Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sunday, May 22

John 14:1-14
1  "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe  in God, believe also in me.  2  In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?   3  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  4  And you know the way to the place where I am going."   5  Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"  6  Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7  If you know me, you will know  my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  8  Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  9  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father'?  10  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  12  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13  I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  14  If in my name you ask me  for anything, I will do it.
I am by no means asking for applause on this, but do know that I had to exercise a great deal of restraint in not gloating over the fact that we are still here.  No doubt, many of you have seen the billboards, plastered as they were around Denver and other US cities, guaranteeing, yes, guaranteeing, the world’s destruction yesterday, and yet here we are.  It is a terrible thing in my mind my that this sort of theology names itself as “Christian” and, because of its sense of relentless self-promotion, often overshadows the more mundane and beautiful work of the church that gets done week in and week out, you know, stuff like feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and dying, praying for the anxious and consoling one another in the love of Jesus Christ. 
Now, to be sure, my own sense of anger at this brand of Christianity can lead me ever so near a sinful anger and judgmental pride, and of this I am attempting to repent.  Please, hear me clearly: we will meet these dooms-day prophets in the kingdom of heaven, for the same mercy that has claimed us has claimed them, they just happen to be a bit off as to when that meeting was supposed to occur. The source of this anger, I think, is not just that we are dealing with a theological disagreement, like when I try to impress upon our more Evangelical brothers and sisters the importance of the sacraments, but rather that this sort of theology, this chicken little sky is falling nonsense, seems to be the precise opposite of what the Gospel of Christ is all about..  But this is more than an issue of a mistaken date.  Instead, it gets us to the very heart of the matter and what it means that Christ has come in our midst. For evidence of this, look no further than the opening lines of today’s reading from John.  Even as we have celebrated Easter, today’s reading takes us back before the movement from cross to resurrection in John’s narrative.  In this section that is commonly referred to as the “Farewell Discourses,” Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent death.  He has washed his disciples’ feet and predicted Peter’s betrayal.  He has enacted and then given them the new commandment, that they ought to love one another with the same love that has been extended to them.   In short, this is a moment of incredible tension for the disciples, as they await the death of Jesus.  It is a difficult task to grasp a God who will name the cross as the place of his exaltation, but this is precisely what Christ is doing.  And it is into this tension, this fear and anxiety, that the Christ speaks these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God and believe also in me.”  
Ah yes, these words, “do not let your hearts be troubled.”  In these words there is a comfort so vast, a mercy so true, that all the billboards in the world could not contain it, and the very fact that they have to spoken reveals this fact:  trusting in God’s mercy and goodness is a very difficult thing indeed.  Look, if you will, at the disciples.  They have been with Jesus for three years, give or take, and have witnessed any number of sublime events: healings and exorcisms, feedings of the multitudes, the raising of the dead.  And they have watched on as Christ has offered forgiveness and mercy to those whom they considered the worst offenders, yes, marveling as Christ’s mercy searched out the depth of human pain and sin, so that his love would be known even in the darkness of a starless night.  And though they have been witnesses to all of these events, even as they have heard Christ proclaim himself to be the embodiment of the very Creator of the universe, they still have questions and doubts.   Questions like “how can we know the way” or requests to be shown the Father so that they might have the evidence required to trust in God with glad and generous hearts.   Yes, trusting that God is this loving, this merciful, well, that runs counter to everything we know to be true about ourselves and our world.  We know ourselves as sinful, broken people who find genuine faith to be a difficult, difficult thing, and this difficulty stands at the heart of Philip’s request to be shown the Father.  He wants a bit more because this all seems far too good to be true.
Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that, from time-to-time, we stand witness to these bizarre displays of religious fervor.  The prediction of the world’s ending, as theologically absurd as the claim was, is little more than that human need to be given a bit more evidence, a bit more certainty so that our faith in Christ would somehow feel less risky.  In this way, it is simply another way of asking to be shown the Father, to be given the exact plan and purpose for our lives and to see God in his unmitigated glory, so that we may be sure that this God is actually who he says he is.  Yes, for faith is a difficult, difficult thing.  However, while we are scurry from place to place, from life event to life event, in search of God’s plan and design for us, the answer is already present, already active in our lives.  Yes, for hear again Jesus’ response to Philip’s request of being shown the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  There is no division between the two; Christ really is the embodiment of God’s love in the flesh.  So, to see the mercy of the Son is to see the Father’s desire for reconciliation with the world He fashioned out of spontaneous love.  To see the healing of the Son is to see the Father’s will that all creation would live in harmony with itself and with the God for whom we are all destined.  To see the Son hanging upon the cross is to know that the Father will stop at nothing, not even the death of the son, to recapture a humanity that has fallen away from God.  Yes, and to see the Son, resurrected in splendor, well, that is to see that we are all destined for the unending glory that called the eternal rest of the saints, no matter when this does or does not happen.
