Wanted: Dead or Alive

 Easter sermon on Luke 24:1-12

I was wondering about my place, about our places in this Easter Bible reading.

It may seem egotistical, but I think of my outfit for worship as pretty dazzling clothes. And if I invite John Rowe in his sport coat and necktie to stand up here with me, then we’d be two men in dazzling clothes! Since I’m stationed to deliver a message about resurrection, I can make the leap to picture us like those greeters in the reading.

It doesn’t call those two men angels, so we could probably just picture a coupla schnazzy dressers hanging around the cemetery Sunday morning with gossip, except the actual word isn’t just schnazzy or dazzling, but—even flashier—that their clothes looked like “lightning.” I can’t claim that, and neither can John. Maybe it involves more sequins? I guess you can sit down.

Continuing to look for our place in the reading, I then notice the women. These faithful women had been with Jesus since early in the story, aiding him, evidently wealthy enough to support him and his entourage.

As followers, they were there for his teaching, healing the sick, helping the poor, had been with him to feast and celebrate, through confusions and confrontations, radical inclusions and shocking expectations. They traveled with him as his face was set to Jerusalem, were with the multitude who acclaimed Jesus as a king of peace when he arrived last Sunday, with him at his last supper, as he was betrayed, arrested, condemned, demeaned, as he was crucified, died, and was buried.

That’s plenty of experience for these faithful women. They faced some daunting challenges, some daring mission, some horrible sadness, and now some creepy mystery. They’ve faced a lot, yet nevertheless they persisted.

After the tragedy, after goodbye, after loss and death, this morning they were no longer able to provide for Jesus’ needs, but at least to show the right respect to his corpse.

I figure they align with dedicated women, and a few non-women, here today, who have persisted through life’s ups and downs, sorrows and joys, through all the demands that come, striving to respond and meet them faithfully, as you are eager to do what’s right, as you want to be close to God.

Unfortunately, those women weren’t trusted and ended up sidelined, along with the shocking news they came to bear. The deeply egalitarian early church went on succumbing to neglect the goodness of this good news from faithfully apostolic women and instead ossified back into corrupting powers of patriarchal society, from which God’s Spirit is still trying to resuscitate us, call us out from deadly harm, so we, too, rise again, renewed for life in right relationship.

That tragic, failing edge, falling back to deadly ways makes me look for our place in the story neither with me and John cast as flashy angelic heralds, nor with our women who keep on keeping on, tenaciously continuing through life’s story.

We had the best news, the most incredible belief, liberating us for the sake of life that could not be stopped, and yet we somehow fell through and failed at it and kept backsliding and couldn’t break free. We give in to the ungodly. That makes me believe that our place in the story is with the dead.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” those dazzling messengers prompted outside of the tomb.

We must admit we draw these lines with self-confidence, never comprehending we could be wrong. We immediately say it’s either/or, dead or alive. In a cemetery, you claim your category simply by which side of the grass you’re on. I’d bet every one of you wants to tally yourself in the living column. Who here is alive?

Yet we begin to recognize it’s not so clear-cut or obvious.

This week there was an NPR story about pig brains.* (Not to nauseate you before ham lunch.) Scientists got pig heads from a slaughterhouse. We start with our unambiguous decision: severed pork skulls, living or dead? Dead! And yet the scientists pumped in a chemical cocktail of anti-seizure meds and ten hours after those cloven-hoofed cleaved-off craniums were officially dead, electrical signals kept sparking.

The story said, “The implications of this study have staggered ethicists, as they contemplate how this research… fits into the current understanding of what separates the living from the dead.” Because NPR is a classy outfit, they had the good taste to include a Princess Bride quote: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Now, I think that’s pretty cool research. But I’m not here for the details about it. I’m not here to tally what counts as all dead. I’m not here for the ethical conundrums. I’m not even here for good movie lines. And I’m certainly not trying to prove that Jesus, crucified and laid in the tomb, was not just “mostly dead” before he was alive again.

What struck me with this news story and the cutting-edge (butcher pun intended) research, is the element of surprise about what separates the living from the dead and questions of life vs. death. Those are old issues for us who come to church, especially during this Holy Week. We’ve known the blurriness of those lines all along, and known where we stand. Or perhaps lie. “We have been crucified with Christ, buried by baptism into death,” the early church proclaimed.

The lightning ambassadors at the tomb asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” To be honest, those faithful women weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were expecting to find the dead among the dead. They thought they were alive, but that Jesus was firmly and forever removed from that category into the classification of dead. Period. Solid stop.

