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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stumbling on Holy Ground

On a day of many tears, a day in which I found it hard to leave my bed, a day when time passed ploddingly, two friends shared poems to greet me as I retired for rest and respite.

Energy to greet the day was slow to come.  I awoke at a reasonable hour, but listening to the rain beat on the roof and thinking of the tasks I ought to get started on, I stayed put through the morning.  Apparently it was a condition that had struck the whole household, for I ventured forth to find Mom and Dad eating a very late brunch of eggs and bacon.  We slowly stirred ourselves toward the day.  Mom made her project the addressing and stuffing of Christmas letters to friends and family.  She put Dad to writing personal notes on some of the letters.  I decided to make my task keeping Mom settled rather than restless as she deals with the slow healing of her foot.

Nevertheless, I was grappling with restlessness, too.  Today, four days from Christmas Day, a season that for thirty-three years I have spent with Everly, and for all the years since their births, with three children, I am spending with none of them.  I'm not begrudging the children's absence, having agreed that they should do what they are doing.  Still, the absence of all four is palpable.  So I bugged the kids to text me a report on their days, which they lovingly and faithfully did, warming my heart.

I made a couple of laps, at different times of day, walking around in the yard, inspecting the results of the rain that is watering my seeds and bulbs.  The mail came.  It included a Christmas card from the Relay for Life organization that raises money for cancer research.  Last April, Naomi led the organizing of a Relay for Life Team, and our whole family, along with Ruth and Emily, walked, danced, and sat vigil for most of the evening, with a few staying the entire night, raising lots of money and supporting Everly in the fight against cancer.  Of course, the organization did not know of Everly's death, and yet opening the card addressed to her, a card intended to offer her encouragement in her struggle, was tough to bear.  It follows on a couple of Christmas cards from friends, arriving at the end of the week addressed to Mike and Everly, because they had not heard the news of her death.  Just the thought of telling them the news was an emotional challenge.

So it was a moping kind of day.  I got up with some energy and made a tasty and nutritious dinner which we all enjoyed.  Then it was back to biding time with the television on.  So when I found these poems this evening, they surprised me by casting a new perspective on the day.  I found new thoughts arising to frame the season.  Philip Thompson posted a poem by W.H. Auden.

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say "I," it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.

For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.

Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim -- "There must be some mistake" -- you must be mistaken.

W.H. Auden, For the Time Being
I found myself in that looking everywhere for the garden and finding only desert, yet clinging to the assurance that "the garden is the only place there is."  Studying the events of a life, the fragments remembered, the wishing for what was--all these dovetail into not being able to imagine tomorrow.  To what have I consented?  Certainly not her death and not today as destiny!  That I might live without her is of all things most absurd, a dream, one from which I cannot escape, feeling it must be mistaken.  And why not rebel, doubting that the garden can exist? 

It was a day of being between things, when nothing seemed quite present:  living as though it were 39 years ago, my sister having moved away from our household, and Mom, Dad, and I sharing a house.  A dream of lost time, of a reversal, of passage that dissolves at the edge of being, of a memory banging away at that edge, more real than what is seen, yet itself invisible. 

Well, so much for gobbledygook language that comes of trying to analyze my inwardness.  Auden had much more to say here than what I have drawn out of it.  He speaks of alienation of the human condition from many angles.  I'll stop there for now.  Thanks to Philip Thompson for posting the poem.

The disorientation that is at the heart of Auden's poem is a theme of the other verse, by Wendell Berry, shared by LeDayne Polaski.
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
It is a Christmas poem, focused on Christmas eve's birth of Jesus in a barn.  Berry frames it as a working farmer on a working farm, making a regular trek to check out something in the barn.  As he sees the story unfold in Luke 2, he realizes that it could have been his barn.  He could have had the same surprise as the shepherds, finding the Holy Family where no one would expect, in an animal stall.  Looking into another world, yet this same world.  Seeing in a brand new way, challenged by the moment even to breathe, he, and now we, stand on holy ground that we thought until now was just plain ground.

What a realization, a decentering and recentering, a disorientation and reorientation, a demoralization and remoralization!  Seeing what I have seen over and over again, but seeing something completely new in it.  What a gift to be able to see that in my own old barn!  What a gift to see it in my house, in my yard, on my street, in my beaten-down 55-year-old body, my cataract-growing eyes!

And what it brought to mind was the holiness of Everly's last morning.  On July 18, I awoke to a day that I knew must come, but did not want to come.  I started out to try and keep the routines going as they had been.  Eventually, I sat beside the bed and watched as Everly persevered a holy struggle.  She clung to her life, breathing heavily and rapidly, each rhythm of oxygen and carbon dioxide a word of love for her children, for her loved ones, for me.  She lay on the bed, eyes closed, seeing what was, and perhaps what was to be, her thoughts and feelings somewhere between holding on to us and being set free.  She knew, and she had told us many times, it was time to go.  She was ready.  And now, no longer able to speak, only to breathe, to suffer a beating heart full of love, she was being transformed from one glory to a greater degree of glory.

It was the same room as every day before.  The guest bedroom in Salado that had become our interim home, our very home.  Everly's things arrayed in all their organizational glory surrounded us.  A rented hospital bed and recliner arranged for her comfort were the prominent fixtures.  I have walked into this same room hundreds or thousands of times.  Wearing clothes I wear every week, seeing clocks showing time as they do every day, touching objects as I do at any time, I was with Everly in the room.

And on that day it was holy ground.

So today, reading Wendell Berry, I realize that I "cannot turn away the thought . . . that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened."  Shepherds stumbled on a baby in a manger in a stable.  Berry had second sight one late night in his barn.  I get it, too.  It was "a night like any other night," and Darrell Adams's poem now comes to mind.



A night like any other night,
The census time at hand,
A weary couple, a child near born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

Refrain:
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.

A time like any other time,
The rulers called it peace.
A subject nation groaning for
Someone to set them free,
A leader, a soldier, a mighty king--
A star or a stable they see.

Refrain

A child like any other child
Of poor and humble birth,
Lowly shepherds see where the great are blind:
The humble savior’s worth.
May we see with their eyes this low-born babe,
A sign of peace to earth.

Refrain

A night like any other night,
But a hush is on the land.
A weary couple, a child just born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

Refrain
A night in which the unexpected lurks amid the expected, when glory astounds the humble while the rulers and teachers can't see "light / That lights them from no source we see," was a night like any other.  Some lady had a baby in a barn.  Heaven and earth met in a cow stall.  Dirt, straw, manure--all that seared-bleared-smeared-smudged-smelly place is charged with God's grandeur.  It's holy ground.

