Sunday, March 10, 2024

No Accident We: The sermon I didn't preach on Lent IV

It was written, printed and ready to go -- this sermon for Lent 4/2024 -- but it turns out I wasn't. Ready to go.

Still managing symptoms from a virus picked up traveling a week ago, I opted to pass the 10am pulpit baton to the 7:30am preacher and keep my possibly germy self home for rest and hydration. But ... with deep bows of gratitude to the brilliant Deon Johnson ... here's what I would have said:

No Accident We | Lent 4_2024 


Remember that you are dust,

the substance of the stars,

animated with the breath of life.

Uniquely formed in the image and likeness

Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

Remember that you are dust. Amen.

“Remember that you are dust” … words that have launched the holy season of Lent down through the centuries … words that showed up for me reframed and reformed this Ash Wednesday in this prayer posted by friend and colleague Bishop Deon Johnson.


It is a prayer that I have returned to daily during this Lenten Journey

and one I believe has a word for us … not only as we gather

on this Fourth Sunday in Lent in the year of our Lord 2024

on this Annual Meeting Sunday in a Centennial Year for All Saints Church …

but as we look ahead to the word we need to sustain us

for the journey in the days, weeks and months ahead …

the word we need to continue the struggle
of living out lives aligned with love, justice and compassion

in a world being torn apart by violence, polarization and division ...

the word we need as we strive to offer

an antidote to the toxic theology of Christian Nationalism

and the clash between two worldviews in our body politic and civic discourse.

It is not a new struggle.
But it does remind me of an old story.


It was 2007 and then rector Ed Bacon invited me to join him for his annual retreat.
It was an eight-day silent retreat
with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Haverford, Pennsylvania —
and it is an experience I will always remember
and have absolutely no plan to replicate.


It will not be a surprise to most of you
that eight days of silence and I
turned out not to be a match made in heaven
and …
there were some wonderful things about the experience
I still hold with gratitude and which continue to inform my journey.

One of them was the homily I heard from Father Sullivan —
one of the Roman priests who came to preside in the convent chapel.
He talked about his early days in ministry,
doing missionary work in Guatemala
and the deep friendship he developed with his Evangelical roommate.
He said they had MUCH in common
as they worked among the most vulnerable in the city
and they had lots of great conversations about theology, mission and ministry.

The one chasm they couldn’t bridge, however,
was the one between their different views on the nature of humanity.

His roommate, the priest recounted,
was convinced humans are inherently evil beings
who can only accomplish good by being bathed in the Blood of the Lamb.

The priest, on the other hand,
was convinced that humans are inherently good
and that our baptism into the Body of Christ
is what enables, equips and empowers us to resist the evil present in the world
in order to participate with God in making that world a better place.


These two schools of thought create two very different world views because who we think we are turns out to have a lot to do with who we think God is: and how we understand who we were created to be turns out to have a lot to do with how we understand who the Creator is.

Are human beings inherently evil or essentially good?
Is God a punitive male authority figure
with an anger management problem
ready to cast us into outer darkness
for coloring outside of the lines of any of the house rules
or a loving creator
yearning to realize the dream
of gathering all creation around the table
to be fed by the holy food of love, justice and compassion?


And how we answer those questions for ourselves
turns out to influence not only how we live out our faith in the world,
but how we put our faith into action through the values we embrace,
and as we struggle to be the change we want to see in the world.


And it turns out, my sisters, brothers and gender fluid siblings,

that this struggle did not start with a particular election cycle or party platform

or the rise of a particular autocrat or economic system.


It is the same struggle we hear about week after week, year after year in the ancient scriptural story of our spiritual ancestors who struggled against the same powers and principalities they faced in their time as we do in ours.


In our scriptural story we hear about the times they succeeded – and about the times they failed.


But more importantly, we hear about the God who never gave up on them; whose quality is always to have mercy; who is always with us in the struggle against systemic evil.


Walter Wink — the 20th century biblical scholar and theologian
of “Engaging the Powers” fame —
brilliantly summarized what it is we’re up against
in this 1999 summary of what he called “the myth of redemptive violence:”


“The myth of redemptive violence is, in short,
nationalism become absolute.
This myth speaks for God;
it does not listen for God to speak.
It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own;
it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical judgment by God.
It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity.
It does not seek God in order to change;
it embraces God in order to prevent change.
Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations
but a tribal god worshiped as an idol.
Its metaphor is not the journey but the fortress.
Its symbol is not the cross but the crosshairs of a gun.
Its offer is not forgiveness but victory.
Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies
but their final elimination.
Its salvation is not a new heart but a successful foreign policy.
It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous.”


The bad news is that is what we’re up against.
The worse news is the Christian Nationalism
Walter Wink wrote about in 1999 is on steroids in 2024.
But good news is that we’re not up against it alone.


