Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What can we say May 19? Easter 5

     Four solid texts for Easter 5. If you are continuing the narrative thread of Acts (our Old Testament reading??), the long story of Cornelius, Peter’s trance, the sheet with the non-kosher food presents itself (Acts 11:1-18). To me, it’s complicated, more for a Bible study class than a sermon – and hard to preach it without supersessionist or even anti-Semitic overtones.

     I also hesitate a bit over the narratives that seem to toss the Torah into the garbage bin – so we saved-by-grace people can, evidently, do whatever we wish. At least Peter and his fellows cared about what they ate, and reckoned with whether it was pleasing to God. The issue here isn’t merely unclean food anyhow; it’s unclean people – those dastardly Romans, abusive, oppressive heathens. Eat their food – and with them? Jesus, of course, set a high bar (or an absurdly low one…) for meals.
     I’m leaning toward preaching on Psalm 148. Years ago I co-authored a book with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms – but don’t get around to it very often. 148 is one of the most imaginative and eloquent of all the Psalms. David Ford once wrote (in Living in Praise) that the antidote to despair is praise. I need to ponder that – and try some praising too. Praising is counter-cultural for us consumers. Praise wastes time. Praise isn’t about me, or even what God’s done for me.  Can I get out of myself long enough to praise? Could my sermon not be utilitarian, but simply an expression of how amazing God is?

   I may explore St. Augustine's great distinction between love of use (uti) and love of enjoyment (frui). I love money because I use it for something else. I enjoy chocolate because... well, I just love it. God is looking for frui, but we typically go at God with uti… Praise takes some practice, some learning, getting outside, shutting off the gadgets. Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the best tutor I know. She takes us on a tour of little creatures that amaze - and argues that "the least we can do is notice."

    Rabbi David Wolpe also reminds us that the ability to express praise can be lost by disuse. "There is no trick to being grateful for that which is rare and special. To be grateful for that which is always there is difficult." The other day I was in a museum housing that USAirways plane that landed on the Hudson River. Videos of the survivors show them declaring how great God is. But can I see God's greatness in the bushes of my yard when they're the same bushes I've walked past for 16 years? Can I notice the stars? Can I praise God for my wife of 33 years (or even praise her directly)?

    For Psalm 148, people are insufficient to the praise required – not merely because their words and songs are too feeble. We need every creature, the animals, and even the celestial, heavenly beings to join in our chorus to stand a chance of honoring God well. At Christmas, we sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” including “Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above.” They join us, invisibly, inaudibly, yet profoundly, as we lift out voices in praise of our Lord.
    All of creation is to praise. Jason Byassee, in his terrific Brazos commentary on Psalms 101-150, ingenuously suggests that creation is “the lock for which God’s redeeming work is the key.” Creation isn’t neutral, just a place we happen to be. It’s the setting for God’s great redemption. It’s the target of God’s great redemption, as God is saving not only us but everything ever made.
     So every created thing should rightly praise God. It’s easier for the non-human world. Thomas Merton wrote that “A tree gives glory to God simply by being a tree.”  Indeed.   St. Francis showed us the way when it comes to joining the created creatures in praise. Not only did his famous canticle extol “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” He preached to the birds, reminding them to praise God for God’s goodness to them, providing them branches in trees, brooks for drinking, and their lovely plumage, the air in which to fly.
    Psalm 148 includes dangerous creatures: monsters, hail, the storm. I’m reminded of Job 38-41, where God take Job on a tour of creation, pointing to beasts, alligators, eagles, perilous yes, and part of God’s created order too, praising God by being the beasts that they are. Cedars, which were used to build the temple, and the fruit of the vine, producing wine for drink and the Eucharist: they quite evidently praise God by being themselves and fulfilling their purpose.
    Kings and princes are urged to praise.  There may be a kind of deafness about them – although is their some paradoxical weirdness that, unbeknownst to them, their regalia, pomp, palaces and wealth say something, not about their greatness, but the greatness of God who created such beauty? God seems to envision such a bejeweled, immensely valuable destiny for creation – if our Epistle, Revelation 21:1-6, is any indication.
     Then the Gospel, John 13:31-35, which has one simple point – which make it a treasure. Love is the one thing Jesus seems to require. He became an infant to elicit our love. As a teacher, he said the whole Torah hangs on the words about loving God and neighbor. We might have someone sing Beth Nielsen Chapman’s wonderful “How We Love” – and as a minimum, I’ll be listening to it all week so I’ll get the feel of love being not the most important thing, but just the thing.
    Jesus adds a haunting twist: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – as if he anticipated we might just struggle with this, as we do and mightily in our day. Francis Schaeffer, the philosophical godfather of modern evangelicalism, wrote maybe his best little book about love, which he calls The Mark of the Christian. He ponders if it’s possible to be a Christian without showing this mark, “but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.” He calls this “the final apologetic,” and then adds, “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus, upon his authority, gives the world the right to judge us, to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all other Christians.” They do judge us – and God would have it that way. So can we love?

