Jeremiah is sent by God to the potter’s house, where he learns an important lesson. The image of the potter fashioning a vessel on his potter’s wheel would have been very familiar to Jeremiah’s audience. It is familiar territory for us, too, since the shaping vessels of clay by hand on a potter’s wheel is still done in much the same way today.
What does Jeremiah notice as he observes the potter at work?
He notices first the clay. As he watched the potter shape and mold the clay, Jeremiah knew that he was looking at a picture of himself, and of every person, and of every nation. We are the clay, fashioned into useful vessels by God, the potter. Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to draw on this image: Isaiah and Zechariah also use it, as does Paul in his letter to the Romans. Jeremiah watched as the clay was fashioned into a vessel. Then, some imperfection in the clay spoiled it in the potter’s hand and the potter crushed it and began the process again.
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’
I do not really know, Jesus. That is the challenge of our walk of faith, is it not? Forgiveness. To arise, to walk, knowing we are forgiven. It is all too easy a thing to say, ‘I forgive you.’ But I think all of us know that the manifestation of those words in a lived, shared life can feel as daunting and impossible as trying to cure paralysis with a speech act. It is easier to say, ‘I forgive you.’ It is harder to live the sacrifices required of what is said.
The scribes in this morning’s gospel—however swayed by ‘even thinking’ in their hearts—are nonetheless right: true forgiveness—forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of human disintegration—is the property of the divine. It is priceless. It has the power to bring life out of death. But of course the scribes don’t quite see what is in front of them.
Therein lies the miracle of today’s gospel. Yes, a paralytic man regained authority over his limbs, but this is not what amazes the crowds, and it is not what should amaze us. For the healing of the paralyzed man is merely the sign of something much more significant. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, I often have to remind myself that the sign is not itself the thing signified.
Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
John 10: 22-30
‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’ ‘It was winter.’ I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’
This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.
It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’
Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
Rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
Can you see them; the pharisee and the tax collector? Their posture, their prayer? Are they familiar at all? Luke calls this a parable but it seems so true to life. There are no extended metaphors to work out, no women with coins, no lamps and bushel baskets, no sheep and goats, not a lot to decipher.
The temple, the pharisee, the tax collector. It has the ring of truth and experience because these are the actual cast of characters that Jesus spent time with and among whom all the other parables were told. I can imagine the real life conversations between Jesus, the pharisee, and the tax collector; the inner dispositions they reveal.
The pharisee, confident in his religion. Firm in conviction, and diligent in observing the law. “Jesus, can’t you see how hard I work? Can’t you appreciate the discipline this takes? Isn’t this enough for you? Don’t you see my sacrifice? Why bother with the ones who can’t seem to pull it together?”
And the tax collector, forced into a separate sphere life, the perks of wealth and protection that come from his occupation are a small consolation when his heart cries out in desperation. “Jesus, I don’t know what to do. I’m trapped. I just took this job to make some money but everything has gotten so twisted. Now they hate me as much as they hate the Romans, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. Does it even matter what I do? Why should God bother with me?”
All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.