Easter message

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — The Gospel of John tells us that Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb first. This is a rather remarkable given how patriarchal and repressive of women the Christian church will later become. Other men and women followers of Jesus were reported to have gone to Jesus’ grave that early morning. But for some reason, Mary Magdalene is the only person mentioned in each of the four different Gospel versions of this empty tomb story. Why this one piece of consistency in four divergent accounts? Why was she so important to be repeatedly named? Could it be that Dan Brown’s popular mystery-detective story, “The Da Vinci Code,” is true? Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child together? As offensive as this idea may be to some, and as titillating as the idea may be to others, I wonder if the answer for her prominence doesn’t lie somewhere even more challenging. Could it be, as an increasing number of Biblical scholars are suggesting, that she was the follower, the disciple of Jesus, who actually got what he was teaching? Was she the one who didn’t abandon him, when the other disciples did, because she fully understood Jesus’ call to human transformation through self-emptying and sacrificial love?

We follow this grieving and unnerved woman as she stumbles through the early darkness, looking for the body of her beloved Teacher and friend. The Gospel of John has already carefully informed us in previous verses that her visit is not about bringing spices and completing the burial preparations. Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, had already supplied pounds of myrrh and aloes the night Jesus was buried. The other followers are apparently in hiding; surely the Roman soldiers will be looking for them too. So what is Mary Magdalene up to in the dark? As she approaches, she is stunned to see the closure to the tomb rolled away. Proceeding no further, she runs to get several of the other disciples. Two of them come back with her, and peer into the cave-like enclosure. They note the pile of burial clothes. Curious, as these would probably have been still on Jesus’ body if someone had moved him to another location. The men apparently believe the body is truly gone, but can’t make heads or tails of this. They return to their homes. Note: no one is expecting “resurrection” at this point.

Mary stays rooted to the spot, weeping. Even the cold comfort of seeing and touching Jesus’ body again has been taken from her. Through her tears, she looks into the tomb and encounters angelic beings who question her. She suddenly senses a presence behind her. Turning, she sees someone standing there, who repeats the angels’ question: “Why are you crying?” Not recognizing who this is, she pleads, “Sir, tell me where his body is.” Then this someone calls her by name: Mary. In that moment, she recognizes him. And the unrecognizable all of a sudden becomes incomprehensible – “Oh my God, Teacher, it is you!” And Jesus sees how her love for him is grasping, still looking for a tangible corpse. What she is now confronted with is an intangible aliveness beyond her wildest dreams (Cynthia Bourgeault, “Wisdom Jesus,” p. 130). “Don’t hold on to me, don’t cling to me,” he tells her.

The Gospel writers want us to know that Jesus, despite all evidence of his dying, is now alive. This challenging of the power of death itself is the most paradoxical part of the Easter claim for me. Something dead is now alive. Not a resuscitated body; this man who embodied God’s radically inclusive, unstoppable love was dead…and has now been transformed into a living entity. And for several millennia, Christians have been saying much the same thing: we testify to this ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus Christ in our midst, and it is making new life, transformation, possible in us.

There is something almost ridiculous about this claim, in part because our best thinking can’t quite comprehend it. In our world, death so often seems to have the last word. How can it be that confronting violence, dead hopes and dreams, feeling dead inside, is not the final part of each of our stories? This is the grown-up part of Easter, beyond spring bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is almost the stuff of dreams, not unlike the one the Spanish poet Antonio Machado records in his poem “Last Night As I Lay Sleeping.” The idea of new life busting out of deadness is so fantastical and error-like, it has to come to him under the cover of sleep, when his conscious, linear-thinking brain is no longer in charge. Hear his words:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
My mistakes, my failures, my deadness being transformed? This can’t be right. “Marvelous error,” Machado cries, over and over. How can it be that these changes come to me, he wonders. I dreamt I had a fiery sun giving light inside my heart. That’s crazy! “Last night, as I slept I dreamt, marvelous error, that it was God I had here in my heart.” The spirit of the living God, inside of our hearts. “Fear not,” said Jesus at his last meal with his followers, “I will be with you always.”

