Church in Society

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement, and John15:12-19 and Psalm146

 

We’ve got 12—almost 13—ELCA social statements, documents that are intended to help us reflect on complex issues and consider them from a Lutheran perspective.

These involve lots of work—the new one on Women and Justice is a decade-long process—but you may have hardly known they existed. Last week in adult ed, John Brugge the elder asked what happens to them and how members of congregations are supposed to know about them, so we’re going to touch on six in Advent services this summer, starting with this one that was the first adopted, back in 1991.

Since we can’t read the whole things in worship—nor would that really BE worship—I haven’t quite figured out how to help you encounter and engage in the reflection. We’ll hear a little snippet. I’ll preach what I can. And other parts of the service will try to hold the theme for us, too.

 

Uh-oh! “Church in society?” Here we go, mixing politics and religion.

Some may see this discussion as a failure to separate church and state, muddling divisive issues, almost as bad as confusing science and the Bible.

While I expect we’d argue against a theocracy—a society where my view of my god sets the rules for how you need to behave—still an oil-and-water separation of society and church can’t suffice, since it’s pretty easy to see such barricades as mistaken, that God absolutely and clearly must care not just about what happens in this room or your heart, but about life in this world.

We might start with your baptism. I suspect many of you were baptized as infants. That must indicate something about God’s concern for babies. And concern about babies then has to reflect on life in families. That relates to how children are raised, which must have impacts on making sure they have enough food to eat and growing minds through education. Further extensions of God’s concern mean parents need jobs, and need roads or internet to get to those jobs. Not just water for baptism, kids need clean water to drink and air to breathe.

Or, in that environmental direction, if we begin by saying that God created this world and everything in it (and everything outside it), then—unless God was sloppy or made it then forgot about it—we’d have to say that God cares about this planet and its creatures. So we have to believe that our life and place in this world is a matter of care for God, and how we live amid this world flows quite directly from our understanding of God.

I realize I’m arguing against the choir, so to speak, since you’re (in all likelihood) not flat-out opposed to mixing religion and politics or dispute the notion that church and society interact. I’m trying to convince you of something you already believe. But maybe it’s the question of how. God could’ve given us rule over creation to do whatever we want to it. Or if God’s concerned about education, it could mean churches should run the schools. Because these things don’t stand autonomously, with aspects of our existence in silos, it’s obvious church goes with you to the streets, and the happenings in the Capitol wend their way into worship. That can’t be stopped.

So to ask directly: how might church inform your behavior in society? What of here gets carried out the doors? [Answers of supporting each other, feeding the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies…]

Gathering those thoughts from worship and the Bible, basically, you’ve just participated in the initial stages of an ELCA social statement. These are crafted and considered from what we believe and how that belief interacts with the world around us, what our understanding of God and Jesus calls us to practice and strive for more largely. It’s not about right answers to resolve everything. It’s not some hierarchy telling you you’ve gotta do such-and-so. It’s this very Lutheran process of asking together, “What does this mean?”

Social statements involve long periods of study and input from across the church; last summer at this time, we had discussions on faith and sexism as part of background for the Women and Justice statement, and we’ll encounter that draft in July. Eventually the writing needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote at a Churchwide Assembly, involving about a thousand voting members from across all parts of our denomination. At that point, it may guide policy decisions or implications in the church—from whom we are able to ordain to where retirement funds are invested to ways that our official lobbyists might interact with Congress or encourage us to advocate or simply on how it intersects with our lives.

That it involves some complexity and isn’t directly black and white is pretty easy to acknowledge, especially with some of the paradoxical phrases showing the ambiguity in the little excerpt we heard: that we live in a time of now and not yet, both experiencing it but not experiencing it, already knowing what a Jesus-shaped life is like and the promise of resurrection, but still struggling for it. It acknowledged that we may be the communion of saints, but are simultaneously sinners. Being in the church doesn’t raise us above the broken mess, as is unfortunately so easy to observe, and being the church calls us actually to enter it more deeply. As Lutherans, that’s distinct; other Christians may believe they’re better than everybody else or able to be separate from the world’s problems or having all the answers, but not us. Again, we may be part of the new creation in eternal life, but marked by the cross. We celebrate God’s good creation while lamenting its bondage to sin and death.

This social statement, and our faith itself, are just thick with these both/and confusing statements. We pray for the peace of the whole world with restlessness and discontent. There’s the question of when to support systems or programs and when to confront them. That this is sinful as well as holy, human as well as divine, that the church is in the world but not from the world. And, in the words of Jesus from our Bible reading, our task is laying down our lives in love, even when—or even though—it may mean being hated.

Amid such difficulty, I’d commend to us the hard effort of holding it all in tension. My internship supervisor used to say in mock disgust, “oh, you’re one of those people who makes distinctions, aren’t you?” Yes, in the complexity of living as followers of Jesus in this world, we pursue making distinctions. This complexity doesn’t simply allow us to be anti-Trump or pro-life or anti-gun or pro-freedom. Any of those have to be weighed and tested by faith, by what we know of God in Jesus. Even under such a simple statement of identifying our core purpose (as the social statement does) that all of this is to support you in your “baptismal vocation to serve God and neighbor in daily life,” even to boil it down to loving your neighbor, still requires us to ponder what is loving.

Maybe a reasonable example of the ambivalence sits in front of us on this Memorial Day weekend. We might start with the easy celebration of the entrance to summer, the notion of a day of rest from work, the chance perhaps to gather for outdoor bratwurst. We can rightly see those as good, but must also demand we see more than a day of barbequed leisure.

And so we’d pay attention to what—or whom—Memorial Day is memorializing, on this 50th anniversary of it being set for this last Monday in May. The commemoration arose in the South during the Civil War and moved North, since between the two sides more than 600,000 soldiers had died, 1 out of every 50 people in the country, killed in fighting. It became a somber observance, a time for families to visit and decorate graves.

But whereas civil religion turns this into a patriotic holiday—or holy day—that declares all of those dead soldiers—plus all military veterans, and all in active combat under the United States flag—are heroes deserving adoration and worship, we must measure it differently. To the degree that they laid down their lives in love and in service, we may affirm their vocation. If they were striving somehow on the side of life, in protection, for justice, we may find value.

But to the degree that war is always about death and destruction and is no godly way to solve problems, even when we might give thanks for the lives of these men and women, we condemn what took them from life too soon and so violently. And in that way, rather than simply cladding ourselves in red, white, and blue, we as Christians can take Memorial Day as an occasion to recommit ourselves to the work of resolving disputes and reconciling enemies and celebrating diversity and not being bound by narrow nationalism.

I know that that, literally, is no picnic. It’s not so simple as saying, “let’s take a day off tomorrow and relax.” It’s not easy work for the light-of-heart. But to be marked by the cross means laying down our lives. To live with love means not accommodating to the facile but false devotions of culture, but resisting and struggling. It isn’t only the soldier, then, who sacrifices her life and risks it all, but is our calling and vocation as Christians.

