Love in Action


Yesterday I went on a hike hosted by “Southern California Botanists.”  Botany hikes are not good exercise.  We get about five feet down the path and somebody says, “Hey look at this plant!” We all gather round, ooh and ah, take pictures.  We go another five feet down the path.  “Oh wow, look at that  plant!”  Some of these plants are tiny grey mats of fluff that only a botanist could love. But a few were gorgeous.  I had never heard of Turkish Rugging before.  A whole bluff covered with little purple balls. I got to learn about these plants from the guy who wrote the book on Orange County native plants.  Literally. Tucked under his arm, Fred Roberts had “the book” listing the 22,000 Orange County wild plants.  Fred also co-wrote the book on OC native wildflowers. It was funny to watch him reel off the Latin name of a plant and then say, “But let me check!” Then he pulls out his own book, and spells it correctly for us.  

This kind of field trip is not for everybody. Scott was relieved when he heard about it that he hadn’t tagged along.  But what a gift it was for we who love this land and want to know it better, and for some reason enjoy knowing Latin names of things.  Fred shared with us his passion, his love for these gifts of God, and he was also equipping another generation of volunteers to pass that love on. 

Fred has been doing a botanical survey of rare plants at Crystal Cove State Park, right near the beach.  Several varieties were thought extinct, because the botanists hired to do surveys before Fred didn’t bother climbing the bluffs to look for them. That he cares enough to look for them matters.  If you identify a colony of rare plants, you can protect them, and that helps protect the land they’re on.  Love in action.

We heard a piece of good news from Fred’s friend Dave, who is retired now, but used to manage Orange County’s coastal state parks.  The bluffs we saw were not wildlands before the 1980’s.  They were horse corrals and vegetable gardens.  The soil was almost entirely bare sand, and what few plants were there were almost all invasive weeds.  The bare cliffs were crumbling into the sea.  Crystal Cove State Park was formed in 1978, and Dave’s crew began replanting a few native plants.  With the cows and horses and plows gone and a little priming the pump, the seed bank hiding in the soil woke up.  Many more varieties of natives than they’d planted began to appear.  Now the bluffs are topped with deeply rooted native bushes that help prevent erosion into the sea.  As Dave told us this, you could see the pride in his face.  

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
May 12, 2019
Love in Action

Acts 9:36-42  Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

It has been my pleasure to participate in a Breaking Bread Group over the last two months.  A half dozen of us gathered at each others homes.  When it was my turn, we went to happy hour at Taps so people didn’t have to drive to Irvine.  We took turns telling about our lives, and our faith, and our take on our church.  It does me good to listen to participants of our church, as well as talk to you.  One member of our group said this:  “We are a conservative church.  We believe Jesus.”  That took me a while to process.  What he meant was that we believe what Jesus taught.  And at the center of what he taught was not right belief, but love in action.  The most important commandment Jesus gave us:  Love God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.  And the second: Love your neighbor as yourself.  We gather here to remember what love looks like.  

Love sometimes looks like simple respect.   That is no small thing these days.  Love sometimes looks like sharing, caring, offering but not forcing.  Love can look like setting respectful limits instead of resenting.  It sometimes looks like commitment when it would be easier to walk away.  At its simplest, love looks like sharing a gift or a kindness with another, regardless of whether that other looks like us, or belongs with us, or is respectable.

Sometimes we get caught up in abstract ideas about what our religion is or isn’t.  I enjoy talking theology, but that is not the heart of what Jesus taught us.  Love is not a feeling.  Love is a verb, a doing.  We will not always succeed in loving like we think we should.   We will do it imperfectly, and we will risk being hypocrites.  That’s what happens when you have worthy goals.

Love does not require any miracles.  Thank God.  Peter worked a miracle, raising Tabitha from the dead.  Whether or not you take the bible story at face value, consider. Peter has just created impossible expectations.  The next time someone dies, call Peter!  He’ll raise them from the dead, right?  What do you mean you can’t do it this time, Peter?  Don’t you love us?  Aren’t you right with God?  Poor Peter.

There are some things love cannot mend.  But maybe it is just as well that most of us do not know how to do big heroic acts of love like Peter.  Just little stitches like Tabitha’s that, over time, knit together lives of sacred worth and care.

Tabitha’s simple acts of love, in making clothing for others, are ordinary, and have inspired people for thousands of years.  Tabitha’s love wasn’t abstract.  It was clothing people well who would otherwise have had rags. She gave what gifts and time and talents she had to serve others.  It seems from the story that she gathered others to serve with her, and that is a pretty good way to keep a church thriving. Love in action.  

