Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Easter Six

23 Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, "I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
Growing up, we often vacationed with my Dad’s side of the family, a group that included his two siblings, their spouses and four other cousins, and while they were living, both of my father’s parents.  Looking back on these get-togethers, while I certainly remember the incredible scenery, Southwest Colorado, the mountains of Idaho and Montana, perhaps what sticks with me the most are the stories that were told.  Around dinner or playing hearts, a family tradition, I would hear tales of my father’s childhood, my parent’s courtship and even portions of my own young life that I did not, could not remember.  This was wonderful stuff, and even better when accompanied by pictures and slides, because really, seeing your parents in 1970s era fashion is a pretty irreplaceable experience.  What I gained in those get-togethers was realizing that mine was not a standalone existence.  That I had been, and was continuing to be, shaped by those who preceded me, that my own story was dependent on the stories that came before me, stories that were not yet finished.  I have no doubt that each of you here could recount for me a similar story about the importance of getting together and hearing who about your own history, or passing your history on to those who come after you.  In this telling and hearing stories, in this remembering of who we are, where we come from, we discover our humanity in the best sense.  Aristotle, that old philosopher, called humans the rational animal.  As true as that is, I cannot help but think that the story-telling animal might be just as accurate.
Like last week, we find the disciples being prepared for Jesus’ departure.  Jesus is preparing them for what they will face not just in terms of his gruesome trial and execution, but also when he leaves them to ascend back to the greatness of his Father.  And with this exit, there is the looming and realistic fear that the disciples will indeed forget Jesus.  There is, I think, for the disciples a real fear about how they will continue without Jesus.  What form will the future take if the one person who made the past and present possible is no longer around?  Here we find the disciples caught in that very human dilemma about the past and the future, caught trying to envision a future that is radically different from the way the past has operated, precisely because they will be without Jesus, or so they  assume.  And it seems to me that there is much more at stake here for the disciples than we initially realize.  Certainly there is the very real grieving about losing this Jesus whom they have known for three years.  That, in and of itself is a major transition.  But think about it, how are they to continue as disciples without him?  What is a disciple without a teacher after all?  And given just how surprising this Jesus ended up being, what with his forgiveness to strangers, his declarations that he is one with the Father, his healings and miracles; it is not like the disciples would have come to any of it of their own intellect or power or philosophy or good intentions.  This was all utterly new, which is to say, of course, that it was grace.  And so what is at stake for the disciples is not just losing Jesus, but losing themselves as disciples, forgetting not Jesus, but forgetting themselves as his followers and disciples. 
The disciples, then, are on the brink of losing their own stories that have made them who they are.    They risk being cut off from the one in whom they have found themselves more fully and more alive than they could have ever anticipated. There are no stories, at least not ones told by human mouths alone, that could fill the void for which they are preparing themselves.  In a certain sense, I suppose, you could say that the disciples are being asked to keep the family memories alive without ever attending one of those delightful reunions again.  I suppose we all can relate to this fear of forgetting and being forgotten.  Isn’t that the terror of Alzheimer’s and dementia?  As one whose grandfather fell to one of those terrible diseases, it is true that watching someone lose the memories that made that person who he is feels very much like losing that person entirely.  And what is true of our general humanity is so much more true of our religious humanity.  How very difficult it can be to remember God’s grace and mercy.  To remember it for ourselves and to live out of it for others.  Left to our own devices, we are something of spiritual amnesiacs I am afraid, prone to forget just who we are in our baptisms at the first opportunity.  Such is our lot as those who carry around the sin of our ancestors, stories not being the only thing passed on, incidentally. 
