A meditation for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Shelton, WA. Given on Palm - Passion Sunday, March 28, 2021.
Our observance of Palm Sunday begins with so much hope. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of an unbroken colt. An action he has deliberately chosen. An action reserved for rulers. Crowds cheer him on throwing their coats into the road and waving branches before his path. They shout Hosannas and bless the one who has come to set them free from Roman oppression. And yet this Sunday always moves us to the cross. Jesus arrested, tortured, murdered. It’s a hard place to be.
Last Sunday Father Duane said in his sermon that as Jesus set his focus on Jerusalem, his goal was death. I’d never heard it said in those exact words, and it was such a startling statement that I wanted to protest.
Surely, I thought, Jesus’s goal was something else. He was going to Jerusalem to spread the Good News like he had around the countryside. He was going to preach, and teach, and heal, and gather up followers. Right?
Wrong. Jesus was going to the seat of religious power to speak truth to that power. And he knew the confrontation would lead to his death. He had told his disciples as much. And they didn’t want to believe it; they didn’t know how to believe it. And I am exactly like the disciples.
Every year as we enter Holy Week, I wish for a different outcome, as if the Gospels have morphed into a “choose your own adventure” book, and I can write a different ending, an ending where the religious leaders have their eyes opened to the ways they’ve corrupted God’s word. An ending where they invite Jesus to lead them in a complete overhaul of the church, and give up their power for the good of others. An ending where God’s kingdom comes, where God’s will is done on earth right then. An ending where Jesus not only gets to live, but gets to live happily ever after.
My ending is a fantasy born of love, and naivete, and self-protection. Love, because it’s been my practice as we move through Holy Week to identify with Jesus and his suffering. And out of love, I want to spare him from this violent death and emotional pain. Naivete, because I have not wanted to believe that those in power would go to such extremes when threatened. I wanted to think that their response was an aberration. And self-protection, because if I could somehow erase the crucifixion, if I could somehow make it unnecessary, then I could feel safe. I wouldn’t have to confront my own discomfort at the injustices in the world, I wouldn’t have to face my complicity in systems that oppress others, and I could ignore my failure to be like Jesus, my unwillingness to sacrifice my life for God.
Unless we’re brand new to the faith, we come to the edge of Holy Week with the experience of having cycled through this liturgical season before. We come with expectations about how we will carry the weight of this week along with living in a world that largely carries on without marking its significance. We hold the tension of Jesus journeying toward death, while we live with the gift of the Resurrection. And we approach this week with rituals, both personal and communal for observing the critical events in our religious heritage.
Lat year we observed Holy Week in lockdown. This year we approach at what I pray is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, as more and more of us are vaccinated against COVID-19, as the counties in our state move into Phase 3 of reopening. And as our vestry plans and prepares for St. David’s to safely reopen for in person worship. We have spent more than a year in the wilderness, isolated from one another, all the small things we once did without thinking, like sitting in crowds and hugging, have become magnified.
We have lived through a year that has also magnified our brokenness and shone a spotlight on our sinful human nature. And without our ability to gather safely, these events have left many of us feeling powerless. COVID-19 has killed 2.77 million people worldwide, claiming over half a million in the U.S. Systemic racism and the murder of Black Americans as a law enforcement response has been exposed in ways that we with white privilege can no longer ignore. Hate crimes against Asian Americans and mass shootings have filled our newsfeeds in recent weeks. Christian Nationalism has hijacked everything Jesus stood for. And those at the highest levels of power in our government, responded to election results with denial, invented claims of voter fraud, and insurrection. When those tactics failed, they began a campaign of voter suppression legislation in states across the country. In Georgia, it is now a crime to offer water to voters waiting in line.
More than ever before I see how much the injustice in our time and place looks like the injustice in Jesus’s time and place. As much as I’ve wanted to believe in progress, I find the present mirroring the past. And for me, that means confronting the reality that we are still in desperate need of Jesus’s sacrifice. It means coming to terms with the fact, that like the disciples, I do not know how to accompany Jesus all the way to the cross or to stay with him until his death.
