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Posts tagged ‘Zechariah’

Standing Up to Bullying Inside and Out

Matthew 21:1-11

Here we are reading a story that is usually associated with palm branches and hosannas. For many Christians, this is the story they hear each Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It’s a strange and complicated tale, because shortly after this weird parade, things go really bad for Jesus and co. Betrayals, arrests, torture, even death. I’ll never tell you what to think or how to interpret these stories—I simply share my thoughts, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve heard. Considering all that, I’ve never been one to think that Jesus of Nazareth knew that he actually would be tortured and crucified once in Jerusalem. I know that some of the Gospel writers allude to Jesus knowing and predicting it, but keep in mind how these stories were written and when they were written. These authors had the benefit of knowing what was going to happen, and they were also speaking to various groups of people who needed context. In my view, this doesn’t taint the story. I actually think it makes it better. Consider that if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Consider that even after Jesus’ death Jesus’ friends and family and didn’t know how to interpret all that happened. And consider that it was a LONG time after that people finally decided to write down what stories they had heard about it.

In other words, I’m saying that the story gets richer for me when we ask the identity questions again:

Who was this Jesus? Who did people say Jesus was? What did Jesus say and do?

And who are we?

Because religion created the Jesus figure. Each and every form of Christianity, whether Eastern Christianity, Roman Christianity, American Christianity, etc. came up with their own version of Jesus. And so that work shouldn’t end. The story continues. Who is this Jesus? What did Jesus say and do? Who are we?

Let’s get to the story of the day, shall we? Jesus of Nazareth was finally reaching the climatic destination that all the Gospel writers foreshadow: Jerusalem, the mecca, the epicenter of religion and culture and language and…the Roman Empire.

Yeah, there’s that.

Consider that as Jesus and the ragtag band of followers processed towards the city for Passover, there was another procession. The Roman army came to the city from the west. They were the riot police before they were called riot police. They had one job during Passover: keep the peace. Because Jerusalem’s population would explode to more than 200,000 people for the festival. Because crazy, trouble-making fools like Jesus of Nazareth would be coming.

The stage is set.

Meanwhile, our storyteller throws in some quirky twists. Before they get to the city, Jesus sends people ahead—they have one job—go find a certain donkey and a colt. It’s a weird request, right? Or is it? It’s all setup beforehand. Because of the threat of danger, things are more secretive now—kind of a like a really good spy movie.

Daniel-Craig-james-bond-BWJesus. Jesus Bond?

Only Jesus doesn’t do the martini shaken not stirred. He’s more into red wine.


Oh right—the donkey business. Matthew‘s author is asking us to pay attention [once again] to a story written mostly for Jews. The donkey, metaphorical or not, is meant to point to Jewish prophetic literature, and in this case, Zechariah: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Keep in mind also that the people with Jesus, i.e. those called disciples or followers, were now at this point the loyal and close counterparts of Jesus. Those who met them outside Jerusalem, however, and put their cloaks on the ground, were not all sympathetic to their cause. And once inside the city, things got even worse. People did not celebrate Jesus and his little parade—instead there was confusion, skepticism, and in some cases, even anger. It was never really a celebratory parade. It was a messy protest.

And all this leads us back to the questions. Who is Jesus? What did Jesus say and do?

Who are we?

The way I see it—Jesus wasn’t a king, at least not the type of king or ruler we usually imagine. Jesus didn’t wield power, didn’t sit up on some throne barking orders, didn’t stand far off aloof from the common people, didn’t press buttons to launch war weapons, didn’t see violence as any kind of answer. Neither was Jesus a religious leader who wore a big and funny hat with extra jewelry and long prayers and holier than thou attitude. But neither was Jesus a political revolutionary who used weapons to make change or who held up the end far above the means.

Jesus was and is to me, someone who represented the best of what our humanity full-expressed can be: Jesus loved and accepted people as they were, and encouraged them to heal in any way they needed to.

And Jesus stood up to bullies.