    Aren’t we way more obsessed with being right? I love Ephraim Radner’s tender observation (in Brutal Unity): “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word… Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”

    I might press this even further to remind myself and others that we may not understand others in Christ’s Body – but this is no barrier to love.  Who can fail to be moved by the final sermon Rev. Maclean preaches in A River Runs Through It? Having struggled with, and then suffering the death of his son, he gave voice to the “mark” when he said, “Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives, look upon a loved one in need and ask the same question:  We are willing Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?  For it is true that we can seldom help those closest to us.  Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, that part we have to give… is not wanted.  And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us… But we can still love them…We can love – completely – even without complete understanding.”

   {Just put out a blog on how Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer, is making me rethink preaching}

Monday, November 19, 2018

What can we say May 12? Easter 4

  This week’s Gospel is (to me) the least fascinating of our texts. It’s Easter 4, but also Mother’s Day – so we can look closely at the life of a woman (Acts 9), or at what may have been your mother’s favorite text (Psalm 23), which may have been read at her funeral, maybe along with the Epistle, Revelation 7:9-17.

    First up: Acts 9:36-43 (which I preached on last go round) takes us to Joppa – the port where Jonah attempted to flee the Lord’s call, and the town where Peter had his vision (at Simon the Tanner’s home) of all the food on the sheet.

   Center stage for today is Dorcas, the Greek name for Tabitha (meaning “gazelle”). “She was always doing good and helping the poor.” Always! John Wesley wryly told us that the doctrine of the devil is to do good when you feel like it – a surefire formula for spiritual hollowness, and a vapid church.

   Suddenly this saintly, valuable woman died – so they summoned Peter, a known miracle worker, from Lydda, just 10 miles away. Notice this lovely detail: when he arrived, “they showed him the clothing she had made for them.” Artifacts of holiness. At her funeral, the poor came. A preaching question: will the poor or disenfranchised attend your funeral? Only if you’ve delivered aid instead of sending it (per Wesley again!).

    For my people to get the feel of things, I may speak of some knitters and carpenters and other craftspeople I’ve known who’d made amazing things, many of them for the poor. How do we use our creativity, our calling, our “therapy” for the good of the world? Doesn’t God’s love happen and become tangible when a team sews a prayer blanket or a men’s group hammers an accessibility ramp for a neighbor? Rosa Parks, like Dorcas, was a seamstress. Mary sewed Jesus’ clothing.

    Is there a male equivalent of seamstress? Seamster? How about Silas Marner, the miserly weaver, who discovered a little girl, Eppie, and as he cared for her, he was the blessed one, discovering sunshine, joy and life.

    Peter speaks to the dead, the lack of a pulse being no barrier to the hope of the gospel. “Tabitha, get up!” made me scramble to the Greek… and leaving me speculating if in Aramaic Peter would have said “Tabitha, kum,” a rhyming echo of what Jesus said to Jairus’s daughter, “Talitha kum” (Mark 5:41). What resonance!

    How to handle such a moment? I’ve never raised or really tried to raise the dead – although Jesus did commission the disciples to be Jesus in the world, to do works even greater than his (John 14:12). Yes, it’s a sign of the resurrection to come. I wonder if in preaching I can name my own sadness, frustration, sense of ineptitude and failure in that I have prayed but been so very impotent in the face of suffering and death. The people know.