And by the analogy of being, on a street corner in Salado, in a bedroom where a family gathered, earth and heaven met.  Everly held our hands and her Faithful Friend's hand.  An old piece of carpet, a mechanical bed, cotton sheets--all these jammed-in, jumbled, familiar artifacts of our lives became holy ground.  And if we can see like shepherds, with gratitude for the grace of God that in Everly showed forth in all its glory, we can grasp that on that day we glimpsed two worlds, finding that our own place was also holy, "although we knew it not."  And continuing with Gerard Manley Hopkins, our doubled vision, our holy-in-ordinary day, invaded that room
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.



Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent, Christmas, and Everly

Yesterday, December 18, was one week until Christmas Day, and five months since Everly breathed her last, calm breath.  David started the day by getting on the road to NC.  His wonderful friend Lila will be married this week in NC.  I am praying she can have even more than the 33 years of partnership that Everly and I shared. 

Hugh Delle woke up yesterday with discomfort and swelling in her toe.  She contacted her doctors, and before mid-afternoon she had been in two clinics. By noon one doctor had her taking antibiotics, and by 4 pm she had had another surgery to remove the tips of two toes, hoping to head off another long bout of struggling with infection.  Many of you remember her battles in the first part of 2013 fighting infection in her foot.  The prescribed antibiotics ultimately put her into severe danger and hospitalization in June and July, delaying her return from NC at the time of Everly's death.  So with close medical supervision, we are reevaluating our Broadway family Christmas plans, hoping there will be a turnaround that could let her travel to see Jerene and Jim after Christmas Day.

Lydia and I drove to Waco for the Baylor Basketball doubleheader yesterday.  Everly got our family going to Baylor women's basketball games, buying season tickets last year, that she and I mostly used.  Lydia, of course, attended with her student ID.  This year, without Brittney Griner, the playing style is different, and the attendance is down.  The kids have not been as enthusiastic about attending.  David, Naomi, Lydia, and I all attended one game together early in the season, but the prominent of absence of Everly made it hard for all of us. 

Most games have been on weeknights, so the Austin to Waco drive is a bit much before work or classes.  And Lydia's work load was so intense this semester, with all kinds of group projects and lab activities plus business and social enterprise work that she often could not get away. They also are probably a bit tentative because of missing their mom.  By the way, both Baylor teams won yesterday, in two close games.

As people keep telling me, we all grieve differently. I've attended all the games I could so far, in part because it keeps me doing something that I used to do with Everly.  She loved going to Baylor and watching the women's team play, as do I.  With attendance so low this year, I have not actually sat in my assigned seats yet.  I usually find friends like Katie Cook, Sharon Rollins, or Barry Harvey to sit with.  The drive, through the perpetual I-35 NAFTA Highway construction zone, is tedious, but it keeps me close to her.

That was yesterday.  As Christmas draws closer, we are feeling our way forward, wondering how things will be.  We have planned to spend time on Christmas Day with the Estes family in Austin.  David, who has Lila's wedding and another wedding in Philadelphia later, has to miss that family gathering.  But we all agreed he needs to be with Lila on this special day. 

After Christmas, we will drive together to Black Mountain, NC, to see Jerene and Jim.  David will join us there.  WD and HD are expecting to go, although I have my doubts at this point.  She will have several doctor visits between now and Christmas, so I hope we can make the best decision.  I know Mom will be very sad if she has to stay in Texas, but no one wants hospitalization in Asheville again.

After some time with the Broadways in Black Mountain, our four Broadways will take a couple days retreat to a mountain cabin for some family time.  Several people said we should plan something completely different as part of this first Christmas season, so that is what we came up with.  We'll take some board games, swimsuits for getting in the hot tub, books for reading, maybe a couple of movies, and boots to hike if it's not too cold.  It should be a good time for just comfortably moving into and out of conversations about Everly while being able to support one another.  That's what we are hoping. 

Naomi helped us get the Christmas season started by buying a Groupon to take the four of us to dinner at a fancy fondue restaurant called The Melting Pot.  Without the 50% discount, probably none of us would ever have gone there.  Fondue during the holidays has been a Broadway family tradition, but we've always done it at home. 

The thing about fondue is that it takes time for cooking each bite, so there is plenty of time for visiting, as compared to the usual rushed meal times of day to day.  We had a great time just talking and laughing and thinking about our lives together.  After it was over, I had to agree with Lydia's comment as the two of us walked toward the restaurant, "Naomi's doing the Mommy job and getting us organized to be together."  Each of the kids has wonderful characteristics passed to them by their mother.

Everly was our big-time Christmas planner.  She arranged everyone's schedules.  She went out with the kids to help them shop and to find the things they needed or wanted for Christmas.  She unpacked and repacked the ornaments for the tree.  She made sure all the gifts were in place with bows on them.  She enjoyed and promoted the big events of gift-giving and opening.  She instructed me on what to cook.  She took care of lots of the cleanup.

This year Hugh Delle was not feeling up to setting up a Christmas tree, especially since we will be gone during the Christmas season.  Lydia put one up in her apartment in Waco.  Hugh Delle had me help her get out wreaths and some other Christmas decorations which she has put around the house. 

It's a different sort of Christmas without Everly in charge.  We decided to tone down the Christmas gift buying this year.  But that turned out to be harder for me than I expected.  I felt an inner drive to try to live up to, at least in some way, Everly's caring gift-giving to our children.  My gifts will probably seem less personal, more practical, and more oddball than hers.  But at last count I had hit double digits in the number of packages I had for each of the kids.  Oh, well, I thought I would cut back.  Naomi has been loving the chance, with her first job providing a real paycheck, to buy gifts this year.  Overall, we're feeling our way into a new era.

Advent, as a season of waiting, is different from last year for us.  Last year we were waiting to see how progress was coming with a new chemotherapy plan.  It turned out, by February, that it had not worked well for Everly.  But we had been very hopeful in December, when reports said that one last persistent tumor might be reduced to the point of clearing out all of the visible cancer from her liver.

This year we wait in part for the celebratory season to pass.  We wait to see if we can make it through.  We wait to share some very painful joys of enacting our traditions with Everly's absence. 