Admittedly, to know these things, to stake our very existence on their trustworthiness, well this is a difficult task. As my dear friend and colleague Kevin Maly put it, “we will go to the grave daring that God is good.”   For this is not an answer to when the world ends, assuming you all are interested in this question; nor is it even an answer to when life will let up a little bit, or when the people we love will find work or contentment. We cannot glibly assume we have the answers to such questions, and we are called to faith in spite of this lack. No, to these things we do not have the answers and to stake our faith upon believing we can somehow find God apart from Christ and his cross is to wade into very dangerous territory indeed.  For as we witnessed yesterday, once you begin down that path, once God is sought apart from the cross and open tomb, well, it is easy to end up on a path from which it is very hard to return.  So, no, the answers to those questions cannot be decoded using some sort of special biblical algorithm.  However, to the question of whether or not God has met us in the struggle, to the question of whether or not God can turn death into life, fear into boldness and anxiety into acceptance, look no further than Christ and cross.  For there, we have the most certain of answers: a God who has wed himself to our flesh, and a God who, because he has made the tomb his dwelling place, has in turn thrown open the gates of heavenly mansions, never to be again closed.  Do not, therefore, let your hearts be troubled.  For Christ is your way, your truth and your life.  Amen. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles  from Jerusalem,  14  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16  but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17  And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.   18  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?"  19  He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth,  who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20  and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23  and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."  25  Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26  Was it not necessary that the Messiah  should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"  27  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  28  As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29  But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them.  30  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32  They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us  while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"  33  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34  They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!"  35  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Well, you couldn’t really blame them for walking away, could you?  To be sure, their leaving Jerusalem, the place where it all went horribly wrong, was an act of resignation, a sort of giving up and facing facts.   But make no mistake, dear people, this sort of resignation is an act of courage, as well. For in their leaving of Jerusalem, there was no place any longer to hide from the pain and the guilt, the spectacle of the Passover no longer providing the noise that could drown out the memory of what went wrong. Yes, there was no longer any place to hide from the pain at the death of their rabbi and leader, this prophet mighty in Word and deed.  And there was not longer any refuge from the guilt that, at the very moment they should have been near, at the time of trial, they ran like cowards motivated by nothing more than self preservation.  So they walked, together, away from the place where they had seen Jesus die and saw a picture of themselves that was perhaps a bit too honest, for they had left him to die alone.   And while they might not have been there to comfort Jesus in his aloneness, they certainly were there to comfort one another now.  The simple presence of another body somehow drawing limits around the sorrow and betrayal that mingled together around them.  Yes, to walk away meant to own up to the facts; to know that life must return to its normal and grinding state, that their hope in this Jesus had ultimately been misplaced.  That God just might not have been as involved in all of this as they had once thought.
            And if you could not blame them for walking away, neither could you blame them for being astonished that this stranger had no idea what had just occurred in Jerusalem over the last several days.  To be sure, this question, “are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know about these things?” was probably a bit overwrought, a bit on the exaggerated side, but doesn’t that make all the more sense?  For these men were indeed grieving: grieving the death of Jesus, grieving the death of their hopes that God was finally acting for His people, grieving the death of a vision of themselves in which they would pay the ultimate cost for their cause.  In short, everything they had hoped about themselves and their God had turned out to be miserably and utterly wrong.   All of this had been reduced to nothing as Jesus died and they hid in back alleys, far away from any real danger.  And so they experienced the sort shrinking and compression of their worlds that attends any sort of grief and pain, the sort of shrinking in which one becomes convinced that the whole world is indeed experiencing the same pain and grief.  In these circumstances, when one bumps into an ignorant stranger, one who does not feel the same amount of pain or fear, and when that stranger’s ignorance suggests that there might be people who did not even hear about the death of this Jesus, well that sort of thing is an insult and prompts questions like “are you the only person who does not know about these things?”
