A Tale of Two Stories

It is Palm Sunday. It is Passion Sunday. A day of two stories. One is a story of glory and conquest, of military aspirations and political ambitions. It is the story we tell ourselves over and over, throughout our lives, throughout our history. A story about our own ability to overcome and to save ourselves. A story of self-justification. The other is the story of the cross. It is the story that God tells about us, and for us, and through us. It is the truest story, a story about human ambitions and aspirations of self-satisfaction.

We start the morning with shouts of “hosanna!” and waving of palms, and we reenact the procession, Jesus arriving at last in Jerusalem, surrounded by adoring crowds. For those in the story, this is the moment when Jesus becomes their king. They will follow him into the city and stand behind him as he stands up to the Empire. He is the hoped-for Messiah who will reestablish Israel as its own nation. Even as they march up the west side of the mountain and through the city gates from the Mount of Olives, a contingent of Roman soldiers marches up from the sea and through the eastern gates, under the command of Pilate, a show of Roman power and might. For the people in the crowd, it is time for God to show power and might as well, and this prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee is finally here to do it. This is their vision, their ideal, their hoped-for community; this is the story they tell themselves – a powerful Israel, a strong nation, standing in its rightful place among the nations of the world.

During this season of Lent, a small group of us have been reading daily devotions from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who died under the Nazi regime just as the Allied armies were arriving. Last week, we read excerpts from his book Life Together, a book written for the small community of resistors that formed the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. And one quote in particular caught my attention: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even thought their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

Those who love their dream of a community more than the community itself. This is not just about Christian community. This is about every community. This is every story we write for ourselves – our dream of what it should be like. Whatever it is. Our marriage, our weekend, our church, our nation, our Messiah. We write stories for ourselves about what they should be, a dream of what they truly are – ideals of perfection that cannot be achieved, visions of what a real family, church, nation looks like. This is what got the Israelites into trouble with kings in the first place, way back before God anointed Saul and then David to be King. The people went to God and said, “We want a king! all the other nations have kings, and we want to be like them! That’s what a real nation looks like!” And God said, “you have a king. I AM, God, your king.” And the people said, “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know all that, but we want a real king, because that’s what a real nation has.” And so God gave them a king, with all the troubles that go with it – wars and scandals and taxes and everything else.

Our nation has created all kinds of stories for ourselves, stories about a “Shining City on a Hill” and “Manifest Destiny” and the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Stories that we have used as self-justification, as excuses for slavery, for land-grabs, for oppression, even as we have convinced ourselves that our motives were ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. It’s what nations do.

You can think, I’m sure, of the stories you have written for yourself. Stories about what a “real” church looks like, for instance – how big, how many programs, how many children, or Sunday school classes, or worship services. Or stories about a “real” family – Sunday dinners, and children with manners, and obedient, snuggly toddlers who sit still while you read them a story. Or a “real” marriage – where conflict is handled appropriately and no one goes to bed angry. But these are ideals and dreams and visions, like the story that the palm-waving crowds were telling themselves. Because the truth is that there is no “Shining City on a Hill,” and “Manifest Destiny” is another way of saying that we think we are more important than the Natives of this land; and every church is unique; and every toddler wiggles; and every couple goes to bed angry at some point.

But there is another story today. It is a story that shows what is true. It is the story of the cross. There is nothing ideal or dreamy about it. It is a stark and unpleasant reality. It is what happens when we love our dream, our vision, our ideal of community, more than we love the community itself. It is what happens when we want to justify ourselves, setting ourselves over against others, seeking scapegoats, someone to take the blame for all that is “wrong” with our reality, all the ways our reality does not measure up to our ideal. This is not a story that we would tell about ourselves, because it is uncomfortable and harsh, this story about how, when faced with a choice between the ideal and the reality, people chose to crucify the God who had come into the world to be among them and to love them and to walk with them, even in the midst of their imperfect, messy reality.

The other side of the story, though, is the story as God tells it. Because this is God’s story. It is the story of God coming into the world to be among God’s beloved children, to love us, to walk with us, to know us in all of our imperfect, messy reality. It is a story that God so desperately wanted to be a part of that God was willing to die, on a cross, to take human form, to humble God’s self, and to become obedient to love, to the point of death. And this story changes every other story. Because while our stories are the ones we tell in order to justify ourselves, this is the story that God tells, the story of God’s justification of us. Of God’s love and forgiveness of us. This is the story that turns the Hosannas of Palm Sunday from human purposes to God’s purpose – from shouts of human glory and conquest to a song that we sing each week as we gather at the Table and remember the night on which he was betrayed, remember his body broken and his blood poured out, so that we can sing hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and remember, not our own dreams of ideal community, but God’s sacrificial love, that blesses and justifies the world, not as we wish it were, but the world as it is. So that we do not have to constantly rewrite new stories of our ideals, of our visions, or our dreams. Instead, we are drawn into God’s story and God’s vision for community, a community that includes everyone, not just the ones that fit our ideals; a community that is justified, not one that justifies itself; a community that is loved as it is, and drawn ever forward into God’s story, into God’s promised and preferred future.

