Sunday, April 20, 2014

$3 Worth of Easter

John 20:1-18

            I recently read a poem that I couldn’t forget. Now I cannot even remember where I saw it, even though I’ve read it every day. The poet, Wilbur Rees, only published one book of verse in his whole life and he’s not necessarily a poet that you would have heard anywhere else.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
 or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

— Wilbur Rees

            Three dollars worth of God. I am not saying that this necessarily applies to anyone here, but there’s something about this poem that kind of gets me in the gut. How much is $3 worth of God?

            The poem is from 1971. That’s not that long ago at all, but there’s inflation. We might say we’d like $20 of God.   What would that even look like? According to the poet, he wants to buy enough of God’s grace to feel better about himself, but not enough to be pressured into any kind of service or response to God’s action. Three dollars worth of God for Rees, twenty dollars for us, is comforting and comfortable, but that’s about it.

            What does $3 worth of God look like on Easter morning? Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty- that’s about $3 worth right there. She believes someone has stolen Christ’s body, but an empty tomb. Even if they never knew for sure what happened, they were in proximity to a miracle. $3 worth of God gets you close to something amazing.

            Peter and the beloved disciples see the empty tomb. They remember and trust Jesus’ words, but they haven’t put all the Hebrew Scriptures together in their mind, yet to fully comprehend what happened.  We’re still at $3.

            Mary Magdalene stays in the garden. She looks again in the tomb and see angels. What’s that worth? At least five dollars, right? That lets her know that something has happened. She sees heavenly messengers and they speak to her. Definitely $5 worth of God-experience by then.

            Then Jesus speaks to her. Even though she doesn’t know who he is, he does speak to her. Do I hear a bid for that? Can I get $10? $15? Fifteen dollars to hear the voice of Christ, of God, even if you don’t know who he is.

            Then he calls her by name. Mary. Price that. To hear God say your name. To hear the voice that you have loved with your whole being, speak to you individually. Anyone? Should we make a big jump? Can you afford it? Would you give an organ? Your liver? A kidney? Heart?

            Jesus speaks to Mary and she knows who he is. He gives her a task, telling her to go and tell the disciples that he is risen. The disciples, in John, are not just the 11 remaining apostles, but anyone who has followed Jesus and believed that God was revealed in him. Mary is charged with telling these disciples that Jesus has called them “brothers” and that he has referred to God as his own Father and theirs. What a message.

            What’s it worth to be given work to do, to be transformed into something more than you ever thought you could be, to realize that resurrection isn’t something for someday, but is for right now? How much is it worth to be known, embraced, and loved for who you are? To be forgiven for where you have fallen short and for your wanderings? What is the price tag we could put on being beloved of God?

            You know. And I know. It is priceless. Or, more precisely, there was a cost, but we have never received a bill. The cost of resurrection was born in God’s desire and willingness to live among us, to breathe as one of us, to eat, sleep, love, and learn, to heal, teach, and suffer. To die as one of us. And then God said… that is not enough.

            God is nothing, if not extravagant. So resurrection. Not resuscitation. Not just a dead body, breathing again. But a transformation, something more than was before. A shape that is remembered, that recalls what was, but is brought into new possibility, new hope, and new life.

            When we think that Easter is just for today, we are limiting ourselves to $3 worth of God. If we believe that transformation happens, but only to other people- that’s $3 worth of God. If we believe we are beyond forgiveness or change- God, I’ll take just $3. If we do not believe that resurrection will have a real and tangible effect on our lives, $3 worth of God.

            When we have listened and bought in- hook, line, and sinker- to what the world may well say about us, about our past, about our family, about our race, about our gifts, about our hobbies, about the creation, about the poor… we have accepted only $3 worth of God.

            Three dollars gets you an empty tomb. But God is SO MUCH more than that. Grace is more than that. Mercy is more than that. The risen body of Christ, in and among us right now, is beyond pricing. The cost of resurrection has already been paid. It wasn’t a down payment. It wasn’t layaway until we could take over. It’s done. And we are invited into the feast of transformation, of renewed hope, of change lives and possibility, which bring us into new relationships with God and with one another.