Can dry hearts be replenished and warmed? Can old failures be transformed? Sometimes we get so caught up in the calculated logic of the world and what our conscious ego analyzes might be possible. “I just can’t let go of that resentment, that disappointment, that mistake.” We miss the possibility of our own inner healing and changing. I often liken Easter morning to a cold glass of water – thrown in my face! Because there has always been something too sudden, too bizarre about Easter. Jesus is killed because he embodied God’s radically inclusive love so totally, that he became a threat to just about everyone. Again and again, he refused to compromise; he would not set limits on God’s unstoppable love, forgiveness and acceptance.

I wonder if in that moment of hearing Jesus calls her name, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes her transformed self. She is not just a woman frantically bereaved, torn from the person who embodied God’s radically inclusive love. She is Mary, beloved disciple and forgiven one, a woman who has come to see her own old failures transformed. One who came to know and accept her own precious self through her relationship with this Teacher and friend. One who has known love and now is called to pour that love out to the world. Jesus is now present in a new and different way; life and God’s love is unstoppable. Mary Magdalene gets it. She will bring the message of resurrection back to the disciples, and she will be called by the early, pre-patriarchal church “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Our adult lives are full of self-doubts, and often a casual flippancy about what really matters. As we are confronted again by the pain and violence of our world, it sometimes feels more natural to say that death does have the last word. In the midst of all this, we each yearn for a deeper sense of connection with the great Mystery around us. We long for that wellspring of renewal and hope. Water for our dryness, heat for our chill, light for our darkness. For old failures to be changed into sweet honey.

Jesus is standing before us again, as he stood before Mary Magdalene on that garden path. He is addressing each of us by name, recalling us to our own precious selves: “Anne, here I am – I’m alive – my spirit now lives inside of you, it’s changing you in this very moment. Now, what will be transformed in your life?”

Christ has risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia and Amen.

Help immigrants practice their English

Falcon Heights Church has begun a new partnership at Fairview Community Center, helping immigrants in the Adult Learning Center practice their new English language skills in informal conversations with Americans. We will meet Wednesday mornings twice a month to begin with. Our students are hungry for more conversation, and we can use more volunteers. For information, contact Nancy Duffrin (651-348-7880).

Weekend breakfast for hungry kids


Falcon Heights Church is partnering with Falcon Heights Elementary School to help provide weekend meals for students in need. The school sends backpacks home with kids each Friday, filled with food to supplement their meals over the weekend at home. We are currently collecting large boxes of non-sugary cold cereal through June.  Please note that 13 boxes of cold cereal are needed each week.

This program helps 21 children from 13 families in need who live in our neighborhood.  Any and all donations are welcomed and greatly needed.  Please place your donations in the white buckets in the lobby.


A provocative entry

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — There once was a United Methodist pastor who was discussing Palm Sunday palm branches with his congregation’s worship committee. “Our budget is tight this year, and you know those leafy palm fronds cost us about a dollar apiece…” cautiously began one committee member. “That’s right,” someone else quickly chimed in, “is there any way we can avoid paying a buck a branch this year?” Their pastor reluctantly admitted that of all four gospels in the New Testament, only the Gospel of John talks about palms during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Mark and Matthew speak only of cloaks and branches being strewn, and this reading from Luke only mentions the cloaks covering Jesus’ path. Someone suggested waving native pussy willow branches that year. “The heck with the branches,” said another, “let’s just toss our overcoats into the aisles and call it “Cloak Sunday!” What was so special about palm branches, anyway, the committee wondered?

For those of us living in the land of hardwood and evergreen trees, the symbolic significance of palm trees may be a bit obscure. There had been other palm-branch waving parades in the life of the Middle Eastern Jewish people, but they usually marked a significant military success. For the crowds in Jerusalem on this particular Passover feast week, memories would have been fresh of the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the brutal Hellenistic ruler of Israel, Antiochus Epiphanes, about 150 years before. When the Maccabees returned triumphant into Jerusalem, re-taking the city, people threw palm branches in their path. But here we have Jesus, in about 33 CE, performing his own bit of street theater with a non-military and even ridiculous-looking entry on a scrappy donkey. Do the crowds think he will be a militant Messiah, bringing down the Romans with violence? Or, are they joining in on the political satire, throwing palms of victory down on the ground before him and thumbing their collective noses at the Roman soldiers.

