Sunday, April 22, 2018

Starring The Good Shepherd and Me (Sermon)

John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16- 24

I like to read. While I love books- the real physical nature of books, I actually love the act of reading more than the thing to be read. I do realize that and I do appreciate that not everyone likes to read. Some people prefer movies or audio books or graphic novels or magazines. (I am a terrible magazine reader, same for short stories.)

The elements that make these things good or enjoyable or engaging are the same across the genres. Even in non-fiction (book or movie), engaging characters, good storytelling, and captivating stakes are necessary. Books about salt, documentaries about wheat, comics about the Holocaust, and movies about fly-fishing have all been blockbusters in their area.

Character and plot are like the chicken and the egg. I heard someone say plot is character in action. This means that interesting people doing something un-engaging isn’t any better than nondescript characters doing something thrilling. Whether a story is told in a book or in a movie, the person who is interacting with the story needs a way to be drawn in, to learn about what is happening, and to see the characters in relation to one another or to their surroundings.

Today’s readings tell a story about us. Since the fourth Sunday after Easter has been designated “Good Shepherd Sunday”, each year we read a portion of the 10thchapter of the gospel according to John and Psalm 23. John 10 focuses on Jesus describing himself as a gate or a door, a sheepfold or pen, and as the eponymous Good Shepherd. In Chapter 9, he healed a man who had been blind from birth and now he is speaking about himself, to the disciples, so that they might also be moved to sight. In this context, “seeing” means trusting in Jesus as God. 

When the writer of the Fourth Gospel calls Jesus the Good Shepherd, he is stirring up particular imagery for his community. The prophet Ezekiel speaks significantly of God’s provision of a good shepherd for the people whom God loves. Shepherding is significantly connected with David and his lineage, since he was a shepherd in his pre-king days. Psalm 23, generally attributed to David, creates a picture of God’s own self as a shepherd- providing, protecting, leading, and comforting.

When the gospel writer put words to skin and scroll, it was not merely so that people would have intellectual knowledge about the Incarnation- God with skin on (otherwise known as Jesus). The Evangelist is writing a story, creating a narrative, and the people who receive the gospel story are characters within it. It is as though the author makes takes the facts, shapes the account, and then says, “Who are you in this story?”

If your life was a book or a movie, a comic or a magazine article, what is the role of the Good Shepherd in that story? How we define and relate to Christ as Christians, as followers on the Way of Jesus, as children of a living God who has raised One among us from the dead… how we define Jesus gives shape, dimension, and direction to our own lives and to our life of discipleship together.

We are called, through our baptisms, Holy Communion, and the Spirit, into a story where the Good Shepherd is a main character. If someone were reviewing the book or movie of your life, what kind of role would the Good Shepherd have?

- Co-star (always together, it’s practically a buddy movie)
- Best supporting role (at the end of each chapter, she reflected on the words of the Good Shepherd)
- Bit part (Ah, yes, the Good Shepherd had a walk-on role in that one intense scene)
- Producer credit or dedication page without further mention?

If who Jesus is for us, as individuals and as a community, determines who we are, what we do, and how we seek to be in the world, what does it mean then to define him as the Good Shepherd? He defines himself as one who reveals the true will and love of God, as one who draws all people to himself, as one who lives and dies for the sake of the sheep. If this inclusive, inviting, compassionate, life-giving Jesus is whom we follow, trust, and meet in the world- our lives, our daily story, should reflect that. 

The writer of the epistle, 1 John, is probably not the same writer as the gospel, but they were possibly in the same community at different times. The epistle writer says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A life story that features a good shepherd as a main character, a significant dynamic presence to the plot and the framing, with not be filled with hollow words. Hollow words are empty promises, perfunctory prayers, or dismissive platitudes. A biographical film with a good shepherd will not allow the action to be stopped by the specters of shame, fear, or guilt. Those are poor fodder and the good shepherd lays a table in front of those enemies, a table of grace and healing, and tells those forces, “You don’t eat here and you have no role in this story.”

When the Good Shepherd has a significant role in the life story of a character (you or me) or a community (us), love in truth and action pour forth as a plotline that pulls in all kinds of other players- the kinds of people you might not always expect to see singing or gardening or feeding or eating or playing together, but are suddenly side-by-side in a new chapter. When the Good Shepherd is the story, the dark valleys of death and grief are passable, even in their fearsomeness. When the Good Shepherd has a leading role in a narrative, the realities of goodness and mercy not only follow other characters, but they chase them down, surround them, and grace abounds.