            God does not limit the availability of resurrection, the opportunity, or the recipients. Do not limit yourself to a taste, to a faint whiff, to one listen. God does not hold back- hasn’t ever and has promised never to do so. We have seen that promise fulfilled in the risen Savior. So trusting in that, we dare to say with Mary Magdalene- “We have seen the Lord”. All around us… and not just $3 worth.


Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Resurrection

John 20:1-18

            Have you ever thought about butterflies and Easter? Do you know why they are associated? Until very recently, I assumed (like many others) that the caterpillar went into the chrysalis, something, something, grew wings, and became a butterfly. That’s not what happens.

            Recently, listening to the program Radiolab, I learned that in the 1600s- theologians and scientists had cut open pupae and discovered a white- yellow goo inside. The caterpillar is gone, but no butterfly was yet formed or seemed even evident in any shape, form, or fashion.

            They believed that the caterpillar died. In dying, it represented our bodies. The butterfly stood for our souls, light, free, and beautiful. Fortunately, they were wrong about the relationship of the caterpillar to the butterfly. I will assert that they were also incorrect about the body and soul’s separation, since the bodies are also beloved and prized by God.

            There is just pale goo in the chrysalis, even one day after the caterpillar forms it. The caterpillar seems gone and there isn’t yet a sign of what will be. So what happens? How does this longtime symbol of death to resurrection actually do its thing?

            As it turns out, the caterpillar is growing the thin, light skeleton of the future butterfly in its body for its entire life. The caterpillar carried and few the form of its future self. When it forms the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissolves, but the delicate butterfly parts- carried into the chrysalis- are pressed against its papery inside, with the goo- the proteins and amino acids of the caterpillar- forming the center. Butterflies will turn away from distasteful smells they experienced as a caterpillar. Some sense memories of their previous life exist within them.

            Thus, a caterpillar to a butterfly is not a story of death and decay. Instead, it is a story of resurrection as transformation, of new life, above the fullness of the possibilities that were always within. The caterpillar’s future self was inside it all along.

            When I think of Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple running back and forth to the tomb on that first Easter morning, I cannot help but think of them as being like caterpillars. Their insides probably felt like goo, as they panicked about the location of Christ’s body. Even in believing who Jesus was, God among them, among us, they did not understand what happened.

            Mary Magdalene, in her caterpillar state, also was overwhelmed. She did not recognize Jesus speaking to her, mistaking him for a gardener. But then he spoke her name, “Mary.” Christ called her by name and she knew who he was. She realized what had happened.

            Jesus urges her forward, with work to do. She is to speak to his brothers. She is to carry the news of the risen Savior. She is to proclaim a new familial relationship with God, by declaring him the Father of Christ and the Father of all. In these moments, Mary transforms. The shape of an evangelist (one who brings good news) has always been inside her, that’s why she was following Jesus.    

            The same thing happens for us. When we have a new life in Christ, what is old passes away. Our insecurities, our fears, our prejudices die. They enter the primordial ooze. The new life we have burst forth, with the help of the Holy Spirit. So many people expect to feel very different. Life in Christ, though, isn’t about feelings. The butterfly doesn’t feel different. It is different.

            Alive in grace, because of God’s work in Jesus on the first Easter and every day since, we are fundamentally changed, yet the possibilities of that new self, of that new life, of that transformation have always been inside us. The shape of our future self, the person that God is calling us and forming us to be, is always within us. We know what we know, we have been forgiven, we step forward… and there is transformation and resurrection… Easter, Easter, Easter… every step of the way.

            That is the hope of this Easter day. Not that we have blech little bodies that will die one day and then there will be something else somewhere. No! The Easter message, the one that calls us by name in the gardens of our griefs and frustrations, is that God resurrects, even here, even now, even you, even me. In Jesus’ own body was the Word that had always been and the Christ who will always be. Within us, by God’s own power, is the resurrection for today and the shape of who God will make us to be for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday: Father, Into Thy Hands

Luke 23:44-46:  It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

         I’m going to begin a prayer and you help me finish the first couple lines

Our Father, who art…
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Glory be to the Father…
The Lord is my shepherd…
Now I lay me down to sleep…

            Some of you may not even remember learning the words of those prayers. They stir up from your minds almost automatically. The words feel like a part of you and they slide out of your mouth as easily as breath. When we understand ourselves to pray with the help of the Holy Spirit, these prayers are the way God, through Jesus and the Spirit, gives structure, pattern, and depth to our prayers.

