Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say on Maundy Thursday, in Covid-19 Holy Week?

     Maundy Thursday, such a lovely night. I can't talk long, for they come, not for the sermon, but for the tangible experience, the bodily encounter. Just a little bread and wine. And now, with Covid-19, they can't even come. What to do? I don't have a great theology around me blessing elements people can pick up on their own. There's something about the gathered community sharing, and now. Would it be suspect to ask everyone to have some bread and juice (or wine), tune in to our livestream / FB live, and I consecrate all the elements and we partake together? 

   Clergy and theologians are arguing the propriety of this. To me, there's always a virtuality to the Eucharist. We participate in a meal taking place in another place, at another time. My people can at least be together, and partake together, albeit in differing rooms. We do this at my place anyhow, as often people watch the service from an adjacent room. And while I wish we could share just one loaf, we have several. They are all blessed. Jesus is eager to be with his people this Thursday. Our plan is for me to do live stream from my dining room table and guide everyone through the liturgy together, and then we'll partake together. No precedent being set for having communion at home when you feel like it. On the 1st Maundy Thursday, Jesus said Do this. He didn't specify precisely how during a pandemic.

     I don't usually focus on the footwashing in John 13, although it's theologically provocative, especially in this season when hygiene, sanitizers, etc., are huge. But it’s way too easy to flatten it out: Jesus served humbly, so go and serve others humbly (although Pope Francis sure revolutionized how we'll forever think about footwashing after doing it to women, and Muslims!).  I’m not sure John would say that was his one-liner takeaway… and we have so much all year long about serving anyhow that Holy Week, for me, needs devotion to Jesus and his literally sacramental death. 

   Jean Vanier. Before I learned of his abusive relationships, I'd written this blog, sharing his thoughts on the mystery of the footwashing. Skip over if you'd like... "Jesus loves us so much that he kneels in front of us so that we may begin to trust ourselves. As Jesus washes our feet, he is saying 'I trust you and I love you. You are important to me. I want you to trust yourself because you can do beautiful things for the kingdom. You can give life; you can bring peace. I want you to discover how important you are. All I am asking is that you believe in yourself because you are a beloved child of God.'"

    If we continue tracking Luke's narrative (per this year's lectionary), we find much of interest. Jesus gathers, not with family (as most Jews would) but with his new family, the disciples; Peter Scazzero speaks of the church as "re-familying." God calls us into new relationships, new kinships that sustain us and are the priority for us. "When the hour had come" (Luke 22:14) would be sundown on Nisan 14, when the angel of death passed over the Israelites whose doors were marked with blood. Haunting, rich in Christological nuance. They "took their places" at dinner: did they recall Jesus' words about who sits where, and who shows up at dinner back in Luke 14?

   Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us how the "words of institution," so rote for us, would then have been "shocking, provocative, and ultimately obscure. Cannibalism? Blood out of the body made one impure. How close does Jesus as God down here want to get to us? Not merely in the same room, or bumping up next to us. He wants to get inside us, so he lets himself be fed on by us.

     I don't usually re-envision biblical scenes at length, but on Maundy Thursday I invite my people to imagine that first Holy Thursday night.  Maybe like Palm Sunday, the disciples were in a buoyant, expectant mood, while Jesus was mired in a more somber apprehension of what was to come.  They sang Psalms - any or all of 113-118. What did their voices sound like? Did Jesus or one of the others lead? Did they harmonize? How did "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” (in Psalm 116, our lection for the day!) or “This is the day the Lord has made” (from 118) resonate with Jesus and the rest of them?  This is the preaching angle I often suggest: instead of asking about takeaways or relevance to me today, I just ask people to marvel over what happened then.

     Beyond any doubt, Jesus stared at that bread and caught a vision of what would happen to his own flesh the next day. And then he peered into the wine and glimpsed an image of the blood he would shed. How haunting, lovely, gripping, poignant.

     When they ate, what did they think?  We quiz candidates for ordination about their theology of the Eucharist; just to be clear, a struggling seminarian and even the frankly less than average churchgoer today understands more of what was going on that the disciples did.  Austin Farrer (in his unfortunately out of print Crown of the Year) put it beautifully:

     “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”  I like that.  We are mystified – but we know we receive Jesus himself, and we are thereby committed to him, come what may.  As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”

     While we include or exclude and feel noble about it, Jesus was utterly inclusive – and he makes that shrine thing happen for everybody, even those who don’t believe or have a clue.  Jürgen Moltmann (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit):  The Lord’s supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of ‘the world,’ the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper.”

     In my book which came out a year ago, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I quote these words and then turn to the lovely interview Krista Tippett had a while back with Father Greg Boyle, whose ministry with gang members in California is impressive and moving:  “We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?”  Then he told how he asked an abused orphan and former gang member in his program, “What did you do for Christmas?” The young man said he cooked a turkey “ghetto-style,” and invited six other guys to join him. When he named them, Boyle recognized them as members of warring gangs. As he pondered them cooking together on Christmas day, he wondered, “So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends.”

