Sunday, April 22, 2012

What God has Cleansed (Earth Day Sermon)


Acts 11: 1-18

            Care of creation as a part of our Christian life seems a little obvious. Does it feel that way to you? We believe that God’s hand was active in establishing the universe. We understand that there are natural processes that are mysterious to us. We grasp the fact that we are not alone on the earth and that many millions of plants, non-human animals, fish, and lots of other people can be affected by our choices and our actions.

            So we understand, basically, why it’s important. We get it. But do we change what we’re doing based on what we know to be true? I had a lot of heartburn about having a service on Earth Day, oriented toward creation, with a 12-page bulletin. That’s a lot of paper. But we have people who can’t hear and need to be able to follow the service. We have a worship book that turns out not to be very visitor-friendly in its orientation (lots of flipping back and forth). So we sacrificed trees for the sake of hospitality. Does it mean anything to regret this decision? Could we figure out how to go bulletin free one Sunday a month?

            When I ask that kind of question, I immediately see that I have a problem, a flaw in my thinking. I’m skipping right to the specific before I comprehend the reason for the general. I can read Job and understand, again, that God knows and loves all creation on both the micro and macro- scale. Yet, how am we brought into that love? I do not mean how are we brought into loving creation. I mean, how are we brought into God’s love, into God’s knowledge?

            Imagine, if you will, that you are Peter. The Apostle. You fished for years, your life was pretty much set, and then came Jesus. Like a bat out of Nazareth (or something like that). You follow him. You see amazing things. You have powerful revelations. You deny, confess, distort, and accept. You see the risen Christ. You witness the flames of Pentecost. And through all of this, you’re a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. John was a Jew. Thomas, Andrew, Philip- Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. All the people at the Pentecost event- Jewish.

            And now there are people who believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They trust that he is the Son of God. They experience truth in the story of the resurrection. And they. Are. Not. Jewish. What do you do? Send them away? Slap the pork chop out of their hands and circumcise them on the spot? Tell them it is too bad they weren’t chosen?

            When Peter is in Joppa, God sends a vision to a man named Cornelius. Cornelius is an Italian soldier who believes in God and, in his time of prayer, God tells him to go and see Peter. In the meantime, God sends Peter the dream of the “unclean animals” and repeats the scene until Peter gets the point God is trying to make, “Who are you to say that what I have made is profane? Unclean? Unworthy?” When Cornelius appears before Peter and introduces himself and tells Peter of his vision, Peter probably has a little hallucination of a pig, induced by lifelong hatred of Romans and conflation of Roman soldiers with pigs. Then he realizes this is the point of the dream! Truly God shows no partiality because God has even spoken truth to this Italian swine soldier.

            Of course, Peter later gets a lot of flack for sharing the gospel with Gentiles. His reasoning is actually rock solid, “God did it first.” Peter cannot keep the Holy Spirit from blowing where it will, descending as it desires, inspiring the understanding of truth in whom it shall. One of the interesting ironies of the Bible is how long it takes people who have been called by God to realize that God is also working in other people and in other circumstances.

You might think that people whose understanding of God’s work in history included Ruth, Cyrus (the Great), Melchizedek (blessed Abraham), and Pharaoh’s daughter (raised Moses), among others, might not be so shocked that God would conspire to bring inspiration and salvation to non-Jews. And the thing is, we cannot speak against Peter and the other Jews for being slow to come to this understanding. Christians do it all the time. We forget how we have been grafted onto the tree of life. We assume that we are the very roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. (And we know what ass-u-me does.)

            This brings me back around to care of creation. We did not invent this. A green revolution did not begin with us. It began with God, whose farm is all creation. The stories of God at the beginning of the world mention that there was not yet land because there was not yet people (man) to tend the soil, to care for the land, to be co-creators.

            People have slowly come around to understanding God’s call to all people, God’s welcome and openness to every person. How long can the rest of the world wait for us to understand the extension of renewal and redemption? How long can we pretend that we do not understand Peter’s dream that nothing God has made is profane? How long will we profane what God has made by being careless with what we eat, what we do, what we buy, how we live?

            I’m saying this to you, but the voice in my head is saying, “Sit down and be quiet, you hypocrite. Remove the plank from your own eye.” We’re in this together… on Earth Day… on the third Sunday in Easter…

            Where do we start? Let’s begin by making the revelation of Peter’s dream our prayer: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” When you eat, let your prayer be of gratitude for the ways the food got to your table. “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” When you look at the grit of spring or cut your eyes from a man holding a sign on the corner, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” When you take out the trash or sort things for the garage sale, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” When you look in the mirror, when you wash your face, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”

            The first step toward the acceptance of Gentiles was the realization that God had loved them already. God was there first. So the first step in our own journey toward care of creation, realizing that God loves it already. God loved it first. And God has loved us to share entrust the responsibility of caring. But we have to begin with understanding that what God has made clean, what God has welcomed, what God loves, cannot be called or treated as common.

