Love is a Verb

1 JOHN 3:16-24

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

GOSPEL JOHN 10:11-18

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is written inside the cover.”


The traditional view of sheep tends to be that they are dumb. People seem to think they are just wool-machines and walking leg roasts. Which they are.

The truth is that sheep aren’t the smartest animals in the world, but they are pretty wise. I should know; I grew up chasin’ em. They have almost a natural instinct of self-preservation. They can sense, for example, when a young person is trying to sneak up on them and grab them. They can also drag that young person up a hill when she manages to get hold of a hoof and not much else.


Story by a journalist named Steve Carrier about the time that he and his brother tried to run down some Bighorn sheep and quickly realized they were being played by the animals. His brother was a scientist and was an early adopter of the theory that ancient humans were persistence hunters, which means that they would chase their prey until it dropped to the ground with exhaustion. Scott and his brother went out to Colorado to chase Bighorn sheep, and after a couple of days realized that the sheep were, well, smarter than them. The literally ran loops around Scott and his brother, and frequently disappeared into larger herds to confuse them. Needless to say, the sheep won.

The problem with sheep is that sometimes they get carried away in the heat of their emotions. They get afraid, their adrenaline gets going, and they can find themselves separated from the herd. And that is when a sheep gets in trouble. You see, in a herd, sheep can work together to protect themselves. There is power in numbers. But when they are alone, they are completely exposed, and they know it. One of the most awful sounds in the world is the sound of a terrified sheep.

Now, in our Scripture this morning Jesus uses the metaphor of the Shepherd and his Sheep to describe the relationship between God and us. It probably isn’t surprising—Jesus lived in a rural culture, one where people were very familiar with shepherds and shepherding. Many people believed that the Messiah, when he came, would be a Shepherd who tended the flock of Israel like David.

Jesus, I think, is onto something slightly different here. When Jesus speaks of the shepherd and the sheep in John 10, he wants us to know that ours is the kind of God who will not leave us out in the cold—that when we find ourselves alone, forsaken, terrified—at the same time God is out there seeking us out, gathering us in, connecting us to other souls so that we don’t have to journey alone.

In this way, God embodies the work of 1 John, the task of “loving” one another that is so crucial to the Christian life.

There it is, Love. Love is one of those things that can be hard to describe. We all know eros, or romantic love. But what about the brotherly love, or agape, that the bible so often speaks of? What does that look like?

For Jesus, agape looks like a shepherd who tends his flock and who seeks out the lost sheep. In other words, it’s sort of like that famous line from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart- “I know it when I see it.”

So what does it look like for us, then? According to 1 John, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

love-is-a-verb Love looks like a verb. It looks like the work we do every day to choose connection over isolation, justice over selfishness, and peace over chaos. And all of those actions, small and large, come together to keep us together in one big community, one faithful flock. Or, as well like to call it, the church.

Let me give you an example of what love might look like. In the 1980s, my dad had just bought his dental practice in the Bay Area. Just as he was beginning to build relationships with his patients, people started dying. Turned out that the Bay Area was ground zero for a deadly disease called AIDS. No one knew how it was spreading, but everyone knew it was a death sentence. Many medical professionals like my father rightly worried that they might put themselves and others at risk by treating HIV positive patients.

Many doctors and dentists turned these patients away out of fear. But not my dad. He was afraid, but he was unwilling to let fear tear apart his relationships to his patients. So he continued to see and treat AIDS patients. He never turned one away.

The good news about love is that it doesn’t require that we have it all figured out. You can love without understanding exactly what it means. You can love without being certain.

In fact, according to the scriptures, the very act of doing helps us understand. Loving forms us into a community that “knows it when we see it.”

Today we have had the incredible blessing of welcoming new beloved children of God into our fellowship. We have gathered together, chosen community over going it alone. And those who have joined us yearn to get to the task of loving. Over the past few months, they have shared with me their hunger for meaning, their joy at being able to make a difference. Together, they represent a passion for justice, and kindness, and compassion, and they believe that this community is where they have been called to love more fully. And they have chosen you to be their flock.

So I have a wild proposal. Let’s take them up on their offer. Let’s be the kind of church that practices love, even though we don’t have all the answers. And let us not minimize love, or confine it to some tidy box. Let’s make it more than just liking ourselves. Let’s make it more than how wonderfully welcoming we are inside these walls. Let’s let love out of the box and see what it does out in the world. Because at the end of the day, that is the point, isn’t it?

