Monday, April 16, 2012

Thomas, Thomas, Thomas

Easter 2 B         April 15, 2012
Acts 4:32-35; Ps. 133
1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

St. Thomas feels like a really familiar person to me. St. Thomas feels like someone who wants things just so. He edges into the perfectionist column on personality tests. He’s like what people used to say about Missouri: he is from the “show me” state. He’s got to touch it and smell it and pick it up with his own hands in order to believe it. Jesus was killed. Buried in a tomb. He’s over here, in this box, in this category. I’ve got my world all together. Maybe it’s not too great but I can understand it. Things used to be good, then they got bad, now they are not much better, but at least I know where things are right now. I know what is going on. I can make this work.

Thomas has got it so much “just so” that he wouldn’t know resurrection unless it hit him in the head. Until, of course, it does. It takes a little longer than the other disciples for Thomas to relinquish his hold on reality, his sense of control and perfection and order. It took a great big sign, but he did get it. What was absolutely incomprehensible had happened. Death, that ultimate control freak, was overturned. Life, in all its messy, complicated, sloppy, disorderly and miraculous, had won the day.

From the get-go of the resurrection, it seems, things get really sloppy. The abundance of new life just spills all over the place. The Acts of the Apostles is full of these ridiculous stories of extraordinary abundance.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.

This is not easy to understand, this kind of abundance and profligacy. It really does not make sense to give up private property, to share everything we own, to eliminate need by redistributing the wealth. This has been tried, you know, and it doesn’t always go very well. Little human tendencies like greed and jealously and even perfectionism get in the way of living this wild, post-resurrection life.

In his novel, My Name is Legion*, the English writer A.N. Wilson puts this speech in the mouth of an elderly priest:

… our faith went to the Garden in the darkness of dawn three days later. Our faith did not find explanations, not did it find fake consolations. It found a new God.

This “new God,” Wilson has the priest go on to say,

… was to be found not in control, but in loss of control; not in strength but in weakness. He was no longer an explanation for what happens.

The priest, then, seems to be reflecting not only on the that ephemeral experience of the resurrected Jesus but always what happened to the Apostles, on the very real and very historical Church of the Apostles:

 … we can no longer look to an imaginary God to hand out morality, to feed the poor, to heal the sick, to refashion the world along just and equitable lines. That is our responsibility now, and if it seems like a Godless world, we shall be judged – we, not God.

Thomas, and all of us, who want the world to be tidy and predictable and orderly -- even the world in its most terrible should be that way – are really in for a shock on this 8th day after the resurrection. God has come even closer to us than he was when he was a baby in a barn. The wise teacher who did no wrong, who walked and talked among us, is now seen, to quote A.N. Wilson again,

… not in the highest heavens and heaven of heavens but in a wounded human body: in  bleeding hands, and pierced feet, and wounded side.

It is hard indeed for us to get back to that house with the locked doors, hard to stand there with Thomas. We know his skepticism, but find it harder to feel the mystery of what happens next.

But there is one way we can know it: in what we do together: in the hungry people we feed, in the community we create, in the love we share. Those things, however mundane, simple and everyday, are signs, just as glorious, of a new day, a new life, a new world.

* A.N. Wilson, My Name is Legion (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004) pp. 300-301

Like Mary, we have to run. We have a story to tell.

Easter --  April 8, 2012

Once upon a time, somewhere in America, there was a second grade classroom, with an incubator full of eggs. You know the story. The children would watch the eggs, turn them every day, keep them warm. Every week the teacher would take the children into the darkened cloakroom and hold the eggs up to a bright light. Inside the egg was the little chicken, growing and getting more defined with each peek. Finally the chickens began to break through the shells, piercing the casing that had kept them safe through their first weeks of life. The cracks grew larger, and finally each chick, wet and weak and bedraggled, squeezed themselves out into the world they had never seen before. The children were amazed. These little creatures had grown out of practically nothing, and certainly didn’t look like much when they first hatched. But soon they were walking around, pecking and scratching, their wet feathers now fluffed out and yellow. The children began to pick out their favorites. One child adopted one of the little chicks, and named him Junior.

