Learning to Enter Oasis

I shared this message at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership Training during Wednesday morning worship. This is my flustered and hopeful attempt to look at oasis in a new light so I may one day be bold enough to enter it. 

A-desert-oasis-in-Libya

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Before Christmas break, my colleague Les asked if I would be interested in giving a message for morning worship during our School for Leadership Training conference. I quickly agreed, looking forward to another opportunity to use my gift of preaching (and to hear myself speak for a nice ego boost).

A week before the actual event, Les told me my topic: celebrating the oasis.

I instantly regretted taking on this gig.

Why did I have to talk about the oasis? What business did I have engaging the topic of rest and restoration? I’m a perpetual worrier, and I never feel like I “deserve” those rests. I can talk about the desert all day. I feel better in the desert. Maybe it’s because that’s what I think I deserve. I enjoy feeling busy and “useful” instead of lazy and “useless,” and somehow I’ve equated oasis with the latter.

But according to a note I wrote on Facebook about 7 years ago, when I was a freshman at Bridgewater College, I briefly understood the Oasis.

One March morning, I woke up around 8 AM with a mind full of thoughts and no way to get rid of them, so any further sleep on that dreary Saturday morning was out of the question. My solution? Go running.

I got my shoes, sweats, and sweater on, found my (even for its time) ancient iPod, put my earbuds in, and started running towards Wildwood Park, a place that I often went to for meditation and time away from the hustle and bustle of collegiate life. I ran (and walked) until I reached the park, and for some reason I decided to start walking back once I reached the park entrance. Other plans were in store for me, though. As I went to switch to the next song on my iPod, I realized it was frozen. Since I was and still am such a dunce with technology, I had no idea how to fix the problem, so I decided on a silent walk back.

I took a few steps, then paused, wondering if this was one of those moments of silence with God of which I should be taking advantage. I had been journaling and doing devotions on a daily basis, but now that I was in a secluded and quiet place, I felt I owed it to God to at least try to appreciate the silence.

I listened to the nudge and turned around to make my way to the area behind the waterfall. On my way, I saw ducks and geese waddling around and sleeping peacefully with their little heads tucked under their wings. I found a spot right on the bank and took a seat on the most comfortable looking rock. I gazed out at the water, the wildlife, the waterfall, the trees, everything that wasn’t school or friends or homework or relationships, and I felt content.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a verse from Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm, popped into my head: “He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”

Here I was, sitting next to a bank of completely still water, and I got it.

This was a very pivotal year for me. Between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I lost childhood friends and gained new ones. I entered my first serious romantic relationship and had my heart broken in the process. It seemed, at the time, to be the spiritual equivalent of taking one step forward and falling down the whole flight of stairs. Some of those broken relationships have, graciously, achieved some form of restoration, but at the time, the raw pain of loss permeated my everyday life. At the time, I believed that this moment by the calm water of Wildwood Park was God’s way of showing me that no matter how chaotic my life is, when I take the time out to spend it with this Mystery, I am lead to these quiet, peaceful moments of tranquility so that I may remember that Presence is always there and will never leave my side.

This note gives me hope, because today, almost 7 years later, I’m having a hard time with the concept of oasis. Actually, if I’m being honest, my 7 years younger self had a hard time with it, too. The me then and the me now feel hopeless with how little we have done and how futile our own efforts seem. Anytime we find ourselves approaching an oasis, we panic at the prospect of being there and take long detours around it. There’s still so much more to do, we’ve wondered aloud. I can’t possibly stay here. I haven’t done enough to deserve this. The world around me has so much pain. There’s racism and sexism and hunger and poverty, and my family and relationships aren’t as good and strong as they should be, and there’s personal and educational work I still need to do, and if it’s not done yet, I can’t afford to stop, because if I stop, everything else will fall around me. I haven’t done it all yet, so why should I rest now? We’re hard on myself, you see. And we’ve made the mistake of confusing the oasis with the Promised Land.

After all, it took a broken iPod to get me to sit down and actually be present. And it’s the broken iPod that gives me hope today.