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” That is the Gospel right there. So let’s get to it.

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed

I didn’t preach this past week–our church was honored to host Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley, the regional rep. from The Presbyterian Foundation.  This was a blessing for the church and for me, not least because I woke up Sunday morning with that nasty 24-hour stomach bug that has been going around.  I couldn’t have made it through worship if I had tried, and I felt incredibly lucky to be able to entrust everything into such deft hands.  I managed to stay for Rev. Johns-Kelley’s sermon, and it was such a pleasure to hear someone else preach.  If you are a Presbyterian Church, I highly recommend you invite your regional representative out to your community–you can learn so much together about stewardship, legacy, and resources that are available through the wider church.

032403nickelanddimed_dlSince I wasn’t preaching on Sunday, I had the opportunity to spend some time this week catching up on my (expanding) reading list.  And coming off our Lenten practice, I decided that I needed to spend some time with Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic account of the poverty epidemic in the United States, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”

Originally written in 1999, Ehrenreich explored the reality of the working poor by attempting to live on a minimum-wage salary in three cities for a month at a time.  Beginning in Key West, and then moving to Maine, and later Minnesota, Ehrenreich set the following rules for herself:

Rule one, obviously enough, was that I could not, in my search for jobs, fall back on any skills derived from my education or usual work…Two, I had to take the highest-paying job that was offered me and do my best to hold it…Three, I had to take the cheapest accommodations I could find, at least the cheapest that offered an acceptable level of safety and privacy. (Pg 4)

Over the course of her exploration of the working poor, Ms. Ehrenreich develops a compelling case that our country’s health and democracy may very well depend on how we address the plight of the poor.  In every city lives and every job she takes, the author describes systemic injustices that serve to keep people poor and work against upward mobility.  She finds, for example, that many of the (costly) hiring practices of low-skill positions (mandatory drug testing, full-day trainings without official job offers, and withholding of initial pay checks), serve to disempower workers and reduce their negotiating position.  In most of her jobs, she was never given a clear sense of what her working wage would be; in others, she found that management practices seemed to have less relationship to quality of service than to maintaining the power structure of the organization.

Overall, the picture that her research paints of the plight of the working poor is compelling– she thoroughly debunks the notion that those working in unskilled labor are unskilled, unintelligent, or unmotivated.  Her coworkers at a restaurant in Florida, the Maids in Maine, and Walmart in Minnesota were, for the most part, incredibly proud of their work, committed to their jobs, and unwavering in their care for the people who depended on their service.  But they also were unable to afford health care, unable to afford decent housing, and one car problem away from unemployment.

In the words of Ehrenreich herself:

welfare reform assumed that a job was the ticket out of poverty, and that the only thing holding back welfare recipients was their reluctance to go out and get one…something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high. (196/199)

I chose to read the tenth anniversary edition of Ehrenreich’s experiment, in which she revisits and updates her findings in light of the recession.  The picture that she paints isn’t a pretty one.  According to Ms. Ehrenreich, it has become a “state of emergency” that we can no longer afford to ignore:

It is common among the non poor to think of poverty as a sustainable condition–austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don’t they?  They are “always with us.” What is harder for the non poor to see is poverty as acute distress: the lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of a shift. The “home” that is also a car or a van. The illness or injury that must be “worked through,” with gritted teeth, because there’s no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day’s pay will mean no groceries for the next. (214)

In the wake of a growing national push for a “working wage,” Ms. Ehrenreich’s work seems more important than ever.  There are many out there who believe that unskilled laborers  “don’t deserve” to earn a living wage… but these arguments tend to assume that the status quo is just.  I have to wonder: does justice really look like a cheaper t-shirt/hamburger/house-cleaning for me?

“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. -Isaiah 61:8

It is not clear to me that exchanging my financial comfort for another’s fair wage is any different than robbery and wrong-doing.  And to appeal to “the market” as the rational is to pass the buck.  Because we are the market.  If “the market” keeps choosing our self-interest over the well-being of others, that is because we made the choice.  So perhaps we need to own our own complicity in the problem, what Ehrenreich calls “our own dependency on the underpaid labor of others”, and consider that we have helped create the poverty problem that threatens the health and vitality (and, according to Ehrenreich, at least) the democracy that we pride ourselves in as Americans (220).