I think it might be like what some have said about the long silent periods in the history of Israel.  The trajectory of life and nationhood they had anticipated was interrupted and took a very different turn.  So they waited to see what might come next.  Sometimes they held onto the faith that God's mercies would continue to be new every morning and that springs might come forth in the desert.  Other times they felt that God had lost interest in them and cared little whether they were righteous or unrighteous.  I suspect other times they just went through motions and felt numb, only to be surprised by pains on some days and joys on others.  I think that's how we are waiting this year.  What will the coming of the Christ Child mean?

Everly had a certificate describing the meaning of her name, a gift that someone had given her.  "Everly" as a first name was a kind of "coined" name.  But its first three letters, Eve, is a very ancient name.  The certificate said it means "full of life."  It can also mean "mother of life," or simply "living one."  Whether or not her parents had ever thought through those historical meanings for her name, it certainly came to be true of her.  She was the life of the party.  She was the life in our partnership.  And she was the mother of life in our family.  So this Advent, we wait for that life to rise in us, the seeds she planted and nurtured.

I planted more wildflowers today, in 72 degree weather at our Chisholm Trail home:  purple shamrock oxalis, Tahoka daisies, and three types of coreopsis--dwarf red plains, golden wave, and plains.  Lydia helped me plant 100 tall Dutch iris bulbs, mostly purple with a few yellows mixed in.  A couple of days ago I put out Red Drummond Phlox. 

On our honeymoon, on a couple of days we drove out around Caddo Lake and Lake o' the Pines in northeast Texas to look at wildflowers.  I had a new guidebook on wildflowers of Texas, so we stopped now and then for me to get out and try to identify something.  I remember wearing an orange shirt that summery day.  I must have looked like the Great Wildflower of Destiny to the bees, and they decided to gather around me to get a taste.  So we had to quit getting out of the car. 

Our two temperaments were obvious on that day.  Everly enjoys flowers and fresh air, but she quickly draws the line when she starts feeling uncomfortable, hot, sweaty, itchy, etc.  My single-tracked mind was pulling me toward exhaustive knowledge of wildflowers on that day.  Everly lost enthusiasm for the project sooner than I did, with the pollen, the hot sun, and the bugs.  Thanks to the bees, we got on the same page pretty quickly.  That would be one of the earliest memories of our marriage.

Here we are today waiting. Hugh Delle is struggling with pain and medications, waiting to get better.  David is driving the long trek to Durham, waiting to reunite with friends.  Lila is awaiting a ceremony to mark off a new path and new hopes.  Lydia has gone to stay with Naomi as they wait for the intensity of the season to begin.  I could not post this journal entry for four hours while we waited for a power outage to end and restore our online access. 

And now bulbs and seeds are in the ground, both at the cemetery and in our yard on Chisholm Trail.  The irises and wildflowers are another sign of waiting, seeds waiting to grow, bulbs waiting to shoot forth, colors and life that will emerge in spring and summer to remind us of our very own Mother of Life who will never leave us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Facing My Shortcomings

I had a conversation with my son earlier this week.  He was commenting about preparing for guests in his apartment, and somewhat amused that he was trying to make sure that they did not make fun of his housekeeping after they leave.  He said that he was trying to think about what people who visit other people might deem to be important.

As is often the case with my children, I take something they say to me and begin to associate it with various theoretical understandings of ethics or theology or history or whatever pops into my mind.  This is often accepted with interest if I don't push it too far.  What I usually do, however, is drone on too long until they are wishing they had never started the conversation.  I did that again, comparing the development of conscience, that shared (con-) knowledge (science) that is held in communities, growing out of the way we come to understand and internalize what others believe is important.  Blah blah blah blah blabitty blah blah.

Yet I have had to relive that conversation over and over again as the week had dragged on.  It is grading week.  I am the worst of grading procrastinators.  And each day as I have struggled to get on with my duty, I have realized that getting my work done has depended to a great deal on having Everly in my life.  I know I have to be honest and face her if I am profligate.  This is the first grading period I have had since she died.  And the tendency toward being what Aristotle called the "weak-willed" person is stronger than ever.  Here and now, facing my shortcomings, I am reminded again of how Everly made me stronger than I am alone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Facing the Future

This sermon was originally preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC, on September 30, 2013.

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar--At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it?”

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

I want to restate a few words from this text in Jeremiah… And from this story of a city at war, of a king, and of a prophet, I want to speak today about “Facing the Future.” Facing the Future. And let me go ahead now to say that I may have to stop and catch my breath now and then as we go. I may shed some tears here among people who love me and understand my tears. And those tears are part of the testimony of truth that we trust God’s Spirit to bear us up and guide our steps, to be a lamp to our feet even when the darkness surrounds us.

It was the tenth year of Zedekiah, King of Judah. Zedekiah reigned for about eleven years in all. All of his reign coincided with the imperial reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had already invaded Jerusalem a decade earlier. He wanted to make sure that the people of Judah knew who was in charge. He took over Jerusalem around 597 BC. He took the temple treasure and desecrated it back in Babylon. He deported the young king, Jehoiachin, to imprisonment in Babylon. Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, was the emperor’s own choice to sit on the throne. It was supposed to be a puppet reign for Zedekiah. Nebuchadnezzar would leave one of the royal family on the throne, but Zedekiah was expected to do the beck and call of the emperor, be Nebuchadnezzar’s man in charge.

Who knows how Nebuchadnezzar decided Zedekiah should be his puppet king? He was a young member of the royal family, who had been destined to anonymity after two of his older brothers had already succeeded their father, Josiah, as kings. Jehoahaz had succeeded their great father when Josiah died in battle against Pharaoh Necho’s army. It was the beginning of the end. When the Pharaoh finished a failed invasion of Babylon, he stopped back by Jerusalem and took Jehoahaz prisoner. Another brother, Jehoiakim, was the Pharaoh’s choice for king. Jehoiakim reigned for over a decade, until the Babylonians stretched their imperial influence down into the land of Judah. Then his son Jehoiachin succeeded him, but not for long. That’s when the Babylonians put Zedekiah on the throne.

What a messy story the kingship of Judah had become after Josiah’s death. Josiah, one of the few kings that the Bible has praise for, had restored the temple worship to focus on the God of Moses and promoted the reading and study of the Torah, the written scriptures that have their origin back in the days of the Exodus.  Much had happened since then, and many kings had turned to other gods.  Josiah reversed that trend and sought to focus on the one true God.  However, he seems to have made a fatal mistake when he decided to fight against his more powerful neighbor, Egypt, rather than simply standing by to let the big empires fight it out among themselves.


