Who Are the Other Sheep? Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin Sunshine Cathedral MCC Sunday, April 29, 2012 There is a common religious icon that many have seen. As a kid growing up I was always somewhat disturbed by this picture. It is a portrait of a man identified as Jesus, carrying a sheep on his shoulders. [...]
Who Are the Other Sheep?
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin
Sunshine Cathedral MCC
Sunday, April 29, 2012
There is a common religious icon that many have seen. As a kid growing up I was always somewhat disturbed by this picture. It is a portrait of a man identified as Jesus, carrying a sheep on his shoulders. And I remember asking my mother one day, why is Jesus carrying that sheep around his neck. She proceeded to tell me the biblical story about the lost sheep found in Luke. It is the story told about someone having 100 sheep and one gets lost, so the shepherd left the 99 and goes to find the one that is lost. And I thought, oh that is a cute story. But then she said, the answer to your question though about why is Jesus pictured as carrying the sheep is because when Jesus found the sheep, Jesus broke his legs so that the sheep would not run off again. Now of course that is nowhere in scripture, like a lot of made up things are not in scripture, but my mother’s interpretation of the story was enough to place some fear in me about not misbehaving.
As we critique today’s passage reading from John we find the use of the metaphoric phrase of “I am the good shepherd”. Well, what is meant by “good shepherd”? To be a good shepherd in antiquity meant that you watched over, working for the wealthy owner of the herds. A shepherd is a protector, an overseer who is doing good work on behalf of someone of power and wealth.
The image of Jesus as a good shepherd is borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures. We are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm where the psalmist says:
1-3 GOD, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows; you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. 4 Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. 5 You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. 6 Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of GOD for the rest of my life. (The Message)
In that imagery, God is not only the owner, or source, of all abundance, but is also the one who watches over the sheep to make sure that each one is able to experience her fair share of the divine bounty.
Certainly we will find other shepherd and sheep reference, such as the one we hear on Christmas Eve where shepherds and sheep are out in a field watching a star…in that story, shepherds are the workers living outside and considered on the margins of society but they are visited by angels, affirmed, and filled with the gift of hope; we may be familiar with the passage where Jesus asks Peter, do you love me and Peter responds by saying yes, I love you, Jesus says, feed me my sheep. In that story, Peter is called to be the shepherd who looks after someone else’s sheep to make sure they are cared for, kept safe and well.
Abel, Job, and Abraham owned lands and sheep, and had shepherds care for their flocks. David, as a child was a lowly shepherd caring for the flocks of someone else (though he would later rise to the position of king), and Rachel was a shepherdess who cared for Laban’s sheep. All the sheep belong to a wealthy owner, or perhaps to Mother Nature, and the shepherd is one trusted to care for those sheep to keep them safe, fed, and well.
Shepherds are trusted not to keep peace or protect the status quo, but to help the sheep grow, find nourishment, and experience a better quality of life. Prophets considered community leaders to be shepherds of the people, and when they failed to honor their sacred trust, the prophets would deride them. The prophet Ezekiel denounced these types of shepherd leaders by saying, “You eat the fat … you clothe yourselves with the wool … you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them”.
So from the prophetic era to the time that Jesus appears on the scene, we can note that the authorities, the shepherd leaders (those who are trusted to help the people grow and live lives of health and abundance), have not improved. As a matter of fact one could say that things had gotten worse. The lower had become lower and the oppressive powers of that day had become more oppressive.
So Jesus comes and announces that he is the Good Shepherd. Not like those others that were just ruling over them; using their positions for self gain, abusing those that were beneath them and exploiting those he didn’t know any better. Jesus places himself in the role of the Good Shepherd as someone God has trusted to challenge the status quo and empower the marginalized so that the people can grow in hope, joy, and fulfillment. Jesus is trusted to care for
God’s sheep, that is, God’s people, and Jesus does a GOOD job of that. He is a good shepherd.
Jesus had come to shake things lose and turn things upside down, to bring the good news to the poor and to bring hope and justice to the oppressed. He wasn’t trying to preserve his own legacy or trying to secure a place of privilege for himself; he was a good shepherd trying keep the sheep safe from the powers of greed, imperialism, and militaristic expansion. Jesus was a good shepherd who wasn’t trying to build himself up but who was trying to help those weighed down by systems of oppression rise up with dignity, hope, and a peace that circumstances could not take away.
So, what does the metaphor of the Shepherd hold for us today? For us today, the Shepherd might represent those who hold political, spiritual or religious leadership positions, those who are called to do the work of justice, those who stand up in the face of injustice and name it for what it is. To be a true Shepherd today one does not stand behind the cloak of title or position, but is rather out front leading in a new direction. Today’s Shepherd leads in a new direction that enlightens and transforms those who are living in the margins of society and lifts them up. Not only are they lifted up, but they are lifted in a manner that allows them to place their feet on a solid ground of substance. Those who lead in the ways of justice and healing are good shepherds today.
To be a true Shepherd today means one has to care more for others than just themselves. They are agents of change in a world and time when the world needs leaders to lead in such a manner that connects us all in a positive, progressive, and practical manner.
