Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Easter 3A: "But we had hoped..."

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” (Luke 24.13‑15)

Cleopas and his friend were indistinguishable from the other pilgrims returning to their homes after that Passover. Observant Jews, they had “gone up to Jerusalem” for Passover, one of three feasts designated by the Torah as “feasts of pilgrimage”, occasions when Jews were directed to go, if at all possible, to the holy city of Jerusalem.

Yet, if one looked more closely at them, one might discern a heaviness of step, a downcast look, an occasional tear falling from their eyes. And if one had overheard their conversation, one would have been very surprised indeed.

Here and there on the narrow dirt track that sloped gently down from the Judean highlands toward the coastal plain small groups of pilgrims walked. Then, as the sun dipped into the Mediterranean and the shadows began to stretch from the hills toward the sea, a solitary figure joined the two engaged in intense conversation.

“Shalom aleichem”, he said. The ancient Hebrew greeting meant, “Peace be with you.” “Shalom”, they replied.

“What are you talking about?”

And Cleopas began to tell him the story that had already gone over and over again and that they would be repeating for the rest of their lives.

“His name was Jesus and he came from Nazareth. That’s where we met him—in Galilee, for we, too, are Galileans. He came to our synagogue one Sabbath and the president of the synagogue asked him to read from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus came to the bema, the platform on which the lectern holding the scrolls stood, and he read, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ...he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’. But he didn’t just read the words; he lived out their meaning. Wherever he went the blind saw, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed. We rejoiced and wondered, for it seemed as if he was the one God had sent to redeem Israel. And then he set out for Jerusalem. We followed, ecstatic with anticipation. At last, we thought, Roman tyranny will be overthrown and God will restore the throne of David. But we were wrong, oh, how wrong! One of our own company betrayed him; Jesus was given a mock trial, and the Roman procurator sent him to the cross.
He died on the cross, that we know, but three days later, some foolish women went to the tomb and came back with an unbelievable tale. They said that his tomb was empty. They even said that angels had appeared to them saying that he had risen. But how can we believe that? It’s just too good to be true.”

The stranger listened intently to all that Cleopas said, and then replied, “What is unbelievable about the tale of the women? Is it more unbelievable than the story of our father Abraham who was already old when God promised that he would become the father of nations? Is it more unbelievable than the story of a handful of defeated slaves in Egypt whom God redeemed with signs and wonders? Is it more unbelievable than the story of Judah’s exiles who wept by the rivers of Babylon and then returned and rebuilt the Temple that stands in Jerusalem to this day? Yes, God has promised that Messiah will come but God’s Messiah may come in humility, not grandeur. He may come to share in our suffering before he brings us God’s victory.”

And so they continued until they come to Emmaus. Cleopas implored the stranger to stay with them and not go on to his destination. After they had rinsed the dust from their hands, Cleopas set a simple supper of bread and wine on the table. And as each of them took bread and said the ancient Hebrew blessing, the eyes of Cleopas and his companion were drawn to the stranger as he lifted the bread from the table and blessed and broke and gave it to them. And then... he was gone.

We may not go again to walk with Cleopas and his companion from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But we may find a stranger walking with us as we go down the roads of our lives. For surely, the experience of Jesus’ disciples will be our experience, too. We, like them, may find our hopes shattered. What Cleopas said to the mysterious stranger was deeply poignant, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

How often have we said, “But we had hoped...”?

“But we had hoped... that we would be successful in getting work... but we had hoped... that this relationship would last and bring love and contentment to our lives... but we had hoped ... that the doctors would find a cure...”

And perhaps as we wondered if we had hoped in vain, did someone draw near and speak a word of comfort and hope to us? Did someone remind us that God has entered into human life in all its joy and sorrow? Did someone remind you that on the Cross God took and blessed and broke God’s own life and offered it to us in the midst of suffering so that all human sadness and pain might become vehicles of God’s presence?

Are you saying even now, “But we had hoped...”? Then draw near to this table, where Jesus invites us to take again the bread that he blessed and broke and gave. And open your eyes and your hearts and be hopeful. The women who went to the tomb were right: he is risen. Alleluia! He is risen, indeed!