That, finally, returns us to our gathering here. The social statement begins here, and lives our lives out from this assembly. This is where our identity is formed and renewed, where the truest and longest-lasting image of who we are is held. Once more, that isn’t accomplished by me lecturing you on what your duties are or trying to convince you of the way to live. It’s because you were given this identity in baptism. It’s because here Jesus encounters you, calls you his own, gives himself to you. We love, because he first loved us. As the social statement says, through worship, “the Church is gathered and shaped by the Holy Spirit to be a serving and liberating presence in the world…The gifts of the Spirit form and transform the people of God for discipleship in daily life.”

That’s why we’re here. That’s what God is up to in these gatherings, making you into the kind of people who bear God’s creative and redeeming and liberating will to the world, as friends who bear the fruits of Jesus. That’s what God is doing. What’s left for us is the subsequent task of deliberating how exactly that takes on flesh in the world.

 

 

An excerpt from the ELCA social statement on The Church in Society:

Through faith in the Gospel the Church already takes part in the reign of God announced by and     embodied in Jesus. Yet, it still awaits the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of the whole   creation in God’s promised future. In this time of “now … not yet,” the Church lives in two ages—  the present age and the age to come. The Church is ‘in’ the world but not ‘from’ the world.

The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world. Although in bondage to sin and death, the world is God’s good creation, where, because of love, God in Jesus Christ became flesh. The Church and the world have a common destiny in the reign of God. The Church acts for the sake of the world in hope and prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

The Gospel does not allow the Church to accommodate to the ways of the world. The presence and promise of God’s reign makes the church restless and discontented with the world’s brokenness and violence. Acting for the sake of God’s world requires resisting and struggling against the evils of the world.

The Church is “a new creation … from God,” but it is still part of a fallen humanity, sharing fully     the brokenness of the world. It is a community of saints, a people righteous before God on account of Jesus’ self-giving love, and at the same time a community of sinners. Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal characterize the Church that lives under the cross with the hope of the coming in fullness of God’s reign.

 

The whole statement: http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Church-in-Society

 

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Mama Jesus

sermon on Philippians 2:1-13 (and Psalm 103)

 

God the Father decided to take on the reputation of a mother.

These might become too rigid and overblown of gender categories, and while asking your forgiveness for operating in old binary patterns, and also observing my own lamentable lack of expertise, still please chase through this with me, for a helpful model of what’s in Philippians, with an astonishing view of our faith.

(I believe that most helpful is portraying separated lovers, longing to be together. But I’m not sure I managed to convince Bible study of that in over six hours of conversation last month. So we’ll try this other maternal approximation.)

I want to start by saying that this is probably one of the most important passages in our New Testament, and is also probably one of the earliest, showing how the first Christians were making sense of this.

And with that, I want you to notice it’s portraying a radical shift. Our Psalm for today may stand for some contrast. Other than the language I obviously adapted to include a mother rather than a father, you can get a sense of standard domineering and patriarchal imagery. It’s a hierarchy, a system of stratification or classification for ruling. In the portrayal of the Psalm, which fits not only a view common in lots of the Bible, but would fit with many other cultures’ or religions’ views of divinity, the highest ruler is in the highest heaven, with subsidiary and subservient and lower being beneath. The “throne of the LORD” may encapsulate this vision for us, even though mostly we’ve never lived under monarchies and kings. Such a lord gives commands and expects obedience while he rules over others.

Whether this view of gods shaped the order of society or vice versa, the pattern is repeated in our dominant and domineering structures. A lone male stands at the top, giving orders and demanding allegiance from the ranks below. Some of you have been the boss or head honcho. Others may be more familiar with serving as underlings and minions.

It’s not just in our jobs or corporate structure, though; it gets much more intimate. From the Greco-Roman society in which Paul was writing still too often to our own time, the pattern has been that the male is head of the household, that the role of children is obedience, that (in the infamous word of Ephesians, a letter not by Paul), wives are to be subject to husbands.

The old economic order of households added masters over slaves to this pattern of the one central male, which is worth knowing simply to see how this glorious refrain of Philippians turns the pattern on its head, redefining an order of society by showing a new template for the divine. Instead of the central head master as the embodiment of god, Jesus becomes the slave. Here the Father is responsive to this pattern-breaking disobedient Son.

And let’s see the new form as the practice of a mother.

In those rejected patterns of patriarchy, we’d be stuck with the top dog male insisting on orders and expecting obedience. The way to prove yourself in such a system would be to follow the orders and move up the ranks. You’re trying to get higher and higher, and to put other people beneath you. That is the definition of power and of glory. What that is saying—again with apologies for overgeneralizing and perhaps not representing your own families, but still to sum up the stereotype—is that you prove yourself, make accomplishments, and a father’s love is earned.

A mother’s love, for the reverse pattern, is given. You work up to a father. A mother comes down to you.

This is what I want us to hear in the Philippians Christ Hymn today. When it says that Jesus humbled himself and took the form of a slave, becoming obedient, I want you to hear the example of a mother to her child.

Think of one who poured herself out and gave of her very self, her very body, in nursing. Think of one who is willing to deal with feces, to change stinky diapers—that’s serving in my book, and sure seems like it takes some humility! Think of one who is up late at night doing laundry and up early packing lunches. Think of one who hears cries in the middle of the night, gives up sleep, stoops to scoop up and cradle and comfort. Think of the mom taxi who drops everything to ferry and cart kids from activity to activity to activity. Think of one who gives up her life to make another life possible. Think of one who gushes even through gawky growth spurts and who is so proud of you just for being who you are, no matter how big your part or how strong your performance. Think of a mom who wants to know about every last thing happening to be in touch and who cries at every parting, for whom as much as she can get, it is never enough.

Jesus is like that, that kind of servant, so dedicated to you, to caring for you. Not because you’ve proven yourself or earned it. Just because he adores you, loves you, is completely committed to you. It’s not his Father to whom he’s obedient in this passage. He is obedient to you, responding to your sleepless crying, to your stinky waste, to supporting your poor performance.

Here’s a paraphrase of Philippians to help you hear it:
Christ Jesus, who could’ve been like the usual gods, being all high and mighty, did not consider godliness to be proven in trying to claim more, but poured himself out, taking the form of a mother, and humbled himself to the point of giving up his life.
In that, God also exalted him, so that all should admit that Jesus Christ is LORD, changing even the very reputation and identity of God.

As remarkable as the start is—that God would not want to be identified on a throne, but stooping to be the slave, that God’s love is never earned but is poured into life for you—the ending puts the exclamation point on it. It declares that the typical god, the god of the Psalm, the god supposedly seen in Caesar, the highest controller, the sternest demander could no longer be the true God. For our categories today, God essentially gave up being a Father and put all of God’s chips into the kind of God who would be a mother. That is what is identified as the highest, the best, the most correct. Not a god you earn your way up to. A God who comes down to you. Not with power as power over, but as power for. Whose glory isn’t in being so separate, so much more perfect than you, but in sharing your stinky imperfect needy life.