Like the disciples, I do not know what to do when everything looks like it’s going to hell and I can’t stop it. In our natural fight, flight, or freeze response, both the disciples and I opt for flight and freeze. Like the disciples, I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet when I ought to speak up. Like the disciples, I’m not brave enough to risk the consequences of speaking truth to power, so I run for safety. And like the disciples, I abandon Jesus in his final hours when bearing witness to his pain feels just too difficult.
To accept the inevitability of Jesus’s sacrifice means also to accept the inevitability of the disciples’ failure. And to accept the inevitability of the disciples’ failure, means to accept the inevitability of my own failure. And that is so difficult. I want so very much not to fail. I want so very much to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I want to emulate Jesus. Except when I don’t. Except when I’m too frightened, too tired, too lazy, too distracted, too upset, too confused. Too… In short, I always fall short. And I always will.
Thankfully, the crucifixion is not the end of the story. And in many ways, it’s just the beginning of the disciples’ story. But I don’t want to jump too far ahead. I want to carry my palm branch along with my own weakness. I want to honor this king riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, this one who gave up power in order to empower others, who sacrificed his rights rather than insist upon them, who challenged us to find comfort and safety by letting go of our striving. I want to hold that image of Jesus buoyed by the triumphant crowd before we all failed him. Despite the coming fiasco, despite our well-intentioned betrayal, despite everything that will happen next, I know in that moment, looking at Jesus, we will see in his eyes the hint of forgiveness and the shimmer of God’s eternal promise.
Image by Poppy Thorpe at Pixabay.
A meditation on Mark 8:31-38, and a celebration of St. David's Day, for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Shelton, February 28, 2021.
I find it so fitting that on this Sunday—my first after officially becoming Episcopalian—we’re celebrating the feast day of Saint David of Wales after whom this church is named. Honoring the saints is definitely an Episcopalian and Catholic tradition; something that is new to me and isn’t practiced in Protestant denominations—including the United Methodist where I participated for 35 years.
I first worshipped here at Saint David’s on the morning of Pentecost in 2018. Before I came, I perused the church website and read the entry about Saint David, learning a little about his history. After worshipping here that first time, I Googled Saint David of Wales himself, and read that in addition to being the patron saint of Wales, he’s the patron saint of poets and vegetarians.
I’m a poet and my youngest daughter is a lifelong vegetarian, so I thought with those connections to the Saint, I was ready to make my spiritual home here. And while congregational life isn’t organized around poetry and vegetarian fare, you welcomed my gifts of poetry in our worship services and bulletins; and I’ve tasted plenty of delicious vegetarian offerings at coffee hour.
Saint David, who lived in sixth century, was known for his austerity. He founded several monasteries where the monks ate no meat, ploughed the fields by hand without the help of animals, and drank only water—no beer brewing like the happy monks in Bavaria. And David is usually pictured with a leek, since legend has it that he ordered his soldiers to wear a leek on their helmets in a battle against pagan Saxon invaders.
The most famous miracle associated with St David took place when he was preaching to a large crowd. When people at the fringes complained that they could not hear him, the ground on which he stood rose up to form a hill. And then a white dove settled on his shoulder.
There’s something about this miracle that delights me. There’s no spontaneous bleeding, visions, or delirium, that many “flashier” saints suffered. This miracle is physical and earthbound—a small earthquake rumbling and shaking the crowd as the ground around David rises up into a hill. And it such a considerate miracle in an era before the advent of microphones and sound systems. After the ground is rearranged, a dove alights on David’s shoulder, reminding the crowds of the dove that descended at Jesus’s baptism. The dove signifies God’s presence with David as God’s word flows through him, and reaches all those who want to hear.
We don’t know what David said, or how his words, once his listeners could hear them, impacted or changed their lives, but we can picture the scene, just as we can picture the Biblical scenes with Jesus speaking to crowds of thousands.
The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus feeding 4,000 with a handful of loaves and fishes astonishing his disciples. The power in this act, coming on the heels of Jesus healing all the afflicted he encounters, has Peter boldly declaring that Jesus is the Messiah in the verses just before today’s reading.
And in today’s reading, Jesus tells his closest followers the fate that lies before him for the first time. Suffering and death and rising after three days. No one understands what that rising is going to mean, but everyone understands what suffering and death mean.