            This question, this string of words that is less an inquiry and more an accusation, this is that deep expression of human pain and grief.  For our own struggles in this life prompt any number of questions that reveal the same fundamental injustice: the world, more often than not, seems indifferent to our trials and tribulations.  When we are having a hard time at work, or are having trouble accepting the fact that we might be a lot less patient and caring, less virtuous and brave, than we had hoped, or even more poignantly, when we had expected God to act in some dramatic fashion on our behalves and what transpired was not the drama of the divine but rather a terrible silence, yes when we are brought into any number of these sort of disappointments, we implicitly expect that those whom we meet will be attune to what we experience.   And when they are not, when they ask “what things?” with an infuriating indifference, our spirits are deeply troubled and we are shocked.  What do you mean that you do not know of my troubles and my trauma?  How could you possibly not know?  When we ask these questions, we give voice to the narrowing effect that grief has on us.  It becomes impossible for us to believe that anyone would not know what we are experiencing, for it is having such a profound impact on our lives.
            While the human dynamics present in this story, in our story, are entirely interesting, the greatest shock is how God responds.  To our question, “are you the only stranger who does not know about these things?”  God, in Christ, poses a more interesting question still:  “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Now, at first, the two questions seem to have nothing to do with each other: but that is where the greatest surprise comes to bear.  In our world where grief isolates us and we believe that we have God figured out and can predict the Spirit’s movement, the questions do not compute.  However, from God’s perspective, where the cross and empty tomb are necessary for God to get to us, the one answers the other. For when Jesus asks these two men this question about the Messiah’s suffering and all that it means, he is asking them to reconsider what they held as steadfast and true about the way that God works in the world.  Yes, Jesus is pointing them to this fact: that God often works against our expectations and God’s entry into our lives is frequently not when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our most desperate and fearful.    In short, God often walks up next to us when we are walking away from what we had hoped would be a triumph but instead was a failure, and who among us could not sing of the Christ’s sweet consolation in times of fear and pain, when we come to him not with our pride and supposed merit, but when we come to him as we are: broken and fearful, full of trembling doubt?  Yes, it is in those moments, when we admit our doubt and our fear, that the Christ comes up next to us, singeing away that grief and pain with the fire of his own brilliant and burning love.  Yes, it was necessary that the Messiah must suffer these things so as to answer our lonely and fearful questions with the robust presence of his resurrected body.  For now the resurrected Christ’s presence is not dependent upon our efforts or striving, for he is now just as real, just as present to us, when we are in need of forgiveness and healing, when we need a God who not will abandon us to our fear and failings.  Because the Christ has suffered his way into glory, those lonely questions that plague you no longer plague you alone.  For Christ himself hears them and by his holy and loving presence, transforms what was once only fear and pain into the life abundant.  And it is that sort of presence, that sort of divine transformation that has the potential to quite literally turn your life around, the road to Emmaus is now the road to Jerusalem, the road back to the place where the church will begin and where the disciples will be given the Holy Spirit and the power to proclaim Christ’s resurrection in word and deed.  For notice, please, how the disciples run back to Jerusalem, for if Christ is risen, then there is still work yet to be done, the work of proclaiming God’s goodness in all we say and do.  For now, now that the Christ has entered into his glory by the cross, that means that any place of fear or abandonment is a place where Christ himself is now active, bidding us to come join him as he has first joined us.  For Christ is risen, he is risen, indeed.  Alleluia.

Easter Sunday April 24

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen, indeed, Hallejuah!
The poet TS Eliot, in an attempt to describe European culture after the destruction of World War I wrote these now-famous words: “this is the way world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”   His was an attempt to describe the horror and silence that accompany the end of any such conflict, to speak an ironic word to those whom believed that history must culminate in some Hollywood-type ending with mass violence, machinery and all the rest.   One could easily, if so pressed, ply these words against those extreme apocalyptic cultural “prophets” who shout noisily about the end of all things.  Here I have in mind not only political commentators on the left and right, but also our entertainment industry and even much of what passes for popular American Christianity.  There seems to be at least one apocalyptic blockbuster every couple of years from the movie Armageddon from my time to the more current 2012 and others.  Yes, even more so, sources that purport to be religious instruction, like the Left Behind series, attempt to provide you with a treasure map so that you may avoid the world’s ending by believing the right things, but this phenomena is by no means limited to American Fundamentalism.  Martin Luther, for his part, believed that the world was coming to an end during the Reformation, and we can all get this feeling from time to time, depending on what is happening in and around our lives.   Life can create trauma to the point where we are convinced that the world, if it is not ending, is at least going through some radical transformation and shift. 