Dr. Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I believe we are representatives of the Other Sheep that have come alive in our gospel reading today. We have decided to follow the path of justice, the way of hope, the life of love, and those decisions have helped us live more abundantly and we therefore have the hope of abundant life to offer others. Those who work for hope and healing, equality and justice are good shepherds today.
In verse 16, the Good Shepherd says there are other sheep that are not of John’s community. A good shepherd knows that there are other sheep. Sheep aren’t just Catholic, or Protestant, or Jewish. Sheep aren’t just Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist. Sheep aren’t just American, or Floridian, or citizens of Broward County. The sheep are from every religion and no religion, from this country and other countries, from this community and other communities, and good shepherds are concerned for the welfare of all them. Good shepherds are mindful of the Jamaican flocks, the Dominican flocks, the Ugandan flocks, the Malaysian flocks, the Nigerian flocks, the flocks in recovery, the flocks living with HIV.
The Other Sheep are those who recognize their sacred value despite how society may judge them for being a single mom, divorced, or having exercised their reproductive freedom of choice. The Other Sheep are those who came to this country looking for that blessed dream only to find themselves pushed down and pushed out. But the good shepherd will not forget them.
The Other Sheep are those who cannot afford health care, the elderly who struggle to live their final years with dignity and comfort. The Other Sheep are those who are homeless and those taken advantage of due to mortgage greed. Other sheep include people who have been released from prison who face social and economical marginalization.
The Other Sheep are those 75 million children who are excluded from education living in sub-Saharan Africa or South and West Asia. The main reasons for exclusion are poverty, gender inequity, and disability, child labor, speaking a minority language, belonging to an indigenous people, and living a nomadic or rural lifestyle.
There are the sheep of this fold who enjoy frolicking together, but there are other sheep and they are also beloved by God and we must care about them too. All life is part of the divine fold and good shepherds care about all sheep, not just the ones they tend to daily, but those beyond the local flock.
Many of us are LBGT people, and such, we know what it is like to be “other sheep.” But the good shepherd loves all sheep. And we are evolving from other sheep to good shepherds, from those who needed to be reminded that we were loved too to those who are now proclaiming to others that they are loved, just as they are, now and forever.
And despite all the marginalization that still exists in our world, in our nation, in our community, we are called to be present with those who are in need of hope, in search of a better way, in need of one more chance, and to be advocates for those who will not allow their circumstances to keep them down and locked out of the opportunities of a better tomorrow. Because as we do this, we remain alive today we can hear in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “But they that wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
And this is the Good News.
The power of peace fills me.
The power of love lifts me.
The power of joy sustains me.
The power of hope heals me.
And so it is.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Acts 3.16; Luke 24.36b-39, 41-43
Easter 3, 2012 – Sunshine Cathedral
I was sharing with Rev. Tania the other day that the very first song I ever learned, my hand to God, was a show tune. She told me I’m the gayest person she’s ever met.
The first notes and the first words that I ever sang were from the musical Hair.
Imagine toddler Durrell, in the backwoods of Southwest Arkansas, in a place so remote the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not yet found it, entertaining his hillbilly cousins by singing:
When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius…
But the amazing thing is, that has stayed with me. Not just that song, which is a pretty groovy song, but great lines and great lyrics and great moments from musical theatre have honestly sustained me with a sort or religious like power throughout my life.
Some people have that experience with beautiful prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or from the Rosary, or with verses of scripture or with scenes from classic films or with lines from great poetry.
Most of us have something that we carry with us all the time. It may not be noticeable every minute of every day, but it is always present, just beneath the surface, and the moment we need encouragement or comfort or empowerment, it pops up like a spirit guide or patron saint or guardian angel to sustain us and remind us that we will smile again.
There was a song from our Good Friday Tenebrae service, “You Walk With Me.” It’s, surprise, a Broadway show tune, from the musical The Full Monty. It’s from a funeral scene where a young man is at his mother’s funeral, and he is comforting himself to think that his mother’s blessed memory will always be with him; he later learns that there is someone who is romantically interested in him who will also be with him as he faces his loss.
In multiple ways, he is comforted to learn that he never alone.
There is a line that has always meant something to me from the Jerry Herman musical Mame. After her husband dies, Mame of course is in mourning, and she passes by a full length mirror, wearing all black of course, and she says to herself,
“You look like you’ve just come from a funeral.”
Mame who had spent her life celebrating life was reminding herself that to love means that one day we will lose who we love, and that will cause pain, but life is still good and worth the living and worth the risk of loving and she wanted, even with her grief, to get back to living.
My grandmother was the person closest to me in my whole life. Before I met Robert, I didn’t know it was possible to love anyone as thoroughly as I loved her.
In an otherwise difficult, painful, even unsafe childhood, my grandmother provided me my only experience of unconditional love and unlimited positive regard.
My worst fear in life was to lose her. The day she died was the most painful day I had ever lived through. And yet, at the funeral home during the wake, I passed by a mirror, my eyes puffy and red, and stopped in front of the mirror, and I said, “You look like you’ve just come from a funeral.” And for the first time in days, I smiled.