    Last year I was in Kenya visiting the fabulous, effective, empowering ZOE ministry there. In a little rural community, the chaplain of a group of working orphans, Lena (only 19 years old), preached in Swahili about Dorcas. I couldn’t translate one word – but have rarely been so moved by a sermon. She began jauntily, stroking woven fabrics she’s hung along the wall. Then she fell down as if dead – and then she knelt and wept, audibly. I followed along as I supposed Peter to have arrived. He knelt, and she rose up from the floor – and there were shouts and laughter from the Kenyans listening, huge, tears of joy. If you’re an impoverished orphan in Kenya, news and the hope of a resurrected life, the possibility of a miracle, are so longed for, and even expected, that it’s real enough to elicit intense emotion. Americans slump in in their pews and yawn.  I want to explore this in my sermon, without scolding anybody. {By the way, this past Sunday I co-preached with Reegan Kaberia, regional director of ZOE - a fun experiment in how to proclaim and lift up great mission stuff!}

    Psalm 23 is so very preachable – partly because it’s so familiar, and yet it withholds it greatest surprises and secrets until we probe deeply. We think of Jesus the good shepherd as sweet and placid. But the first shepherd I saw the first time I went to Israel was wearing an Elvis t-shirt and golashes, wielding a switch, swatting the recalcitrant sheep and hollering expletives at them. The Lord is my shepherd.

    One of my choir members is very devoted to the word “through” in verse 4. We don’t walk down into the valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it. I’ll amen that. What’s more fascinating to me is that some clever person counted the Hebrew words in the Psalm, and discovered that the very middle word is ‘immi, really just “with.” Sam Wells, in his brilliant and hugely important A Nazareth Manifesto, has said “With is the most important theological word in the Bible.” Jesus’ nickname? “Emmanuel.” His parting words? “I am with you always.” God is with us. God doesn’t shelter us from things or fix every broken thing. God is with us. And therefore ministry isn’t fixing others. It’s being with them.

   What is this table “in the presence of my enemies”? Is it a taunt (which I explore in my sermon from last time around)? Or is it implied the enemy will be invited and welcomed – and therefore no longer an enemy but a friend? Think Luke 14, or Martin Luther King’s admonition that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

     Another time, I preached on Psalm 23, pairing it with John 10 – and explored the kooky but promising idea that the speaker of “the Lord is my shepherd” might not be the sheep, but the sheepdog. I love what Evelyn Underhill wrote about the sheepdog; such a lovely image of life and service with God: "You want to be one among the sheepdogs employed by the Good Shepherd.  Now have you ever watched a good sheepdog at his work?  He is not at all an emotional animal.  He just goes on with his job quite steadily, takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground, or his own comfort.  He seldom or never comes back to be stroked.  Yet his faithfulness, his intimate understanding with his master, is one of the loveliest things in the world.  Now and then he just looks at the shepherd.  When the time comes for rest they can generally be found together."

     We are having Holy Communion at our place on Mother’s Day, fitting for Psalm 23, and fitting as many will recall being at their mother’s table – and so we remember Jesus’ table and hers, and anticipate the feast of heaven to come. There will be no hunger in that day (our Epistle, Revelation 7:16) – not because the hankering of hunger will be removed, but because there will be plenty, always, and good company for all.

   {Just put out a blog on how Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer, is making me rethink preaching}

Sunday, November 18, 2018

What can we say May 5? Easter 3

     The impact of the resurrection was immediate, and then lingered. John 21 wasn’t long after Easter; Acts 9 many months later. Both are startling and transformative; conversion in both entails commissioning.

     I love the statue by the Sea of Galilee at The Primacy of Peter, a church built over a flat stone, allegedly the table where Jesus served breakfast to his disciples. This story has so many riveting details. Jesus cooking breakfast? Eating fish together? The fishing: notice in the Gospels the disciples never catch any fish without Jesus’ help!