But Jesus undid that equation, not only for himself but for those women at the tomb seeking death, and for all of us, trapped in death and captive to its clutches. It’s an odd phrase for the standard framework, but here’s the truth: Jesus used to be dead. He isn’t anymore. You, too, used to be dead. No longer confined in the tomb, no longer finalized in death, no longer ended, no longer subject to the empire, no longer constrained by oppressions, no longer even trying to define the days by duties to do or how to avoid death as long as possible.

Jesus has stepped from the other side of our imaginary line, and left us realizing the line isn’t so clear as we name in statistics or in our scarediness and scarcity.

Why look for the living among the dead? Because that’s where Jesus comes to find us. He brings his life everywhere we’re entombed and doomed by death.

Yes, absolutely, this means the biggest thing: that death is not the end. That’s why our early service began in the memorial garden sharing communion. We are still and ever the communion of saints. The full graves and empty spots at our tables aren’t really the permanent reality. There is reunion feast and life to come. Separation is not final. Death does not last. Life is final and forever!

Still, this isn’t a hope on hold, a recourse only for what were allegedly last moments. If it’s about reunion beyond death, not just about one empty tomb long ago, but every final resting place becoming a mere rest stop on the way to fully renewed relationships, then it’s also about the so-called dead ends now, when things seem to be over. This must mean reconciliation, possibility, new beginnings, healing not just of fractured and failing bodies but of our interactions.

Sometimes that may hit close to home, like in your house, which may even feel like its own tomb needing new life. But it’s also much more rampant, running across this world, against a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Besides death creeping into our bodies and lives, we feel despair in these days declared dark, that we’re worried, attacked, captive to trauma in each headline, with the inescapable harms inflicted on the planet through systems we can’t seem to do anything about.

In another death this week that was not quite ultimate, I kept reading that the burning of Notre Dame was sad because we needed a good, beautiful place like that when the world seems such a bad, ugly place. I have to say, that feels a like looking for the living among the living, as if God is someplace separate from this world, as if we need an escape room, to flee our reality in order to have good or find God.

But Jesus comes into and through death to share life. So maybe Jesus is not looking to be shut behind the stone, re-buried in our buildings, but instead wants to be out roaming and rambling on behalf of life, showing up in memorial gardens and hospitals and in detention centers and during despair and depression, against destruction and domination. He’s in this service of a memorial meal in confusing communion, but also at your lunch table agitations and somber fearfulness that awaits Monday and Tuesday and each day.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? You think you’ll find life by turning over each secret stone? This isn’t about your hunts and searching. I’m sorry, but this isn’t about the road to recovery or your path to success or pursuit of happiness or seeking the meaning of life or spiritual direction. Those only contend with death. And all your looking won’t provide a way out, while it also ignores the greater truth.

You come here to remember the words of Jesus, what he told you. That’s what the flashy messengers mention. We look back to look forward. As you’re looking forward to leaving here, you don’t go out with something to do, to chase after. You go out free. You go with confidence, with faith. You may go out with joy. Because Jesus is on the loose to find you, and he leaves no stone unturned or unrolled away. You go out to live, to life, alive. The one who always looks among the dead finds you to give you life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/17/714289322/scientists-restore-some-function-in-the-brains-of-dead-pigs

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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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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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“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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Easter sunrise sermon

John 20:1-18

 

Beginning in the graveyard, we confront the void of death.

Though we may we go for the memories—even calling ours here a “memorial” garden—still what we remember highlights what is lacking, the loss, people no longer with us.

As we began this morning, you may have been surrounded by names of those you had known and had loved. Or those markers of concluded lifespans may have called to mind other deaths, the absence and loss of people you are having to live without, the vacancy and emptiness it leaves, holes in your life that should rightly be filled by the presence of those you miss.

Early on Easter morning, that memorial garden is the right setting for us. It is where our story begins. I’ll say it again, because it contradicts normal understanding: our story does not end in a graveyard. We begin there.

This morning’s graveyard gathering did start in the usual way. A woman went to grieve, to mourn the worst as best she could, to deal with death, to confront loss and her sorrow. Mary Magdalene went to weep at the tomb of Jesus.

But instead of only looking back to recall the memories, instead of finding a hollower way forward without this dear one, instead of abysmal endings—instead Mary is confronted with presence, with a new hour of beginnings, with much more to come. Mary thought she would find nobody. But then—after she found no…body—then somebody found her. Jesus. Presence filled the location of lack. Death’s place had been displaced and transformed into life.