Birth, even in the artificial atmosphere of a classroom incubator, is natural, normal. It is part of what we expect out of life. In the past few weeks, spring has slowly but steadily grown around us. The colors of spring are visible in trees and bushes. Rows of daffodils and hyacinths brighten our paths. The warm sun is waking up the roots and bulbs from their winter’s sleep.

The date of Easter is a natural occurrence. It always falls on the on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. And what a full bright moon it was this week. Our bodies are tuned in to these natural cycles, yearning, as the plants do, for the turning of the earth, the turning of spring. It is the season of resurrection all around.

When Mary Magdalene goes to the graveyard garden on the spring Sunday morning, she too, is expecting something completely natural. Death, after all, is just as natural as birth. Grief is natural, mourning is natural. Mary went to grieve for her friend, on the third day after his terrible, untimely, violent and unnatural end. But what she found there, of course, was anything but natural. A stone rolled away, angels, young men, and Jesus himself – but not himself. “Do not cling to me, Mary,” he said to her in her grief and astonishment. This was not natural.

When she ran out of the garden that morning, Mary Magdalene became the first preacher. “The Apostle to the Apostles,” she is called in the tradition. She was a person of high standing in Roman society who had joined Jesus’ band of disciples, and being the first witness to the resurrection gave her special authority. Early Christian art often depicts Mary preaching, her hand extended. One story has her traveling to Rome, where she met the Emperor Tiberias. “After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus' trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain his resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. The egg turned red immediately.”

All Easters are like this red egg: absolutely remarkable, natural and unnatural at the same time. These Easter eggs look just as we expect them to look, but something new and different emerges. When Mary went to that graveyard garden, she expected a dead body to stay dead. But going against nature, Jesus was alive. Jesus’ absolute life could not be contained by the shell of death, just as those chickens could not be contained by their shells when they were ready to hatch.

All of our lives are like these shells – us individuals, our families, our communities, even this parish church. For a while we are contained, constricted, then new life breaks out. When something so new and so bold happens, it just cannot be stopped. Something will happen; we just don’t know what.

Once upon a time in that classroom, eggs were hatched. The children named them and watched them grow. They grew sad when they had to say good-bye to them for the summer. But by the next September, the children came back to school, looking for the chickens, Junior among them. But a remarkable thing had happened over the summer. “Junior” had had to be re-christened “June” when she started laying eggs of her own.

Life is like that: full of setbacks and disappointments and death and destruction. The ground shakes under out feet, tsunamis of grief overwhelm us, precious things are lost and the future seems bleak. But in this remarkable Easter, new life pushes out of the ground, angels stand at the openings of empty tombs and eggs turn red in the palm of your hand. A new creation is emerging, something so new we may not even recognize it yet. Like Mary, we cannot cling to what once was. Like Mary we have to run; we have a story to tell.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Palm, Maundy & Passion: darkness & light

Palm Sunday B             April 1, 2012

All of us know something about betrayal.

All of us know about events set in motion that take on a dangerous and powerful life of their own, events which sweep all of us along in an inexorable current. We may have a fixed idea of what is right, what should be done, and then in the course of events it all goes terribly wrong. We may be the one whose attempt at doing a good deed turned into betrayal. We may be the one who intended to do great harm. We may be the one, innocent or not so innocent, caught up in the whole mess, cast aside, discarded, expendable, betrayed.
Cold War spy dramas seem to catch this dynamic of inevitability very well. In those decades, there were two great systems, “the West” and “the East”, pitted against each other. All individuals, whether principled or mercenary, were caught in the rules of this great game – all individuals, whether principled or mercenary, were betrayed or betrayer. In the perceptive novels of that era, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, all played the rules of the betrayal game, with an ultimate loyalty to those great causes which were, at the same time, not worthy of their loyalty.

In this great drama which is the last week of Jesus’ life, the political and the spiritual are intertwined; each play out their scripts on each other’s stage. Jesus’ whole concern, in the Gospel of Mark, the account that we are reading this year, has been with the proclaiming of the kingdom of God – proclaiming that God’s reign has begun, that God’s will for this world is to be done. In the 3rd chapter of Mark, it says, Jesus’ work has been “to bind the strong man,” to tie up Satan and all the forces of wickedness – to free the people of God from their bondage to sickness, to poverty, to oppression – to all those forces which keep the people of God from living an abundant life.

