including Judea, Galilee, and Perea were under occupation by the Roman government. When Rome invaded and wrested control, there were seemingly three alternatives.
- The first was to do nothing. To simply submit to new rule.
- The second was to revolt. Many revolutionary groups sprung up and were suppressed from the initial invasion to well into the second century. In fact in our reading from Mark 15 today, we notice that Barabbas “was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.”
- The third alternative was to make some form of accommodation. Many Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious teachers and temple authorities, the Jewish tax-collectors who gathered money for Rome from their own people, and even the later historian Josephus, a former revolutionary himself, colluded with the Roman government in order to assure their own security.
It is in this highly charged context that Jesus designs his bit of street theater, parading into Jerusalem on a colt to cries of “Hosanna” which means, “Save us!”, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Biblical interpreter Ched Myers notes that
For the original readers of Mark’s gospel, this holy parade would also call to mind the victorious military procession of Simon Maccabaeus, the great rebel general who liberated Palestine from [Greek] rule some two centuries before. According to 1 Maccabees 13:51, Simon entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.
At the time Mark was writing his gospel – about 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – the people of Judea were midway through a revolt against Rome. And, at that time, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, “the Judean rebel captain Menahem had marched through Jerusalem heavily armed and “like a king,” in an unsuccessful attempt to become the sole leader of the rebel provisional government that had set up its headquarters in Jerusalem.” So those who heard Mark’s gospel, which was the very first telling of the life and ministry of Jesus to be composed, were going to be drawing direct parallels between Jesus triumphal entry and that of Menahem’s.
And to top it all off, the crowd that welcomes Jesus is waving palm branches. Everybody knew that the palm branches were symbols of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. The palm branches of victory were, in fact, minted right into the roman coins of the time. And, interestingly enough, when Jewish revolutionaries defiantly snubbed Roman currency and decided to issue their own coins, they appropriated the palm branch as their symbol. So we see that in our story from Mark today, the crowds were giving Jesus a military welcome worthy of a General or even of the Emperor himself. [ii]
Finally, the Greek word that is translated as “kingdom” in our text is a bit more pointed than kingdom. Kingdom these days conjures up either magical fairy tales or perhaps medieval monarchs. The Greek word basilea is best translated “empire.” So, hosanna (save us), blessed is the coming empire of our ancestor David!
To Rome’s leaders and the people who they subjugated, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem sent a pretty straightforward message. It was an acclamation of Jesus as the political king who would usher in a Davidic Empire, most likely at the point of a sword. And to do that it was necessary to overthrow the Roman Empire.
In the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a powerful song sung just after Jesus enters Jerusalem that I think crystallizes the emotions and thoughts of the crowd who shouted Hosanna to Jesus. It goes like this:
Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved!
Jesus I am with you, touch me, touch me Jesus!
Jesus I am on your side, kiss me, kiss me Jesus!
Christ, what more do you need to convince you
that you made it and you’re easily as strong
as the filth from Rome who rape our country
and who’ve terrorized our people for so long?
There must be over 50 thousand screaming love and more for you;
And every one of 50 thousand would do whatever you ask them to.
Keep them yelling their devotion but add a touch of hate at Rome
You will rise to greater power. We will win ourselves a home!
And you’ll get the power and the glory. Forever and ever and ever. Amen.
For once we probe these historical symbols and acts, we begin to see why Jesus was crucified.
It is crucial that we remember that Jesus’ was not crucified by the Jews. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Jesus was not crucified for blasphemy, though that charge was lodged by the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin. Jesus was crucified for sedition. The sentence is in our passage from Mark, chapter 15 verse 2. “Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.”
Crucifixion was a punishment by the Romans reserved for those who had committed crimes against the Roman state or threatened its economic basis in slavery. Jesus was regarded as a dangerous political insurgent, one who spoke and enacted sedition, especially through this “triumphant entry.”
Beyond the political allusions Mark employs, he also uses images for the parade that draw upon several biblical precedents that would have been very familiar to Mark’s community:
- the colt signifying triumphant Judah (Genesis 49:11);
- the return of the Ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6:7ff);
- the declaration of Jehu as upstart king (2 Kings 9:13);
- a royal processional hymn (Psalm 118: 25ff).
- On top of all that, the fact that the parade began “near the Mount of Olives” would have brought to mind the final end of the world battle between Israel and its enemies spoken of by Zechariah (Zech 14:1-5).
But our gospel writer Mark uses all of these popular political and religious images in this story of Jesus’ entrance precisely in order to subvert them. To turn them upside down. This is the point of the odd story about “commandeering” a colt, which occupies fully half of the story of the parade. Mark is consciously reorganizing the symbolism of this parade around a different image from the prophet Zechariah which is expressly anti-military:
“Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding upon…a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem…and shall command peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:9ff).