Josiah’s sons did not seem to learn a lesson from their father.  They also tried to use military might to thwart the wishes of their powerful neighbors.  Jehoiakim had made the mistake of trying to use an alliance with Babylon to hold off Egyptian power, only to have Babylon come back and invade.  You would think that Zedekiah would have learned something from his brother’s failure, but instead he switched it around and made an alliance with Egypt to hold off the Babylonian power.  Father and sons trusted in military might rather than leaving things in the hands of God.  It cost all of them their lives, Zedekiah included.
             
One of the oddest parts of the story is that both Jehoiakim and Zedekiah kept the Prophet Jeremiah nearby.  Kings of Israel and Judah had many kinds of advisors, including prophets.  Some were false prophets, and some were even prophets of Ba’al, as in the case of Ahab and some others.  But the way the story of Josiah’s heirs plays out, Jeremiah is never too far off, even when he is in jail, from these kings.  As this passage of scripture tells us, Jeremiah was confined in the royal courts.  He was often protected and fed when the city was filled with danger and empty of food.  That is the situation here in the story we are examining today.  Zedekiah seems to understand that Jeremiah is a special case among the prophets.  Jeremiah does not say what the king wants to hear.  This prophet speaks a troubling word in the presence of the powerful.  When Jeremiah gets punished for what he says, he comes back and sticks to his story under threat of worse punishment.
            
 Zedekiah probably had some level of belief that among all the prophets who advised him, Jeremiah might actually speak a word from God.  It was regularly not the word Zedekiah wanted to hear.  Maybe he kept Jeremiah around hoping for the day to come that this true prophet would get a different message from God.  He was probably hoping Jeremiah would finally come through to say that God is on Zedekiah’s side.  That may be what is bugging Zedekiah right here in this text.  He asks Jeremiah why he has to keep on saying that God is going to let Babylon conquer the city.  If you read more of the story, you find that Jeremiah has told these kings that God wants them not to fight against the Babylonians.  Since Babylon will win, these kings should go ahead and give up before the fight.  You can imagine that those are not popular words among the rulers of the land.
             
Yet Jeremiah does not change his prophecy.  He still holds to the message from God that Babylon will conquer Jerusalem and the surrounding Kingdom of Judah.  Zedekiah’s only hope is to go along with Babylonian rule.  But then again, by this tenth year of Zedekiah’s reign it is probably to late for him.  He could have gone along with Babylonian rule as Jeremiah advised him long before, and his family might have survived.  But now, the time is up for him.  The Babylonian army has laid siege to Jerusalem for many months.  Nebuchadnezzar will want to punish Zedekiah and the political establishment.  Things are already very bad in Jerusalem.  People are hungry.  Violence awaits outside the door.  And Zedekiah is desperate to hear that things will change.  No doubt, Jeremiah himself also hoped to hear that things will change.  They were living in very hard times.
             
Today’s lectionary text from Jeremiah speaks a word to people living in hard times.  It is about a time when God’s people were struggling through an economic crisis brought on by war.  It was probably worse than a recession.  Surrounded by the Babylonian army and cut off from their usual access to production and trade of necessary goods, the people were barely getting by.  Starvation and illness were everywhere.  Fear gripped their hearts.  The future seemed to offer little except more of the same or even worse.  People called out to God and wondered if God even listened to them any more.
             
When we read Jeremiah and other prophets we know that corruption was rampant among the powerful in Israel and Judah.  The rich did not always come by their wealth honestly.  They did not pay a living wage.  They cheated their workers, and if that was not enough, they beat them.  They grew wealthy on the sweat and blood of others.  They drove the poor deep into debt, then took their homes and their lands.  They made debt slaves of the masses.  The kings were either in on the scams or turned a blind eye to the plight of the people.
             
Add war to the equation, and things only get worse.  Scarcity means that those who have very little become those who have nothing.  People become ill and don’t have the strength to recover.  Families lose loved ones to the army, to starvation, and to disease.  In every street there is mourning and sorrow.  No one knows what to expect.  Even people who have faith see nothing but trouble as they look to the future.
            
Economic crisis, war, family hardship, losing loved ones—we don’t have to be in the ancient Kingdom of Judah to find ourselves in hard times.  Things are not exactly the same for us now as they were for the people of Zedekiah’s time.  But some things may still resonate from the story.  Some things ring true.  We do face uncertain futures.  We do find ourselves fearing whether what comes next will be more of the same or even worse.  We do feel the deep ache of loss and grief.  You know that today I speak as one who has seen my life reshaped by the loss of my beloved Everly.  The future we had expected will not come to pass.   

Many of you have walked this same road.  For others it may not have been the loss of a loved one, but another form of crisis that reshaped your life and made you wonder just where the future would lead.  Someone lost a job that had provided food for a family, and there was no union to stand up and intervene to help keep the job.  Someone lost a home to foreclosure and had no place to go.  Someone saw a son or daughter drift away physically and emotionally.  Or your loved one was taken far away by a job and can hardly ever visit.  Someone lost a neighborhood to rising crime and violence and does not feel safe to go outside.  Yes there are many reasons why we struggle to face our futures.
             
In this story we find two primary characters who struggle to face their future:  King Zedekiah and the Prophet Jeremiah.  We remember that Jeremiah is sometimes called “the weeping prophet.”  He was not especially happy about what life had handed him.  It is hard enough to be a prophet in any times, but when the whole political system is collapsing and your job is to deliver the message of doom, well let’s just say Jeremiah did not apply for this job.  It wasn’t his chosen career.  As the son of a priest, he could imagine plenty of other ways to have lived out his life in relative peace.  And now that all those doomsday prophecies were coming true, Jeremiah probably felt worse than ever.
             
Zedekiah, on the other hand, as the son of a king, probably had always hoped he would get a shot to be the king.  When the Babylonians hauled his nephew away and put him on the throne, he probably thought his future looked pretty bright.  If only Jeremiah could come through with a word from God that matched up with Zedekiah’s hopes, then he could be sure.  But now the game was in its final rounds.  The clock was ticking, and the outcome was not going to get better.  How was Zedekiah going to face the future?
             
What is Zedekiah’s tone in these verses?  Is he merely puzzled by Jeremiah?  Is he deeply troubled and asking a question because he sincerely does not understand?  On the other hand, is he angry, as his brother Jehoiakim often had been with this prophet?  Is he asking a rhetorical question only, but intending through the question to be blaming Jeremiah for his problems?  I have to say I can’t be sure from the evidence in the text.
             