     A few years ago, it occurred to me that my reflections on something as stupendous and tender as Maundy Thursday were growing stale.  How to find a new wrinkle?  I tend to forget that Maundy Thursday includes Jesus bolting out into the dark to pray in Gethsemane – and being arrested.  On that prayer of agony, I am always moved by Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Only Want to Say.”  I’ve made a point over the years of correcting a popular image of Gethsemane – that of Heinrich Hoffman’s “Christ in Gethsemane” (hanging in the Riverside Church, NY) – Jesus praying placidly, well-coiffed, almost as if saying his bedtime prayers.  Willem Dafoe captured that searing agony in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” and I’d refer you also to the very interesting take in Mel Gibson’s gory “The Passion of the Christ.”

     And then, of course, the poignancy of Judas’s kiss, and the arrest – and I am continually mentioning the detail that I can’t and don’t even want to explain:  in John 18:6 Jesus says, “I am he.”  What happened next?  “The soldiers drew back and fell to the ground.”  Wow.

What can we say come Good Friday?

      I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service.  N.T. Wright has written brilliantly about the crucifixion, calling it The Day the Revolution Began (a must read for clergy). I buy into that (although I wonder if the revolution really began at Christmas, or even at conception in Mary's womb!) - but the whole program feels too active, too much like a campaign for the quiet calm, the dark sorrow of the service. Maybe a mention, and follow up next month?

  The loneliness Jesus surely felt all day but certainly in the hour of death is mirrored by us clergy trying to pull off Good Friday without people. We have arranged via Zoom recording to have various folks read the passion narrative from Matthew, and then extinguish lights in the sanctuary with 2 or 3 of us present. Agonizing - but fitting somehow. I wonder how to name to lonely reality of Good Friday during Covid-19 as a window into what it was for Jesus.

     I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word.  “Homily” is even too grandiose.  I meditate, and briefly – or like a docent in a museum, with just a few words I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty.  May I just sigh, or shudder.  That would be a good enough sermon.  Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or one of the others listed at the end of this blog.  As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar.

   With Covid-19, it's likely to be exceedingly quiet and a little lonely - which is what Good Friday certainly was for Jesus himself. Lots of grief and loss, of jobs, routines, activities, dreams, you name it. Jesus' solidarity with us in our losses, deaths, griefs: obviously on point during this season. Unsure how we'll maneuver the service, gradually turning down lights? We'll read the Passion narrative and try to preserve the basic elements of the service, even if it's small and on a screen.

  I'll preach. Briefly though. Preparation for Good Friday involves the preacher sitting, being very still, and weighing deeply an image, or images of the crucifixion. Grünewald? Rouault? Some other choral pieces that are lovely and moving for Good Friday: “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears” by Kenneth Leighton; Dan Forrest’s “Forsaken”; “Thy Will Be Done,” by Craig Courtney; or Al Travis’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” 
   At our church, we always read the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 early, and will online this year. Such haunting words, evidently the bleak testimony of the prophet, abused for bringing God's Word to hopeless people, bearing their sins somehow redemptively on himself. Good Friday isn't the time to explicate this complex text and its background. We trust the words to do their thing. And Psalm 22: Jesus' heart-wrenching cry, himself forsaken, and joining his God-forsakenness forever to ours. I try to ponder the horror, the sorrow Mary felt as she watched her son cry out these words she had taught him as a little boy.

   Then we do the Matthew Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness - and we might be me and my wife or a couple of us in our sanctuary.  A childhood friend of mine, who lives in another city, called the church last year at the end of the service he was livestreaming, saying "I can't see anything!" Indeed. We can't see. We can hardly speak. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything – just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it.  We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  I love this:

     Robert W. Jenson, after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded, “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back.  There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives.  The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours.  Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”

  Fleming Rutledge's amazing (and long!) Crucifixion highlights an astonishing sermon by Melito of Sardis, maybe around the year 190, which includes this: "The Lord suffered for the sake of those who suffered, was bound for the sake of those imprisoned, was judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the buried. So come, all families of people defiled by sin, and receive remission. For I am your remission, I am the Passover of salvation, I am the Lamb sacrifice for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your Resurrection, I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your king. I lead you toward the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up with my right hand."

 More eloquence from Rutledge herself: "The Crucifixion is God's new creative act, his great reclamation project that is even greater than the creation itself... His execution was carried out by all the best people... Christianity is the only religion to have as its central focus the degradation of its God... The crucifixion is an almost theatrical enactment of the sadistic impulses that lie within human beings... Jesus exchanged God for Godlessness... If God in three persons is most fully revealed to us by the Son's accursed death outside the community of the godly, this means a complete rethinking of what is usually called religion."  Her book is striking in so many ways; I'm glad I read it in preparation for this Good Friday - and the rest of my life as a follower of the crucified Jesus.
   And so, in awe, we pray, perhaps with St. Francis:

     My Lord Jesus Christ, 
            two graces I ask of you before I die:
         the first is that in my life I may feel,
             in my soul and body, as far as possible,
             that sorrow which you, tender Jesus,
             underwent in the hour
                 of your most bitter passion;
         the second is that I may feel in my heart,
                        as far as possible,
             the abundance of love with which you,
                                son of God, were inflamed,
         so as willingly to undergo
                 such a great passion
                       for us sinners.

After this, Francis bore, in his body, the actual wounds (the stigmata) of Jesus, which he hid for the rest of his life out of humility.