These people are living in their own land, visiting their own holy city of Jerusalem, but it is now dominated by an oppressive power. We might think of the original native inhabitants of our own country felt or those in the “conquered” American South at the end of the Civil War. There are people in our nation today who experience themselves as living in an alienated land. They remain convinced that their government and major institutions seek to insidiously thwart their religious practices and destroy their way of life. They hunger for an end to their oppressed state and even hint at reclaiming their country by force if necessary.
The crowds who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem were straining against the increasing tax burden and offensive, idol-worshipping presence of Roman rule. Statues of Roman leaders had been installed in their house of worship, the rebuilt Temple, which was particularly repugnant to the local population. Caesar was to be addressed as “the Son of God.” What may be difficult for us to appreciate is how very closely their political situation was of deep religious concern to Jesus’ contemporaries. It is within this complex, first century historical context, that we need to hear the Biblical narratives of Holy Week.

Now, the Jews knew about exile: they had returned to their country Israel after the crushing period of exile under Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. The writings of the prophets grappled with the people’s sense of abandonment by God by calling for repentance, spiritual renewal and social justice. For several hundred years, the Jews were again sovereign people, had rebuilt their Temple and reorganized their lives around the guidance of God’s holy Law described in the Torah. But by the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and through Roman occupation of Jesus’ time, “the Jews faced a new and different trauma,” that had both political and religious ramifications. The Maccabean revolt around 150 BCE was only a short-lived blip.

The Biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen describes this dilemma in her book, “From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus.” She writes: “Nothing in their tradition prepared them to cope with the crisis of continuing occupation. Instead of an exile in an idolatrous kingdom, Jews now faced the situation of living in an alienated land. Their land was now ruled by idolaters whose policies could at any time affect the operation of the Temple itself and the populace’s ability to observe the ordinances of the Torah” (p. 77-78). It is within this context of popular unrest, explains Fredriksen, that the public ministry of Jesus unfolds (p. 82). There was a growing expectation that God was going to intervene militarily, make things right again and re-install the Davidic monarchy.

We can begin to get a sense of how Jesus’ audiences resonated with his preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They would have understood him primarily through the lens and the longings of this very prevalent theology of restoration. It had evolved into a hope for universal renewal: restored Israel and a world filled with morally transformed, non-idol worshipping Gentiles. Prophetic visioning began to happen all over the place, including zealots and insurrectionists embracing guerrilla warfare. They believed they were living in the last days, preparing for the coming Kingdom of God. Charismatic healers and miracle workers, exorcists, rainmakers, performing signs and wonders that were a signal both of their intimacy with God and as pointing to the End Times, all were common in this period.

But Jesus steps onto this stage with a call for a wider type of communal and spiritual restoration than anyone could imagine. This restoration was not going to happen through military might, or excluding certain people, or fencing people out. This restoration involved the transformation of the human heart and soul, a change of perception and behavior that gets at the very root of our yearning for power over others. Jesus’ vision and actions set him on a collision course with authorities that found his call to restoration unsettling, even dangerous, for an occupied nation.

Jesus heads to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover. It was the commemoration of Jews challenging and escaping from dictatorial rule and oppression in ancient Egypt, many years before. This was a festival drenched with political meaning, allusions to challenging power and facing down Empire. Scholars say that the city population would swell from 5,000 to 200,000 during Passover; no repressive regime likes to see such crowds anytime and particularly not when there are celebrating release from slavery. No wonder Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leaves his seaside villa and makes the trek to inland Jerusalem for this week. He has to keep a close eye on things to assure stability. Suddenly, in the pressing bodies crowding through the city gate, someone shouts, “There he is! Look, the teacher and healer from Nazareth…he raises the dead, he confronts the authorities!” Another chimes in, “Surely he is the Messiah about whom our prophets speak!” Heads turn and the crowd cheers. People are now singing hosannas and throwing their cloaks on the road, waving palm branches in the air, and welcoming Jesus like royalty.

If we are paying attention, off in the distance we might spot a group of people for whom this is not just a happy holiday, pilgrim parade. The men and women who have been traveling with Jesus as his disciples know he is in danger; his message is subversive and it challenges those in power. His followers have an inkling that this may not end well. And we know it doesn’t. All the ugly detail starts to roll through our collective memories again: Jesus humbling himself, not resisting arrest, submitting to questioning, trial, torture; three crosses on the hill, and the darkening sky. Seemingly powerless.

How very tempting it is to quickly move to the “new life” messages of Easter and miss the depths of restoration to which Jesus will call us. It is an ongoing challenge for us to find meaning in present suffering and powerlessness, to find hope for a changed future. Our lives do sometimes feel like an “alienated land” and we long for restoration. There are those among us these days who promise that restoration for our land will come through repressive, exclusionary, even violent means. Humbling, pouring ourselves out, including the marginalized seems almost counter-intuitive in this clash of current voices.