We might not have mistaken a memorial gardener this morning to be revealed as Jesus himself, but we did encounter that promise. Like Mary met by Jesus, we’re reminded those gravestones are not for weeping and wailing only but also stones that will cry out Alleluias, not only looking back but looking ahead, the transformation of joy, love coming again, rising to encounter Jesus amid the community of all the saints. That hope joins us in the joyful refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In a variation of that same sense, we arrived into this space with an echo of an Easter evening encounter at Emmaus (Luke 24). Followers of Jesus were in lamentation, disappointed, not only doubt hounding them but despair as they walked away from Jerusalem, away from their hopes in Jesus, their longing apparently proven worthless.

But their void, too, became filled. As Mary hadn’t, neither did they recognize Jesus. When this compassionate stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, in this ritual, Jesus was made known to them. With the realization of his presence in the meal, he vanished from sight. Still, they found themselves opened to hope and could glimpse the goodness continuing, possibility restored to live again.

So for us this morning, after meeting life in the garden of death, we came in here and were given communion, the breaking of the bread, the presence of Jesus made known among us, showing up in the void, invisibly manifest. Again, maybe just a taste of the fullness, Jesus disappearing before we even knew to recognize he was here, but with the awareness that this practice provides for us, sustains us somehow. That little morsel placing on our lips again the glad refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Beyond that, markers and memorials abound, of life triumphant over death, of love that shall overcome, of Jesus entering our void and drear. He comes in cheery chimes, in the skill of Emily’s fingers, the later blare of brass, in exuberant song bursting from your own lungs, words stifled too long, abounding in Alleluias:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe Jesus finds you through this Easter garden, the death of the cross flowered with bright fragrant new life, greened from roughness of death, our dark and longing Maundy Thursday confessions now only found amid beauty. Maybe all gardens in this season become a sacrament of the end not being blankness of death’s void but the warm touch that calls back to life again, a burnt prairie’s blackness to health, the surprise of sprouts, the budding beauty, seeming more with each moment of spring days to shout:20180401_074522

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

More subdued but one of my favorite symbols of life shared and spreading is this paschal candle. A 1600 year old chant about this Easter candle marks the miracle that its “brightness is not diminished even when its light is divided and borrowed” for baptismal candles and lit again at funerals, shining reminders that Easter isn’t Jesus only as resurrected Lord but as resurrecting Lord. He shared our death so we may share his life. There is real consequence for us, too, in proclaiming:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

You may be brought out of the void of meaninglessness and fear by passion that strives ahead. We use the term passion for fierce commitments, driving determination. More, the passion of Jesus that led to his death fills you also with his Spirit. So even when sadness and obstacles would stand in the way, in his resurrection Jesus inspires you for his loving purpose to live on.

To help our understandings of Jesus through this Holy Week, we have been hearing again from Martin Luther King. This week is the 50th anniversary of his assassination, a death because of his passion to stand up for humanity—against racism, poverty, war, and more. In his final words the night before he was shot, Martin Luther King happened to say:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. I may not get there with you. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any [one]. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.*

And that’s what we believe, too, as we share this work, this ministry, this vocation of living God’s will. We are part of the community of struggle, of passion for humanity. So even when it’s hard and we’d have reason to be fearful, still we may be confident that the Spirit of Jesus lives on with us, and with Martin Luther King, we also can say, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We also can say:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Or in proliferating examples, maybe today in full feast tables you see Jesus showing up with the embodiment of life that contradicts the void of the graveyard. Or in smiling faces with candy-filled baskets. Or in the pause of a holiday. Or the rising sunshine’s warmth. Or in your heart that yearns and hopes and expects there must be something more.

In this new hour that has come to dawn, though there’s so much not yet clear early in the morning and early in our understanding, this risen Jesus in disappearing disguises is arriving to find you. Already there’s the reverberation of his promise, an abundance of his life taking on flesh in us, unstoppable hints of good news, already and with more to come:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

* April 3, 1968. “I See the Promised Land” in A Testament of Hope, p266.

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sermon for Easter Sunrise

­­­­­John 20:1-18

 

Let’s flip to hymn 237 and sing a couple stanzas of “I Come to the Garden Alone.”

I’ve never sung that in a Sunday service, much less given it pride of place amid Easter. But it reflects John’s telling of this early morning, of Mary Magdalene who begins alone, who has some strange encounters, fetches friends and fellow followers of Jesus, and then again winds up alone in the garden after the others leave.