I hope you pause to appreciate how stunning it is that this God of Jesus is for you.

But if you’re asking what it means for what you do next, that’s some of what Paul is working on in this letter. He says that having this sort of God eliminates striving to get ahead as the right way to live. The god of patriarchy is wrong. The god of corporate advancement and militant strength is wrong. The god of making you feel ashamed for what you haven’t accomplished is wrong. Selfishness only leads to empty glory, not the glory of this God. This God’s glory and joy is in offering love.

What Paul commends, then, is having the same perspective, the same mind, the same shape or form of life as this God of love, this way embodied in Jesus, this way like a mother who lowers herself wholeheartedly and naturally to love, to work that out with shock and astonishment for it being so revolutionary, so vital, so filled with good pleasure.

With that, I want to offer two closing perspectives, to be heard as you need.

First, you may need to hear that this undoes your ways, undoes your old ambitions, upends vain strivings, refuses your rankings, and disqualifies your supposed status. If you were thinking you were better than others, you may need an instruction that you should look lower and start serving.

On the other hand, you may need to hear this differently. Much too often this remarkable message is warped back into an accusation, that you should think even less of yourself and put up with your misery. Particularly for referencing this in conjunction with mothers, I have heard a lot from you mothers—as well as from fathers and from you generally as people in our competitive society—that you are continuously bombarded by feelings of inadequacy, that society makes you feel you’re not doing enough, not creative enough, not busy enough, not perfect enough to be raising your kids right or living as you ought. That is trying to warp this back into a hierarchy.

I know you are often worn out, exhausted, wondering, feeling used up. It’s not tireless effort but tire-full. I do believe there’s some of that that probably does and must go with this kind of Jesus love that pours ourselves out, that so continuously is trying to be responsive. It does use you up.

But! this isn’t trying to tell you to do more, to use yourself up more, to be dead quicker. This is exalting and celebrating that you love, that your care and concern is exactly in the pattern of God, that—even though it’s not easy—there is nothing greater than that you love. Not in proving yourself by raising the best child who turns out to be whatever as an adult. Not in how picture perfect it all looks on the outside. Simply in your loving, you are describing and replicating the form of our God. Let’s be grateful for that.

And when you collapse and can do no more, when you need the care and are crying and feeling fractured, again and always, remember that not in what you do, but that our heart is in who this God is for you, enslaved, loving, striving for your joy, your shared pleasure, your life.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

 

adapted NRSV of Philippians

1If then there is any comfort in Christ, any incentive of love, any spiritual communion, any compassion and sympathy, 2fulfill my joy: be of the same thinking, having the same love, sharing all of your selves and one in thinking. 3Do nothing from selfishness or vainglory, but humbly regard each other more highly than the self. 4Don’t each look to the self, but to each other. 5This thinking among you was also in Christ Jesus,

6who was in the form of God,

did not consider equality with God to exist in grasping,

7but poured himself out,

taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also hyper-exalted him and gave him the name above all names,

10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is LORD,

to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always responded, in my presence but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for God is at work in you, to will and to work for good pleasure.

 

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“What does this babbler want to say?”

sermon on Acts 17:16-34

There’s something strange in this speech, but not how the crowd expects.

I do like the line “in whom we live and move and have our being.” There’s reasonable stuff on perceiving our Creator and connection to God, neighbor, and creation.

But it’s strange in its ambiguity, its lack of specificity. It seems to try to deal with a generic God, refusing to name anything more explicit. At our heart, however, we reside scandalously in a particularity. That’s ignored here, left indistinguishable, without Jesus.

Starting next week, we’ll hear from one of Paul’s letters and his actual words, and I hope you’ll notice it’s just thick with Jesus, through and through, absolutely grounded and inescapably reverberating with Jesus, in relationship, totally in love with you.

Even the story of Paul’s own conversion two weeks ago wasn’t just a transformational spiritual experience or cognitive comprehension of God. A voice immediately declared, “I’m Jesus, whom you’re persecuting.” That was clearly the focus, the main point and central identity, reshaping relationship.

That contrasts with today’s speech with only sidelong allusions and no direct mention of Jesus at all. Maybe when we hear about one who came back from the dead we think of Jesus, because we expect it in church after Easter. But if we’d never heard of Jesus, it’s tough to imagine this would offer much clarity.

Something I read this week noted this speech has long been a model for how we interact in interfaith settings, with other religions, or even for converting people. But, other risks aside, it’s tough to imagine what they’d be converting to, since this never seems to resolve or define. It remains somehow spiritual and not religious. Maybe that’s even part of its appeal.

Yet I can’t help but be wary of how it minimizes distinctions while manipulatively co-opting others’ beliefs. It shoots for a lowest common denominator, and fails to capture so much of what we identify in being created in the image of God, in sacrificial love, in proclaiming forgiveness instead of just rules for righteousness, in identifying with the least of these, of the God who abides with us through suffering and brings us through death. Those rather particular aspects for us get left out when we overgeneralize and we bypass Jesus.

I’m also concerned in the speech that the expertise isn’t with the ones who have been worshipping but in the religion-splaining one who says, “let me tell you what you’ve actually been doing.” This is the risk whenever we try to declare, “Well we pretty much all believe the same thing anyway.” Buddhists don’t need to hear they’re going to your heaven. Native Americans shouldn’t be told they have basically the same view of nature as you. There’s danger in how we treat the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures for Jewish siblings who share them with us. I even have to confess some hesitancy about our African song liturgy, and that fine divide whether we’re being enriched by another’s experience and appreciating their identity, taking it seriously or just playing around to feel good about it.

That wariness pairs with the description in the reading of the Athenians, that they thought of themselves as cosmopolitan into wanting to be cutting edge and up-to-date and open-minded. If this applies to us, we run the risk of chasing flights of fancy, unmoored from any solid definition and lasting identity. Whether we’re talking about our taste in worship or our personal lives, we know we shouldn’t give in to fads and be distracted by the latest popular craze, so impulsive as to be unable to keep our attention on what is important and instead always wanting a change. If we define ourselves as too open, we may not hold to who we truly are.

A really helpful term for this set of dangers is “moralistic therapeutic deism.”* Somehow a trend develops that basically we end up with a disengaged God, with religion mainly for how we can feel good about ourselves. This little God is only involved for the sake of guidelines for our behavior—broad categories of “be nice to each other, respect differences, enjoy life”—and our practice becomes pursuit of our self-assured sense of success.

I’m actually hoping that sinks in a bit and strikes you. We too much suspect church is for learning how to be good people, that your investment here is supposed to pay off in increasing your happiness (and, if it doesn’t, then you’d be better off looking elsewhere), and that whatever is proclaimed here should affirm positions you already hold, your political loyalties or efforts in relationships. Church gets boiled down to a weekly pat on the back.