All in all, I highly recommend this book.  It is another reminder that poverty is a question of justice, and that all of us (the non poor, that is) are complicit, because we benefit from low wages in the form of cheaper goods and services.  The burden is on us, it seems, to put our money where our mouths are, if we want to live in the kind of society where every person has access to a living wage.

The Beloved Community and the Kinship of Christ

This sermon was preached at Ivyland Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12 2015.

1 JOHN 1:1-2:2

1:1We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us —3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.


19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Easter Sunday was pretty wonderful, wasn’t it?

All the flowers, the cross in the front yard. If you were at the first service: there were babies everywhere!

If you were at the second service: the wonderful music that Sue, and the choir, and the bell choir, and the trumpet player shared.

All of it was just. So. Nice.

And now here we are.

Back to business as usual. It is hard to sustain the enthusiasm of Easter once that day is over. There are only so many peeps to eat and easter eggs to hide.

Nobody knew this better than John. Writing near the end of the first century, he addressed people who had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. Most of them had been born after Jesus died, so the stories they heard can second or third-hand. There were still a few eyewitnesses around, but they were getting on in years. A child who was six years old would have been close to seventy by the time this Gospel was put to paper.

The preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor observes that John’s problem, which is a continuing problem for the church, was how to encourage people in the faith when Jesus was no longer around to be seen and touched. The story of Thomas gave him a way to do that. By telling the story of Thomas’ struggle to believe, John takes the words out of our mouths and puts them in his, so that we can have the opportunity to think together about how we do, or do not, believe.

So if this story is for us, then what kind of story is it?

stained_glass_window_doubting_thomas_detailLet’s start with the facts. According to the gospel, when Jesus appears to the disciples, Thomas isn’t there. On the surface, that might seem an indictment of Thomas, but consider the fact that the disciples are hiding in a locked room, afraid that being seen might equal their deaths alongside Jesus. Thomas, apparently, is not. He is out and about in the world beyond the locked door, so he cannot be there to see Jesus when he first comes to his frightened flock and says, “Peace be with you.”

Thomas, you may remember, has always been one of the bolder disciples. When Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Bethany, where Lazarus has died—a place that also happens to be enemy territory for Jesus—Thomas is the disciple who responds, “let us go that we might die with him.” When Jesus sits at the table before his arrest and execution and tells his friends to not be afraid, because they will not understand where he is going, it is Thomas who says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas, in other words, falls under the general category of “good disciple.” All throughout the Gospel, he is listening to what his Lord and Savior has to say. He is paying attention to the Holy in his midst. And because he is paying attention, he has a better idea than the rest what it might mean to follow Jesus. When they hear that Lazarus is sick, for example, and Jesus says he wants to go back to Judea, most of the disciples try to talk him out of it. It is too close to Jerusalem, too close to the temple authorities, they say. Too risky for Jesus to be seen there. But not Thomas. Thomas is the only disciple who not only gets it, but is willing to go there too. He says to his friends, “let us go, that we may die with Him.” Thomas alone is willing to follow Jesus, to pick up the cross even if it means his death, and go where Jesus would have him lead. He had integrity, and courage, and he wasn’t afraid to risk his comfort for what was right, as long as he had convinced himself that something was the right thing.

So I wonder, why then have we in the church been so quick to throw him under the bus? This Sunday, the second in Easter, often is called “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” For many of us, this has been a story about how Thomas got it wrong. Failed to trust enough, believe enough, in the risen Jesus. Many of us hear an implicit judgment in Jesus voice when he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.” Some of us assume that when Jesus says that believing without seeing is blessed, what he really means is better.

Perhaps, we tell ourselves, he should have just listened to the other ten disciples when they told him in perfect unison, “we have seen the Lord!” Perhaps, we tell ourselves, he should have exclaimed, “What good news! What do we do now?

But of course he doesn’t. When he returns to the fearful disciples, he listens to what they have to say and he responds, “Unless I see…I will not believe.” And can we blame him? Thomas puts to words the honest human desire to see something for ourselves before we decide whether or not it is true. I, for example, have heard all sorts of stories about ghosts in the manse, but until I see one for myself I remain a skeptic. I have heard some amazing stories about UFOs, out-of-body experiences and visions of heaven, but I have not experienced them for myself. For now, they remain hearsay. Unless I see, I will not believe.