Those memories, those sacred words, those songs that get inside us and become like marrow in our bones, those silent angelic whispers that remind us that we are never alone and that even when we are temporarily unhappy we need not be separated from our source of true joy…they are always with us. And when we summon them, they come with healing power to soothe and relieve and encourage us.
That’s what our scripture readings are today. They are stories meant to remind people facing challenges that there is reason to hope, that there is more to life than the difficulty at hand, and that even when things are completely overwhelming, as long as we have our memories, our stories, our connections to something larger than ourselves, we are never alone.
The reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is one of those healing stories that can be simultaneously comforting and troubling, hopeful and heartbreaking.
The story of the apostles praying in Jesus’ name and that prayer miraculously curing a paraplegic is hopeful and comforting because it shows that faith, hope, and prayer can combine to have a healing influence on someone’s life.
But it can also be troubling because stories like that one have been used abusively to tell people that if their condition doesn’t go into remission or if their pain doesn’t go away or if they don’t beat their prognosis it’s because they don’t have enough faith or because God somehow wanted them to suffer to teach them a lesson or to make them stronger or holier.
I need to say right now that I believe that the infinite compassion that we call “God” is just that, pure, true, endless compassion. And such compassion would never wish us to suffer for any reason. Compassion means to suffer with. The Spirit of life wants to be expressed as joy and wholeness and when we cannot express life with joy and wholeness, then life suffers with us, wishing with us for relief, strength, and resolution.
I do not believe that to pray in Jesus’ name is to use the “word” Jesus like a magic word that will make our wishes come true.
To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray like Jesus prayed, and the way Jesus prayed was with confidence that the divine Presence was with him no matter what was happening around or even to him. He believed he was never alone.
Even during his brutal, savage execution, which I do not attribute to a divine plan, Jesus prayed the 22nd psalm which begins, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!” But you see, the 22nd psalm concludes with hope and renewed confidence and comfort. Basically, that psalm begins with, “Why God have you abandoned me?” and ends with “Oh, yeah, that’s right, you haven’t.”
To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray like Jesus, and to pray like Jesus is to have an awareness that divine love is intimately present with us at all times and forever.
I’ve seen people experience healing in their emotions and relationships even as their bodies continued to deteriorate.
I’ve seen people outlive their prognosis by weeks, months, and even years.
I’ve seen people who were given no hope survive in ways that can only be called miraculous.
And I’ve seen people die too soon, suffer too long, and have their every attempt to recover seem to fail.
Why does prayer offer spiritual healing to one, physical recovery to another, and blessings that we can hardly discern to someone else? I don’t know.
Just like I don’t know why chemotherapy prolongs one person’s life, makes another person’s disease go into remission for a while, another’s go into remission permanently, and have almost no noticeable effect on someone else.
I don’t know why some people can drink in moderation, and other people dare not drink at all because it will honestly ruin their lives.
I don’t know why one person can smoke heavily and live to be 98, and other person can smoke half as much and have a lung removed at age 50.
We are both resilient and fragile; we are powerful individuals and yet, there remain some things beyond our understanding or control.
Life is magic that we can direct, and mystery that we cannot fathom. How can both be true? I don’t know, but experience suggests it is.
What I know is that prayer, like poetry and scripture and show tunes and great films, can help us find the strength and peace that is always within us, reminding us that we are never really alone.
I know that prayer can help us rise above our fears and regrets and that in itself is a kind of healing that very often seems to lead to other experiences of healing.
What I know is that prayer connects us to all the prayers of eternity and to all the people who have ever prayed and so the very act of prayer is a reminder that we are not alone, and if we are not facing the challenges of life alone, then hope, peace, and joy are always possible and that’s pretty miraculous.
And finally, let me speak directly to the heartache this congregation has experienced in the last few days. Last week we had two congregants pass away: Ruth Zuzek and Lain Benjamin. Like you, I will miss them. Like you, I wish they had lived longer. Like you, I hope their final moments were peaceful and comfortable.
And I will share with you that I honestly believe that in their final moments, they were not alone. The Song of Life was singing in their souls until the very last moment, the energy of life was fully present with them, expressing as them until breath left their bodies, and then the energy of their lives continued on and continues on forevermore. I believe our love can bless them still, and I believe our memories of them can bless us still. I truly believe they were never alone; I truly believe that we are never alone.
“You Walk With Me” (from the Broadway musical, The Full Monty):
Is it the wind
Over my shoulder? Is it the wind that I hear gently whispering
Are you alone there in the valley?
No, not alone for you walk, you walk with me.
Is it the wind there over my shoulder?
Is it your voice calling quietly?
Over the hilltop, down in the valley
Never alone for you walk with me.
When evening falls, and the air gets colder
When shadows cover the road I am following
Will I be alone there in the darkness?
No, not alone, not alone and I’ll never be…
Never alone, you are walking
You’re walking with me.
Is it the wind there, over my shoulder? Is it your voice calling quietly?
