Sunday, April 24, 2011

Surprise Greetings (Easter Sermon)

Easter Sunday- Late Service
24 April 2011

Matthew 28:1-10

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

            When I was prepping for this sermon, each time I read today’s gospel, it made me laugh. Not the part about the earthquake or the angel or the guards who appear dead. No giggling at the women who dare to show up when the disciples are still afraid and in hiding. Jesus makes me laugh.

            How does Matthew record Jesus’ words to the two Marys? They are hurrying back to find the disciples and “suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings.’” I come from a family that loved to scare one another. Nothing was better than hiding, even if you had to wait 20 minutes in an uncomfortable position, so that you could jump out and get a squeal from a sibling or, even better, my dad. You can ask my husband sometime if I’ve outgrown that.

            Anyway, that’s what I imagine Jesus doing. Seeing the Marys coming down the road, hiding behind a tree and then jumping out, “Greetings!” The way Matthew records “greetings” is with a word that is sometimes translated as “Hail” or “Rejoice”. It’s basically like our “hello”, which we vary by saying “Hi” or “What’s up” or “Yo”.

            When I’m not picturing Jesus jumping out from behind a tree, I imagine him leaning against a tree, waiting for the women to pass him. They do a double-take and he says, “Fancy meeting you here.” Okay, maybe he wouldn’t say that, but more gently in a Savior-like way greet them with a “Good morning.” Anything has to be better than “Greetings”, which sounds a little science-fiction-y.

            Anyway, however it is that Jesus greets them, the women fall down and grab his feet. Do you know why? Ghosts don’t have feet. They’re stunned, falling down in front of him and grabbing a part of him that will have to be solid and real, if he’s actually alive.

            When they are assured and Jesus has pulled them back to their feet, I imagine they can’t stop talking. They can’t stop praising God and worshipping Jesus. Many of the questions they had no longer matter now that the answer is standing in front of them. And so Jesus reiterates what the angel told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell the disciples that I am waiting for them in Galilee.”

            Except Jesus doesn’t say disciples like the angel did, he says, “Tell my brothers.” Where are the disciples right now? They are hiding somewhere, afraid for their own lives. We haven’t seen most of them since the Garden of Gethsemane. If the two women show up and announce to them that Jesus is alive and waiting for them in Galilee and they’re hiding in Jerusalem… what kind of image do you think will be in their heads?

            They will be afraid that he’s waiting, impatiently, for them in Galilee, tapping his foot and looking at a sundial, wondering why he bothered with such a group of doubters. So Jesus gives the Marys a specific message with specific words, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

            By using the word “brothers”, Jesus makes it clear that not only are there no hard feelings, but that everything is different now. In the light of the resurrection, the relationship has changed from Teacher and followers to a new family of God. The Marys are not only carrying the message of resurrection, they are carrying a message of reconciliation, a message of healing and hope, of renewed possibility.

            And I think that’s part of what most of us need to hear on this Easter Sunday. It is easy to come and feel guilty about many things in your life. I’m not saying that because I think you should feel guilty. I’m saying it because my experience is that many of you do feel guilty both for things you can change and for things that you can’t.

            And when you are overcome with that kind of darkness, even around the edges. It’s easy to have the same picture of Jesus in your head as the disciples. One of a man- tapping his foot, eyebrow cocked, waiting for you to show up and get it right.

            But that’s not who Jesus is. Not before the resurrection and certainly not after. The good news of Easter is that we are now called brothers and sisters, children of God, Easter people. The reality of resurrection in our lives is that Jesus meets on every road we walk. Sometimes he jumps out at us and we are surprised. Sometimes we don’t remember passing him until we think back. Sometimes we realize that he’s been keeping us company all along.

            The power of darkness could not keep him in the tomb. The mistakes and worry of the disciples could not prevent the resurrection. Our questions, our doubts, our wrestling, cannot stop the risen Christ from acting in, around and through us. Easter people hold fast to the truth that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it.

            There is no frustrated, foot-tapping Jesus. There is only the risen Son of God, arms open, welcoming, calling softly and tenderly,  “Greetings. Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers and sisters that I am waiting for them.” Brothers and sisters, you have a home. You have a family.



Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia. 