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Obstacles

We’re finally redoing the small bathroom in our house this weekend. We’ve lived with it for over 6 years, with is more than 6 years too long. It’s a tiny little 3×5 room, not more than a closet really, and a very unpleasant place, one that no one wants to use unless they have to. But there have been quite a few obstacles that have kept us from getting around to it. Money, of course. And know-how, which is probably easy enough to fix. Having several small people in the house demanding attention and food has been a major obstacle. But the biggest one is time. Finding 48 or so hours together that we can devote to a project like this, where both of us are available and awake enough. What has finally gotten us motivated enough? We have an exchange student from France showing up on Monday, a 15 year old boy. Another bathroom really is going to be necessary. One that people don’t mind going into. So this is the week.

Over the past few weeks, our Lenten readings have been about obstacles. Some obstacles are real. Some are imagined. Some are excuses. Some are of our own making. Some are put in our way by others, by society, by perceptions. In story after story, someone encounters Jesus but seems to be separated from him by some obstacle or another. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, afraid to reveal his interest in Jesus, obstinate in his misunderstanding of Jesus and his promises. And he left in the dark, still puzzling over what Jesus had said. The woman at the well met Jesus in full daylight. But she had her own obstacles – she was Samaritan, and female. She came with a history that seemed to separate her from her community. Last week, a blind man met Jesus, and obstacles were everywhere. He was blind, it was the sabbath, he was pushed out of the synagogue, out of his community, until he was alone in an alley.

Today’s readings are full of obstacles, too. Ezekiel was a prophet to the people of Israel in exile. He was with them when Jerusalem was conquered, when the people were decimated, when the entire generation was sent into exile across the desert in Babylon. The valley of dry bones is a vision for him, but it may also be a memory, a memory of a battle field he had witnessed. And those who survived that battle are now in Babylon, and they don’t know how to go on. They have always worshipped God in the Temple, on the mountain in Jerusalem. Psalm 137 tells the story of their despair:

“1By the rivers of Babylon —

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

2On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

3For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4How could we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land?”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? For the people of Israel, exile from the land means exile from God. Separation from the Temple means separation from God.

The people John is writing to are facing a similar situation. The community that first read this Gospel of John were living toward the end of the first century. Like the exiles in Babylon, they had witnessed the destruction of their Temple, the decimation of their people, the utter and complete devastation of their city. In addition, many of them were Jews who found themselves ostracized from their families and communities because of their belief that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Messiah. Like Nicodemus and the Pharisees in our stories, their families were so certain of the ways of God, so entrenched in the traditions of the Temple, that they could not see any other possibilities. Like the Samaritan woman and the blind man, John’s community were outside the only group they had ever known, cut off and alone. Not only that, but many of them had lost their families to the conquering Roman armies. Like Mary and Martha, they had wept at the tombs of those they loved. These are people in exile. These are people who know the grief of Psalm 137. By the rivers of Babylon, by the tombs of our family, by the battlefields, by the crumbled walls of our city, in the alleys outside our synagogues, in the community of the exiles, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion, when we remembered our loved ones, our Temple, our families, our homes. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, in a strange town, in a different language, in a new way? How can we even be sure that God knows where we are, who we are? How can we be sure that God is even with us?

And in each of these stories God shows up. In each of these stories, God brings new life, now. For the exiles in Babylon, God promises that these dry bones can live, and breathes new life into them, knitting them together into not just individuals, but into a community, where they are. Not waiting until they can come back to Zion; they do not have to make their way back across the desert to the mountain where God is waiting; instead, God comes to them, there in that valley, and creates them as a community.

For the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus promises living water, and sends her back into her community, back to those she has avoided, and gives her a new life and a new purpose, now, telling her, “I AM,” God is standing right here in front of you. Nothing stands between you and God.

For the blind man, sitting alone in an alley, Jesus comes and finds him, and restores him to community, to relationship, even outside of the synagogue. God is standing there in the alley with him, inviting him to trust, and to see.

Even for Nicodemus, going back out into the dark, still puzzling over what Jesus has said, Jesus has come to draw him into a new relationship with God, slowly opening his eyes, slowly stepping into the light, so that each time we meet Nicodemus, he is a little more trusting, a little more prepared to believe that God might actually be coming to him. That he might not have to climb his way to heaven. That God might be willing to bring new life and new hope into this world. Now.

And for Lazarus and Mary and Martha. For those who weep and worry, who wonder how God can reach them, or their loved ones, when death seems to be so much stronger, when darkness and destruction seem to be winning, when our tarrying seems to get in the way of life, when our grief seems so much bigger than anything that God can deliver. Jesus shows up. Jesus weeps with us. And Jesus reminds us that nothing, not exile, not darkness, not blindness, not certainty, not doubt, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

The next time we see Lazarus, he will be reclining at the table with Jesus, living as fully and as abundantly as it is possible to live, in the arms of his family, in the community of his friends, in the presence of his God.

So many obstacles would seem to stand in our way. The obstacles of a bathroom remodel are nothing compared to the obstacles that we find between us and God, between us and life, between us and resurrection. And yet every one of these obstacles is something that God has already overcome. God does not wait around for us to figure out how to get back to Zion, how to open our own eyes, how to truly believe and trust, how to find our way back into the good graces of the community, how to pull ourselves out of sin or doubt or despair. In this water, at this table, in this Jesus, `God comes to us, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, and knits us together, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, and calls us out of our darkness, into the light, into love, into new life. Right now. Right here.