And with that fear in mind, both the disciples and our own, we can hear the incredible words of Jesus’ promise afresh: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  It turns out the disciples will not be left alone.  Rather, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, Jesus, his life, his teachings, indeed his very body now given in bread and wine, all of this will remain with them.  It is no longer up to the disciple alone to carry on the message of Christ, a task that they probably weren’t up to anyway if we are telling the truth.  For the Spirit, as near to them as their own breath, will be among them and will keep them connected to this Christ, and through this Christ, to the Father, the Lord and Ruler of the universe.  It will be the steady and abiding presence of the Spirit, a presence found in the proclamation of Christ and in the distribution of him, and indeed in the community that gathers around him, yes, it will be in all of this that Spirit will keep the disciples connected to their Jesus.  It is the Spirit who will keep the memories alive and continue to write those memories on the hearts and minds of the disciples.  And what is so extraordinary about this promise is that it is one that extends down through the ages.  To the very real fears of our own spiritual forgetfulness, the Holy Spirit continues to proclaim the mercy and forgiveness of Christ in our midst and to our very cores.  The Holy Spirit gathers us into the very life that exists between the Father and the Son, and preaches to us that here, here in that life and love is where we truly belong. Here among the widows and orphans and the last and the least here among the saints of all times and in all places, here with here with the whole family of God, we are brought to remember that we too are loved, remembered and forgiven.  That we, too, are brought into this family of God not by our own effort or merit or politics or strength or reason, but by the preaching of the Holy Spirit who takes us to the cross and empty tomb.   And that here, here in this wide grace and deep memory, God will gather and hold all our moments, will indeed hold and gather us, even as human memory inevitably fails.  So come now to the table to meet the Spirit who gives you Christ’s body and blood.  Like a child among fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, you are loved more than you can begin to realize.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the Fourth Sunday in Easter

John 10:22-30
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." 25 Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. 30 The Father and I are one."

Though this little anecdote would perhaps be more appropriate to Mother’s Day, I will go ahead and begin with it anyway.  One of my mother’s favorite stories about my childhood involves the two of us, me still a very young child, walking out of the local King Sooper’s.  As we were preparing to walk through the parking lot, in that way of small children who put their entire trust in their parents, I reached up and grabbed her hand just as she was reaching down to grab mine.  Upon our hands finding one another, I am purported to have said to my mother that her hand always felt so familiar, and though I cannot really get back into the head of the younger version of me, I will venture a guess that was I was articulating was not familiarity in the sense that I had gone around holding a bunch of unfamiliar hands and had finally found something, or someone, a little kinesthetically closer to home.  I was not so promiscuous with my hand holding as a young boy.  Rather what I was getting at, I think, was that in that maternal touch, I knew I was safe, that I would be protected and cared for.  That the love of my parents was never distance, but was indeed a reality much nearer, much more familiar, than anything else in the world.  Such are the tender moments that make up a life between parent and child, at least in the best of circumstances.
“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me,”  says Jesus in what some have come to call the good shepherd discourse.  Just to situate ourselves a bit, we are no longer in the post resurrection portions of the Gospel.  Instead, this Sunday is dedicated to theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and so we have gone back in John’s Gospel to earlier scene.  At this point, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, battling it out with the religious authorities, those whom John’s Gospel refers to as “the Jews.”  Now, just to be clear, when John uses this term, “the Jews,” he is by no means speaking of the whole of the Jewish people, then he would have had to include Jesus and the disciples, after all.  Rather, he is talking about very specific subset of the Jewish people, those who were the religious and social elites of Jesus’ time, think about Jesus hanging out at a seminary.  And so we pick up this speech, sermon, this declaration of divine intention, we pick this up as these religious authorities are provoked and ask Jesus to just plainly tell them what he is about.  And what is so interesting about this query from the religious leaders is that it brings up this question of familiarity and distance.  Because these leaders have heard Jesus speak of his unique oneness with the Father; they have heard of his mighty deeds of power.  They have seen him heal the lame and cure the blind, and in so doing, they have heard him explain that he does this because he is indeed one with the Father.  They have even responded in anger to these claims, trying to stone him for blasphemy as they will again do at the end of this exchange.  So the question becomes this: how is it that they claim to have not heard him speak?  How is it that what they have seen does somehow open up onto that glorious space we call faith?  How, we ask, is that they hear the voice of this Jesus, but are unable to recognize that they know it?
What these religious elite embody, then, is that reality of distance from God that we call sin, but what is so interesting is that this distance is entirely one-sided, because here Jesus is.  He is right in front of them, as near and as loving as a mother sticking out her hand to walk her child safely across a supermarket parking lot. Or as he has previously said, as near to them as a shepherd who genuinely cares for his sheep.  This God who wants to be known to them as their shepherd, as the one who will remain when trouble arises, when life disappoints or when danger looms, this God stands right in their very midst, and yet, they are unable to see him.  Unable to hear the deep resonance of the familiar in his voice; unable to touch his outreached hands, unable to see themselves as the very sheep for whom Jesus has come to care.  This distance, this is the tragedy that we call sin. 