Technicolor Easter (Early Service Reflection)

Easter Sunday
24 April 2011

Matthew 28:1-10

            One of the things that are striking about how Matthew writes about that first Easter morning is how his account involves so many of the senses. The women going to the tomb feel an earthquake. They see an angel, that the stone has been moved and that the guards are laid out on the ground, stunned. They hear a message from the angel. They touch Jesus’ feet when they see him. I’m not sure what they could smell, probably not bacon cooking. Maybe they smelled the damp earth of early morning or the soft dust stirred up by the earth moving.

            This account of the resurrection is dynamic, active and all encompassing. Nothing is left behind. I think that’s intentional because God knows us well. God knows that in the face of good news, many of us will try to look behind the scenes and say, “How did this happen? How does this work?” We’re a little bit known, we early people to the tomb, for looking a gift horse in the mouth.

            We don’t get a how, though. However the resurrection happened, whatever occurred in the tomb in the hours between sealing and unsealing, we don’t know. And that’s intentional.

            Instead, we hear about the earthquake, a reminder like the star of Bethlehem that all creation is affected by the action of God on earth and in the earth. The earthquake can stir up for us thoughts about recent events in Japan, New Zealand and Haiti. As Alaskans, it can bring up memories or stories we’ve hear about the Good Friday quake of 1964. We know those destructive moments are harsh and horrible and we wrestle with why they are a part of this life. Yet, the presence of the earthquake on Easter morning reminds us that there is nothing on earth that is powerful enough to overcome God and God’s desire for life.

            We see the flowers, the lilies and carnations- symbols of life bursting forth. The flowers not only remind us of life and resurrection, they bring to mind vulnerability. The blossom is the soft part of the flower- housing the future seeds, the future of the plant. In order to survive, the plant must produce those seeds and then bloom so that the seeds can go forth. It has to risk showing softness. So God did in Jesus- take a chance on becoming like us, vulnerable and exposed. Yet, the bloom of Christ could not and cannot be crushed- it sends forth seeds of good news, of life and grace, even to this day.

            We hear Alleluias, trumpets and organs. We hear voices stretching to reach notes and hands keeping time against chairs. We know that what our words cannot express, God’s gift in music will. The joy of resurrection soars beyond your ability to sing and mine and unites us with people around the world and the chorus of saints who have gone before. No rock need sing for us on this day… Alleluia.

            We taste the promise of God and the promise of togetherness in the Holy meal at the Lord’s Table. The experience is both mundane and overwhelming. Christ is alive. Christ is present. He is risen!

            There is no understanding the how of resurrection on this day or any other. All we have is a feast for the senses that reminds of Who and Why. Who? God in Jesus. Why? Because God so loved the world.

            Love wins. That’s all we can know. All the rest is experience. Feel it. Taste it. See it. Hear it. Share it.

            This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.


Friday, April 22, 2011

A Reflection on the Third Word

Third Word: John 19:26-27
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

            Jesus’ mother makes one other appearance in John. Do you remember where it is? At the wedding in Cana. She takes note that the wine is running out and alerts Jesus to that fact. When Jesus says to her, “Woman, my hour has not yet come.” She turns away from him and tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

            In John’s gospel, Jesus’ mother not only already knows what Jesus can do; she knows to expect him to do it. For the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ mother believes in the capability of God in Jesus before Jesus does himself. She represents a group of people, of believers, who grasped the truth of the Living Word as John puts it in the Gospel prologue: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

            Jesus’ mother believes in him from the beginning of his ministry and here she is at what seems like the end. She’s standing there on Golgotha, next to the disciple whom Jesus loved. Who is that? Didn’t Jesus love all of his disciples? It could be the author of this gospel or someone else, unknown to us. The disciple who Jesus loved represents, in a way, those who came to know Jesus and God’s power in him later in the day.

            The identity of the disciple isn’t known and doesn’t matter. What we need to know are two things. First, that Jesus loved this disciple and second, that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own home in that very hour.

            The disciple didn’t wait until after the resurrection or when there was more time or when things were a little more stable financially. There was no equivocation to Jesus about the hardship of caring for his mother, questions about reimbursement or reward or making a plan to move her somewhere else few years. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

            From that hour, people who believed in Jesus were a new kind of family, drawn together in faith and given instruction through the commandment to love one another.

            From that hour, the family tree of God had bloodlines that were not defined by DNA, but by Christ and the cross.

            From that hour, relationships were reshaped, neither through conventional birth nor the will of the flesh or the will of man, but through God.