     The haunting conversation between Peter and Jesus is memorable, and cuts to the heart of what adherence to the risen Christ is all about. Jesus doesn’t ask him Are you doing what I told you to do? or Have you been good? Jesus wants to know from him and from us, Do you love me? Way too much gets made about the variation in the Greek between agapé and philo – as if Jesus yearns for agapé but Peter can only muster philo? These two terms are pretty much interchangeable in John’s lexicon – and Jesus and Peter would have been chatting in Aramaic anyhow.
     Mary Magdalene’s plaintive puzzlement in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” is a fair starting point. What does this peculiar love feel like? Or look like? By the time Jesus parts from Peter, he has told him and us how.

     But the question itself: I love the moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye surprises his wife Golde by asking “Do you love me?”  Her reply? “Do I what? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, maybe it’s indigestion. Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow – After 25 years, why talk about love now?”

    Without oversimplifying, church folks (and clergy) might hear themselves responding to Jesus’ query by saying For years I’ve read your book, sat in your pew, given money, tried to be nice, volunteered at the shelter, gone to seminary…  But do you love me? I wonder about preaching a sermon that might list 3 or 4 simple, doable ways to love Jesus. 

    Of course, the simple fact that Jesus asks him not once or four times but three shows Jesus’ tender care, providing Peter with redemption for the three denials just a couple of nights earlier.

    The shape of this love is explained to Peter, and it has to do with giving up independence, and private dreams, and then being led. It’s not about doing what you want, or doing what you want to do for God, for doing what God wants you to do. 
     Henri Nouwen wrote an entire little book that is a sustained reflection on this encounter in John 21: In the Name of Jesus, which I commend regularly, a poignant expression of what loving and leading are all about. The business about the belt, and going where you don’t wish to go, are for Nouwen a vision of maturity: “The world says, ‘When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted. When you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, and control your own destiny.’ But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

     The ominous remark about Peter’s death fed the tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down – a curious development, as Jesus invites us not to invert his sacrifice but to be very much one with him. We wish we could follow Peter's career and life - and witness what really happened in his final hour. 

     Our Old Testament reading, which laughably (to me) is Acts 9, reveals something of the nature of the risen Christ. Not just a dead guy resuscitated, but a spiritual body, a body, recognizable, able to be seen and heard, yet utterly transformed, transfigured. Well after he’s ascended into heaven, the risen Jesus is still on the loose, changing everything. Appearing to Saul. Fulfilling Martin Luther King's admonition that "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." A blinding vision from heaven works pretty well too.

    In this case, Saul, soon to be Paul. I don’t preach much about instantaneous, visionary conversion – but it is a thing, and I should find fresh ways to speak of it. Do we point to Luther’s dramatic experience when he “felt I was altogether born again”? or Wesley’s warmed heart? Do you have a story? 
F.F. Bruce points to Sundar Singh’s conversion. After years of hostility to the Gospel, he saw a great light one night (in 1904): “I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ, an appearance of glory and love. If it had been a Hindu incarnation, I would have prostrated myself. But it was the Lord Jesus Christ I’d been insulting the day before. A voice asked, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you.’ I realized Jesus is not dead but living. So I fell at his feet and received this wonderful peace, and the joy I was wishing for.”

     I love the suggestion, “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do,” which makes me wonder if that’s the word to us, that we discern our calling, the point of being a Christian, when we go into the city, and listen to the challenges and sorrows, the injustices and agonies of where real, and usually unchurched people live, work and play. You won’t take Jesus into the city. He’s already there.

    Ananias intrigues. The greatest of Christians are debtors to someone who ushered them into the Body. Naming yours, or others will make great illustrations. He said “Here I am” – and so perhaps models the readiness for Paul, and for us. We’ll sing #593 from the Methodist hymnal…

     Notice Church isn’t an institution just yet. It’s still called “the way” – and it might be a way, a path, a journey even for us as we reimagine things. Quirky thought: is there any irony that he is at the “house of Judas”? A common name, yes – but foes of Jesus aren’t tossed aside but redeemed in this story. Unlikely instruments everywhere.