But that’s not our fundamental basis. Boiling this down, sorting through all the accumulated extras, coming back to our foundation and bedrock leaves us with Jesus. For us, that identity is rather specific and rather vital. We don’t operate by general metaphors of new birth emerging from the compost of old death. This isn’t love generally, not vague notions of benign warm spirituality.

We have the scandalous particularity of putting a name on all of this, on saying that when we look for explanations and engagements and hope, we are looking for God in the person of Jesus. It is his life, his death and resurrection, that bear the clearest witness for us. It is his teaching that guides us. It is his promise that sustains us. It is in him that we live and move and have our being, and simultaneously in us that Jesus lives and moves and has his being.

I want you to hear good news in that. I want you to be able to recognize that existence isn’t bound up in how you’re doing with some set of expectations. It’s not in morals or right worship or how well you’re doing at being happy. It’s not waiting for you to get it figured out and to sign on. If this is God, God must be big enough to be in whom we all exist. That means your existence is inseparable from God, from Jesus, from the one who wills life for you, whose work and dedication and passion in the universe is for your sustenance.

As the speech ended in Athens, some of the folks said they needed to keep pondering and hear more. Others scoffed and left. That’s still the case. This sermon might help some of you and others will simply walk away. You might claim that’s just fine, that everybody can discover their own answers and their own approaches to the divine. Or you might be troubled, knowing loved ones who aren’t plugged in to church, and you feel they’re missing out and wondering why the message didn’t work for them.

On either side, it invites us to evaluate why this is important. Do we look for church mainly as a social club? Or our outlet for doing good in the world? Is our practice here any different than another worshipping community, including next door in the Covenant Room? Why does this faith of ours matter? Why continue to deliberate over it and try to understand? How is being identified with Jesus important, vital, necessary for life?

With such questions and the speech’s language about judgment, I don’t want you to hear that as the verdict of whether you’ve done enough, understood enough, believed enough. Think about what it means to live in harmony with the universe, in accord with the one in whom we live and move and have our being, what it means to have a life shaped by and like Jesus, what it looks like to be invited to live with love, and our core definition as being loved.

There’s a different sort of good news in this identity. Whereas the Athenians, seemed to have a casual disengagement that could either take or leave it, that didn’t really seem to care if that was the shape of existence, for us finding ourselves with Jesus in this living, moving, breathing embodied relationship, it—maybe paradoxically—opens us to others, including to be conversant with new understandings.

Because relationship always means becoming something more, our faith shouldn’t be the same as it was last year or when we were younger. Far from the mindless rigidity of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” our trust and faith are honed with humility in relationship, in dialogue with other people, other religions and denominations, including in ongoing partnership here at the MCC. It involves engaging our time and place, of current struggles, of new insights from science. We have a unique and particular sense of existence, so we should and must pay attention to those new things, to be learning and continually re-evaluating.

Besides new questions, we remain with the old ones. A famous Roman Catholic statement on interfaith relations from 50 years ago said:

[People] expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir [our] hearts: What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Which is the road to true happiness? What…after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?**

With those questions, you may be asking—as the crowd has it in the New Revised Standard Version—“What does this babbler want to say?”

The proclamation of Paul and of Nick, the word of God is this: If those seem like big questions you might be coming down on the wrong side of or losing your grip on, if you’re discouraged or confused, or worried about others, then remember with the God “who made the world and everything in it,” that there is no way to stray, because you are held as a beloved child of God, in whom “you live and move and have your being.”

And this one made known to us as Jesus, who forgives sins, who judges not based on your merits or understanding or efforts, but based on his passion and love for you, sees you as eternally beloved and worth giving up his life for, this one who was crucified, died, and was buried, and raised from the dead for you. That is the basis of our hope, the center of our identity, the shape of all existence. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* see Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p14

** Nostra Aetate, 1965 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

 

Here’s the reading, with the speech:
 
16While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him. People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?” Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about strange spirits! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”
 
19They brought Paul before a council called Mars Hill, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.” 21More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new.
 
22So Paul stood up in front of the council and said: “People of Athens, I see that you are very spiritual. 23As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, ‘To an Unknown God.’ You worship this God, but you don’t really know who it is. So I want to tell you. 24This God made the world and everything in it and is Lord of heaven and earth, and this God doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. 25and doesn’t need help from anyone. No! God gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and decided the time and place for each. 27To seek God, each and every one of us may surely feel and discover that God is not far away, but near, 28for ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; just as some of your poets have said, ‘We are children of God.’
 
29“Since we are God’s children, we must not think that God is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. God isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now God says that everyone everywhere must repent 31and God has set a day to judge the world’s people with fairness. And the chosen judge is a human. God has given trust in this to all of us by raising this one from death.”
 
32As soon as the people heard Paul say that a man had been raised from death, some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” 33When Paul left the council meeting, 34some of the people put their faith in the Lord and went with Paul. One of them was a council member named Dionysius. A woman named Damaris and several others also put their faith in the Lord.   (adapted Contemporary English Version)
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Prison Earth Day

sermon on Acts 16:19-34 and on Earth Day

 

Earth Day and a prison Bible reading, with an edge of economic impact. It begs the question of how we assign the roles. Where are we in this story? And where is Earth?

I want to start with clarifying what I believe is not the answer, and hope to pry you free from this faulty faith. For too long, too many loud voices have asserted a view that metaphorically Earth would be the prison in this story, and God’s salvation would be to spring us free, unleash from this mortal coil, to escape the bonds of the flesh and soil, to make an eternal getaway and fly away to the sky. Over and over I’ll remind you: that is not Scripture’s story. We are not imprisoned on this planet or in our bodies or with this life.

Yes, there may be much we lament—maybe even feeling like too much—from natural disasters to a slow spring for greening growth, from wars and corruption to prison to cranky relationships, sore muscles to diseases, death or small blemishes.  We’d like to be free of those.

But God isn’t trying to get us away from here. God is trying to fulfill life here. On earth…as it is in heaven. It is GOOD, God sees over and over, daily in the creation story in the first chapter of our Bible. That goodness wasn’t because it was special paradise so different from now. It’s because God delights in what God has made, including this world, and including you.

God so loves this good world that God longed to be with you, couldn’t bear to be separate, and so came rushing into our arms as Jesus, to love us not only when things are in the cheery honeymoon of life, but through all the hurt and sorrow and difficulty.

And God was so in love, so in favor, so enamored of life on this Earth that God not only was born here, to live here, but raised from death as well. In this Easter season, we celebrate continuity of the new creation. After crucifixion, God certainly could’ve said, “Pfft! I’m outta here! To heck with that place!” (Or, being God, I suppose could’ve directly meant it in saying, “To Hell with them!”) Instead, the resurrection puts an exclamation point on God’s insistence for life in this world, in existence we already know, of Jesus’ commitment to how things go here in this place, not in some heaven lightyears away.

So if we’re looking for the location of our Bible story, the prison break cannot be understood as God liberating the select set of Christians or the humans or whoever from the jail Earth.

What if we reverse it, then? What if, instead of the Earth as the prison, it’s the Earth in prison?