            From that hour, Jesus’ family had a different look. God’s family had a different look. From that hour, there was a call to new, different and real kind of relational existence within people of faith with one another and with all creation. From that hour, divisions were put to death and the possibility of a new kind of wholeness was created.

            Yet, do we allow that wholeness to live? Do we look at one another and say, “You are my sister and my brother, my mother and my father, my son and my daughter, because Christ has made it so?” Do we allow the biggest thing the world has ever known to unite us or do we allow the smallest things we can find divide us?

            And, so we find ourselves, again, at the foot of the cross, together, and wondering how we can make our relationship with one another work beyond this moment?

            At this stage, we who are also beloved disciples should be like Jesus’ mother, already aware of the power of God in him and trusting in his capabilities in our lives and in the world. Are we ready to participate in God’s re-ordering of our relationships through the cross? Are you prepared to be changed in this hour through the power and promise of what has already been done for you?

            When Jesus’ mother told the servants to do whatever he said, he told them to go fill the stone jars with water and then to take a taste to the steward. How long did it take for the water to turn into wine?

            We don’t know. It just happened. And the same thing happened on the cross. “You will take care of her and she of you.” “You will take care of him and he of you.” It just happened. From that hour.

            And here’s the thing. We can taste the wine and marvel at the goodness of the Lord together, in the new kind of relationship into which we have been invited and called. Or we can stand at the foot of the cross and wait for more instructions. How long will that take?

            It just happened. It just happened. It just happened.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reflection for Holy Wednesday

Gospel for Holy Wednesday: John 13:21-32

21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me." 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.

The disciples looked at one another. This could mean that they couldn’t imagine one among them betraying their Teacher or they wondered who had caved under the pressure. It’s easy to think the disciples were slow on the uptake or unwilling to believe. It’s harder, though, to realize that perhaps they did believe, but were surrounded by distractions, pressures and emotions- similar to the disciples of today (us). Maybe the disciples were confused or maybe they were afraid they were going to be found out.

23One of his disciples — the one whom Jesus loved — was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"

The disciple whom Jesus loved remains unnamed, but has a prominent place in the Fourth Gospel. This disciple, along with Peter, may have played a significant role in the Johannine community (the community for whom John, the Fourth Gospel, was formative and normative). I have read some radical ideas toward the notion of the Beloved Disciple being later followers, like you and me. In this reading, we are present, resting against Jesus in the narrative. In this story, the beloved disciple rests “in the bosom” of Jesus, just as Jesus is “in the bosom” of God the Father. (John 1:18) As we rest in Jesus, so we rest in God.

26Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do."

This is one powerful Jesus, a Jesus who instigates his own betrayal. The appearance of Satan here helps us to understand that the ultimate battle, in this gospel, is between Jesus and the forces that oppose God, not between Jesus and Satan or even Jesus and the authorities. Interestingly, in this portrayal, Satan can’t even act without Jesus/God allowing and starting the action. This stirs up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the presence of evil in the world. The Evangelist, the gospel writer, has taken pains, though, to set up Judas as a suspect character. However, he was not capable of thwarting God’s intention in Jesus of his own accord, without heavenly consent.

28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the festival"; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

You’d think there would be a stronger reaction to the idea that one whom they had known was going to betray the Rabbi, but it’s not recorded.

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Good. Did we all understand that? What is to come isn’t simply a magic trick or intended to be a dazzling display of God’s capabilities. What is to come is going to help people truly and fully understand who Jesus is- in relationship to God and as God. Thus, God’s name will be glorified through the actions and the reactions. Furthermore, in the glory, people will be drawn to the power of new life in God through Jesus.

Expectant God, you bear us with patience, hoping toward the day when we are birthed into the new possibilities of life in you. Even now, we grow and are shaped by you. You nourish us, shelter us, speaking softly and tenderly words of mercy, grace and truth. In this time of anticipation, we hold back in fear of the fullness that comes through being born. Help us to shed our reluctance and trust your guiding hand, leading us into green pastures and beside still waters. In this holy week, restore our souls and the joy of our salvation. Birth us anew. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reflection for Holy Tuesday

Gospel for Holy Tuesday: John 12:20-36

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

There were some Greeks. These are actual Greek Gentiles, as opposed to Greek-speaking Jews, who likely would have already encountered Jesus in his ministry. (Or would have sought him for different reasons.) The writer of the Fourth Gospel is signaling the opening of God’s plan of universal salvation. That is to say that the way of salvation would be open to all people, not only to the Jews. It is important to remember as we read that God’s plan in Jesus is not a zero-sum game, wherein if the Gentiles are included, the Jews must be excluded. As we consider Greek Gentiles seeking Jesus, we are to marvel at the way word must have spread about him and his works. We are to wonder at how good news can spread like wildfire and ponder if we act like kindling or sand.

23Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4) (I realize adding this seems like answering a question with a question, but bear with me.)

John 12:25 seems to have been Jesus’ best-known saying, appearing in some form in each gospel. The Fourth Gospel shapes its understanding of what it means to follow Jesus through his giving of a new commandment, foreshadowed here. Bearing fruit means loving AND serving. There is no love without service, for then the statements of love are hollow. There is no service without love, for then the service has no roots and will fade away.

The Fourth Gospel has a high, high Christology- meaning the Lord can seem less Jesus and more Christ. Here we get a glimpse of the sacrifice of Christ, if we hark back to the opening of John. This is the Living Word, out in creation, drawing all people to himself. In order to come among us, Jesus had to give up being fully in the presence of God- a reality that was all that had ever been. This was, apparently, worth doing so that we, Greeks and Jews, might come to a deeper understanding of God’s love and hope for creation.

27Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

God doesn’t seem to dwell much in nouns, but more so in verbs. “I am.” “I will glorify.” “I will save.” “I have wept.” “I love.”

29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him."

It is very easy to say that the crowds “don’t get it”. If the other choice is believing that the man standing in front of you is so interconnected with God that they finish one another’s sentences and God affirms his prayers on the spot… which one would you pick?

30Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

Promises. Promises.

33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" 35Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light."

Things are about to get confusing and Jesus is trying to encourage the people who have placed their trust in him not to be overcome by what is about to happen. The Evangelist, the author of this gospel, loves Jesus the rhetoric, who can be difficult to understand. Then, of course, sometimes we don’t want to.

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

This marks a break between Jesus’ teaching and the beginning of John’s passion narrative. This is the gospel literary equivalent of a fade-out to intermission.

Holy God, in the midst of all that seems uncertain, You are. Your permanence and omnipresence awe and overwhelm us. So also some of the truths of this week dance just beyond our grasp. We seek epiphany, but we sometimes confuse your voice with thunder, angels or our desires. Be with those who have heard your promise. Grant us deeper faith and broader understanding. Be with those who are drawn anew to the good news of your salvation. Stir up their faith and strengthen their resolve in questioning and in waiting for your answers. Amen. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Reflection for Holy Monday

Gospel for Monday in Holy Week: John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Jesus comes to eat with his friends. Did they invite him or was he passing through? Either way, this is one of his last moments to rest, to be with the people he loves and to the reality of being bodily present in creation. It is easy to forget that when Jesus walked the earth, he was Emmanuel, God-with-us, among people, plants and animals. While we trust that God’s Spirit remains present with us even now, in these last days Jesus was seeing creation with the eyes of both Creator and Begotten.

3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor? 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

O Judas, how the Evangelist (the writer of the Fourth Gospel) wants us to know that Satan was causing your actions. In the author’s effort to be sure we understand the work of the power of darkness, you get a little lost in the shuffle. The poor don’t remain because they are a necessity or inevitable, but because people will usually use their money for something else. The Evangelist wants us to know that you never had a pure heart, a thief from the beginning. For me, that feels like an attempt by a later gospel writer who wants to believe that Jesus would never willingly allow someone to follow him who would later betray him. Remember, Evangelist, Jesus was human and, in that humanness, sometimes he didn’t choose friends as carefully as he might. Judas, thief or no, at this stage, can we blame you for your confusion, your poor choices, your betrayal?

7Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Mary figures out what Jesus’ new commandment is before he says it. She understands, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Burial spices were expensive and couldn’t be casually. She probably can’t anticipate what’s coming, but she knows that this man brings new teaching, restores her brother and carries a new experience of the Holy Spirit with him. She feels it in her encounters with him. She understands, in some way, that the love she feels for Jesus is new and needs new expression. Wiping his feet, an extravagant gift both financially and physically gives her the chance to act on what she cannot put into words. Would that we, the disciples of today, could be so eloquent.

