Monday, August 7, 2017

MORNING (although late in the afternoon) Joe: Yokefellows

The second of three sermons (edited for my blog), preached at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon, 7/23/17. This one is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

My son and I recently traveled in northern New Mexico and parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle in search of my mother’s family history. It was a great trip through beautiful high desert country, and we actually found the marked graves of my great grandfather, William O’Donnell Cochran, his wife, Nancy, and a couple of my granduncles, Achilles and Doc. They are buried in Kenton, in OK, home to about 18 folks—but once a thriving ranching community where my great grandfather and grandfather lived, worked, raised horses and cattle, and tilled the earth. Thanks to the records of the Bureau of Land Management, we found their homestead. Along the way we visited a few museums, searching for information; one common display in those museums is a yoke. I always knew what a yoke was but I guess I never realized how important they were. Most of our trip paralleled, crossed and re-crossed, the Santa Fe Trail—still visible to the eye. My vision of the west was formed largely by Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians. Contrary to that vision of horse drawn Conestoga wagons racing away from the bad guys, most of the wagons were pulled by oxen.

Have you ever looked at or touched a yoke? We used to have one in a meditation garden where I work. A lovely symbol, but they don’t look very comfortable; they are heavy and many are quite rough. But the technology is really simple. A carved, contoured beam that fits behind the ox horns laid over the necks of oxen. There are actually several different kinds of yoke but the one we are most familiar with looks like this. They have two U-shaped attachments that fit around the necks of a team of oxen or other draft animals, with a central ring for hitching the team to a cart, plow, or other load.

In one sense, the early history of the US, perhaps even the world, can be linked to this technology. Yokes were pervasive in Jesus’ day; while in this Matthew passage, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, no one in Jesus’ crowd needed a photograph. Most of his listeners understood what one was and how it worked. But Jesus’ listeners also understood yoke in an oppressive way—the yoke of slavery and oppression. In the Bible yoke is usually a metaphor for slavery and the hardships people must bear. When the yoke of bondage or slavery became severe, it is termed “a yoke of iron upon your neck” (Deut 28:48). Sometimes the term is used to describe the burden of a person’s sin and its punishment: “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck” (Lam 1:14).

But they would also have understood it in terms of liberation and hope—at least a broken yoke. Isaiah states that the Messiah will break “the yoke of his burden” (Isa 9:4) for all. “The yoke will be destroyed from your neck” (Isa 10:27). When God delivered Israel from Egypt, God said, “I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” (Lev 26:13).

So, what’s going on here? What’s Jesus doing? In the early part of this reading—and in the Matthew passage from two weeks ago—Jesus is discipling his followers about living faithfully in a complicated, often perplexing and oppressive world:

“But to what will I compare this generation?” He asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

Some suggest that Jesus seems perplexed here. They rejected John the Baptist and are rejecting him—two very different men who went about ministry in very different ways. He seems to ask, How will they hear that God wants us to live differently? To live with gentleness and humility. I like this idea that Jesus might have been genuinely perplexed. Certainly, he seems sad and maybe even a little or a lot frustrated.

But we might also paraphrase these words this way: You’re never going to make everyone happy—no matter how hard you try. Then, he says, again my paraphrase, if this is how it is, what can be done about it? How can we live as disciples in this setting? Well, his first answer is: Stay focused: “Remember who I am and stay focused on that”: I am God’s son and God loves me, and I reveal God to you. I reveal to you as loving parent.”

Typically, Jesus turns the metaphor of work, bondage, and oppression upside down and says, “Take my yoke.” At first glance, not a pleasant offer and one that begs the question: What kind of yoke are we offered? He describes it for us: it will provide rest; it is a teaching yoke—yoked to Jesus we will learn what we need to know to live in the world. What does this teach us about Jesus? We need to consider that there are two sides to this yoke. We are not only yoked to him; he is yoked with us. Jesus is not driving the oxen; Jesus is not walking alongside the oxen, goading us on; Jesus is not pulling us forward by a ring through our noses; Jesus is yoked with us. He not only wants to be with us, he wants to be joined with us, which is why St. Clement called this “the yoke of grace.” So, to be yoked with Jesus is to be in relationship with him but this also begs a question: Who is this Jesus we are yoked with? Everything hinges on this question. Who is this Jesus with whom we are to be yoked?

