Sunday, June 7, 2015

Prisoners of Hope: an open-door policy

Easter 3 B        April 19, 2015
Acts 3:12-19 
Psalm 4 
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

Have you ever seen that bumper sticker: “Had a rough week? We’re open on Sundays.” The disciples, in these early days after the resurrection of Jesus, have had a bad week; a lot of crazy and frightening things have been happening. Like the disciples, we are all capable of being scattered, undone, confused. Come to think of it, who has not had a rough week this week, what with one thing or another: cleaning, cooking, taking care of your family, driving in bad traffic, having so much to do that you do not know which end is up. Had a rough week? We’re open on Sundays.

We do not have to dig down deep in our lives to find places that resonate with what the disciples must have been going through. In what must have seemed like a mission very quickly going out of control, Jesus is arrested and killed, and the disciples lost their beloved friend. He was a wonderful teacher -- he was kind, exciting, charismatic -- it was a thrill to be in his presence. He held people -- physically and spiritually. He knew the right thing to say every time, and he made each one of them feel important. He gave them hope for the future and they knew they were involved in something important enough for them to turn away from what was important in their lives just to be with this person, Jesus. A couple of his disciples were convinced that he would become the King of Israel, unite what had long been separated, and throw out the Roman oppressors.

Then it was over. He was dead. He had talked a lot about suffering; he quoted scripture about it. He said every prophet suffered, and that his time would be fulfilled, but it was just words to them -- until it happened. Then none of it made any sense at all: he wasn't King. He wasn't teaching anymore. He wasn't healing the sick. He could have done so much more if this horrible, confusing thing had not happened. They could have followed him all their lives. They could have grown old together, but now he was dead. Because when death happens, isn’t that all we have ever known?

It took some time – years, even – for the disciples around Jesus to begin to see what had happened, to begin to feel the power, the hope, the possibility, what it meant that God had brought someone back from the dead. That’s why every Easter season we read passages from the Acts of the Apostles: those stories tell us how the disciples incorporated this astounding Good News into their lives some years later. The Gospel accounts tell us what happened in those first few days and weeks. We see the
progression from confusion to clarity, from a scattered disbelief to a confident assurance.

We come to church to hear these stories. When we hear these stories, we see where our story – our confusion, our confidence – fits in with God’s story. We see that we are part of that great stream of the people of God, witnesses to the Good News, prisoners of hope, even during those rough weeks when we are scattered and confused and too tired even to sleep. We’re open on Sundays because that was the day Jesus opened the tomb, and this whole Good News began.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Second chance, even if you missed it the first time

Easter 2-A
April 12, 2015
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 16
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Grow up! You’re on your own now! Stand on your own two feet!

How many times have things like that been said to you? Or you have said things like that to others?

We live in a culture that values autonomy, a culture that obsesses with independence, choice, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and all that. We don’t really believe, deep down, that the words of the Acts of the Apostles applies to us:

… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

We Americans would find that kind of behavior socialist (!); we are much more obsessed with individual autonomy. Some believe the developmental goal of adolescence and young adulthood is to separate the young person from his or her family. It is the time to strike out on one’s own, achieve self-realization and self-actualization and self! Self! Self!

That’s not the way it is in every culture. In some cultures, interdependence is valued more highly that independence. The family unit is more important that the desires of the individual. Immigrants from cultures with tightly knit families move to this country and come smack up against a culture that says, “Be all YOU can be.” Fulfill your fantasies and desires. Be the Army of one. Do what you want to do. The goal of your life is self-actualization.

It’s startling to us self-realizers to imagine that there would be another way of living where I am not at the center of my universe but only one piece in a larger web of relationships and responsibilities, and whose fortune depends on how I contribute to that greater good. Such a way of living would require of us a complete re-orientation of who we think we are, and how we make decisions, and how we act, and what we believe. We would have to admit that there is something bigger than ME out there. We would have to humble ourselves and be forced to admit that God, and maybe other people, know more about what we should do than we do.

Think of Thomas as Mr. Self-Actualization, as the guy who can take care of himself, who makes decisions based on fact and not rumor, who is his own man. If Jesus has come back from the dead, the he has to see it to believe it – or it must not exist. As the center of his own universe, even God has to prove Godself.