Over the hilltop, down in the valley Never alone for you walk with me.
Over the hilltop, down in the valley Never alone for you walk with me.
Never alone for you walk with me.
AND THIS IS THE GOOD NEWS! AMEN.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I am never alone.
Sacred energy fills the universe.
Divine love saturates every moment.
My heartbeat is Heaven’s cadence.
I am filled with the breath of eternity.
And so it is!
In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.” ~Robert Ingersoll
Thomas and Time
Rev. Dr. Lea Brown
Easter 2 (2012) – John 20.19-27
The scene is Jerusalem, and even though we are already on the first Sunday after of Easter, in the gospel of John it is still the Evening of Easter Day.
The disciples are sitting huddled in a room behind locked doors, waiting for the authorities to come for them next.
In the midst of all the terror and misery in that room, John tells us that Jesus suddenly appeared among them and said,
“Peace be with you.”
Jesus showed them the marks on his hands and side so that they would know it was really him. Unfortunately for Thomas, he was not with the others when Jesus first appeared to them. John doesn’t tell us why he wasn’t with them, but we know that it certainly wasn’t because Thomas wasn’t a loyal follower of his friend the Rabbi.
In the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus decided to return to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, all of the other disciples try to stop him from going, saying, “You can’t go there Jesus! Last time you visited Bethany you were almost
stoned to death!” Only Thomas, perhaps in a moment of more brawn than brains, says “Let us also go, that we may die with Jesus.” (Apparently Thomas had quite the flair for the dramatic. No doubt he would fit right in at MCC.)
But if Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them, it wasn’t for lack of loyalty. My guess is that it was this very devotion that kept him away. Perhaps isolating himself and keeping everything and everyone away that might touch his pain was Thomas’ way of coping.
Whatever the reason, Thomas’ decision to separate himself from his friends that evening meant that he did not share their joy at their experience of Jesus in their midst, and no matter what they said to him about how they had seen Jesus, nothing would make him open his heart again to hope.
Nothing, that is, except the chance to see with his own eyes, and touch with his own fingers, the marks upon Jesus’ body. And of course, as the scriptures tell us, Thomas had the opportunity to do just that a week later.
And Jesus said to him, just as he had said to the others, “Peace be with you, Thomas. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Now, if you are a bible geek like me (because you can take the girl out of the Baptist church…) and like to spend your spare time reading biblical commentaries you will discover that they all say pretty much the same thing:
That even though it seems as if these words were written right after the Resurrection, they really weren’t. These words
were written to the early Christian Church, to a generation that lived in a time when there was no one left who could
personally testify to having seen Jesus after he rose from the dead. Thomas wasn’t really doubting Thomas – he was being portrayed by John as another example of a first-hand witness to the resurrection.
Jesus and John weren’t really chastising Thomas for not believing without seeing; what they were really doing was saying to everyone who would come later, “You won’t be able to see the resurrection first-hand, but we want you to believe anyway.”
There isn’t anything wrong with this explanation found in all the biblical commentaries. It was a fact of life that early history and personal experiences with Jesus had to be recorded if the movement that was the early Church was going to survive. However, when you are someone like me, you tend to look at scripture just a little differently than your basic biblical commentary does. After all, I don’t think the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible had Christian Fundamentalist born and raised, Ex-Southern Baptist, former Army Chaplain leather dyke MCC pastors like me in mind when they did the writing. And so, of course, I think this passage has something else to give us than an example of a sighting of Jesus.
This passage about Thomas, about his pain, is, I believe, also Very much about what Tony Kushner calls “the virus of
Time” in his play “Angels In America.” Kushner calls the virus of time “sleeping creation’s potential for change.” These words are spoken by an angel to Prior, a gay man living with HIV. Prior doesn’t want to be a part of creation that moves forward anymore, because the progress of time has brought him too much loss, too much pain, too much grief.
Like Prior, and like Thomas, you and I too are caught in Creation’s endless potential for change. We must wrestle, every day and night of our lives, with the paradox of time: if we are experiencing time, obviously we are alive, and we have the opportunity to experience all the wonder and the gifts of life. And yet, as time marches on, we cannot hold back change and all kinds of experience, and from the very moment we begin our living, we also begin our process of dying. In other words, where there is life, there is the possibility of joy and passion and connection, and there is also the reality of change and pain and sadness. And wherever there is love, there is also the inevitability of loss. Time, the very gift that gives us life, also brings changes that rob us of those we love because nothing we can do can stop its relentless journey. One of my favorite lines from the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” (besides “Towanda – Queen of The Amazons!”) is “A heart that’s been broken deeps on beating just the same.”
Our hearts do keep on beating, and life continues its journey, sometimes taking away the bad things and bringing positive changes, giving us the chance to grow and heal and make our lives what we want them to be, and sometimes taking all that is precious to us and turning it into nothing but memories that can both comfort and torment us, sometimes in the very same moment.
This paradox of life was the very challenge facing Thomas, and 2,000 years later it is the same challenge that keeps us all treading water for our lives in an endless ocean of questions: Is it possible to embrace life and cope with loss?