There’s plenty I like about that notion (even while disliking what it means). First of all, that it upends the troublesome theology of the other. It refuses to see creation as bad and further recognizes the bondage that our ways place on Earth. We humans want everything under our control, or enslaved to secure our selfish benefit. We limit nature as resources for us to use. We seek to tame wilderness, or else to exterminate it.

This employs the wrong reading of the creation story in taking permission to be domineering, to dominate and subdue as brutal masters, to ignore wellbeing of all else while presuming we preserve our own isolated me-first advantage. That model is nothing we’d associate with Jesus as loving Lord, who willingly laid down his life for the good of others. It is not the character of our God, and is not what God would intend for us.

Yet our rampage is rampant. It’s plain in mountaintops removed and groundwater poisoned by fracking, in these ecosystems detained entirely under our control. It’s evident with polar bears and coral reefs and elephants captive to our whims and shortsightedness, with birds whose migration and mating is malfunctioning because our actions have managed to keep them from their natural rhythms. Birds may be mobile. But trees can’t run away. They are locked in place to face the emerald ash borers and pine bark beetles. It’s the white nose syndrome that means bats won’t be flying free from hibernation caves this spring.

As our children readily recognized for us, our persecuting power over the earth is clear in clearcutting forest, drying out evergreens into deserts, plowing up prairie, pumping out aquifers, changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, and every project where we constrain the livelihood of life and ridiculously refer to it as “development.” We might as well see each and every as expansions of the prison industrial complex for the incarceration of creation.

The condemning death sentence of such tendencies is summarized in a saying from a native American* woman that was on a poster I had in my bedroom growing up: “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that you can’t eat money.”

If we’re following this parallel reading, if the Earth has been imprisoned by our human society and culture, maybe our role for a positive change could be associated with the jailer from the Bible story, as God’s Holy Spirit is converting us, calling us to new life, from the waters of our birth. Maybe we hope to be among those of a new perspective, who don’t extract and deplete the planet, don’t trap it under the threat of death, who don’t claim maximum security while minimizing actual life, but recognize that God’s salvation is to liberate, to free, to release from captivity to fears and diminished existence, not only for human benefit but on behalf of all life and we heed the call to serve as caretakers.

Maybe there’s still more. Maybe that possibility for us as jailers-turned-caretakers could lead us to a third consideration. Not that the Earth is bad and good people are stuck here. Not that humans are bad and Earth is stuck with us. What about the apparent notion that sin and abuse are bad and God is striving to liberate us and all creatures from what would inhibit life, to give us freedom to live together well?

Our hint of this may be that in the Bible story the jailer’s life is bound to the inmates. God’s work wasn’t just to free Paul and Silas, but also to free the jailer. They, then, could share in new relationship—not of hierarchies of fear and oppression and inevitably leading to death on the one side or the other (either execution for the prisoners or suicide for the guard if they escaped), but a relationship of blessing and celebration and company of rejoicing—joy that spreads among the other prisoners and to the jailer’s family and on from there—a relationship of binding up wounds and healing and caring and striving for life.

This is God’s abundant Easter work for you, among us on this Earth Day, and—indeed—every day. It is striving to break you free from your individual prisons that confine you into thinking you’re not good enough, that your wrongs are inescapable, that your existence is worthless, that you’re too harmful for life around you, whether the broader planet or closer relationships. That captivity to sin from which you cannot free yourself keeps restricting you and holds you trapped in the negative. In forgiveness and holy inspiration full of creativity, right now Jesus is liberating you from that prison cell, undoing your lock and those chains that have stifled your wellbeing and sense of yourself.

And this is also how God is operating in systems that ensnare us. God is mutually working to free humans and the planet when systemic oppression often overlaps—that people with darker skin are apt to live closer to pollution, that lesser developed nations will suffer worse effects of climate change, that the little guys trying to do the right thing can’t fund fake corporate science reports, that those who have done less harm and can afford less opportunity to purchase the get-out-of-jail free card are caught, and that really such situations are no good for any of us, even those who think they’re winning.

From Pope Francis to secular organizations now recognize these systems are interconnected, that none of our projects stand alone. Environmental work is bound to racial justice,

which is tied to economic wellbeing,

which is part of the body of health care,

which interfaces with your body image,

which stands against capitalist propaganda,

and is united with sustainable agriculture,

which is part and parcel with the global peace movement,

which attends to school systems,

which confronts gun violence,

which is linked with immigration and refugee relations,

and relates to those actually physically in prison or trying to re-enter society,

which is amid your daily life,

which is of course constrained with politics,

which is wholly related to our religious practice,

which must be a congregation of every creature, from small to large, near on these grounds to original stars.

In the old image of a food chain, all creatures would suffer if any link were broken. Well, we now know that’s a web of creation more than simple chains, that my wellbeing is dependent on your wellbeing which is connected to Earth’s stability, that everything is hitched to everything else (as John Muir said) and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (as Martin Luther King put it, for a very different reason, but with a very similar end result).

And for the purposes of our Bible story on this Earth Day, Martin Luther said** that you have been set totally free and are obligated to no one, which also means you are totally captive and obligated to all. Your chains are gone, and that has served to reinforce your connection to everyone and everything else. The life-sucking bonds that imprisoned you have been released. Now you are free for the life-giving bonds that tie you to live faithfully and lovingly with God, your neighbor, and creation.

That is the good news of life this Easter season, breaking free from tomb and gloom, and resurrecting you with Jesus and with all that God so loves.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

* actually First Nations filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/10/20/last-tree-cut/

** “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” – see “Freedom of a Christian”

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Converting the Converted

sermon on Acts 9:1-19a

 

It’s the prototypical conversion story: the blinding flash of light, a disembodied voice, the knock-your-socks-off shock of it, getting up, dusting off, and finding life entirely changed.

You may know somebody who talks about having such a template of conversion. There’s perhaps a chance some of you have a personal story that fits this form.

But this is no mandatory pattern. There is constantly conversion without these phenomenal details. That’s important at the outset, because our faith can be too frequently defined by subjective experience, and in a way that excludes those without it and actually excludes a focus on God. If you haven’t felt the warm presence of the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart. If you haven’t given yourself over to a higher power. If you haven’t clearly heard God speaking to you. If you haven’t wept about your sins and prayed formulaic words. If you haven’t gone forward for an altar call. And for that, God bless Billy Graham, but good riddance to him. He may have been the most definitive of the past century in categorizing insiders and outsiders, with the only way to get to be an insider involving an eternally-weighted decision.

Against that mold, we should notice in today’s reading there isn’t just that single standard conversion experience, but two. This is always referred to as “The Conversion of Paul” but is just as much the re-conversion of Ananias.

Paul may get the banner attention for a couple reasons. It may be that his seems more supernatural, with the beam of light and the voice only he could hear and getting knocked down in the middle of the highway, blind to the world around him. We like the mystical details.