     Wise, deeply spiritual writers help me weigh what happened at Calvary.  One of Henri Nouwen’s more obscure books, Heart Speaks to Heart, will place you in conversation with the crucified Jesus. I love the idea of speaking with the suffering Christ on the cross and saying, "O Lord, why is it that I am so eager to receive human praise even when experience tells me how limited and conditional is the love that comes from the human heart?  So many people have shown me their love... but no one could touch that deep, hidden place where my fear and my loneliness dwell. Only you know that place, Lord.."

     Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God has hot when I was in seminary – and it still speaks to me, and should be required reading for younger generations.  He wonderfully explains how an omnipotent God is inferior to the suffering God, as only the vulnerable one can love and be loved.  My copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale is chock full of underlinings and exclamation points, and I return to it often. 

Rowan Williams’s The Sign and the Sacrifice is predictably and wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent (and brief).  For him, the Bible parses the cross as proof of God's love for us, and a demonstration of the kind of God we're dealing with: "When Pilate, on behalf of all of us, pushes Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do.  That's the good news: our powerlessness to change God's mind.  God's love is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable.  It has a magnetic force because it is a love that can't threaten us."


What can we say Easter Sunday?

   Easter preaching, to me, is so hard – in three ways. There’s normally such a “prettiness” to the day, with lots of sightseers, the Christmas and Easter peeps, flowers; people are there not so much out of heightened religious interest, but just because. What will it be this year? Record crowds? Not so much so? Fascinating that Easter became the big political target - for Covid-19 to have passed, or not... Clearly not. So what is Easter without the throngs? It's important to name that on Easter #1, there were very, very, very few people, who were confused, afraid, uncertain. That's where we are in 2020. Not bad, theologically and pastorally.

   It's always communicating that Easter isn't about you and me. It's about God, and Jesus, how amazing they are - as we will see. You can view the sermon I did four years ago (featuring some Winston Churchill humor, reflections on the deaths of a two year old and a teenager in our church family just before Easter, and some wisdom from Julian of Norwich).

   Fascinating (to me): the plot of the Easter accounts in the Bible seems to be, not Jesus rose so you get eternal life, but Jesus rose, so you are forgiven. And Jesus rose, so he’s vindicated, he’s amazing, he’s the One. If you’ve followed my blog, you know I advocate preaching sermons that aren’t Here’s the text, so go do such and such, but are rather just reflections on how amazing Jesus was/is. I think the Gospels do this. It’s just Wow, he really is the Messiah, the crazy things he said and did now most clearly are wonderfully the way. N.T. Wright wrote of The Day the Revolution Began: Good Friday, yes, but paired with Easter, the great newness, the grand redemption, was unveiled for all to see and join in.

   Matthew 28 interestingly begins “After the Sabbath” – meaning this kind of thing unfolds during the day of rest, when we aren’t laboring but are only trusting God’s hand to be on what we aren’t managing or producing right now… reminding me to encourage all clergy to watch the best sermon for clergy I’ve ever heard  - and it’s on this business of the women, the tomb, and the Sabbath – by my friend Claude Alexander; a must watch – and don’t miss the song right after the sermon.

   I wonder about the role of personal testimony at Easter. I did this after the DaVinci Code came out, along with the other anti-Christian books that sell so well. I clarified that for me, as a guy, not as pastor, not under instruction from the bishop, but just me, a naturally cynical guy: I really believe Jesus didn’t stay dead, but he rose, he appeared. I can clarify various things, like It’s not a resuscitation, etc. But I really believe this amazement happened.

   If I were asked for proof, I’d go for the one several others have advanced: in those days, lots of great, heroic leaders died; some were even believed to be messianic. After their deaths, their followers trudged home and gave up or looked for the next great thing to come along. Jesus’ followers never went home, but launched out into the world, risking everything, and often winding up dead or hurt, because of one thing only: they had seen the risen Lord. As Rowan Williams said in The Sign and the Sacrifice, “It’s hard to see how this new age faith could come into being without an event to point to. The language of resurrection is historical, not speculative: it’s about earth before it’s about heaven. The very untidiness of the resurrection stories is one of the main reasons for taking them seriously. What’s going on is clearly people struggling to find words for something they had not expected.”

   Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society – rather like the Winston Churchill Society, looking back to a great dead leader. If Jesus is risen, there is a human destiny. We were made with dignity and liberty so that, one day, we would be companions for Jesus Christ. Human nature was endowed with all its gifts so it would one day be a proper vehicle for the transforming work of God the Father.” What a high view of humanity!  

   But don’t forget it was Matthew who shared that between Jesus’ death and Easter proper, there were earthquakes. All creation trembled – and it’s all of creation that is ultimately redeemed by this God, not merely human souls headed to heaven.

    While we welcome Easter as so pleasant, we should note that, unanimously, the first witnesses were flat out terrified. And then the “He is not here, he is risen” reminds me of the many places we think Christ must be but he’s on the loose, not so blithely contained where we expect him to be. Doug Marlette’s cartoon about prayer in the public schools is wicked funny – and probably not for the sermon proper but the preacher’s own edification and inspiration: 2 angels standing on the front step of the schoolhouse, telling people toting Bibles, "He is not here. He is risen." Or maybe for the sermon: where do we not expect God to show up? & where does God show up we don’t envision?