Churches through the ages have had Tabitha circles, sewing or quilting or knitting in community.  Often the products of those circles go to people needing warmth or comfort. A friend of this church described knitting a prayer shawl for her friend who is facing cancer.  She discovered a whole system of praying as she knit, so that loads of prayer and love went into that shawl.  Her friend took a picture of herself wrapped in the shawl, waiting in the doctor’s office.  But love in action can take different forms.

Yesterday I went on a hike hosted by “Southern California Botanists.”  Botany hikes are not good exercise.  We get about five feet down the path and somebody says, “Hey look at this plant!” We all gather round, ooh and ah, take pictures.  We go another five feet down the path.  “Oh wow, look at that  plant!”  Some of these plants are tiny grey mats of fluff that only a botanist could love. But a few were gorgeous.  I had never heard of Turkish Rugging before.  A whole bluff covered with little purple balls. I got to learn about these plants from the guy who wrote the book on Orange County native plants.  Literally. Tucked under his arm, Fred Roberts had “the book” listing the 22,000 Orange County wild plants.  Fred also co-wrote the book on OC native wildflowers. It was funny to watch him reel off the Latin name of a plant and then say, “But let me check!” Then he pulls out his own book, and spells it correctly for us.  

This kind of field trip is not for everybody. Scott was relieved when he heard about it that he hadn’t tagged along.  But what a gift it was for we who love this land and want to know it better, and for some reason enjoy knowing Latin names of things.  Fred shared with us his passion, his love for these gifts of God, and he was also equipping another generation of volunteers to pass that love on. 

Fred has been doing a botanical survey of rare plants at Crystal Cove State Park, right near the beach.  Several varieties were thought extinct, because the botanists hired to do surveys before Fred didn’t bother climbing the bluffs to look for them. That he cares enough to look for them matters.  If you identify a colony of rare plants, you can protect them, and that helps protect the land they’re on.  Love in action.

We heard a piece of good news from Fred’s friend Dave, who is retired now, but used to manage Orange County’s coastal state parks.  The bluffs we saw were not wildlands before the 1980’s.  They were horse corrals and vegetable gardens.  The soil was almost entirely bare sand, and what few plants were there were almost all invasive weeds.  The bare cliffs were crumbling into the sea.  Crystal Cove State Park was formed in 1978, and Dave’s crew began replanting a few native plants.  With the cows and horses and plows gone and a little priming the pump, the seed bank hiding in the soil woke up.  Many more varieties of natives than they’d planted began to appear.  Now the bluffs are topped with deeply rooted native bushes that help prevent erosion into the sea.  As Dave told us this, you could see the pride in his face.  

Another example of love in action.  Last year I went to the Iftar meal at the mosque in Anaheim.  People came together on a rooftop on a spring evening to share with each other the struggle and celebration of Ramadan.  They had fasted all their daylight hours.  The people from Brea Congregational had not fasted; it was actually First Food Sunday, complete with potluck!   Nevertheless we were welcomed to accompany them as they prayed and broke their fast with a delicious feast.  Reaching out across barriers that some would make hateful and violent, to invite strangers to celebrate a holy feast with them.  Our Muslim friends showed us love in action.

Sometimes love is remembering.  Each second Tuesday of the month, an interfaith memorial service is held at St. Philip Benizi church in Fullerton for the people of Orange County who have died “without fixed abode” in the previous month.  All the names are read aloud.  The souls of the homeless are not forgotten.  Love in action.

Sometimes love is taking public stands on issues, because justice is what love looks like in public.  My friend Sarah Halverson brought her baby to the Costa Mesa City Council meeting last week, She was there to speak for flying a rainbow flag at city hall each year from May 22, Harvey Milk Day, through June, Pride Month. Sarah didn’t need to stay with her baby for three hours till 9:30 pm and speak in favor of the flag. The Council already had the votes.   But she wantedto speak for her church’s values, to support her friends, and to remind people how important it is to make a safe space for LGBTQ people these days.  Love in action.

Another example of love in action.  Many of you have asked, “How can we help,” when you heard of Mike Flynn’s accident.  It sounds like our help is not needed right now, but Lauren knows we offered, and I hope she knows how much love and prayers are there for Mike.  Our love can’t fix him, but we hope it brings their family a little comfort and encouragement.  There will be a card for you to sign in the Hall after the service. 