We have been brought into such a story, not by our own will, but by God’s desire to draw us in, to draw all people in, through Jesus. When we respond to this narrative, this story of grace and hope, we are not only clarifying our own role in our life story- as one who is on the Way of Jesus- but we are also shaping the world around us by reflecting in truth and action who Jesus is in our lives. When our deeds- small and large- underscore that the Good Shepherd is the main character in our life story, we reveal a peace and confidence in the plot line of our lives. If character drives plot and the Good Shepherd is the main character in our lives, then we know the actions to which we are called, imitating said shepherd through inclusion, mercy, provision, and safety of other sheep from all kinds of folds. We also know how the story ends- with our dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Atonement (Easter Sermon)

Mark 16:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

We don’t often talk about the order of the books of the Bible. You and I both know that it didn’t fall from the sky, bound in leather, and written in King James English, with the words of Jesus in red. While I love to talk about the whole story of the compilation of the written word, today I’d like to zero in on the two accounts of the resurrection that we heard.

As they say, timing is everything. 1 Corinthians, a letter from Paul to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, is older than the written gospel account according to Mark. Almost all, if not all, of Paul’s remaining seven letters were written before the written gospel accounts were widely circulated. Mark is the oldest of the four gospels that were retained in the written canon or generally accepted books of the written scripture. All that is to say that when we look at today’s readings, what Paul has to say was the generally accepted story about the resurrection in his neck of the woods, ten to fifteen years before Mark’s account was written and moving around in the countryside.*

            Why does that matter? If we consider that Paul’s account was the dominant narrative around 45-55 c.e./a.d. , then we see a story that was spread with some confidence. People with reputations to lose were willing to risk them on spreading the good news of Jesus Christ as they had received it from credible eyewitnesses and community elders. That message, that Jesus had been killed, but that God had raised him from the dead, was shared and the hope of that message created a new kind of community.

            This community, along with the risen Christ, was the kind of welcome and drawing in that even gave hope and awareness of redemption to Paul, who had been a persecutor of that self-same group of believers. Paul speaks with fervor to the Corinthians about the faith they have come to trust, especially because it put the story of Jesus- his life, death, and resurrection- in accordance with the scriptures.

            Thus, those who follow the Way of Christ have not only learned about faithful living in imitating Jesus, but also about the true, abiding, and grace-filled nature of God. Since the Divine nature is eternally present and magnetic, the reality of Jesus reveals forever truths about the mystery and fullness of who God is and what God is about.

            Now let’s say that there are fifteen years between when Paul writes to the Corinthians and when Mark, along with others, writes down a gospel account. Fifteen years. If we pick the earliest possible date for Paul’s letter, 50 c.e., that puts Mark’s writing at year 65.

            What’s happening in the Palestinian countryside in 65 c.e.? Nero is the emperor of Rome until the year 68. Nero’s reign is generally associated with tyranny and extravagance. He liked what he liked and he liked people who made the things he wanted to happen. Even though his reign is still in the larger period called the Pax Romana or the Roman peace, it is only because Rome was not expanding and was generally not at war with larger enemies, though the emperors during this period did squash small-scale rebellions.

            During Nero’s reign, Judeans revolted against Roman rule and oppression. Some Judean Christians were still meeting in synagogues and had ties to the Jewish community. When the whole area rebelled against Rome, it affected everyone. And Rome slapped back.

            So Mark is writing the narrative of Jesus, the Son of God. In Mark’s narrative, some unexpected people- Gentiles, women, demons, children- recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Others- the disciples, religious leaders, faithful Jews- struggle to understand Jesus’ message, deeds, and death. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a time of political unrest, a time of extreme disagreement between citizens, a time of force and violence from the state and actors for the government, and, within religious communities, a struggle between which people are the “most” faithful. Are you able to imagine that?
            Thus, we find the collapse between Paul’s confident account of the resurrection and its credible witnesses and Mark’s women fearfully approaching the empty tomb. Writers shape stories for their community. They write the truth in shape and size that their people- readers and hearers- can handle and not be driven away.  Mark’s hearers will be scorched by Paul’s confident narrative.

            In their experience of community destruction, fights about inclusion, and wondering what will remain, the Markan community feels betrayed. As I read through the end of Mark this week, I was intrigued by how often the word “betrayed” showed up, how frequently Jesus was betrayed- by people pleading ignorance, people denying, people abandoning, people watching from afar, people actually betraying- even with a kiss.

            Why does Mark find betrayal of Jesus so significant? It may well be because, unlike Paul’s audience, Mark’s hearers feel betrayed themselves. In fact, they feel betrayed by God. They had believed the story of the resurrection. They had trusted the accounts of the witnesses. They had risked their community and family life to imitate Jesus by healing, serving, and sharing his story. Did they get safety? Were they relieved of Roman oppression? Were their holdings multiplied? Did they find all their needs met?

