Christ the what?

Colossians 1:15-20
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:36–37
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Did we read the right gospel? Isn’t today Christ the KING?

Isn’t today a baptism? We’ve got two little sweet peas over here and we’re reading about the crucifixion?

Today is the day of the liturgical year when we particularly recognize the reign of Jesus Christ, the power of God among us in and through all things.

But the image of Jesus that we are given in the gospel to understand that he is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation,
in him all things were created,
he is before all things,
in him all things hold together,
he is the head of the church,
he is the beginning,
the firstborn in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…

And the gospel tells us that we see and know and understand Jesus Christ in the moment of his suffering, his dying, his humiliation.

We might feel angst at the distance between Colossians and Luke, the beautifully poetic proclamation of Christ’s greatness on one hand and the ugliness of cruelty, pain, mocking, and death on the other. But that tension is the deepest and hardest truth of our baptism. We join Jesus through the story of his suffering and we join him in resurrection life.

So today’s proclamation of the power and glory of Christ Jesus is not power and glory as we might expect it. It’s not celebrity or wealth or unquestioned control. Power and glory, success, flourishing, all take on a different meaning in the gospel, in this baptismal life. And we see that most of all, the reign of Christ is over the hearts and minds and lives of those who commit to follow in his radical way of love. 

In baptism, we make vows to move away from evil and harm, from power over others, and commit to trust in and proclaim God’s grace and love as we have known it through Jesus. We promise to seek out that divine presence in other people and celebrate it in one another, to make God among us the defining feature of our common life.  In a culture that preaches louder and more, that cajoles us to buy and upgrade into happiness, to only look out for ourselves or those nearest to us, these promises of baptism make about as much sense as a criminal king, an executed god.

These families choose to baptize their children and commit them to this strange, counterintuitive life. They are promising to do everything you can to raise their children to give themselves away, to live lives of loving and peacemaking.  They are handing them over to die and rise with Christ. They give them to this community and acknowledge that they are not theirs alone, and that can be a frightening thing.

It is certainly a solemn thing, as it is for all of us who will make these promises again this morning, to hear these frightening words from the gospel and give ourselves to this story, this discipleship.

But take one hand, if you are able, and put it on your heart.
Take another hand, if you are able, and put it on your belly.
Breathe a little bit deeper.
Hear the Holy Spirit breathing and speaking her peace and power to you.
Hear the Spirit affirming that this hard road of love,
this upside down way of Christ our King,
this path is the only one that leads to resurrection.
This is the way of love.

When we put this baptism into practice, and allow the Spirit, as the old hymn says, to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace, we might begin to have the courage to live fully in Christ, and see that his reign is in the most surprising and ordinary places.

The reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God, doesn’t look like the biggest crowd. It’s not the most money, the most likes and follows and retweets, it’s not the loudest voice or the most self-justifying logic. The kingdom of God, so the saying goes, belongs to the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, those who face trouble for doing the right thing.

The reign of Christ is here in the sock and button teddy bear our family received for our baby, a gift from an acquaintance and former classmate of mine serving a sentence in the maximum security prison outside Nashville, supplies bought at commissary mark up, then stitched and stuffed with so much love and attention for a baby he’ll never meet.

The reign of Christ is here in the dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made each afternoon at the downtown library, when the librarians realized that their after school tutoring programs couldn’t help teenagers who are too hungry to learn.

The reign of Christ is here when you show up for a funeral.

It’s here when you’re wiping kids’ bottoms and mouths.

It’s here when you’re being a listening ear for someone going through difficulty.

The reign of Christ is here in the kernel of courage it takes to stand up to bullies. It’s here when you decide that the racist or transphobic joke stops here and now, and speak truth and love even when it’s hard.

The reign of Christ is here in 30 Thanksgiving dinners given by this parish to families through the Orchard Knob schools.

There are so many images and stories in the gospel accounts about this reign of Christ, and most of them are surprising. In one, you might remember Jesus’ disciples were wanting to sit at his left and right hands. They are jockeying for power positions with their teacher and friend. “Ahem, did you mention a Kingdom?” They want to make sure they have the most prestigious positions in it. In the gospel of Matthew, it’s the mother of James and John who asks Jesus to promote her sons. Now that’s embarrassing.

But what does Jesus tell them? Well, in Matthew and Mark he warns them of how hard this thing is, that they might not understand the strangeness of this kingdom. But in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus perceives that the guys are bickering over who’s the greatest, who gets to be the most powerful alongside King Jesus, you know what he does? Jesus puts his arm around a little child, and drawing the disciples’ attention to her, says, welcome this child in my name and you welcome me. The least is the greatest. This is the reign of Christ.

So as we receive these little ones today into the household of God, let us also receive them as icons of Christ to us. They are witnesses to the paradox of power and weakness, they are all the wonder of God in flesh among us, glory and power in the smallest and most unexpected places.

And as we celebrate the rule of Jesus Christ, and honor his everlasting power in and through all things, let’s follow the example of our littlest brother and sister at the font, and worship God in the rededication our lives to this baptism, to this way of love.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today we start our annual journey into the wilderness of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We fast and pray for forty days in his example of his desert wanderings and temptation. This is our season of ashes and covered crosses, of abstaining from alleluias and chocolate and baptisms and booze. This is a somber time when we accept the Christian tradition’s invitation to serious reflection and repentance, to mind-body-spirit preparation for death and life that we will experience in Holy Week. The Lenten preparation, this deep soul work of putting reflection into practice day after day, is especially important to deepening our faith and connection to the heart of the gospel, to the life and death of Jesus because, unlike the story of gospels, which leads one chapter to the next, from Gethsemane to the empty garden tomb, our lives, our journeys of suffering and death and resurrection, aren’t linear. Our liturgical observance captures a bit of this winding road. Throughout lent, throughout the season of repentance, of reckoning with our limits and mortality and failure, each Sunday is still a celebration of Easter, still our resurrection feast each week. And of course, we all know the days of reckoning with our limits and mortality, of hitting bottom and coming to deep repentance, don’t just happen during the appropriate season of lent, and we acknowledge this  in the church, too, when we repent and grieve and reflect together all year round.