Certainly that first feels fitting for sunrise service. Though you may not have Mary’s tenacity to linger after the rest of the congregation has come and gone, the early, solitary aspect feels applicable. We’re not quite alone, but it is a small gathering. We brave the early hours—even if not while it was still dark like for Mary Magdalene. But I do believe braving it is the correct term for our early, lonely trip to this worship service. Though (unlike Mary) we come expecting resurrection, expecting life, still there’s the challenge of what that’s going to mean. Those difficult reflections can require courage and bravery to address how this story could possibly fit into our lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So this early, quiet worship service may feel somewhat like Mary’s coming to the garden alone.

I want to disagree with that opening line from the song, though, and also with the refrain. First, it’s vital to note that she didn’t—and you don’t—actually arrive alone. There are others. You have a congregation, a set of siblings here who abide with you in figuring out this faith. But let’s press beyond that. The song gets some of my point, even while not appreciating it: Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone if there were dewy roses there in the garden and the birds who hushed their singing. As we’re in the garden, our eyes also awaken to faith’s expanding horizons and expectations of sharing in this wide community.

For simple starters, we are community with the birds, who don’t need our preaching to know the good news because—far from hushed—they were singing their Alleluias while it was still dark, before the sun had risen. In the breadth of garden community, there are also bees. Even as 30,000 ladies have recently repopulated our hives, bees help share the good news—in the words of a 1600 year old Easter prayer—as God’s servants who provide the wax for the resurrection paschal candle flame in the darkness.

And for another sense of how good news spreads, we gather this morning with lilies and tulips and daffodils. Their color is the vibrancy of new life, proclaiming the resurrection to us. More, their sweet aroma is the fragrance of Christ. That phrase comes from 2nd Corinthians, a delightfully unusual passage which says “thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:14-16). Maybe as we worship with this Easter garden this morning, we have a sense of this scent, a notion of what the aroma is about. We can smell what Jesus smells like, smell what salvation means, smell new life.

But to ponder that differently, might it also be in the smell of cooking ham, which may be a specific Easter fragrance in your household or memory? Even though it meant the death of the pig, it could be a smell “from life to life,” of sustenance, of community, of giving ourselves for the sake of another’s wellbeing.

I don’t want to force that to make the pig seem overly generous; after all, it didn’t have much choice. But to draw the connection for us, I suspect some of our aroma of Christ would have to smell like sweat, like BO, like we’ve been hard at work, toiling, serving and giving ourselves to each other for each other. We may not come out smelling like roses, but that would have to embody how Christ would smell.

You are sent with Christ’s scent. Our relationship with Jesus, as Jim Wallis reminds, is personal but not private. If we tarry alone with Jesus, we’re missing the point of our faith and the spread of new life. We don’t come to or remain in the garden alone, but always join in the ever-expanding triumphal procession, bearing the aroma of life from God to every place.

On the other hand, the song seems to overlook another aspect of loneliness. The refrain went “and he walks with me, and he talks with me…” But that was only very briefly true for Mary Magdalene. She couldn’t claim “the joy we share as we tarry there” since she barely had a chance to identify Jesus with her before he said “don’t hold onto me” and then was again gone.

That is harder still for us arriving this morning. We don’t get to see him to believe it. He neither walks with you nor talks with you in any tangible way. What we have largely is feeling of absence. That fits with actual Mary more than the version from the song. This reading is most embodied in her uncertain tears. Even when surrounded by angels and gardeners and flowers and birds, her grief is isolating. Nobody knows the troubles and sorrows you’ve seen. They are your own.

But that isolation, while a hard reality, is the past struggle and death of Good Friday. A dead end. Today, the resurrection moves us beyond grief and Jesus moves to new beginnings. Yet that’s not easy; in the culminating moment of this Holy Week’s theme of “God’s passion to liberate the oppressed,” this still involves risk, the risk of new life. There is risk since we often define ourselves by the old ways, by what we lost. Mary was a follower of Jesus, but could follow him no longer. She knew traditions and liturgies for funerals, had practices of how to mourn the dead. But she also had to relinquish those as she was sent with new life. She is sent to see the community around her in the instruction to take the message to her fellow disciples. It may be spoken in tears, but also is part of the practice of breaking through them.

The riskiest part of this freeing proclamation is almost certainly that we still feel defined and confined by death, isolated from God. The resurrection can hardly seem to apply to us when we still know way too much of the old life and have far too few glimmers of new.