And shall command peace to the nations. This king in Zechariah, as Jesus in the gospels, rejects a road to peace that involves violence. Instead he enters Jerusalem quite unarmed–though just as dangerous.
Ched Myers call Jesus’ action a “nonviolent siege” of Jerusalem that refuses to follow the script of messianic hope that equated national liberation with the rehabilitation of the independent Temple state as it once was under King David. When Jesus comes to the Temple it is not to defend it, but to disrupt it, to cleanse it. And this ecstatic parade culminates into an anti-climax: Jesus marches into the Temple alone, looks around, and leaves because it is already late. This is neither what the crowd wants or expects.
And it’s not what we expect either. We enacted the liturgy of the palms this morning because we too want to acclaim Jesus as Messiah. But our liturgy lures us into participation in order to condemn us. For it is our very “Hosannas!” that are truly our first words of betrayal of the Jesus we claim to love. When we sang and marched and blessed the palms, we were initiating ourselves into a divine reenactment, a remembrance of our own betrayal of Jesus. Our Palm Sunday liturgy glorifies the grand mistake. Our shouts of hosanna, proclaim Jesus as the King that he is not. This Sunday is called both Palm and Passion Sunday. Because it reminds us of how deaf we are to the non-violent message of a humble leader who announces shalom, a just peace to the world.
This is both Palm and Passion Sunday because we are reminded of how we turn away everyday by either trivializing his call or by warping Jesus’ message into our own agenda. When the Jesus of scripture
- fails to meet our criteria of what is rational, pragmatic, or fair, like;
- when he tells us to love our enemies;
- when he says that the one who would be greatest must be the servant of all;
- when he turns the other cheek;
we are tempted to sidestep his message for the predictable fervor of the crowd and shout “Christ you know I love you. Did you see I waved? I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved!”
As we enter into Holy Week, let us enter cognizant of how our betrayal begins with the call of Hosanna. Let us enter prepared to have our visions of who Jesus is and how God acts challenged so that they can be reborn. Let us enter as Jesus did, humbly, riding on a colt. Let us follow him to the Passover table. Let us try to pray in the garden. Let us have the courage to follow him to the cross, even if we be like the women who stood at a distance. This Holy Week, may we face our fear of going against the crowd, of our desire to be accepted by society, of our insatiable drive for security over peace. May we confront these hosanna-like claims that shut the true and living God out of our lives, so that God can speak to us anew. May our liturgical remembering transform our palms into crosses. May our liturgical remembering transform our lives until we can understand that, as the German theologian Dorothy Sölle put so eloquently,
To be alive is to be vulnerable.
To be faithful is to resist the temptation of security.
Change happens at the level of action that contains risk.
And it doesn’t happen without victims.
A Life that excludes and protects itself against death,
protects itself to death.[iii]
May we have the courage to walk with Jesus to the cross, that we might experience his new life on Easter morning. Amen.
[i] Adapted from a sermon preached by The Rev. Noelle Damico, March 23, 1997. The sermon depends heavily on what was then a brand new commentary by Ched Meyers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, (Orbis Books, 1996). All the exegesis is paraphrased or reproduced from the commentary. Just this week, Ched reproduced parts of the commentary with his own reflections for our times.
[ii] Following Simon bar Kocheba. See Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome A.D. 66-70. (Cambridge, 1987).
[iii] Excerpted from Sölle, The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality. (Fortress Press).
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday Lent, April 2, 2017. This was the fifth in a series of sermons on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The rather tame image below is from Columbia: devastating floods in Columbia and Peru earlier in the week claimed hundred of lives and affected millions. Just before the sermon we sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” My title was borrowed from the newest volume in The Earth Bible Commentary Series.[i]
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit groans with sighs too deep for words (with inexpressible groans). And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit groans for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s good purpose. For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also made just; and those whom God made just God also glorified.
I have to ask, because I don’t watch a lot of sports: Do people still hold up signs at games with John 3:16 written on them? That used to be such a thing. You know passage:
For God so loved the world
that he gave his only begotten son
so that whosoever believeth in him
shall not perish
but have eternal life.
(That’s right, most all of us memorized it in the King James Version.)
We like to think this about us, but it is about the whole world.
Christ came into the world not because God loved us, human beings, but because God loved, and loves the world. The Greek word here is kosmos – the whole creation that God made and called good.[ii] This includes what Paul calls “all things visible and invisible”, and what the Creed describes as “all that is – seen and unseen.”[iii] God loves the world, the water, earth and sky; the creatures swimming, walking, crawling and flying. We are a part of that world. God loves all things living and growing, and all things dying and decaying, all things, intimately, tenderly, without condition. In scripture,
the animals glorify God by being animals, and the trees by being trees,
even the rocks proclaim the glory of God;
all God has made speaks of God, all nature sings,
and all creation groans for the fulfillment of God’s purposes.
