Saturday, March 31, 2007

Among the Olives

Tomorrow the church remembers Jesus’ strange procession into Jerusalem on the back of a colt. We call it Palm Sunday. We pass out long stringy fronds. We fold them into green crucifixes which will dry and turn brown in the heat of the summer. The scripture reminds us of a joyful time - a public affirmation of Jesus’ identity that infuriated what we used to call “the establishment”. Most strange of all perhaps, we remember Jesus words about stones with voices…

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
Luke 19:29-40

Along with the triumph of Palm Sunday, our liturgy remembers the Great Tragedy that is to come. The hosannas of Palm Sunday are changed into the bitter recollections of Passion Sunday…

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial."

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?" When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, "Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!"
Luke 22:39-53

“This is your hour.” Those are terrifying words. A few days before, the hour had belonged to Jesus, so much so that even the stones were prepared to cry out with joy. But the morning of Palms had become the night of the Passion. The hour now belonged to the people who hated Jesus and his radical ministry. In a few hours, the filthy, tortured savior of the world who was with God and who was God would utter a loud cry and breath his last to the sounds of laughter and mockery from many of the same strangers who had cried hosanna. Such is the protean nature of humankind. Such is the steadfast nature of our savior.

The week the church calls “Holy” is full of echoes. Every time I visit it, I hear new ones. This morning, I heard the echo of olives.

The olive tree has been celebrated and referenced in the cultural works of every society. Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The olive tree is surely the richest gift of Heaven". Aldous Huxley wrote: "…I like them all, but especially the olive. For what it symbolizes, first of all, peace with its leaves and joy with its golden oil." Federico Garcia Lorca wrote: "Angels with long braids and hearts of olive oil." Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero's Cell, "The entire Mediterranean seems to rise out of the sour, pungent taste of black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat or wine, a taste as old as cold water. Only the sea itself seems as ancient a part of the region as the olive and its oil, that like no other products of nature, have shaped civilizations from remotest antiquity to the present."
The Olive Tree World

When Jesus needed courage, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray. He seemed to find both peace and strength in the company of their ancient healing branches. I am reminded of the Druids who found God in the oak trees of old Britain before the Christians came and “civilized” them. This is strange business - mystical trees, healing oil, leaves of victory and peace. It sounds a little magical, a little to Wiccan for our contemporary taste – as if Jesus were some sort of witch who looked for guidance in the mysterious powers of nature.

I’m not sure that is the lesson of Olivet, but there is no question that Jesus consecrated this ancient place with both his prayers and his blood. In a week of violence and pain, he found himself returning to a place where “the richest gift of Heaven” blossomed and bore fruit.

Deep within the madness of Holy Week, the trees of Olivet grow like a secret hiding place. We may not be able to travel to Gethsemane and walk the Via Dolorosa as Jesus did, but in our own solitude and contemplation, we can take a moment to seek God's will among the olives. Like Jesus, we can find strength in their limbs and peace in their shade. We can find healing in their oil. We can kneel on the consecrated ground where Christ knelt and give our fondest hopes and our greatest fears to God. Among the olives, there is comfort in knowing that an ancient and healing God is at work in our lives, continuing the sometimes painful work of creation and redemption, even in the midst of violence and betrayal.

Here amid the olives, as the terror of Friday morning approaches, as the terror of our own passion haunts us with fear and anxiety, we can taste the fruit of the olive and pray with Jesus…

Thy will be done.

May God grant us the courage to walk with Christ in the coming week, and all the days and nights of our lives.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Now and Not Yet

We live in a strange region of the kingdom of God – a region of Both/And - a region of Now and Not Yet.

Have you ever fallen asleep in the middle of the day, then awakened at twilight? You are in your clothes, on top of the covers. Your eyes are bleary. The windows are barely lit from outside. The clock reads 6:00 or 7:00. The house is quiet, and you have no idea if the world is going to sleep for the night or if you have just slept for fifteen hours and the dawn is about to break.

Our region of the Kingdom of God is like that twilight place. We are both awake and asleep. We live under both law and grace. We are both condemned and saved. We act with the fearful humility of convicted criminals and the joyful confidence of the children of the King.

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me: the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43: 16-21)

Like Pharaoh’s charioteers, we are doomed to fail. All our best efforts, our education and training, our genius and skills, our perseverance and our good works will allow us to achieve things that the world calls great, but they will not save us from the grave whose walls will close over us like the sea over the horses and riders of Egypt. No matter what honors we achieve in this live, all of us will ultimately be “quenched like a wick.”

The student of history will find countless reasons for despair. Why bother? What good will my striving do? Nothing changes. Nothing matters. We are tempted to lament with the author of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity.”