At the conclusion of today’s passage, Jesus moves into the heart of Jerusalem; he takes a closer look at the city and weeps over it. “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace,” he moans. The ambiguity and turbulence of Holy Week will bring complicated themes of life and death. It will confront us again with the question of God’s awesome and restorative presence in the midst of human suffering. Always the realist, Jesus knew it is not enough for us to simply lead decent lives. There he is, ahead of us: humbling himself, emptying himself, obedient to the point of death….even death on a cross. Holy week lies before us; we follow Jesus together, through Jerusalem towards Easter. Amen.

Help build a new house with Holy Hammers

Spring is here, and so is the Holy Hammers project with Habitat for Humanity! Sign up to work with FHC volunteers alongside members of other area churches. No construction experience is needed; you will be taught everything you need to know. We have reserved slots on May 6, May 26, June 15, and July 14. Sign up in the Gathering Room or contact Lynne Meyer at lemeyer@comcast.net.

This year’s project is in St. Paul, at 11 Maryland Avenue E. You’ll have a great time and enable a local family to purchase a low cost home, making a huge difference in their lives.

You can also support the project by making a financial contribution to the church, marking it for Holy Hammers. The churches that make up the Holy Hammers are expected to contribute $90,000 for the cost of the materials; each church contributes as it is able.

The Lord’s Prayer: Facing evil, making choices

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — We have come to the final request of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” As Protestant Christians, we are used to the prayer continuing with closing words of praise, “for thine is the Kingdom and the glory, forever.” This ending was probably added by Matthew’s early church in the late part of the first century, and used in their worship time together. Notice on front of the worship bulletin that they are only found in Matthew.

Jesus ended his prayer he taught his followers by focusing on some of the more troubling aspects of our human condition:  temptation, trial, evil. For me, this part of Jesus’ prayer raises difficult questions about why and how we mess up, hurt ourselves, others and the planet; why we sin. Whose responsibility is it to corral and subdue evil in the world? Is it God’s job to get rid of evil? If we are God’s partners in healing God’s worldwide Household, what of this is our job? How does God “keep us from evil; keep our going out and our coming in,” as the Psalmist of our Hebrew scriptures claimed? And what do we mean by evil? A personified devil figure who runs around making trouble? Individual breaches of morality, and defined by who? Or are we talking about bigger systemic evils, like genocide of Native American peoples or the rise of Hitler’s Germany? Slavery of Africans, the Christian crusades of medieval times, the spread of ISIS?   Whew…shall we stop right now and go to brunch? This final part of the Lord’s Prayer is complicated…and hugely important to understanding what Jesus was doing.

“Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” When I was a child, I had a small picture book about the Lord’s Prayer. It was filled with lovely water-color paintings meant to catch a child’s attention; the illustration I remember most clearly went with this passage we are considering today. A late summer scene with trees and lush green grass, and a small group of children starting to climb over a split-rail fence. On the other side of the fence is an apple tree, its leafy branches heavy with ripe red fruit. Ah…forbidden fruit! An angel-type figure is standing next to the children with its arms raised. I could never quite figure this one out. Was the angel trying to stop the kids from the illegal deed of apple stealing? Was the angel enticing them to pick the apples and God was then supposed to stop them? All I remember is some vague notion about God wanting me not to be naughty.

We often assume temptation or trial is just about individual morality. So we pray, “God, help me not eat that extra piece of pie; God, help me stay off those websites that are full of all kinds of virtual temptation.” Sometimes the purpose of Christianity gets reduced to “Preventing Individual Naughtiness.” God becomes “The Great Dispenser of Discipline.” We start to assume we get punished if we are naughty and rewarded if we are nice.

Unfortunately, some people stay stuck reacting to this reward/punishment view through much of their lives, and it ticks them off: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do! I’m in control of my own life! I can take care of myself; I’m not dependent on anyone!” And if we do hold onto this view of God as the Great Enforcer of Proper Behavior into adulthood, we end up resenting it at some level.  If our good behavior isn’t rewarded, we may feel unjustly treated in some way.  “Hey, I behaved myself and didn’t get my reward of good health and prosperity!”

