Sunday, April 28, 2013

A new heaven. A new earth. A new church.

Easter 5-c         April 28, 2013
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Years ago, I joined a tennis club. I did not then, and do not now, know how to play tennis, and I’m not quite sure why I joined. No one at the club was mean to me, but no one was really interested in me, either. I suppose we’ve all tried out membership in all sorts of clubs, or we’ve been in clubs when we knew that some of the people who walked through the doors just weren’t supposed to be there. What do clubs do when someone doesn’t have the right coat, or doesn’t know how to use the right fork, or, in the case of the apostles, doesn’t eat the right meat?

From the point of view of the rest of the apostles, Peter should not be eating with THOSE kinds of people. These apostles are followers of Jesus, yes, but they do not see why they should break with their Jewish past. They know well that Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” But perhaps they hear more continuity than drastic change in what Jesus says. This commandment comes from God, like Jesus comes from God – and not some new, innovative God. John – and Jesus, and Peter, and all the rest of the apostles are talking about the same God they have known from childhood – and the same God their parents, and their parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents before them knew, the God who taught them about love, and who expected them to love each other. This is the same God who gave them rules to live by – rules about food – but also rules about caring for strangers, about mercy and forgiveness, about justice and compassion. God has always been about pushing the boundaries of the community out, out out, into the whole known world. God pushed and pulled us together as a people so we could be lights of God’s goodness for the whole world. When God saw the people of Israel getting too inward, too narrow, God pushed them, gave them a new challenge, something new that forced them to re-think what it meant to be the people – not only of Israel, but of God.

One of the ways God gets to people in the Bible is through dreams and visions, and God caused Peter to have quite a vision. In that vision, God caused a complete up-ending of everything Peter thought was “the way we do things in our club”, the place where the rules said you could only eat certain kinds of meat. Make no mistake: God had handed down those rules about what to eat, and Peter knew those rules. “We” ate a certain way, and “they” ate a different way. But now Peter heard God say, “Do not make a distinction between them and us,” and Peter was shocked. He had to hear this three times before he realized that it meant he had to go into that house and eat that food with those people.

And then the miracle happened: “they” became “us.” No doubt Peter was just as odd to them as they were to him. They, too, took a risk with their hospitality, but look what happened: A whole bunch more people became Christians, got the light, learned the story, and started to believe that they were in “the club”, too. This is how Peter explained what happened to his equally shocked co-apostles: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"

Indeed: Who was I that I could hinder God?

Note that the word used there is not “should” but “could.” It’s not, who am I, that I should hinder God. It’s, who am I that I COULD hinder God? God’s spirit pushes and pulls us, loving us along the way, always insisting that we can do more, love more, open more, be more. We can invite oddballs like Peter into our house, invite him to sit at our table, and amazingly, there will still be enough to go around – amazingly, some amazing things can happen. The world can look like a new place. A new heaven. A new earth. A new church.
You might guess where I’m going with this. I had the strangest vision when I was praying over these texts, when I was trying to figure out what they might mean to us, here, St. David’s, DeWitt, today. I saw a medical clinic in South Sudan, and Bol Garang meeting his mother at Kennedy Airport. I saw meal after meal served at the Samaritan Center. I saw day old baked goods loaded into a van and taken to Temple Concord. I saw total strangers, grieving and sad, being welcomed here and given food and drink and comfort.

And I saw people who had not paid even their $25 Patrons membership fee drinking champagne at the opening of the Celebration of the Arts. I saw all of us – or a lot of us, any of us who want to come – whether we’ve paid our $25 or not -- wearing our name tags and welcoming people, and shaking their hands, and giving them a drink -- all those people, who came through our doors, thinking they were here just to see some art and listen to some music – people who aren’t Christians, who don’t want to be Christians, who go to other churches, people who eat all kinds of meat or no meat at all – people who came here thinking this was just some ordinary place – some ordinary church --  but what they saw, what they really saw, was a new heaven, and a new earth. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

The hand of God rebuilds the world that vengeance and violence destroy

Easter 4 C       April 21, 2013
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The Gospel for this week takes us, curiously, out of Easter and back into the confrontations between Jesus and the people who did not like him, the people who got him put to death. “It was winter,” the Gospel tells us. The Feast of the Dedication is what we now call Hanukkah. This is the feast commemorating the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees, an army of Jews fighting a war of independence against Syrian invaders. The Syrian king had desecrated the temple, and as the Maccabees cleansed the temple and rebuilt the altar, they found enough oil in the lamps to last eight days: a great miracle of light – God’s light – shining in the darkness of violence and bloodshed and desecration – a sign of the hope that defeats despair.