“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me,” but we must not despair for that very distance of sin is that which Jesus has come to bridge.  And now, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, this voice is impressed upon us with its nearness.  In an incredible intimacy that we can scarcely articulate, you are known by this Jesus.  Your pride and your fear, your hope and regret, the voices that vie for your allegiance, these are all known to this Christ, and he has come to lead you into a brighter life and a more firm hope.  He holds you in the warm familiarity of his hand, and in the strength of his love, nothing will ever separate from this grasp.  Not sorrow, not doubt, not despair, not senseless and nihilistic violence. Not those competing voices that tell us we are not yet people of worth, or those voices that would have us believe we must rid ourselves of every threat in order to be secure, or those voices that would wish to keep us distanced from God, asking if we have yet done enough to earn God’s love.  None of it will take from your Savior’s grasp.  Oh yes, these things are bound to come, none of us escapes the random and the painful, but even in our perishing, we will not be without the voice of this familiar one.  For that voice that calls to us, that is the same voice that cried out “it is finished.”  Those hands that hold us, those are the same hands that will be pierced through, that will experience, yes literally, first-hand, all that we have to offer in terms of human violence, unbelief and fear.  So you may trust when this one tells you that he has come to be your Shepherd.  Believe me, he means it. 
“My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus.  In this and every day, hear the gentle and familiar voice of your Savior.  Hear his kindness and passion for you.  Hear the certainty that nothing can snatch you out of his steady and strong embrace.  His care for you as near and familiar as a parent walking her child across the parking lot.  And in that strong and steady embrace, know that you are called to live out of this love.  You are secured in Christ and may therefore enter the insecure world with new confidence.  You may enter it to love your neighbors in a previously unthought fullness. You may indeed follow your shepherd into those places where fear, hunger and darkness reside.  These things will not separate you from him, and thus we may begin to again love our neighbors, for they are no threat to our own well-being.  We may pray with those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, for Christ is there already.  We may beg mercy and forgiveness for those who think themselves beyond this loving Shepherd’s embrace.  We may provide food for the hunger, hope for the desperate.  For in all these things and in all these ways, we hear the Shepherd’s voice saying: “I love you; you are mine.”  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feast of the Resurrection

If I were to ask you what day of the week it is, I am pretty certain of the sort of answers that I would get, all of them correct, even as they vary from one another.  Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, the day after Saturday, or for the more numerically inclined, the 7th day of the week or the 1st day of the week, depending on how you like to carve up that particular pie.  And because you are people of intelligence, and let’s be honest, that’s not the most difficult question, you would be correct.  Correct not just in the specific answers that you have given, but correct in testifying to the reality that stand behind them.  Yes, the old trustworthy things of this life, the patterns, the predictability, all the things that hold like the ink on a calendar.   The fact that Sunday follows Saturday and precedes Monday.  Or that each day is made of 24 hours, each hour made of 60 minutes and so forth.  What I am getting at here is that there are certain things we simply take for granted as being true, certain basic and fundamental realities and truths.  Night will surely follow day; if I toss a shoe in the air, it will come down.   The way the calendar works, or the way that spring follows winter. There are certain predictable patterns that govern our lives, so predictable are they, that we scarcely even realize they exist.
And perhaps there is nothing more certain, more fundamental about this life than the fact that it ends.  “Death and taxes” the old adage goes, and with good reason.  Against our anger and our sorrow and our protest and our raging against the dying of the light, our dead stay that way.  And those first women headed out to Jesus’ tomb, this is something they know as well.  Look what they carry; look at their purpose.  Spices to guard Jesus’ body against the encroaching stench.  One last act of devotion to their Rabbi, one last kindness to their friend.   Their purpose in keeping with what they and we know to be certain about this world.  As surely as the sun rises and Monday follows Sunday, so their Jesus so brutally and publicly executed is in that tomb where he was previously laid.