Amen.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: Still (Lauren Winner)

Still is the most Southern thing I've read in a long time.

I do not mean that it is about the South or about Southern issues or even has a Southern voice. It has a Southern speed. 

The book reads like a long day with a friend you know so well that you don't rehash details. Lauren Winner reflects on the middle of her faith journey- what comes between the fiery beginning and the slow burn of the end. The book feels like a conversation she has with you, over a day or a weekend. 

Over eggs and grits with me, she confesses, "The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone." (p. xiii)

In my mind, I walk with Winner to pick peas in the garden, after breakfast, and she shares about her struggle to sit with her loneliness, "I tell the loneliness to pull up a seat. I notice she does not look so very threatening after all- she has a touch of the dowager about her, actually. She is clutching a handbag made of fat white beads, and she smells of rose water. We sit next to each other on my screen-porch sofa... I lean back. I breathe." (59) 

As we shell peas, on the same porch, Winner recounts, "I told my spiritual director I was praying (I doubt she was fooled). I told myself that I should be praying, that it would be good for me to pray; I said to myself, Of course you feel far away from God, how could you feel otherwise when you will not pray? But still, I persisted in not praying. My chastisements about my own lack of prayer became private jokes. When I nosed up against prayer, I felt angry..." (64) 

Winner walks me several miles to get a cold drink and we talk about how boredom masks other emotions, other experiences, our resistance. She says, "Boredom is, indeed, a restless state. I am, I hope, inching toward stillness." (126) 

When I try to recall an earlier comment, something she said about prayer, Winner tells me, "I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God." (194) 

Usually when I read a book for review, it's marked up, full of marginalia, little paper flags poke out beyond the page edges for attention and remembrance. I never touched a pen while reading this book. It felt like I would have interrupted the conversation. I needed to be present in the moment of the reading. The very personal, unwinding confessional, sipping whiskey nature of this book did not lend itself to notes on the first go around. 

When I go back, and I will go back, I will make notes. I will remember to mark the page where she talks about prayer as a marker of Christian life... not necessarily your own prayers, but perhaps the prayers of other people for you. When I read this again, I will be less interested in what happened in her divorce and more able to recognize the map of grief she is drawing for after a death and a divorce. When I read this again, what I appreciated about the tone of Winner's writing voice will have deepened. 

This is the first book of Winner's that I have truly liked, possibly because she always writes with an appeal to her reader to relate to her and her theological viewpoint. This time I do. I understand what it's like to be in the middle, to realize that there is a lot of sailing to do before hitting the other shore (God willing). And, as it turns out, you cannot always predict the weather, the pirates, the flora and fauna. All you can count on is the persistent presence of the sea, which can become so ubiquitous as to be forgotten. But is it still there? Is it still keeping you afloat? 

Still meanders and moseys, without clear plot or direction, but with clarity of voice and purpose. For the first time, Winner seems to be living the questions instead of providing answers with a questionable surety. You cannot solve Winner's problems or bring solutions to her, so you just listen. In the listening comes your own pondering of the middle, of your middle, of the middle of faith, of the middle of God. 










I received a copy of Still from Lauren Winner through a giveaway on RevGalBlogPals. No requests were attached to receiving the book and no promises were made upon receipt. All page numbers are from the hardback edition of the book, published 2012 by HarperOne. 

My Hour with Thomas

On the second Sunday in Easter, our church observed Bright Sunday (or Holy Humor Sunday)- extending our resurrection celebration. In addition to kazoos, jokes, and laughter, we had an interview with the apostle, Thomas.



Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining me today on Theology in the Morning with…Pastor Julia! We’ll have a special food giveaway later this hour, but right now let’s meet our special guest. You may know him as the Eeyore of the disciples or the famous doubter, but let’s welcome… Thomas the Apostle!
Thank you so much for coming today. How do I address you? None of you apostles seemed to come with a last name.

Thomas is fine.

Thank you for that. Well, let’s get to it. I think the first question we’d all like an answer to is: Where were you when Jesus showed up that first time?