9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

I was recently listening to Meredith Gould on God Complex Radio and she pointed out that the Fourth Gospel makes it seem like there was one great homogenous group of Jews. Within the category of authorities there were Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and others about whom we don’t fully know or understand. These were men trained in specialized functions and who were the religious leaders of the people. You can no more assign a blanket appellation to them than you could to any assortment of religious leaders you might be able to assemble in your town. There were crowds seeking to understand and believe whether Jesus was the Messiah. The word that Jesus had raised someone from the dead certainly contributed to that conversation.

The authorities had reason to be afraid of the power of Rome if many people were claiming a king other Caesar. Furthermore, Jesus argues and elaborates on Scripture in the Pharisaical tradition. Certainly, there word have been leaders who would have feared losing their power to an “upstart”, but that happens now.

Consider your own emotions in your faith journey. When you have wondered about the absence of God? When you felt God’s presence? Surely if we, who already have heard of the resurrection, feel confusion, doubt and wonder, then all the more would those who followed Jesus hoping for clarity of vision and seeking to understand Jesus as the Christ, God’s anointed.

Lord, on this Holy Monday, we pray for those who spend of themselves in love for others. Strengthen them, renew them and bless them with the knowledge of your presence. We pray for those who feel trapped in a cycle of poor choices. Open their eyes to the options around them. Lift the barriers that hold them back and send your Spirit to energize them in moving forward into new hope. Be with our Jewish brothers and sisters, the pioneers of our faith. Help us to understand your covenant with all people and to speak the words of truth and grace that you long for your creation to understand. Amen. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unpasteurized Faith

I didn't preach on the story of Lazarus's resurrection today because I was finishing a sermon series, but I have one thought on the story that was stirred up when I was reading the gospel. This came from the only time I've preached on this text.

In seminary, in a preaching class, I gave a sermon as Martha in this story. I began this story with how angry I was at Jesus and his absence at Lazarus's death. Knowing he could have healed my brother, he didn't even choose to be there to comfort him in his hour of need. Angry. The text reads:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:20-27, NRSV)
When I expanded what I thought Martha didn't say, I began by describing myself as pacing the roadway, waiting for Jesus to come into view. When I saw him, I ran toward him, dust caking my tears into mud. My momentum crashed me into our family friend just as he reached out his arms to embrace me, "Where were you?" I yelled through my tears. 

My preaching professor, with whom I had more than one disagreement, told me that Marsha was too angry, that a congregation would never be able to handle that kind of rawness.

I thought he was wrong at the time, but took the criticism. However as I read the gospel today, that memory came flooding back and I know he was wrong. Most people only know rawness in grief and that rawness can be anger. The idea that our grief should look a certain way hurts many people all the time. 

Rawness can be good. I spent several years of my life drinking milk straight from a cow, unpasteurized. Unpasteurized milk is called "raw milk" because it hasn't been cooked, as it were. Pasteurization heats the milk and kills any bacteria. (Some would say it also kills the flavor.) But the whole milk is delicious and brings a weight and taste that is rich and deep. For its proponents, raw=real. 

My preaching professor wanted me to pasteurize Martha, to have her greet Jesus with a smile and gently say, "Oh, Jesus, if you had been here, our brother would not have died. Would you like some tea? And the neighbors brought a casserole." 

I don't think so. Her brother DIED. And her family friend also happens to be THE SON OF GOD. WHO HAS PREVIOUSLY HEALED PEOPLE FROM SEEMINGLY DEADLY ILLNESSES. 

My experience with grief is 1) Martha was raw and 2) Jesus could handle it. (Analysis of the verse "Jesus wept" might also indicate that the Lord was raw as well at the death of his friend and the weight of his ministry.) In this story, raw=real. If this is a tepid story of a dead man who was raised again, then la-di-da. It serves as a head's up for Jesus' resurrection. 


If this is a raw story, full of grief stricken people who are angry, hurt, confused and then (whiplash) rejoicing, then there is an impact for us today. I think this story, along with Psalm 137, and Scripture as a whole calls us to unpasteurized faith. We're not called to boil the rawness out, but to be unfiltered with God with our full strength.

Professor, in grief, people are raw. The abyss they glimpse or feel is a twin to the possible heights of epiphany. We're not baptized into blandness, but into fully fatted goodness- life with Christ. The ability to be honest about anger, disappointment, grief or joy is the cream that comes to the top and woe to the pastor who attempts to skim that from Scripture or the lived faith. 