Easter 2A: Breaking out and breaking in

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’.” (John 20.19-31)

A few years ago the action/adventure hit of the summer was the Nicholas Cage movie The Rock It is set in San Francisco, and the plot concerns a terrorist takeover of the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island. To defeat them the U.S. government must break into the prison. Who better to break into the prison than someone who had previously escaped from Alcatraz? But Alcatraz had been so secure that only one man had ever escaped from it, and that is the man to whom the government turned in desperation.

And what, you might well ask, does The Rock have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
The gospel of Easter Day is great, good news, indeed: Jesus rose from the dead. If you will, he escaped from the prison of death that awaits each of us. The great hymns of Easter celebrate this aspect of the Feast of the Resurrection: “He is risen, he is risen! Tell it out with joyful voice: he has burst his three days’ prison; let the whole wide earth rejoice.”

But the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is even better news: No sooner had Christ broken out of the prison of death than he broke into the prison of fear in which his followers were still trapped.

Nothing illustrates this better than the story in John 20.19-31: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus’ followers had not yet grasped the reality of the resurrection; they had not yet begun to live into the meaning of Easter.

Easter is about Christ’s escape from the tomb, but it is not about his escape from his humanity. The miracle of Easter is not so much that Christ rose from the dead; if he was the Son of God, that is what one would expect. The miracle is that he remains bound by love to his followers, and comes to be with us in the trials, hardships, and fears of human life.

The Rock is a misleading movie. Its makers would have us believe that Alcatraz was the most secure prison in the world. However, the thickest prison walls are those of the prison of fear in which so many live. And yet fear is a prison locked from the inside; the key is always in our hands.

The taste of fear is all too familiar to us: the disciples feared the Jewish authorities, the child fears the dark. and all of us fear death. But the Christ who “burst his three days prison” specializes in breaking into the prisons of fear that we build for ourselves.

Charles Wesley put it well in his hymn “And can it be”:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

When we live into the promise of the resurrection, we can let go of fear, and take hold of the promise of the Risen Christ: “Peace be with you”. Even in the midst of fear, the Risen Christ comes to speak peace. But he gives us more than a word; he gives us himself. Just as the Risen Christ stretched out his wounded hands to Thomas, he stretches them out to us.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Bad News of Easter

A few years ago I participated in a seminar with clergy of several different denominations. In a discussion of the passion narratives of the four gospels, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church said, “I think we are embarrassed by the crucifixion.” After a moment of thought, I challenged him. “I don’t think the crucifixion embarrasses us as much as the resurrection. After all, we’ve all seen what the world does to brave people who speak out – they become martyrs. But what we haven’t seen is anyone rise from the dead.” We haven’t seen it; we don’t expect it; and maybe we would not only be embarrassed by it, we might even prefer that it didn’t happen.

Why would that be? Why might we wish the dead to stay dead? Well, for one thing, it’s much safer for all of us if the dead stay safely in their graves. We all admire Dr. King for raising his brave voice against discrimination and prejudice and leading the fight for civil rights. Does anyone not get teary-eyed when they hear his “I have a dream” speech? The nation mourned when he was assassinated in Memphis, and we designated a national holiday in his honor. But could there be just a tiny corner in most hearts that is relieved that he is silent? What might Dr. King have to say to us today? Would he speak out against the terrible disparity between rich and poor? Would he challenge our policies in the Middle East? Our indifference to the AIDS crisis in the developing world? We are familiar with martyrdom; we mourn when the good and the brave are cut down and silenced – the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther Kings – but would we really want them to come back to challenge our complacency and indifference?

Could it be that Jesus’ disciples felt that way? The gospels tell us that on the morning of the resurrection, the women took spices and other embalming supplies with them to the place where Jesus had been buried. Of course, they were performing the last kindness that one friend can do for another – to prepare his body for its eternal rest. Of course, they were grief-stricken because their friend and teacher had been given a mock trial, tortured by the police, and put to death on the cross. But could they also have been a tiny bit relieved? Could they have thought, “We will miss his stories of good Samaritans and prodigal sons, wise maidens and unjust judges, lilies of the field and seed sown among the rocks and thorns. Who will restore sight to the blind and cleanse lepers, free the possessed from demonic power and .... but neither will he again challenge us to take up the cross, to lose our lives for the sake of the kingdom, to be glad when we are reviled and persecuted. Life is hard enough without that.”