It could also be that his conversion seems more substantial. Again, this is the archetypal 180° turnaround, going from the worst bad guy to become the best, the nastiest and most violent persecutor of the faith to the one who will contribute more to its spread and its theology than anybody else in the history of Christianity. It makes for such a good story.

But I also have to voice reluctance about favoring Paul’s episode. The first reason is that, because it is so extraordinary, it is also extremely rare. Quite likely none of us would have anything in store to make feasible such a remarkable reversal, a worst-to-first sort of sweep. As the epitome of experience, however, it would be better to see our smaller stories reflected in his, rather than dismissed as insignificant.

The other hesitancy involves how our culture has ruled out the possibility of conversion, has eliminated the opportunity, limits all future possibility. For how fast so much is changing at this point in history, we seem to have arrived at a time where people are the one thing that can’t change.

It strikes me first in how we treat those who wind up with a criminal record. It becomes a permanent stain, where somebody is practically unable to find employment because of a felony conviction. Or to move into a neighborhood for being seen irredeemably as a sexual deviant. We’ve lost the concept of reform, or restorative justice, or rehabilitation as a purpose of prison, no longer even a possibility of paying a debt to society, since it is a perpetual state of indebtedness, a lifelong confinement, whether they are sentenced to be stuck behind bars or face the relentlessly punishing confinements of life alongside a society that won’t allow a place for them. “Criminal” remains such a defining label that it too often completely takes over an identity and any other characteristic or potential.

(A side note: trying to overcome such restricted livelihood is why Just Bakery is here next week. Please remember that and support them.)

There may be some grounds to argue, but it strikes me that our therapeutic practices also impose similar restrictions with practically no way out of the liabilities to identity. One can only be a recovering alcoholic, never formerly an alcoholic. It’s always “My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic” and never again simply “My name is Bill.” Or a recovering Catholic, in the jokiness that gets used sometimes. The damage is left as permanent.

But I don’t think Paul would’ve referred to himself by saying “I’m Paul and I’m a recovering persecutor.” That is too stuck in the old, defined by the former identity. Paul’s language, rather, was “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” When Paul tells this story in his letters about how he used to be hateful, it isn’t because that negativity still has a hold on him or because he’s still trying to crawl out from under those pressures, but precisely to indicate that he’s living in a radical and remarkable newness where something so awful can no longer define him in the least, a grace and forgiveness that looks past that entirely, where it exists only as the indicator of what he is now…

much like the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and scars that Thomas reached out to touch last week. Those were no longer injuries for Jesus, but more like trophies of what had been conquered, overcome, what used to hurt him but had been taken over by life. In a way that we much too often refuse to allow for ourselves or those around us, Paul’s conversion means he’s been taken over by a new beginning of life.

I so much today want you to hear that, to have that, to know that voice of Jesus calling and beckoning you to eliminate and forget your negative labels and realize a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean bill of life.

So even while expecting that a grand total of few to none of us would be the type to declare that our lives were a mess before Christ and now everything is hunky-dory, coming up roses, picture perfect—given that we live in a hard and complicated real world and none of us is perfect and we do still struggle, I want you to find yourself in Paul’s conversion.

That is, after all, what happens as we declare again and again that commission from Jesus for the forgiveness of all your sins. It’s as we continue this season of Easter and the promise not only of a resurrected but a resurrecting Lord, as he comes to meet you and offer himself, his life for you, in the meal of this table each week. It’s with the assurance in Paul’s own words that, having been baptized into a death like Jesus, you will be united to walk in newness of life with him.

That is conversion, a Damascus road experience, even though I expect there’s plenty where it doesn’t seem remarkable, where life doesn’t seem spectacularly new, doesn’t feel stunningly right, where we don’t leap for joy but end up plodding ahead. See, being a Christian doesn’t suddenly make everything just right and isn’t a rapid U-turn on life’s problems.

After all, though this happened suddenly for Paul, it certainly didn’t magically make everything better; rather he lost his prominence and self-assurance and put his life at risk and was arrested and eventually killed for this conversion experience, for listening to Jesus. Even before the end of this chapter there will be threats against his life. This isn’t a piece of cake with everything going swimmingly.

Another interesting detail in this story: once Paul heard that Jesus was calling him, he never says another word this whole passage. This from the guy who, as we said, becomes the most important voice ever in Christianity (aside from Jesus himself). Not one more word in this entire passage. He’s simply converted.

That makes the second conversion somehow more impressive as the harder one. That’s for Ananias. Now, he’s a small character. Out of the whole Bible and entire history of Christianity, this is the only place he appears, the vital but small role he has, to enable the most definitive Christian. That’s important for us insignificant folks. We may further relate to this little everyday Christian, who, as Jesus calls out to him, has to argue back. He resists. He makes it into a dialogue, a debate, with deliberation. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to forgive Paul or to involve him in this work. He wants to keep this dangerous guy safely at arm’s length. Ananias straight up labels Paul as an evildoer and says he has no interest in following Jesus’ instructions. But he, too, is converted. He goes and speaks the good news from Jesus to Paul.

And if most of us have not felt the glorious but simple vision of Paul’s conversion, I expect we may have lots of experience with this Ananias conversion, with the arguments and deliberations and doubts, with not really wanting to do what Jesus wants of us, of taking a while to figure it out and be motivated and believe what we need to.

In all, there are both sides of this sharing new life in Christ, of being Easter people. Like Paul, we have hard change in not staying with our former ways, giving them up. Like Ananias, we face hard change in allowing new people in and adapting. There’s the difficulty of really allowing forgiveness to sink in, that your wrongs are not held against you, and there’s that really unpleasant task of being the one to offer and practice giving forgiveness. There’s hearing Jesus for the first time when maybe your life had been tuned to a very different signal, and there’s trying not to drown out his voice, to let it blend in as static, but instead continuing to have your life clearly and definitively shaped by his calling.

One relief or positive note in this story, amid those difficulties of conversion, is that Jesus wins the argument. Whether suddenly in a flash, or slowly through deliberation and reasoning. And not only that he wins, but that his purpose does, his purpose of sharing life, and spreading it.

So as you come here week after week to be converted yet again and raised to new life in Jesus once more and called to his purpose over and over, it is so that you may know the abundance of his life, for you and for all this world.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

 

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Must be present to win?

sermon on John 20:19-31

 

There’s a lot in this passage. It’s John’s version of Pentecost, and also of the Great Commission, his culmination or final clarification of the story. The believers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are sent with the power that God alone could have, with forgiveness and grace. Oh, and the small detail that the risen Jesus appears behind locked doors to offer greetings and blessing.

incredulityBut for all of that, we are still most drawn to Thomas, this one who missed out and then is struggling to believe.

This is a standard story for this 2nd Sunday of Easter, since it’s set today. Or at least the second part is. In the first, the followers of Jesus were together on Easter evening. After hearing the morning’s news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was risen and had come to comfort her and wipe away her tears and reassure her faith, after that Jesus’ followers for some reason evidently decided it was a good time just to lay low, to hide out, to linger behind locked doors.