It doesn't get more real than "Where were you". 

Where were you? 

Where were you!

If you had been here, my brother would not have died. 

I don't think I can even begin to portray Martha as too angry. She got her brother back

There are plenty of people who live with the rawness of "Where were you" with no perceived reply. 

Only the heat of time cooks away that rawness. 

Whither the Good News? (Sermon 4/10)

This is a shorter sermon due to a congregational meeting following the service. I could not quite say everything I wanted to. 

5 Lent
10 April 2011

Ephesians 5:21-6:9; John 11:11-27

            One the first things to discuss in today’s reading from Ephesians is who the author is or is thought to be. Ephesians and Colossians are called the “disputed letters” of Paul: they sound like him, but on closer examination, they are probably not by him. Paul has a very distinctive theology and his hallmarks are equality of Christians before God, the expectation that Christ going to return any minute and that the church is an institution outside of the structures of this world. Please note that “disputed” does not mean “not authoritative”. Just because we aren’t sure who wrote it doesn’t change its position in our understanding as Scripture.

            The author of Ephesians is a little more circumspect about the imminent return of the Messiah. Because it doesn’t seem like Jesus is just around the corner, the author of Ephesians becomes more concerned with how Christians are in the world. The author has deeply meaningful things to say about getting along within the Christian community and about God’s on-going work through the Holy Spirit.

            But then our author felt the need to insert a household code. A household code gave guidance for how members of a household are to act in relationship with one another. A Christian household code adds to that formula an understanding that God somehow ordains and blesses that order. In the Greco-Roman world, the husband/father/master was the head of the household. Equality with the head of the household was great for the first generations of Christians because they expected Christ to return and to redeem them from external social struggles.

            When that did not happen, the need for order became apparent to some church leaders. Particularly within the house church model, some hierarchy was needed to prevent chaos and to establish some religious legitimacy with non-Christians. Our struggle arises, first, when we don’t consider the household code in its own context and, secondly, when we consider it prescriptive rather than descriptive.

            If we take this as an order from God for our households are to be structured, we chafe in several ways. Some women fight against the idea of submission, equating it with subservience. Some men don’t want to be solely in charge, which can be a lonely and thankless proposition. If this is the prescription for household order, then, we also must have slaves because that is how we are being instructed. I trust no one here is interested in procuring a slave for his or herself. (Household help, maybe, but not a slave.)

Instead, we have to understand that this is not the gospel. I don’t mean Ephesians is not one of the four gospels. I trust you grasp that. I mean a household code does not save us. This does not communicate the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ. If we hold this up as God’s expectations for our lives, we are setting ourselves up for failure and we’re making an idol of the written word by missing the spirit of what we’re being called to.

Submission isn’t subservience. Furthermore, the arc of Scripture leads us to understand that God has created men and women to help one another. Marriage, in Christian understanding, is a partnership where two people join in love to bear God’s image and work together for the good of God’s creation. Parenting is an opportunity to communicate love, justice and hope to one’s offspring and to the larger world. Employment makes room for our vocational skills and our understanding that the structures of this world do not define us before God.

There is hopeful possibility in this passage from Ephesians, but we have to listen with the ears of Christ to understand how it calls to us. Otherwise, it does become the proverbial stumbling block where people grieve their inability to live up to God’s expectations.

If we limit Ephesians to the household code, we might as well put it with Lazarus in the tomb. But Jesus, the Living Savior, calls forth the truth of the word. Come out, Ephesians, reveal to us the glory of God.

Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  Amen. 

Sunday Prayer: Lazarus Edition

Merciful God, on this day there are people around the world standing next to graves and outside tombs.

They will not see their Lazarus again in this life.

Surround them with the presence and consolation of your Spirit.

Strengthen their neighbors to share the burden of grief.

Help the flame of resurrection hope to continue to burn in their hearts.

Be with those whose grief is masked by anger, hurt, fear or pressure to put on a good face.

Send your Spirit to cradle them in their fragility, so that they bend, but do not break.

God in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Half the Church (Carolyn Custis James)

Carolyn Custis James begins Half the Church by detailing her horrified reaction while reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Kristof/WuDunn). As she details the way women and girls are sold, raped, murdered, and diminished around the world, she wonders not only why the Church universal does not rise up and decry these actions, she begins to wonder what is keeping us from surging forward and empowering women around the world. Thus, Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women was born.