A final example of love in action.  Edith died last week at the age of 91.  I never met Edith.  I learned about her from my friend, who had to tell me about Edith. Every year for twenty-five years Edith called up my friend and asked her who could she drive to Idyllwild for their annual retreat.  Edith would drive from Orange to Newport Beach to pick someone up to take to Idyllwild. And back again at the end of the weekend.   Never mind that she was older than the person she was driving.  You all know that driving someone distances in Southern California traffic is an act of love.  My friend was walking down the street with Edith one time when she fished a Kleenex out of her purse, bent over, and scooped up a piece of gum.  Because then it wouldn’t get caught on the bottom of someone’s shoe.  Love can be that simple.  That was how Edith operated, apparently all the time.

Edith clearly loved what she did, as did Tabitha, and she loved others through what she did. As do Fred and Dave.  Love in action.  No miracles required.  No perfection required.  Special skills can help, but thoughtfulness or enthusiasm work almost as well.  What are your personal ways to put love in action? 

I thank you, members and friends of Brea Congregational, for being love in action over and over again, in large ways and small. You bring food for the food shelf. You support Citizens Climate Lobby, including hosting that amazing Sustainable Living Faire.  You marched in the OC Pride parade.  You welcome visitors of all description.  I see love in action as we do the small and ordinary tasks that keep us celebrating on Sunday morning and sharing this church’s message of inclusive welcome and love for all, including care for the earth. Thank you. 

There is a risk in claiming an ethic of love. We will not always do it well.  We may never think we are doing enough.  And others may judge us as lacking.  Occasionally we may do the opposite of love. (Speaking for myself, anyway.)  This is the risk we take, being human, and trying to live up to high principles.  Loving ourselves means accepting our limitations, forgiving our failures, and practicing kindness for ourselves as well as others. 

So put your love into action, whether it’s babysitting or fixing a car, saying a prayer or writing a card, calling your congressperson or driving someone to the doctor.  Do it with a friend, make it a habit, do it for the fun of it.  Celebrate the people who show you love in action, like Tabitha.  Watch what they do, learn, help.  And if you can’t do what they do, just enjoy what they do, and figure out your special stitch in the fabric that is our love for one another and for God. And rely on God’s all-encompassing love to weave our little stitches together into a beautiful tapestry of sacred worth and care.  Amen. 

Counting Our Blessings


Do we really have to be in danger of losing something to appreciate it?  How about we practice counting blessings, without having to lose them first?  Maybe there are people who just grow up with an awareness and trust of the sacred, a sense of gratitude, but I’m guessing most of us will have to cultivate it. Process theology claims that God is acting in each moment and through all things to bring forth life and beauty and goodness…blessing.  Our job is to accept God’s invitations to enjoy, to learn, to to co-create with God. But first we have to remember God’s presence.  to notice it, to find the blessings that are all around us, waiting to be received.

We can cultivate memory, counting the blessings that have happened in the past.  That’s what John invites us to do with the signs he reports in his gospel.  With my modern scientific eye, those kinds of miraculous signs in the Gospel of John are not compelling to me.  I can’t suspend my disbelief.  But there have been times in my own life that have felt truly sacred; so when I am feeling discouraged or scared, there they are, touchstones that remind me: God is here, inviting us into abundant life.  And there are plenty of biographies and bible stories that inspire me. What are your special memories of inspiration and sacred encounter, your touchstones?

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
May 5, 2019

Counting Our Blessings

John 21:1-17  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 
            4  Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5  Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 
          9  When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 
            15  When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

One hundred and fifty three-fish.  Big fish. Work all night, and have nothing to show for it.  Listen to a hint from Jesus (whether you recognize him or not), and prepare to be amazed.  The gospel writer John wants us to be amazed.  He wants us to know exactly how many fish the disciples caught that morning. So much of John’s Gospel is philosophical and abstract and repetitive, but not this passage. This passage contains a hundred and fifty-three big fish.  Enough to feed everyone’s family, and still have enough to seel and pay everyone well, and maybe even pay off some debts or fix the boat.  This the last of those “signs” John loves to share in his gospel, to show us that God acts powerfully through Jesus. These signs do not fix everything.  The next time the disciples went fishing, their catch was probably nothing special. But signs did expand peoples’ ideas of what was possible.  

Catching 153 fish was John’s bonus sign.  he had already written an ending for his gospel in the previous chapter, with these lines: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.   But these are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting you may have life in his name.  But then, John couldn’t resist adding one more sign, or 153 if you count each fish. 

What functions as a sign for you?  What reminds you that God is active in the world?  What brings you life and trust that the sacred is acting for good in our world? Different things work for different people.  Whatever works for you, remember it. Cultivate it.  And share it.  

Let’s call this practice “counting our blessings,” whether they be fish, or other things.  “Blessings” might not be your favorite term; if so, bear with me.  What I mean is that, in spite of whatever struggles and fears and losses you face, keep lifting up your connection with the sacred, the things that delight you and inspire you, the special experiences, large and small.  Count your blessings.

