In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The gospels don’t make clear what Jesus thought he was doing when he went up to Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life. John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus had a master plan from God and knew exactly what was going to happen, but the other gospels are more ambiguous. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which seems to signify peaceful intentions. Does he think, as many of his followers apparently did, that God would use this moment to sweep away the current power structure and bring in God’s kingdom? When Jesus makes his prophetic assault on the temple, does he anticipate that it will inspire the ruling elite to plot his death? It’s hard to know.
If we step back a moment and contemplate what actually happens in the days leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks a lot like utter chaos. Picture the scene: Jerusalem is packed with the faithful come to celebrate Passover, Pilate and the Romans are nervous about popular unrest, and Jewish leaders are nervous about the Romans’ tendency to use violence to solve problems.
Enter Jesus: he’s initially hailed by many as a powerful prophet but within days is scorned as a pathetic fraud by the Passover crowd. He hides outside of town to avoid the authorities, only to be betrayed by one of his closest lieutenants. Jewish leaders scramble to find a way to get rid of this troublemaker in order to protect the city. Pilate is uncertain who this man is, initially quarrels with Jewish leaders about what to do, but finally gives in to their demands just to be on the safe side. Jesus’s followers, confused and fearful, don’t understand why things are unfolding as they are.
Experts on the human mind tell us – as if we really needed to be told – that we humans, for all our intelligence and rational capacity, are really terrible at predicting the future, of seeing what’s going to happen, even though we often think we’re good at it.
Think back to this time a year ago: I thought, well, there’s a new virus, it’s problematic, we’ll shut things down for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, then things will get better.
Did any of you anticipate – I certainly did not – that in a year’s time a half million of our fellow Americans would have died of the virus, that tens of millions of people would have lost their jobs and businesses, that schools would be mostly shut down for a year, that wearing or not wearing face masks would become a political issue, that we would now be busily trying to vaccinate the entire population against the new virus, or that thousands of Americans would have physically stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn a national election? It’s almost like a script for a science fiction movie. And yet, here we are.
Paul, in the Letter to the Philippians, writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (2:5-7) In other words, he wasn’t like one of the Greek gods with supernatural powers who could appear in human form; he was truly and completely human, subject to all of the weaknesses of humans, including doubt, pain and mortality. And, I would say, unable to accurately predict the future.
When I think of Jesus on that donkey entering Jerusalem about to face the Passover crowds, the nervous Roman authorities, the city leaders who just want to maintain the peace, I think he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. To my mind, it’s the moment at which he is most human, most like us, not being able to see the future but still holding on to what he knows is God’s call to him, set on the actions he feels compelled to take, no matter what. Like his friends and followers, he is determined and hopeful – but the future is unknown territory.
When I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a very clear idea what retirement would look like for me. I did have some modest plans: I was going to do some volunteering, I was going to take some classes, I was going to continue to be engaged with folks at church, I was going to do some traveling with my wife, spend time with my kids. I was hopeful everything would fall into place.
HA! There’s a Yiddish saying that I love: “Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs. Or if you prefer a Scottish version, courtesy of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Man, have my plans “gang aft agley.” There have been moments this past year when my life, and the lives of so many others, have seemed like utter chaos: things happening over which we had no control, little choice, events that threatened not just our plans but our work, our education, our families, our very lives. Our streets and our civil life in turmoil. My anxiety has sometimes frozen me in place. Perhaps yours has as well. We have asked ourselves questions: What is the path forward? How can we make it? How do we get out of this? What’s next? Why?
By the end of that chaotic week in Jerusalem, it’s easy to sense the despair in Jesus’ friends, as whatever hopes they had, have been buried in the tomb with their leader. But then at the dawn of a new week, they rediscover hope in the empty tomb. Now they can begin to look back and to reframe the terrible events of the week. Now they can begin to make meaning out of them. To find a new purpose. They still don’t know what lies ahead, but they know just enough to move forward.
In a sense, this is what we do every Holy Week as we retrace the events of Jesus’ last days in our worship together. We take the chaos of these events and use them all – the fear and suffering and pain and despair and then the vision of Jesus alive again – all of it, to make meaning. And we can use this week as a template for our own lives and experience, to take the chaos and suffering we have experienced and, through the lens of Holy Week, rediscover meaning and purpose for ourselves. And we can do that because the paradox of the Cross is that it is not the final word but actually the sign of God’s promise to transform suffering and death into new life and new hope.
Jesus’s death scatters his friends into hiding, until they receive the call to come together again, to return to Galilee, to find new community and new purpose together.
When we are able to emerge from our own hiding, to come back together as a community, we don’t know what that will look like. Like the disciples, we will discover that it’s not just a return to our old lives, but an invitation to transformation, to move forward on new roads, new ways of worshipping and being in community, to new ministries and ways of serving God and God’s people.
The Reverend Richard Schaper studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
He also studied philosophy and religion at Colgate University, theology at the University of Chicago, ethics at Yale University, financial planning at Golden Gate University and the management of nonprofit organizations at the University of San Francisco.
Growing up Lutheran, then worshipping with Quakers and zazen training with Zenki Shibayama Roshi prepared him for nine years as a Benedictine monk at Weston Priory.
Richard’s experiences as a monk, hospital chaplain, parish pastor, and certified financial planner have prepared him for a pastoral and spiritual perspective in financial and estate planning.
His wife, the Reverend Anita Ostrom, PhD., is a psychotherapist.
Richard comes from a seafaring family and enjoys fishing and sailing.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.
What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.
And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”
Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.
Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:
I know who you are,
You are the Holy One of God.
And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.
Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:
Have you come to destroy us?
While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.
We ask Jesus:
Have you come to destroy us?
But what Jesus offers is healing.
Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.
If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.
There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.