It is an understandable attitude. What is altogether amazing to me, however, is the extent to which Jesus understands. Barely a week has passed by before Jesus, ever the generous one, indulges Thomas, and shows up to be seen and felt and touched and known. It is Jesus who holds out his broken hands and invites Thomas back into relationship with him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and touch my side. Do not be unbelieving but believe.”

And it turns out that the same Jesus who generously reaches out to Thomas blesses those of us who weren’t there to see or hear or taste or touch when he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Christians have been working out what that means ever since. These words were bread and wine for John’s community living long after Christ had ascended. To know that they, like Thomas, are blessed when they struggle to work out their faith in the time after Christ was the most generous gift. That word, blessed, or “markarios” in the greek, can also mean “close to the mark.” And for Jesus himself to tell us that what is blessed, what is close to God, is not a state of blissful belief, but rather our own process of struggle and discernment, our own daily walk with the Word of Life, is at least as generous and kind as Jesus’ presence to Thomas.

We cannot know for sure, but perhaps it was these words from John’s Gospel that gave the community of 1 John the courage to proclaim the good news of “the life revealed” that they have “seen with their eyes, what they have looked at and touched with their hands.”

And where did they hear, see, touch, taste the risen Lord?

In fellowship with one another. In the witness of the church, which at its best is Christ’s body, a broken and vulnerable and altogether holy accumulation of people bearing the image of God within them. It was there that the people living after Jesus came to see and touch and taste the Lord, in the collective experience of resurrection as hope for the hopeless and light in the darkness. In the difficult holy work of seeking unity with one another.

gregory I recently heard an interview of Father Greg Boyle on the radio show “On Being” that was, for me, a reminder that the work of fellowship and community truly is the place where we encounter the Holy. For nearly 30 years, Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, has being experiencing the risen Christ in the ganglands of Los Angeles. As the founder of Homeboy Industries, Father Boyle has worked tirelessly with young, lost men and women, many of whom have grown up with no experience of hope in their lives. The goal? Resurrection.

In the interview, he told one story that was particularly moving. It was about a young “homey” he knows named Jose. Jose is in his late 20s, and recently when Jose was talking about the work that he and Father Greg do, he shared the following story:

I guess you could say that my mom and me we didn’t get along so good. I guess I was 6 when she said to me, “why don’t you just kill yourself, you are such a burden to me.”The audience gasped, and then Jose continued:“it sounds way worser in Spanish.” You know I guess I was 9 when my mom drove me to the deepest part of Baja CA and left me in an orphanage. I was there 90 days before my grandmother found out where I was and rescued me. My mom beat me every single day, and I had to wear 3 tshirts to school. I wore three tshirts well into my adult years because I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want anyone to see them. But now my wounds are my friends. I love my wounds. I welcome my wounds. I run my fingers over my wounds. How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?

According to Father Boyle, in that moment, awe came upon everyone.

There are so many lessons in that story, what I find myself wondering in particular about the ways in which, for Thomas and Jose and even for Jesus, there was something healing in drawing close to the wounds.  Rather than hiding their wounds, they found strength in bearing them, and in fact through relationship Thomas and Jose were transformed by their wounds–they are no longer defined by their wounds, but rather by their gifts for healing and compassion. Father Greg’s word for this ministry is “kinship,” a generous and spacious and compassionate community whose task is to heal the wounds by loving and walking alongside the wounded and discovering their innate gifts and worthiness as fellow travelers.

Kinship. Community. Unity. Christ is made present to we who cannot see every time we are generous, spacious, compassionate with one another. Every time we choose to see what unites rather than what would rent us asunder. Let us give thanks, for God is good, and our Generous God endures forever. Amen.

Final Wrap Up on the Lenten Hunger Challenge

I don’t know if you have heard, but it is Eastertide!

The Strife is Over, our SNAP Challenge is done…..!!!
The Strife is Over, our SNAP Challenge is done…..!!!

That means that Lent is over, and with it, our Lenten Hunger Challenge is done. Caput.  Finito.

Can you tell that I am a little excited?