At the heart of both the health and unhealth of all of us—and the church—is the image of Jesus we carry in our hearts. Who Jesus is; how Jesus relates and cares; our unhealthy and non-biblical pictures of Jesus—each of these contributes to our own sense of esteem, how we relate to others, and how we relate to God. If we are yoked with a Jesus who is judging, angry, and finger pointing, our yoke will be anything but easy and light. If our view of Jesus is of one who is excited to be with us, who is, welcoming, accepting, encouraging, compassionate, embracing, and yes, lovingly confronting Jesus, then our lives and our ministry together will be connected, healthy, compassionate, and open to God and others.

This yoke means this: We are not alone; we don’t have to live alone; we don't have to work alone; we don’t have to do anything by our own strength. It is grace. It also tells us something about the kind of relationship we are invited into because, Jesus says, my yoke is easy [good, helpful, kind, profitable], and my burden is light. A well-made yoke, evenly distributes the burden; there is an equality about a yoke; each ox is worthy and each ox is necessary and each ox eases the burden of the other.

I grew up in a church where we sang the following with some regularity; I wonder now how true it was for those folks and how true it is for me. (It was written by D. S. Warner and published in 1893.)

The words matter and I remember the music as light and fetching:

I’ve found my Lord and He is mine,
He won me by His love;
I’ll serve Him all my years of time,
And dwell with Him above.

His yoke is easy, His burden is light,
I’ve found it so, I’ve found it so;
His service is my sweetest delight,
His blessings ever flow.

No other Lord but Christ I know,
I walk with Him alone;
His streams of love forever flow,
Within my heart His throne.

He’s dearer to my heart than life,
He found me lost in sin;
He calmed the sea of inward strife,
And bade me come to Him.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Cup: "Fighting Words"

“Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers”
Matthew 10:24-39

Recently in conversation with my friend, Bill Dobrenen, he asked me why I’d quit blogging. Well, I said, hadn’t really quit; I just sort of stopped. But the real reason is that I am basically a dialogical person. I love being with people and I love conversation—and, nearly completely, my blogs are answered by silence. I know that people are visiting this site—and another friend complained that the blog site rules made it difficult to respond—but I don’t know if what I offer has any value beyond the value that I receive from thinking things through in this manner. But he encouraged me; even sent me a response. So, once again, into the fray, hoping that the words I write are words that help someone on life’s journey.
The following is a modified for blog “sermon” I preached recently at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.

If you’re like me, you prefer spending your Bible study time with the happy news passages—the reassuring ones that tell me how much I’m loved, cared for, and known. Sometimes I think Thomas Jefferson had the right idea: Let’s just cut out the hard passages and the demands; you know, like the Matthew judgment passages; let’s just keep the parts that talk about when we do the good things, it’s as if we are doing them to Jesus and ignore those parts that talk about how uncompassionate behavior is mean spirited and in some important ways directed at Jesus. Sadly, but for the better, we don’t get to do that and must pay attention to the hard texts.

They are so demanding; they are so “in your face.” They make us uncomfortable because we see ourselves in them—well, I do. They make us think about how we live our lives, individually and collectively, in the light of Jesus’ call. As he so often does, these passages remind us that it’s not all about us. At the same time that they make us squirm and hunt for rationalizations, they invite us into an ancient conversation. What we call the early church had a problem—one we share with them. They may have felt it more particularly because it was so close to them—so on top of them, but it is still one we struggle with. I call it the Now what problem.

Jesus showed up; Jesus died, Jesus rose; Jesus left, sending something called the Holy Spirit to inspire his followers to figure it out—no blue print provided; it’s something more like a one of my mother’s recipes: a pinch of that and a bit of this. In important ways, Acts and the epistles are extended conversations about the how what; I think the history of the church is the history of people trying to figure this out. Matthew 10:24-39 provides words that challenge us on so many levels, it’s hard to find a starting point, but it is essential to that quest. Since those days, the followers of Jesus, aka the church, has turned to these hard passages asking now what? How does a group of Jesus followers live in a confusing world that provides so many conflicting answers?

