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. 

What does it mean, to be a follower of Jesus?

The good folks at JD-FM Meals on Wheels serve
all kinds of home-bound neighbors between
here at Tully.
Lent 2-B          March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

When do we get to the good parts? To the easy stuff? To the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? It seems like we spend all our time struggling, working through difficult times, keeping our chins up. When do we get a break? When does our ship come in?

Getting to Easter is not, as one preacher I know said, the next stop after our spring tune-up at the spa or wardrobe refresher at Destiny.[i] We are invited instead into this close examination of our relationship with God, and here, in the midst of all that examination, well, we come upon some difficult texts.

It would be nice, wouldn't it, if the Bible were fully of easy stories. How useful would those be during these days, of economic hardship, of people losing their jobs, of services being cut, of homes lost to bad bank loans.

Let’s cut dear old St. Peter some slack: we don’t like hearing the tough news any more than he does. Peter does not want to hear what Jesus tells him, that suffering and death will come, are inevitable. Jesus’ words are not welcome ones; let’s not kid ourselves.

Jamesville-DeWitt students sorting food donated
over the holidays for people in our town
The Bible is not full of easy stories, but it is full of God – of God wanting to be in relationship with us, with us human beings. If God is the center of the universe, the all-important creator, then the Bible is the story of how much this God want us close. The Bible is the story of how God keeps trying, even though we fail, drift away, deny, wander, pay attention to other things.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of God’s third big try in getting us humans into a loving relationship with God. The first – creation. Adam and Eve pulled away from God, and God got angry and threw them out of the garden. The second – the flood and the rainbow. We read this last week. God was angry, so angry, with us human beings that he killed all of us except one family, who floated in a boat, on a destroyed earth, for 40 days. I think that experience terrified God – God repented of that anger-filled destruction, and said no more.

Today, what do we have in the story of Abraham and Sarah? God tries again. Here, God says. We are bound together – me to you, you to me, together. As a sign of this love I hold for you, I promise you this: you will have a future. You will have a child, and that child will give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. You who are wandering in the wilderness: you will have a home. You who do not know what to believe in: you will have a God.

We are followers of God – all of us. That is why we are here. At some point in our lives someone assured us that God loves us. Someone told us some version of this Abraham and Sarah story, and for us, it took. We believed it. Now it is up to us: how can we make other people believe this Good News of God on our side, people who may not have heard it before? People who may not think it applies to them? People who are caught up in some very non-God-like things?

Most people in the world have the deck stacked against them. This is not news. Many people in the world don’t get enough to eat, don’t have a decent place to live, don’t have good medical care, don’t have the opportunity to earn a living. What does that have to do with us?

What does it mean, then, to be a follower of Jesus?

God likes to talk about a covenant: I will love you, God says, and because I love you, I want you to do some things for me, and for each other. Love me, love your neighbor as yourself. I will keep my side of the covenant; it is up to you to keep yours. Being a follower of Jesus means keeping our side of the covenant. It means loving our neighbors as our selves.

We have close-in neighbors: our literal next-door neighbors, wherever we live. The neighbors of this
CODFish volunteers help people in DeWitt
get to medical appointments
church. The people who need rides and call up CODFISH. The people we visit through Meals-on-Wheels. The people who depend on the DeWitt Food Pantry to have enough groceries to get through the month. We have slightly further-away neighbors: The people who come to lunch at the Samaritan Center. The people who live around Emmanuel Church, in the village of East Syracuse. The people who live between Nottingham High School and Syracuse University, in St. Alban’s neighborhood. The people who, like Sarah and Abraham, have moved from God knows where, seeking a better life in Syracuse. Being a follower of Jesus means doing what we can to make all of our neighborhoods better places to live.

Deny yourself, Jesus said. Amazingly, the more we give away the more we have.
Take up your cross, Jesus said. Amazingly, it is easier, and lighter, with every step.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Late Bloomer”

Friday, March 6, 2015

Satan, beasts and angels

Lent 1B           Feb. 22, 2015
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-13

Life is bewildering enough without having to be thrown into the wilderness.

“Thrown.” That is actually the meaning of the word in Greek. “Immediately the Spirit threw him out -- ekballei -- into the desert, the wilderness -- erhmon -- the desolate place, the place of hermits. Jesus is thrown from his place of chosenness, where God has named him as Son, beloved, favored one, into a dangerous place, full of wild beasts. Looking up the Greek word for beast in a dictionary, one finds several references to beasts as the animals to which people were thrown for punishment and death. Capital punishment was a genuine, gruesome spectator sport.

On the other hand, perhaps these 40 days were not all bad for Jesus; the text also tells us angels served him. The word is dihkonoun, the root of the word deacon. The angels were the first Christian deacons. This wilderness is also the place where Jesus first found the strength to resist: he resisted the temptations of Satan, a process which apparently steeled him for the rest of his ministry, when he would resist the powers and principalities who were Satan’s human agents in first century Palestine.

Water – the water of baptism in particular – is understood as a vehicle of salvation. Good Noah and his family were, as St. Peter says, “saved through water.” The water of baptism is not a mere cleansing of the body, but “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Yet water also can be powerful and dangerous, a bringer of death and destruction. God may have allowed Noah and his family to live, but the rest of the human race was destroyed. God saved those eight humans – as well as all the progenitors of the wild beasts which later prowled around the desolate Jesus in the dry wilderness. In the waters of baptism, Jesus experienced near-death by drowning, and came out of the waters raised to new life and new status. He is then thrown into the desert for another encounter with near-death and comes out as a steeled and experienced resistance fighter. The first thing he hears when he comes out of the desert is that John the Baptist has been killed. Jesus, now schooled and hardened in the desert responds, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Good News.”

Good News?? Is this the way God works?? Is the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant never again to destroy the people of God, GOOD NEWS?? Has this Good News not come at a terrible price for the human race? A destructive flood, and as the earth dries out, a newly created desert and wilderness? God does work in bewildering ways.

Perhaps this is why these dramatic, short and scary stories appeal to us: our own lives – and certainly the world we live in -- are at times bewildering and frightening. People are forever being left desolate, or drowned. Just when we think we’re sinking never to rise again, a hand pulls us out from the deep, only to throw us into a worse place than we were before.

And then: good news: Satan’s temptations do not win Jesus over. The wild beasts do not eat him, he does not shrivel or starve in the desert heat, and angels take care of him. Even God thinks twice before getting so angry again, so angry as to destroy the human race. Out of what is terrible comes a new way of life: the kingdom of God is at hand.

Lent can be about a personal struggle in the wilderness. Challenges at work, with our families – what
one day is ordinary busy-ness turns the next day into a mountain of stress. During Lent we can think about our private sins and shortcomings. But I also think these stories today play out on a larger stage, a global stage. Sabers rattle, rockets blast destruction, troops are deployed: As talk of war swirls around us, these stories call us to global repentance, to a change of heart from destruction to peace, from floods which drown to waters which cause the deserts to bloom. The wild beasts which prowl menacingly are also the ones we can imagine nurturing and keeping alive 40 days in the ark of our salvation. Who are our wild beasts? With what temptations does Satan come to us, as individuals and as a nation? And who are the angels who will serve us and nurture us into the new way of life which is the reign of God?