You know, Pastor Julia. If I’m willing to do the time and space travel it takes to come here and answer questions for you and these other fine folks today, I’d think you’d come up with a better first question. Everyone wants to know and what are you going to say if I tell you that it was my turn to empty the dirt pot (if I may be subtle)… or that I had gone out to get more bread or wine… or that it was just pretty rank in that room with 10 other scared men. Whatever I tell you is going to disappoint you, so all you need to know is that I wasn’t there. Can you live with that?

Wow! I must say, Thomas, I did not expect you to be so frank. I suppose…

It’s like this. I loved Jesus, still do. I mean, I see Him every day now, so can’t really complain. But three years of parables… that can make a man crazy. I wanted some plain talk and I don’t mind telling you that when he did get around to telling it like it was, it was hard to swallow. Since the resurrection, my goal is to tell the truth- straight up. No parables, no metaphors. Also, I don’t spend time on what doesn’t matter. Where I was doesn’t matter in this interview.

Well, thank you for your frankness. Moving on then, what did you think when the others told you that Jesus had been in the room with them?

Honestly, I thought they had all gone crazy together. We were so keyed up, scared, and jittery. It seemed possible that they had a group vision or something. What happened with Judas hit us all pretty hard. Not just because he had traveled with us and been a friend, we thought, but also because most of us understood that anyone of us could have easily done what he did. Maybe not in the same way or for the same reasons, but still… Anyway, when I came back and everyone was tripping over themselves to tell me about Jesus’ return. It was just too much. I’m sure you’ll want to list out the history of Thomas the doubter, but can anyone here tell me that you wouldn’t have said the same thing in the same circumstances?

I’m pretty sure I can’t say that I would have been different. So, what was it like when you did see Jesus?

What do you think it was like? I wanted to throw up and throw myself at his feet, all at the same time. Even after the crucifixion, even when we weren’t entirely sure what to believe about where his body was, we still knew the truth of what we had witnessed when we traveled with him. I still can hear Lazarus’ voice lifting out of that tomb. I can still see the stunned expression of blind men seeing for the first time, of people who walked, of people who heard and received a word of forgiveness. So, even when we as disciples didn’t know what to think… we had these powerful experiences to chew over with one another. Those experiences formed our understanding of Jesus and, in that upper room, none of us were willing to admit to thinking we might have been wrong, even though we all had that thought. And then he was there!

If I may interrupt, how did he come through that wall?

You may not interrupt. That’s not important to the story. However he did it, it was done! And there he was and I was terrified and thrilled and ashamed and gratified and… Even now, it’s too overwhelming to think. Suddenly, when he appeared, everything I knew came into place. The last rock in a wall. The opening move of a game. It was like the most powerful end and at the same time the most astounding beginning of any story, song, or even battle that you might see. Suddenly, I knew that this was my Rabbi, my teacher, and my God, THE God… right there. When he offered for me to touch him, I couldn’t dare. Moses only saw God’s backside and lived to tell about it. What would happen to lowly Thomas who asked for proof, got it, and then pressed his luck?

That’s such an amazing story, Thomas. We’re all curious about what you did next, but this is supposed to be a light-hearted Sunday. We’ve all been enjoying laughing and your story seems so heavy.

It’s not that heavy when you actually think about it. You don’t think there’s humor in it? Believe me, I laugh every time I consider that Jesus didn’t punish me for asking a question. He could have said, “Impudent wretch! Did you ever listen when I was talking?” But he was as kind and generous in resurrection as he ever been.
And, you, you dare to think that this is not a story of joy? What kind of interpreter of scripture are you? There are three gifts in that story and you get two of them. Jesus gives peace to all disciples, he gives proof to me, and he blesses those who won’t quite have the same experience I did. You get peace! AND a blessing! What more do you want?

Well, proof might be nice.

Proof! Ha! Proof is like the buzz of those kazoos that you were playing earlier. It’s great while it lasts, but then it grates on you. It takes your breath away and then leaves you empty of mystery. Proof gives you a tangible experience for a while, but it doesn’t allow for height and depth and breadth and range.
If you have proof, will you have peace? Will your questions end or will they increase? If you received proof, would you relinquish your blessing? The comfort of the Spirit? The experiences you have resurrection in communion and in community and in creation?

I don’t know, but doubting seems so…

What is doubt? It’s like proof, it comes and it goes. If you banish one question, another will arise. Your faith, God’s gift of faith to you, is not the absence of doubt. It’s action in spite of doubt. It’s moving forward, even while questioning. It’s closing a door, but knowing that Jesus just might come through the wall.  You’re learning as you go, just like I was. Just like Peter. Just like Andrew, James, John, and all the women who helped us along the way. But you have written accounts to help your faith. You have the promise and the presence of the Spirit. The resurrection has always been your reality.
And you have my story, my little story that you try to make big in all the wrong ways. What was I doing? How did he come through the wall? How about this?!? Jesus knew my questions, brought me the answer of his own body, did not strike me dead on the spot, and offered a blessing to everyone who doesn’t get what I got. How about that to make your Sunday bright? And your tomorrow? And the day after that?