I feel trapped in mental and emotional valley of the shadow of death, but in this valley, I have faith that my iPod will break again, that I will glance out of the corners of my eyes and notice the ducks resting with their heads under their wings, and that I will finally rest. I have faith that God will wake me up to rest, because even though I don’t want to be vulnerable, even though I don’t want to lose control of the world around me that I’m obviously exhibiting so much control over, even more than that, I don’t want to lose my soul. I don’t want to burn out, or cut myself off from God and others and the world around me, and the faith within me that is tinier than a mustard seed reminds me that I’ve been to the oasis before, in my most desperate times where I needed God’s restoration more than ever but still ran away from it.

I know there will come a time when God finally gets me out of my head and says, “Rest, my child, please, because the journey is long, and your cup is overflowing, and you have no reason to die out here in this desert because I am here and have more than enough to sustain you if you’ll just see it and partake of it.” I know there will come a time when I finally see the oasis right in front of me, and I will sit in its shade and drink of its waters and eat and be refreshed. And I know there will come a time when I sprint past it out of my own ill-founded self-righteousness, but it will always be there, and God will always get through to me.

Friends, I need help. I need help realizing the oasis is good. I need help letting go of my own Messiah-complex and living into this new identity as a little Christ but not Christ himself. I need help differentiating between complacency and rest, to walk out of the paralyzing power of fear and run into the arms of the One who called me to keep doing the next little right thing. I need help entering the oasis with you.

We are Judas

I prepared and shared this sermon at Eastern Mennonite Seminary chapel on 3/12/2015 for my preaching class. Please let me know what you think!

Judas1Judas. I rarely hear people talk about him, much less preach about him. After all these years, he remains the disciple turned away from the group, no halo around his head, the eternally condemned outcast.

In the film Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas is portrayed as a disciple who fears how far Jesus is going with his mission. He wants change, but he doesn’t want change the way Jesus is doing it. Overturning tables in the temple, telling off the authorities, speaking vaguely in parables, proclaiming God’s kingdom in an occupied land where Caesar was lord. He knows the consequences of Jesus’ words and ministry. He knows there is a cross involved. And he is scared.

In Terrence McNally’s passion play Corpus Christi, Judas is Jesus’ (or Joshua’s) high school sweetheart. In this play, Judas is a suave, self-confident man who follows Joshua as a disciple but wants more romantically than Joshua is able to give. This jealousy leads to Judas’ betrayal, which causes him great remorse in the end.

In both portrayals, Judas wants something that Jesus won’t grant him. Jesus refuses to conform to Judas’ standards, and as a result, Judas takes matters into his own hands.

But what does the biblical text say about Judas?

It says he was a disciple of Jesus, a man who literally walked, ate, and preached with Jesus and the 11 other disciples. As a disciple, he witnessed firsthand Jesus’ miracles and heard his teachings. Judas accepted Jesus’ good news and was willing to follow him and bring God’s kingdom to earth. He was good with money. Maybe a little too good. Whatever his intentions may have been, he wanted to give something to the poor.

The text also says he repented. This part of the story tends to be ignored. And yet, he goes to the priests and begs them to make him right with God, which is what priests are supposed to do. Yet like so many other authorities, they deemed him incurable, and they turned him away. And then, Judas hangs himself because no one will help make him right with God. Even as the curtain of the temple tears in half, Judas dies because he cannot bring himself to see the opening. In his eyes, he is not forgiven or reconciled, not with himself, not with the priests, not with God.

Judas followed Jesus more intimately and closely than any human alive on earth today, and he still, for whatever reason or intention, turned him in. And when he couldn’t find reconciliation, he took his own life.

judasI understand why this is a story we are uncomfortable facing. If one of Jesus’ own disciples can betray him, what hope do we have? I believe as a result of this fear, the Church has taken Judas’ story and applied it to those outside of the Church. Instead of applying his character to faithful disciples in the Church today, the Church has imposed Judas’ nature onto those deemed enemies, those “outside” looking in. There have been many names for them: Jew, Muslim, conservative, liberal, heretic, black, indigenous, LGBT, and so forth. I see how the Church has identified “the Other” we face with Judas to scapegoat them without feeling too guilty for their actions.

