As I was walking in the Bay area today, noticing the many varieties of palms splayed heaven-ward, I thought about their use in the procession as Jesus entered the city. Maybe there were other kinds of branches besides palms – so many arch over walkways around the city – but I think what’s most important is how such a procession would have engaged everyone, from the youngest to the elders. Jesus comes in gentle humility, with the donkey and colt, then the crowds show their own humility before the exalted one, lowering their cloaks to the ground, and lining the path with the branches.
I don’t think it’s possible to hold a palm branch and keep still. It’s just too tempting to twirl it around, or use it to tap someone on the shoulder or tickle their neck. Put palm branches in the hands of people, a whole crowd of people, and you’re going to see movement. I think Jesus would have appreciated that.
What do we need to hold onto – and to place in the hands of others throughout the year – to keep the movement going, to glorify Jesus in our midst?
Lent 5, Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:6-11 / John 11:1-45
“Pull yourself together.” How many times have we heard that? Just get yourself out of that hole you are in and get on with things. “Pull yourself together.” (Sometimes I even say it to myself.) There are times we can remedy a difficult situation with a few, simple changes, and move on. And then there are circumstances when it would be an insult to suggest we can possibly “snap out of it.”
Life’s troubles seem to fall into three major categories. The first layer is, “I’ve got this,” I just need a day off to re-group, to clean house, make a fresh list. The second layer is when we know we need to call on our support network – friends, family, co-workers – the people who will offer practical support and stand with us, to see us through. That third layer is the one that goes way beyond our human capacity, and I think that is the one we are being confronted with today – challenged to look at those times when the chaos is too great, darkness and despair too deep, circumstances too overwhelming, things seem so far gone for there to be any possibility of turning around.
Out of the depths, God calls us.
Have you ever had those situations when you can imagine a rescue? Maybe the rescue looks like winning the lottery. Long ago, I had been out hiking for a day and was lost, and I remember just wanting to be rescued. I was cold and miserable, and I could imagine a helicopter lowering down a ladder to pull me to safety. Of course, I had pictured what that should look like and precisely when it should come (right then would have been good) … How many times in the Exodus did the people of Israel cry out to God, to be delivered from their distress?
Out of such depths, God calls us.
It is not so hard to claim our faith when things are going well … when we are reaping the harvest, enjoying abundant gifts … in the springtime of love … witnessing new life and the joy of children … enjoying a vacation … glorious days when all seems just about perfect. Of course we believe in God – we see the evidence of God’s life-giving spirit at work in the world.
And this is not the picture we have in the Valley of the Dry Bones, nor in the mourning for Lazarus. These are the times that call for real faith. Disturbing, heart wrenching times – that seem all the more tragic when we hear that Jesus is also disturbed by what he encounters. Grieved at the death of his friend, witnessing the sorrow, and confronted on his responsibility: Jesus weeps.
And out of the depths, God calls us.
How do we possibly get our minds and hearts around these images, and our own sad circumstances? The pain, when all seems lost? At such times, to “pull ourselves together” is an impossible task. And I don’t believe that is what God is asking of us.
In 2005, when my spine took a disturbing spin and I was learning to walk again, I found myself in a scene like nothing I had ever encountered. It was more than the physical challenge and the pain, and previous formulas of regrouping, and getting things figured out and carrying on, were woefully inadequate. There was an indescribable chaos that told me life as I had known it was forever changed. The support of loved ones, as helpful as it was and as grateful as I was for it, was simply not enough. I could barely put one foot in front of the other, much less imagine crossing the long desert ahead.
The worst part was the nightmares, when I would finally sleep – I faced the terror of falling, lying in a heap, abandoned in the dark on some desolate road. I would have grasped for a helicopter rescue, but I don’t believe I would have found it truly helpful. Friends had already been there, and there was nothing they could really do. I had to lie in that valley, that tomb.
“If only you had been there to prevent this,” they say.
But, really, are we looking for a vending machine God who responds to our prayers with neatly packaged solutions? Or do we want a relationship?
In the wee hours one morning, awakened by yet another nightmare, I had a profound sense that Jesus was not telling me to pull myself together, nor was he saying that I could just stand up and walk … but was right there on the ground with me, there in the pain and despair. It was only then that I could be led out, to accept a new way of life. For me, this is when Jesus gets street cred. This is a Jesus I can follow.
“And Jesus wept.” He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept with Martha and Mary. And perhaps he wept, too, because people did not understand that they could, would be delivered from such despair … that there would be new life – after the desert, after the grave.
At this point in a long scripture passage, it is tempting to rush to the end and sigh with relief that dead bones walk, that Lazarus comes out. In this long season of Lent, it is tempting to fast-forward to Easter. Yet it is at this very moment that I believe we need some slow-motion footage, some storyboards, even, to study the scene. It is here in their grief that we hear the confession of faith: Martha, with no visible assurance of what is to come, affirms her belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus gives thanks to God, pointing to the source that is making the improbable a reality. This is faith before the resurrection, faith before Easter.
From where does our faith come? Dry bones are knit together and animated, given life … Lazarus emerges from the tomb … And today, we can look to the good work that happens when we come together to raise funds for a worthy cause, to help people in need. Signs of resiliency. Evidence. We can point to results and say, “See: Look what God can do! Of course I believe!”
Yet we are asked to put our trust in something more than outward flesh, more than tangible signs – to do so on a timeline that is not our own – far beyond the reach of our own capabilities and influence – out of our control.
To set mind and heart on the Spirit of God that is somewhere in the elusive “out there” requires more faith than I can usually manage. To recognize Jesus, with us even in our deepest pain, is something I can do. There is much about God that I do not yet understand, but I do know this Jesus – who came into our human condition, who waits with us and bears our burdens with us, who points us to the source of eternal hope, and gives us the promise of resurrection. This is faith I can hold onto when all seems dry, barren, and lifeless … and we don’t have to wait for it.