            Thus, Mark finds himself within a community that is asking the ultimate question, “Was it worth it?” Was the cost of their discipleship worth it? You can’t eat eternal life. It doesn’t clothe anyone. It builds no houses to keep out rain and snow. As real a promise as it is, eternal life does not end wars, plant seeds, or create justice and reconciliation.

            So what was resurrection for, asks Mark’s people, if we are continuing to suffer? Does resurrection mean anything if it doesn’t change our day to day lives?

            Stay with me, now, because I’m going to make a leap. I was recently listening to a fictional story with my son. In the story, a boy made a phone that talked to ghosts. On the ghost phone, the boy called Abraham Lincoln and the boy’s mom called Amelia Earhart. Daniel, my son, told me he would call Neil Armstrong and ask him about walking on the moon.

            He then asked whom I would call. I thought for a minute and then I told him that I would call Sophie Scholl and I would ask her if she thought it was worth it. 1942, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were beheaded for spearheading the White Rose campaign in Germany. The White Rose campaign spread leaflets, primarily on university campuses in Germany, about concentration camps, the misinformation of the Third Reich, and the violence of the Nazi regime.

            I want to tell Sophie that the war went on for three more years, that genocide continues to be a reality in the world, and that there are still people who believe in the supremacy of whiteness over other races and ethnicities. I want to ask her if, knowing all that, she would still do it again. Would she still, knowing that she would die and not necessarily cause the uprising she hoped for, would she still spread those leaflets, speak up for justice, and die for what she believed was right? And, frankly, I don’t know if I want her to say yes or no.

            I wonder the same thing about Peter and Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, Mary- the mother of our Lord, and anyone who has struggled, suffered, and/or been killed for their work. Atonement literally means at-one-ment. All of these people are trying to create an atonement- a reconciliation and repair- of serious wrongs that have been done. Is discipleship atonement worth the cost, if it’s your life?

            Going back to Mark, then, it strikes me that the gospel writer is attempting to answer this question for the followers of Jesus who feel betrayed by God. It turns out that God will always say, “Yes, I would do it again.” Poured out into flesh, experiencing the joys and griefs of being human, healing, teaching, and forgiving for the sake of community and hope, reversing human attempts at final rejection in death through the power of resurrection… Mark sees God’s word as “Yes. Yes, I would do it again.”

            It is in God’s own completion of the work of atonement that we come to understand the true power of resurrection in a world that aches with racism, poverty, LGBTQ-exclusion, class divisions, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and general bitterness and division. Resurrection doesn’t mean anything for our day-to-day lives unless we accept the work of atonement. Not only God’s atoning work, but the discipleship at-one-ment we are called to in all our vocations- work, family roles, friendships, citizenship, consumer, and follower of Jesus. If we are hesitant to take up the work of discipleship atonement, we struggle to see the Easter message in our everyday experience. Conversely, commitment to atonement work at home, at church, and in the world brings a deep awareness of the risen Jesus meeting us in all places, in all people, at all times.

            For those of you have received the gift of faith easily, this concept may seem self-evident- of course, God would do it again. God planned it the first time. You are right. You are 1 Corinthians people. Paul’s confidence and credible witness is your shared experience.

            For those of you who wrestle with the gift of faith, who feel that God has presented you with a Rubik’s cube of information that you are trying to make into a neatly solved puzzle, you are not alone. Mark’s community wanted relief from feeling betrayed and from feeling like betrayers because they were not like Paul. They needed to know that their fear, their uncertainty, and their silence was possible in conjunction with their faith. To you, to you, I say, God would do it again. Mark’s short, fast-paced gospel features story after story after story that point to God’s “yes” in Jesus as a revelation of the Divine “yes” of eternity.

            In God’s holy, mysterious reality, atonement and discipleship are always worth the cost. And it would be worth it to save just one. Because that one is beloved, beloved by God. And that one is us. That one is you.

For the sake of the world. For you. Christ is risen.

(He is risen, indeed.)

* Oral accounts that dovetail with Mark’s account were likely in circulation prior to the writing of the gospel narrative.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Transfigured Alleluias (Easter 2018)

Mark 16:1-8

The butterflies above us are more than just paper shapes. Seven weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we waved strips of paper that said “Alleluia” and “Hallelujah”. As we heard the story of Elijah and Moses appearing to Jesus, the awed disciples, and Jesus’ dazzling appearance (as well as the command to listen to the Beloved Son), we waved our papers. We knew the goodbye was coming, the season with no alleluia.

At the end of that service, we carried the “alleluias” away- putting away the phrase “Praise God” for the season of Lent. It is not that we haven’t been grateful or that in Lent, resurrection isn’t true. It is just a trip within the journey of our faith life for more solemn contemplation and reflection.