   I am sure we trivialize Easter, and Christianity, when we make it about me and my eternal life. I cannot commend strongly enough Gerhard Lohfink's fabulous Is This All There Is? Resurrection and Eternal Life. He begins by dissecting how modern blather about death (that we live on in memory, or are forever digging whatever we dug in this life) isn't very different from ancient melancholy and resignation (like the common tombstone saying, "I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care"). Biblical hope is about incorporation into Christ’s eternal body, and participation in the redemption of all creation. Is there judgment? Yes - in that we will finally see with total clarity who we really are. This ultimate encounter with truth, in light of God's mercy, will strike in us our need for healing, and purification. 

   Hell (for Lohfink) isn't something God imposes. God loathes hell. “If there be such people who with the fundamental choice of their existence seek only themselves and reject everything else, God must leave them to themselves, to their own closedness-within-the-self. God cannot overpower them and certainly cannot assault them. Such a person then would really have nothing but his or her own self – and that precisely would be hell. We can only hope that there is no such person, that even in such cases God’s grace will prove victorious by tearing open the self-created prison of that person’s own existence. We can only hope that hell is empty.”

   As empty as Jesus' tomb. Resurrection, in Scripture (as Lohfink explains), isn't only of soul, and not even of just my body. It is all of our life, books I’ve treasured, a garden I planted and tended, another person I loved, my unfulfilled dreams – all the great music, paintings, scientific research, any and all amazement ever by anybody. Resurrection incorporates me and you into all nations and peoples, with the unborn child you never knew, and all the saints - thankfully, as in eternity we will be granted "a full share of the patience of the most patient mothers, the wisdom of the holy, the courage of the martyrs, the faith of Paul, Francis, Teresa, the rapture of the great lovers." Big, this Easter hope.

What can we say April 19? 2nd Sunday of Easter

   While the Gospel seems to obvious choice a mere week after the resurrection, our Epistle is an eloquent reflection on why it matters. 1 Peter 1:3-9, surprisingly enough, chops off part of what is a ridiculously long single Greek sentence extending from v. 3 through v. 12! It’s as if the author – was it Peter, the rock, the denier, the commissioned one – was so exuberant that the words just kept spilling out. I wonder if I ever get so pumped up in preaching that an excess of words tumble over one another…

   Some thoughts on special moments in his ramble. To all Jesus Christ “Lord” seems sweetly pious to us. But in those days, Caesar was Lord, so this claim undercuts all political allegiances and requirements, and risked punishment for subversion. Who really is Lord?

   Being “born anew” takes us back to Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus in John 3. My book on Birth comes out this month – and writing it forced me to rethink everything on being “born again.” Often we think of it as some kind of emotional intensity or spiritual high. But being born, as in when you came out of the womb: a time of shocking transition from one world (dark, warm, aquatic) to another (bright, cold, breathing required!). And it’s all mercy. The Hebrew word for “womb,” rhm, is the same as the word for mercy. And who needs mercy more than a newborn? I’ll ramble around on this for a bit in my sermon, not saying “When you had a baby,” as people will be there who haven’t or couldn’t; rather, “When you were a baby”… God’s gift of new life is a radical transformation, and one we live into only by radical dependence on the mercy.

   The basis of this new birth? The crucifixion and resurrection, sure – but really it’s the birth of Christ! He was born so we might be reborn. Reminisce about Christmas, not the party/tinsel aspects, but the holiness, the silent night, the humility of the manger, the joy of the shepherds.

   We are heirs – an image people can perhaps envision – although it’s riches unimaginably vast. It is “kept,” the perfect participle in Greek, implying the inheritance already exists in fact. Verse 6 reminds us how joy works: it is in the thick of suffering and trials or it’s not really joy, is it? The verb “may” (you “may have to suffer”) feels good, as it implies I probably won’t, but just in case. The Greek, dei, implies far more necessity. Your body may grow frail as you age. You may feel intense sorrow when the one you love dies. May, not probably not, but absolutely, it’s a thing.

   It’s God’s faithfulness, not mine that saves. The “genuineness” of faith isn’t a bulwark of belief in my heart or a sturdiness of conviction in my head. It’s a being grasped by that faithfulness that is God’s, not my own. This is “more precious than gold,” an echo of the lovely Psalm 19, which sees the Torah as similarly priceless. The concluding little section, which sorts through how we might love Christ although we’ve not seen him, intrigues. I’ve not seen Christ.

   Or have I? I’ve seen paintings and stained glass. I’ve seen his actual Body, his Church, flawed as it may be. The miracle, I wonder, isn’t that we believe in the Christ we’ve not seen as the guy who came centuries ago, but rather the “rejoicing.” We’re sad, go-through-the-motions, joyless Christians, not getting the joy, the sheer delight in all this. Probably it’s because we are doers, we want to make spirituality happen, we wish we were like dolphins who can swim at birth or monkeys who actually use their arms to push out of mom’s womb. We are dependent. We are weak, but he is strong – and that’s the joy!