God loves creation for its own sake, not just for its role in sustaining human life, and God became flesh, incarnate in world, so that all flesh, all creation might be saved and enjoy eternal life. The idea here is a very Hebrew one – taken right from Genesis. God made the first human, the adam, from the earth, the adamah. This word-play works in English too, a human being is one made from the humus, the earth, and our proper vocation is one of humility, of being grounded, of knowing our proper place in God’s creation. We might also say that God so loved the world that God became earthly so that all the earth would be saved.[iv]
Our Christian discipleship and our Lenten journey would benefit from “paying attention” to such “earthly things.”
So often when we think of salvation we think about it individually: God saves me, an individual, from sin, from death – but that’s actually not how the Bible talks about God’s saving work. God doesn’t save individuals, God saves whole peoples; and God doesn’t just save people, God loves and saves the whole creation.
In our passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, now our fifth week of studying this letter together, you’ll notice that it is the whole creation that is groaning for redemption. That means us, but it means us-as-part-of-world, and other non-human creatures, the trees and fish and seas and air, all that God has created groans for liberation. It means that God loves the horse, and the star, as much as God loves us. God loves the rivers that flow as much as God loves the newborn baby. In the Biblical vision, while people have a special role to care for creation, to serve and preserve it, we are not separate from creation but rather a part of it.[v]
And so in Romans, when all of creation is groaning, that means we human beings are groaning, longing, not only for our world but for ourselves; and it means that all the earth is groaning, longing, for release so that it can be what it was created to be.[vi]
As Thomas Merton famously said:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means
it to be it is obeying God. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love.
It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from
the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
Through our baptism, we are incorporated into God’s New Humanity, recalled to our higher purpose and our responsible place in this world, set free so that we might set others free – even the earth itself. Three realities meet here – the non-human creation, the human, and the divine – all yearning together for the fullness of our redemption. We see it here at the font: the substance of water – the essential element, for water is life – on a human forehead, as a sign of divine action – for the healing of the world.[vii]
We might summarize Paul’s point in this way:
“The hope of God the Creator is that liberated human beings will in turn liberate the creation that has suffered the ravages of [our] exploitation and devastation. But that, Paul attests, will occur only when God’s sons and daughters have begun to act in accordance with the paradox of [our baptismal] identity as participants in God’s New Humanity who are being what they have become and are becoming what we already are” as children of God and stewards of creation.[viii]
On Tuesday evening, our church council gave the “green” light (the pun is intended) to installing solar panels on the church. This is an idea that was voiced at a congregational meeting two years ago. The panels will be installed by Chris Hale and his team at Sun Blue Energy of Sleepy Hollow, and we’re really excited. Our hope is that they will be in by the summer solstice, the sunniest day of the year. There will be 167 separate solar panels on the flat roof of the education building and on the south roof of the chapel capturing the energy of the sun and converting it into electricity. These panels will supply 75% of our current electrical needs, though with some work I am sure we can improve even that. In making this decision, we as a congregation are living out the commitment we made when we became a GreenFaith congregation. As we put it at that time:
“In this time of dramatic climate change, persistent poverty, and global connection, we pledge ourselves to our community and to future generations thirty and three hundred years out, that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet and its people in such precarity, and that we will raise the youngest generation of Christians to do likewise.”
By getting our energy directly form the sun, rather than burning fossil fuels, will be saving 48,000 pounds of CO2 emissions a year, the equivalent of taking five cars off the road every year, or preserving 3.5 acres of trees. For those of you more financially minded, it’s a savings of more than $12,000 a year, the panels pay for themselves in a little more than seven years, and will over the life of the panels yield an almost 14% return on investment.[ix]
I want to be clear. This is not just a green thing to do, or good thing to do, or a financially sound thing to do. The Apostle Paul would have us see it in the largest terms possible, as nothing less than the arrival of the sons and daughter of God, participating in God’s work of redeeming the world – the non-human and human world groaning together with God’s own spirit.
At the very end of scripture, in the Book of Revelation, there is an image of a Green City, because any sustainable future will require sustainable cities. The trees-whose-leaves-are-for-the-healing-of-the-nations in a New Jerusalem (the trees we will see again on our Palm Sunday Banners next week) are part of an urban greenway made possible by a river. The orchard along the banks provides abundant food year-round. Land and labor are liberated from futility. And when Christ finally appears, as the Lamb of God, an animal himself, “A whole chorus of animals, sea creatures and creatures under the earth burst into songs of praise.” (5:13). All creation is been waiting for this moment when God’s home will again be on earth, “dwelling with creation and renewing it.”