We vacillate between wanting to “go it on our own,” and then wondering why God doesn’t intervene and squash all evil. And we end up missing the point of Jesus’ message. We are created to be coworkers, partners, with God in healing the broken world Household of God. To take responsibility for our own behavior and not expect rewards and punishments.

What might have been Jesus’ original meaning here in this part of the prayer? The Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that is translated as temptation can also mean trial or test. And there is probably no better place to understand what Jesus was talking about here, than to look at the time when Jesus himself was sorely tempted, put to the test: What we call the “temptations in the wilderness,” when Jesus retreated for a time of prayer and fasting right after his baptism in the Jordan River by John at the beginning of his public ministry.

During our Bible study on this passage last Tuesday, one of you noted how “hallucinatory” this story sounded. Dusty, dry isolated terrain; consciousness possibly altered by days of fasting, silence and aloneness. Is this inner dialogue or confrontation with an external evil entity? We are not sure. Jewish mythology had no strong personification of evil, like the devil figure that is vividly depicted in medieval art and literature of the later Christian era. Matthew describes that the tempter puts it to Jesus: “Hey, you must be hungry: doesn’t God provide manna for all? Satisfy your own hunger: Turn these stones into bread.” Jesus and the tempter end up in a war of words, slinging Hebrew Bible passages back and forth. “No?” sneers the tempter. “Well, how about something a little more public; come up to the top of the top pinnacle tower of the Jerusalem Temple and jump and let’s give the folks a display of miraculous power! Hmmm? Okay (continues the tempter) How about dominion over all the world powers? You keep saying the Kingdom of God is at hand! Let’s bring it on, Jesus! Let’s smash these evil human powers and bring God’s righteous reign in by force! Be that warrior leader everyone wants!” Jesus refuses; the tempter departs.
Tempter, devil, evil one – all different translations of a Greek verbal noun comprised of “dia” and “ballo” – meaning “to throw over or across” – or one who attacks, misleads, discredits. And who/whatever this entity is, it has a one-track mind – it’s all about power – “Take it Jesus, it’s yours by right, since you are the Son of God. This is a royal title attributed to the ancient Jewish Davidic line: Be that warrior prince, that Messiah, Jesus! Be who you are!”

Jesus had grown up in Nazareth after a huge military incursion of Roman legions in 4 BC, which brutally squashed violent rebellions among the Jewish people. Roman power continues at this time to oppress the people, demanding excessive taxes, military service, and most repugnant, worshipping Caesar as God. How very tempting to think that more violence might be the answer. Perhaps this is the toughest challenge in this prayer and in Jesus’ teachings: Again and again Jesus will refuse violence as the way to bring in the Kingdom, the Reign, of God.

An aside on sin: There are growing number of Bible scholars who say that humans’ original sin was not the disobedience of eating fruit from a tree in the Garden of Eden. They point to the first time the word “sin” is used in Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament: the Cain and Abel story. These two sons of the mythical Adam and Eve story were strong rivals. Cain ended up killing his brother. In response, God warns, for the first time, of “sin lurking at their door.”  What was the sin? Escalating violence that seeks not just to defend but to retaliate. And escalatory violence was starting to look pretty tempting to many of those under Roman imperial oppression in the first century during Jesus’ time and Jesus knew it was a dead end.

I think of difficult times I have been through in my life, times when I had the choice between depending upon my own limited understanding and human strength, flailing around…or working with God to figure out what God was calling me to next in the middle of the mess. Think of one of your own times of trial and testing in your family or this church’s history. Have we been reactive and destructive as we struggled to cope? There are forms of escalating violence that are damaging even without physical blows. It may be that Jesus turned from following John the Baptist simply because John was preaching a coming of the Kingdom through violence against Rome. This God who arrives imminently will be an avenging presence!

But not so for Jesus. He will command his followers to put away their swords when he is confronted and arrested by Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. The church in each generation has got to grapple with the implications of Jesus’ call to non-violence. A difficult challenge in a world where evil persists and there are never easy answers or simple solutions.

The curious thing about times of crisis, trial and testing is that while they can break us, they have the curious potential to change us and redefine us. Do I see myself as a passive recipient of God’s rewards and punishments? Do I rely on my own insight and strength? Or do I reach out to God and to others in these challenging times, acknowledging my full membership in God’s family? Do I see my part in the mess; recognize and confess my sins, repent and change my ways? Individual and group character can be tempered and shaped in such times.