From one angle I can see a king who feels defeated already.  He may be facing the future with resignation and fear.  Jeremiah keeps telling him that even if he fights, he will not win.  Jeremiah has told him that he will not escape the Babylonians.  He will lose the war and be captured.  Eventually he will die as a prisoner.  His family will no longer be on the throne.  Zedekiah may be grieving the loss of his dreams and resigning himself to doom.  In any case, Zedekiah has little reason to hope.   

For too long, Zedekiah had refused to listen to the word of God that came through the mouth of the prophet.  He had made up his own plans for the future in defiance of God’s word.  He had believed in his own cleverness and strength to handle life’s challenges.  He had treated his best adviser as a false prophet, and perhaps even as a traitor.  Who would dare to stand up to the king and say, “The invading army is coming, and I advise you to surrender”?  So Zedekiah had ignored the bad news during good times, and now there was no way to ignore it any longer. 
             
So maybe Zedekiah had gotten so used to ignoring God’s guidance for his life that he was deeply confused and puzzled by Jeremiah’s persistent message.  Maybe he was crying out this “why” to Jeremiah as a “why” to God.  Why me, God?  Why is this happening now?  Why can’t it go away?  Why are you still sending this message through this irritating man Jeremiah? 

But of course, Zedekiah knew deep within himself why the message never had changed.  The message a decade ago had called on the king and the people to change their ways, but they never had been willing to do so.  Zedekiah had spent too many years facing the future with denial.  He was hearing God’s word, but acting like it didn’t apply to him.  He was denying that God could see the way that things would go.  He was throwing matches into a parched field, denying that he would soon set the land on fire.  Let’s pick an example of this behavior.

Elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, it tells of Zedekiah proclaiming a Year of Restoration, a Sabbath year, maybe even a Jubilee.  Slaves were set free.  Debts were cancelled.  But it turns out it was a sham.  It was just for show.  The wealthy people who had owned the slaves went around and gathered them back up and enslaved them again.  That kind of sham righteousness was the problem.  Putting on a show of piety in the midst of injustice is what made God’s stomach turn.  It still does.   

When we face the future, we can’t be scheming to do things our way, ignoring the righteous calling of God.  We can’t be assuming that if we keep messing things up that God will come along at the last minute and sweep away all the mess we made.  God wants honest piety and faithfulness.  God wants us, in the midst of struggle, to live with integrity, love, mercy, and justice.  God wants us to choose nonviolence even when we would rather gather up our weapons and fight the King of Babylon.  God has a way that we should go and sends messengers to help us understand it.  We ought not to be puzzled when we refuse to listen, for decades at a time, and then keep on thinking God will come around to our way of thinking.  We don’t want to be like Zedekiah, facing the future with puzzlement that God does not do things our way, that God doesn’t join up with us in our schemes.

Or maybe Zedekiah called Jeremiah in to ask these questions out of anger.  Maybe he was blaming Jeremiah for all his problems.  In some kind of twisted logic of rage, he was saying that if Jeremiah had just prophesied what Zedekiah wanted to hear, then all this mess would not have happened.  Maybe he thought Jeremiah’s words had broken the rules of positive thinking.  Maybe he thought Jeremiah had spoken the disaster into existence.  Whatever messed up logic that anger brought about, Zedekiah may have been blaming Jeremiah for his problems.  And through Jeremiah he was blaming God.

Never mind that God had given ample warning for the king to change his ways.  Never mind that God had placed Jeremiah in the midst of Zedekiah’s life, even in the worst of times, to help him find the error of his ways and repent.  Never mind that time after time, Zedekiah had been willing to make choices exactly the opposite of the word of God.  Now, it’s Jeremiah’s fault.  Now it’s God’s fault.  Blaming anyone but himself, Zedekiah may have been lashing out.  Everything has gone wrong and somebody is going to have to take the blame.

But chapter 27 of Jeremiah tells us that the prophet told Zedekiah early in his reign that he did not have to die.  Any of the lands that did not rise up to fight against Babylon would be allowed to remain in their homes.  They would be subject to Babylon, but they could continue living much as they had lived in their own homeland.  But Zedekiah preferred the words of the false prophets that Babylon would soon grow weak and good times would be just around the corner.  Jeremiah was an irritant, even a traitor in his eyes.  He did not want to hear God’s word, and he now faced the consequences of his rebellion against God and against Babylon.  That unwanted turn of events may have caused the anger to well up within him.  Now in this story, he may have been lashing out in anger toward God, as if God were just picking on him.

We are blessed to have the word of God to guide our lives.  Even more than Zedekiah and Jeremiah, we have the revelation of God in Jesus Christ to show us the path to take.  We have the light of the Spirit shining in our hearts and on our paths.  Why do we refuse to heed the word of God?  Why do we continue in our own ways, thinking we can make it turn out better?  But God is not mocked.  It makes no sense to be angry with God about consequences we should have anticipated.  We don’t want to find ourselves in the place of Zedekiah, angry at God, at God’s people, and at the world in general because things are not going our way.   

Frankly, one of the truths we have to face about the world is that it is not organized around making things go our way.  None of us is at the center of the universe.  We have to be ready to deal with hardships and unexpected turns of events.  It’s a complex world, and we are not in control.  Whether kings in Judah, emperors in Babylon, financiers on Wall Street, terrorists in a mall, people handing out bribes in the halls of government--powerful people will try to twist the world to their wills.  The repercussions of their actions may send ripples out to affect millions and billions of people in our world.  And God has left open the possibility that people will freely choose to do what they ought never to do.  It’s not God’s fault when we turn to our own ways.  And when powerful people do so, the effects may reach all of us.  God is still with us in the crisis.  God is still making a way when the world is handing us no way.

This way-making God is the reason Jeremiah can see beyond the intense pain of the crisis they were facing.  When Zedekiah calls him in to ask these questions, Jeremiah has an answer.  The answer reminds us a little of the Friend of Sinners.  When people asked Jesus questions, sometimes he answered indirectly by telling a story.  That’s what Jeremiah did on this occasion.  He told the king a story. 

At first it seems a bit confusing.  Jeremiah starts talking about his cousin.  His cousin came over to say, “Hey, Jeremiah.  Jairman.  Listen to me a minute.  I’ve got a way to hook you up with something.  Now don’t look at me that way.  Don’t go walking off.  Hear me out, cuz.  You know I wouldn’t steer you wrong.  Look, it’s me, your boy Hanamel.  You know me, man.  Okay, here’s the deal.  There’s this piece of land down in Anathoth, and I can help you work out a good deal on it.  Anyway, you already have the right of first refusal on this deal, see.  So let’s make this happen.”
Jeremiah had already heard from God that this very cousin was coming with a deal on some land.  Having trusted God until now, Jeremiah continued to trust God in these harsh times.  So he went along and made the deal.  The story almost gets tedious after that, as he goes into such detail about the price and the deed and the witnesses and the storage plans.  But all those details are there to drive home the point.