Oh yes, he did. He stood up against his own people the Pharisees and called them out for their hypocrisy. He stood up to the Roman bullies who hid behind their forums and pillars to avoid seeing the horrific aftermath of their wars, the extreme poverty caused by their taxation, and the inhumanity of their occupations of other’s lands. Jesus stood up to the bullies. And yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was difficult. But Jesus’ love for people moved him to stand up.

Friends, I don’t know where you are today or what you’re thinking now. I’m asking myself: Who are you today? What do you do and say, how are you loving and accepting people as they are, and how are you standing up to the bullies? Because there is no fear in love. If we love, we cannot let fear overwhelm us and hold us back. We love. We must stand up.

What is happening in Syria, what happened in Rwanda and South Sudan, and all other places where genocide and war and inhuman acts reign, these tragedies and unspeakable acts are and were made up of moments when a group turned into a crowd, when people turned on an imagined enemy because someone planted that evil seed. It happens here and everywhere. Mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues have been attacked and vandalized — hate graffiti is painted on walls and cemeteries are vandalized. Trans people are beat up in the street and terrorized, bullied in bathrooms, made to live in fear, made to feel lesser. Those who are homeless are robbed, beaten, and left to die. Black and Brown people are targeted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes even wrongfully killed.  Anyone who “looks” Mexican is told “Go back to your country, we don’t want you here!” Look, as a humanity, we have to face something—that we can find ourselves getting swept up into a parade of emotion and fear and misunderstanding, and before we know it, we are participating either directly or indirectly in bullying. We may want to walk with Jesus and the disciples from the East, but we can easily join the Roman legions from the West.

And that’s why Jesus’ example and the story matter. We cannot stop all the suffering in the world, no. But we can be aware, we can stand in witness, we can stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or victimized. What we cannot change, we can acknowledge. We can love by doing this, by listening to someone’s story and saying: I hear you, I love you. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.

And I’ll stand with you—I’ll stand with all of you who are hurt or lonely or rejected. I’ll choose not to follow the bullying crowd and instead I’ll stand close to you, on the margins, loving you. In doing this, we stand as close as we can to the Spirit, to the Divine presence, who is constantly offering love, offering healing, offering identity.



Walking with Joy

Zephaniah 3:17-20a             Inclusive Bible
For YHWH your God is in your midst, a warrior to keep you safe;  who will rejoice over you and be glad with it;  who will show you love once more,  and exult with songs of joy  and soothe those who are grieving.  At the appointed time I will take away your cries of woe and you will no longer endure reproach.  When that time comes, I will deal with all who oppress you.  I will rescue the lost and gather the dispersed. I will win for  my people praise and renown throughout the whole world.  When that time comes, I will gather you and bring you home.

What is joy?

Well now, that’s a loaded question!

What do you think?

What is joy?

Maybe you answered with: happiness.
Elation? A warm, fuzzy feeling? A notion that everything is going great? Or what?

It’s not all that easy to define joy, and probably that’s part of our issue with it. I don’t want to speak for you, but sometimes what joy is presented as to me doesn’t quite seem possible. After all, I don’t always feel happy. And happiness itself can be defined in so many different ways.

So let’s do this—let’s say what joy isn’t. Joy isn’t a feeling. Joy isn’t a bodily reaction to some external stimuli. Feelings are: the tickle you feel when a feather brushes your skin. We feel heat when the sun is strong in the sky. We feel relief when we sneeze. But joy is not a feeling, joy is an emotion. Emotions are active responses and they have objects. For example, your partner gets the new job she was hoping for, and you have joy over that event.

I’ll go a step further. Joy is an emotion, but perhaps it should be partnered with gratitude.

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brown is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

She is also the Founder and CEO of The Daring Way and COURAGEworks – an online learning community that offers eCourses, workshops, and interviews for individuals and organizations ready for braver living, loving, and leading. Brown’s 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 25 million viewers.

She once appeared on Oprah’s show, and talked about joy. She called joy the most terrifying emotion. Why terrifying? Because fear stems from having our joy taken away. How many of us, she asks, “have ever sat up and thought, ‘Wow, work’s going good, good relationship with my partner, parents seem to be doing okay. Holy crap. Something bad’s going to happen’? You know what that is? [It’s] when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’ What we do in moments of joyfulness is, we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.”