For some reason, God has placed us in a world that is both beautiful and dangerous, good and evil, and filled with wonder and resources and unpredictability. This is our life. Where will we each face temptation this week?  Be on the alert. Know that we are free to work with God, to resist evil, to help heal the world and delight in it together. And so we are urged to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer: The challenge of forgiveness

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — In Jesus’ time, it was nothing new to say that God forgives. Within the Jewish tradition and Hebrew scriptures, God was constantly rebuilding bridges between Godself and careless, rebellious, sinful humans. When it came to broken relationships between humans, much was also written in Jewish law about forgiveness between people: The injured person had an ethical responsibility to forgive the one who committed the offense. The injured party was even to pray to God that God would forgive the offender, even before the offender acknowledged the offending behavior and repented. These were high standards indeed. Jesus intuited that forgiveness is connected with our emotional and spiritual health. He would needle and provoke people into wrestling with the full implications of their own tradition around forgiveness. One day, he is approached by one of his closest disciples, Peter. “Uh, Jesus? Our religious teachers say we should forgive people seven times….that sure is a lot! What about that?” Replies Jesus, “You are to forgive 70 times seven times!” I’m sure Peter was sorry he asked. On another day, Jesus, said, Pray like this: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” But forgiveness is hard, Jesus! Yes, he would probably reply. I think this part of the prayer is a time bomb.

Forgiveness has to do with how we coexist with the past where mistakes and injury have been made. I would say that forgiveness is not the immediate concern when a transgression is still happening: the battered wife should not be forgiving the husband who keeps beating her; she needs to find a safe way for her and her children to exit the immediate danger. Stopping the offense is always the first thing that needs to happen. I think that this part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with the messiness of life when an offense has stopped, because someone died or someone left or others have stepped in to call a halt. This part of the Lord’s Prayer deals with human fallibility, people’s tendency to miss the mark in ethical behavior, intentionally or unintentionally. Human sinfulness. If we chose not to resort to retaliation or retribution, how do we move on? What do we do with the memories of what has happened, especially since it is impossible to forget?

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke each recorded this part of the Lord’s Prayer a bit differently, as you can see from the Biblical quotes on the front of your bulletin. In this congregation, we usually pray Matthew’s version: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Jesus taught that our sinfulness against God, our resistance to God leading us, puts us in debt to God, in a very real sense. It is a debt that we just can’t pay back. We all have to fall on God’s merciful forgiveness. Some Biblical scholars maintain that “debts” may come closest to Jesus’ original words in the prayer.

Jesus’ original audience would hear “debt” and remember the stories of their ancestors’ release from debt-slavery in Egypt. They would remember the teachings from Deuteronomy we just heard: Within their communities and covenant with God, there was to be a rhythm of every seven years of release from debt, a Sabbath or Sabbatical year. Just like the rhythm of releasing your land from plantings by letting them lie fallow, debts should be forgiven and slaves were to be released. The reminder was always this: Pharaoh’s Egypt was not just. The Israelites, the people of God, are not to become another Egypt. Could “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” also have to do with our part in the justice is enough for everyone in God’s House and not too much debt weighing people down? Was Jesus implying a double meaning here? Was he just as concerned about economic inequity as he was about the buildup of unforgiven resentments? Such a short phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A simple petition now gets more complicated!

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, 77 times,” replies Jesus. And after giving this absurdly high number, Jesus proceeds to tell a story about literal financial debt. And it is a dire story of a harsh king who wants to settle accounts with his slaves. After much pleading, a once heavily in debt slave is finally forgiven his debt (the equivalent of about $25 million – listeners, take note of the extreme exaggeration – watch Jesus wink at us) by the relenting king. But then this slave has the audacity to turn around and imprison a fellow slave who owes him a small amount of money (the equivalent of about $50 — notice the contrast?). His fellow slaves are understandably distressed by this double standard and inform the king. Infuriated, the king orders the slave tortured until he presents the money he is concealing and repays his entire debt. The story ends rather ominously with Jesus suggesting that God will do this to us if we do not forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. Yikes. This is Jesus at his storytelling best – full of hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point.