For forty days this Lent, our family spent a whole lot of time counting pennies, scouring for coupons, planning out more affordable (often meatless, rarely organic or local) meals, and cooking cooking cooking everything at home.  I gave up coffee; Alex gave up grapefruit.  We both gave up snacking.  For forty days, we lived with less (a WHOLE lot less) because we wanted to understand  a little more what it is like to live within the limits of the average SNAP benefit.

In a previous post I share some of my own personal reflections about how powerful this experience was for me.  It goes without saying that, on Easter Sunday, our family had a much deeper appreciation for the abundance that we experience in our lives.  Living within a scarce food budget really brought home to me how much it matters to choose what you want to eat purely because you like it.  I hadn’t thought about it much before, but in the middle of Lent, the question was rarely “what do you want to eat?” but instead was almost always, “What can we afford?”

As we go back to life as usual, I am grateful for the luxury of choice.  I am thankful beyond words for the abundance of good, healthy food that our family is blessed to be able to put on our table, and I have every intention of enjoying it.  But I can’t help but think of the God who calls us to envision the world as a banquet where every person has enough.  Who calls us to follow him until the day when no person spends undue energy and anxiety wondering, “What can we afford” but rather finds rest and delights in the Presence of the One who would feed us until we hunger and thirst no more.

Our family decided at the beginning of this experiment that we wouldn’t just use this experience as an opportunity to diet and save money.  We wanted to put our money where our mouth is, and support initiatives that address hunger and poverty through the One Great Hour of Sharing.  After living for 40 days on SNAP benefits, we were delighted to be able to give $494 that we would have spent on our own table towards the great work of OGHS.  And thanks to the generosity of some friends and residents who liked what we were doing, we were able to match that gift and then some.

Imagine what we could do if each of us committed to support anti-poverty and anti-hunger measures in our own communities.   I wonder how we might find ourselves standing on Holy Ground when we with those who hunger and thirst? I wonder how we might make a difference in the lives of the least vulnerable? And how might they make a difference in ours?

Pass the Butter

My Dad likes to tell this story. You see, when he was a kid, he was one of three brothers. And they were pretty wild sometimes. From hearing them talk about it, my grandmother was exhausted for the entirety of her 20s.

So anyways, one night my dad, his brothers, his mom and his dad sat down for dinner. And my dad wanted some butter to put on his bread. So he says to his brother Joe, “Hey Joe, can you pass me the butter?”

And Joe looks back and him and says, “sure!” and throws the stick of butter at his face.

And that was the day that my father learned that sometimes, you can get what you want, but not what you need.

I tell you this story because the Gospel of Mark, where our lesson comes from today, often gives us, not exactly what we want or expect, but what we need.

Mark is the Gospel that is often accused of being, to put it politely, the most blue-collar of gospels. It was probably written earliest, probably around 70 CE, which we can say because Matthew and Luke both appear to have borrowed heavily from it (these days we would call that plagiarism). It isn’t written with the flowery language and high metaphor of John’s Gospel. It is written in “common” ancient Greek, the kind of Greek that my philosophy professors in college told me not to waste my time on, because nothing good was written in it.

But even setting that aside, Mark is a little odd. In Mark, Jesus is kind of strange. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus seems to want to keep himself a secret—he will heal someone miraculously, and then tell them to go home and keep it to themselves. When people start calling him the Messiah he tells them they don’t know what they are talking about. And then there’s the disciples. They never seem to get it in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is always pulling them aside to explain simple parables over and over again. Three times he tells them that he will be arrested, convicted, and killed, and they can hardly be bothered to listen, let alone understand.

And then there is our lesson for this morning. The Gospel tells us that as the sun was rising on the day after the Sabbath, the women went to the tomb. They were worried about practical matters. Things like: who will move the stone out of the doorway when we get there, so that we can anoint Jesus’ body? Who will wash his arms? Who will brush his hair? How will we say goodbye?

What they aren’t expecting is to find the tomb already open. What they aren’t expecting is a strange man they don’t know sitting inside, waiting for them.

Let me just take a moment to point out that this man clearly doesn’t know one of the cardinal rules for strangers, which is this: if you want to scare someone, tell them to not be afraid. He does an awful job of calming these women down.

The women don’t expect this man to tell them that the Jesus they knew isn’t dead but alive. How could he be? Unlike the disciples, the women were there when Jesus hung on a cross, the women heard him cry out to God and breathe his last, the women followed close behind as his body was laid in the tomb. They saw it all.