There is a context that must be considered before going further. The context always matters and, I think, the context that needs to be considered is the largest one. The central figure of the Bible is God; God self-defines as love; God desires to be in relationship with us. God is love and we are loved, and we are to be like God as lived by Jesus in plain view. We, too, need to be with others, which is especially true with faith because there is no private faith. It is personal, yes, but also communal. So, we are not alone; we live in a world as Jesus followers and with others—others who think as we do, live as we do, believe as we do—and who mostly don’t.

The Bible is full of the loving words we love to hear and read and talk about; the Bible is full of the hard words and challenges that we’d just as soon ignore. Matthew 10:24-39 is one of those hard texts. I’ve given this blog entry the title “Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers.” I don’t think Jesus was always fun to spend time with. He was a revolutionary. He drew lines in the sand.

Sometimes it feels as if we are standing with Colonel Travis at the Alamo: “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” You are with me or not. No one lukewarm welcomed here. This good news doesn’t feel much like good news, does it? Even though Jesus could be amazingly tender—and thank God for those tender words—these difficult words fall from those same lips. It’s hard to make them palatable, isn’t it?

My growing up years were spent in a holiness congregation that defined Christian more by what we didn’t do than by what we did or who we were. There was a long list of don’ts. This made things pretty easy; to be a Christian, toe this line. The whole-hearted life commitment that Jesus calls us to is so much harder because it has more to do with who you belong to and how you live as a believer in a difficult world. It feels more like living in the gray interstices and palimpsests than in the bright glare of unequivocal day. Yet Jesus does draw a line in the sand here. Jesus does say you are with me or not. Jesus does say to pick up his cross and follow. Jesus does say, if you are my disciple you should expect what I received—and perhaps more. He even says that if you care more for family than you do for me, you are not worthy of me. Finders losers; losers keepers. Whew! This is hard stuff; hard to read; harder to practice; harder to write about.

Where is the positive in all of this? Well, I hope I can find some this is going to be one big downer of a blog. I think Jesus is simply recognizing that—no matter what—we are going to serve somebody—it’s our DNA—even Bob Dylan says we can’t escape it. We don’t get to say no; we are going to serve somebody even if it is ourselves—and we all know how well that works out, right? Where is the hope in this?

In two places; first, right in the middle of all this hard stuff Jesus says, in The Message paraphrase:

What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?
And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.
He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—
even numbering the hairs on your head!
So, don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.
You’re worth more than a million canaries.

So, first, we are known and we are loved—we are counted and named and have more value than canaries. God is love and we are God’s. The hard stuff must be heard in this context—or all is lost.

Second, we are not alone because we are with others who are also trying to figure it out. That’s one of my definitions for the church: a bunch of Jesus followers, sitting at his table, trying to figure it out.

Some have correctly suggested that this passage is part of the commissioning and discipling of his disciples and that he is urging them to boldly proclaim a new way of living based on peace and love. Verses 37-39 sound challenging but are really saying “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” But this doesn’t really let us off; the Great Commandment is pretty challenging as well. Furthermore, we cannot escape into the that was then, this is now argument. The Bible is the church’s book and its authority and relevance still informs all that we are, think, and do. So, while these teachings of Jesus are addressed immediately to his disciples, we, too, are disciples of Jesus and so he says it also to us.

Shane Claiborne, in a recent tweet, said this: “This is the church: a bunch of imperfect people falling in love with a perfect God…and trying to become more like the God we love, every day.” So, where do we end up with this? We choose. Life is all about choice, isn’t it? It is what we do–we choose. We choose to follow Jesus, and we choose to embrace the consequences of that choice. In some respects, we choose every day; perhaps, every moment. We do not choose by ourselves, hiding in a closet, if we know what’s good for us. In the open light of day, we choose with others who are also choosing to live this way. And we ask, what now? So what? How, then, shall I live? Who we choose to serve and how we live out that choice, empowered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, in the company of others who share (and some who don’t share) the same choice we make—herein is the answer. As Christians, as Jesus followers, we choose Jesus in all his revolutionary, line in the sand, stance, we watch him and listen to him and to others who also choose him; then we stand before him and invite his Spirit to open us up and travel with us on the journey of living into this choice.  