My friends, “God’s work in creation is too wonderful, too ancient, too beautiful, too good to be desecrated. Restoring creation is God’s own work in our time, in which God comes both to judge and to restore.”[x] Let us embrace the widest possible understanding of our baptismal identity, and gather strength as we are nurtured at this table with the gifts of the earth as the gifts of God, that we may and take up God’s work in our time. This will be the sign of Christ alive among us.
Sermon Hymn 360: Christ is Coming!
Christ is coming! Let creation from its groans and labor cease;
let the glorious proclamation hope restore and faith increase.
Christ is coming! Christ is coming! Come, O blessed Prince of peace.
[i] My title is taken, with gratitude, from Sigve Tonstad, The Letter to the Romans: Paul Among the Ecologists. The Earth Bible Commentary. (Sheffield, 2016).
[ii] The Gospel of John uses kosmos, while Paul speaks of he ktisis groaning. In that context he ktisis can only mean non-human creation. See Tonstad, Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 242ff.
[iii] The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, Article 1.
[iv] For an accessible introduction to these ideas, see Patricia Tull, Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. (Westminster John Knox, 2013).
[v] Robert Jewett, “The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Reading Rom. 8:13-23 within the Imperial Context” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, edited by Richard Horsley (Trinity Press International, 2004).
[vi] On exegetical grounds, Sigve Tonstad argues that “Non-human creation is subject, not object, speaking as a sentient being that is capable of experiencing suffering and expressing hope.” Paul Among the Ecologists, p. 243. For a compelling articulation of what it might look like to take this seriously, see Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents, edited by Jonathan K. Crane. (Columbia, 2016).
[vii] This worship service importantly included the baptism of two girls, eight months and twenty-eight months. The perichoresis of human, non-human, and divine reality in the sacraments was highlighted throughout.
[viii] Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Destruction of the Law. (Sheffield, 2011). p. 219-220.
[ix] Maria Elena, Chile, “While Trump Promotes Coal, Other Countries are Turning to Cheap Sun Power.” Washington Post, March 31, 2017.
[x] From “Call to Restore the Creation.” Adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1990.
OK. I will at least write something this week.
My Sabbath Day today seems to have been equally divided between Biblical study, reading fiction, and hanging with my son.
First, most of my morning was spent with the Apostle Paul. I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on Paul’s Letter to the Romans during Lent. This has involved dozens of books, read or re-read, and has been the most mentally stimulating project I have undertaken in a while (especially the chance to re-read the secular philosophical appropriation of Paul over the past two decades). A shout out to Sigve Tonstad’s contribution to the Earth Bible Commentary Series, Paul Among the Ecologists. Earlier this week I sent the author a note of appreciation:
Mr. Tonstad, I have just finished your commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans and want to say thank you. I am breathless. I do not think I have enjoyed a commentary quite as much before, with so many surprising riches on nearly every page. Your description of the debasement of language and descent into violence actually moved me to tears (and could have been taken from our daily news). The bracketing of the troublesome opponent in Romans 1, who wants to insist on God’s wrath, is brilliant – and has the sympathy of this pastor. And I cannot “un-see” Eve now that you have shown her to me! Having read your prose, I was unsurprised to find you write poetry. I serve a congregation committed to combatting climate change, and ‘Paul the Ecologist’ will be an indispensable companion as I prepare to preach. With much appreciation. Pastor Jeff
The commentary is ridiculously priced on Amazon, but is less expensive directly from the publisher (Sheffield). The author has copies available for just $35. Run, now, and get a copy. (Search “letter to the romans” on Facebook).
My afternoon involved chicken wings, a dark beer and taking notes for my sermon on Sunday, and then a couple hours with Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin. I’ve been quietly working my way slowly through the Histories of Middle Earth as my only fictional diversion from reality since the election. The Tale of Turin is as dark as they come. In this one, the forces of darkness prevail against all attempts at either heroism or liberation.
I wonder where I would be without certain essential myths – the scripture, Star Wars, Tolkien, the universe of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (with a new volume due out in October), Harry Potter. August is pressing me to choose whether I prefer Tolkien or Philip Pullman. I’m hard pressed to decide. Feel free to weight in.
Late afternoon was spent with August at the Nature Center, tending the large animals and enjoying watching a snake eat a mouse. I mentioned the later on Facebook and received numerous responses from encouragement (to buy a snake) to eww. Together August and I spent the evening cleaning his room, washing our creature habitats, and watching Harry Potter. We read, played music, and August cooked dinner. This was our celebration of the end of the first week of state testing in english language arts.