To illustrate this point, Dr. Brown shares with Oprah a story about a man she interviewed who admitted to her that he never allowed himself to be too joyful about anything in life. Then his wife of 40 years was killed in a car accident. Dr. Brown remembers him saying, “The second I realized [my wife] was gone, the first thing I thought was, ‘I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy. Because that did not protect me from what I feel right now.’”[1]

Truly joyful people, says Dr. Brown, do not allow fear to take away from fully experiencing joy. They practice gratitude. And it is tangible.

What if the root of joy is gratefulness?

What if joy is born out of gratefulness?

If so, even bad luck can give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it.

Gratitude makes us joyful.

And so, the prophet Zechariah says:
Yahweh rejoices over us.
Yahweh, G-d, shows love to us.
G-d soothes those who grieve and takes away woe.
G-d deals with those who are oppressed—rescuing and gathering them.
G-d brings us home. Home to joy.

Home to gratefulness.

Even tears and sadness can be pathways to gratefulness, and then to joy.


Wholeness as a Lifestyle

Luke 3:1-6 NRSV

Luke’s Gospel has a lot of stuff in it that seems to relate to OT prophets. Makes sense. I mean, Luke is the only Gospel that goes into so much detail about how John the Baptizer’s life was foretold by prophets, so was Jesus’ birth, and oh by the way, a prominent character in the story is an Israelite priest, Zechariah. And then, consider John the Baptizer. He is a guy telling people to be purified, he speaks of fire and refining, and water is involved. But someone else is coming after him to do just that.

Okay, I get it. By this point, you should have made some connections between Malachi and Luke. There’s nothing wrong with that. But each book should stand on its own if we are to embrace their meaning.

In the case of Luke, we are talking about a cleansing and purifying, but it’s called baptism. Jewish baptism was commonplace and Luke’s readers would have understood. But baptism was more than just a religious ritual to be cleansed from sin. Baptism was marking an internal transformation in the person and a display of that transformation in the form of changed behavior. Baptism is an “unbinding” of people, i.e. freedom to become the fullest expression of what they can be.

I will call this wholeness.

Wholeness, to me, is when we are truly ourselves. It is when we fully express our humanity without convention, worry, or external influence.

One thing that helps me to daily consider if I am pursuing wholeness within myself is to consider my day-to-day activities and choices.

For me it is helpful to ask: Will this choice bring me into greater wholeness, coherency, harmony and integration, or take me further away from it?

We make choices every day. But how often do we consider whether or not these choices make us more whole?

So it’s Advent; Christmas is on its way. Gifts are on people’s minds. So here’s a take-home activity for you to consider. I want you to think about 3 gifts.

Gift 1: What would you like to give yourself?

Gift 2: What would you like to give to someone you care about?

Gift 3: What would you like to give a stranger?

Consider these three gifts. They will lead you to wholeness.

Sad, Glad, Soft, Loud, Stubborn Songs!

Based on Luke 1:39-56

 What are your favorite songs? Everybody has some. Which are the songs that give you energy, bring a smile to your face, and pick you up? You listen to them on your iPod, or in your car or at home and you just feel better? U2’s Beautiful Day or Cee Lo’s Bright Lights, Bigger City lift me up. Or which songs move you in a different way? Which songs resonate with your feelings of sadness or doubt or fear? Which songs sit with you and cry, mourn, or question? The Beatles’ Yesterday does that for me. And then, which songs help you to express frustration or anger? The ones that give you permission to express the deepest, fullest anger in your soul? Zero by the Smashing Pumpkins in on my anger playlist.

What are your happy, energetic songs? Your sad ones? Your angry ones?

Songs are powerful. This time of year, we don’t have to remind ourselves of that, do we? I think there is no season more prone to nostalgia, memories, and emotions than this one. And songs are a big part of it, right? Some Christmas songs are just silly and fun.