Many years ago, Helmut Thielicke, in response to a question about how Christians are to answer questions when the Bible is ambiguous. What do you do when the Bible does not give us a clear “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”? His response never left me and has been one of the formative guides on my own journey. He said, “You stand before the question.” I take that to mean that you do not jump to conclusions; you do not immediately build a fort (or draw a line in the sand) to defend your conclusion. I take it as another way of saying what Rilke said to a young poet even longer ago: “You learn to love the questions and live into the answer.”

The older I get the more questions I have than answers; I always thought it would be the other way around. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for a teacher who necessarily spends more time with students’ questions than most. Maybe it’s just a curse or even borne out of fear of answers and what they might mean for my life. Yet, I have found that while The Answer List has gotten shorter, it has gotten more certain and more determinative. At the heart of that certainty is this ever-deepening conviction that Jesus lives with me as I stand before the questions of my life, that I trust his presence in my life, and have faith that daily I move forward with greater hope and charity.

Friday, April 14, 2017



As I was driving to pick up my great granddaughter this morning, I was praying for these poems. It occurred to me, as I prayed, that I really don’t know where my poetry comes from. I desire to be a poet, yet in some odd way I feel more like a transcriber than an originator. (I do not mean by this to say that these poems are written by God or carry some special godly authority. I do mean to say that these poems are the result of a nearly life long conversation with God about God and me—and, in that conversation, suddenly, often without expectation, as a kind of surprise, a poem emerges, as it were, “out of the blue.” Lewis was “surprised by joy”; I am often surprised by poetry.) I rarely sit down to write a poem; I am often compelled to write a poem. An idea or turn of phrase occurs to me and, then, there it is. These that follow are the result of that conversation and have been in some sense brewing for quite a while.

[Crucifix by Will Johnson]


These are not the last words;
He has much more to say along the way:
Next to the beach over a cooking fire,
Walking along a road after Jerusalem,
In locked door rooms; in a garden
outside a tomb. Ascending. These, instead,
are his dying words.

People once listened and carefully recorded
Last words; it is possible to find collections
Of famous last words. I’m told persons,
Thoughtful about their deaths, once composed
Such lines in anticipation. A legacy of famous words.

These seven words are spoken by a dying man, hanging
From a cross. These words are from a used cross
Rooted in bloodied rock. These words, not his last,
Ring a surprising tone of compassion.
For all others; perhaps, even for us; for his mother’s
Well being; for a repentant random other
Crucified alongside him. Human words.
Words you might expect from a dying man—
Abandonment, thirst, yielding. Ordinary words
For the most part made holy by
Circumstance and speaker.

Word 1. “forgive”

This is no execution looked away from, locked
Away and seen only by a few official witnesses.
This is no lethal injection administered with
Clinical correctness in a sterile room on a gurney.
No chair wired for quick startling death.
This is public death. Officials and passersby can
Chat as they watch and lay odds about the certain,
If eventual, outcome. Not odds on if, only when.

Nothing hidden here. No modesty. The pain.
The blood. The nakedness. The anguish. The blood.
Thirst. Death displayed in front of God and everybody.

Then, this word—“forgive.” It must have silenced the
Noise momentarily, at least. Passersby stood, perplexed,
Mouths open. (Such perplexing irony. The one unlawfully
Condemned—a victim of power politics and privilege—
Says “Forgive them.”) Yet, unwilling to consider what this
Word means, too quickly return to idle chatter
And easy mockery, missing this cosmic moment
when dying God intervened
For mercy on those who have accomplished his death.

Word 2. “paradise”

A conversation on crosses.
A conversation in extremis.
Straining for breath, rasping out words,
Like after a hard run or a steep climb.
Parched words. Hoarse.
Straining muscle to pull up, to take a breath
To expel words with one who speaks words
Of anger and escape and one who
Speaks words of hope and release.

As they hang dying, they discuss their fates.
One, at least, regardless of the obvious, senses
Something more here, something else and begs.
Asks to be remembered. Re-membered.
Remember these bones. Remember me.
You will be remembered, the One says, and it
Will be paradise. A garden. You will be remembered
As you were…no, as you were intended. As we all
Were intended in that place of rivers and peace,
Of beauty and order where all was as it was meant to be:
“with me.” Today. With me. In paradise. As once
I walked with the father and mother of us all
In the cool of the evening, so we, today, in paradise,
Will walk.

Word 3. “Behold”

What do you notice when you are dying? A fly?
An unfamiliar noise? The smells of dying?
In moments of anguish, what do you hear
While other friends and family hide?