But when they arrived at the tomb, they found it empty. How did they react? Did their hearts leap? Did they dance a jig or burst out in laughter or song because he had risen? The gospels tell us that their reaction was fear. What did they fear? They may have feared the challenges that Jesus had set before them and sets before us -- the challenge to be poor in spirit, to embrace mourning, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. Life is so much easier without these things. We want comfort, not challenge; ease, not adventure.

By and large, we want life to be stable and predictable. However, we worship a God of surprises. We worship a God who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty; who promises us that life abundant and everlasting is to be found not in safety but in risking our lives for the sake of the gospel.

Life is so much easier when we have three meals a day; when we know that General Hospital is always on at one o’clock in the afternoon; when school is out at three and mom or dad comes home from work at five-thirty; when there are drinks at six and dinner at seven. But when a stranger barges into our lives and commands us to drop our nets and follow him; to put down our knitting needles or hammers or turn off our computers and plunge into the great adventure that is God’s plan for the universe –no, that’s a little too much for us. We want to know who will pay for our medical insurance, who will feed the dog or cat, how we will pay the Visa bill, who will pick the kids up after school. Thanks for the parables and miracles; they’re lovely and we’d like to keep them, but we can do without the resurrection.

But surprise, disruption, and resurrection has been God’s plan from the beginning. To be sure, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; they moaned, they complained, they cried out and God heard them and raised up Moses to lead them out of bondage. But what happened as soon as they were free? “Why have you brought us out of Egypt only to let us die of hunger and thirst in this wilderness?”

Have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? Stockholm syndrome is the tendency of the captive to identify with the captor. It’s the reason that Patty Hearst assisted her captors in robbing banks and other terrorist activities. We saw a shocking example of it recently in the case of Elizabeth Smart, the 14 year old Utah girl who was kidnapped a few months ago. When the police finally found her and arrested her kidnappers, she seems to have denied that she was the missing girl, not once but several times.

Captives identify with their captors because it is safer. We naturally assume that we are less likely to be harmed if we blend in, fade into the background of our environment, mouth the ideology of those with power over us. Perhaps this partly explains the reason that many in Russia say that the murderous Stalin was a wise and effective leader or why many Iraqis preferred life under Saddam to their new-found freedom.

We want life to be predictable, and the older we get, the more predictable we want it to be. But God finds ways to surprise, upset, and disrupt us. We prefer the sofa, the television, the internet; in short, we prefer the tomb of our own safety and comfort. But we worship a God of the living, not of the dead, a God who calls us out of the tombs of our own making. We worship a God of resurrection.

I hope you will not misunderstand me if I say that St. Peter’s has been more dead than alive for some time. There are many reasons for that, and this is not the time or place to go into them. But God has never allowed St. Peter’s to die. You have continued to pray, to work for justice, to offer hospitality to strangers. I believe that God’s will for St. Peter’s is resurrection. But resurrection may not happen in a moment, a day, a week, or a year. Jesus’ followers waited three days for him to rise again; the resurrection of St. Peter’s may take much longer. But I believe it will happen and I believe that the signs of resurrection are all around us – new members, people assuming new responsibilities, Elyse’s youth program, Servant Year, people in the neighborhood once again noticing us and seeking us out.

Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the ending of Mark’s gospel. There are at least three possible endings for Mark’s gospel, and all of them are well-supported by ancient manuscripts. However, the most likely ending of Mark is also the strangest. More than likely, the last four words of Mark’s original ending were: “and they were afraid”. What an odd, even bizarre ending! Why would the women who went to the tomb, saw an angel sitting there, and heard the outrageously good news of the resurrection flee in terror?

I think we know why. Resurrection seems too good to be true. We do not want to be hurt or disappointed. We want our lives to be safe, predictable, , boring, dead. I know I do!! But God has other plans for us. God’s plan for us is resurrection, surprise, amazement, joy incomprehensible and full of wonder. So lose your fear, forget about comfort, embrace God’s adventure, drop your net and make a mad dash after the mysterious stranger who invites you to participate in God’s magnificent, surprising, and unpredictable plan for your life. Sing aloud, shout the Easter alleluia, dance a jig, for Christ is risen. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Sunday, March 06, 2005

"The day the Lord has made": A meditation

"This is the day that the Lord has made; we will be glad and rejoice in it."