So how could he possibly be in Galilee?

Most English translations would have you believe that the story ends with the women fleeing in fear and amazement, afraid to tell anyone what they have seen and heard, but the truth is more complicated than that. One of the challenges of reading a story written in another language is that sometimes you lose things in translation. And this is one of those moments.

If you were to look at your bible right now, that last verse looks something like this:

and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

But what the Greek actually says is more like:

the women fled from the tomb, for terror had seized them. And being afraid, they said nothing to anyone, because….

Mark’s Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence.

I wonder why?

This ending was so distressing, so unsatisfying to the early Christian communities that they seem to have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake. Perhaps the last page of the manuscript got lost. So they made up their own, cleaner endings. And if you look in most bibles, they will give you two alternate endings to Mark. There’s the shorter ending, where the women go and tell the disciples, and the disciples go and tell the world. And then there’s the longer ending, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and his disciples, commissions them, and ascends into heaven. Both of them clean up the story, but neither one is original.

Now I happen to love Mark’s Gospel. I think that his skill as a writer is vastly under-appreciated by the greek snobs of the world, and I would contend that Mark knows exactly what he is doing. He meant to end his gospel this way.

Mark knows that the truth of the resurrection is that it doesn’t end. We can run to the tomb, expecting all sorts of things, but we will never find Jesus where we expect. As the man tells us again and again, Jesus is going on ahead of us. He is on the move.

Which means, that if we want to be with Jesus, we better get moving ourselves.

I once read somewhere that when the man in the tomb tells the women that Jesus is in Galilee, one thing he may be saying is that Jesus is going back to where it all began. And that if we want to know what it means to follow Jesus, we should too. That means going back to the beginning of the story, back to Mark 1, and reading it again. Perhaps we are meant to hear everything that has come before in light of what we now know—that Christ is risen, that death is conquered, that the light shines in the darkness.

It’s sort of like watching a movie with a killer twist. I remember the first time I saw “the Sixth Sense.” For 99% of the movie, you think you know what is happening, until the moment that you realize that every assumption you made was wrong. You can’t watch that movie the same way ever again. You can’t unlearn what you know, and it changes the way you see everything that has come before.

So it is with the story of Jesus. Everything is different in light of resurrection.

That ending takes on more significance too. Mark wants us to understand that knowledge is a powerful thing. By reading the Gospel, we have become part of it. And just like the disciples and the frightened women, we have to decide what we will do with the Good News we have received. Will we share the news, that the tomb is empty, or will we run and hide in fear? Will we keep living as we always have, or will we go and seek the risen Lord? Will we persist in the way things are, or will we let this story shape us, change us, transform us?

We decide whether the story ends or continues. It is up to us.

For Mark, what matters most is how we finish that sentence. You are here because someone you love found life and hope in this story, someone’s life was transformed by the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they loved you enough to share it with you. Now it is your turn. Let us go ahead to Galilee, for Christ is risen, and is going on ahead of us.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Saturday Humor

dan-burr-mindreAre you looking for new ways to worship during Holy Week? Tired of all those services, and candles, and scripture readings? Join us for the inaugural DISCIPLE DASH 5k! Come work off your Agape Meal as you run in terror from the authorities and the Roman guards. Join your fellow disciples in a race from your life that willtake you as far from Jesus as you can manage. But watch out! Jesus might just end up finding you as you run! Avoid the guards and your suffering Lord, and be the first to hide in a dark upper room! Top finishers will receive thirty silver coins, a healthy dose of hopelessness, and unrelenting guilt and shame.

Sign up today!



Woman, Here is your son.

Have you ever had a relative die?

Do you remember the last thing that they said?

Now let me ask you this: was it important?

We all have heard the stories of famous people who prepared and practiced their last words.   Because we know that people will remember them.

So if these are Jesus’ last words, the last things he ever spoke before his death, then they must be important. We need to listen to Him. Now, as much as ever.

Woman, here is your son.

Think about what Jesus is doing here. This is a man sentenced to death. He has become a symbol of Roman imperialism and oppression as he hangs on the cross, bare and vulnerable to the world. He can’t breathe—every movement is a struggle.

But he isn’t talking about that. Instead, he is worried about the suffering he sees below him. A woman, terrified for her son. A disciple, traumatized by the loss of the Teacher. And Jesus wants to heal them. And so he does what he has been doing all along: he connects these two people together. Right there on the cross, Jesus is making relationships.