   On Peter’s believing and loving without seeing, we find perhaps the first vivid instance of this in John 20:19-31 – a text with traces of early church liturgy, right: They gather, a benediction is pronounced (“Peace be with you”). To fearful people (not hard for the preacher to explore locks, security systems, urban anxiety, even the proliferation of guns) Jesus comes and speaks Peace into their fear. Fascinating how fearful our seemingly tough people are, and just naming it? They know. Fear for personal safety. Fear civilizationally: our huge moral and political debates are fear-driven. As Walter Brueggemann divines things: all people fall into 2 categories, those who fear the world they treasured is crumbling all around them, and those who fear the world they dream of will never come to be. I have found in declaring this that people, even if for a moment, find some common ground.

   Notice Jesus doesn't criticize or judge them for their fears and doubts. He loves them. With his love he turns their confusion into friendship, their fear into trust. 

   His wounds are his love. Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Earned scars, earned through the enfleshing of love. I’m fond of the insight Graham Greene shared in The End of the Affair.  A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”

   The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). Caravaggio painted it graphically. I love that Jesus shows up, not as powerful but as the wounded one. The wounds are his glory. What do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns”? Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.

   Jesus breathes on them. Fascinating. Of course we are to think of God’s breath giving life to the first humans (Genesis 2), and the reviving of the dead nation during the exile (Ezekiel 37). I like to ponder that, for Jesus to breathe on them or anybody, they’ve got to be standing close, right next to him. Is discipleship just sticking as close to Jesus as possible, to feel his breath?

   I’m wary of sermons that get fixated on “doubting” Thomas. It’s a thing; I’m unsure if it helps parishoners if the clergy say “I have doubts too!” At most I’d want to celebrate doubt, which isn’t a failure of faith but asking darn good questions. Mark Helprin, in Winter’s Tale, writes “All great discoveries are products as much of doubt as of certainty, and the two in opposition clear the air for marvelous accidents.” Robert Penn Warren wonderfully said “Here, as in life, meaning is, I should say, often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given.. And then Simone Weil: “One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth… Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

   My doubts are less about the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ, but rather about the possibility of forgiveness – which seems to be what this text is ultimately about, and what Easter in the Bible is entirely attentive to. Jesus is risen, so therefore – you are forgiven, and you go forgive. Startling. If I tell stories of forgiveness, the Amish at Nickel Mines, Pa., or Corrie ten Boom and her sister's executioner, will anyone believe?

What can we say April 26? 3rd Sunday of Easter

   Quirky question: two weeks after the first/real Easter, did the disciples recall singing our lectionary Psalm 116 during the Last Supper just 17 days earlier? “I love the Lord because he has heard my cry. The snares of death encompassed me… I will lift up the cup of salvation… Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Did they sing all this again on that Sabbath?

   1 Peter 1:17-23 portrays God as an impartial judge – which isn’t even true. God is rooting for our acquittal, insisting on undeserved mercy, standing in as our lawyer advocating for us, even stepping in to bear the punishment due us. Of course, the author (could it be the Peter?) is debunking the idea that God is partial toward the holy or the religious insiders of his day. Little things to note exegetically: “ransomed,” lutro in Greek, means paid but also delivered, rescued – and it’s from “futile ways,” the Greek being better translated “idols.” These futile idolatries are “inherited from your ancestors” – and I get puzzled but hopefully inquisitive looks when I suggest in preaching that even some lovely religiosity and worldly wisdom you got from parents and grandparents might be curiously out of kilter when it comes to the realities of God’s kingdom. And this: “deeds” is really singular in the Greek – so it’s not this or that deed, but the whole life that’s impacted.

   Joel Green’s wisdom intrigues: “Interestingly, in 1 Peter 1:18-19, sin and its consequences per se are not the focus of redemption; ‘the emptiness of your inherited way of life’ is.” Not hard to explore our inherited way of life, be it family values, conventional wisdom, political ideology, cemented in views of good and bad. St. Francis, interestingly enough, was reported by his first biographer to have been “reared by his parents according to the vanity of the age. By long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.” Parents in my church groom their children to fit in, to succeed, to get ahead – we might add “according to the vanity of the age.” Francis had to shed that vain way of life as he shed his clothing in the famous scene when he was put on trial by his father. As Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

   As Green summarizes the thrust of our Epistle text, “Becoming holy and living in reverent fear constitute a response of resistance centered on an alternative structuring of time and formative narrative, a rejection of ancestral and contemporary conventions for behavior, embodied in practices.” Indeed, “Peter recognizes that new practices are inevitable, expected outgrowths from the internalizing of new commitments and dispositions.”

  Hard not to preach on Luke 24:13-35. What an elegant, dramatic, theologically rich narrative! Caravaggio and Rembrandt painted the scene with brushstrokes that might bore more deeply into people than the preacher’s paltry words. Some details are worth pointing to. The disciples on the road are deep in conversation – and the Greek there is homileo: is a homily an intense discussion? Does the unrecognized presence of Jesus echo Genesis 28, when Jacob awoke and realized “The Lord was in this place and I did not know it”?

   Jesus asks what they are talking about; the Greek is antiballete, a term used in forensics, academics and the courts. David Lyle Jeffrey sees this as “a warning for theologians… It is possible to be so engrossed in our wearied debates that we fail to know Jesus as he is.” What we move toward here isn’t better information about Jesus, but an intimate awareness of his presence; St. Augustine pointed out that “the Teacher was walking with them along the way, and he himself was the way.”