And it can’t be so. Peter is the one to say “No!” but I’m sure he’s speaking for all the disciples. They have been drawn to Jesus who is filled with life, and light, and wisdom, and power. They have been mentored and empowered by Jesus, and sent out to spread the Good News of God’s kingdom that they’ve heard him speak about. They’ve healed people in his name. They don’t just admire and respect Jesus. They’ve left behind their old lives, their jobs and families, and have ordered their very existence around him. They have become community lead by this man they have come to love deeply.
We can imagine the words in Peter’s rebuke to Jesus: “No, don’t say that!” he blurts out. “That can’t happen. There has to be another way. A way to keep you safe. A way to keep doing God’s work with you here with us. Maybe if we lay low for a little while. Go back to fishing until the Pharisees calm down. Or maybe we find a blacksmith, forge some swords, build a small army, and attack those who would attack you.”
Peter so often gets a bad rap for his impulsiveness, his failure to look ahead and see the big picture, his wild swings from proclamation to denial, but the way I see it, Peter is just like us. Sometimes we get it and see God at work in the world. Sometimes we can open ourselves to the unfamiliar and frightening as we step out with hope and faith to do what seems impossible; sometimes we’re stuck because we can’t move beyond our own needs, wants, and fears. Sometimes we act thoughtlessly with hostility, destroying what threatens us, and causing unnecessary harm in the name of self-protection.
Some people say that the disciples were disappointed because they wanted a warrior messiah who would win with violence. But I see in Peter’s rebuke the same reaction we have when we learn that someone we love is suffering and might perhaps die. We learn of a cancer diagnosis or an assault. Our first thought is “No!” Maybe we scream it; maybe we weep it. We think about fighting back, and cast about for ways to stop the pain for those we love. We’ll move to another city that has the best of what our loved one needs, or where they’ll have a clean slate to start over. We’ll quit our jobs; we’ll radically change diets and habits. We’ll make bargains as we pray. We’ll do anything to change the outcome. Because we love and because it is easier to bear our own suffering than to bear the suffering of someone we love.
“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says. Not because Peter is wicked or evil, but because Peter’s words tempt Jesus. Peter argues with Jesus presenting alternatives to suffering where Jesus might still usher in the kingdom of God. Peter tempts Jesus the same way Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, with scenarios that are strongly appealing. True temptation isn’t just turning down a second slice of cake and reaching for a celery stick, or saying no to something you don’t really want; it’s wrestling with something you want desperately, something you can imagine happening. It’s confronting core aspects of our identities, and having to live with the consequences of our actions whether we stay true to our deepest-god-infused-selves, or whether we succumb to temptation out of fear, guilt, self-doubt, or even love.
I hear Jesus’s “Get behind me, Satan,” not only as a rebuke to Peter, but as a rebuke I ought to say to myself on Jesus’s behalf whenever I let fear tempt me into staying small and keeping quiet, flying under the radar so I don’t make waves or upset others who won’t agree with me; or whenever I’m tempted to speak and act with hatred and disgust and the desire for those I disagree with to suffer because those I love are suffering as a result of their actions. All the temptations that come to me obscure God’s truth and desires for me.
Jesus tells Peter he is setting is mind on human things, not divine things, and then calls to the larger crowd that gathers round, and gives them and us some hard teachings. Jesus says that to live fully we must give up our insistence on being right. We must set aside our desires to live according to our own plans, and let the Spirit lead us. He tells us that social status and the accumulation of things will never satisfy our souls. He warns us that living only for ourselves brings death. And he says that living for the good of others is the only path that brings abundant life. He tells us to embrace our own suffering, rather than running from or trying to numb the pain that is part of being human and alive.
I don’t know about you, but I need this reminder over and over again. Take up my cross. Lose my own life. Set my ego aside. I need Jesus’s words to counteract the words of the culture, the words of advertisers, the words of social media, the words of politicians, the words of celebrities, the words of family, friends, and even myself when I’m tempted by promises of ease and prosperity, and social status; when I’m tempted by fear—fear of the other, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of being alone…
The disciples needed to hear Jesus’s words, too, even if their first reaction was “No!” The crowds around Jesus needed those words to learn how to order their lives, because they too, would not always have Jesus with them.