Woman, here is your son.

 I keep wondering about this moment. The disciples have all ran off. They’ve been gone awhile now. Scripture tells us that only the women were left, to stand and bear witness to the agony of Christ’s death on the cross. And then there is this disciple.

What is he doing there?

Why is he the only one who didn’t run?

And then I remember: of course the disciples ran. They were literally afraid for their lives. And as men, they had every reason to be. They were adult men living in a system of domination, and as disciples of Jesus they could easily have been arrested and hung right up there with him. As far as Rome is concerned, they are a threat. The only way to avoid being eliminated is to run.

The only people left at Jesus’ side at the end are the ones who aren’t a threat to the empire. The invisible women, powerless disciples who weren’t a threat.

And this beloved disciple. Standing with the women, bearing witness to the cross.

If this disciple is standing there, he, like the women, must not be a threat to the guards. So who is he?

And then it hit me: what if the beloved disciple is a child?


What would it mean that Jesus is drawing our attention to this child as he is dying on the cross? What would it mean that a child is standing here, bearing witness to the agony and the terror that Good Friday represents? What would it mean that Jesus turns to the only adults left at his side and says to them:

Woman, HERE is your Son.

Of course, the truth is that children all too often are the invisible witnesses and victims of trauma, and terror, and violence. So if Jesus’ last words are important, what would it mean to seek out, to be in relationship with these vulnerable disciples right now? How is Jesus calling US into relationship with invisible victims and vulnerable disciples?

I can’t help but think about the reality that we live on the edge of one of the biggest cities in our country, and that every day, children and vulnerable people in our region bear witness to violence, to terror, to injustice. Death is all around us.

Did you know, for example, that Philadelphia currently enjoys the highest rate of deep poverty of all large metro areas? 185,000 people right next door live on less than $10,000 a year. 60,000 of those people are vulnerable, invisible, often traumatized children. That makes our deep poverty rate is twice as high as the rest of the United States.


There are twice as many people living in deep poverty right now in Philadelphia as there are Mormons in Salt Lake City.

Think about that.

Woman, HERE is your Son.

Our poverty problem is so bad right now that  Philadelphia is piloting a universal breakfast and lunch program, because if the schools don’t feed these children, they worry that they won’t eat at all. Teachers are spending their own salaries on toilet paper and fresh fruit for their kids, because they know that hungry kids can’t learn. And while the poverty rate was rising during the Great Recession, we were cutting school budgets, telling the Philly School System, that they need to be more financially efficient.

At the same time, prisons in the United States is pouring money into the prison system.

Did you know that one of the ways that prisons estimate future population needs is by looking at the high school drop out rate?

These days, it costs $36,000 a year to house an inmate. Anyone wanna guess how much we spend on each child in the Philadelphia School system?


I know what you are thinking.  That isn’t fair. Schools take the summer off, so we will have to give the prisons a discount—let’s take 60 days off for the summer. But that still leaves us spending over $30,000 a year. On a system that, in many cases, is being filled with young, mostly men, who are victims of violence, injustice, and trauma, and mental illness. All of these are made worse by the reality of deep poverty.

Science tells us that children who grow up in deep poverty experience as much as a 10% decline in brain development. They are more likely to be suicidal, more likely to be depressed. They are more likely to have trouble concentrating at school, and much less likely to graduate. They are likely to live in communities where poverty has decimated families, leaving few positive role models. And they are much more likely to end up on the streets, or involved in criminal activity, or in prison.

Woman, HERE is your SON.

As he is dying on the cross, Jesus would have us look at these vulnerable disciples. Look at this child who is surrounded by death and destruction, who is suffering, who is abandoned and abused. Whose future is a question mark. If you love Jesus, be in relationship with him. Get connected to him. See him. Because Jesus sees him. Jesus loves him. Jesus would have us do something about his suffering, this injustice that is standing before us, living and breathing and bearing witness to Christ. Jesus would breathe his last breath trying to heal this child of God by putting him in relationship with another person. Jesus would see that child experience Resurrection. And so the question is for us as well: will you see the child? Will you answer Jesus with relationship?

Brothers and Sisters, They are Our Sons.  Our Daughters.  

Look after them.