Before we get to Thomas, let’s pause with that fearful crew trying to barricade themselves in, pause to ponder: Why does the resurrection make them more afraid and not less? Is it supposing that the authorities who couldn’t kill Jesus and keep him dead will come after them instead, since they might be easier to bump off?

Or are they actually afraid of this newfound power? That the good news of life somehow becomes for them bad news? That precisely no longer having anything to fear from death means that they should be encouraged to stand up and confront the deadly powers and violent authorities? Does having the assurance of hope, the promise of nothing to lose actually seem riskier?

Or is it confining that they would not want to share this good news? Is it easier to keep enemies as enemies and not have to face the possibility of reconciliation, not have to see that forgiveness and God’s love could be for those we’d prefer to despise or keep ignoring? Did it all get too big, that they liked the teachings of Jesus, but actually having him as the Lord and Creator of life means having to share more broadly than we’d selfishly want? It’s not a very desirable commissioning, to be sent back out to those who would oppose you or cause you worry, with a message that God desires better life for them, along with you.

But against that trying to stay secluded, to keep others at bay, Jesus broke through the locked doors and won’t allow belief or blessing to stay cooped up and so directly sent them out. For these followers stifled in anxiety and sorely at odds with those around them, Jesus speaks peace: peace for them, and peace to share.

Already what I hope you’re hearing, then, is Jesus showing up to confront and fulfill the deepest need, meeting people, restoring them, and expanding it still further. It’s about life continuing. He did it with Mary, isolated in her grief, and sent her instead with good news of relationship. He did it for those trapped followers, in sharing and spreading peace and reconciliation.

Then we get to Thomas. Thomas who missed out. Thomas who wanted to believe about the resurrection. Thomas who needed the good news. Thomas who longed for Jesus.

Now, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there Easter evening…if it was an excused absence…where he was instead. Maybe it was that his grief or his fear was so intensely isolating he just really needed to be alone by himself. While I don’t disparage that—and can deeply feel that introverted need myself—still we have to notice that in this case it came with liability: if Thomas wanted to be alone, it left him separated from the rest of the believers.

For them, even though they also were sad and scared and all of that, still being together as community was the right place to be, as it enabled the chance to receive the Holy Spirit’s reassurance and encouragement. That is a valuable note about our practice of community here: it is risky to be away, since this is the surest place to meet Jesus, as we’ll hear, to be able to receive blessing and good news and what you need.

Maybe Thomas just happened to miss out. One of my colleagues liked to suggest he was out on a falafel run, picking up some supper to go for the rest. So maybe it was an errand. Maybe he thought the gathering was pointless, not worth his time. Maybe he had a conflict on his calendar and wanted to be with the believers but couldn’t, and made the hard choice to go with his previously scheduled programming. Maybe you were still on spring break last week and missed our Easter gathering here. Maybe you awaited guests and felt the obligation to them instead. Maybe it was just…something else. There’s always another place you could be and may even want to be, other good things happening.

Still, it’s worth observing that Jesus didn’t encounter Thomas in those other places, wherever else he was. Or, perhaps to say it better: Thomas didn’t encounter Jesus. Jesus knew what Thomas needed; as soon as he came into the room he was addressing Thomas’s request. So we could presume that Jesus might have been trying to find Thomas, to deal with his concern and meet his need the whole rest of the week.

I’d say it’s reasonable to expect that Thomas encountered the risen Jesus as the lady behind the counter at the falafel shop. And amid the crowds he was passing in the marketplace. And Jesus probably showed up in the hotel clerk on spring break. And was pumping gas by an off ramp. He arrived amid the awaited guests, and also outsiders kept at bay. And he was wherever it was Thomas thought he had something better to do. And Jesus was also very likely there with Thomas when he was so sad and lonesome.

But Thomas couldn’t recognize it. He didn’t know. He couldn’t spot Jesus in those places. Even if Jesus was coming to find him and help him, still Thomas figured he was lacking, was missing out, didn’t get what he needed…until that second Sunday gathering.

So it’s certainly not that Jesus is locked in this place, that here behind our closed doors is the only place Jesus could show up to meet us. He’s surely on the loose and working in the world and present absolutely everywhere you go. But you may not recognize him. You may not be able to receive from him. You may in some way first need to be here amid the gathered community to be found by him.

The other really remarkable thing is that amid those gathered believers on that 2nd Sunday of Easter, Jesus seemed to come specifically to find Thomas in his need. He has barely said a howdy to the rest of the clan, but zeroes in directly on Thomas and shows up especially because Thomas needs him.

That must be true in this place, too, though it can feel like a counterintuitive truth. We often expect that we’re closer to God when everything is going well, that on our best days is when we’re most blessed, that cleanliness is close to godliness, and that we’re ready to praise when we ourselves are so happy and excited and enthusiastic, that faith is riding high at the top of the wave. But this truth is that Jesus comes into the mess and the sorrow and isolating grief and low points when everything is going wrong, precisely to find you in your moment of need.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, in other places Jesus leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the lost one, and he says that he is the doctor who has come not for those who are feeling healthy and doing just fine but for the sick. He finds the outcasts and welcomes them in. And restores sinners to holy community. And takes the children in his arms. And on and on. He is a scarred and heartfelt Lord, on the lookout for our scared and hurt-filled lives, our times of need, our deepest longings and worst worries.

So if you arrive amid this community today and think you’ve got it all figured out and are happy and not needing much, well, if that happens to be your position, I’m really glad you’re still in the right place, but I’ll say with only a little overstatement that Jesus might not need to bother much with you today.

But if you arrive here and all is not well, if you’re longing and hurting, if you have felt left out, if you’re overwhelmed by what scares you or saddens you or what has failed, if it seems that everyone is against you or that everyone else got to have what you’ve missed out on, and exactly if none of this seems like you can quite believe it…then counterintuitively and with immense difficulty, it is exactly for you that Jesus shows up.

It may be the hardest for you to see, to believe, to know—but Jesus comes today and right now into this room, comes directly to you, and says, “I am here for you. I am here with life everlasting that cannot be stopped. I am here to wipe your tears. I am here to embrace and surround you with love. I am here to forgive you. I am here to foster the reconciliation that’s more than you could hope. I give you peace—peace such as the world cannot give—for your fears and anxieties. I breathe my Spirit into you, inspiring you, filling you with purpose. I am here to respond to your needs, offering my very self, that you may go back out from here and live, that you may have life.”

It is for you that Jesus was risen. He was raised to resurrect you, too, to demonstrate your injuries can no longer ultimately harm you. And so precisely in the lowest moments, we exclaim the highest praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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“I don’t know.”