            And no doubt that the stone was rolled away had to come as a bit of a shock, some small and upsetting news, but nothing that would rearrange one’s entire understanding of God and the world.  Instead, the questions are probably closer to who would be so cruel as to vandalize a grave or so depraved as to steal from the dead?  But then, just then, as they entered that tomb looking for the body of Jesus, they find not him but two men dazzling in their transcendent white.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  they ask, as though that question could be so glibly  asked in this situation.  And let us not gloss over this question too quickly.  I mean, look at what the angels are saying!  We need to back the question up a step.  Why after all, should there be the expectation that this one was dead is now living?  The dead stay dead, don’t they?  Don’t we know this as sure as we know anything?  Isn’t this the one fact, the one truth around which we build our entire lives? 
            And so we come to this Easter morning, all suit and tie and pretty dresses and kids already hopped on too much sugar, we come to this Easter morning not to have our sense of reality, our sense of who we are, our sense of the sure and true things in this life, yes, we come not to have them confirmed but indeed to have them converted.  We come because for that tomb to be empty, for Christ to no longer be among the dead but rather now among the living, this quite literally changes everything. Let us not understate this reality nor cover it over with sentimental thoughts and quite reasonable expectations.  Rather, why don’t we look this strange, sublime and, yes, terrifying event square in the face.  In the words of John Updike, let us not “mock God with metaphor,” saying things to ourselves like this story is just Jesus’ disciples keeping his memory alive, or that Jesus’ cause will live on in his followers.  These sort of metaphors never really saved anyone. Because in the space of that empty tomb, in the emptiness which now fills it, make no mistake, the very fabric of reality has come to bear a different story.  A story that cannot be contained or understood according to calendars and clocks, patterns and expectations.  Death’s once certain foundation is no longer so certain.  For Christ is no longer among the dead, but is now freed from death to be among the living.  Yes, all he predicted has come to pass, and just as surely as he hung on the cross, so too, he now is raised by the power of the Spirit in the glory of his Father.  Raised to seek out those who abandoned and betrayed him and to give unto them the Father’s very peace. Raised to entrust the proclamation of his resurrection to those who will continue to stare on in awe and fear as he, he resurrected and freed from death, as he gathers again with them in their midst.  Raised to be, in his body, the very reconciliation between God and sinful humans, and indeed the reconiciliation among sinful humans of all sorts. 
            And so we gather here yes on Easter Sunday, yes March 31, 2013, yes the 7th day of the week.  But that is not on the only reality in which we gather.  For we are gathered also on this the 8th day, the day of God’s utterly new creation.  The day in which death itself has been defeated and the promise of the resurrection made sure.  The day in which it may be legitimately asked, “why look for the living amongst the dead?” For it is this day in which time’s cruel grasp has been broken and all things made new. A day that can hardly be described or enumerated, for it has no beginning nor end.  And please dear people of God, do not think for one moment that you need to wait until your own deaths for this reality to claim you.  Oh yes, we are not yet what we will be, we do not as yet, see God face-to-face, but that does not mean that all must be postponed.  Because you, you in the power of the faith that God has given you, the faith that binds you to Christ and his resurrected life, you already have one foot in the door.  All the other stories that may claim you, stories about scarcity and getting what is yours with no concern for your neighbor, stories about eating and drinking and making merry for tomorrow we die, yes, it is time to step away from those stories.  To step into this 8th day, this day not of the dead but of the living.  This day in which God’s abundance is more than we need to be sustained, forgiven and blessed beyond measure.  This day in which we neither carelessly through away nor cling too closely to the good things of this life.This eighth day in which we are again given to our neighbors in the love eternal that has already claimed us.    For Jesus Christ is risen, and in him, you are already risen, as well.  And it will take the eternity of God’s eight day to truly live and love this truth.  Thank God we now have that excess of time.  For Christ is risen; he is risen, indeed.  Halleluiah.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Palm Sunday

They were right in ways that they could not begin to anticipate, and if that is not an expression of just how strange it is to be human, then I guess I just don’t know what is. To say something that you don’t fully understand, and then to watch on as circumstances go ahead and spin wildly out of control, and then that first thing you said, that “blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” well, that begins to mean something you couldn’t have begun to anticipate. Man, oh man, words that were once safe and secure, they can explode into something else entirely.  No doubt, it is different to say “I love you” at the altar, all fragrant breathe and bursting flowers than to utter those words from a chair in a hospital bed.   Because, yes, they were absolutely right to praise him for his deeds of power. To call upon him as the King who will restore God’s kingdom on this earth.  I mean, really, the evidence was all there.  Had they not watched him bind up the broken-hearted,  forgive the proud and the lonely alike,  heal the sick, cure the blind, restore those afflicted by demonic forces? Who in their right mind would not praise such things? Yes, this carpenter from the sticks up north, he of questionable background, somehow, it was in him that this awesome power of God dwelt.  And to watch him approach Jerusalem, serene, in control, accepting their praises and with cool defiance refusing those Pharisees, well, this was to be part of something.  Something that could turn around a life full of disappointment, something that could take of you out of your anonymity and make you part of a movement, in a word,  could make you visible.   This was one of those moments that you could tell the grandkids about and they would look in appreciation and ask for every last detail, in their eyes you suddenly transformed into a hero.  Those hosannas that brought down the Empire, how had they first sounded?