The crowds around Saint David needed to hear Jesus’ words six hundred years later. Words that led to life when the hill rose up from the ground so all could hear.
The crowds don’t always have to be large. As Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name…” I wanted to become part of the Episcopal Church and this community of Saint David’s, because I need to gather in Jesus’s name and hear his words in the context of a community that inspires and empowers me to live out my faith, a place where I am surrounded by other ordinary yet extra-ordinary people who seek to be faithful to Jesus’s words and God’s call on their lives in ways large and small.
Legend has it that Saint David’s last words to his followers came from a sermon he gave on the previous Sunday: “Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do.” Ah, we need the Saint’s words alongside those of Jesus:
Take up your cross and be joyful.
Lose your life for the sake of the gospel and keep the faith.
Deny yourself and do the little things
for the sake of others.
I was received into the Episcopal church with two others shown here with the Right Rev. Greg Rickel, Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia,& St. David of Wales' rector Rev. Duane Fister.
A meditation on the gospel passage Mark 1: 14-20, for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton WA. January 24, 2021, the third Sunday of the Epiphany.
When I was about twelve and staying at my dad’s house for a week, I came down with the flu, and had nothing to do but lay in bed all day and read while he and my stepmom were at work. So I reached for the Readers’ Digest Condensed version of Tom Sawyer on the shelf in the guest room. I read every word in that edition, but I never read an unabridged version, and have no idea if I missed anything important to the story.
For me, the Gospel of Mark is a little like that book on my dad’s shelf. When compared to the other gospels, Mark reads like a Readers’ Digest Condensed yet Urgent version. A “just the facts ma’am” account where the details of what happens are spare, and whatever occurs always happens immediately.
As someone who wasn’t raised in a church, my first exposure to Bible stories came, when, as a new Christian and churchgoer, I began teaching Sunday school to first and second graders, relying on Cokesbury curriculum provided by the United Methodist church. I don’t remember now in which gospel I first encountered the story of these four fishermen being called to follow Jesus, but I do know that I, along with my little class, cut out construction paper fish with paper punched holes at the mouth, tossed them onto a butcher paper river on the floor and began to fish with poles consisting of pencils, string, and paper clip hooks.
We were all surprised by Jesus, the bold stranger wandering by who called out for us to drop everything and follow him and start fishing for people. Startled though we were, we dropped our poles in the river, and marched out the classroom door following the student selected to play Jesus, who led us down the hall and toward the playground.
And I will confess that in the almost 35 years since then, encountering the call story of those first disciples in all four gospels, I don’t remember comparing or compiling the stories into a larger narrative, or putting them on a timeline — though it’s entirely possible I did that in a year-long adult Disciple Bible Study class when my children were young, and their needs and lives were the focus of my life and learning.
For me the Bible was full of impossible things that had happened: Moses being found in a basket in the river, Mary becoming pregnant with Jesus sans the usual method, Jesus rising from the dead and later appearing to his friends before he beamed up to heaven. Dropping everything to follow Jesus the second you’d met him seemed no less miraculous.
Even in my own life, God had done what seemed impossible, pouring love over me one morning in my mid-twenties while I showered. God’s appearance had seemed sudden and out of the blue, as did my attendance at church the next Sunday, the first time I’d ever set foot in a church since childhood when I occasionally tagged along with friends or grandparents.
But God didn’t really appear to me out of the blue. I’d been aware of the hole in my life even before my parents split up when I was nine; and I’d been trying to fill that void with friends, studies, sports, and later activism, work, and boys. In the months before my shower conversion, I’d begun to listen, rather than scoff and dismiss, when those I admired mentioned God, Jesus, and faith. And I’d even done a little reading, not the Bible, but some evangelistic pamphlets that came my way.
All this to say, that when God showed up in my shower, I was ready to receive and respond. Maybe God had come by before and called and I’d been too busy with school or work or preoccupied with surviving yet another parental divorce to notice. Maybe those Sundays when I’d felt like an interloper at church, God had managed to leave behind tiny snippets of God’s word that lingered beneath my memories of feeling alone and outcast. I don’t know.