   Their disappointment is the open window for listeners. We know disappointment. The Greek skythropos does mean “sadness,” but Amy-Jill Levine suspects the Greek has tucked inside it a hint of anger. Our people are disappointed in – gosh, everything. Do they harbor a touch of anger that things haven’t panned out as they’d wished, even their religious lives?

   The crucifixion of Christ and the first reports of his resurrection did not provoke hymns or an explosion of faith, any more than Easter Sunday inspired your people to profound discipleship. Back to trudging down the old road. And yet there are glimmers of hope, even for our tired people overly familiar with the story. The guys on the road recognized Jesus only after three things happened: 1. They delved into the Scriptures together. Too often we want to know God without troubling ourselves with the Bible, but (as Luther put it) the Bible is “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid.” The Scriptures are God’s divinely-ordained, merciful, gracious means by which we can know and experience God – and especially when we probe the Scriptures with other seekers.

   2. Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Holy Communion is the highest moment of the Christian life, for Christ is mysteriously present each time we gather at the table and break this bread, symbolic of his act of salvation – and do so together, for we are one with him, one together because of him. And, surprisingly:

   3. Don’t forget that their simple effort at hospitality was the prelude to their awareness of Christ! He was going on, but they “constrained” him to stay with them, to share a meal. Again, we often feel we do not know Christ because we never meet up with the poor, we never reach out to those desperately in need of food and shelter. But when we do, not only do we help others, but we discover Christ, alive and blessing us. Can you tell a personal story, or a vignette from the life of your church, when the Scriptures did open some eyes, when being at the table really was an encounter with the living Lord, or when hospitality to the stranger did usher in Christ himself – or maybe all three?

What can we say May 3? 4th Sunday of Easter

   Wendell Berry’s famous “Mad Farmer” poem (too long to cite in full in a sermon, as I discovered when I tried it 20 years ago!) sums up all its memorable lines (“Do something that won’t compute, love the world, work for nothing, praise ignorance, ask questions that have no answers, plant sequoias”) with “Practice Resurrection.” Here is the Bible’s startling take on how to do so: Acts 2:42-47, hugely important to lay out for modern day capitalists, yet never in a chiding way. We aren’t likely to overturn the economy or convert our people into St. Francises. And yet the vision is God’s vision. And some form of this does actually happen, as with Shane Claiborne, Urban Monasticism, The Simple Way.

  I suspect it’s important for the preacher to tease out the way that the “they sold their possessions and distributed to any in need” is intimately and inextricably related to v. 47, “and the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Any chance for the church to “save” people today must grow from the soil of what we do for those in need – and what are they being saved from? Hell? Their poverty? From their loneliness/isolation? The economics of earliest Christianity is worth attending to in preaching. Jesus and the disciples shared a common purse, and whatever property they had was left behind when they followed Jesus.

   Joe Fitzmyer points out that the early Christians called themselves koinonia before they called themselves ekklesia – a fellowship, a sharing before being an institution. He admits there is an idyllic element in this – “but it highlights the elements that should be part of genuine Christian life.”

   The first Christians, socially and personally, were filled with “reverent awe” (v. 43, which is Greek is “there was fear [phobos] in every soul”). I love the “one accord” (apart from the old dumb joke about the Christians riding around in Hondas…) – In “The First Noel,” the last stanza sings “Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord” (and Dan Forrest’s arrangement of this is particularly moving! – go to the 43 minute mark!).

   “Breaking bread form home to home” is worth noting. The early Christians had no church buildings, but met in various homes. “Those being saved” is a passive participle, so important: they weren’t saving themselves, or being clever enough to believe or good enough; it happens to them! F.F. Bruce points out “Jesus thus acquired more followers in one day than in the whole of his public ministry” – fulfilling John 14:12, that after he returned to the Father, they would perform greater works than he did!

   Psalm 23 is a great opportunity for preaching, albeit with the risk of yawns of familiarity. I blogged on it last year – and to that blog (featuring Evelyn Underhill, Shari Lewis, Sam Wells and Jean Vanier) I’d add Ellen Charry’s wisdom (in Psalms 1-50), linking the Psalm to Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you”: “Psalm 23 transforms that longing into a lush landscape of secure peace, safety and strength.” She also calls it “the answering word of deliverance to the mournful cry of distress in Psalm 22.”

   1 Peter 2:19-25 can be jettisoned as byzantine to downright shameful theologically (as we know slaveowners quotes v. 18 to their slaves!). “Subordinate yourselves” is intriguing counsel, but it depends on where you’re starting from. In a marriage, you should – or you shouldn’t, depending on whether you’re abused or loved tenderly. This text’s view of Christ’s suffering is theologically interesting, as it’s not redemptive so much as simply an example of how to bear injustice. Do clergy dare ponder their mistreatment by parishoners as allied with Christ’s crucifixion?

   Here we see regular New Testament language of discipleship as “following in his steps.” St. Francis’s first biographers spoke of this constantly, how his life script was to walk around in the vestigiae of Christ. Easy to drape a WWJD bracelet on. Tougher to touch the untouchables, grate on political and religious sensitivities, and get yourself crucified. I’m not a vocal preacher on Jesus paying the price for our sins, as I can’t get it all sort out in my mind, and it sure is tough for cynics and doubters listening to me. 