One of the things this gospel story is saying, though, that maybe that is not the best way to be. Maybe God is showing us that life is about something other than what we think we can prove and control.
It’s a hard lesson to learn. After all, we’ve been on our own for a very long time. Western culture dates our sense of autonomy to the Fall – to when God threw Adam and Eve out of the garden for acting a little too autonomously. Self-actualize and out you go, God said. The gates of paradise are now closed. You are on your own now.

Today’s gospel alludes to that first creation when describing how the resurrected Jesus first appeared to his disciples: “He breathed on them,” bestowing the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins. This is what Genesis says: “then the Lord God formed the human creature from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the creature became a living being.” What the gospel says is that Jesus is bringing about a creation as powerful and new as that first creation, and that whatever went wrong between then and now, well, take a deep breath. You’ve got a second chance, a new spirit, a resurrected life.

What would it mean to believe this story of this new creation, this second chance, this breath-filled spirit? I think it means giving up some of our autonomy. It means realizing that there is more to realize than the SELF. It means regaining a trust in dependency, in inter-dependency. It means leaving behind our self-reliance and risking surprise and loss of control.

We can’t see what Thomas and those disciples saw, those holes and nail marks. We did not go with the women to find the empty tomb. Jesus won’t walk through any more walls to shake our hands. But we can still feel that breath. We can still set sail on that spirit. We can still the newness of this new creation and breathe in the new and renewed reality of God.

Yes to possibility. Yes to love. Yes to abundance. Yes to life.

Acts 10:34-43
Ps. 118
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

From last Sunday to this, we have lived in fear. Oh, perhaps not we in our everyday lives, but in our Gospel lives. When we read the story of the betrayal, trial, passion and death of Jesus , we read about fear: fear about what the “authorities” could do to us, to Jesus; fear for our lives. One by one, the disciples ran away from Jesus in fear. One by one, and then all of them ran. All of them except a small group of women disciples who stayed to watch Jesus die on the cross. And then, when the body was taken down and put into the tomb, even those women left. But death is like that: eventually, the body has to be left by itself, alone in death.

Even with the dawn of the new day, the fear does not end. Things are not right in the graveyard. When the women come to take care of the body, everything is awry. All of them, except one, run away again, frightened and terrified, again.

It is the weeping Mary who first realizes that the terrifying news is good. Mary who sees that it is Jesus standing before her. Mary, who, at the end of the story, leaves Jesus again – but this time as the apostle to the apostles, running, still, no doubt, with some terror, but running with joy to be the first to tell this Good News.

With the resurrection of Jesus, all that is dark and frightful begins to be undone. The last to see Jesus die becomes the first to see him alive. Peter, the disciple turned betrayer, is singled out by Jesus for re-inclusion in the community. Jesus tells them to leave Jerusalem, to return to Galilee, to the place where their movement began – back to their home territory, back to that place far from the center of imperial and Temple power, back to the people who know in their hearts, in their souls and bodies, that this extraordinary Good News begins with them.

One benchmark for evaluating the success of mission – of the church’s mission – is to say, that unless it is Good News for the poor, it is not Good News. And so the Gospel of Mark ends in the place where it began: as Good News for the poor, the marginalized, the outsiders and outcast – as Good News for the people on the fringes of the Empire, Good News for the people not “good enough” for the Temple. Those are the people who get done to them daily what got done to Jesus, and those are the people who understand what it means when one of their brothers, Jesus, gets beaten into that dark and frightening place, and comes out the other side: shining, and clean and whole.

What the brothers and sisters in Galilee now must grapple with – what we have all grappled with over these thousands of years – is to live as though we really believed that resurrection happened. To incorporate that confidence, that grace, that joy, that conviction, into our daily lives. To put all those deaths, great and small, that we encounter, into the context of that great, big resurrection. To remember, even as we slog through a mudfield of “no” after “no”, that what really gives meaning to our lives is a resounding “yes.” Yes, to possibility; yes, to love; yes, to abundance; yes, indeed, today and every day, to life.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Friday, April 3, 2015

... in remembrance of her

Maundy Thursday
April 2, 2015
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Mark 14:1-25

This story of the extravagant woman is sandwiched between two nasty bits of anger, vengeance and betrayal. This seemingly insignificant story, often forgotten in the rush of Holy Week, as we make our mad dash from Palm Sunday to Easter, is actually a story the church has preserved carefully over the years. Indeed, along with the scrupulously remembered accounts of the Last Supper and Passion of Jesus it likely formed an important part of the liturgies – the worship services – of early Christians.