And so we, we from our privileged vantage point outside of this story, we must not look on them with so much cruelty. Yes, as we watch this crowd throughout the week, as we see them first shout praises and then later shout for blood, as we watch the disciples move from loyalty to self-preservation, we can certainly scorn them as though we were somehow different sort of creatures. Yes, that because we know the ending, we would have fared somehow better during the previous parts of the story.  But that’s just self-serving delusion.  We ourselves must not pretend as though we can escape that first crowd’s fate.  Who, indeed, understands the weight of their own words?  “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” we will soon sing, which means that we are them. We sing the same praises with the same mixture of confusion and clarity. We ask of Jesus things like healing and salvation, and perhaps, just perhaps, we might not know exactly what we are saying.  These are big words.   And so when we say these words, just what do we expect from them?  What did that first crowd expect with their own hosannas?
Back to that first crowd then.  What did they believe they were saying?  How did their own sense of these words betray them in the coming days?  Yes, no doubt, to see this Jesus accept their praises, to see him orchestrate this scene quite literally fit for royalty, this was to believe that at last their King had come.  That Jesus was to be a political Messiah, one who go to battle, and God-willing to victory, against this people’s Roman occupiers and those slick religious elites that had jumped into bed with them.  All those years of being ground down by foreigners, all that money paid to corrupt tax-collectors, all those years of housing soldiers who thanklessly ate your bread and leered at your wife and daugthers, at long last all of that would be brought to an end.  God’s justice would be visited on Israel’s enemies, and that great lineage of David at last restored.    And if you are going to topple power like that,  you certainly couldn’t ask for a better leader than this Jesus, could you?  And wasn’t the fact that he already had a few zealots amongst his followers more than a little suspicious? And what of his accepting of their praises?  Didn’t that signal that, yes, he was on board with their mission?
And here is where things get oh so complicated.  Because this crowd will get that for which it deeply yearns.  God’s justice will be made manifest; God will again be reconciled to God’s people.  The righteousness of God will indeed be poured out on all flesh. This crowd’s words are not in vain.  But how all of this will be accomplished, yes, that is a reality that will surprise, offend and shock them to the core.  Talk about getting more than you could possibly ask for.  They will, in the end, come to realize the incredible weight of their praises; they will come to see in their simple and straightforward adulations a world and a God that is infinitely more complex and gracious than they could have ever anticipated. 
And what, then, of us?  If those first witnesses of Jesus’ entry are to be surprised, how do we expect to fare any differently?  Though we might have more of an idea of how this story moves forward, that does mean it is any less unsettling to our sense of how this world functions, any less of a disruption to the way we carve up insiders and outsiders, the righteous and the destitute.  I mean, what if, in our desperate cries for forgiveness, what if we were to find ourselves reconciled to those who have caused us trouble in the past?  When we ask for salvation, we were to get a God who asks us to stand-by while God accomplishes all things with and for us? How offensive and strange to our sense of agency and self-worth! When we ask for healing that we then might be asked to let go of those resentments and anger that have somehow fueled us in the past?  When we ask for purpose and meaning in this life, what if were to receive a God who gives us not wealth, ease or even recognition, but a life of service to our neighbors? Yes, have we any real idea of what we are asking in this all of this? Of what it might mean should our cries be answered?   Like I said, in a few short minutes, we will join our voices to that ancient chorus of “Hosanna in the Highest;” that is, if we dare.