     The scales falling from his eyes – symbolic of the spiritually blind now seeing, such a key miracle in Jesus’ ministry – reminds me of Puff the Magic Dragon: “His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.” Childhood lost – so what did Paul lose when he saw the light? Plenty – and we hear the pain of his loss repeatedly in his letters: family, reputation, the security of the Law, much more.
[2 Caravaggio paintings above!]

Saturday, November 17, 2018

What can we say April 28? Easter 2

   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.” Liberating, this robust view of what women have tried to cover up for centuries.

   If you get a tattoo, you choose to be wounded a bit, to be marked forever. Stretch marks, like many wounds, are more accidental but no less telling. I love 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). I love Jean Vanier's remark: “These wounds are there for all ages and all time, to reveal the humble and forgiving love of Jesus who accepted to go to the utter end of love. The risen Jesus does not appear as the powerful one, but as the wounded and forgiving one. These wounds become his glory.”  And what do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns"?  Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. I've sung that a thousand times, and have never given it the briefest thought.  How profound...

     All this after the scene of intense fear: doors are locked. In all the post-resurrection appearances, they are slow to recognize Jesus. "I think they are blinded by their unfulfilled expectations and their feelings of loss and despair" (Jean Vanier).  To such people Jesus utters a word, with the power of the one who commanded stars, sky and earth to come into being, and it's the one who stilled the storm: "Peace."  As Jesus clarified earlier in John, this peace isn't the one the world gives! (John 14:27).  Jesus doesn't give you some peace of mind or serenity you think you want.  Jesus' Peace is his personal presence.

     In Jesus' presence there is no fear.  Or maybe the way Jesus banishes fear might get us a bit agitated and in rapid motion.  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out:  a big assignment is on the way.”  Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other.

     One of my favorite details in all the resurrection narratives is in verse 22: “He breathed on them.”  I’ll acknowledge there is powerful symbolism here – like God breathing the breath of life into people, the winds of Pentecost to come.  But what if he actually breathed on them?  What was that like?  You have to be very close, physically, to someone before they can successfully breathe on you.  Proximity to Jesus allows the sensation of his breath. 

   And lest we forget:  the note of forgiveness, once again, is sounded in a resurrection story.  Jesus is risen, therefore you get eternal life?  No: in the Scriptures, Jesus is risen, therefore you are forgiven – and you’d best get out there now and forgive others. It is our Baptism that plunges us into this life of forgiveness. The Amish forgave Charles Roberts, who brutally murdered 5 members of their families in Nickel Mines, Pa. back in 2006. Many stories arose from the Peace & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Peter Storey, after the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, told what the new governors and legislators said at a party they threw for the church people who’d worked so valiantly. One, who’d been on death row during Apartheid, thanked the church people: “We want to thank you church leaders for having visited our families while we were in prison, for having visited us in prison.  We want to thank you for having sat there in the court room while we were on trial, for standing in the witness box and speaking for us when we were on trial.  All of these things, you will never know how much they meant to us.  But above all, we want to thank you for baptizing us.  Because when you baptized us, you told the world we were not rubbish, you told the world we were not trash, you told the world we were made in the image of God.  And you told us that, too.  And that is what gave us the courage and the tenacity to risk even execution.” 

    The Acts 5:27-32 lectionary reading makes the same point. Because of the resurrection, and because of Baptism, “we must obey God rather than human authorities.”

    We’ve all heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.”  Doubt is hardly praised in this story.  If anything Jesus dings him, contrasting him with those who haven’t seen and yet believe.  He is loved and treated with immense compassion; Jesus invites him to touch the wounds.  The Greek is graphic, with Jesus saying “thrust” or “press” or “cast” your finger into (like down in there) my side.  Caravaggio captured this in a stunning way…

     This whole business of Jesus appearing suddenly behind closed doors, then vanishing just as suddenly, and yet you can poke a finger into his side and not just see but feel him raises questions about the resurrection.  Long books have probed this – but my shorthand answer is that Jesus is the first of what we shall be, and that is: we will be raised with (or in, or as) what Paul called “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor. 15).  No simplistic resuscitation here.  Your old body doesn’t revive and live on.  You are transformed, metamorphosized maybe.  Jesus was not recognizable, but then he was recognized; the mortal and spiritual bodies are kin, similar, but hardly identical.  It’s still a body though, not a ghost or a floating spirit.  It can cook and eat, but it might vanish too.  Paul uttered the understatement of the Bible: “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51).