We are not who we were seven weeks ago. We have experienced physical changes, events of life- both good and bad, and learned or forgotten things (or both) in the time since we last said “alleluia”. Since we have changed, the nature of our alleluias has changed as well. Our changes do not change God, but they may change what we know about God, how we experience the Divine, how much mystery we are able to accept, how much grace we are able to perceive. We come to celebrate the resurrection and the victory over death, having experienced more of both in the past seven weeks.

A changed understanding of God alters our praise. Thus, after changes in life, we do not have the same alleluias we had seven weeks ago. In seven weeks, we have had a death in the immediate congregation, several elders injured or hospitalized, the suicide of someone’s sibling, the end of life of someone’s father and someone else’s mother, the deaths of several friends, car accidents, and falls.

In seven weeks, we have seen more than one school shooting and an uprising of youth across the country demanding safety and change. We have watched the Austin bombings and we have seen at least on unarmed black man be killed by police in his own backyard while talking on his phone.

In the past seven weeks, China removed term limits so that the current president may remain in place for life. Russia held an “election” and Vladimir Putin remained in power. We learned that slavery is a read and present struggle in Libya.

In Anchorage, a truck hit a bridge and everyone thought more seriously about our one road situation. We have heard ads, seen ads, and been inundated with mailers for Tuesday’s election. We thought winter might be ending and then we had a lot more snow.

In the past seven weeks, this congregation talked about stewardship with Chris and Karla. We explored evangelism with Intern Pastor Kate. We read “faith without works is dead” five times over five Wednesdays. We talked about the “I am” statements that Jesus makes in the Fourth Gospel. We learned about the stages of faith.

 In seven weeks, we took communion eight times. We passed the peace six times. We made sandwiches twice and waved palms once.

Our alleluias are not, cannot be, what they were. And they are not what they may be in seven more weeks.

This week I had two profound spiritual experiences. The first was on Thursday when I was meditating on my reading for the day. As I read about Jesus being brought to trial in the courtyard of the high priest, I imagined myself in the scene. In my imagination, the large courtyard had a stone wall that I could see over and watch what was happening. I was with a large crowd of people who had also come to see what was happening.

As I watched the proceedings, I felt overwhelmed by the awareness that I couldn’t do anything for Jesus. In fact, I heard a voice tell me, “You can do nothing for Jesus here.” If I couldn’t do anything for him there, where could I do something for him? I felt compelled to look around me.

In the crowd, there were people who were stricken by what was happening, sad and afraid. There were those who were angry, not necessarily with Jesus, but they were itching to see anyone get “their due”. There were people on the edges of the crowd, technically unclean and not permitted to mix with the rest of the group. There were people who looked crestfallen, having hoped that something would be different.

“You can do something for Jesus here,” I heard. “Jesus is also out here.” At that moment, I was physically aware that I was having the same reaction to this spiritual experience in my body as I would have in a real crowd. I felt hypervigilant about the mix of energies, the potential threats, and the heightened awareness of so many people’s desires, hopes, and dreams. It felt like a time collapse, as though I could look at the crowd and then look back at Jesus in the courtyard, then look at the crowd and look forward again to a contemporary rally, protest, or contentious online debate.

And still, I heard, “Jesus is also out here.”

On Friday evening here, we read through the passion narrative from Mark. In order to change things up, I prepared the service such that the gathered congregation would read the words of Jesus with single or joint voices reading the other parts. When the voices gathered spoke as Jesus, the sound filled the space. It almost vibrated. I had never experienced Jesus’ words being spoken with so much depth and tone.

As the sound waves moved through me, I heard “Jesus is also out here.”

My alleluia isn’t what it was seven weeks ago. Through being part of this community, and my family, and my social groups, and a citizen of this city, state, and country, I have had experiences that have changed what I understand about God, how I think about stewardship, how I approach evangelism, what I ponder about faith.

I feel overcome by the direction of the Spirit to pay attention to “Jesus is also out here”.

Resurrection itself is not what causes us to praise God with alleluias. It is the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute work of the Holy Spirit that stirs, compels, and consoles us. It is the peace that passes our understanding. It is the quality of grace that shapes, molds, and leads us to die to our own need for control in all things.

Jesus is also out here. Resurrection truth is that Christ has promised to meet us in our own Galilee- where we live, where we move, where we have our being- and be present to us there. Trusting this, we find our alleluias transfigured, multiplied, shared, and held tenderly.

We raise them high. They are not what they were. They are not what they will be. But right here, right now, they are how we praise the God who has defeated death, has brought us this far, and who gives us hope for each tomorrow and the work it will contain.

Alleluia, alleluia. Christ is risen.
(He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.)