Wow, Thomas, I don’t know how to thank you for coming in today. You’ve been an amazing guest. I’d like to talk to you more after the break about your life after the upper room, but first we have some messages from our sponsors. Folks, I just want to repeat something Thomas said: Your faith, God’s gift of faith to you, is not the absence of doubt. It’s action in spite of doubt. It’s moving forward, even while questioning. It’s closing a door, but knowing that Jesus just might come through the wall.

Amen

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Moveable Feast (Second Easter Service)


Mark 16:1-8

            Do you know why the date of Easter changes? It has to do with the cycle of the moon and the church calendar. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. For the most part that means Easter falls somewhere between March 22 and April 25. Of course, and this is one of the best parts, the churches that use this date for Easter have what’s known as an “ecclesiastical calendar”, meaning the church occasionally has slightly different lunar dates than the astronomical calendar, kept by, well, astronomers. But for the most part, the formula has held true since 325 A.D. (for churches using the Gregorian calendar).

            Easter has earned a special name, since it does not have a fixed date. It is referred to as a moveable feast. Moveable feast. And all the dates that are coordinated with Easter’s date are also moveable feasts: Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Ascension, Pentecost, and Holy Trinity Sunday. All moveable feasts because their celebration is always a given number of days from Easter. (For example, Ash Wednesday is always the Wednesday before the sixth Sunday ahead of Easter.)

            Why am I talking so much about calendars? It’s actually not the calendar part I care about. It’s the name: moveable feast. It sounds like a picnic on the go, something that comes with us, that we can carry, that carries us. A moveable feast sounds like a banquet, a glorious table spread with all kinds of amazing foods. But when you’ve been really hungry or exhausted, a moveable feast is a shared crust of bread and the slug of liquid that makes you feel like you can keep going. Easter is both of these kinds of feasts.

            Mary Magdalene, Mary- the mother of James, and Salome were not in a feasting mood as they headed toward the tomb for that first sunrise service, a service of laying on of hands and prayer. They probably ate very little the day before, since it was the Sabbath and because they were probably still stunned from the crucifixion. At some point during that day, each of them quietly set aside ointments, cloths, spices in a little basket. Not a feast, just little odds and ends to tend Jesus’ body, to mend it, to commend it to God through washing and prayer. Tears pouring down their faces, they crept out of their houses at first light, before their families were awakened. Instructions were given to oldest daughters and daughters-in-law about the morning meal. And then the quiet slap of sandals on hardened dirt streets.

            The mother of James probably thought she was the only one, until Salome hurried to catch up to her. They both saw the figure of Mary Magdalene ahead of them and scurried to be by the side of that beloved apostle on the way. Still stunned by how abruptly it had all ended, the ringing of the hammer on the nails in their minds… the feel of Jesus’ body gone cold as they laid it in the tomb… the confusion as to where the disciples had gone… was it true about Judas… how will they move the stone. It was all too much. These women were not ready for a feast of any kind.

            But, ready or not, they arrived to hear of resurrection. They come with one task in mind, if they can accomplish it. That task proves worthless, all their planning, their grieved collection of materials. The task they came to do is moot and they are given another task, but it’s too much to absorb. We want to imagine them leaping in excitement and leaving the symbols of sorrow in their wake, a trail of spices, cloths, and broken perfume bottles leading to the empty tomb.

            They are stunned and afraid. What if this is a trick? What if Jesus’ body has been stolen? Do they go tell the apostles, who will doubtless come to the same conclusion and, possibly, accuse the women of knowing what happened? What do they do? Only minutes before they had a momentous task, honoring the body of Jesus. Now they have a different, monumental task… becoming the body of Christ. Carrying words as a balm, hope as the fragrance, faith as a spice. They nibble at the edges of this feast, easing the hunger of their grief.

            Why does the angel tell them to go his disciples and Peter? Is it because Peter is special, is elevated, or because Peter denied Jesus and it’s important to express plainly that he is still in the fold. He is still a sheep of Jesus’ own flock, a lamb of God’s own fold, a sinner who has now been redeemed. The messenger is clarifying for the women that there are no side tables at God’s feast, no people who wait for scraps in the kitchen, no one who will be turned away from the banquet of resurrection. Even Peter has a place at the Easter feast, when it reaches him through the witness of the women.