In this last week of Jesus’ life, we see less of the spiritual and more of the political. Take Judas, for example: we are given no “spiritual” clue to his motive; he just turns Jesus over to the authorities. When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, it was because it was the place of confrontation with those authorities, the place of execution. Following Jesus “on the way,” as he had said to his disciples, had always meant following him to Jerusalem, where this trial, torture and death would lead to his rising again. The disciples never heard Jesus’ words about resurrection, because they could not bear to hear the words about execution and death. When the confrontation happened, when Jesus was arrested and tried, they were terrified -- they all betrayed Jesus; they all just ran away.

I have been saying, this year as we have been reading the Gospel of Mark, that the forces of the Roman Empire were right here, the foreground, not the coloring book backdrop, of the story of Jesus. We see this most clearly in Jerusalem, in this last week of Jesus’ life. It’s not just that the conquering Romans “tolerated” the Jews, “let them have their religion” just to keep the peace. The Roman Empire ran Palestine. The point of Empire was to send the tribute – buckets and buckets of money and valuable stuff – back to Rome, and the Romans did it by taking over the Temple. The Romans appointed the chief priests. Kings like Herod “ruled” at their command. The Temple police, like the Roman legions, enforced the law. If the chief priests and elders “tried” Jesus, it was because the Romans wanted them to do that. The Romans used the Temple religion to bless their domination system. The taxes from the peasants flowed up – to the coffers of the rich Jewish elite on its way to treasury of the emperor in Rome. It was a massive system, every bit as sophisticated as the Cold War, a Satanic system without Satan – business as usual—profit over people. It was the kind of corruption and hubris and concentration of wealth that the Jewish prophets had been condemning for hundreds of years. Jesus knew what kind of a system he was marching into that day. He knew that when he said “love your neighbor,” that that would be a challenge to a system that killed all challengers in a systematic way.

But what about betrayal? What about those people who betrayed Jesus, who ran away? What about Judas? What about Peter? Why could they not have acted differently?

Think about those big institutions that rule our lives. Some, yes, are more benevolent than others – we have learned something in 2000 years. But sometimes even smaller institutions can behave in brutal ways – employers, organizations, businesses. Trusted colleagues all of a sudden turn on us, or we find ourselves in a situation where we have to deliver some “bad news,” terminate some employee not because we want to but because the “situation demands it.” What makes Judas so different from Peter? So different from anyone else we know?

Think about it this way: betrayal is bad, but despair is worse. Despair is the worse sin against God, because when we despair we deny hope – we deny that God can forgive us. We deny that we can, indeed, turn from our wickedness and live. When faced with that powerful system that would have killed him, too, had he stayed around, Peter ran way. But Peter then, if only to himself, confronted that domination system, that violent Empire in which he was caught up. Peter realized what he had done, and wept bitterly. Peter repented, and when he sees the risen Lord, he is forgiven. Judas? We never see him again in the Gospel of Mark; but, following Peter’s example, had Judas broken down and wept, had Judas repented, he, too, would have been forgiven, restored, included in that community of hope that was beginning to see the dawn break on the new day.

We sit at the end of this reading of the passion in a dark and unfinished place. The routine has won. Business as usual has restored order. The legions return to their barracks, the peasants to their homes, terrified once more that those who dare to speak words of hope will receive the same swift and efficient punishment. We see a few people break through the numbness, willing to take some tiny risks. Peter wept. Joseph, who had some standing with the authorities, asked permission to put Jesus’ body in a tomb, something not usually allowed for the crucified. Some women stood by, ready to take care of his body in death, as they had in life. There are some cracks in that “domination system.” There is some glimmer of hope that “the system” may not have the final word.

Wednesday in Holy Week -- April 4, 2012 
Hebrews 9:11-15,24-28
Ps. 69
John 13:21-35

In John's gospel, the contrast of darkness and light is one of the major themes. The darkness of Satan and of those who do not believe is contrasted with the light of Christ, the one who reveals God's glory. From the very beginning of the Gospel, John sets the stage for this passage: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (1:5) The moment where Judas chooses Satan over Jesus is the moment where the darkness begins.