Some people hesitate to claim blessings because they don’t want to be smug, or “better than,” or celebrate that they have something that others need and lack. But if you recognize that blessings are not prizes to be competed for or hoarded but rather gifts to empower, be enjoyed and shared, then there’s no problem. 

So how shall we count our blessings? 

I have talked to people who got one blessing that was enough for a lifetime.  One stunning experience transformed them. All else is seen in the light of that experience.  They have encountered the sacred in a most powerful way.  You can’t schedule that kind of experience.  Which is just as well, because it often involves nearly dying first.

But many things bless us that we take for granted.  Sometimes it takes losing them, or nearly losing them, to wake us up.  A trivial example: I used to go camping in Joshua Tree every spring and fall.  Lots of rocks, beautiful starry skies, meteors, and no showers.  When I returned home, that first warm shower was such a gift!  That I usually totally take for granted.  A more serious case: in 2015, my husband Scott came close to dying of a pulmonary embolism.  So every day I wake up beside him is a blessing, and I know it.  It always was. I just wasn’t paying attention.  Funny how that works. 

Do we really have to be in danger of losing something to appreciate it?  How about we practice counting blessings, without having to lose them first?  Maybe there are people who just grow up with an awareness and trust of the sacred, a sense of gratitude, but I’m guessing most of us will have to cultivate it. Process theology claims that God is acting in each moment and through all things to bring forth life and beauty and goodness…blessing.  Our job is to accept God’s invitations to enjoy, to learn, to to co-create with God. But first we have to remember God’s presence.  to notice it, to find the blessings that are all around us, waiting to be received.

We can cultivate memory, counting the blessings that have happened in the past.  That’s what John invites us to do with the signs he reports in his gospel.  With my modern scientific eye, those kinds of miraculous signs in the Gospel of John are not compelling to me.  I can’t suspend my disbelief.  But there have been times in my own life that have felt truly sacred; so when I am feeling discouraged or scared, there they are, touchstones that remind me: God is here, inviting us into abundant life.  And there are plenty of biographies and bible stories that inspire me. What are your special memories of inspiration and sacred encounter, your touchstones?

We can seek blessing in the present moment.  It might be a devotional reading, an insight or a connection from scripture, or just a little mantra that reminds us who we are, and whose we are.  We can seek blessing through activities we love. Creating.  Moving our bodies.  Exploring nature.  Nurturing. You know what blesses you.  Make a little time for it.  And serving. When you serve, you are like our ancestor Abraham, who was blessed to be a blessing.

We can cultivate blessing in our relationships.  I knew a couple who married late in life.  They were both cancer survivors, living on borrowed time, caring for one another through bouts of chemo.  “I don’t know what I do without her; I am the lucky one in this relationship.”  “No, I am the lucky one.  Every day you take care of me.”  That kind of attitude makes for one good marriage.  They blessed each other, and they blessed everyone who witnessed their love for each other.

Jesus had some wacky weird blessings; we call them the beatitudes.  They challenge our idea of what a blessing even is.  They invite us to look for blessing in the middle of suffering, because God is there too.  And they invite us to be a blessing to people who are struggling.  

Counting troubles is easier than counting blessings, have you noticed?  It’s kind of the default of our human nature. There is plenty of trouble around us. Some of it is whipped up by a news industry that knows that outrage sells.  And some of it is quite real.  Still, most of us here have lived pretty charmed lives compared to people of other times and places.  

Our ancestors figured out how to keep their faith, in the face of wars and disease and dire poverty.  I want to know how they did it.  I suspect one way they held onto faith in a good God in horrid circumstances was to lift up and remember whatever blessings brightened their existence, however modest. They knew how to do some life-giving math that goes like this: you add up all the blessings, and subtract out your expectations of how things could have gone, should have gone, and the despair and resentment that comes with those should haves.  My shorthand for this kind of math is simply: love wins in the end.  If love hasn’t won, it’s no the end.  People faithful in hardship also knew how to borrow the blessings of their friends, their church, their history, their faith.  When you watch someone else’s eyes sparkle as they share their joy and gratitude, that’s a blessing right there.  

The point is: be intentional.  Don’t wait for blessings to hit you over the head.  Seek them out.  Do your best to let go of the thinking that weighs you down, and lift up the blessings. I do this by making my list of five gratitudes a day.  That process makes me look over my day, and remember, and appreciate. It always brings me joy, especially on the days when I can’t stop at five.  