The story opens in a house. In the Gospel of Mark, lots of important things happen in people’s houses: “in the house,” or ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ in Greek, was where Jesus healed the sick, forgave sins, ate with sinners – many times. Jesus went “in the house” to teach his disciples, to talk about the coming kingdom, and from which the disciples were sent into the community. In the decades between Jesus’ life and the writing of this Gospel, “in the house” was where Christians gathered for worship. Churches were house churches, small, domestic, private places. When Jesus ate the Passover meal with his friends, the house was also the place from which he was betrayed.

It was probably not uncommon for a men’s-only dinner like this one – not the Passover meal, but the meal where the woman anoints Jesus – for women to come in to “entertain” the guests. But this is far from an ordinary meal. First of all, the house belongs to someone profoundly unclean, and unholy: Simon the leper – a shocking contrast to what we read before and after the story, about the very holy and very clean chief priests and scribes. So our location is already someplace very dicey, very on the edges of proper society. Jesus and the disciples are eating with a leper, in the home of a leper, on evening before the first night of Passover.

And if we take those brackets in further – “the clean” contrasting with “the unclean” – we see at the center of the story the outraged disciples. Who does this woman think she is, wasting all this valuable stuff. They are pious, they are angry, they scold. But on either side of their pique, we see the signs of the kingdom.

The woman’s alabaster jar of nard was indeed very valuable. Nard was apparently passed on from mother to daughter, a family heirloom. The oil is aromatic, beautiful, and used for healing. It is full of blessings. And so this woman takes all she has – the most valuable thing she has – her most precious asset – and pours it out on Jesus’ head. It is the kind of gesture we hear echoed in marriage vows: “with all that I am and all that I have I honor you.” When the early Christians heard this, in their house churches, years after the reality and memory of the resurrection brought them together, they would think of Jesus: God’s most precious gift, poured out completely, emptied entirely on their heads, extravagant, wasteful, overflowing and abundant. This woman’s act, to the ears of the early Christians, was a sign of what God had done for them, and a mark of true discipleship.

Then, in the story, we have the outraged disciples, and then framing them on the other side, we have Jesus’ words about what this woman’s act means. It is an act of sacred charity, of care for the poorest and emptiest person in the room. As the early church understood it years later, it was the woman and the woman alone who knew what Jesus was about to do, and it was the woman who took care of Jesus, who prepared him for the death that was to come. This woman embodied the Good News, the Gospel. The woman, with her love and charity and hope and confidence, is the prime example for the Christian life.

This 14th chapter of Mark goes back and forth between betrayal and love, greed and abundance. But it is the unnamed woman who enters the house of the leper, who leads us into the darkness of the crucifixion, who is our model for what it means to follow Jesus. It is the women, marginalized and insignificant, who stand, unnoticed, at the foot of the cross when the disciples run away. And it is the women, who sneak into the burial garden at dawn, and who are the first ones who run to tell us what they find there.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sin, suffering and Jesus on the cross: words from Julian of Norwich

Palm Sunday B
March 29, 2015
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Ps. 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

The stark image of the dying Jesus on the cross brought comfort to medieval Christians in a way that is hard for us to understand. One faithful Christian, a woman named Julian, who lived and wrote in Norwich, England, in the 14th century, wrote that she desired three things: to recall Christ’s passion, to have a bodily sickness, and to have three wounds.

Now we moderns might long for union with Christ, but we would consider someone who wanted God to wound them and make them sick more than a little crazy. In 14th century Norwich, life could be described as more than a little crazy for everyone. Norwich was England’s second largest city, bustling and commercial, with a powerful bishop who assembled all the knights behind him to wage war against Flanders – and lost disastrously. The plague, over the course of a generation, killed 5,000 of the city’s 7,000 inhabitants. And if you dared to speak up against the aristocracy, or to read the bible in your own native language of English – those two movements were linked – that same disastrous bishop would have you burned for heresy. The ravaged body of Christ on the cross made sense to them.

If you were a 14th century Christian, you would know that God possessed two natures: God was wrathful toward sinners, and loving toward those who faithfully followed the teachings of the church.

Medieval accounts of Judgment Day present it as a time of justice, when God’s anger against sin is manifest. [Books and sermons in England in that time] set out to frighten [people] into virtue by evoking the event in all its terror, … full of warnings about God’s impatience with his corrupted creation.[i]

Given that, how else would anyone interpret the devastation of the plague, as anything except God’s wrath against sinners?