            Even children can (and should) learn these words. Does it matter if they fully understand what they mean? It does not. Does it matter if we fully comprehend these prayers? It does not. Our prayers- in word and deed- express our trust in God, our lived out hope that we may live to see and comprehend how God is acting in the world for renewal, healing, and resurrection.

            Jesus told the disciples, who were concerned about their status in heaven, that they needed to change their thinking and become more like children. The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to become like a child. This does not mean to act childishly, in the way that we might imagine (or hope). It means to have the faith of one who has not yet learned of harshness, to have the clear intentions of one who speaks the truth because she does not know how to lie, to have the ability to imagine and reach for entirely brand-new possibilities- all of which is rooted in having experienced safety and care from the very first minutes of life.

            “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit” was a child’s bedtime prayer in the time of Jesus. It is likely that Mary would sit down next to a young Yeshua, settling down for sleep on his bed of rushes in the family room. They might have sung a soft song or recited the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one). She might have spoken a soft prayer or blessing over him. Then she would have reminded him of the last prayer of the night. The last words for each child (and adult to speak) before falling asleep were a quotation of Psalm 31:5,  “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

            These words, believed to be of David- shepherd boy and powerful King- were the last prayer of the night, the prayer of trust and expressed hope before surrendering to the oblivion of sleep, which must have seemed like a kind of death. Praying as the psalmist gave parents a way to teach their children about trusting in God- a Creator and Redeemer who was with them in a way that even their own parents could not be.

            Thus, young Jesus would have uttered this prayer every day of his life. He would likely never remember having learned it. He might remember his mother helping him pray it. Or remember hearing Joseph whisper it at the end of a day’s labors. Jesus might have prayed it in the night with other children in his family- as they piled in together for sleep, exhausted after play, worship, and work.

            When Jesus prays this from the cross, he is no longer a child. He no longer retained the innocence of one who has not seen evil. He had been betrayed, denied, rejected, beaten, and crucified. His humanity had been stretched to its breaking point and that same humanness was about to experience the end of earthly human experience- death. Yet, in this moment, he is still the Son, still God’s anointed, still Emmanuel- God with us. Even as he experiences, he teaches. Even as he teaches, he saves. Even as he saves, he transforms.

            Jesus utters this prayer, “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit” and transforms it for his own self on the cross and for all who would pray it after him. By adding the word “Father”, Jesus reveals his nature as the pioneer of our faith- leading us into a new kind of intimacy and familial relationship with God, with himself, and with one another. Jesus prays the words just as he has thousands of times, but this time, we are able to hear that he is not David. He is not just another claimant to the title of Messiah. He is not a failed political revolutionary. He is not a rejected king.

            Only one who knows the heart of God would dare to address the Ground of All Being as “Father”. The only one would could truly know the heart of the Holy Parent is one who was of that heart, was of the same being, understood the same things, and had the same desires since before the beginning of creation. Only the Living Word would dare to pray with such familiarity and deep trust, trust that came not of hope, but out of knowledge.

            Only Jesus would pray a children’s bedtime prayer in the moment of his death to teach all who hear and all who follow how to live and how to die with true faith- born out of concrete expectation in God’s faithfulness.

            Every prayer of Jesus is a model for us, a way to pray- as children of faith, as children of light, as children of adoption by the Holy Spirit. In his last words, Jesus teaches us how to pray in the hour of death. Since most of us do not know that hour, we are therefore empowered to pray in this way every day of our lives, every moment of our lives. When driving, before sleeping, in choosing a daily intention, in our hobbies, in our relationships… by praying as Jesus did, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit”- we are asking the Father to shape our will, our actions, and our prayers to God’s own will, actions, and plans.

