Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sanctuary

This sermon builds on the idea that the design of the sanctuary is to help us realize that we are safe there- baptized and safe in God's family, fed and safe with God meeting our needs, alive in Christ off the cross and safe because God is bigger. 

          It is one thing to tell children that sanctuary means safety and that everything in a church is designed to help us feel safe. It is quite another thing to try to convey that same idea to adults, particularly adults who are very aware of how church has not always represented safety or sanctuary for all kinds of people. Additionally, the words of the gospels have not always been used for comfort, consolation, or assurance of safety in God to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

           The church has been unsafe at times for women, for divorced people, for children, for people who sought the gospel in their own language, for people who were anything other than heterosexual and cis-gendered, for people with disabilities, for depressed people, for sick people, for grieving people, for people of no faith, for newcomers, for minority races in majority communities, for those who struggle with addiction, for those who do not have work or much disposable income, for conservative people, for liberal people. If I keep going, it would mean acknowledging that for almost everyone in here, at some point, has felt or does feel unsafe or uncertain about their safety in church. Which means that the very thing we call sanctuary hasn’t always been that.

            When that is the case, the church is nearly indistinguishable from the outside world. If this is not a fundamentally safe place, not a sanctuary, then people will look at the church and expect it to be violent in word and deed, untruthful, closed, oppressive, and dying. It is only when we remember, trust, and accept that the God of resurrection is all about the unexpected that we can be truly church- learning to live and die in Jesus and teaching others how to do the same.

            We are called to remember, trust, and accept that:

- God does not repay violence with violence, but meets violence with forgiveness.

- God does not repay questions or doubts with shaming, but meets them with experiences and teaching.

- God does not repay a lack of mercy with a lack of mercy, but with grace and disciplining.

- God does not repay an attitude of oppression with oppression, but with freedom in heart and mind.

            When the church imitates God, instead of the news or the powers and principalities of the world or even an insistence on tradition, when we imitate God- we enter into God’s tradition of life out of death, hope out of despair, truth from lies, and healing out of pain. The reality of the various resurrection accounts speaks to this.

            The gospel writers are counteracting despair. Mark is writing for those who need to perceive how God’s kingdom was at hand, even after the ascension of Christ. When Matthew and Luke are writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel. The Fourth Gospel is specifically written for one of those communities, drawn together and attempting to live the Way of Christ according to the teaching of John the disciple.

            These were desperate times, during which people began to despair-  the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

            For first century Christian, the resurrection accounts were written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

            Across the accounts, Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
           
            This brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain and the feeling of frustration when we cannot gather the momentum to create real change. We need a place to feel safe and a place to draw strength for the work that our God leads us to and expects of us.

            Nevertheless, we are a community who needs to hear resurrection words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is an event that affects the whole creation. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

            Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The love of God gives us the sanctuary we seek and that we are called to offer to the world, most of all from this place. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

            And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

            He is risen, indeed.

Amen.


Whole Lotta Shakin'

In Matthew’s Easter account opens with two women approaching the tomb and an earthquake. (The two events are only related because of Jesus, not the former causing the latter.) The women are there to witness if Jesus walks out of the tomb, but he doesn’t. The stone is moved and he is simply gone. There is an angel sitting there, matter-of-factly, to tell them that he has been raised and gone to Galilee, just like he said he would.

We do not get a reaction of the women to the earthquake or to the rolling away of the stone. Unlike in the other gospel accounts, we don’t even know why the women are going to the tomb this morning. They simply are. Of course, it is possible women were no longer able to be surprised, given the events of the past three days and the fact that Matthew inserts several earthquakes into his version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both seio (the Greek word for shaking and quivering) and seismos (the Greek word for earthquake or commotion) are used liberally in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days.

All of this quivering and quaking indicates that something deep is happening. This crucifixion, the betrayals, the death, and the attempt to prevent anything unusual from happening to the body cannot seem to occur without provoking a seismic reaction in heaven and earth. Everything is shaken and stirred.

What should we make of all this movement? Is this an attempt to give geologic proof to the story of the resurrection? It is not. Matthew wants to counteract despair*. When Matthew is writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel.

This kind of living leads to despair- the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

The Christians in the time of Matthew had begun to despair. Thus, his resurrection account is written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

This is a resurrection account in which Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
Which brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain, which feeling frustrated in the momentum to create real change.

Nevertheless, we are the same community who needed to hear Matthew’s words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is a seismic event. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

He is risen, indeed.


Amen.


*This concept of despair is something I have adapted from a definition by Pastor Rob Bell. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Follower or Admirer (Sermon)

John 12 

           Jerusalem is full of people who are gathered for the Passover celebration. There are people everywhere. Think of the sounds of children, family reunions, animals being bought, sold, and traded. There is the smell of bodies, dust, excrement, cooking, and perfumed oils that some use to disguise the odors. There is a rush to purchase food, oil, wine, and charcoal.
Of course, there are also Romans- soldiers and their families. They look on at the sudden rush of people in from the countryside with alarm. Where did all these people come from? Will they bring trouble? Will an influx of people make it difficult to get some of the food and goods they prefer? Better also head out to the market.

            There are non-Judean Jews coming in for Passover as well. If valid worship or sacrifice can only occur at the temple, they also make the pilgrimage. It seems that some of them have heard of this itinerant rabbi, Jesus, of whom it is said that he raised a man who had been dead four days. When the Greek Jews come into town, they go seeking out Jesus. They say to Philip, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” (Philip is a Greek name, so he may be or appear to be Greek.)

            We want to see Jesus. Why might they want to see him? To find out if all they have heard is true? Perhaps they need a miracle. They may be interested in learning from him or simply very curious looky-loos. When they see Jesus, though, they will be confronted with the deepest question that comes to all who meet him. Will they follow him or will they just be in his fan club? Will they be admirers or disciples? Will they want the connection at the foot of the cross or only as the palm parade is going by?