Jeremiah had been living through the same hard times as Zedekiah, without all the fringe benefits that go with being the king.  While Zedekiah had to hear so much bad news from Jeremiah, Jeremiah had to learn about it first and then go out in public and say it.  He was one of the least popular guys in town.  People got tired of hearing his messages of doom.  Jeremiah got on everyone’s last nerve.  He felt their cold stares and bitter insults.  It was not the life he had hoped for.  But when God told him it was a good idea to buy some land and store the deed for safekeeping in a place that it would last a long time, he did it.

Jeremiah was not in denial.  He had believed God’s word from the beginning, even if he did not like it.  Jeremiah was not angry with God, even if at times he begged God for things to be different.  Jeremiah had learned that God is faithful and true.  He knew that he could trust God to come through, even in the hard times.  The economy of Judah was in a mess.  The invading armies were burning cities and destroying agricultural lands.  Homes and city walls were being destroyed.  It was not really a time to be investing in property.  For sure, prices were low.  But it was not clear that an investment would pay off anytime in the near future.  Yet Jeremiah went down and bought the piece of land.

After finishing his story, Jeremiah gave Zedekiah the interpretation:  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  It was not a very direct answer to Zedekiah’s questions.  But the answer it gave is this—the same God whose word is being fulfilled in the destruction of Judah’s political system and the fall of your family, the same God who offered you a way to continue to live on in this land with your family, the same God you have refused to listen to, this same God whose word is true has promised that this present time of destruction will not be a final end.  Once this corrupt system is swept away, people will start to regroup.  Eventually, the conquering empire will crumble from its own self-destructive ways.  

Out of this chaos a new beginning will arise.  God’s people will get a new start.  So I’m buying a piece of land now to be ready for what God is going to do for me and my descendents.  I may not see the promised land, but I have been to Anathoth and taken a look at it.  I see where it’s going to be.  I may not get there myself, but I’m getting it ready for future generations.  My heart is heavy now.  I hurt for my people.  I hurt for you, my King.  It didn’t have to be this way.   

But now that the walls are closing in on us, I’m not giving up.  I took a little bit of my money and put it on the future.  It may be a burned up piece of barren land right now, but there’s going to be a nice house up under some shade trees:  olives and figs growing next to the house.  There’s going to be a vineyard up on the hill.   I see the perfect spot for a vegetable garden.  Grandmas are going to teach their grandchildren about gardening there.  Over there’s a good open space for children to play.  Down below the house is a place to put a barn and pen to keep some goats for milk and cheese.  Yes, this little place in Anathoth is going to be nice.  Maybe there will be a bee-house so we can have milk and honey.  Zedekiah, I’m not giving up hope, even though I’m mighty weary right now.

How will we face the future?  Will we trust God even when we can’t see how things will turn out?  As for me, I’m trying to be with Jeremiah today.  Everything I had planned seems like it has been swept away from me.  I don’t know for sure which direction I should be going right now.  But I do know that the One who brought me this far is still with me.  The One who gave me the blessed gift of my wife still holds her and holds me.  So even if I don’t know where the next steps are going to take me, I’m still walking with the Lord.  I’m going to find my way down to Anathoth and invest in the future.

A well-known pastor of my parents’ generation published a book of four sermons entitled Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.  In it, John Claypool shared with the world his pastoral struggle and personal struggle with the loss of his ten-year-old daughter to cancer.  I found the book on my shelf not long after Everly died.  So far I’ve read two of the sermons.  The first one he preached not long after they learned of his daughter’s cancer.  The second one came when she had a severe relapse many months later.

In that second sermon, he looked at the familiar passage from Isaiah 40 that tells of the prophet’s words to those among the exiles who felt that God had abandoned them.  Isaiah reminds them of who God is—the creator, the mighty one, and also the loving one who gives power to the faint and strength to those who have no might.  Isaiah acknowledges that in difficult times even young people will faint and be exhausted, but then offers well-known comforting words to those who wait upon the Lord.  They will renew their strength.  They will mount up with wings as eagles.  They will run and not be weary.  They will walk and not faint.

Claypool says that in the past he at times might have thought that the progression of encouragement should have been in the opposite order.  Walking leading to running leading to soaring seems like an ever-upward trend.  But now in his grief and struggle he realizes that while God may bless us at times with moments of high soaring, and while God may strengthen us at times for a season of running hard, those are not the norm for our lives.  There is a grace in walking with God in our day-to-day living.  There is a steadiness of walking that is not replaceable by bursts of energy or bouts of ecstasy.  And in the midst of our hardest times, there is an utter dependence on God to lift us up on our feet to keep on walking when we are sure that all we can do is to faint.  Claypool said of his own grief that he was sure that he had no wings to fly, and what he had of legs would do no good for running.  Then he said, “but by the grace of God, I am still on my feet! …. All I am doing is walking and not fainting…. And this is the most needful gift of all.”

As you face the future, God will give you strength even in your weakest times.  God will lift you up and give power when you faint.  God will never fail us.  While we may be unfaithful, God remains faithful.  So go on down to Anathoth.  Invest in the future, because God has big plans for us.  There will be houses and fields and vineyards built and bought in this land.  Thanks be to God.
 

       

The Post I Wanted Never to Write

My last posts in March 2013 came at a time of increasing hope in our family.  Encouraged, I was hoping to become more regular with this blog again.  Everly's cancer had responded so well to chemotherapy in 2012, but then over the winter tumors had started growing and spreading again.  We were beginning to participate in a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson in March, and the initial results were very good.  This trial focused treatment on the liver, where most of the cancer was active.  This treatment was very demanding on us, with trips to Houston every few weeks and lots of clinic visits.  In May, we took a cruise Everly had been wishing for, and it was a wonderful time for our whole family.


While we saw initial good results in the liver, little by little the cancer began to grow in Everly's backbone and spread elsewhere.  In June, we changed directions to try to treat the cancer in her backbone, but during that time the rest of the cancer, especially in her liver, grew rapidly.