How do we go on when our relationships end, when those we love die?
How do we keep our hearts open to love when wounds from our past throb with unresolved pain, and when we may have felt forced to shut down long ago just to survive?
How do we choose to keep our hearts open to hope?
How do we choose to keep our hearts open to each other when it feels as though we just can’t stand to be betrayed by our own vulnerability one more time?
Well, this is where our friend Thomas comes in. Time had come along and robbed Thomas of the one who was perhaps his best friend who showed Him what it meant to live life to its fullest. But time had passed, and for Thomas, Jesus was gone, leaving him only with his memories of this man he loved so much.
Until the day, that is, when Thomas had the chance to touch Jesus’ wounds…and in that moment, the resurrection became real for Thomas. Thomas needed to see and to touch Jesus’ wounds to believe in the miracle of new life. You and I need to see and to touch one another’s wounds to believe in the miracle of new life that has the potential to be born within us again and again. All of us carry wounds – places in ourselves where we have been hurt, betrayed, oppressed, stricken with grief, and paralyzed by fear.
Even Jesus carried scars from all that he experienced. We know that we cannot live life, and take risks, and love others, and be ourselves, without being wounded as well. And if we keep our wounds to ourselves, if we lock our hearts away in a place we think is safe, the stone will always remain in front of the entrance to the tomb, and the power of the resurrection will always be something someone else tells us, but that we never really know for ourselves.
Thomas asked for what he needed, and Jesus freely shared the evidence of his pain with him, and through this exchange between them Thomas was given hope, and new life, and the ability to love and live again.
When I think of this story about Thomas, I am often reminded, through a very unlikely source, of the potential for healing that we have in sharing our pain and needs with one another.
This is a story about someone named Dane. He lives in the Castro District, the historically Queer (gay), although rapidly changing, neighborhood in San Francisco. Dane is one of the thousands of people who are homeless in Gay Bay, and he is also one of the many who struggle daily with severe addiction and mental health issues. Dane would often come to the 7 p.m. worship service at MCC San Francisco and sit up in the balcony, while all of us on staff would fidget nervously in our seats, wondering what Dane might say or do in the service, especially during Community Prayer, when people could say their prayers out loud. (We liked to call it liturgical edge play.)
Here’s the thing about Dane: when he wasn’t using, he could and often did say some pretty profound things that would make you think. But when he was high, he was definitely a box of chocolates – we never knew what we were going to get. Over time Dane started to become verbally violent, and eventually and reluctantly, we had to ask him to no longer attend the 7 p.m. service.
Now, I don’t know all of Dane’s story. I don’t know all that happened to him that has made him the person he is today. But I would be willing to bet that sometime, somewhere, something happened to him that was too much for him to bear…something that made him choose to shut himself off mentally, emotionally and spiritually from anyone and anything that might hurt him again.
And so he roams the streets of the Castro, sometimes friendly, sometimes out of his mind…but always, always alone.
Until something happened several years ago on a regular evening in the Castro when a Buick ran a red light on Market Street, swerved into the next lane going the other direction, and slammed into a BMW. Both cars burst into flames, and as people poured out of neighborhood businesses to try and help, they saw Dane jump into the BMW that was engulfed in flames with gasoline pouring down the street, as he tried to pull the driver out to safety. Dane got the driver halfway out of the car, and then others joined him, and together, they carried the driver to a nearby alley away from the flames. On that evening, Dane saw someone threatened with death and risked his own life to try and save him.
And at least for a few days in the Castro, among the merchants and the neighbors, people who often feared and rejected Dane, treated him with kindness and warmth, I don’t live in the Castro anymore (this was before my days with Sarah-Helen), but I hope it all continues.
I hope that Dane remembers that in that moment when he tried to save another human being he was reaching out, remembering who God created him to be. And I hope others continue today to see Dane in this light, to try and touch his wounds and help him find healing and new life.
The Castro might seem like a long way from Ft. Lauderdale, from one end of the continent to another, and it might not seem like this story has much to do with you and me, but I believe it does.
We all have the potential to go down the same path as Dane…to forget completely that our one chance at life and love and wholeness lies completely in how we touch one another’s wounds, and allow our own to be touched, in how we live with one another and love one another within sleeping Creation’s potential for change.
And that is what spiritual community and Sunshine Cathedral and MCC are for; this is what Jesus came to teach us: That the way we live fully in the midst of time, is to believe in the power that love gives us to share our wounds, and to heal one another’s wounds, and to say to one another in our times of pain and fear, just as Jesus said to Thomas and all the disciples: “Peace be with you.” Amen.
The power of life heals me.
The power of life gives me hope.
The power of life gives me courage.
The power of life renews my joy.
Divine Life is my life now.
And so it is!
“Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. They are performed by those who temporarily have more for those who temporarily have less.” A Course in Miracles
The Power of a Resurrection Story Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral Easter 2012 I remember hearing a story when I was a child about a little boy who lived with his grandfather. They were country folk and actually quite poor. The grandfather’s small cottage had fallen into disrepair and he wasn’t much of a [...]