For Julian, who lived much of her life in a small room attached to a church, this question of sin was the primary puzzle of the Christian life:

… it seemed to me that if there had been no sin, we should all have been pure and as like our Lord as he created us. And so … I often wondered why, through the great and prescient wisdom of God, sin was not prevented; for it seemed to be that then all would have been well.[ii]

One powerful and difficult strand in Christian theology – one that is often quoted, and I guess believed, still today -- is that God demanded the bloody sacrifice of Jesus to atone for the sins of humanity. We might have been created pure and without sin, but that only lasted a few days in the Garden of Eden, and we just behaved worse and worse until God sent Jesus to die for our sins. Extreme Catholics might find expression for this in the crucifix, but extreme Protestants relish recounting in bloody detail the physical experiences of Jesus death.

There is not a little contradiction in this theology – and 14th century Julian, writing from a terrifying world where to question authority might send to your death, points it out clearly: why could did not God, great and prescient, prevent sin and then all would be well?

If you lay aside, for a moment, this thorny question of the inevitability of sin, and think about human nature, that disturbing picture of the dying savior softens a bit. Julian saw in vivid detail, and all of us would agree, that human suffering is inevitable. We all fall down and get hurt, we get ill – we don’t have to ask God for these things. They just happen. This world, where bad things happen, is the world where God placed us. But it is not the suffering that defines God; it is the love. Julian had visions, in which she heard Jesus speaking to her from the cross:

Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it to you? For Love.’ … And I saw full surely in this [she continued in her own words], and in all, that before God made us he loved us, which love was never slaked nor never shall be. And in love he has done all his work, and in love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting. [iii]

Or as one very thoughtful scholar put it, “God is not now one thing, now another – now loving to the saved, now angry to the damned – but always the same, always love.”[iv]

The death Jesus died was a terrible death, ravaged and beaten, and, as the Gospel of Mark depicts it, pretty much abandoned and alone. But all of God’s creatures die, and all of us have some acquaintance with suffering. If God has created us in love, God loves us to the end, no matter what. No matter what. All will be well, Julian wrote from a time and place much worse than ours. All will be well, she wrote, even though people who questioned the church’s doctrine could be put to death. All will be well, and every manner of thing will be well.

[i] Nicholas Watson, from The Cambridge Companion of Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 214
[ii] Julian, Short Text, Ch. 13
[iii] Julian, Long Text, Ch. 86
[iv] Watson, p. 214

Leaving the past behind

Lent 4 B
March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Bread. Light. Life. Grace.

Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, and Nicodemus wants those things. But Nicodemus can’t come out. He can only approach Jesus in the dark, which is the part of this story right before the verses we read this morning.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. … Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

Bread. Light. Life. Grace.

Nicodemus wanted those things, but he could not get his head around how he could get there. The cost would have been high: he thought he would have to leave behind everything he knew, cherished, believed to be divine. He did not believe Jesus who said, in essence, it’s easy. This is the way. If you take this leap, you will find yourself flying into the arms of God, into the light, into a great big party which never ends.

But Nicodemus could not leave his past behind. He took comfort in the rules he knew, in the experience he had. He saw that Jesus saw the world as it was and turned it into something new and bright and full of grace, but he could not leave what he was used to – he could not walk away from what he knew – he could not take the risk that life in the future would be better than life in the past. He could not understand that Jesus was taking all that was good from that past – their shared past of Moses and the prophets – and taking it into a future of blessing and grace.

We are all Nicodemus. All of us have times when we cannot believe that there will be a future, when we live in the present as though it were still the past – when we think the rules and customs and behaviors of the past, if we do them enough, will get us back there – will take us away from the future we fear. We want to go back to when things were good in our lives – or at least to those times when if they weren’t so good, they were at least predictable.

With several of you, I attend the Thursday Morning Roundtable, where we hear civic leaders talk about our community and ways to make it a better place for all of our citizens to live and thrive. Speaker after speaker, week after week, says the same thing: things have changed. It’s like the ice and snow that fell off our roofs this week: smash, on our heads. All that stuff we know – loss of manufacturing jobs, corporate headquarters, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, even Shoppingtown is a shadow of its former self! We have choices in this community, the speakers tell us. We can do things the way we have always done them, thinking that will take us back to the way it was before, or we can pay attention to what is happening, and build on that, and find a future in which we can and will thrive. There are facts, there is data, we have experience that shows us we can get out -- indeed we are getting out of despair, darkness, hopelessness and into the light. Even in Syracuse. Even at St. David’s. Unless, of course, we don’t want to.
As Christians, we are all on a continuum, from Nicodemus to Jesus. All of us have times when we sit in the darkness and don’t want to leave, when we want things the way they used to be. All of us hear the call of Jesus to come into the light – or we would not be here. We are Christians, we are people of hope, new life, rebirth. Christians know the future in Jesus, in God, is always better, always full of blessings, always beckoning us forward. Christians know there is life after death.