Psalm 118 is one of the psalms of ascent, a psalm which pilgrims sang as they made their way up toward Jerusalem and eventually up the steps of the Temple platform into the sacred precincts. It is also one of those verses that we have heard so much that we have ceased to hear its real meaning. It has become a kind of ritual noise that is often made at the beginning of the liturgy: the bell rings, the organ plays, the pastor says, “This is the day that the Lord has made” and we lapse into autopilot.

Stop for just a moment and think about the first half of this verse. The Psalmist affirms something remarkable. God has made this day. These twenty-four hours of light and dark are an artifact, a creature, a gift. They are something that Someone has made and given to us. At the beginning of all things, Genesis tells us God made day and night: “and the evening and the morning were the first day… and God saw that it was good…”

Just think: time itself is a creature, no less than you and I and blue whales and amoebae and Mt Rainier are creatures. Time is like the air we breathe or the ocean we bathe in. It is a medium in which we live, but it, too, had a beginning and will have an end. God created time and gave it to us.

However, there is more to this familiar phrase. The Psalmist had in mind a particular time-- the Sabbath. After God had created day and night, the creatures that swim in the sea and those that walk on the land and fly in the air and after God had created humans in the divine image, then God created a special day, the Sabbath. The Psalmist was referring first and foremost to the Sabbath. God gave us one day out of seven on which we may step back into Eden (or at least poke our big toe through a crack in the wall). On the Sabbath Jews refrain from work as a sign that the curse that made work a burden will one day disappear. God and humankind have been estranged from the moment that Adam and Eve felt the apple’s juice run down their chins, but in the Sabbath prayers that estrangement is overcome.

What does God invite us to do with this day that he has made? Does he invite us to work? Not at all. In fact, God explicitly forbids Israel to work on the Sabbath. Does God invite us to mourn our sins and shortcomings and repent? We may need to do those things on the Sabbath as on any other day, but that is not what God bids us do on the day he has made. Rather, the Psalmist reminds us that the Lord’s day is a day when we are to “rejoice and be glad”.

Another thing to note about this familiar verse is that its second half acknowledges only one way to employ our time on the Lord’s day, namely, to rejoice and be glad. Someone has said that praise is the proper employment of our hearts and voices. On the Lord’s day, we are commanded to be joyful. Long before contemporary psychology came to this insight, the Psalmist realized that we have a choice about our emotional lives. We can dwell in misery and sadness, or we can rejoice and be glad.

For Christians, however, the meaning of the “day that the Lord has made” is different. Like Jews, Christians affirm that time is God’s good gift, and that it, too, is a creature. Just as setting aside a portion of our finances for God’s work is a sign that all that we have belongs to God, so setting aside one day in seven for God’s service bears witness to the fact that all of our time belongs to God, as well. However, the day that Christians acknowledge God has made, the day on which we are invited to “rejoice and be glad,” is not the seventh day but the first day. Christians affirm that the first day is the Lord’s because it is the day of resurrection.

The resurrection imparts new meaning to Psalm 118. This psalm is the psalm we traditionally read during the principal service on Easter Day, and that is no accident. Like every other creature, the time that God created will come to an end. But Easter is God’s great promise that all of creation will be redeemed and restored, even time. I once heard theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne say that the new heaven and earth that God promises in the Book of Revelation rather than being timeless must in some sense incorporate time redeemed. It is an intriguing thought that is simply beyond my comprehension, but it seems intuitively correct. If the purpose of creation is to be redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then surely the new heaven and earth must include time redeemed.

Had we nothing more of the Bible than this one verse, it would be almost enough. It reminds us of the essential facts of the Bible. God made the world and everything in it; time, no less than human life, is finite. In fact, it may be the very finitude of life that makes rejoicing imperative.

Perhaps I have gone a bit too far afield. We live beyond Eden and before the general resurrection. But when we rejoice and are glad in the day that the Lord has made, then we begin to live, however tentatively, in that day which is yet to come, when all our thoughts and words will be praise, and sorrow will be swallowed up in joy everlasting.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Lent 5A: Jesus wept

The Fourth Gospel, the one we commonly refer to as the Gospel according to St. John, is the only gospel that specifies an author. John, chapter 21, verse 20 reads: "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper..." And verse 24 of that chapter reads: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them..." So, the Fourth Gospel was written by the Beloved Disciple, but that begs the question, Who was the Beloved Disciple?