Easter sermon on John 20:1-18

 

It’s kind of a strange story, so let’s see if we can figure this out:

I heard this morning there was a rabbit roaming around…with eggs. To carry a basket full of eggs, I presume it was some sort of gargantuan bigfoot bunny, which must walk upright, since it couldn’t go hippity-hoppity without spilling eggs. My understanding is that this rabbit was distributing the eggs in surprising locations. Now, I don’t think anybody claims the irregular rabbit laid the eggs, but I’m still not clear if the rabbit stole from our MCC coop, or contracted with magical chickens for specialty eggs in a rainbow of colors, or what. They must be unusual eggs, to come in stripy assortments of vibrant gem tones and pleasant pastels. And with unusual fillings, I think, too, not just plain ol’ yokes.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

There’s an explanation involving connections to the earth and natural cycles, that bunnies and eggs are about spring and fertility and reproduction and abundance and how life persists in nature around us, and therefore can also be celebrated by us.

Sure, I’m in favor of those things. It’s not wrong as an explanation. But it still misses the mark. It explains away the strangeness. I mean, this is a bunny in a bow tie benevolently bouncing along with wicker-ware brimming with brightly shellacked chocolate avian hatchables! That’s not normal!

Take that as my peculiar preface into cautioning against explaining away or writing off this strange Easter saga. We shouldn’t construe that Jesus rising from the dead means the indomitable spirit of life! that love conquers all!! that we shall overcome some day!!! that there are always fresh beginnings!!!! that those who die heroically standing up for what they believe in will never really perish from our memories!!!!!

Blah blah blah.

Again, there’s none of that that’s not true. And it may even find truth embodied in this story. But embodiment takes a body. It’s not just a metaphor. No arbitrary archetype.  Jesus isn’t just a symbol of humanity or a sign of love. Certainly there’s no hint in this Bible reading that it’s so easily and hollowly explained as the triumph of life or the revolutionary spirit any more than this is a story of Jesus popping out of his hole in the ground, rubbing his beady little eyes, glancing around, and declaring in his groundhoggiest grumble that the six more weeks of winter should be up and it’s time for spring. This day isn’t just a seasonal festival, that green things are alive and will return and grow after being dormant and dark through the winter, even though we’re mostly suckered into treating this as a benign holiday, showing up in nice bright cheery clothes to declare the doldrums of Lent behind us, gorge on jelly beans and ham, and look forward to summer.

That doesn’t allow the strangeness to stand. No, through and through this story is dealing with a specific particular, singular conundrum. So to give it credit, we should pay attention.

This account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is shocking and strange. If it were simply about a spirit of justice fighting against oppression, the story could’ve easily run that after Jesus was killed, his followers refused to back down and stormed the gates shouting “remember the Alamo!” and overthrew the authorities and set things right. Or at least that they went down in a blaze of glory. We know such stories. There are even examples from history around the time of Jesus.

But that’s not this strange story. Instead we’ve got Sunday morning and an empty tomb. Maybe to stick us with the strangeness and warn against claiming we’ve got it figured out, the first interpretation comes from Mary Magdalene saying, “We don’t know.” The body is gone and we don’t know where it got put. Right away, there’s something that we don’t understand, the re-entrenched mystery, the lack of clarity and resolution.

That “we don’t know where they’ve laid him” could lead to various speculations. We might transpose this to a Halloween setting and picture Dr. Frankenstein and Eye-gore scavenging as grave robbers. Or maybe like Mary oddly does, we guess a gardener was doing spring cleaning and tidying up by moving corpses around the cemetery?

Whatever it is, notice they’re on the lookout for a body. There’s no sense in here that Jesus is gone because his true self is now up in heaven, that his soul has floated away, that only his earthly remains…remain. No, that rather precisely misses the point. This isn’t our popular notion of death and loss and relocation. This is about a dead body, and eventually encountering a body back to life. Jesus was God in the flesh for us, and this still is in the flesh. The spiritual cannot be separated from that. It can’t get dug up from earth and dislodged from what we know. God is here and in this way. The gospel is insistent on that.

So, hearing the ridiculous report from Mary of this missing body, Peter and the other disciple go sprinting off to the graveyard, evidently needing to get there in a hurry because the dead guy is making a quick getaway and they need to catch up? I don’t know. They observe that—indeed—he’s gone, though the graveclothes are still there.

Then, in an odd verse without much clarification, it says that they “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead.” And then they went home. I’m not sure what they were believing, if they didn’t understand what was happening to Jesus. Maybe they just finally believed what Mary told them, though her honesty is a miniscule detail to bother believing. Not much of godly faith there. The going home is also such a strange resolution. They didn’t put on their detective caps and exclaim, “We’ll get to the bottom of this.” They sort of seemed to shrug and go about life.

I worry about that for us: believing without understanding, we may sing Alleluias and then disregard the whole thing, shrug, finish spring break, and get on with what we were doing before.

Not Mary. She keeps trying to understand. And she keeps failing. She’s already begun her confession of faith, her creedal statement by saying that she doesn’t know. And twice more she repeats that, once to the angels, and once to incognito Jesus. Mary’s most faithful refrain is not knowing. “We do not know. I do not know. She did not know.” Three times here.

Amid not having a clue what was going on, while having so little figured out, while not understanding Easter much at all…and while admitting that, declaring it, confessing it through grief and tears and the conflict of doubt and hope, that’s when Jesus shows up to greet Mary, to comfort her, to stay in relationship with her, to redirect her faith, to lead her again into life.

And also with you.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

For us on this Easter I’d really like to be able to explain it all. It would be nice to understand clearly and believe without a doubt. It’d be satisfying to have a grip on the facts. Helpful to explicate it in terms of implications for cellular biology and the conservation of elements.

I’d like to identify how it is that Jesus disappeared from the graveyard but reappears in this bread, and then trace how from this bread he takes on flesh in you. I’d like to help you see that in a mirror.

In your flesh, I’d like to resolve what it means that death has been undone, and even more to clarify why death still seems so persistent, though it has already and finally lost. I’d like to illustrate and realize your imaginations of innovative beginnings and fresh starts and endless joy of life that is wholly new.

I’d like to invigorate and encourage you forward into life with this invincible insurgent Spirit that won’t be stopped or stooped in fear by the B.S. that the authorities keep trying to swamp you in.

I’d like to offer instructions on how you tap into this undying love and inspirational life, for when your days do seem blah and it’s hard to go on with your routines, and you’re confused and you just shrug and weep. I’d like to predict how this makes you a better person and forecast the process of reconciliation that it must entail, the peace you’ll receive.

I’d like to tell you how you’ll see Jesus, what it will sound like when he calls your name, when you’ll see dead loved ones again, how it keeps spreading and will finally culminate on earth, and evidently across the cosmos. I’d like to know.

To lead you again into life, I’d like to assure you that the fragrance of flowers and the warmth of sun and the trill of songbirds already understand the good news and embody it along with and ahead of you.

I believe and trust this all intensely. But most truly I don’t understand. Like Mary, my faithful refrain is: “I don’t know.” It’s strange and I can’t explain. All I can do for now—with great joy, full of hope, in comfort and compassion, continuing with the vaguest notion that it is the best good news ever—is to proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

a new hymn:  Alleluia?

Alleluia Easter18

 

 

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