In the short span of a month, we went from hopeful about steady progress to realizing it would not be beneficial to continue treatments.  The Everly and I explained this to our children on July 10, and at the end of that week she came home to hospice care.  All of us were able to be with her during those days, and we spent many hours sitting, talking, singing, and hugging one another.  Everly grew less communicative as her liver was failing and the toxins in her body began to make it harder for her to move, speak, or do anything.  She had made peace with her life and her death, and she told us she was ready to go on.  As hard as that was and is for us, we did our best to love and comfort her through that trial.

After only six days in hospice, Everly died at home on the morning of July 18, with all the family present.  She was able to leave behind her pain and struggle and to gain blessed rest and joy in the presence of God.  We are grateful for her life that continues to shape and direct us as we seek to go on with the lives she so thoroughly blessed.

If you want to read more about those days, my reflections, and other people's appreciation of Everly, you can go to the CaringBridge site where I did my writing for the past few months.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Jesus of Nazareth challenged the ruling authorities, drew dangerously large crowds, made inroads among leadership, remained blameless before the law yet a threat to the standing order because he would not stop challenging the sinful domination system:  after months of plotting they executed him.  It was government sanctioned political assassination.  No remote God was happy or felt avenged.  The God who had drawn near in this humble, poor Jewish man knew sorrow and was acquainted with grief at the betrayal and rejection of relentless love.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Simeon's Story

This is a narrative sermon delivered in the Shaw University Divinity School Chapel service on March 23, 2013.  It is both an preaching text and a teaching exemplar.  In this particular instance, I had to create imagined characters who could give first person accounts as observers of the events in the biblical account.  

While narrative preaching may not be the bread and butter of the pulpit, it can be a valuable contribution in a number of ways.  In this case, a narrative sermon provides an imaginative alternative for high holy days such as Palm Sunday when the preaching text may be similar from year to year.  The different approach allows a preacher to enliven a text in new ways across many years of ministry.  

Secondly, a narrative sermon series can offer a unique way to develop sermons on a set of characters from scripture or a series of stories in a book of the Bible.  

Additionally, preachers will find that occasional narrative preaching can also assist them as readers to see more deeply into texts, as for instance the very brief comments made by the gospel writer about the disciples coming to pick up the colt with the simple statement, "The Lord has need of it."  What sort of background made that easy to do?  Alternatively, was it more complicated than the gospel account explains?  Asking these probing questions assists preachers to seek richer and fuller understanding of the text.  

Finally, I would also say that retelling a scripture narrative as a sermon also opens the door for teaching scripture in context.  The retelling can weave surrounding chapters and pericopes into the text being examined, using cultural, geographical, and social background as well as including details from other adjacent stories to elaborate the more focused narrative.

Luke 19:28-40  (Liturgy of the Palms)