But what I do know now, is that when Jesus shows up on the shores of Lake Galilee in today’s gospel reading and calls to Andrew and Simon, he is not a stranger appearing out of thin air making an outrageous request without context. Jesus knows Andrew and Simon. In fact, they have already been following him.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist’s, and when John announces that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” [John 1:36], Andrew goes to find his brother Simon, and says to him, “We have found the Messiah” [John 1:42]. At some point before John is arrested, Andrew and Simon return home and go back to work fishing. Perhaps they told Jesus they had to leave, or perhaps he told them go home to get things in order and said he’d come for them when the time was right. They’re still followers of Jesus, but they’re also attending to their livelihoods.
As for James and John, they’re fishing with their father, Zebedee, alongside, or at least nearby, Andrew and Simon. Some scholars speculate that James and John were business partners with Zebedee and his sons, who also are successful enough to have hired workers on their boats. It’s entirely possible that they also were already acquainted with Jesus, and perhaps already following him. Other historians guess, based on the brief mentions in the gospels of women who are following and supporting Jesus’ ministry, that James and John were Jesus’s cousins; that their mother and Jesus’s mother Mary were sisters, and that they were well known to one another.
Today’s scripture opens with Jesus beginning his public ministry, “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
It takes time, traveling through the region on foot, stopping every day to talk with people about change. The task at hand feels urgent, and it’s not something Jesus can do alone, so when he reaches the sea, he asks his fishermen friends to leave their jobs and follow him. He asks them to fish for people. To tell those they meet about God’s heart for the poor, about God’s desire for justice, about a God whose claim on your life is unlike an Emperor’s, it inspires but never demands allegiance.
I don’t know about you, but knowing that there are relationships in place at the time of Jesus’s call to the fishermen offers me a sense of relief. The idea of leaving behind your entire life to say yes to the beckoning of a total stranger with a superhuman charismatic forcefield seems to be either an impossible to live up to act of faith and courage, or an absurdly foolhardy and dangerous endeavor. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
But the idea of leaving your job, or of leaving your business in capable hands to commit your life to the cause of reconciliation and justice and the ushering forth of God’s kingdom on earth, a cause you’ve been thinking about, and dreaming about, in the company of a person who teaches, motivates, and inspires you to think and dream, that’s another matter. That’s an action I want to emulate.
Dramatic. Emphatic. Urgent. Mark’s account of Jesus calling the first disciples is filled with these elements. Mark has an audience, and a purpose, and knows that time is of the essence. And yet, from our place more than two thousand years after these events, we need more than the origin stories of our faith — the gospel accounts of how Jesus’ ministry began and how it ended just three years later.
We need more than the Acts of the Apostles and the letters sent to the earliest Christian communities as they formed and ministered and struggled. We need more than the stories of the saints and martyrs of yore. We need the ongoing stories of how we, as ordinary everyday people answer God’s call over sixty, or seventy, eighty, or ninety years.
We need stories of how to repent from the values of culture and society that discount human dignity, how to repent from the worship of the church of Jesus, to the worship of Jesus, how to repent from nationalistic Christianity, to living aligned with Christ himself, how to repent from complacency with the status quo, to a sense of urgency and purpose when the kingdom that is near seems oh so long in coming. We need to learn to follow what Bishop Michael Curry terms, “The Way of Love.” His book Love Is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubled Times, tells his own story, and offers us some glimpses into the lives of those who have shaped his own faith, as well as thoughts on how keep ourselves rooted in the way of love.
Some of you were born into the arms of faith, you were passed from pew to pew before you could walk, you knew Jesus loved you before you could talk. Some of you left church when you left home for work or college and returned a decade or more later. Some never left. Some never returned but still love Jesus. Some came stumbling to church from recovery programs. Some came after loss in the shadow of grief. Some came because their spouse did. Some came for their children. Some came for the music. Some came because of community outreach. Some came for no particular reason they can name. We’re all here for different reasons, but we’re looking, and maybe finding, something here that’s hard to find elsewhere.
And in the sharing of our stories, our faith journeys, no matter how dramatic, no matter how mundane, we glimpse ways of being beyond our own experience, we develop relationships that reach beyond barriers, we come to trust one another and ourselves and we learn to see signs that point to God. So let us tell one another our stories. This is how we follow Jesus. This is how we fish for people.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.