The Power of a Resurrection Story
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
I remember hearing a story when I was a child about a little boy who lived with his grandfather. They were country folk and actually quite poor. The grandfather’s small cottage had fallen into disrepair and he wasn’t much of a housekeeper. The little house was dark and dusty and stale. But it was home.
One day, a stranger, a small woman with a sweet smile, came up to the little boy in the park and handed him a lily. And then she walked away. Not thinking much of it, the little boy took the lily home to his grandfather. The grandfather put the flower in a mason jar and placed the jar in the window. Compared to the clean jar, the window really looked filthy. So, the grandfather cleaned the window, which of course also allowed more light into the room.
The extra light in the room exposed the dirt on the floor. So, the grandfather had his grandson sweep the floor and then came behind him with a mop and mopped the floor. Well, a clean window and natural lighting and fresh mopped floor seem to require something a bit nicer than a mason jar for the flower, so the grandfather found a vase hidden away in a cupboard and put the lily in it and placed it back in the window.
That one little flower had really made such a difference to their entire living environment, the grandfather decided they should have more flowers. So, the next day, he spaded up a bed of dirt in the front yard and his grandson planted some seeds.
Within a few months, the flowers are gorgeous and grandfather and his grandson have manicured the entire lawn and it becomes so pleasant that neighbors just stop by to admire the flowers and talk to the small family. The sad, lonely two person family living in squalor had transformed their lives into an experience of beauty and celebration and they even made friends in the process.
Now, by this time, the lily that a kind stranger gave the boy is long dead. But the house is clean, the lawn has been transformed into a beautiful garden, and both grandfather and grandson now have friends in their lives. The flower died, but the difference it made in two people’s lives never did.
That’s resurrection power. Lives renewed, energized, made whole. That’s divine life being expressed. That’s spring replacing winter. That’s dawn overcoming the long night. That’s the beautiful butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. And that’s why we are here together today.
I love resurrection stories. And I love that there are so many of them.
Sleeping Beauty falls into a lifeless state until true love’s kiss revives her, restoring her to the world of the living.
Snow White is poisoned with an apple, but a prince sees her body in the glass coffin and falls in love with her. In one version of the story, as he’s carrying her to his castle, the jostling of her body makes her regurgitate the bite of poison apple and she springs back to life; in a more romantic version, he kisses her corpse (OK, maybe that really is just as gross) and she is resurrected back to life.
But of course, resurrection narratives aren’t limited to Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
We have a plethora of them in our sacred scriptures.
The prophet Elijah raises a widow’s dead son back to life (1 Kings 17).
Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, is staying with friends whose son comes down with a bad headache and falls over dead. Elisha, graciously, brings the child back to life (2 Kings 4).
There’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures about some people trying to bury their dead loved one, but as they are preparing to bury him, marauders come along and they just throw the body into the Elisha’s grave and then run away. However, when the body lands on the bones of Elisha, guess what, it is revived and lives again! (2 Kings 13).
In the New Testament, Jesus resurrects a 12 year old girl who has died (Mark 5), and he raises his dear friend Lazarus back to life after he has died (John 11), and, like Elijah & Elisha, he is said to have raised a widow’s child back to life (Luke 7).
Jesus isn’t alone in pulling off these New Testament resurrections. Peter raises Tabitha back to life (Acts 9) and later, a young man accidentally falls to his death and Paul raises him back to life (Acts 20).
And older than our New Testament stories and as old as some of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures are other Resurrection Narratives. Baal, Adonis, Odin, and Osiris are all deities from Asia Minor, Greece, Northern Europe, and Egypt who die and are brought back to life.
And Dionysus is a figure that is especially important to me, because his religious festivals actually gave rise to Greek theatre. In ancient Greece, Dionysus was believed to be the son of a god and of a human mother. He was called a god of epiphany. His symbol which was used in rituals honoring him was wine. He was one of the 12 Olympian deities. His festival was in the spring. And part of his story was that he would die to be reborn as a symbol of never ending life.
Even the name Easter is a derivative of the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre (more commonly known now as Ostara), who was celebrated with bunnies and painted eggs, both symbols of fertility and abundant life.
Old Testament, New Testament, Germanic, Norse, Egyptian, Greek mythologies, European fairy stories, even stories in the Far East of enlightened teachers who choose be reborn after each experience of death so that they can continue to help others achieve enlightenment…it’s almost as if Life is trying to tell us something.
You may or may not take the stories literally. Their value isn’t in whether or not we think we can prove that they ever happened. Their value is in how they can help us live empowered, hopeful, joyous lives today! And to that end, let’s focus on the primary Christian contribution to the universal Resurrection theme: the Resurrection of Christ.
As we’ve noted, Jesus’ story is not the only nor even the first resurrection story. So why are we so drawn to this story?
In our gospel story today, who experiences the Resurrection? Well, Jesus is missing from the tomb, but all we see is his absence. Later versions will add some post-Resurrections encounters, but in this oldest of Jesus’ resurrection stories, all we have is his absence. The young man at the tomb, and the three women who come to visit, they are the ones who are experiencing his Resurrection. They are remembering their loved one. They are realizing that his importance cannot be destroyed. They are discovering that who he really is and what he really meant to them can not finally be entombed. And so they must now take their experience of Resurrection and do something with it.