   I did have an Aha! moment recently: George Adam Smith, in his eloquent 1897 commentary on Isaiah, avers that the Suffering Servant “made atonement” for us under the law. It’s all grace and mercy – so why the legal verdict? The law is good and true, and even in shedding mercy abroad, “homage must be paid to the divine law… By his death the Servant did homage to the law of God.” There’s a deep insight there. The law matters – and Christ paid homage to it by dying under the law, albeit unjustly.

   John 10:1-10 was my father-in-law’s favorite preaching text. The “abundant life” image pulsated through his preaching; his car’s license tag was personalized: “Live alive!” I love him, and this – although it’s risky, as this “abundant life” can be confused in Christians’ minds as happiness, or success, or the moral goods the world has to offer. The Greek “abundantly” is perisson, meaning overflowing – perhaps an echo of Psalm 23? I saw a marquis the other day that said “If someone asks if my cup if half full or half empty, I just feel lucky to have a cup.” If there is an overflowing, an abundance, it’s not things or other measurables, but a sense of God’s mercy, an at-homeness with God, a realizing of reconciliation.

   Jesus is the “good” Shepherd. The Greek, kalos, can imply “beautiful.” I love that – although I’ve tended to recoil at pretty paintings of Jesus as this mild shepherd. Real shepherds are rough and tumble guys, hollering at sheep with a switch in hand. The text asks us to imagine a small stone wall enclosure, with a gate, just an opening. If we think of God and gates, the booboo is to think we’re shutting somebody out or protecting ourselves. The gate is an opening to let people in! Are our church gates open? How do we think of the church anyhow? I like what C.S. Lewis did with that wardrobe in his Narnia novels: you step through into another world!

   Raymond Brown reports on the habits of some shepherds who sleep across the entrance to the fold, serving thus as both shepherd and gate! Brown also notes how Palestinian shepherds frequently have pet names for their favorite sheep, like “Long-ears” or “White-nose.” Lamb chop? Jean Vanier ponders this: “To know someone by name implies a growing understanding of a person, of his or her unique gifts and weaknesses, needs and mission in life. That means taking time with the person, listening, creating a mutual relationship of communion, revealing that the person is loved, has value and is precious.” Didn’t Isaiah 49 tell us that God has your name tattooed on the palm of God’s hand?

   Preachers always remember they are also shepherds. Vanier: “It is not easy to be a good shepherd, to really listen, to accept another’s reality and conflicts. It is not easy to touch our own fears and blocks in relation to people or to love people to love.” But then isn’t it the peril of ministry that we are always holding the door open for people to go in but maybe don’t get in ourselves? Do you know that “I Stand By the Door” by Sam Shoemaker? Every clergyperson should reflect on this at least once a year.

What can we say May 10? 5th Sunday of Easter

   Acts 7:55-60, the martyrdom of Stephen, has little details rich in homiletical possibility. Saul/Paul is present – so is it a thing that Christians who misunderstand, who approve and participate in judgment, might actually see the light? And instead of me thinking of somebody else when I read that sentence, might I ask this about myself?

   Fascinating: Stephen saw the Son of Man, but they covered their ears. Vision vs. hearing. I recall from seminary days the brilliant Prof. David Steinmetz, explaining Luther’s theological epistemology, saying “The eyes are hard of hearing,” that the ears are the organ of faith, how what we see can be misleading. And yet some have seen the Lord. His foes shut their ears, not wanting to hear what had been seen by others.

   Then we have the quirky textual issue: Stephen, with his dying breath, pleads for forgiveness for his attackers. Was he mimicking Jesus? Or did early copyists of Luke 23 not want Stephen to appear to be more gracious than Jesus, so they placed these words on Jesus’ lips? It’s missing in several early manuscripts of Luke. Alternatively, did some copyist remove the words from Jesus’ lips, as they so loathed the Jews they didn’t want Jesus offering them mercy? Do textual debates ever belong in a sermon? I’d say occasionally. We just have to discern if a worthy theological point can be made. Here it’s possible: could it be that Stephen so profoundly understood all Jesus was about that he sought forgiveness for his killers – without Jesus having verbally done the same? What about the theory of anti-Semitism? Are there those for whom we’d delete Jesus’ mercy?

   1 Peter 2:2-10 slices off the first half of a sentence beginning in verse 1! The spiritual milk business isn’t some sweet spiritual thought, but about the setting aside of evil, deceit, jealousy and slander! Is the point of v. 2 then that infants don’t do these things, that they are learned in a corrupt, fallen world? It’s a riff on Psalm 34:8 (“O taste and see that the Lord is good”). The early Church Fathers allegorized, seeing the milk as coming from the two breasts of the two Testaments. I wonder if, as preachers, we can expand upon what 1 Peter would have known. In my Birth: the Mystery of Being Born book that just came out, I report on the way breastfeeding is surprisingly interactive. The infant’s saliva secretes something into the mother which tells the milk production specific things the infant needs. We spiritual milk-drinkers aren’t merely passive receptacles!