There is one final blessing in today’s gospel reading.  “Peter, do you love me?”  says Jesus. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”  This call and response is repeated three times.  It is a ritual of reconciliation.  On the night before Jesus died, Peter denied even knowing him, three times.  Peter was crushed by his own failure.  Now Peter is allowed to declare his love for Jesus, three times, and Jesus in turn gives him a job to do.  This job was far from easy or trouble-free.  We didn’t read the part where Jesus predicts Peter’s future suffering. But the job comes with forgiveness, belonging and purpose.  There is nothing like the blessing of acceptance when you don’t think you belong, a second chance when you think you’ve failed, a purpose when you think you don’t matter.  Peter needed these things, and we do too.  Jesus is good blessing us in this way.  He’s still doing it.  When we rely on this deep truth, we can share these blessings with others when we make them welcome, or offer them another chance, or affirm the value of who they are and what they do.  May you count your blessings, and share them.  May you be blessed to be a blessing.  Amen.

The Work of Easter


In Orthodox art of the Resurrection, Jesus is shown, shining and whole, but with scarred hands, standing on the broken gates of hell with a black pit beneath him.  Padlocks lay scattered about.  Jesus is leading Adam and Eve out of their tombs into daylight.  Adam and Eve stand for all of flawed humanity, now set free. The witnesses are apparently those saints who were in heaven all along.  They’re not doing anything useful.  Jesus is tenderly grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve to show that it is his power, not theirs, that frees them. So, in Orthodox tradition, that’s what Jesus was doing on Easter morning: breaking open the gates of hell and bringing everyone to heaven!  

I don’t expect you to take this story literally.  Take it to illustrate the meaning and power of Easter.  Christ has gone before us into the pits of hell, and set the captives free.  What binds you?  He can set you free.  What hellish scenario terrifies you?  He has been there, and makes a way out of no way.  Are you powerless to free yourself?  Let him do the heavy lifting.  And every hell is temporary: love and mercy win in the end.  If love and mercy haven’t won, it’s not yet the end.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
Easter Sunday April 21, 2019

Salvation Has Come

            Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.   They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,  3but when they went in, they did not find the body.   While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.  6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,   that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”   Then they remembered his words,  9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.  10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  11  But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  12  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

            Rom. 8:31-39 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  33  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  36 As it is written,  
            “For your sake we are being killed all day long; 
                        we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I grew up loving science.  I read my Dad’s Scientific American magazine and listened to him hold forth on scientific topics.  (I come by my preaching honestly.)  On Sundays I went to church and I said the Nicene Creed and I listened to miracle stories, and and wondered what I was supposed to do with all that. When I was about six I prayed for miracles, for a sign, for something.  Nothing happened.  I never told anybody about those prayers. I think I learned early on not to ask too many questions.  About anything else, my questions were eagerly answered.  About the foundations of our faith, we can neither confirm nor deny incidents reported on Sunday morning.  This approach did not help my relationship with God, or my church.  I did trust there was a there there, but I didn’t trust that anybody was being honest about how it actually works.

Strangely enough, it was a Buddhist who invited me to reclaim the religion of my childhood:  Trongyam Chungpa.  In his book “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism,” he noted that Western ‘seekers’ were shopping through the spiritual traditions of the globe, and accumulating piles of spiritual treasures.  These treasures were gathering dust, because the seeker was always off to find her next spiritual ‘fix.’  He claimed that any one of those religious treasures, if put on a pedestal and used, engaged, held in relationship, would satisfy your spiritual hunger.  It would also challenge you, push your buttons, and make you grow, if you stuck with it.  So, Chungpa said, you might as well choose your one object of devotion from the faith of your childhood, since you know that one best, and it will push your buttons right away so you’ll have an opportunity to face your shadow and to grow.

It worked.  Here I am.  And I love serving a progressive church.  I love it that we can be honest here.  You can say what you really believe, and what you don’t, and why.  Though it does make Easter messages a little challenging.  I trust in life after death. I trust in the risen Christ.  You, as a church, have agreed to humor me, because it says resurrection right in our mission statement.  The original mission statement didn’t have the word resurrection.  That word was added later, by congregational vote.  I love Congregational church government!  

So, Christ is risen, I say!  And if you choose, you may reply, “Christ is risen, indeed!”  And if that makes no sense to you, or even pushes your buttons, that’s OK.  I understand not a physical resurrection; rather something harder to prove, and more useful.  I see that Jesus lives by the effects on his followers.  As far as I can tell, he’s kept popping up through the centuries to people with eyes to see, sometimes in luminous personal experiences and sometimes in movements of human charity and justice.  When did we see you. Lord?  I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  Clearly Jesus’ followers experienced his rising somehow, in a way that empowered them to establish communities in his name, and to travel the known world to share his message of hope.  And we still experience him here; not in any way science can measure, rather in a vital relationship that transcends time and space.  Christ is risen, indeed.