Imagine what it was like to be Nicodemus. Bread. Light. Life. Grace. The same stuff God has always offered, freely and abundantly, since the beginning of time. Nicodemus wants those things, but he cannot for the life of him figure out how to get out of the customs of his past life -- what he has to change in order to get there. Can you imagine what you have to change in your life, to get there, too?

The LAW as the way to God

Lent 3 B
March 8, 2015
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

We once had neighbors who were Hasidic Jews, and who lived each Sabbath as if the Messiah had come. Orthodox Jews live in strict observance to the law -- in which, by the way, the Ten Commandments are no more important than any of the other parts of the law. In fact, the “law” is not “law” as we know it. A Rabbi friend of mine once told me that the Hebrew understanding of the “law” is not like the Greek roots of the word “law”, nomos, THE LAW. The Hebrew word, halakah, means path, direction. To follow the law means to follow a way that leads to God.

So the Ten Commandments are no more important that any other part of that path, that way. They are only part of the overall covenant between God and the people Israel. They let the people know what God expects of them as their side of the intimate relationship known as the covenant. If you love God, if you love your neighbor, if you keep the Sabbath, if you honor your parents, and all that, you are living in right relationship to God. If you don’t, well, then, you had better repent, make up for it, atone, say you’re sorry, change your ways. All that. Because the goal of living within the covenant, living in the right relation to God, is the “goal” as it were of the Sabbath: to live as though the Messiah were here, as though the Messianic Age of God’s true reign had come to pass on this earth.

When there was a Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews could atone for their sins by offering burnt sacrifices to God. When Jesus came to the Temple on the day we just read about, the Jews were in the courtyard getting ready to do just that. They did not want to use Roman money to buy animals to sacrifice, so the moneychangers were doing a good, religiously observant thing, by changing secular money for temple money for devout Jews who wanted to repent and atone for their sins by offering sacrifice. It was a public way of saying, “I’m sorry.” Devout Jews had been doing this for centuries.

What happens, then, when Jesus, one rabbi among many, storms into the Temple and throws out people doing their pious religious duty? This is the Jesus who said he came not to replace the law but to fulfill it. This is the Jesus who, in the story just before this one in the Gospel of John, has changed water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. This is the Jesus who says, Forget about those ordinary days, those ordinary practices, those times when you forget the observance of the law, the relationship with God. Forget about regular water and dirty money. The real Sabbath is now. The true messianic age is about to begin. Leave that old, everyday Temple behind; the true Temple is the temple of my body, destroyed as it may be by sin and death, but raised to life again by the power and glory of God.

Jesus came to the Temple as a faithful Jew, and when he threw things around there, it was part of how he was calling people back to the heart of God, to that intimate relationship with God that following the law – the halakah – the way to God – means. Whatever keeps us from the heart of God, Jesus wants to drive out.

When we gather to celebrate the eucharist, to break bread and share wine in remembrance of Jesus, we act out a dress rehearsal for living in the reign of God. It’s not perfect yet, by any means. I don’t think it will be quite so formal in the kingdom of heaven, nor will the Prayer Book necessarily be used, nor will a set of priests be in charge. I really don’t think so. But we are yearning toward, approximating the heavenly banquet, a feast of generosity and abundance and radical equality. It’s the same idea as the Sabbath, I said to my rabbi friend. “But that’s only a liturgy,” he said. “Only an hour. The Sabbath is a whole day.”

By throwing the money changers out of the Temple, I think Jesus is saying that God wants more than a mere ritual, more even than one day of a Sabbath from us. God wants all of our life to be lived as though the messiah were here, as though the reign of God had begun, as though real justice and real mercy were the rules of the day, as though there were enough of everything to go around, as though all the doors and all the hearts were open and as passionate and full of zeal for God as that of Jesus. None of us are there yet, of course, but that is the light in which we live, the hope to which we aspire, as we prepare during this season of Lent for the grace and glory of Easter.