My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.
A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.
And then the film began.
Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.
It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:
Boom – reversal!
Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.
My classmates and I laughed hard.
I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.
When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.
A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.
In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.
Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.
And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.
Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.
Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.
And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back
The weeping is reversed.
To those who are exiled, God says:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth
The exile is reversed.
And one more:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord
The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.
Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.
What God does it to transform them.
Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.
If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.
We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.
How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.
And so as it ends, we say, Please.
Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.
Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.
In the beginning was the apocalypse.
One of the weirdest things in church (and there are a lot of weird things to choose from in church) is that the church year always begins with apocalypse. The long season that we call ordinary time comes to an end, a new church year and the season that we call Advent begins, we start reading a new Gospel (sometimes Luke; sometimes Matthew; this year, Mark), and, regardless of which Gospel we’re in, we hear Jesus talk about apocalypse.
Maybe because of action movies and the Left Behind books, a lot of us have this picture of apocalypse as stuff blowing up. And to some extent that is Biblical – Jesus does talk about radical things happening around us, the sun being darkened, the stars falling from heaven. But to a larger extent apocalypse as explosion and folks being sucked into the sky is a latter invention, kind of like our understanding of hell is less about the Bible and way more about Dante.
The word apocalypse – at least as we find it in the Bible – actually doesn’t mean “everything blows up.” It means revelation or uncovering. So, the final chapter of the collection of books that we call the Bible is entitled The Apocalypse of John or The Revelation of John. We could totally legitimately translate it as The Unveiling of John. When a magician does one of those tricks in which they whip a sheet off of something and that something is changed, instead of
they could say
Now, when something is unveiled sometimes it is like an explosion, sometimes you really do say, Oh no! I’m a fan of horror films, and I know that the unveiling is often the moment when you jump a mile out of your seat. But unveiling is sometimes also the moment when you say:
Here is the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. Wilder says:
This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it.
That is apocalypse. That is revelation. That is unveiling. Wilder is talking specifically about apocalypse via art, but we would not have to change his sentence at all to make it apply to service, to learning, to prayer, to connective laughter, to grief, to ecstasy, the list goes on.
In the presence of this experience, this encounter, something is unveiled. I know that I know. Apocalypse. Ta Da! Aha!
That Oh no reminds us that apocalypse is not always comfortable or easy. This knowing – this knowing that you know – sometimes it really is like the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky. The wonderful contemporary theologian David Dark makes the case that we are living in an apocalypse moment in America right now. For a lot of white folks, for instance, we had this vague idea that racism in America was a problem, that Black folks were not imagining things when they told us that were treated utterly differently by the police and by doctors and by banks. But via the Black Lives Matter protests of this year, many white folks were motivated to do work like the Sacred Ground program that Grace is doing right now. And now that we know that we know – or at least, we are beginning to do.
Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.
Dark gives another example. He talks about when the pandemic kicked in and folks who work at grocery stores got declared essential workers, and he learned that lots of people who stock lots of shelves don’t get sick leave. I am reminded of my own experience, a few years ago, when we hosted a speaker as part of the movement to raise the minimum wage in Oregon to fifteen dollars an hour. You may remember the woman who came to speak here at Grace. She was a Southwest Airlines employee. And prior to that moment, if you’d asked me to describe an airline worker, I would have said: probably unionised, probably pretty good benefits, probably a retirement plan.
The person who came to speak here was routinely choosing between buying groceries and getting health care.
Apocalypse. This unveiling is hard.
One of the things that makes apocalypse hard is that, once the unveiling happens, it’s hard to go back to how you were before. You can try. Even after you learn about how hard it is to get access to mental health and addiction services, about how domestic violence puts a crack in your life that you can never entirely glue back together, you can keep on telling stories about how the people sleeping on the street just need to pull harder on their bootstraps. But after the apocalypse, those stories kind of feel like lies. They feel like lies that you are telling to yourself and telling to Jesus.
And in this respect, the idea that apocalypse is the end of the world suddenly isn’t wrong. When you see this stuff, the world as it used to be is unavailable to you anymore. This is like when you first realise that your parents are fallible, this is like when Adam and Eve bite into that fruit. You can’t go back to how things were.
I have always known without being fully aware. Know I know that I know.
And while that is hard news it is also good news. Slavery comes to an end when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they can no longer tell self-soothing lies about how it is a benign or kindly institution. Women get the vote when there is an apocalypse and too many people realise that they are living with institutionalised misogyny. The Berlin Wall falls when there is an apocalypse and a whole lot of people know when they always knew, that the wall wasn’t keeping the invading hordes out but was keeping everyone inside from being free.
There were ways in which all of these apocalypses felt like Oh no moments in their time. Historians remind us that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not all that popular in the 1960s: he was unveiling stuff that people didn’t want to see. But Dr. King’s work and these other apocalypses: they look a little bit like the coming of the Kingdom now.
What apocalypses do we need today? What do we need unveiled? What do we need to see in a way that, once seen, we cannot go back? Maybe we need to see that celebrating as the Dow hits 30,000 while people in this country go hungry is an obscenity. Maybe we need to see that the accumulation of stuff as the world gets hotter and burns is an act of desecration, an act of vandalism against God’s creation. Maybe we need to see that our worship of guns means that we have our fingers crossed when we worship Jesus?
None of these apocalypses are easy. They, all of them, feel a bit like the sun going dark and the stars falling. But if Jesus is with us – and Jesus is with us – then the dark sun never gets to be the last word, Oh no never gets to be the last word. With God’s help, Oh no will become Ah ha which will become Ta Da!
Jesus is unveiling something new.
I started by saying, In the beginning was the apocalypse. But maybe that’s backwards. Maybe what is really true is this:
There is apocalypse. And then. Then things begin.