Yes, we sing Jingle Bells [before the tire blows out], and Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman, and the Hanukkah Songoh wait—that’s…not…well, it’s one of MY favorite silly/fun songs for this time of year, anyway. Thanks, Adam. All kidding aside, there are also songs we listen to and sing that are not silly or just plain fun. Some songs can lift us up and other songs allow us to be honest about our sadness or our anger. One mistake that we make as U.S. Christians is that we more often than not go for the silly and superficial music this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I love to laugh and to be silly. And I do it a LOT. But honestly, we often avoid the deeper, more honest songs that speak to the realities of our world and our lives. The songs that challenge us; the songs that move us to action.

The songs of lament; the songs of justice.

All during Advent we have been walking through the story of Luke’s Gospel. So it is appropriate for us to talk about songs, because Luke contains a lot of songs. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us, because Luke likes to tell its story with the stories of the Ancient Israelites in mind. In other words, while we equate Luke with only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Luke actually echoes the stories of characters like Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and David. All of them sang. Their songs told stories. So do the songs of Luke’s characters: Zechariah, Simeon, the angels, and of course, Mary.

A reminder about the Gospels and how they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to what we may remember, the birth of Jesus is barely mentioned in the Bible. Only 2 Gospels–Luke and Matthew–talk about this event, and in drastically different ways. Luke’s focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Luke is honed in on God’s justice and love lifting up the lowly—those whose voices are often silenced. So it’s no surprise, then, that we find Luke’s story mostly about women. Of course, in the time and culture of the 1st and 2nd Century, women certainly did not enjoy many freedoms. In fact, the Bible we have leaves out much of what women might have said or experienced. So it’s rare that we get such a closer view of women’s perspective like we do in Luke.

Like the Ancient Israelite’s story of Ruth and Naomi, in Luke we find two women who share a special friendship. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as we know, were older and could not have children. Luke spends an entire chapter telling their story for a reason. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story parallels Mary and Joseph’s. You see, eventually, an angel visits Zechariah making a startling announcement that seems impossible; then, a mute Zechariah and a shocked Elizabeth deal with the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. This new kid, according to the angel with a name [Gabriel], will be like the prophet Elijah and bring the Israelites back to their homeland. Wow! But in spite of this amazing news, Elizabeth finds it necessary to remind everyone that up to this point, she’s been disgraced in her own community. Luke wants us to understand that Elizabeth was isolated. She felt worthless. But God via some Gabriel-angel told her something different.

Well, apparently this Gabriel was busy, because the angel made it over to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s relative, Miriam, who we call Mary. A similar announcement takes place. Mary is going to have a kid. Just one problem: she has a guy she likes who happens to be a descendent of King David [which is good], but they actually aren’t married. So getting pregnant maybe doesn’t sound so great at this point.

I love Luke’s rendering of the story. Mary is troubled at the news. Well, that’s an understatement!

Like Elizabeth’s kid-to-be, John, Mary’s son will also be a leader. Not just any leader—the next king to take over David’s empty throne. But Mary was less concerned with all that political jargon. Like Elizabeth, it was more about practicality. No, Mary wasn’t older like Elizabeth, but she did not know a man yet. That’s what the Greek text actually says. I’m not going to go into the tiresome debate about the word virgin, because I just don’t think it’s important in the story. What matters is that Mary and Joseph are not together in the way that would be acceptable in society. Remember, these are parallel stories. So Elizabeth was disgraced by her community for being old, female, and infertile. Mary would be disgraced also for being pregnant without a proper marriage commitment. Seems like they can’t win, right?

But again, that’s the point Luke is making. Yes, society points the finger and judges, but God doesn’t really care. This atypical story moves on as God chooses to lift up these two women. Check this out: after the angel leaves Nazareth, there’s no man in Mary’s story. No one–no Joseph! Instead, Mary goes by herself to visit Elizabeth in the Judean town where she and Zechariah lived. Now let’s assess this. Nazareth in Galilee was about 70 miles from Judea. But keep in mind that Samaria was in the way and we know how Israelites and Samaritans felt about each other. So most likely, Mary traveled around 100 miles.[1] What was going on her mind during that long trip? Probably she was afraid, nervous, upset, and unsure about the future. But she went with haste to see Elizabeth. For some reason, she felt that Elizabeth was the right person to tell.