   Ernest Best reminds us that milk is what you need, spiritually. There is no greater milk or food than Christ himself! So there is no spiritual cockiness, as some might imagine they have advanced beyond simple milk to more complex foods. We are always children needing simple milk; didn’t Jesus say we must become like children?

   Might the author of 1 Peter have imagined a literal birth when he wrote in v. 9 “You were called out of darkness into marvelous light, you once were no people, now you are God’s people, now you have received mercy”? Maybe not. But he was “inspired,” and so can surely can. Infants emerge from the womb, the Hebrew word for which also means “mercy,” out of near-total darkness into near-blinding light – and voila! She’s a person who wasn’t before. Of course, the children of Hosea and Gomer whisper in the background, with their bizarre but prophetically suggestive names, Lo-Ruhama (same “womb” word!) and Lo-Ammi. The people’s infidelity, personified in Gomer’s waywardness (Hosea 1), results in a loss of mercy and being the people! – but all that is reversed in the dawning of Christ’s new way.

   My Birth book has a whole chapter on the meaning of being “Born Again” in light of actual, physical birth. To that, I’d add Joel Green’s pithy comment: “Conversion entails autobiographical reconstruction.” From whom and where have I come? Who is my family? St. Francis shed his clothing and lost his father’s affection when he became a friar, literally a “brother” to others in the family of God; at his trial, famously depicted by Giotto, Francis gave it all back to his father and said “No longer if Pietro Bernardone my father, but from now on my father is ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’”

   A few other preachable details: in early Church baptisms, when you emerged from the pool you were given a drink of milk and honey, emblematic of Israel and the Promised Land. Wish we still did that one. Verse 4 has a pun worth playing on: “kindness” is chrestos in Greek, barely a squiggle away from Christ. To be Christlike is quite literally to be chrestos, kind. And you have to love the Bible’s repeated usage of the passive imperative – illogical grammatically. It’s imperative! – that something happens to you. Stones, with no muscles, legs or agility, must be built into a temple. This is an improvement on Paul’s idea that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), which is cool but could feel lonely. All bodies together are stones in the temple of God! And finally the “offense” the Bible regularly perceives in Christ as cornerstone, a stumbling block. I wish more offense were taken at Christ. Today we get lots of yawns and averted gazes.

   John 14:1-14 requires considerable care. Lots of people request some portion of this at funerals due to the “many mansions.” At Christmas, we visited the Biltmore House, which boasts of being the largest privately owned home in America. 58 Christmas trees, massive, elegantly decorated rooms, a warren of servant quarters below. Is that what heaven is like? Seems crass. The Greek, monē, was a night-stop or resting place. The Latin rendered it “mansion,” which back then still meant merely a resting place, which is what “mansion” meant even in Old English. The “many” implies not “lots of them” but rather There’s room for all.

   Maybe instead of thinking I get a fabulous house in heaven, we notice the relationship of monē to the verb menein, which means simply “to remain, stay, abide.” It’s not the place, the nature of the abode, but the abiding, the being with Jesus, not at all Tammy Faye Bakker’s famous “shopping mall in the sky where I have a credit card with no limit.”

   I cringe a little when v. 6 gets included in a funeral, and I cringe more over the way it is interpreted as if Jesus is giving a theological lecture on the relationship of Christianity to World Religions. It’s a somber meal, in shadows, the disciples trembling with anxiety. Jesus reassures them that there is a way. We do not normally use “way” in an exclusive sense anyhow, do we? I speak of “the way to my house” as simply a direction, it’s findable, it’s not barricaded with iron gates. The truth isn’t about intellectual assent or dogmatic assertion on my end; it’s all from God, and about God, it’s the truth about God’s heart. 
I put out this brief video (7 minutes) called “Jesus is THE way?” a few years back with my best take on what John 14:6 is about. I’ve done this with lots of lay people too. It’s all about your tone if you dream of explaining it in a sermon or elsewhere to your people – and yet important for those who’d swiftly judge others, and for those terrified by the deaths of loved ones who weren’t “believers.”

   Philip’s plea, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied” is so preachable. Jesus showed us quite clearly the heart, mind and way of God his Father. And it’s this alone this satisfies, this alone that is enough. How much is enough? We think it’s additive, or novel: If I get more, or the newest, I’ll have enough! But it’s a fiction. When, after all, am I enough? The Jesus who shows us the Father says You are enough already. That includes you, the preacher, no matter what you tell them this Sunday.

   Realizing this, living in sync with this, then resolves the other weirdness in this passage, which is Jesus promising “Anything you ask in my name, I will do it.” People ask Does prayer work? – the wrong question, as if I measured my marriage by saying Yeah, Lisa does a high percentage of stuff I ask her to do for me. It’s a relationship, togetherness, gratitude, sharing, solidarity with God, way better than asking favors. The kicker is “in my name.” It’s not a formula, as if God’s waiting for you to say “in Jesus’ name” and then the wish is granted. “In my name” means being in sync with Jesus and his dreams, loves, projects, visions.

   So Christians need not pray, especially in public, non-worship spaces, “in Jesus’ name” in order for the prayer to be valid. Jesus’ way, after all, brought all paths to God to fulfillment - didn't he? His way was new in that he was one of us, one with us - a brother to all people in all places and in all times.