Days of hurt and loneliness, those terrible Good Fridays, come when we least expect them. Days of emptiness and uncertainty, Holy Saturdays, pop up in our lives. But those Easters! The Easters come, too, don’t they? Sometimes they’re small, like the same old narcissus coming up in the yard again this year. And sometimes the Easters are glorious, life-changing: reconciliations and births and prison releases and remissions and falling in love. Not only is there no rhythm to them, but the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays and the Easter Sundays will sneak up on us all at the same time.

Like when you’re holding the newest baby in your family, and even though he’s been gone for years, you see your dad. His eyes have skipped generations and shown up on this little girl’s face, and you are so full of gladness for her and missing him terribly at the same time so that you can’t breathe? Or the feeling when you’re in the rubble of an ended relationship, figuring out what the new normal looks like, and one day realize with bittersweet satisfaction that your own solitary company is very good company. Or all those triumphs and setbacks of the journey of recovery, that slow healing of all tangled up pain and victory and knowing, practicing, that the key is in holding it all much more loosely than you want to.

We gather today and enter together into this season of honoring these good and hard things, life’s frightening and vulnerable things, of repenting, of doing our inner work with God. We do this so that we can be strengthened and grounded, more able to recognize that in the ordinary and extraordinary jumbled moments of death and resurrection, God is present with us. God is at work, and calling us to God’s work. We enter into the suffering and the death and in the resurrection with Christ himself.
Our experiences of death and the resurrection are always all together. And God knows this about us. God made these lives of jumbled up death and resurrection. The ashes are for us, not for God. We’re the ones who need the reminder. The Gospel reading makes clear that Jesus isn’t asking us to disfigure ourselves in prayer. God doesn’t need us here, kneeling and marked with the grave. Psalm 134 says it so tenderly: “God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” But we need to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We need to remember that on our own we are small, we are frail and failing.

This reminder, this mark of our dustiness, is something for us to pat ourselves on the back for, be proud of having been in church today. And it’s not so that we go about feeling terrible for ourselves. It’s not a sign of pride, but it’s also not meant to get us stuck in shame. Because remember? The Easters are all tangled up in the Lents and the Good Fridays.

When we know that resurrection life and death are always tied together, our practice of remembering our death, remembering our failures in repentance, can be, more than anything, a practice of trust. By taking this step of remembering we are dust, we are calling on God’s mercy with confidence, the psalmist says, in God’s steadfast love. We can take on the daunting work of the fast, entrusting our treasure and our hearts to God, because God is our understanding creator, our loving parent. We can bravely accept Isaiah’s call to loose the bonds of injustice because we know that the task of breaking yokes of oppression happens only with the guidance and strength of God’s Spirit, our constant companion. We can venture into the unspeakably vulnerable territory of speaking our sin and shortcomings because love divine is waiting for us in the wilderness, and that love divine wants us to be free, healed, and whole.

We don’t face our sin and stare down our death for the sake of sin and death. Sure, the ashes represent this, but they also point us to so much more. The poet Jan Richardson nudges us to thinking differently about our ashes. In an Ash Wednesday poem, she asks her readers, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The psalmist knew. When we remember we are dust, when we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to God to make us whole, God will teach us wisdom, restore us to joy, and make us living declarations of praise, of love and mercy.

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The prophet knew. When we remember we are dust, when we let go our ambitious grasping to make space for neighbors in need, God will satisfy all our needs and rebuild us, and our light shall rise in the darkness.

Richardson’s poem goes on to say,

let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not by false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust.

Today, let us be marked by repentance, a repentance full of trust and hope. Yes, come and be marked by death, but a death that’s always, always pointing to resurrection. Let us be marked by what God can do with the dust.

FullSizeRender.jpeg

Good Friday

We’ve moved into Easter season, but I only just had time to edit and organize these jotted thoughts from Good Friday. Please excuse my disconnect from the liturgical calendar! 

During the last two seasons of Advent and Christmas, I felt connected to Jesus in a profound way. Not too surprising that I could meet Jesus as son—I was pregnant along with Mary through Advent, and the following year, supplied my own baby to be Jesus in the manger. What I didn’t expect was to see Jesus as my son this week, Holy Week. In church I sat with S. listened to the trial, the beating, the execution, the burial. An astounding sermon by a friend colleague who also did chaplaincy work in the pediatric ICU, bravely speaking about the dying children.

The beloved child is being killed. He didn’t outlive his mother the way he was supposed to.

The precious roly-poly manger baby grew up. He listened to your lessons and corrections, he paid attention in synagogue. All grown up. He took all the law and the prophets to heart, listened more than you anticipated, and gave up everything to go around, healing and loving and listening and preaching. You spent the last few years loving his loving heart, sending your prayers, shaking your head at his strange ways, worrying that he might be stirring up trouble with his strange friends.
The stakes were high. Too high. If it weren’t all so horrifying, you’d be proud, so proud and astonished that the little speck of cells in your womb, the toddler you spanked, the teen you grounded, is this grown, beautiful, brave man.

There is no resurrection today. No hope. There is only the echoes of pain in your own body as you watch his broken. That pulling knot deep in your belly—you haven’t felt that since those first days after you birthed your last baby, that painful jerk of womb and breasts at their little cries—it’s back and stronger and bringing you to your knees.