But we, the Church, need to talk about Judas as if he were one of us, because he was and is one of us. As the body of Christ shaped by these stories, we cannot deny Judas’ story any more than we can deny the stories of the other disciples. We cannot deny his story or condemn him, because to do so would be to deny a crucial part of our stories as disciples of Jesus today. And we cannot identify outsiders as Judas to condemn them, because then we will fail in our mission as the body of Christ for all of the “outsiders.” If we cannot see ourselves in Judas’ story, then we are lying to ourselves. To deny or condemn Judas’ story is to deny and condemn the Church, and we cannot be willing to do that. And to only identify the “Other” as Judas is to become the hypocrites about which Jesus ardently warned.

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We are Judas because he was a disciple of Jesus. We are Judas because he loved, listened to, and learned from Jesus. We are Judas, because he played a crucial role in bringing about the beginning of the Church.

Because it was Judas’ damnable actions that resulted in the tearing of the veil that separated God from humanity.

We are Judas, because we are capable of tearing veils, even when we are at our worst. We can rip seams with the best or worst of intentions. We can make tears even though we are not perfect. We can make open sanctuaries despite our own failures.

Yet we are also Judas when we turn our backs on the least of these, because Jesus identified most with the marginalized, not the powerful. We are Judas when we turn our backs on each other, because Jesus says we are his body alive on earth. We are Judas when we refuse to forgive ourselves and hang by our own nooses of shame, bitterness, and guilt.

Is there any good news in this?

Yes. There is.

The good news is that Judas was a human. Maybe the most human. More like us than we’re willing to admit. And Jesus came to bring forgiveness to all humans, no matter how far we stray from the message, no matter how many times we sell Jesus out in the name of our good intentions, no matter how many times we put up walls against each other instead of bridges to each other. There is good news in the fact that Judas helped bring about the tearing of the veils that keep us separated from God.

I believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu has it right on two big things related to this story: “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” and “Without forgiveness, there’s no future.” Only God could use someone like Judas, a man who cruelly didn’t receive reconciliation in his own life, to bring about the reconciliation of the world. And God can use his story to remind us of how cruel we can be to those we deem “incurable.”

As the Church, we are called to learn from our stories, and Judas’ story has something to say to those who turn away those who seek God. Judas, as have many others, learned the hard way how a lack of forgiveness can cruelly cut a life short. We have seen how we hang ourselves from our own nooses, and we have seen others hanged by the nooses of the religious authorities who deem them incurable. We have seen people within the Church cut their lives short, because they have been taught that something about themselves, whether it’s their sexuality, their questions, their illnesses, or something else that makes them “an outsider,” are not acceptable in the Body. They went to the priests seeking reconciliation and love, and they were met with a cold shoulder and a cord of rope.

I have hope in Judas’ forgiveness and Jesus’ love for him, because I have to have hope in the forgiveness and love God has given to me. I have hope that Jesus yearns for those to feel his embrace when others have said that they are untouchable. I have hope that Jesus would not have scapegoated Judas and instead would have held him like a brother as Judas let the tears fall. I have hope in Judas, because I have received those embraces when I felt untouchable, and I have hope in Judas, because I believe in the reality of the torn veil, even when I can’t always see it.

We must accept that if one of us is unforgiven, we are all unforgiven. If one of us is an outcast, we are all outcasts. We are a united body, and what affects one of us affects all of us. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. What heals one of us heals all of us. Judas was part of the body. If he cannot be forgiven, none of us can be forgiven.

But the curtain has been torn in two. There is forgiveness. For Judas. For me. For you. For the Church. For all of the times we have turned our back on Jesus because he didn’t conform to our standards. For all the times we turned our back on the least of these because they didn’t conform to the Church’s standards. For all the times we have turned our backs on each other because we didn’t conform to each others’ standards. There is forgiveness for all of us in all things and for all people.

The veil is torn. There is forgiveness, and it is radically unfair. Thanks be to God.