The reason that out of so many resurrection stories crossing ages and cultures that Jesus’ is so compelling to us is that his victory is really ours. The tomb is empty, now what? Now, move forward. Keep working. The young man at the tomb tells the women to return to Galilee, that Jesus is going ahead of them. He has paved the way for them, but they must continue on the path. His empty tomb means that we now must go forward and keep doing the work of empowering people, of offering hope and healing, of demanding justice for all, of celebrating the sacred value of all people.
The women were afraid. They didn’t know what to say. This version of the story doesn’t end with easy answers or even certainty, just a calling. Keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing. Keep making a difference. It is now our job to be Christ in the world.
When we confront sexism, when we challenge racism, when we resist homophobia, when we show compassion, when we affirm that all people without exception have sacred value and no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s love, we are sharing Resurrection Power; we are letting the Christ Light shine continuously in our world.
Stories of Jesus’ resurrection, unlike other resurrection stories, are not just about insisting that life is more than the sum of earthly years. If grace is true, if God is omnipresent, then life doesn’t really end at death for any of us. No, the power of Jesus’ resurrection is that others share it, experience it, and are called to action because of it. Easter is real and relevant every time we share compassion, generosity, hope, goodwill, and a commitment to justice. The facts can be debated, but the truth is our lived experience, and the truth is because we are committed to being the living, loving, justice-seeking presence of Christ on earth, we can say with total confidence today, “Alleluia! Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed.” And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
Affirmations:Divine Life fills this moment.
Divine Life enlivens the world.
God is my life.
And so my life is blessed.
“There is not room for Death…Thou art Being and Breath, and what Thou art may never be destroyed.” Emily Bronte
A Story of Stories; a Story of Hope Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Sunshine Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2012 In today’s gospel story Jesus sends for a colt and rides it into Jerusalem with much fanfare. Of course, there is rich symbolism in the account that mustn’t be overlooked if the story is to be properly understood. [...]
A Story of Stories; a Story of Hope
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2012
In today’s gospel story Jesus sends for a colt and rides it into Jerusalem with much fanfare.
Of course, there is rich symbolism in the account that mustn’t be overlooked if the story is to be properly understood. The story borrows from other stories and weaves together a message of hope.
The story begins Near the Mount of Olives: Olivet, or the Mount of Olives is where Zechariah (14.4) imagines the final battle of nations will be held. To place Jesus at this location suggests something of extreme importance, something that could change the way people experience the world forever, is occurring.
The parade into the city features the waving of Leafy branches: This is lifted right from the book of 1 Maccabees. “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171,there was a great celebration in the city because this terrible threat to the security of Israel had come to an end. Simon and his men entered the fort singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres.” 1 Maccabees 13.51
Mark is remembering the sacred story of Israel surviving a threat and celebrating its security with singing, instruments, and the waving of palm branches like pom-poms. This continues to the cathartic drama of imagining how things ought to be and hoping how they might one day be even if in the present moment things are very disappointing.
And of course, the people are shouting Hosanna: Hosanna is from the 118th Psalm, it means “save us.” Having lost everything in the year 70, a desperate hope that somehow they could be saved from Rome’s wrath and seeming unstoppable power is the prayer of the hearts of the oppressed.
But let us not forget, a colt: ancient coronation ceremonies for monarchs of Israel may have included the use of colts (Genesis 49.11). But to cast Jesus in the role of a king is almost comedic. He was born in a barn. His paternity was questioned. He lived in an occupied, rural territory. We have no proof he could even read well or write at all. So to stage a scene where someone like Jesus is at the site of world change, being greeted as a hero, being asked to save people from the mightiest military power on earth, riding a colt as ancient tribal kings might have done is to say that in God’s realm, there are no nobodies! Nobody is left out, nobody is without potential, nobody is without a spark of greatness. What a hopeful message for people who had been treated as if they weren’t even human.
Mark is writing circa 70 CE, as or after the Temple is destroyed. This “war” on the holy city and its temple has ended the world as Mark and his contemporaries have known it. Some five decades earlier, Jesus was executed. To now imagine Jesus riding triumphantly into the city (after both Jesus and the city have been brutalized by Rome) is a dramatic cathartic tale where one might imagine Jesus as being Lord (over against Lord Caesar) and therefore, Caesar cannot have the last word.
Will Jesus return with an angelic army to out-Caesar Caesar? We are so tempted to put Jesus on Caesar’s throne even though such systems are exactly what Jesus gave his life opposing. Or, is the drama meant to suggest that imperial domination can’t ultimately have the last word and justice must one day prevail?
The story offers a creative way to deal with the pain and disappointment with which Mark’s community is burdened.