But breaking out of that deadly isolation, the good news confronts us with another gardening metaphor of abundance: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single [isolated, lonely] grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Bursting with Jesus from cold, dark, confines we join together: “Now the green blade rises! Love is come again!”

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The Ins and Odds of Revelation

sermon for 4th Sun of Easter

Revelation5:11-4; John10:22-30; Psalm23; Acts9:36-43
Throughout this season of Easter, we’re hearing from Revelation, from start to finish—from the first chapter all the way to the very final words of our Bibles. Normally we would try to avoid it, thinking of this book as so foreign to our faith, yet in this part of our three-year cycle of lectionary readings, we are exposed to eight Sundays of Revelation. The Greek title, Apocalypse, is about, indeed, revealing or unveiling, about making something known. But our typical conception is that this is a strange and frightful book with mysterious interpretations, obscuring rather than revealing or clarifying our faith.

It may also, then, seem unusual that these readings we hear don’t seem to have much of the curious imagery and mysterious messages we associate with Revelation. I paged through this week to find out what we’re skipping past, and here’s a partial list: We skip someone man-like with white hair and fiery eyes and bypass lukewarm Christians and various markings on foreheads. We went past an open door to heaven and “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” (from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”) as well as the fiery lake burning with sulfur. There would have been the famous four horsemen and Armageddon the sun black as sackcloth and 100-pound hailstones and stars falling from the sky and a bottomless pit. There’s a talking eagle and carnivorous armor-wearing locusts that sting like scorpions. A pregnant woman wearing the sun contrasts with the whore of Babylon (sorry for the language). Plus Revelation has loads of sevens: seven trumpets, seven seals on a scroll, seven stars and seven lampstands, seven plagues, seven angels, and seven thunders, seven mountains and seven kings and also a lot of three-and-a-halfs, as half of seven and maybe implicitly imperfect. There’s a seven-headed dragon and a great battle and the beast is conquered by the blood of the Lamb (an important concept we’ll come back to). There’s “Glory, glory! Hallelujah” (of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”), and “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (of “Hallelujah Chorus”). There’s “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes!  The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” Okay, that last part I actually took from the movie “Ghostbusters.”

So if there’s all this other stuff—the creepy stuff and the strange and crazily unusual—we may wonder why our assigned Bible readings for this season ignore it. It’s even more noticeable given what we are picking up. For example, last week we heard the chorus of all creation singing “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” and this week that choir’s anthem is “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.” There’s some variation, but not lots. They could’ve chosen a reading that showed some of the diversity of this peculiar book, that exposed us to something less repetitive and picked up the whacky wild weirdness of anything skipped.

So why skip it? Why bypass so much that seems to be the popularly intriguing or memorably fascinating parts?

One reason the Revised Common Lectionary may not choose those parts of Revelation is that they so often have been misread, misused. By skipping them, it is not only a protection for our beliefs, but also a protection for our neighbors on this planet who have been harmed by wrong readings of Revelation. Such wrong reading has most often tried to forecast, as if these images were predicting what might happen in the future.

That isn’t for just a few religious nuts who let their fundamentalism and literalism get the better of them. Rather, it has huge marketing sales, and shapes perceptions of all us Christians, and these problems even warp foreign policy of our nation. A theology invented just about 100 years ago not only came up with the rapture and naming antichrists, but still more outrageously claimed that humans can force the endtimes to begin through the political situation established in the Middle East, that Jesus will return when Israel has enough control, and when Jesus comes he’ll wipe out those Jewish people they’d formerly acted like they were helping. This Christian Zionism is convoluted and disgusting and is part of what makes our tax dollars contribute $10 million per day to Israeli military. To set some of this straight and not be deceived into strange misbelief is part of why I’m eager for you to experience the facts on the ground in the Holy Land with me this fall.

But I’ll say right now that Revelation was not written predicting what’s coming. It was written about the reality Christians were already facing. For them, it wasn’t just fantasy, imagination, and invention but real symbolism. They knew what this all meant because they knew their Bible and knew current events. They knew Babylon was the epitome of the Bible’s bad guys and knew seven hills meant Rome, the current imperial oppressor. It wasn’t language for us to decode or assign meaning that would only apply at some obscure point in history when the so-called stars aligned. It was sort of a graphic novel, a comic book portrayal of life as they already knew it, using classic creative imagery borrowed from the Bible, the Jewish Scriptures.

That isn’t exactly our circumstance. If I’m behind on the news or if I need to explain in a sermon why climate change is real and relevant, then we can’t do what Revelation was doing. The same if you don’t know the stories of Elijah and Elisha raising people from the dead to see the parallels in the Acts reading, or if you didn’t recognize that the “Ghostbusters” line wasn’t actually part of the Bible. Those realities for us change the playing field as we encounter Revelation.