In a passage before today's reading, soon after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus talks about darkness and light. Those who believe in him walk in the light. But there are others, whose eyes are blinded, who would believe in Jesus but out of fear of losing their religious and social status quo, refuse to confess their faith. "...They loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God," the evangelist tells us.

They, too, are the ones who walk in darkness. They, too, like Judas, have chosen Satan. They are people who slide into the choice of darkness over light, people who are willing to settle for less in their lives, people who harbor grudges, who add a sarcastic twang to their words, who nurse anger – who a little too frequently take a walk on that “dark side” of human nature. Human glory – or human one-ups-manship -- is so much more of an immediate reward than the glory of God, so much more tangible. We all have our own lists, don't we? Ways we kind of "back into" darkness, into betrayal of Jesus out of our love for human glory. How often do we settle for less than what God promises is ours?

Robert Penn Warren wrote a poem about looking back at his life, full of some nostalgia, some regret. He lays down in a ditch, looking at the sky, thinking about what he has done wrong, contemplating his own death. Abruptly, the poet rouses himself:

But why should I lie here longer?
I am not dead yet . . .
And I love the world even in my anger,
And love is a hard thing to outgrow

What will rouse us? -- we who are full of regrets, who know the times we have, like Judas, walked on the dark side? What brings us into the light? What causes us to jump up with new resolve? Love. "I love the world even in my anger," even in my darkness, even when Satan beckons; "I love the world even in my anger, /And love is a hard thing to outgrow."

Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, yet he extends his hand, with a piece of bread in it, to Judas in love. In this act, the evangelist echoes something he wrote in the beginning of the Gospel: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." (3:16) Love, in the Gospel of John, is an act, a moral act, an act of courage. Jesus gives Judas the bread in love, knowing he will betray him, and at that moment when Judas accepts the bread "without changing his wicked plan to betray Jesus means that he has chosen for Satan rather than for Jesus." [ii] "And it was night."

The darkness begins. But the darkness even of this betrayal, crucifixion and death are necessary, as John sees it, for God's glory to be revealed. Indeed, through this darkness, God's light will shine. Even in the face of this disappointment and death, in this life of backsliding and anger and dark moments, an act of love is taking place.

[i] Robert Penn Warren, “American Portrait: Old Style” from The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, ed. by John Burt (LSU Press, 1998) pp. 339-342
[ii] Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John, p. 578

Maundy Thursday        April 5, 2012
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
Ps. 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Mark 14:1-25

What would Jesus do?

Do you remember those plastic bracelets that were very popular around 10 or 15 years ago? You could proclaim you faith – and your moral superiority, perhaps – on your sleeve. Wearing such bracelet implied you DID know what Jesus would do, and that you were very like capable of doing it, whatever it was, too.

What WOULD Jesus do? What car would Jesus drive? Where would Jesus take his vacation, buy his clothes, have his hair done?

The phrase, “What would Jesus do?” comes from a late-19th-century novel that was very popular with social reformers of the day. In this novel, a minister talks with a homeless man, who challenges the complacency of churchgoers who ignore the struggles of the poor – who, indeed, seem to ignore poor people altogether:

"I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night,
'All for Jesus, all for Jesus,
All my being's ransomed powers,
All my thoughts, and all my doings,
All my days, and all my hours.'
and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don't understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin."[i]
Judas knows exactly what Jesus would do, doesn’t he? Some say that Judas’ anger at Jesus’ apparent non-Jesus-ness confirmed his resolve to betray him to the authorities. You can see and hear a group of disciples clucking and snarking when the woman comes in with her expensive jar of ointment. “What would Jesus do,” they snort, “if he could see this woman wasting all this money that can and should be given to the poor!”

Of course, they are right, just as the homeless man in the 19th century novel is right. Some people do have too much stuff. Sometimes we hoard our goodies at the expense of someone else’s starvation or nakedness. We live here in comfort in DeWitt, while neighbors not so far away live in communities bereft of jobs, grocery stores, safe streets and good schools. We know they are they and we choose not to see. What would Jesus do?