He didn’t just levitate to heaven.  He went through arrest, a sham trial, rejection by the people who had cheered him on Palm Sunday, shameful torture and death.  That part of the story, unfortunately, is very easy to believe. But why did he die as he did? What does the cross mean?  People have all kinds of explanations.  Some of them really push my buttons.  But one explanation I find intriguing.

This explanation has bare outlines in the bible, in 1 Peter 3:19 and Ephesians 4.  It is the central image of Easter in Eastern Orthodox churches. It is called “Christ the Victor,” or “The Harrowing of Hell.”[1]Orthodox Christians call it, simply, the Resurrection; in Greek, Anastasis.  The story goes like this.  Since the time of Adam and Eve, people had been dying and going to the underworld. Maybe not Hell as we might think of it, but the land of shades.  The Hebrew bible calls it Sheol.  The Greeks called it Hades.  The dead were forlorn shadows of their earthly selves.  The modern version of Hades is seen in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town.  I hate that play. 

A few people might ascend to heaven now and then: saints and heroes and royalty.  But ordinary people are trapped in the underworld, separated from God.  The gates are locked; people can get in but not out.  Nobody ever gets out.  Jesus’ death, at the hands of the Romans, orchestrated by Jewish leaders, was his way of sneaking into the underworld, under cover.  Bear with me.  I know this is weird.  Dying as an ordinary man, he fools the gatekeeper (Hades or the devil, take your pick).  The gatekeeper has no idea he has admitted the Son of God into the underworld.  That could be dangerous.  Oh yeah.  The Son of God has the power to blast open the gates of hell, breaking them forever, and binding the gatekeeper, powerless.  The captives stream out, all the ordinary men and women who have died since the beginning of humankind.  The is the Easter Procession to Paradise.  

In Orthodox art of the Resurrection,[2](see the picture above) Jesus is shown, shining and whole, but with scarred hands, standing on the broken gates with a black pit beneath him.  Padlocks lay scattered about.  Jesus is leading Adam and Eve out of their tombs into daylight.  Adam and Eve stand for all of flawed humanity, now set free. The witnesses are apparently those saints who were in heaven all along.  They’re not doing anything useful.  Jesus is tenderly grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve to show that it is his power, not theirs, that frees them. So, in Orthodox tradition, that’s what Jesus was doing on Easter morning: breaking open the gates of hell and bringing everyone to heaven!  

I don’t expect you to take this story literally.  Take it to illustrate the meaning and power of Easter.  Christ has gone before us into the pits of hell, and set the captives free.  What binds you?  He can set you free.  What hellish scenario terrifies you?  He has been there, and makes a way out of no way.  Are you powerless to free yourself?  Let him do the heavy lifting.  And every hell is temporary: love and mercy win in the end.  If love and mercy haven’t won, it’s not yet the end.

I love this image of Easter.  Instead of lolling around the garden or floating up to heaven leaving us with an empty tomb, an absence, Jesus is doing his job: saving people!  I know I don’t talk a lot about salvation, but it’s Easter! Saved, freed, healed, rescued, it’s all the same idea.  

This image could imply that Hell has been completely emptied: universal salvation. Maybe that’s why the Western church suppressed it.  Jesus saves, frees, heals, rescues.  And I believe he’s good at his job.  Let’s modernize this Easter image, put him in a yellow firefighter uniform.  Give him jaws of life to crush those gates.  Have you ever met a firefighter who says, “No, I won’t rescue you.  You don’t deserve it. You don’t believe the right things.”  No way!  Firefighters will rescue anybody.  Firefighters even run into burning buildings to save people.  (Facing death.  Like Jesus did.)

All this is metaphor for the reality of a life-giving relationship that my science can’t measure, but that my spirit needs to face the hurts and fears of this world.

So where are you in this picture?  I hope you won’t just stand around like these so-called saints and watch Jesus doing his Easter work.  Put out a hand and help him.  Help him pull some people out of the pit they’re in.  If you need help yourself, to get out of the pit you’re in (and we all do, at one time or another) let him take your hand– or let one of his friends help you. Then offer your other hand to the one beside to you, and we will make a great human chain.  Our little church is a crucial link in that human chain, because other Christians have been discarding doubters, sexual minorities, the planet… from their salvation, but we know better.  Your participation here makes a difference!  We are all part of the Easter procession, part of God’s unstoppable love and power and hope that Jesus has shown us.  So…

Be freed of the bondage of fear.  Take courage: borrow his courage.