            That’s the thing about a moveable feast. It comes whether you’re ready or not. Whether you are in your own extended Lenten season, wrestling with crucifixion, lying in the tomb- unable to rise, the moveable feast comes. A moveable feast offers us hope until we can taste joy. A moveable feast offers expectation until we can drink from faith. A moveable feast fills us with courage until we are stuffed from encounter.
             
            Easter is the moveable feast that brings us the food for our souls when we need it and when we can receive it. Sometimes in April. Sometimes in September. Sometimes in December and January. The news of resurrection comes to us in our deep hunger and edges us into fullness, into renewal, into strength.

            Who would believe the story of three women who say they saw a heavenly messenger at the empty tomb of an itinerant preacher from the backwater of Nazareth? Who will listen to that story? Who will take their word?

            People who are hungry for forgiveness. People who thirst to believe God is still acting in the world. People who believe in the possibility of redemption. People who crave justice and peace. People smell the scent of equality and long to have their fill. People who have tasted of true freedom and want to revel in it again. That’s who will listen to their story. That’s who will believe them. People who are hungry for the feast of Easter. Hungry for it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Hungry for it on the day after. And after that. And after that.

            Do you dare to believe that this is a moveable feast for you? That is for the person beside you and beside them? That this feast has moved from an empty tomb to Galilee to Judea to all of Palestine to the entire world? Do we dare to speak up and say this is a feast to which everyone is invited?

            Our hymns and our words mainly speak of Easter joy, but that first Easter (and maybe every one since) wasn’t about joy. It was about hope. The hope in the truth of the resurrection. The hope in the triumph of the God of life over the power of death. The hope of grace and forgiveness and the family of God. You may not always feel like feasting on first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but we can believe the feast is there.

The moveable feast of resurrection, of Easter is bound human limitations, then or now.

When is resurrection?
When is Easter?

Thanks be to God that the moveable feast of Easter is always right when the world needs it to be.


Amen. 

Ready or Not, Resurrection (Early Easter Service)


Mark 16:1-8

            What happens when you’re not in the mood for Easter? What if the smells are too strong, the colors too bright, the alleluias too loud? We are all a little used to people talking about not feeling the Christmas spirit, but who doesn’t want new life… who doesn’t thrill at the sound of the trumpet… who isn’t ready for resurrection?

            Sometimes our own Lent goes on beyond forty days. Sometimes, in our own lives, our own passion story, our own feeling of crucifixion… exposure and abandonment… is not over in a week or three days. Sometimes resurrection comes, but we are not ready to get up. We are not ready to tell the story.

            The women heading toward the tomb for that first sunrise service, a service of laying on of hands and prayer… those women were not prepared for resurrection. They may have spent the whole day before, the Sabbath day, longing to be at the tomb. Maybe it was too far too walk for the Sabbath or perhaps the work was not permitted. So each of them quietly set aside ointments, cloths, spices in a little basket. Tears pouring down their faces, they crept out of their houses at first light, before their families were awakened. Instructions were given to oldest daughters and daughters-in-law about the morning meal. And then the quiet slap of sandals on hardened dirt streets.

            The mother of James probably thought she was the only one, until Salome hurried to catch up to her. They both saw the figure of Mary Magdalene ahead of them and scurried to be by the side of that beloved apostle on the way. Still stunned by how abruptly it had all ended, the ringing of the hammer on the nails in their minds… the feel of Jesus’ body gone cold as they laid it in the tomb… the confusion as to where the disciples had gone… was it true about Judas… how will they move the stone. It was all too much. These women were not ready for resurrection.

            But, ready or not, they arrived to hear of resurrection. They come with one task in mind, if they can accomplish it. That task proves worthless, all their planning, their grieved collection of materials. The task they came to do is moot and they are given another task, but it’s too much to absorb. We want to imagine them leaping in excitement and leaving the symbols of sorrow in their wake, a trail of spices, cloths, and broken perfume bottles leading to the empty tomb.

            They are stunned and afraid. What if this is a trick? What if Jesus’ body has been stolen? Do they go tell the apostles, who will doubtless come to the same conclusion and, possibly, accuse the women of knowing what happened? What do they do? Only minutes before they had a momentous task, honoring the body of Jesus. Now they have a different, monumental task… becoming the body of Christ. Carrying words as a balm, hope as the fragrance, faith as a spice.

            Did they go to the disciples right away? Did they make a plan to meet later in the week and talk about what happened? Did they return to their respective houses, already moving with morning activity, and slip back into their routines, knowing things were different, but unsure how to put that difference into words?