Some of you might remember a novel from a few years ago called “The Shack,” by William P. Young. It is an unsettling story of a man who, I’m not sure how else to describe this, “meets God.” His life is miserable, as he is trying to cope with the kidnapping and apparent murder of his young daughter. Several years after the girl’s disappearance, the distraught and grieving father receives an anonymous summons to travel to an abandoned wilderness cabin related to his daughter’s abduction. Cautious and curious, there he has an astounding encounter with…well, as odd as this may sound…the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Whether this is in a dream or in an altered state or happens in real time, the reader doesn’t quite know. But God in three persons shows up as an older woman called Papa, a youngish male carpenter called Jesus and a strangely vibrant, multi-colored and somewhat transparent mostly gender-neutral apparition who is the Spirit. These three beings each talk with the bereaved father, they eat meals together, they sing, they walk around, they talk and eat some more. Much of their discussion is about forgiveness, which, as you may well imagine, does not sit well with this grieving parent who would happily kill the man who murdered his daughter.

At one point the Jesus figure says to the angry father: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” I was struck by this image. There have certainly been times when I have had both of my hands around someone’s throat, even if it is only in my imagination. When this happens to us, both hands are busy with hanging on, and not available for much else. And when we keep verbalizing these unforgiving feelings, telling our grievance story again and again, others experience a sort of second-hand violence. Still finding yourself complaining about a previous pastor, a certain group in the church or a specific lay leader? I would say this kind of talk is damaging; it fouls the air around us as a church. How willing are we to let go, and in the releasing, open up some clear airspace within us and between us? And here’s the clincher, according to Jesus: The space and energy taken up by our unforgiveness inhibits our ability to engage in God’s forgiveness of us.

Here is the challenge of Jesus’ vision: If I have a falling out with my fellow human, can I come to see that person as worth-ful, in spite of the wrongdoing? If not, I have not cleaned up my part of it. It’s all about connection within a wider threat of creation. And I am going to have trouble connecting with God. Not because God rejects me; I’m just not in much of a receiving mode. My own unforgiving attitude blocks the channel of forgiveness. My hands are still around that person’s throat. My hands (and heart) are not open and available to join with God’s, nor are they really available to help anyone else. Perhaps we have difficulty forgiving ourselves for something we did, or didn’t do. Strange to think of our hands around our own throats, isn’t it? Perhaps we think this gives us some sense of control of the past situation, if we keep punishing ourselves…but, wow, it sure consumes a lot of energy. And again, my hands and heart are not free.

Forgiveness not only frees our hands up, it helps us recover our energies and our personal power, our integrity. “Pray like this,” said Jesus: “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, those who trespass, sin against us.” Amen.

Offering for Heifer International

From March 6 through May 15, we will be taking a children’s offering in our First Hour classes. The offering will be given to Heifer International, an organization that works with communities to end world hunger and poverty and to care for the earth. Heifer uses donations to provide animals to individuals within a community.

The animals provide both food and reliable income, as agricultural products such as milk, eggs and honey can be traded or sold at market. When many families gain this new sustainable income, it allows children in the family to attend school, and it brings new opportunities for building schools, creating agricultural cooperatives, forming community savings and funding small businesses. Heifer’s model is “passing on the gift,” which means families share the training they receive, and they pass on the first female offspring of their livestock to another family. This extends the impact of the original gift, allowing a once-impoverished family to become donors and full participants in improving their communities.

Children at Falcon Heights Church will choose whether to purchase chicks, bees, a pig, a goat, or even a share of a heifer.

Confirmation class begins

A group of five young people in grades 6-8 has begun to meet with Pastor Anne each Wednesday evening. They are exploring their ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church and how they hope to live their lives. They are learning to listen to God in prayer, reading the Bible and paying attention to the daily news around them.

Confirmation is less about learning Bible facts and creeds, and more about learning how to live as a disciple of Jesus. In November, each of the young people will make the decision as to whether or not they chose to be confirmed and formally join this congregation.

This is a time of exploration for each of them. We will share more about their journey together, the books they are reading, the service projects they will do, the other religious traditions they will encounter, as we move through this year.  Please keep them, and their pastor, in your prayers!

Wednesday night suppers resume

Join the cast of our spring musical, along with other hungry folks, for supper and conversation on Wednesday evenings beginning March 30. Food is served from 6 to 6:30 p.m., with the play rehearsal beginning at 6:20 p.m. No charge, no dinner prep, although contributions of funds and/or salads or desserts are always welcomed. Contact Sue Gramith (suegramith@hotmail.com) or Rachelle Roeckeman (rachelle@roeckeman.com) to help.