There is also irony with the colt. We may think of a colt as being just a cute, tiny horse, but in Matthew’s gospel, the writer there makes it clearer; the colt is a donkey. There is something silly about a jack ass. Whenever you have called someone a jack ass, you were NOT complimenting them. Donkeys are useful, strong, hard working, and deserve our appreciation and respect, which is why we don’t call people “donkey” when we are angry with them, but the sillier and courser “jack ass.”
Pilate also participated in a parade, and in his parade in the heart of the city, he rode a grand war horse. For Jesus to have an impromptu, unsanctioned parade in the back of the city, not on a horse but on a jack ass shows the contrast between the ways of God’s kin-dom and the ways of Caesar’s empire.
There is also a story in the book of Numbers about a donkey. In Numbers 22 a guy named Balaam is riding his donkey to do some business that God, according to the story, did not want Balaam to do. So, God tries to disrupt Balaam’s journey by sending an angel to block Balaam’s path. Balaam doesn’t notice the angel, but the more observant donkey that Balaam is riding does notice the menacing angel.
The donkey walked off the road into a field and Balaam beat the donkey to get it back on the road. A bit later, the angel appears again, and the frightened donkey shrinks back and accidentally scrapes Balaam’s foot against a stone wall, and Balaam responds by beating his donkey again. On they go when for a third time; the donkey sees the angel and the donkey just lies down and refuses to move. Balaam gets off the donkey and starts beating her mercilessly with his staff, and then suddenly, the donkey can’t take anymore and she says, “What have I done to make you beat me these three times?” And Balaam answered…
Balaam answered?! Hello, Balaam, the donkey is talking! This is new, right?
Well, Balaam argues with the donkey and says he’s embarrassed that she keeps misbehaving. In fact, he says, if he was armed with a sword he’d kill the stubborn donkey right there on the spot!
The donkey responds by saying, “Am I not your donkey that you have ridden all this time before today? Have I ever been in the habit of refusing to move forward?” As for as I can tell, this articulate and reasonable donkey is the world’s first smart-ass.
Suddenly, Balaam saw the angel, and the angel said to him, “your donkey saved your life. If you had forced her to go past me I would have killed you but spared her.”
Well, talking animals is the sign that we are dealing with a fable, but notice in the fable that it is the beast of burden, the lowly donkey that is actually wise, that sees angels, that not only works hard but protects others facing danger. The donkey, the lowly animal is actually the noble character in that story. The nothing, the nobody is once again the agent of God! And Jesus rides a little donkey into Jerusalem.
Riding on a donkey through a back gate of town while Pilate is in a grand parade in the heart of the city, Jesus is greeted by a rag tag group of nobodies treating him as if he were a war hero or royal dignitary. Jesus is honored by the people he has spent his life affirming and uplifting. Borrowing from biblical stories, they wave palm branches and call out for salvation from Caesar’s empire – Hosanna! But to be saved from the way of empire is to focus on a better way. Did it happen just that way, or is the story being imagined by post-Temple writers. Either way, the point is that Jesus never sat on a throne nor did he aspire to; Jesus wasn’t Caesar, he was the anti-Caesar. He comes through the back gate. He rides a borrowed donkey. He greets the outcasts and the marginalized. He confronts oppression even if the oppressors strike back with brutal fury. To be saved from empire is to not be co-opted by empire. You can be killed by empire, you can be tortured by empire, you can be vilified by empire, but you can always refuse to allow empire to poison your soul, and a soul free of the poison of greed and oppression will always rise above the difficulties of the world.
Caesar’s empire has won by worldly standards. But the kin-dom of God (the anti-empire) has different values.
In the kin-dom of God, a nobody from the rural backwater can be the hope of the oppressed.
In the kin-dom of God a savior can be executed as a criminal and still be revered and honored.
In the kin-dom of God one can be slain and still somehow remain alive in people’s memories, hearts, literature and rituals.
In the kin-dom of God death doesn’t get the last word and by the power of sacred memory the dead rise again!
In the kin-dom of God, the hardworking donkey is the symbol of strength, not the royal trappings of empire and privilege!
In the kin-dom of God, Pilate can ride a war horse in parades, but the peasant on a tiny colt is who the story is really about.
One writer commented, “The entrance into Jerusalem has all the elements of the theatre of the absurd: the poor king…riding on a donkey…even parading without a permit” (David Kirk).
Jesus subverts the systems of power and privilege. In God’s realm, the so-called scum are the disciples, the prophets, the saints, the children of God! Hated tax collectors, people who fish for a living or who tend sheep, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, children, women, Samaritans, the queers, the transgender people, the leather-folk, those great heroes who can be described as straight but not narrow…God shows no partiality.
In the story of God’s realm, the star rides a borrowed donkey.
In God’s realm, not even death and destruction get to have the last word. But to hear more about that, you’ll have to come back on Friday and again next Sunday.
But for now, we simply remember, in God’s realm the last are first and the first are last, or put more simply, in God’s realm, everyone without except is a person of sacred value. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I’ve never been lost from divine love.
I am part of a divine kin-dom.
My sacred value is beyond measure.
God’s favor and anointing are on me.
“Animals don’t hate, and we’re supposed to be better than them.” Elvis Presley