            Knowing things are different, but unsure how to put that difference into words is the Easter story for most of us. Sometimes we receive the news of resurrection, but we’re trying to understand how it applies to us. How it makes us free. How it brings us restoration, hope, and faith.

            Stories of grief have to be repeated until understanding comes, until relief arrives, until a light shines in the darkness. The women probably met again… maybe that afternoon, maybe a few days later. They had to get ready for resurrection. Because it happened when they were unprepared. It happens in the same way to us.

            Whatever our state of belief, of grief, of celebration, Christ’s resurrection comes to us, comes to all creation, whether we are ready or not. And here’s the good news about resurrection… we cannot stop it, we cannot slow its work, we will not stem its grace or welcome. Ready or not, we have been swept into the stream of Easter hope. The Spirit keeps us floating until we are ready to swim.
           
Easter is here, but resurrection is still coming, still washing over us, still be absorbed in us so that, like the women at the tomb, we too may take on the task of telling the story and becoming the body of Christ.


Amen.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Mary Magdalene: Witness to the Crucifixion


 Our Lutheran Community Good Friday service for this year was themed: "Witness to the Crucifixion". As the story was read, we heard from Judas, Pilate's wife, Barrabas, Mary (Jesus' mother), the Roman centurion, and Mary Magdalene. It was unbelievably powerful stuff to hear the words of the characters pour forth with emotion: anger, grief, glee, resentment, curiosity, expectation, loss. 

I spoke as Mary Magdalene and I was the last witness, lingering at the tomb. It's been an emotional week, but in those moments when I was thinking as the Magdalen- I thought of having such deep love for Jesus and knowing nothing of resurrection, of believing all on which I had built my hopes was gone. I was devastated and the following words are what I spoke, through tears and some sobs. At one point, I tore my wrap- rending my garments- until I laid down in the dried palms from Palm Sunday- slain in grief. Ah, Mary Magdalene- a hero to me on Good Friday and in the days to come... 


           I am the last one at the tomb. I cannot leave. There are two Roman guards, but they don’t see me. They could- I’m not hiding. But they don’t want to.

            The other disciples have left. The other women have left. Only me- hovering around, unseen and unacknowledged. There are the visible disciples- Peter, Judas, Andrew, James, and John. And then there are the invisible disciples… the ones the visible disciples and others tried not to see.

            Do you know what it’s like to feel invisible? To know that you are in a crowd of people who do not know you and, therefore, do not see you. Worse can you imagine the feeling of forced invisibility? When you know people can see you, know who you are, but choose to ignore you… choose to “not” see you… decide that you do not merit acknowledgement… you are invisible.

            And if you are invisible to people, you may as well be invisible to God. This is how I felt, constantly, before Jesus… before he cast out the demons that plagued me. When that pain and torment fled, I felt my body re-appear. My eyes came back… because Jesus met them and then so did other people. My hands came back… because Jesus would pass food to me and take food from me… and then so did other people. My feet came back… reappeared because I could walk next to someone, with the others who followed Jesus. My voice made noise again… words that were heard, received, responded to… by Jesus and by others. My face came back- as it was touched and kissed by Jesus.

            Slowly my body reappeared and I was no longer missing, no longer unseen. I was made visible by Love, by living words of hope… I was made visible by Jesus and when Jesus saw you, everyone around him saw you. More, though, and this is the part that’s hard to explain… when Jesus saw you, it felt like God saw you. Saw right through you and not only were you visible, but you were bare and exposed, not naked… just visible and… known…

            Now… now… Now the eyes that saw me, saw everything are closed. The hands that touched and cradled and fed are pierced and still. The feet that led and walked beside and nudged… the feet are still. They stopped bleeding before we got to the tomb.  The mouth, the mouth that poured forth words of love… words like no other… words of welcome… of hope… of God with us right now… that mouth is silent. Silent! The warm lips that offered a kiss of peace are cold and still. His mouth! Rabbouni!

(Clothing torn here)

            How can the world exist without him? How can this be the same place that beheld and held that body?
Who will see me? Who will see us?
Who will speak of hope and of God’s love?
Who will feed the people that no one sees?
Who will heal?
Who will stay awake in the night with those who cannot sleep?

            How can we live without Jesus, without his body among us? How can we go on without him? How will I live without the One that made me visible? Does my body exist without the Body that made me whole?

            I cannot leave this tomb. How can I abandon his body? As long as I stay here, at this tomb, he is not alone. If I stay, he is still visible, even behind the stone. I know he’s there. If I stay, Jesus’ body is still real. And as long as his body is real, so is mine. 