Wrapping Up

It is hard to believe that Lent is nearly over.  But here it is:  Wednesday of Holy Week, with only a handful of days left of this experiment.  The last 36 days we have explored together what it means to live within the limits imposed by the federal SNAP program.  And while I cannot say that we aren’t looking forward to its end, what I can tell you is that this experience has deeply shaped our experience of food.  A few reflections on the experience so far:

1) Healthful eating is not just a moral issue, but a justice issue. When your ability to buy food is limited to 3.85 a person a day, your moral and ethical commitments to eating a certain way are put to the test.  And it is one thing to say you like to eat local, but it means another thing entirely to choose to forgo meat because you cannot afford the local stuff. Organic is great, but not if you can’t afford enough to feed your family.  Our family had to make decisions like: would we rather eat meat ethically, or go vegetarian? Is organic milk important?  What about eggs?  The experiment was a reminder that for many folks, these ethical struggles are real, but they get far more complicated when you have less to work with.

2) SNAP may seem generous, but only if you have time. As I mentioned in a previous reflection, our family was able to eat fairly well on this experiment, but that was due in large part to the fact that we enjoy the luxury of time to plan and cook, and access to affordable, good grocery options. Two parents with good jobs and flexible schedules can afford to cook their meals at home, can take turns, can plan out the meals so that we stay within our budget.  Given that there is evidence to support the notion that people experiencing poverty are locked into a scarcity mindset, it is fair to assume that the luxury of time that my spouse and I were able to utilize in this experiment likely paid a huge role in our success.

3) SNAP can make a huge difference in the quality of a person’s life.  It was recently revealed that the proposed Congressional Budget would strip SNAP recipients of, on average, 220 meals a year. Add to that the reality that many states are electing not to extend SNAP benefits through the waiver to work program, and we face a reality in which millions of people struggling to rise out of poverty might fall right back into it. Given that SNAP may be one of the most important anti-hunger initiatives in the country, it strikes me as a grave injustice that the proposed national budget seeks to strip it of its effectiveness. SNAP, when readily available to families in crisis, provides a safety net in the form of access to decent, healthful food for families.  As a resident living in the metro area of Philadelphia,  these programs are a matter of life and death.  Philadelphia enjoys the dubious honor amongst the ten biggest cities in the country of having the highest rate of citizens living in deep poverty, which is defined as an income at half the poverty line, or roughly $10,000.  Our number of residents living in deep poverty hovers around 12%, which amounts to twice the national average.  That would be distressing enough, but it turns out that nearly a third of those living in deep poverty are children.  Cutting SNAP benefits by 220 meals per person in a city where most children reliably receive 2 meals a day during the week from their school lunch program is a recipe for disaster.  Given that hunger is linked to school drop out rates, community incidence of crime, and even prison populations, this is bigger than public health.  Feeding children and their families is not only cheaper, but it is more effective and better for the economy than the austerity that proponents of cuts declare is necessary to balance the budget.

*steps off the soap box*

Now, clearly this has given me a great deal of food for thought.  It has also made me more engaged in food justice issues.  Because of our experience with SNAP, I found myself more politically engaged–writing letters to my congress person about the proposed cut in SNAP benefits, for example.  And the more I think about it, the more that I realize that this experience was helpful for me and my family perhaps because it helped us to grow in empathy. In the greek, empathy  can be translated generally as “to suffer with,” which implies a relationship.   And the more I think about it, the more I come to realize that this experiment was about relationship for me.  As a pastor, I have been trained to care about the poor, but how often do I suffer with the vulnerable? How often do I put myself in the position of those with less than myself, and try to understand?  I don’t think of myself as a heartless person, but I know that I have not always gone out of my way to understand the experience of people unlike myself.

And yet that is precisely the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to.  “Pick up your cross and follow me,” he says.  In other words, die to yourself, and join me on this journey of healing and justice and peacemaking, not on behalf of the comfortable, but on behalf of those who are sick, who are suffering, who cry out from war zones and from the margins of society. Stand with them, suffer with them, and see if you don’t discover that Christ is there with you.  See if you don’t find your LIFE when you let go of YOURSELF.

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to eat candy bars with abandon.  But I also can’t help but think that it won’t truly be Easter, Resurrection won’t feel real to me, until the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, and those who yearn for justice find peace in the land.