Mary.ElizabethWhen she arrives at their home, Elizabeth welcomes her. Actually, she embraces her. No doubt this made Mary feel better. Elizabeth didn’t scold her or ask her, “Where’s the ring?” or shoot judgmental glances at her. Elizabeth welcomed her. The story is redefining what society has taught. It doesn’t matter if Mary is unwed and pregnant. What matters to God is that both Mary and Elizabeth will participate in the passing on of Good News. John will preach it at the Jordan River. Jesus will preach and live it in Jerusalem and Galilee. And you and I must remember that this storyteller Luke knows about who these two babies will become. He’s writing a flashback story. It’s all making sense now. Of course, the God who stands with the oppressed, the God who lifts up the lowly will give these two women powerful roles to play. If both John and Jesus preached freedom for those enslaved, justice for those pushed down, and a place for the left out, doesn’t Elizabeth’s and Mary’s story resonate?

Well, just in case we STILL don’t get it because we’ve had too much eggnog and are fixated on manger scenes, Mary on a donkey, and the little drummer boy—Luke brings it home. And of course, Luke brings it home with music. The once-mute Zechariah sings. His song is joyful, but mixed with frustrations and years of sadness.

Zechariah sings:

Blessed is God, but the wait has been long for us to be saved from those who hate us. We needed to be rescued from enemies. But God forgives sins and is tender in mercy, giving light to those who sit in darkness and even fear death. God gives peace.

And Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is of a similar tone. It could have been a typical Hebrew poem of old. It looks a lot like Hannah’s song. Mary sings:

My whole being lifts up my God, but only because God has helped me in my lowliness. I may not have been blessed before, but from now on, I will be. There is mercy for me and great strength in God’s arm which scatters the proud and the powerful. God lifts up those who are down, like me. God gives hungry people things to eat. Those who are too rich are empty.

Mary and Zechariah’s songs, and eventually the angelic songs amid shepherds, of Luke’s gospel in chapter two, voice music of joy mixed with pain. Not all the joy of the songs is reality. People go hungry. The proud keep their thrones. The greedy get more. The lowly are oppressed. People often feel empty, even when they try to be faithful. Sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. And yes, THIS is what the songs of Luke’s story have to teach us. We so often paint the Jesus birth story in the most sanitized, friendly, and nostalgic way possible. But this will leave us empty. For the story is much, much bigger than how we’ve wrapped it up for ourselves. Hear the songs of this story. And now, hear your own.

We all sing—whether in public or in private. Sometimes we sing aloud and sometimes we sing in our minds or in our hearts and only we can hear. But we need to sing all kinds of songs, not just the easy ones. We need to sing songs of lament to express our grief and fear, honoring these emotions and then eventually stripping them of their power over us so we don’t stay in our grief and depression; so we don’t learn how to hate. And we need to sing songs of joyful praise and thanksgiving so we feel a connection to each other and to the land and the good creation around us. And we need to sing songs of courage and hope when all around us is fearful, violent, and bleak.

We need to sing like this in order to live like this.

Mary and Zechariah don’t just sing, they start to live out what they sing. They name their hopes, fears, sadness, and promises. Mary’s song is sung in the past tense. According to her, these promises have already been fulfilled [even though they hadn’t]. So she’s stepping out into the world with more than hope. She is living and breathing this song. She’s agreeing to be a willing participant in the giving and telling of God’s mercy and love to all people. And her song becomes her story.

So sing, friends. Sing all the songs of your whole being. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Sing.

Sometimes your songs of defiant love and acceptance will overwhelm the hateful words and actions in our world. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of honest doubt will completely heal someone who never felt she had permission to question God. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of thankfulness will remind another how special it is to just have food, and health, and people who love you, and not things. So sing.

And sometimes your songs will blend with many other songs, raising a voice of courage and unity to work for justice, peace, and acceptance for all So…sing!

And as you sing, step into this mercy and love of God that doesn’t push you down or call you names or leave you on the street or exclude you or applaud violence or offer simplistic answers or belittle your pain or ignore your challenges or judge your faults.

Step into that song; live it. Amen.

[1] Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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