Jesus Will Not Be Pimped

In March 2012, I attended a conference at which Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver II was the keynote speaker. For the record, Congressman Cleaver can P.R.E.A.C.H. He spoke about the current budget crisis in our government, the changes in how congressional leaders relate to and communicate with one another, and the responsibility of all citizens to care about how our money is used. At one point in the sermon keynote address, Cleaver spoke vociferously against people who loosely talk about "God on their side" or who choose to ignore the plight of struggling people, but speak of Jesus' approval and how Jesus has brought them success. While ignoring Jesus' teaching, they give him credit for their success and expect him to continue to deliver. However, said Cleaver, "Jesus will not be pimped."

Jesus will not be pimped.

Can I hear an amen?

Preach it, Brother Cleaver. We cannot ignore Jesus' plain teaching about loving our neighbor, about dropping our throwin' stones, about drawing all people to God, about lifting women and children and outcasts of all types, about understanding that kingdom of God is at hand. We cannot ignore those things, but expect the name of Jesus to bring us political victory, economic victory, religious victory.

Jesus will not be pimped.

In Anchorage this week, there was an election fiasco of historical proportions. Many precincts ran out of ballots, which meant that some people did not get to vote or voted on questioned/questionable ballots. Was there an unexpected number of voters? Maybe. This was an election for mayor and there were several ballot propositions up for consideration. Proposition Five proposed to add "same-sex orientation" and "transgendered identity" to the city's non-discrimination clause. Proposition Five did not pass, by a large margin. My heart aches.

I was part of campaigning for Proposition Five. Yes on Five. I did public work and I did some private negotiating and conversations with people I know and love, but would not normally be inclined to vote yes on this kind of thing. Some people changed their votes. One person was willing to leave the prop blank, unable to vote yes, but willing to not vote no.

Some of the rhetoric from both sides was harsh. However, from my perspective, the No on Five crowd was particularly vitriolic with pastors using the pulpit to spread false information about homosexuals (uncited and incorrect statistics regarding suicide, child abuse, and crime), conflating transgendered identity with transvestitism (not the same at all), spreading incorrect and damaging information about how Prop 5 would affect churches, and using nebulous phrases like "protect your rights" without clarifying the rights that were "threatened".*

The use of church time, pulpit authority, and church dollars to spread discrimination in the public sector is abhorrent to me. Using the name of Jesus to keep people in the dark of discrimination with regard to jobs, housing, and services is shameful. People are hurting and churches have kicked them when they're down, in the name of Jesus. And these same churches will be touting how Jesus brought them victory.

Jesus will not be pimped.

Why am I writing this on Good Friday? Because it's on this day of all days that we tend to hear about the idea that humanity was (and is) so terrible that God had to send his Son to die for all, but the death (and resurrection) only brings redemption to those who believe. God was/is so angry, so hates the people of the world, that the only satisfaction that would work to satisfy God's angry need for an appropriate sacrifice that is for the Son to come, live as a human,  and then die in a horrible way for all the sins that have been and will ever be committed.

I don't think so.

Jesus will not be pimped. Not even by the Father.

The attempt to snuff the Second Person of the Trinity, the Death of Jesus, the Murder of the Messiah comes at the hands of people. People who thought they could force God into acting (I'm looking at you, Jewish Zealots of the Roman occupation). People who thought that the Messiah would look a certain way and Jesus was a blasphemer (if not a threat to their power). (I'm looking at you, chief priests and scribes). People who were scared and uncertain and who had little power, even to try to prevent what was happening (I'm looking at you, disciples who steal away in the dark of the garden).

People killed Jesus for a variety of reasons, but

Jesus will not be pimped.

God acted (and acts) in spite of human actions, with their myriad causes, to bring resurrection- life, hope, and the reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn't require substitution. Forgiveness is about a clean slate, fresh linen, an empty tomb.

Jesus will not be pimped.

If our work in Jesus' name is not the work of caring, loving, healing, restoration, clarity, forgiveness... if it's not work Jesus would recognize as his own... we better be careful to whom we attribute the victory.

It's a bleak day, but resurrection is coming and it looks exactly how God wants it to look...  and not how any of us define.

Jesus will not be pimped.









*I carefully wrote this sentence because of how No on Five people took sentences and thoughts of Yes on Five people out of context.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hosanna! Save Us! (Sermon, Palm Sunday)


The premise of this sermon begins with the fact that the service was "backwards" for April Fools Day. We began with a benediction, flowed to communion, back through the service, concluding with confession. 