            In an article called “Followers, Not Admirers”, the theologian Søren Kierkegaard writes, 

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…. What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

A true follower of Jesus is an imitator of Jesus. It is important to remember that God had spokespeople prior to the Incarnation. That’s what a prophet is, a mouthpiece for the Divine. Therefore, it was not necessary for a person of the Trinity to pour the power and strength of being eternal into a fragile human body simply to impart lessons through teaching. Jesus’ teaching matters because it explains his deeds.

The words of Jesus- in conversations, in teaching, in prayer- make connections between what the Divine character always was and how God expects those who are led by the Spirit to respond. But the words were never the thing, because anyone might have taught in the name of the Lord. Within the Apostle’s Creed, we have very limited verbs about Jesus- born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, and rose. These verbs are concrete because they require a body.

            A body is unit of action. Jesus, with a body, is God prepared for action in the flesh. The body is not merely a receptacle of information. We are not merely encased spirits, biding our time. We are bodies in motion. We have been brought into a body, the Body of Christ. How we will respond to that inclusion, though… how we will respond to the gift of grace… how we will respond to always being Easter people, even on this side of Holy Week… that response is up to us.

            And, so, will we be followers or admirers? Being an admirer is nice. You still get the identity: “Oh, I love Jesus. I like to sing about him. Love to talk about him. Read his book sometimes, even.” So, if someone came up to you and said, “Sir, madam, we wish to see Jesus.” What will you show them: a hymn, a Bible, a catchy bumper sticker? Is it enough to be in Jesus’ fan club?

            In Fourth Gospel, it is said that those who have seen the Son have seen the Father. In today’s passage, Jesus asserts that anyone who is truly his follower will serve him. Logically, then, if Jesus is being served, he is present. Where true followers of Jesus are acting in service in imitation of him, he is there. And if he is there, then God is also being revealed. All of this happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            To reiterate: if you are imitating Jesus' actions in service, he will be present to be served (in the situation in which you are acting). If he is present, the whole Trinity is there because they are fellow travelers always. Thus, when one is a follower, an imitator, a disciple, and is asked, “We wish to see Jesus”… the answer will be clear because his presence will be felt in the act of service.

           Crucially, imitating Jesus will quickly separate the followers from the admirers. Eventually, admirers feel the pinch of knowing that Jesus does some things, says some things, and likes some people who are sometimes outside the edges of propriety. Jesus will be seen, unashamed, with the dying, the dead, the diseased, the depressed, the deserted, the demon-possessed, the downtrodden, the drug- addicted, the dastardly, and the desperate. He will see them for who they are and where they are and acknowledge them of as children of God, dealing with their needs before he makes any expectations of them.

            Following in those footsteps, truly committing to that level of kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, and honesty in our daily lives can be tough and frustrating. Furthermore, it does not really win a lot of friends and influence enemies. It mostly gains disdain from some, confusion from others, and a lot of God work that you carry in your heart because you worry that people will think you are crazy if you share it.

            Today is the martyrdom date of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian. He was committed to what he believed were basic Christian principles of the church in the early days of the Third Reich, which included welcoming, evangelizing, and baptizing non-Aryan Christians. As Adolph Hitler’s regime grew in power, Bonhoeffer was part of a splinter church within Germany that focused on resisting the church being an arm of the power of the state, particularly of state violence. Bonhoeffer sought to teach and preach in both Britain and in America at different times, but ultimately returned to Germany because he believed that he had to be a part of resisting evil there in order to be able to live in the Germany that he perceived would be rebuilt after the war.

            He was arrested for being a double agent and then his significant role in a plot to kill Hitler was discovered. He was hanged on this date in 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, one month before Germany surrendered. During his time in prison, he continued to write to friends and to his family, as well as some theological thoughts. These letters and papers from prison were smuggled out and published as a book by the same name. Within one letter, Bonhoeffer reflects, 

We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility.

            The admirer of Jesus is always ready to think about him. The admirers on that in Jerusalem waved palms and smiled. They could have pointed Jesus out to the Greek passersby and said, “There he is. Ain’t he great.” As the week went on, the admirers of Jesus would have been among those who frowned at the woman who wept over his feet and dried them with her hair. He shouldn’t have let her touch him, they’d have said. The admirers would have been aghast at Jesus washing the disciples’ feet or proud to be included, but having no intention of repeating the incident. They may have tried to blend into the crowd or disappear at the crucifixion. Ultimately, admirers will end up disappointed with the true Jesus. He’s too much or not quite enough or right time, wrong place or wrong time, right place. They sure do admire him, but…

            The followers of Jesus, the disciples, those on the Way of Christ have come to accept that faith is not the absence of doubt. It is action in spite of doubt. The followers have already assumed the readiness for responsibility that Bonhoeffer mentions. They waved their palm branches, but only with one hand because with the other they had escorted a leper, a bleeding woman, a child, sex worker, a blind man, a refugee, a centurion, or a hesitant Pharisee to be within reach of Jesus. For the followers, commentary on the goodness of Jesus is strange because sometimes the many ways in which they encounter him through service are not always good, by the usual definition of that word. They are, however, always holy.

            In the week ahead, whether you attend services or pray through the daily readings or simply try to make it through your regular to-do list, ponder in your heart whether you are a follower or an admirer. Are you all in or are you watching from a distance? Does this week get to you because you realize that imitation of Christ demands a solidarity in these events that is truly spiritually and emotionally overwhelming? Or is this a week to be with other fans of God’s work?


            When someone says to you, “We wish to see Jesus,” how do you respond? In word or in deed? Will you be an admirer or a follower?