All good and well, but I suppose you are probably wondering just what any of this has to do with lilies and Easter egg hunts, to say nothing of Christ’s resurrection, that is what we are here to celebrate, after all.  Well, the question that I would like to pose to you today is this: what if Christ’s resurrection and the world’s end are in some ways the same event?  Now, clearly we have to qualify this a little bit.  For when we speak of the end of the world, we do not mean “the massive asteroid ending civilization once and for all unless Bruce Willis can blow up said asteroid in space type” event.    No, rather what we have in mind is what the ultimate destiny of humanity just might be.  For when we speak of being human, we know only thing that is certain: that we will die and, I guess,  pay taxes.  Our whole existence is determined by this fact.  Even those who claim no belief in God must reconcile themselves to the fact that life comes to an end: hence the optimism of phrases like “live each day to its fullest” and “squeeze as much joy as you can out of life,” which are true as far as they go.   These phrases stand as a testament to this all-pervading reality, and so we can say that human history is conditioned by the fact that it comes to an end. 
And it is this fact about human life, its ending, that is being confronted by the resurrection of the Christ who just three days past hung on a cross and was really and genuinely dead.  This is a fact that Mary Magdalene knows and voices well.  The dead do not rise, at least not yet, and this Mary Magdalene expresses this with a clear-eyed logic.  Whereas the other disciples run away from the tomb, Mary comes to what can only be the logical conclusion: someone has taken Jesus’ body away from the tomb, and the insult of this would be enough to make anyone weep.  So, she pursues a solution to this problem, even ignoring the presence of angels as tip off that some divine and holy mischief might be afoot.  Instead, though, of pondering on the presence of angels, she asks this man, this completely and utterly unimpressive man, if he knows what has happened to Jesus’ body.  Any respectable groundskeeper should know if someone has exhumed a grave on his territory, of course.
And it is into this water-tight logic, this worldview that knows that being human means dying once and for all, that this simple and world-ending word is spoken: Mary.  Yes, this resurrected Jesus now calls out Mary by name, and it only this personal address that grants Mary the faith to perceive what is presently happening.  It is when the resurrected Christ calls out her name that this Christ reveals that he himself has destroyed the power of death. Yes, this simple and small word, “Mary,” this transforms the very fabric of reality.  No longer will death have the last word; for that world has come to an end.  Oh Mary, you may continue to weep, but let sorrow no longer be the source of those tears.  For what was once incomprehensibly good and true has now come to pass.   Against all odds, against everything she knows to be true, against the certainty of Christ’s death on the cross, Christ now stands outside of his own tomb.  Yes, the world that was once conditioned by death and fear, that world has now come to an end.  For that most certain fact about life, namely that it results only death, that fact has now been defeated.    TS Eliot, then, was only partially correct.  The world might not end with a bang, but neither does it end with a whimper.  Instead, because Christ himself has defeated the power of death, the world ends with his rising up out of the tomb.  The world that was once determined by death and fear, the world in which you simply had to resign yourself to fate and sort of hope for the best, that world has come to a close.  For Christ lives and reigns with the Father, and he calls out your name.  For that is how the world ends, with the gentle and true voice of Christ calling your name.
Dearly beloved, if Easter means anything, it means that we need not beg at the idol of death, assuming that this life is all there is.   To be sure, this does not somehow mean that we are now immortal.  For Christ  had to pass through the grave, through death and hell itself, in order to come to the resurrection.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  But the astonishing, world-ending news of Easter that the grave will not have the last word.  Christ has opened to us the way of everlasting life, as we say at the communion liturgy.   His Father is now your Father, his God is now your God: which means that you have been gathered into the eternal splendor of the Father. Indeed, the gates of beauty, as the old hymn goes, have been throw wide open.   In Christ Jesus, this God has made you his own, and this love of the Father is so true, so broad, that eternity itself cannot hold it.  Instead, it spills over into the present and claims you right now.  It claims you against forces of fear and decay.  It claims you against  skepticism and mistrust of our neighbors and bids that we love as fervently as Christ loves us, loving and caring even for those we would name as enemies.   In this love that you now stand, you are free to love as extravagantly and widely as this mercy that now claims you, for you are named by God’s eternal care. Yes, this love of the Father, this love that Christ has given us, this love is no theoretical or abstract exercise.  Instead, it is the one reality that is truer than the grave and the hope on which the whole of reality now stands.   In the marvelous words of St. John of Chrysostom, a bishop in the early church:
“Let no one grieve at her poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it.”  
This is how the world ends, not with its destruction but with its resurrection.              For Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed, Hallelujah.