Friday, November 16, 2018

What can we say April 21, Easter Sunday?

    Easter preaching. Fun! & so hard. So much cuteness and sweetness, lots of sightseers and visiting kin, all the flowers. The lectionary, having tracked Luke’s narrative this far, inexplicably leaps over to John 20, albeit with Luke 24 italicized just in case.  I will look now at Luke (which I’ll preach on), and then turn to John 20.

    Luke 24:1-12.  If you slow down, you’ll notice they waited until the “third day” because of the intervening Sabbath. You just don’t work on the Sabbath – even if it’s tending to Jesus’ precious body! After all, resurrection is the kind of thing only God can do, and only while we are doing nothing at all, while we are resting. I’m reminded 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.

    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?

   The women Luke names as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and the angels’ report, are the very same women named in Luke 8 – those who underwrote, who funded the ministry of Jesus and the disciples! Despite that, these powerful women still have no credibility with the guys.  A whole sermon could be framed around “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The Greek, lēros, means something like “humbug” (think Scrooge!!!) or “nonsense.”

    You have to love St. Augustine’s comment: “Humanity fell through the female sex, human kind was restored through the female sex. A virgin gave birth to Christ; a woman proclaimed he had risen again. Through a woman death; through a woman life. But the disciples didn’t believe what the women said. They thought they were raving, when in fact they were reporting the truth.” Questions about when we listen (or don’t!) to women are intriguing – and in this case, how do we modern people scoff at notions of resurrection – real resurrection, not pie in the sky eternal life, playing golf or shopping in heaven.  How many people will you speak to on Easter for whom this is, in its robust, physical, transformative sense, “an idle tale,” “humbug,” “nonsense”?

   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.

     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.”

    I think I always like to turn to Paul’s logical plea (from this Sunday’s Epistle): “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). I think that speaks even to cynics.

    Or I am fond of what J. Christiaan Beker wrote in Paul the Apostle: “Paul’s church is not an aggregate of justified sinners or a sacramental institute or a means for private self-sanctification, but the avant-garde of the new creation in a hostile world, creating beachheads in this world of God’s dawning new world and yearning for the day of God’s visible lordship over his creation.”  N.T. Wright mirrors this approach in lots of his books, especially Surprised by Hope.  Does the D-Day analogy fit? Or is the carnage of war counter-intuitive for Easter?

    Preaching hinges on how we grow and are enriched personally, whether we ‘use’ the stuff involved or not.  Let me summarize what Rowan Williams has said: “Believing in the resurrection is believing that the new age has been inaugurated… The decisive difference has been made.  The destinies of all human beings are now bound up with Jesus.  They will find who they are, who they may be, and where they will be, in relation to Jesus.  The future is in his hands.  Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society – rather like the Alfred Lord Tennyson Society, looking back to a great dead genius. 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!  And then he invites us who preach to trust the message:  “Wherever we go, with the biblical story in our hands and the vision of Jesus in our eyes, there is an expectation that human beings will resonate with what’s being spoken of.  They may not quite know how they do it or why…  We go on in mission, because of that conviction that there is such a thing as the human heart and human destiny, and thus that these words will find an echo.”

Thursday, November 15, 2018

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?

     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.

  And I'm going to ask my musicians to play, just after I speak, or maybe later on where it fits, that elegiac, emotionally powerful piece from the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical - "John 19:41." 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 do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness.  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 newest book, 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."


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What can we say come Maundy Thursday?

     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. My kooky mind is drawn to the semi-comic scene in Jesus Christ Superstar of the semi-drunk disciples singing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I could make it if I tried…” But no silliness in the service itself. The mood is a bit somber (even at a feast of celebration), the pace is slower, the feel is of shadows lengthening - and there's an intensity of love. Can I embody and even evoke this in preaching, and the liturgy - or even how I walk into the room?

     I don't usually focus on the footwashing in John 13, although it's theologically provocative. 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. 

    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” or “This is the day the Lord has made” 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.