After the events of this week – of this spring – of this year – of this decade – it is tempting for us to say we have “lost our innocence.” But you would have to go back to the Garden of Eden, to the time before Adam and Eve lied about taking a bite out of that apple, to discover humans living in innocence. Of course, there are innocent and blameless individuals, and there are even whole societies of humans who live in peace, but really and truly: history is marked by horrific, blood-thirsty and wrenching violence.

The festival of the Dedication celebrates righteous violence, if there is such a thing. The Maccabees used military might to defeat a cruel invader. The drumbeat of vengeance was loud in those days, and we hear it today. There are people in our world for whom honor is more important than life, for whom shame must be punished by death. There are no innocents in such a calculation. Swords are drawn, armies march in, bombs explode: there are no bystanders, innocent or otherwise, in such a culture of war and vengeance, honor and shame. All take part, as protagonists or antagonists.

The events of the past week have caused me to read this brief Gospel passage in a way I never read it before. I now see so much more clearly that Jesus stands right in the middle of that culture of violence. Jesus places himself always in the center of that death-spiral of blood-vengeance, of honor and shame. Even in the midst of that festival that commemorates a righteous act of violence, Jesus says, Stop it all. Your culture holds life less important than honor? Stop it. To follow me is to gain eternal life. Your culture frightens people by threatening to take everything away from them? Stop it. No one will snatch my followers away from me. The hand of God does not wield a sword or pull a trigger; the hand of God brings comfort, and bread, and healing, and wholeness. The hand of God rebuilds the world that the culture of vengeance and violence – even righteous violence – destroys.

There is a reason why today’s reading from Revelation is so familiar to us: it is read at funerals. When someone we love dies, or is critically ill or injured, we are taken to a very raw and exposed place. It is the kind of place where we can see God so much more clearly than when life is ordinary and we think we have it all together. Revelation was written by and for people on the receiving end of that terrible culture of violence, and in some places of this complex book we read images of war and apocalypse.

But here, in these verses, we read what God means to people whose lives have been shattered. God is shelter from all danger, comfort from all pain, refreshment from all want. How can God be on some glorious, remote throne, when it is the very hand of God that wipes every tear from their eyes?

There are few people in the world today who have first-hand experience of a shepherd. Sentimental Victorian church art has made it even more difficult for us modern Christians to understand; stained glass windows crowd our imaginations with clichéd images of fuzzy sheep and Jesus in a pristine, white robe.

But look here: Peter, in the story from the Acts of the Apostles, looks more like the shepherds we would
recognize today. Who comes to us today, in the midst of our ordeals? Who pulls us away from scorching heat? Who rehydrates our parched lips, ties tourniquets around our shattered limbs, pulls us out from the rubble caused by earthquake, tornado or bomb? Who carries us to a tent, or slides us into an ambulance? Who reassures us with strong hands and calm voice, that now we can rest, that now we will be taken care of? Who rushes into the middle of that vortex of violence and chaos and dust and blood, and brings order and hope and a way out?

We know—we have always known – that we see the hand of God at work in the world around us – that the hand of God is none other than the hands of those who reach out to help, who go where they may not even have known they were needed. The hand of God is attached to the arms of people who have listened to the voice of Jesus all of their lives, and not known what it meant until some moving story, some situation of grief, some moment of overwhelming need compels them to act.