But Isaiah tells us not to be deceived by the things we think we know about what is possible. “Do not remember the former things… I am about to do a new thing.” Even as we stand on a precipice at the edge of the valley of death, the prophet tells us that we are also at the threshold of the impossible. That dim window is not twilight, but daybreak. We have not awakened just in time to see the world sink into darkness, but we have been roused to witness the coming of God’s new day. Enemies will worship together. God will make safe paths through the dangers of our world. Healing waters will flow in the most broken desiccated heart.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

(Psalm 126)

The Psalm remembers the day the prophet promised – the day God delivered the children of Israel from captivity and they returned to the home that their grandparents remembered with tears by the waters of Babylon.

The people grieved for their lost homeland, but they did not despair – they did not give up faith in God. In spite of their tears, they still sowed hope. In Babylon, they were slaves, just as they had been in Egypt. All the glories of David and Solomon could not keep their ancestors from coming full circle back to chains and whips in a foreign land. But in spite of their circumstances, God’s people held fast to their faith in the covenant God made with Israel – “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” So they sowed hope – seeds of faith in the midst of captivity. They had failed to keep up their end of the bargain and had suffered the consequences of that failure, but God’s steadfast love had not failed. The tearful seeds of faith sown in Babylon produced the sheaves of joy that the former captives carried back to Zion.

…Even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phillipians 3: 4-14)

No one understood the region of Now and Not Yet the way Paul did. In his letter to the Church at Phillipi he described his younger self as a man standing proudly on a mountain of his own virtues. His pedigree was flawless, his education elite, his behavior blameless. Then one day he looked down and saw that the mountain on which he stood was actually a pile of trash. Instead of a heroic vista overlooking God’s kingdom, Paul was standing in a dump, surrounded by rotting food and broken clay pots of his own making. Most of us would grieve to realize that all we had worked so hard to achieve in life was nothing but a pile of garbage, yet Paul considered it his great joy. He had encountered the living Christ face to face and been transformed into “a new thing.” He realized that nothing he had achieved by his own effort could compare to the prize he had received from God in Christ Jesus. Next to the promise of resurrection, and eternal life with God, Paul’s own achievements were worthless.

And yet…

And yet Paul did not stop “straining forward.” Blessed as he was by salvation, he did not consider it a reason for smug self-satisfaction. He did not wait passively for resurrection, he pressed toward it like a runner forcing herself past her threshold of endurance to sprint the last hundred yards of a marathon. Paul saw his life’s trophy case turned into a box of junk, and in response he ran even harder, not for his own glory, but for the glory of God. The Apostle from Tarsus had changed and also not changed. He was still the tireless over-achiever, the brilliant scholar, still the zealous messenger of God. But he was also the humble servant of Christ who had taken away all that he had, and in return, given him everything.

He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people. (Luke 20:9-19)

The incarnation and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus define this region of Both/And in which we live. We are the stewards of the vineyard, tending land that does not belong to us. All our achievements are because the creator of the vineyard has given us permission to be here. We owe the rightful owner everything, and yet paying our rent still chafes us. We look for loopholes in the lease. We ignore the letters and phone calls. We curse the bill collectors and send them away empty handed. In our own encounter with Christ, we meet the heir of the vineyard face to face, and we have a choice. We can welcome him as both our rightful master and our honored guest, or we can reject him – casting him out of our home as if we could make him disappear with harsh words and cast stones.

We are free to make that choice, but we are not free to choose the consequences. They will trip us up like a rock on the Damascus road and crush us like a boulder rolling down the mountain of our own achievements.

Life in the region of Now and Not Yet is not simple and it is not easy. We are tempted to choose one or the other – to deny what is to come in order to satisfy our enjoyment of what is now – or to deny what is before us in anticipation of what is to come. It is tempting, but it is not God’s will for us to live in either of these half-worlds.

The world of Now is the world where God’s work is done. Now is the place where children are raised, prisoners are visited, the hungry are fed, and the stranger is welcomed. Now is the place where each of us must run our race, straining for the goal like Paul did.

Not Yet is the world where God’s promise comes to completion. It is the place where we are given rest from our labors, and perhaps given new work to do – not creating rubbish, but treasures in the kingdom of Heaven.

The journey of Lent is coming to a close. In a few short days, we begin the week that the church calls Holy. It is tempting to succumb to despair as we retell and relive the journey from Palm Sunday to Golgatha. The journey is so tempting and so terrible that many are tempted to avoid it altogether. We wait for Easter morning, put on our lovely hats and our beautiful ties and parade off to church to celebrate the victory without acknowledging the battle.

Either choice denies the wholeness of who we are and who God would have us become. There is not one Key to the gates of the Kingdom, but two. One is the key of Now. The other is the key of Not Yet.

May the Holy Spirit grant us the courage and strength to hold them both as we build God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven – Both/And. Now and Not Yet.