Mark 11:1-10


            How do I give a sermon backwards or upside down? Do I begin with the point I would close with and close with a pointed story? I’m not sure. On the best days, the Spirit works through the sermon to give us the food for thought and the faith that brings us to the table to receive, and commune with, the presence of Christ. Since we communed first today, I’m trusting that the communion that is in us and among us… is also opening us up to a new way of looking at this holy Sunday… Palm Sunday.

            Today’s gospel lesson is usually called the “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem”. What makes it triumphant?

-       The people greeting Jesus?
-       Like a parade?
-       Treating him like a king?

The crowd is shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” What does that mean? Hosanna is actually a very April Fools kind of cry. It sounds happy, but it isn’t.  It doesn’t mean “Hooray” or “Cheers” or anything we could imagine yelling in a parade. Hosanna, in both Hebrew and the equivalent Greek, means “help us” or “save us”. So people are waving leafy branches and calling for Jesus to help and save them. They are expecting salvation from Roman oppression, from physical ailments, from the unbalanced temple system of the time.

Sometimes when we see pictures of Jesus riding on the colt, he looks like he has indigestion. It’s a strange look for someone who is receiving a parade in his honor, but it’s not so strange if we think about the message Jesus has been preaching and the upside and backwards expectations people have of him.

            Speaking of the colt, why do you think Jesus’ parade vehicle was a “colt that had never been ridden”? That probably wasn’t the smoothest ride he could have found. Many people point to a verse from the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.  Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9) Jesus knew his Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, and he could have been fulfilling this.

            Yet, there’s something a little further back that might also be a factor and goes hand-in-hand with the understanding of Jesus as a very different kind of king. When Solomon was crowned king, he rode to his anointing on his father David’s mule. (1 Kings 1:38-39) This symbolized Solomon’s succession to his father’s throne. Very frequently when new kings take over, they do so by re-fitting or re-claiming the symbols, possessions, wives, and residences of their predecessors- as if to clearly establish who is king now and who is not. People are greeting Jesus as a king in the line of David, but is he? Is it possible to be in the family of David, but to be a king in an entirely different way?

            Jesus rides on… a colt that has never had a rider. He’s coming into a kingship that has no predecessor. What did we sing this morning: “His is no earthly kingdom, he comes from heaven above. His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth, and love.” (Prepare the Royal Highway) By riding a colt with no previous rider, Jesus is revealing, perhaps too subtly, that what he brings is very different from what previous rulers have offered.

            Yet the crowds miss that. Most of the disciples don’t understand it. They’re too busy calling for salvation and they know exactly what they want that to look like.

            They know exactly what they want salvation to look like.

            April fools.

            This is one of the challenges of Holy Week- letting go of what we want salvation to be and allowing ourselves to be open to what it is. On Wednesday night, a few of us talked about the favorite moments of the week. It came up that Easter is supposed to help us not to be afraid of death. Someone responded, “I’m not afraid of death. It’s the dying part that I don’t like.”

            That’s so true for most of us. It’s the dying that we’re afraid of. And Holy Week has a lot of dying. The recollection of betrayal and false accusation and crucifixion causes us to tremble, but the dying begins here- with the palms in our hands. Dying well takes honesty. How honest are we ready to be?

            Are we prepared to be honest with the emotions we feel this week? The discomfort at being touched? The uncertainty at the story of the crucifixion? The sense of being overwhelmed or underwhelmed by a story that’s been told many times? Are we will to be honest that Jesus isn’t the king we’re expecting and sometimes we don’t like that?

            Are we prepared to die to the notion that our goodness, our right behavior, can save us or make us right with God? Are we prepared to be honest that we don’t always look for Jesus in other people and we do not always let people see Jesus in us? In this Holy Week, are we prepared to die, within ourselves and in our actions, to our prejudices, to our blind spots, to our fears, to our insecurities? Are we prepared to crucify injustice, anger, judgment, and mistrust? Are we prepared to cry, “Hosanna to the King of Kings”, and mean it? To mean, “Save us, Jesus, save us from ourselves, from our possessions, from our efforts to control.”

            Something must die to make way for rebirth. And the dying is scary. But this week is all about dying… in particular, dying so that we might live
           
            Who can help us with that? To whom shall we cry, “Hosanna! Save us!”?

The Jesus who came to us at the table… the Jesus whose death brings the possibility of resurrection… and resurrection brings the promise of new life.

            Are you ready for Holy Week? Are you ready to remember? Can you be open to the dying that makes way for new life? Are we prepared to ponder the different kind of king that Jesus is and the different kind of life to which we are called… or will we hold back… hold back and have the joke be on us?

            Jesus, you are king forever. We would never betray you or your call to us. April Fools.
           
Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna.

Amen.