Be freed of guilt.  Make your amends, but then give to Christ the burden of perfection you cannot carry.

Be freed of resentment and bitterness.  Enjoy the healing power of forgiveness.

Be freed of bigotry, whether you dish it out or are on the receiving end.  In Christ is neither black nor white, rich nor poor, gay nor straight, binary nor nonbinary, alien nor citizen. All are children of one God.

Be freed of the illusion of inadequacy, so you can take your place in the great human chain of salvation, and take up the good work that only you can do.

Be freed of loneliness.  His love knits the whole universe together.  How did you ever imagine that you were alone?

We are human, and we will keep falling into the pits of our own limitations and the ones we dig for each other.  But the secret is out: the gates are no longer locked; and love wins in the end. Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  


[1]The classic modern understanding of the “Christ the Victor” story of the cross is in a slim book by Gustaf AulĂ©n, Christus Victor. This book also examines the two other popular Western views of the cross, Substitutionary Atonement and Moral Influence.  The Christ the Victor story was the most common understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the earliest days of church art through the first twelve centuries in the West, until it was marginalized by the idea of Substitutionary Atonement.  It is still the core of the Easter story in Orthodox Christianity.  

[2]  Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Crossan (2018) uncovers the history of this Anastasis image.  The short book is travelogue, detective story, art history, and theology. 

Cultivating Courage

A story from an eyewitness... (An imagined eyewitness, based on Luke 8:3, 24:10, Mark 14:3-9.)
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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
April 14, 2019

Cultivating Courage

Luke 19:36-48As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  37  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying,  
            “Blessed is the king 
                        who comes in the name of the Lord! 
            Peace in heaven, 
                        and glory in the highest heaven!” 
            39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” 
            41  As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  42saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” 
            45    Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there;  46and he said, “It is written,  
            ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; 
                        but you have made it a den of robbers.” 
            47  Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

I am Joanna.  My claim to fame is that I was the wife of Chuza, high official in court of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee under Rome.  What matters more to me is that I am a follower of Jesus, the anointed one of God.  Jesus healed me.  That peasant from Nazareth gave my life a purpose.  He also turned my life upside down.  Everything I had valued before: my place in society, wealth, approval, no longer mattered.  After I met Jesus, I began to lead a double life.  I moved in the halls of power when I had to.  Power over: a legal system that put people into debt then took their homes from them and made them slaves. But when I could, I escaped Herod’s palace, supposedly to mind my family’s plantation.  Actually I traveled around Galilee with Jesus and his friends.  I also helped pay the bills for Jesus and his friends.  

I was there, that last week of Jesus’ life. “The triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” you call it now. It really wasn’t much of an event at the start.  The Jerusalem road wascrowded, because it was a few days before Passover.  Everybody who’s anybody goes to Jerusalem for Passover.  It’s a religious command, but in the circles I traveled in, it was all about seeing and being seen.  Herod’s whole court had paraded through the gates that morning, and I went with them.  Later, I snuck back out to join the other disciples, waiting for Jesus to arrive.  We wantedit to be impressive, but there were only a couple dozen of us.  And then he came, riding on a donkey. Matthew started quoting Zechariah (9:9). 
Daughter of Zion, rejoice with all your heart;
shout in triumph, daughter of Jerusalem! 
See, your king is coming to you, his cause won, his victory gained, 
humble and mounted on a donkey.
By riding that donkey Jesus was announcing his claim to be the King, without saying a word. He couldn’t say a word!  Jerusalem was already occupied by the Romans; if he’d claimed to be King out loud, he would have been arrested on the spot.  But we knew. So of course we cheered, and we threw down our cloaks for him to walk on, and my cloak was pretty fancy too, and we started singing Psalm 118.  Everybody who bothers to come to Jerusalem knows Psalm 118, it’s the “best of” for psalms:
            This is the gate of the LORD; 
                        the righteous shall enter through it.
         I thank you that you have answered me 
                        and have become my salvation. 
            The stone that the builders rejected 
                        has become the chief cornerstone. 
            This is the LORD’S doing; 
                        it is marvelous in our eyes. 
            This is the day that the LORD has made; 
                        let us rejoice and be glad in it. 
            Hoshana! Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! 
                        O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. 
                        We bless you from the house of the LORD. 
            The LORD is God, 
                        and God has given us light. 
            Join the festal procession with branches, 
                        up to the holy altar.
            You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; 
            O give thanks to the LORD, for God is good, 
                        God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And what do you know, everyone around us started singing too.  Then people started noticing Jesus.  And then it became a real parade!