The shepherd is in our midst, saying “Stop that! But embrace this. And here, let me wipe the tears from your eyes.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How we see the Risen Lord is revealed to us in the signs in our lives

Easter 2-C
April 7, 2013
Acts  5:27-32
Psalm 118:19-24
Revelation 1:4-8      
John 20:19-31

Since we cannot see God, it is only human nature that we should want some sort of sign that God exists and that God loves us. We want some sort of proof, for the realities of human existence can be dismal and anything we are only promised will be good must be touched, felt, tasted, smelled -- somehow demonstrated to be real -- before we can believe in its goodness.

Looking for that sign can make us kind of wacky. Do you know the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian – a bit of a spoof on a sometimes desperate search for a savior, set in 1st century Palestine? The crowd has somehow fixated on an ordinary person called Brian, and they begin chasing Brian through the desert near Jerusalem. He is running to get away from them, convinced he is no messiah. He loses a shoe but keeps running. “His shoe!” they all cry, “A sign!” And they immediate take of their shoes and run with one bare foot through the stony desert.

Or do you know this story, from the Middle Ages? During the Plague, the Pope was saying mass to pray for relief for the Romans, and he had a vision of an angel with a sword floating in the sky over the Castel Sant’Angelo. He knew it was a sign from God that the plague would soon end. And it did.

The Easter story is also about searching for signs – real signs that the promise of Jesus' resurrection from the dead was indeed true. In the Gospel of John alone there are four different ways the disciples come to believe in the resurrection. "[John] comes to faith after having seen the burial wrappings but without having seen Jesus himself. Magdalene sees Jesus but does not recognize him until he calls her by name. The disciples see and believe. Thomas also sees him and believes …” but only after he insists on seeing those actual wounds.

One of the central controversies of the early church was what to believe about the Risen Lord. People went to great extremes on both sides of the argument to make their points: "Jesus was just a vision," was countered with detailed and nearly gory accounts of his death and rising. Late in the first century, around the time the gospels were written, was the time when the eyewitnesses to the resurrection -- Mary, Peter, Thomas and the rest -- were dying. How do John and the other evangelists communicate this truth to the newer Christians -- the ones who were not around to see the signs of the Risen Christ and yet do believe?
After Thomas sees the signs of death in Jesus hands and believes in his resurrection, Jesus says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." In saying this, Jesus in a sense turns away from the disciples around him (who indeed have or will soon see the Risen Lord) and turns to address us. Christians down through the ages, from the second generation of believers to us here today have not seen the Risen Lord and yet we believe. In our just-the-facts-ma’am-please world of the 21st century, it makes even less sense to say we believe in the resurrection of the dead that it did for those people who lived in the first or second centuries.

What died on the cross was the idea of a God who was also a magical mystery worker. Because we have this story of Thomas putting his finger through the hole in Jesus’ hand, we get the joke behind the story of the one-shoed false messiah. As the English writer A.N. Wilson put it, these stories of the resurrection provide us with no easy explanations or “fake consolations.” He goes on to describe why it is so hard to be a Christian:

The new God 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. He was now a person – a mysterious person who only the minute before had looked very much like the gardener sweeping the path. That has the profoundest implications for the human race and for human history for as long as it lasts. For 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.

The Twelve did not recognize the friend who had been killed, brutally and savagely killed – they did not recognize him at first. But the one who doubted most of all saw, with the eyes of hindsight, that his Lord and his God was to be found 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 was in the presence of that abject vulnerability that Doubt was cast aside, and Faith could say, My Lord and my God![1]

"I shall be there," Jesus says. That is how the gospel of John ends, with Jesus' assurance that his spirit will
remain with us always, until the end of the age. How we understand that spirit -- how we have seen and continue to see the Risen Lord -- is revealed to us in signs – signs we see in our own lives, in the most surprising spots in life where the spirit breaks in – in relationships, and friendships, and moments of grace, in the food we serve to hungry people, in the children we teach, and the sick people we visit, and in the breaking of bread.

[1] A.N. Wilson, My Name is Legion, pp. 300-301

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Like that grass breaking through the sidewalk

Easter;  March 31, 2013
Acts 10:34-43
Ps. 118
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

I don’t think we are too terribly sure about resurrection. As it says in the Gospel, “these words seemed [to us] to be an idle tale.” If the first witnesses to Jesus’ rising from the dead don’t believe, how can we?