What isn’t different, or may at least have remarkable parallels for us, is what those early Christians were going through. That they were using stories of faith, using the Bible to understand their circumstances is a valuable model for us. Faith isn’t locked up back in the past, nor waiting for some mysterious impending turning point, but is about God’s presence with you and assurances now.

Revelation, at its heart, is a message of encouragement, about persevering, about hope that endures. It becomes almost a refrain repeated over and over in the book. There is a long litany of all the terrible stuff, but then suddenly hope returns, reassurance is voiced, good news triumphs. A professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Barbara Rossing, phrases it that “just when we’re expecting more destruction” then comes a “salvation interlude.”* That can be too true and too relatable for our lives, that you expect catastrophe after catastrophe, calamity after calamity, the other shoe dropping, and more bad news, when you can’t catch a break, and things continue to go wrong, and doubts really haunt, and the temptation is to give up. You know those moments? If so, you need a salvation interlude!

We should note that, in the original meaning, this wasn’t only the worst things that could happen, not just being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pits or persecutions threatening genocide or the capital-M martyrdom of dying for faith. Professor Rossing also points out that the word we have here as “the great ordeal” (in older versions “the great tribulation”) that word (thlipseos) isn’t about state oppression but applies more to “social, economic, and religious marginalization.” This is about choosing to live in a way that doesn’t make reasonable sense to society, because of your convictions hazarding to confront prevalent wrongs. One example would be that understanding God as Creator could lead to hurting your pocket book by divesting from fossil fuels. Even though it would cost you, it is believing the cost is worse by not doing it. Still at this point in history, that faithful decision would result in being marginalized socially, economically, and maybe even, unfortunately, religiously. Would you choose that? Are you ready for that uphill struggle? Are you able to persist in doing what you believe is right? Can you continue on when you’re frustrated and exhausted?

We’re at this intense point in the season of Easter. You can feel the move deeper and deeper into it. We go from the surprise proclamation of resurrection on to the second week where Easter means a commissioning for us and where we also, with Thomas, ask what it means if it seems too hard to believe and we just can’t quite grasp it for ourselves yet. Then last week was the moment of asking what Easter means for our regular daily lives, what this has to do with our jobs and school and distractions and meals and being at home. And now, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, there’s the still harder question of what good news could mean when we’re facing too much bad news, what this new beginning of Easter means when we’re stuck in too much that’s old and rotten and harmful.

Matching the trajectory of the 23rd Psalm, with Shepherding gifts we’ve been sustained in green pastures and led beside still waters and along right pathways. But then we get to the darkness, to valleys of the shadow of death. Yet the Psalm declares, “I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” That’s the message we’ve been hearing in these passages from Revelation, too.

And that may be the central reason the lectionary skips the gruesome and awful scenes, that whole long list we went through before. Those passages aren’t interesting or entertaining but are about your reality. And your life already has too much nastiness and violence and sadness. You don’t come to church for caricatures of corrupt leaders and images of intolerant injustice, don’t come to be entertained by bad news. You come needing a salvation interlude, needing God. You need Jesus, you come here in need of relief, for hope, for good news, for a way to endure, for encouragement to continue striving for justice.

This is where you gather with that band of saints, “the great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” to know that you are joined in the hymn of all creation, to be reminded that you are not alone in your sufferings or struggles to do right, to be assured that you will come through the great ordeal, that God will wipe out hunger and wipe away your tears, that power and might don’t belong to those who oppress and manipulate and threaten, but belong to God and the Lamb, forever.

The most amazing, the wildest image in Revelation that appears over and over is of this Lamb who was slain, slaughtered yet alive. The portrayal in this last book of the Bible, then, is not of a bullying God coming to conquer and wipeout the infidels with a battle sword in a violent bloodbath. Just the opposite, here nonviolence triumphs, a victory not in murdering but in dying and rising. This features death and resurrection, the one who was killed as alive, of the one who was despised as adored on the throne, of the Lamb of God who has become the Shepherd, of Jesus. Today the vision is those who wash in the blood of the Lamb, a vision that your sufferings are the sufferings of Jesus. In your suffering, he suffers. Yet those are not the end. The story continues that he will bring you also to newness of life. This is all so that you may hold onto and trust that, as Jesus himself says, “I give them life, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is how we continue to proclaim: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

* https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1694

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