Much of the scholarship in this book has its kindling in James' earlier work with which, I confess, I am not familiar. However, I can see that this flame has burned within her and has now become a roaring bonfire. James is clearly a biblical conservative. By this I don't mean that she use the Bible to come to (politically) conservative points, but that she resolves her theological arguments from the Bible or not at all. It's been a long time since I read anything written from this framework and this was simultaneously refreshing and overwhelming. 

In her effort to move the Church into a new understanding of God's work in, through and for women, James makes several surprising, but resonant theological claims. Using Genesis 1:26-27, James points out that God makes both men AND women in God's image. Thus, both sexes are given the same charge of stewardship of the earth as God's image bearers. James writes: 

When God created human beings in his "image" and "likeness", he was designating us as his representatives on the earth... As [God's] image bearers, we speak and act on [God's] behalf. This is not only about Christians. Every human being is God's image bearer... Every human being has a strategic role in God's purposes for the world. Every human being possesses a derived significance- grounded in [God's self]." (53) 

From this dramatic interpretation, James goes on to say that when we ignore, dehumanize or trivialize the role of half the population, we are defacing the image of God. We are called through God's written word to understand ourselves as God's image bearers to all creation. Furthermore, we are called through God's Living Word, Christ, to a deeper understanding of image bearing, through the work of forgiveness, justice and mercy. 

James describes how most women around the world are only valued according to how they can be married off and how quickly that. She notes that even women who understand their giftedness to reside in being both a wife and a mother may actually only spend half their lifetimes doing one or both of those. If the Church sends a message of value only in marriage or in childbearing, we are sending a message that God doesn't use young women or widows, women without children or women who never become wives. This is compounded by a twin message of worth through sexual purity. 

A purity message is utterly devastating to the one in four women who by eighteen has been sexually abused. Women who struggle with sexual identity, who march to the beat of a different drummer, who choose not to marry or have children, whose marriages don't and will never fit the "norm" no matter how hard they try, or who have been ravaged by abuse, violence and trafficking are left without a place- as women- in God's story. 

As I read through this book, I wrestled with the fact that I believe my denomination to be open to women's leadership and yet I know plenty of young women, who've grown up in the Lutheran church, who struggle with identity. This says to me that our denomination, powerful women notwithstanding, has not been vocal enough about God's plan and expectation for women as image bearers. 

Probably one of the most powerful themes of the book is James's use of the word ezer. This is the Hebrew word that God uses in deciding to create a partner for Adam. Adam's loneliness cannot be fulfilled by the animals or even by God's company, but he needs something more. The ezer then joins Adam in the stewardship of creation through the bearing of God's image to the world. 

Traditionally, ezer is translated as "helper". At best, this sounds benign, at worst, like an afterthought. However, James goes on to point out this word is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures and is most frequently, then, applied to God. In particular, ezer is used sixteen times for God as Israel's helper. (112) This isn't a weak helpmeet, but the strength Israel needs in order to be the people of God. Adam's ezer Eve isn't a passive complement to his active steward, she is, according to the way the word is used, a strong and needed helper. 

One of the great ironies of this book is that it forced me to consider my own biases with regard to women and church. When James said she will not give her opinion on women's ordination (pro or con), I initially felt frustrated, but I then couldn't allow that silence to overshadow the powerful arguments she makes for women's full inclusion in the church, in church leadership, in the work of justice in the world and in bearing God's image to all creation. 

If we allow our energies to be shunted into arguments around obscure Scriptures with regard to women and their roles, we might as well deny the Holy Spirit. In essence, we are failing to use the gifts God has given us, to share the load of image-bearing with our brothers and to bring the freeing news of God's desire for God's daughters to the world. 

Even as I write this, there are infant girls being killed or having marriage contracts arranged. There are women stuck in sex work, feeling their identities fading away. There are orphaned girls who wait for families that will not return and who grow older each day they wait to be adopted. We can ignore these things under the idea that different cultures have different ideals. Or we can consider the stories of Ruth, Mary, Hannah, Esther, and Deborah- women whose situations were dire and called for drastic, life-risking action. And God used them and men alongside them. We must either enlarge our vision and our actions with regard to God's global vision or live in fear of when we're held accountable for inaction. 