We are so terribly caught up in the here and now, the to-do list, the worry and strain of everyday life. Life does consume us: children and grandchildren, sickness and health, unemployment and underemployment, being bored and stressed. “The world is too much with us,” as the poet William Wordsworth wrote

… late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; --
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon![i]

Of course, that is not the curse only of modern, industrial life – or post-modern, digitized life. Wordsworth wrote in the early 19th century, and the disciples lived in the 1st. All the disciples, women and men, were so caught up in the mundane they could not see the glorious even when it hits them in the face. As they approach the tomb on that Sunday morning, they go there still as disciples, followers of Jesus – but disciples who don’t remember the lessons, and followers who have forgotten the way.

They have forgotten the everyday miracles Jesus performed among them: the people he healed, people who were restored to family, to community, to life, from their crippling infirmities that kept them isolated and alone. They have forgotten the stories he told, where the lost were found, the alienated and rejected reunited with their loved ones, the children restored to the bosom of their families. They have forgotten the grace, the no-holds-barred welcome God gives each of us, all the time, the assurance that there is now and always enough – and more – to go around. The world – from the entry into Jerusalem, to the Passover meal, to the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion – has indeed been too much with them.

As disciples, on that Sunday morning, they have forgotten all those things. But it is at the moment when we see them realize that this indeed could be the most powerful of all of Jesus’ miracles that they change from disciples into apostles – from forgetful students into the ones who run pell mell into the world to tell this story, eye-witnesses to the amazing thing that had happened.

But what about us? We for whom this 21st century world is still too much with us? The writer Anne Lamott has chronicled this world, and how a confused, sometimes fragile, often brave in spite of the odds, ordinary American woman keeps in touch with her own spiritual center and finds much evidence of grace in the world around her. I picked up her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, for my Good Friday-to-Easter reading, because I knew she would ground me in the here and now – and help me find a way to understand the resurrection in this world that is too much with me.

Lamott lives in northern California, and as an adult, over twenty years ago, found her desperate way into an ordinary Presbyterian church, which she still attends. What she means by prayers of “help” and “thanks” I’ll leave to you to read on your own, but this little bit about the prayer of “wow” stood out to me:

Even though I often remember my pastor staying that God always makes a way of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that this time God has met Her match – a child dies, or a young father is paralyzed. Nothing can possibly make things okay again. People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. It’s actually a nightmare. But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.[ii]

Even in this early early Easter, when winter snows could still come swirling back tomorrow – in these late days, when we are dealing with a world of burdens and worries – resurrection is all around us, like that grass breaking through the sidewalk. If we pay attention to this world around us, we can, like the disciples, make that transition from forgetful learner to amazed apostle. As Anne Lamott says, “… when all else fails, follow instructions.”

… breathe, try to slow down and pay attention, try to love and help God’s other children, and – hardest of all, at least to me – learn to love our depressing, hilarious, mostly decent selves. We get thirsty people water, read to the very young and old, and listen to the sad. We pick up litter and try to leave the world a slightly better place for our stay here.[iii]

Paying attention to that – to all of that – to those ordinary miracles Jesus taught us, of bringing health and wholeness and hope and life in the simplest of ways – we can be very sure there is resurrection.

[i] “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
[ii] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), p. 84.
[iii] Ibid. p. 101.

This Friday of death we call good

Good Friday; March 29, 2013
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Ps. 22
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:37

Year after year of reading this story of Jesus’ passion and death can numb us to the horrific brutality it describes. After all, we know the end of the story. Aren’t the lilies stored somewhere, lilies-in-waiting to be gloriously displayed come Saturday night? Is not the bread already baked for the festival eucharist, the brass polished and the linen ironed? We know the end of the story so well it is a challenge to be here, now, listening to the story of a violent death.

Since this is probably the only story about first-century Palestine that most of us will ever read, we may think that this was a unique event, or that this crucifixion was singled out by the ordinary person of the day. We might even think that people paid attention to what was going on on that hill that afternoon.