Two are near, a woman and a man.
One you call mother and one you call
Beloved. You notice, in midst of your pain, they
Are alone. Bereft. Your cross, your death, creates a
Welcoming space where two alone can meet
And embrace and find connection in face of
Such anguish.

Anguish shared is anguish borne and loss
Is found begins to fill:
Mother, your son; beloved, your mother.

In the midst of such startling pain, such desperate ache,
Such dangerous despair, two meet and secure a
Sacred space and begin their journey to peace. The
Sword piercing her heart is slowly released and
Healing begins.

Word 4. “forsaken”

He begged to be spared this.
He begged to avoid the deep pain of deeper loss.
He begged for another way to sidestep this valley.
This well of loneliness, a lightless hole that sucks
All light and life leaving more absence of light
Than dark. He begged and bled through his pores.
He tasted this tasteless bread and drank this flat wine.
No surcease. Nothing. Absence. Forsaken. Abandoned.
He, once one with his father, is now alone, alone, alone.
All, all alone.

Yet, still, he calls on the abandoning father to
Understand why such despair is necessary.
What does he learn in this absent light?
What we all know as existential loss—
An untethering from the source. Anchorless.
An unreachable pier. A severed rope to which we
Clung. A rootless tree.

Word 5. “thirst”

The incarnation in a simple sentence. Subject Verb.
In the midst of a cosmic-everything-changing-moment,
This essential human need. Stretched between
Heaven and earth—never more human.
Never holier. The word made flesh
And thirsted among us. We are 60% water.
An ocean flows in us, yet
We know thirst. Headaches. Muscle aches.
Dizziness. Dis-oriented,
Thirst focuses our attention more than any
Other need—all consuming thirst.
We die more quickly from thirst
Than hunger. The body drains and must be


He who said I have food you know not of as
He sat by Jacob’s well; he who spoke and
Bound the sea that covered the world,

Word 6. “finished”

In every beginning, there is an end. Death has
Stalked this one since the age of two. The end arrives;
Death closes in. Eagerly. But why? What is needed?
A fulfilled sacrificial ritual to satisfy and pay off
An angry, hurt God demanding ransom? There are
Those who say so. Is it nothing more than
The end of a life, well, yes, it is that.

But is there more to this word?

I have done all I know to do.
I have been all I know to be.
I have loved courageously, even recklessly.
My heart has bled and my pores as well.
I’ve given sight; I’ve straightened limbs;
I’ve settled spirits and made mad men sane;
I’ve brought the dead to life—after days
Of stinking flesh. What more might I have
Done that I did not do? What more can I have
Been than I am?

Nothing, I think, nothing more than this:
That I lay down my life for my friends—
And foes. Why? Because I love you with the fierce
Love of my Father and want the world to know,
To see the wild beating heart of God.

Here it is—I show it to you even as it slows and stops.
This is God’s heart broken for you—all of you
Who hate me and who love me. The father’s
Heart for you. It is enough.

Word 7. “reunion”

A God has one son and sends him away
To a far country where the son works
Hard on the God’s behalf to help all see
The God’s heart. The son walks and walks.
Talks and loves; heals and feeds multitudes
And individuals. The son goes far and
Wide and says, pointing to his heart,
“This,” this is the heart of God
And not that bloody temple.” The son loves
Recklessly, at risk and in danger, always
Misunderstood, because the God had been
So misunderstood, more feared than respected
And more feared than loved.
What God wanted was to love and be loved.
The son wants all to know the God and to see
God’s wild beating heart.

Yet fear instead emerged; a fear so great of
undermined position and loss of power and
Prestige. And fear kills: Either the one who fears
Or the one who causes fear—or both. And, so,
Here we all are, at the foot of a cross watching
The agony of the Son, who only wants freedom to
Love, dying for love. Love of God; love of others.

Finally, this son sent on a long and dangerous journey
Goes home. And as we stand before that cross, at
Last, we see it—there on this particular cross
At this particular time and particular place, we see it.
The passionate, wild, beating
Heart of God who risks all for us and invites us
Home, back to the garden.

Prodigal God.
Prodigal Son.

Together in an embrace wide and strong enough
To hold each of us and all of us—the whole
World of us.

World without end. Amen. Amen.