            In that way, it is a challenging word, a challenging prayer. It requires us to understand that external forces may alter our experience, but they cannot ultimately change us if we are ever giving our spirit over to God’s own control. Jesus knew who he was and whose he was, and still he prayed, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”

            We who seek daily to live with the same knowledge- whose we are and who we are- can do nothing less to pray in the same way, with the heart of child, with trust, with hope, and with abandon. Let it be the new prayer we know by heart- “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”


Maundy Thursday: Subversive Prayer

       When we were looking for covers for this bulletin, we found many different pictures of communion ware and elements for celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We found arrangements bowls, pitchers, and towels for washing feet. And then there were these two pictures- the new commandment, the commandment to love one another- distinctly printed over two different families- one black, one white, same poses.

            I felt a little surprised. First of all, Jesus is speaking to the assembled disciples. The commandment is, then, transferred from those who heard the words themselves to all who walk the same walk of trust and hope in Jesus. While it certainly applies within a small family context, the call to love one another is far more expansive than that. Rather than show the expansive nature of the call to love with an image of all kinds of people together, this images mask the challenge and subversive nature of what Jesus is commanding of all who follow him. Yes, commanding- not asking- commanding.

            Subversive. I think we are so used to what we do, to this story, to the person of Jesus, to being church people that we have forgotten the subversive nature of our faith. It has slipped our mind that we just heard a story about a nearly naked Jesus washing feet- something a free man would never do for other free men. We no longer think about Holy Communion as bites of food that bring us into communion with God, with one another, and with all those who have gone before us. We have forgotten the enmity that existed between our denominations that kept us from worshipping together for generations.

            We are called specifically to a subversive kind of life. We are commanded into a subversive kind of life- a life of radical service, of intense forgiveness, of praying with our hands, feet, dollars, and words. All of those things are what we hear in tonight’s gospel, a story that calls into a life of prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi active in many of the freedom efforts of the 20th century, wote, “Prayer is meaningless, unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood.”

            Prayer is meaningless, unless it is subversive. What does this mean? To be subversive means to seek to undercut an established system, to overthrow rules and institutions, to ransack expectations. For ourselves, we are called to subversion for the sake of Jesus in the world. We are called to subvert systems that allow money and the monied to control resources. We are called to stand against structures that penalize the poor and those who are struggling. We are empowered to speak loudly against powers and principalities that declare power through war, oppression, and destruction of natural resources.

            If we are not doing these things, we are not praying as deeply as we might. If we are not praying, we are not trusting. If we do not trust, then what makes up our faith?

            We have reached a stage where anything beyond what we “usually do” feels like a big deal. This evening should not be a shock to us. It shouldn’t happen just once a year. Of all the congregations here, we could easily merge together and create, perhaps, three good-sized congregations across Anchorage. We could, by our actions, declare that praying together in word and deed is more important than our own buildings, our own denominations, and our own tightly held fundamentals about worship. (Says me!) That would be subversive!

            We could organize a photo campaign, a letter and email write-in, and a Youtube video that says the commandment to love one another goes beyond our families, beyond people we who know, beyond people who look like us, beyond people we even like. We could tell our neighbors that we are not okay with slandering gays and lesbians. We could tell our friends that we don’t want to hear racist jokes. We could tell our adjudicatories and our national bodies that it is time, once again, to make a clear statement against Anti-Semitism. That would be subversive.

            In the first Passover, the Hebrew people- enslaved though they were- knew that God was subverting the power of the Pharaoh. Hurrying through their lamb dinner, carrying their unleavened flour on their backs, they believed they were overturning the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood that their years of slavery had built. What could have been a journey that killed them, destroyed their faith, or might have ended their covenant with God instead became a foundational story of their self-understanding- people who can withstand anything with God’s help! Talk about subversive.

            On this night, of all nights, we cannot, we must not, we will not forget that our faith is a radical gift. It gives us an identity beyond our families, beyond Alaska, beyond our country. It associates us with the community of believers across the world and across time. Eating, washing, and praying together- we do these things because they have been commanded and because, with God’s help, they change the world. And in this subversion, in this life of active prayer together, God also changes us.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Low in the Grave

This song makes me think of my dad, who would make us sing the first verse softly and then JUMP up during the chorus.