The story of the woman anointing Jesus’ head is framed by stories of betrayal. Just before, we read, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” Just after, Judas goes to those chief priests, ready to turn Jesus over to them.

Repeatedly in this Gospel we read how those closest to him – Jesus’ disciples – don’t “get it.” It is the people on the fringes who do – the people Jesus heals, the former lepers, the used-to-be demoniacs, and certainly the women, like the one in this story. Those people on the fringes get it that Jesus is about life – not about merely living, not about just getting by, not about just making do, but about living life abundantly. Jesus is never stingy, never weighs the pros and the cons, never worries that there will not be enough to go around. Jesus never parcels out healing, never is parsimonious about wholeness. The woman in this story knows that when she pours out all that expensive ointment there will still be more and over flowing. The woman in this story shows the only bit of gracious hospitality, of love, of beauty, of compassion, of self-lessness in the whole account of the Passion – the only time in anything we have read this week that anyone shows Jesus any kindness at all. Framed by two stories of betrayal is this story of the woman who embodies the Good News. Indeed, Jesus says, “wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

In the context of our Prayers of the People tonight, we will all be invited forward for our own anointing, our own prayers for healing, our own wholeness, our own experience of the Good News. Bring your own body to the altar rail – bring your own cares, and bring your concerns for the people you love. Do it tonight in remembrance of her – she who knew that Jesus, even on the night he was betrayed, gathered around him a beautiful, beloved community where all of us, with all of our frailties and failings, can be made whole.

[i] Charles Sheldon, In His Steps (1896), cited in the Wikipedia entry for “What would Jesus do?”

Good Friday -- April 6, 2012
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:1-25
John 18:1-19:37

Almighty God ... behold, this your family ...:"
Use any of the current pop psychology buzz words to describe this human family, gathered at the death of a brother: dysfunctional, broken -- here we all are, at our worst.

I think it is important that the collect for the day uses the word "family" rather than "children." God’s family implies a broader group, a clan of adults. We enter Good Friday as adults, bearing responsibility for all that we have done.

Another preacher has said, "The temptation of Good Friday has been to talk about someone else’s pain." And guilt, I would add. If we were children we could get off the hook; as adults, we must face into it all.

Good Friday is the day of classic projections: other people (the Roman authorities, at the behest of the Jews) killed Jesus. Someone else caused his pain, suffering, death; yet all of this bad stuff, this stuff we project onto the "other" is what makes us human -- it is what we have in common with every other human being. The pain, suffering, hatred which is ours has caused Jesus’ death.

We stand here together, in the depths of our humanity, in solidarity with each other at our worst. We do not yet know if there will be any good news. It is enough to be human right now. We so rarely let enough pain into our lives in order to feel the humanity we feel today.

Being human does teach us lessons, though. Jesus our brother has taught us what it means to be human, to be one of "The People," as the North American native peoples say about themselves.

To be human is to serve. We follow Jesus’ commandment from the last supper, but there is more to service than even that. Service is the nature of everyday life. We cook, we clean, we make the beds, we wipe noses, we care for those in our households: at its most basic, the maintenance of life itself is service. It is what we humans do at our most ordinary and most intimate. From there service extends to the world: visiting the sick, prayer, hospitality, social activism and advocacy, teaching, counseling -- in all these ways and more we serve the human family, and, of course, in serving the human family we serve God, the one whose service is perfect freedom.

What a relief it is, then to read in the Epistle: "... let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ..."

A good friend and colleague of mine often said we are called not to empower people but to encourage them. Human beings can only encourage one another; power is not ours to give. One human being is not higher than another, dropping bits of power on those lower than her. We’re only human; we’re together in all this, all created in the image of God.

We can’t put people down, because no one is lower than we are, but we can appeal to our human natures: we can "provoke one another to love and good deeds," not as solo good-deed-doers, but as one of "the people," of the family. We can encourage each other to be human -- fully human -- and can support each other in our service.

We are left with nothing but our humanity this day, as we watch one of our own hanging on the cross, and with that humanity, with our hatred and dissent, with our lies and betrayals, with our love and our pain, we wait.