So when Jesus sat down on steps below the temple and started teaching, it wasn’t just his regular disciples he was talking to. Random people walking by sat down to listen, until there was a huge crowd. There was something different about his teaching that day.  He was talking about repentance with an urgency I’d never heard before.  Then as the sun was setting, he stood up and marched into the temple courtyard.  We all stood up and followed.  Then Jesus proceeded to pronounce that all the merchants there were robbers!  Well they were robbers, but we thought they were, you know, holy or something so it was OK that they overcharged so badly.  With that crowd behind him cheering him on, those ripoff artists wisely decided to close up shop for the day.  In fact, they got a little help shutting down from the crowd. Closed on Passover.  Really cut into their profits, I’m sure.  More than that, it cut into their legitimacy.

At that point some man I’d never met pulled me aside.  “You’re with Herod, aren’t you?” he said.  “And you associate with this rabble-rouser? Well you’d better tell him he is making some powerful enemies.  The temple officials will never let this kind of stunt pass.  They’ll make an example of him.” My gut twisted. Make an example.  I knew what that meant.  Romans made an example of rebels and bandits by hanging them naked on crosses. I wanted to warn Jesus.  But by that time he had left for the night; he was staying with friends in Bethany a few miles out of town.  And I had to return to the palace and entertain the rich and famous, with my heart full of fear.  

The next day the crowd gathered again to hear Jesus.  I asked James and John what he was up to.  They were no use, they just grinned and teased each other about who was going to be Prime Minister when Jesus was King of Israel.  Judas was talking about who to assassinate first: scary man!  

It wasn’t till the next day that I got Jesus alone for a minute.  “This claim to be King,” I whispered to him, “it’ll never work.” 
            “I know,” he said.  
            “They’ll hang you,” I said.  
            “I know,” he said.  
            My jaw dropped.  “Why are you doing this, ten?” 
            “To give people a choice,” he answered calmly.  “They already know the kind of power that takes, and controls, and dictates, and conquers.  They think God is like that!  I’m showing them a different kind of power, power that gives, and invites, and transforms, and heals.  My Abba’s true power.”
            “OK but… you have to die to do that?”
            He smiled at me.  “It’s possible the people will demand that I be freed.  But not likely.  Trust me: my death will not be the end.  My death will unmask the Powers that  deal death instead of life.  People will be free to know God in a new way, free of empire’s control in their souls if not their bodies, free to make a new community of love, a Kingdom where the last are first.”
            “But what about you?” I protested.  “We need you here.  We need you teaching and healing.”
            He smiled again.  “Joanna, you’ve been my student for over a year.  You can be the teacher now.  And you are already building the Kingdom of God by freeing your family’s slaves.”
            I shook my head.  “How will I have the courage to do those things if you’re not around?”
            He touched my cheek, and said, “I will be with you always. You’ll see.” And then he turned back to the crowd.

I ran all the way back to my room in the palace and I hid and I wept.  I wept for the rest of the afternoon.  Then I got an idea.  I put on my best clothes and made a purchase, from that same overpriced temple courtyard.  One jar of nard oil please, the very best (it cost a bundle), suitable for the anointing of priests and prophets… and kings.  I would be missed from the nightly court festivities, people would talk, but I didn’t care.  I was a woman on a mission.  

I dashed out the city gates, down the road to Bethany.  It was colder than it should have been.  By the time I arrived it was full dark.  It took a few tries before I knocked on the right door.  Why was Jesus even visiting Simon the leper anyway?  He never could turn down a dinner invitation.  The twelve were all there, and my friends Mary and Susanna too.  Dinner was in full swing, but I stopped it dead in its tracks.  Wordlessly I approached him.  He stood to greet me, and I raised my last-minute purchase.  “Oil of anointing” I said quietly to him, “For the King who gives us the true power of God.  For the coming of the Kingdom of God where the last shall be first, and none shall be afraid.” and then I poured the whole jar over his head.  Finally I fell to his feet, and I couldn’t help crying again.  

And that’s how I made a spectacle of myself, in front of all my friends, who still didn’t understand what was going to happen.  On the lonely road back to Jerusalem, I made a promise to myself and to God.  If Jesus could do what he was doing, I could do what he asked of me, whether I was afraid or not.  And I did it.  I freed every slave my family owned, and I caught hell for it.  It was worth it.  And I have been teaching the sayings that he taught to us, in a little community of his followers that lifts up the last and the lost.  And his Spirit is with us.  
            This is the day that the LORD has made; 
                        let us rejoice and be glad in it. 
            The LORD is God, 
                        and God has given us light. 
            You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; 
            O give thanks to the LORD, for God is good, 
                        God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Take courage, my friends.  God is with us, always, inviting us into love and life and hope.