As we near the end of our Lenten journey, as we approach the Cross, may we be mindful that this is where we confess our faith, in the one who came to share our pain, the one who weeps with us.
For it is out of this depth – this real, believable, flesh-and-bone depth – that God calls us into new life.
Community Holy Eucharist – Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Silence between biddings
Let us pray for God’s people throughout the world; for Christians being killed by extremists in Nigeria and all who risk their lives in faith; and for our strengthening and renewal in this season of Lent. Pray for the Church.
For the work of nations and for leaders throughout the world, to bring an end to division; for the people of Ukraine, and all who live and die in places of conflict; and for the enmity that rends our own hearts. Pray for peace.
For our brothers and sisters in the whole human family who experience hunger, poverty, oppression, and imprisonment, that they might be met with compassion and mercy. Pray for those in any need or trouble.
For stillness in our hearts, to discern God’s will afresh. Pray for all who seek God.
For the work beneath the surface of the earth, preparing for the coming spring; and for the great sky that spans the distance to homelands past and future. Pray for creation.
For all who are sick or recovering, and those who have asked for our prayers this night … Pray those in need of healing.
For those who have died, including … and all who mourn. Pray for the departed.
In gratitude for the gift of community, and the opportunities and abundance we enjoy. Let us offer our thanksgivings.
Praise God for those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored. Pray that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day.
Presider adds concluding collect:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together in unity, and drenched in your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayers of the People for the Holy Eucharist remembering Florence Li Tim-Oi
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying,
“Lord, have mercy.”
For the peace of the world, for the welfare of the holy Church of God, and for the unity of all peoples, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For missionaries, evangelists, teachers, prophets, and servants spreading the Good News, especially in places of conflict, oppression, and hardship, and for the Church to support the work of God with all its might, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For the work of Asiamerica Ministries, and all those who strengthen communities, empower new leaders, and revitalize the Church, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For those places where service is restricted; for release of the gifts of all the people of God, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, culture, class, age, ability, or economic status, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For the leaders of nations, and all those in authority, that they might lead with justice and truth, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For sea and sky, for wind to scatter the seeds of spring, and rain – blessed rain – to water the earth; for plentiful harvests and the flourishing of all creation, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For the poor and the oppressed, for new immigrants, for the unemployed, for those facing barriers of language and education, for prisoners and captives, and for all who care for them, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For the aged and the infirm, the sick and the suffering, for … let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For those who have died, including … and for those who mourn, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For faith and hope, and the conviction to serve with patience, happiness, and above all, love, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored, especially Florence Li Tim-Oi whom we remember today; and for the grace to glorify Christ all our days, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
Presider adds concluding collect:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be support by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
A fine day to be in ministry, indeed: Absalom Jones celebration at St. Augustine’s in Oakland, where I joined cohorts in carrying symbols of ministry to the altar; a beautiful memorial service for a food pantry volunteer, with the growing light in the church reminding us that Christ overcomes all darkness; much rejoicing and gratitude for generous gifts at the San Francisco Imperial Council coronation, including $8,000 raised by local drag queens to support the St. Aidan’s food pantry; and two pastoral visits on public transit. Feeling grateful for the opportunities to share Christ’s love. If this is what ministry looks like on a Saturday, what might Sunday bring forth?
A beautiful, 16-hour Holy Eucharist today, with cohorts who share hearts for God’s mission on the streets. Praying, hearing God’s word and responding … We began with an opening collect at the Downtown Berkeley Bart station at 6 a.m., then headed into San Francisco to serve breakfast at Glide Memorial Church. Praying, observing … For the first lesson, we stood in the alleyway where Open Cathedral gathers many people from the Tenderloin for worship on Sunday afternoons. Walking, praying … We learned about Episcopal Community Services, offered them new, white bath towels, helped with lunch, and stayed around for some fellowship and bingo. Praying, walking, reflecting … For lunch, we ate on less than $2 each, remembering those around us with limited means, and those who hunger daily. Praying, walking … We heard the gospel at the threshold of St. Boniface, then entered into the quiet of Sacred Sleep, and presented our offering of socks … More praying, more walking … Late in the afternoon, we re-grouped at the public library, where so many who are homeless stop in for respite; we discussed mission, our individual and corporate roles, and confessed things done and left undone … Praying more, walking more … In pairs, we made our way to Delancey Street, writing prayers of the people on the way, on scraps of found paper. At the restaurant, which is run by former addicts and ex-convicts, we joined The Rev. Don Fox, who reflected on his experiences with the Night Ministry. We gathered our prayers and offered them up, rested our feet, and feasted, ending the meal with the Great Thanksgiving in the middle of the restaurant. Going in peace … We returned to the seminary around 10 p.m., having walked more than 13 miles. A full and meaningful day of church on the streets …
The Society of the Celtic Cross, the mission “hands” of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, recently announced its 2014 Mission Grants, at a forum on urban mission. It is good to turn empty parking spaces, a vending machine, and community offerings into international aid, literacy programs, support for refugees and new immigrants, food for hungry bellies, and more ... spreading Good News around the world!
We talk often in the Oakerhater Community about being the church beyond the limitations of place. We are a non-residential community, and it is our way to be the church like David Pendleton Oakerhater was on the plains of western Oklahoma – to carry God with us, to be the church while walking around from place to place.
God of the traveling ones, the restless ones, who draws us near: Help us remember to stop long enough to receive your grace, that we might stand in true communion with one another – yet always be ready to move, to serve where you lead us; in the Name of the One you sent among us to show us The Way. Amen.