I started the day looking for that son of mine.  He went outside early, as expected, to do his chores.  It is the day after Sabbath, so there is a little extra work to do with the animals—a little extra cleaning the messes they make, a little extra stocking the mangers with feed, a little extra spreading of straw on the ground.  
I was saying morning prayers, planning my day, waiting for Elazar, that’s my son’s name, to share breakfast with me.  When he did not come inside, I finally stepped out to see whether he was having a problem with his chores.  To my surprise, he was nowhere to be found.  And the donkey’s colt he loves so much was gone as well.  I wondered if the colt had run away.  Maybe Elazar had to go searching.  The mother donkey was happily chewing her food and did not seem to be bothered at all.  I decided I had better start looking for them myself.
I stopped by my neighbor Asher’s house first.  Asher is a tailor who makes and repairs fine cloaks and other garments.  Of course, most of us do our own basic sewing and make our everyday work clothes as best we can.  Still, Asher makes a good living selling fabric and garments for all the special occasions when people may not have time or skill to make their own.  
Asher said, “Peace be unto you, Simeon.  Come into my home.  It’s very busy now as so many travelers are coming to Jerusalem for the Passover.  In these festive seasons I make much of the income I need to feed my family for the year.  But I always have time for my good friend Simeon.” 
I got right to the point to ask if Asher had seen Elazar this morning or might have any idea where I might find him.  Asher said, “I did hear some conversation outside in the early morning.  I thought Elazar might have been talking with you, Simeon.  But if it were not you, then I suppose some other man must have stopped to talk.  Simeon, I’m sorry, but it seemed normal, so I did not bother to check.  Wait, my boy Zachary is helping me this morning.  Maybe he saw something.  Hey Zach, come speak with Simeon and me for a moment.”
A small boy appeared carrying a large stack of folded fabric.  Peeking over the top of the cloth, he listened to his father ask, “Did you see Elazar going anywhere this morning?  Simeon can’t find him or the young colt.”
Zachary replied that his mom had sent him outside early to sweep off the threshold and the front yard. He added, “I saw Elazar and my big brother, David, talking with two men.  The men had come to borrow the colt.  When Elazar asked why they wanted the colt, they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’  Right then, Elazar and David got so excited.  They did not even think to come in and tell anyone what was happening.  They just asked those men, ‘Can we come along?’  That’s when they all left, heading back into the direction of Bethany with the colt.”
I looked at Asher, and he looked back at me.  We paused a moment to collect our thoughts.  Then Asher said, “Simeon, we knew this day was coming, but we did not know when.”  
You see, Asher and I had been following the news of Jesus of Nazareth.  Not so long ago, we had gone out into the wilderness by the Jordan to hear the preaching of John.  We were convicted by his words, so we were baptized for repentance from sin.  Later word came around that John had announced Jesus as the promised one that we should follow.  Ever since, we began to take whatever opportunities we could to see him, to hear him, and to learn about him.  
For a few months now, a small group of people here on the edge of Bethpage and Bethany met together occasionally to tell each other what we have heard and seen.  We talk about the things Jesus is teaching and the mighty works he has done.  Recently, some of his close followers dropped by our meeting to let us know that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  They said that when he came, he would need our help to carry out his plans.  They asked us to be ready to do what Jesus would ask us to do.  So our families had agreed to be ready.  Elazar is still a by, but at his age he is also a son of the law.  Like his elders, he has been drawn to Jesus.  That’s why this morning, he knew to be ready.
I felt a rush of joy to know that our humble family could now be of service to Jesus.  We are simple people.  We keep animals.  I hire out my service to haul goods with my donkeys.  This young colt had never been ridden and never carried a heavy load.  He was almost ready for joining the working stock.  Yes, he was ripe for work.  But why would Jesus need this colt?
Remember Asher pointed out that next week is Passover.  Of course, that is the time when our children ask a question at the Passover table, “Why is this night different from every other night?”  I have to say the question came a few days early for me.  Why was this first day of the week different from any other day?  
For a long time it seems, Asher and I stood together pondering this news.  But soon we began to hear the sounds of a crowd coming out of the direction of Bethany.  We went outside to get a view of what was happening.  In the distance, there were people walking in the road, and more people walking along beside the road.  They were shouting and laughing.  Some seemed to be singing.  As they got closer I could make out what they were saying.
“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hail the Son of David!”  People were cutting branches from the palm trees and waving them.  It was as if a sea of green banners were waving and washing down the road--green waves of hope, waving above our heads, signaling that change is coming.
In a way I was confused about the words people were saying, even though I knew about Jesus and had high hopes for what he might do.  What marvelous words these were!  Who would say such things as these?  Of course we all hoped for the Messiah.  Asher and I grew up studying the Torah and the Prophets, and we had sometimes disputed what signs of the Messiah’s coming we should be watching for.  Now, all of a sudden, right by my humble home, people were shouting as if the Messiah was about to pass by.
Then, as I peered at the approaching tumult, lo and behold, I saw Elazar, walking along leading our colt.  On the back of the colt sat the great teacher Jesus.  Just as the Prophet Zechariah had said, he was riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt.  I was so proud to see Elazar there with him.  And David, Asher’s older boy, was running back and forth with many others, placing their outer garments on the road as a carpet in front of the colt.  It was a kind of moving carpet, as they waited for the donkey to pass, then gathered the garments and ran carrying them again to put them on the road ahead of Jesus.  
I burst inside to get Rachel, my wife.  I told her to grab her tambourine, come to the street, and join the people celebrating as Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  When we got back outside, we found Asher and Zachary, and Asher’s wife Sarah, carrying beautiful garments to spread on the road in front of our simple little colt.  
In the crowd I saw familiar faces of the fishermen, scholars, workers, and of course the women of every status, disciples who had traveled with Jesus, had followed along to learn and assist him in his work.  Right beside the colt was a beggar, shouting loudest it seems, calling Jesus the Son of David and telling everyone that on this very morning he had been blind, but Jesus gave him sight.  Running along behind was a very short man in the finest of clothes, trying to keep up.  I heard someone say he was a tax collector who was giving back the money he stole from people.  Women were playing their finger cymbals, jingling their bells, and beating their tambourines.  Children ran and played in all the excitement.  It seemed that everyone was joining the great parade of people praising God and following Jesus.
We made our way into Jerusalem, and the crowd continued to swell into a great multitude.  Those who realized what was happening would join in the celebration.  Others followed along to gaze at the spectacle, mostly out of curiosity.  Such a scene attracted the attention of everyone, including the authorities.  Roman soldiers watched suspiciously, and I saw them send a messenger toward the Prefect’s court.  I’m sure Pilate was not pleased to hear what was happening.  Soon from the direction of the temple I could see officials of the Sanhedrin and their temple guards hurrying in our direction.  That made some people afraid, and the crowd thinned out a little.
Those Pharisees and Sadducees went straight up to Jesus and told him he should make all of us stop saying what we were saying.  They had hated him for a long time, and this big show of popularity and symbolism made them livid.  As usual, Jesus had a strong response ready.  He said if the people stopped shouting these things, then the very stones of the road and the stone blocks of the structures would take our places crying out in praise to God.  What a thing to say!  He never seemed afraid to get right in the faces of those pompous windbags.
I kept thinking about the other times I had seen and heard Jesus.   There were many times before that it seemed Jesus did not want to be called the Messiah.  But for some reason today was different.  He did not hush it up.  He did not deny it or give some kind of vague and confusing explanation.  He was willing to accept the title.  He was even acting it out from the teaching of the prophets.
Some were shouting, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  It was like the story they tell about when Jesus was born.  They say shepherds heard angels saying those very same words.  So much of what had gone before seemed to be coming to fruition on this day, in my town, in front of my house, and including my little donkey.
However, I noticed as we got right up to the city where Jesus could look out across the temple, the buildings, the streets, and the people, that Jesus’ face clouded up.  He seemed to be weeping.  Elazar later told me that Jesus had said something about the people not knowing the way to peace.  They were crying out peace, but they did not know peace.
After taking a few moments of reflection and resolve, Jesus gathered himself and went into the temple itself.  He began to confront the merchants and the temple staff.  He quickly took charge of the place.  Many of the crowd continued to cheer his actions.  Others watched in amazement or fear for what the guards might do.  Jesus activity on that day was relentless, it seems.  But the moment was passing, the excitement waning.  
People got tired or hungry.  Slowly, the crowds of people began to go back to what they had been doing.  Rachel and I gathered the family and the colt, and we headed back home.  We found Asher and Sarah preparing to wash the garments from the road and getting back to their work.  But none of us could keep from stopping in the midst of our work to talk about what had happened.  We kept puzzling over what it might mean.  
Jesus did not gather weapons and utilize the crowd to rush the centers of power and take over Jerusalem.  Some thought he would do that.  I don’t know why he didn’t.   But he also did not send us away and say we had gotten him all wrong.  I think he was accepting the title Messiah, but just what kind of Messiah is he?
I keep thinking about that moment when he stopped to survey the city.  What hurt him so bad that tears filled his eyes in the middle of his great day of triumph and celebration?  I would have expected him to beam with joy and to bask in all that glory.  But Elazar said Jesus was feeling sad for the way that God’s blessing for Jerusalem and for the people would soon be thwarted.  He was seeing that these enthusiastic crowds would be disappointed.  He said that the people did not understand or recognize the visitation of God.  He incited a multitude, yet he was disappointed by the response he got.  What a strange reaction to the day’s marvelous events!  I just don’t understand.
Jesus had asked for the colt so he could ride into town.  That must mean that he wanted to stir the crowds to action.  Yet he is showing no sign of organizing his forces for battle.  If not battle, what kind of action does he want to see?  I wish I could understand what this man has planned for us.  I am sure that he comes from God.
The words I’ve heard him speak stir my heart.  They make me yearn to know God better.  They raise hope for a better life and a better world.  What will the next days bring?  Will he now show us the way?  What does he want from us?  If not taking up arms, then what means  does he plan to use for transforming the world?
       As this day is closing, God, I am calling out to you.  Show us the things that make for peace.  Visit us and make yourself known.  Make us ready to follow Jesus wherever he may lead.  Make us ready to become who you want us to be.  Amen.
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