Yet in first-century Palestine – during Jesus’ lifetime and the lifetimes of those who wrote the gospels – brutality was commonplace. The Romans as an occupying force had no qualms about using every form of state violence to quell those who tried to rise up against them. Urban terrorists ran through streets in which blood ran – their blood, the blood of their victims, blood shed by Roman weapons. Crucifixion was a common form of death for these insurrectionists, as well as for the innocent and the unarmed who tried to resist the violence with non-violent means. Thousands would be crucified when the Romans would quash rebellions. There was little unusual about what happened to Jesus in those violent days – except that some were allowed to take his body down from the cross and bury it.

The violence of human society is never far from the surface. Sometimes, late at night, I’ll still be awake and listen to the BBC World Service, hoping for some thoughtful story, or even for something dull to put me to sleep. More often than not, though, I hear horrendous stories, more vivid that we see on TV news, of brutality from some far away country, some account of an innocent person abused, a massacre, a pillage, a plunder. To remember those 21st century stories on this day, this Friday of death we call “good,” is to remember that Jesus knew that reality as well, as it swirled around him and carried him to his death.

Jesus faces that violence vulnerable and defenseless – all too human, we could say. Yet he resists the whole way, especially as John tells the story. He refuses to let the authorities, Roman or Jewish, who have the power of death over him, to have the power of life. He refuses to play by their rules, to show anger or retribution or force. He defines his own truth against their story of brutal defeat.

As night falls, Jesus is laid in a tomb – John describes a burial as extravagant as a king’s. Is this the beginning of a new kingdom? Jesus died as he lived, preaching that the kingdom of God will be entered not by force or wisdom or magic tricks, but by vulnerability and love. Those who enter it will do so as Jesus did: as their all-too-human selves, stripped raw and naked, childlike and vulnerable, confident that the worst death the world can deal holds no power over their lives.

Forgiveness frees you

Maundy Thursday; March 28, 2013
Exodus 12:1-14; Ps. 116  
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, 31b-35

Every year, this week in the spring is marked by an extraordinary full moon, the first full moon after the vernal equinox. You can feel the earth beginning to stretch after the long winter, sprouts bursting out of their bulbs, roots seeking out warmth and moisture. We, too, are part of nature, and respond to those urgings.

Usually, both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week coincide, as they do this year. On this night, we remember the Passover meal Jesus ate with his friends, a feast that was for Jesus, as for his friends, as for Jews all over the world, now and then, a feast of the renewal of spring, a feast of new hopes, that all will be fed, and all reconciled – that the world will be flung open at the coming of the Messiah.

At the heart of the Passover seder is the story of the Exodus, and a tiny portion of that story is our first reading. The Jews, oppressed into slavery in Egypt, free themselves, led by God and God’s servant, Moses – the beginning of the epic struggle which made them into the people of God, the people Israel. All seders celebrate this liberation – and many seders include the liberation of their captors, the Egyptians, as among the people whom God liberates. The Passover seder affirms that with God, all things are possible – even the unimaginable reconciliation of mortal enemies and combatants.

Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, has repeatedly said that the act of forgiveness frees the one who has been wronged. It is not about saying terrible things never happened, but that the one who forgives is now released from a state of victimhood, from the position of being chained to the perpetrator. Forgiveness frees you both, allows you to move on to a new place – not about forgetting but being able to move into a new future, a new life, a new hope.

In a few minutes we will engage in our own process of forgiveness and reconciliation – forgiving ourselves, perhaps, forgiving those we love, forgiving parts of our hearts that we cannot even name, that we cannot bring to the light. If you wish, come forward to the rail after the time of prayer to be assured of God’s love and forgiveness. For it was there at that last supper, at that seder of hope and new birth, that Jesus washed the feet of his friends, a sign of the love we should offer – of the love and forgiveness that frees us from our bondage to those who have done us wrong, that frees them from the darkness and hardness of heart that keeps them from us, and keeps all of us from reconciliation. Even on this dark night, in which the scripture itself reminds us of darkness and betrayal, Jesus sews within us the seeds of hope, which begins with his simple act of service and love.