Lent is the season we reprogram our spiritual GPS.
It is the time we commit ourselves to realigning ourselves
with the grain of the universe which is love
in order to share what we know,
what we value,
and to spin a force of the Spirit
that reaches back to a tomorrow
we cannot yet imagine;
a tomorrow where the myth of redemptive
is banished
and the reign of God’s love, justice and compassion
has come on earth as it is in heaven.

To reverse our amnesia about who we are,

from where we come

and ultimately to where we will go when our time in the realm is over.


Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

It was that glimpse of humanity as we were created to be –

of what the world could be

made manifest smack dab in the middle of the world

as the worst it had become --

that drew people to Jesus in 1st century Palestine

and continues to draw people to him in 21st century Pasadena. 


The thousands who flocked to him in this morning’s reading from Mark is one of the most famous in all of scripture – the miracle of the loaves and fishes where Jesus pulled off abundance in the face of scarcity while the disciples cluelessly flunked the story problem at the end causing him to ask – one more time – “do you not understand?”


A glimpse of Beloved Community where all are included, nobody leaves hungry and even if you don’t “get it” you’re still welcome.

It seems that Jesus had as many parables and stories as there were people who came seeking him – seeking that other world he came to show us was not only possible, but was here – but was now.


·      “The kingdom of God is like …”


But of all the stories in scripture of those who come seeking Jesus, the one on my heart this Fourth Sunday in Lent is not the one appointed for today by the lectionary lottery – it is the one we hear every year on Tuesday in Holy Week:  


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.   


And one of the questions I have every time I hear this one is:
“But what about the Greeks?”
Every time I hear it read in church and we say  

“The word of the Lord/Thanks be to God,“   

I’m left wondering 
what happened to these Greeks who showed up 
at the beginning of the gospel saying 
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus" 
and set off the from Philip to Andrew to Jesus chain of events 
that ended up with Jesus going into 
the poetic and prophetic musing 
on what it means to be glorified 
and "indicating the kind of death he was to die." 
We never find out what happened to those Greeks. 

A brief historical “contextual” note: 
when John says "some Greeks", 
he doesn't mean folks who hang out in Athens and are related to Zorba. 
To the 1st century hearers of the Gospel "Greeks" meant "non-Jews" - 
foreigners - Gentiles. 

No wonder Philip had to go check with Andrew first ... 
did you notice that in the text? 
"They came to Philip -- who went and told Andrew; 
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
As one of the commentaries I consulted noted: 
"... evidently being dubious how they might be received." 
No automatic welcome for these guys: 
these Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. 
So we’re all left wondering: 
Did they get to see Jesus? 

Were they in crowd when Jesus offered this long explanation 
of what his death was going to be about ... 
and if so did they "get it" ... 
or did they leave wondering what the deal was ... 
feeling as if they came in late in the second act 
and were not sure what the plot line was all about? 

Let’s hope not.
Let’s hope they encountered a 1st century version of our 21st century Welcome Table with someone like Nancy Naecker there to greet them and make sure they got a welcome bag and met some folks to help them find their way.


For at the end of the day,

what we are called to be about each and every time

we gather here in this sacred space

is to be the Body of Christ …

to do the ministry of Jesus on earth –

offering that glimpse of humanity as we were created to be –

a window into the world as it could be

made manifest smack dab in the middle of a world

that sometimes seems to be working overtime to be the worst can be.

Yes, it’s an aspirational goal.

Yes, we frequently fall dramatically short of living into the full stature of who we are called to be.

Nevertheless – we persist.


We persist in being the change we want to see in the world;

We persist in offering loving liberation

as an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence

And we persist in living lives in alignment

with the love lures us toward hope – 
as followers of the one who yearns to draw all people to himself:
the Jesus who spoke, in the last days before his crucifixion, 
to those Greeks who came to him – 
not sure if they'd be welcome. 
It is an old, old story still begging to be fulfilled – 
and we are the Body of Christ 
who have been charged with fulfilling it in our generation.

In the words of Deon Johnson:

No accident we.


And so, in this March Women’s History Month:

May we claim the charge of our sister Esther who “for just such as time as this” was called to speak to truth power; to risk for the hope of liberation; to trust in the God who created her from the substance of the stars.

May we remember Phyllis Tickle of blessed memory who taught us
that doctrine and liturgy are important 
because they represent 
the paper trail 
of our historic experience of God 
but those coming toward us 
don’t want just a paper trail … 
they want their own experience:
Just lik the Greeks
who came to Philip and Andrew 
they want to see Jesus. 

And we are the ones who have been called to show him to them.


Three weeks ago Gary Hall launched us into Lent reminding us of our call to be a prophetic church with these words: Prophets show things how they really are – and the church’s prophetic voice shows the world what it really is – reverses its amnesia about what it was created to be … calls us to remember who we are created to be.”


And so, beloved … if you remember nothing else:

Remember that you are dust,

the substance of the stars,

animated with the breath of life.

Uniquely formed in the image and likeness

Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

Remember that you are dust. Amen.