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. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lent 4

It was a gray March day, and we woke to dark omens. Scattered flakes of snow wandered across a flat Rocky Mountain sky. It was one those days in which winter was emptied of its romance, but spring had not yet consented to arriving. Somehow, we were in a space between seasons, and it is difficult to trust a season you cannot name.   My mother was startled out of her sleep by vague and terrible feelings.  Something, we knew not what, was wrong.  And then the phone rang.  My sister, diligent and punctual, had not yet shown up for work. She was late for the first in five years.    Her shift at the local restaurant started at 7:00am, and it was now 7:15am.  And then 7:30am, and then 7:45am.  And so phone calls were made.  Inquiries conducted.  Friends consulted.  Out of all this, a basic timeline came into view.  My sister had been out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with some girlfriends in Boulder, and had told them, as the night’s revelry finally ran down, that she would be driving up to Estes Park that night so that she could get a few hours of sleep in my parents’ condo before she went in to work.  And she never showed.  That condo was now brimming with her absence.  Her late night friends offered to drive up from Boulder to, well, to do what exactly?  That was the next question.  We called the cops.  We were told in that cold bureaucratic language that people, particularly adults, were permitted to go missing.  The police officer’s tone somehow suspicion of our intentions and dismissive of our concern.  Call again in 48 hours if she had not showed, and what are you so worried about, anyhow?   All this rational talk somehow floating above the increasingly urgent fears, ne’er the twain shall meet.   My sister’s friend arrived and hugged my mother.   After getting more details about last night, my father and I came to the same sinking conclusion: if my sister were to be found, it was now up to us to do so.  We outlined a plan, deciding that we would drive from Estes Park down to Boulder in search of her, with all the knowledge of a couple Law and Order episodes, we would now go in search of a missing person, trying as we were to ignore the more gruesome scenarios that attach themselves to words and phrases like “foul-play,” “attractive young woman goes missing,” “last seen coming out of a bar on Pearl St.”
My knees were weak and my stomach churned as we made our way to the car.  I couldn’t stand the tension.  I suspected the worst and thought about what it mean to eulogize my sister at such a young age.  I thought about her favorite songs and my favorite Scripture passages. I pondered what it would mean to comfort my mother as she mourned the death of her only daughter.  So we drove in silence down that canyon road in search of anything that would appease this painful unknown and unknowning abyss we were all in.  And then, around mile marker 10, I saw something out of my window.  Two snapped power lines.  Tree branches broken with great and violent force, and at the bottom of a very deep ravine, a car so mangled it looked as though it had been chewed up by some malevolent, otherworldly force.  I told my dad to pull over.  He immediately saw the same thing I did.  “Take it easy, now, Holmes,” he said with a voice already impacted by what this might mean, and I have never loved him more.  Even in that moment, he was concerned about me- “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”   So we shouted down this cliff to my sister, hoping that she could still hear us.  That there was still time.  “Erin,” my dad not so much said as pleaded with a loving ferocity that I will be lucky to ever see again in this life, and finally, after that gaping eternity between the seconds, we heard her call back.  My dad bounded down that mountain side with the purity of the angels and unfettered purpose.  For this daughter of his who was once dead was now alive.    She who was once lost was now found.
There were moments of peril certainly, as my sister recovered.  Snapped femurs, polluted lungs, gnarled psyches.   Much trauma from which to emerge.  I heard my dad’s cry of my sister’s name for weeks as I tried to fall asleep.  My father and I had the same experience in the car, that somehow, God’s own presence was with us.  We weren’t so much searching as we were being led by a force much more powerful than either of us.  And all of this, because life is precious. Because in the sight and heart and even guts of God, we matter more than we could begin to even imagine.  
And I don’t really know to whom you most relate in this much beloved parable.  Perhaps you see yourself as something of the lost son, as one who has strayed far from the grace and love of God and now questions whether your return will be met by open arms, or whether there will be some grumbling from the other pews wondering just how someone like that could have the nerve to return to a church.  Or maybe you see yourself as the faithful older brother type.  The one who has diligently and silently remained loyal in the midst of change, turmoil, and strife.  You, day-in and day-out, doing all those small things that merit not one iota of recognition by anyone else. One who has watched others come and go, and let’s be honest, resents these wayfaring strangers just a bit, resents that they are treated with the same love and grace as those of us who have put in our time, thank you very much.  Or it could be that you see yourself in this strange Father figure-this one who endures insult and absence from his youngest son, and yet continues to scan the horizon for just one glimpse that his son may be alive.  And upon receiving this glimpse, rushes, does not wait, but rushes out to greet this wayward child and celebrates, well, celebrates his very existence.  Yes, it might be that, in all the ways you are vulnerable to those whom you  love, children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, husbands and wives, yes, that in this father you see your own concern and care for your beloved, your own exposure to the choices  they make.  Or, in the most likely of scenarios, my hunch is that we can see something of ourselves in all three of these characters.  Part loyal and dutiful, part reckless and frightened of what our lives have become, part waiting and anxious parent who just wants your loved one to be alright. 
But in all of these roles, in all the tumult of what it is to love and be loved, know this: God’s love for you is a reality so intense, so all-consuming, that we can barely register it in the small frames of our minds.  This God, to be as frank about it as possible, adores yours, watches the horizon closely for your presence, and in a very real sense, refuses to ever live without you.  This God, like a father bounding down a mountain hill to hear again his daughter’s voice, to smell again her hair, to feel her breath and know that she is alive, yes, this God will seek and search for you until you have been brought safely back home. Yes, in point of fact this God will not just bound down a hill, but will rather climb up one, we called it Golgatha, and there will die a cosmic death so that you may become the righteousness of God.  And fear not, that this God loves others with the same fervor does not dissipate the intensity of love for you.  And knowing that, perhaps we can again become a place where the waiting Father’s presence is made known for the whole of creation. A place where all who wish for a home may be greeted with open arms.  For really, the banquet is not complete if but one is missing.  In Jesus’ name, amen.