James, Carolyn Custis. Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2010. 

I received this book for free from Zondervan for review. I have another copy to give away. If you would like to receive it, please email me lcohpastor(at)alaska(dot)net.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When You Won't See It (Genesis 19)

Lent 4, Year A
3 April 2011

Genesis 19:1-11, Psalm 23, Matthew 10:5-15

What are your first thoughts when you think of Sodom and Gomorrah?

            What comes right before this passage? Abraham gets heavenly visitors, hosts them and learns that God has a son in store from him. Abraham can’t do enough for his heavenly visitors. Then the Lord talks to Abraham about the plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham attempts to intercede for the cities and finally God agrees not to destroy the cities if there are ten righteous men to be found.

            Then we have today’s passage. Are there any righteous men there? According to the passage, “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom- both young and old- surrounded the house.” The passage draws us in so that we can make the decision that Abraham is asking God to make, “Are there 10 righteous men in this city?”

            What happens after this passage? The angels warn Lot and urge him to leave the city with anyone in his family who will listen to him. His potential sons-in-law, engaged to his daughters, laugh him off, so Lot leaves with his daughters and his wife. His wife looks back and turns to a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters take up residence in a cave because they are afraid to be anywhere else. Eventually, the daughters give up hoping that they’ll go anywhere, get Lot drunk and he fathers his own grandchildren, not to put too fine a point on it.

            One of the daughters gives birth to a child she named Ben-Ammi and he becomes the father of the Ammonites. The other daughter names her child Moab and he becomes father of the Moabites. In the bible, there’s one famous Moabite—Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, whose line is the ancestral human line for…Jesus.

            Did Sodom and Gomorrah have to happen in order to get Moab, Ruth, David and Jesus? No, just like we do not need to sin additionally for grace to abound, so God is able to redeem bad circumstances, but would prefer that they didn’t occur to begin from the start.

            Because of this way this passage from Genesis is connected to today’s passage in Matthew, we can understand that for the majority of the Bible Sodom and Gomorrah appear as shorthand for places where people failed to be hospitable to God’s representatives or clearly fail to live up to God’s desires. Sodom and/or Gomorrah also appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zephaniah. In those passages alone, the prophets are generally speaking to the people of Israel and accusing them of sins like neglect of the poor and needy, greed, excess, heterosexual molestation and inhospitality to strangers. In the New Testament, Matthew, Luke and Peter condemn towns to a fate like Sodom’s for failure to receive those who bear the word of God. Only in Jude are these two cities mentioned specifically in connection with homosexual behavior.

            This story is important to consider because it floats in our common knowledge, but we don’t often think of what actually happens and what it actually means. In desert climates, the failure to host someone means their death. A life you could have saved. If the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is the failure to share what we have and to be hospitable to those who bring the word of God into our midst, then we’re all guilty. The world in which we live is not inherently a good place. We cannot escape the fact that each of us, daily, struggle not to compromise in some way what we know is right. If all men and women are made in the image of God and we fail to treat each of our neighbors as though they were Jesus himself, our hospitality falls short.

            So, where’s the good news in this? What’s the gospel message? If we say the reason this had to happen was to lead to the family of David, then we set up a situation where bad things have to happen for good to occur.

            Instead, what we learn about God through Jesus is that in every situation, the seeds for redemption are planted. When people don’t act in love, in peace, with mercy and welcome, all kinds of bad things happen- rape, crucifixion, separation, crime and any other number sins we care to name. Yet even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us, stirring the soil behind us, planting seeds of possibility in the fertilizer that’s left behind each disaster.

            The painful reality of the redemption of this story is that no one involved in it lived to see it. That’s quite a Lenten message. You may not know what good comes from the horrible things that happen in your lifetime.

            Is that the word of the Lord for me? For us? Today?

            I don’t know what to do with it, even in light of the cross, and so I need the consolation of something I can handle at this time.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

            That’s the word of the Lord for me. Amen. 

Sunday Poem: The 23rd Psalm

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently pass:
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my mind in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in death's shady black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Even in my enemies' sight;
My head with oil, my cup with wine
Runs over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my days;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

               -- George Herbert

Herbert, George. "Twenty-Third Psalm." The Poets' Book of Psalms. Laurance Wieder, ed. HarperCollins Publishers: NY, NY. 1995. p. 32