His own experience with the song is this: Dr. Jim Blackmore, one of my seminary professors. He was from very humble beginnings in Warsaw, NC. He had been to Southern [Seminary] and was at Edinburgh, Scotland when WWII started. At least the US involvement. He joined the service there as a chaplin and was not required to go to basic training. He served through the war and finished his Doctorate at Edinburgh after the war. 

He was a small man, no more than 5'6". He told us the story of  singing this song with his brother when they were about 8 or 10 years old. They would squat with arms stretched in front of them, then at the "Up" they would jump up and stand with arms out stretched to the side. What a riot to see him demonstrate for the class when he was in his 70s.

I introduced this song to the congregation I serve a few years ago. We crouch low in the verses and JUMP during the chorus- everyone who physically can, does. 

There are, then, people who will associate memories of this song with me. 

I think of my dad. 

He thinks of Dr. Blackmore, who would think of his brother. 

They, presumably, learned the song from someone else. 

And so goes the communion and community of Christ, connected in song and body through time.

Beyond the history of this song, someone always thinks of the person who revealed the love of God in Christ to them. 

All the way back it goes until the rhythm  of the song is the pounding feet of Mary Magdalene and others- running to say, "We have seen the Lord!" 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sermon Notes: The Truth Among Us

John 18:28-40


- The crowd does not enter Pilate’s headquarters because it would have rendered them unclean. They needed to stay clean for the Passover celebration. What’s the central part of a Passover meal? A lamb. (John’s gospel is nothing, if not dramatic.)

- The crowd asks for Barabbas. The gospel writer tells us that Barabbas was a “bandit”. Bandit is the same word that is used in John 10, when Jesus refers to himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’. Bandits are contrasted with the shepherd as ones who want to harm the sheep.

- Why doesn’t Pilate let Jesus go if he knows that Jesus is innocent? Remember Pilate is in a political appointment. He is charged with upholding law and order in Judea. He ultimately decides to have Jesus killed to get things to settle down in his area. They never do.

- It is important to recognize that Jesus gives Pilate a chance to come to him (Jesus) as a believer. Pilate could listen and believe, thus coming into the light. He chooses political expediency over the Truth.

- In John 8, Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”.

- In John 14, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”


Why do you believe in Jesus?

Push beyond your reading, your upbringing, your habits.

What is your experience with Jesus?

Fundamentally, experiencing Jesus is both a corporate (group) and personal event. We have our own experiences, but we come to understand them as experiences of the Truth because we can compare notes with other people who have been burnished by the same Truth.

Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question with words. That’s because he is, himself, the answer, the Word.

The Truth is standing in front of Pilate as a tired Galilean- fully human and fully divine.

Simply by being. The sheer fact of his existence, his embodiment of all that is Holy, answered the question.

Ultimately, our stewardship of our time, talents, and resources is not a response to what we have read, what we have heard, or even what we hope for.

It is a response to the Truth we have experienced. It is our answer to Pilate’s question. It is the way we move in the light of faith.

Why do you believe? What do you believe? Who do you believe?

What is Truth?

May God grant us the grace to answer those questions, daily, with all that we have.


ReBlog: What is Truth

From RevGalBlogPals: The Pastoral is Political 

“What is truth?” Pilate stared at the tired Galilean Jew in front of him.

Jesus was silent.

Pilate’s eyes widened. “What is truth?” he repeated, more firmly.

Jesus didn’t blink. Or speak.

There were no words to reply. Jesus was answering the question.

Simply by being. The sheer fact of his existence, his embodiment of all that is Holy, answered the question.

The truth is never in words. It was always, is always the Word.

The truth is a person, a person named Jesus, the person we understand to be the Christ.

He is the way, the life, and the truth. There is no other Truth.

This Truth, this person, promised we would encounter him in others.

In the hungry. In the sick. In the lonely. In the imprisoned. In the thirsty. In the outcasts.

The Truth is in them. The truth is never about words.

On Monday, March 24, the non-profit World Vision announced  (click the link to continue reading.)