In his book Lazarus and the Fourth Gospel Community (Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), Frederick Baltz argues convincingly that the author was not John but Lazarus. However, Baltz is not the first to argue this; William Hull made a case for this in his commentary on John in the Broadman Bible Commentary series (Broadman Press, 1973.

The text of the Fourth Gospel drops numerous hints about the identity of the author. Verse 3 of chapter 11 reads: "Lord, he whom you love is ill"; verse 5 reads: "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus"; and verse 35 tells us that when Jesus wept, the bystanders observed, "See how he loved him". And twice, in verses 33 and 38, the text tells us that Jesus was deeply moved by Lazarus's death.

The case for Lazarus' authorship is so strong, one wonders why anyone ever thought that John wrote the Fourth Gospel! Surely Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, would have been supremely capable of testifying convincingly of the love and power of Jesus. It would make sense that he would want to tell the story of Jesus as it is related in the Fourth Gospel.

But whether or not Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple is beside the point. What I want to emphasize is that Jesus is a person who had friends, who loved them deeply, and that the death of a friend moved him to tears.

I find that a comforting thought. Jesus was no stoic philosopher; he was not a stained glass saint or a plaster deity on a pedestal; he was a man who wept before the tomb of a friend.

Jesus had a wide circle of friends. He shared meals with them and told them stories. And with him as with us, the bonds of friendship deepened and grew strong. And when a person dear to his heart grew ill and died, Jesus grieved and wept.

When the vast stone of mortality rolls across the tomb of those we love, Jesus stands there weeping with us.

The surprising part of this story is not that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; that is what we would expect. The surprise is that Jesus wept.

If Jesus was the divine Son of God, if he was the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, then it would be a snap for him to turn water into wine, it would be routine for him to heal the blind, and he would surely be able to raise the dead with ease. What one would not expect him to do is weep. The story of Lazarus tells us what we already knew, namely that God in Christ has the power to raise the dead. But it also tells us what we could not have dreamed in our wildest imaginations -- that the heart of God is touched by human grief, that in the very heart of God are human tears.

I find deep comfort in the image of Jesus weeping outside the tomb of his friend, but the story, thank God, does not end with that image.

The story does not end with Jesus weeping outside a Judean tomb, for if it did, we would be, as Paul said, "The most miserable of human beings". The last word is not "Jesus wept"; it is "Lazarus, come forth".

Christ, and God in Christ, weeps with us in our suffering, but more, much more than that, he is there when we die to say to us as he said to Lazarus: "Come forth".

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Lent 4A: The vision thing

Obviously, this week’s readings from 1 Samuel and John are connected by the theme of vision. In the first reading, Samuel is seeking a king for Israel. What one generally seeks in a king is strength, but God dismissed Jesse’s tall, strapping sons one by one. Instead, God had Samuel anoint the runt of the litter-- young David.

In the reading from John, the vision in question is that of a man “blind from birth”. When his vision is restored he is able to see something that the Pharisees remained blind to, namely, that Jesus is the light of the world.. The irony, of course, is that the formerly blind man can see more clearly than the Pharisees with their 20/20 vision.

At this point it would be tempting for a preacher to talk to her congregation about how we are often blind to the world around us – to both its needs and its blessings --or to remind us that we are often blind to spiritual realities – our need to forgive and be forgiven, for example. But I don’t think that is where these readings are leading us.

The author of 1 Samuel is not concerned with our blindness to the flowers that bloom in the spring or even our blindness to spiritual things. What this writer wants us to see is that God is in charge of the world. God first selected then rejected Saul as Israel’s king. The Spirit that comes upon David when Samuel anoints him is the same Spirit that departs from Saul in 16:14, namely, “the Spirit of the Lord”. To be sure, the writer wants to correct our vision, but not so that we can see the beauty of the world, but so that we can see the illusion of human power and autonomy. It is God who rules the world; kings, presidents, and prime ministers are merely God’s instruments.

Similarly, John’s gospel is not concerned with a vaguely spiritual form of visual impairment or improvement. Jesus restores vision to the man blind from birth not so that he can enjoy the “lilies of the field” but so that he can bear witness to the “light that shines in the darkness” (John 1.5). When this nameless man receives his vision, he does not have a sudden improvement in his quality of life; rather, he is ostracized and shunned. The story shows us just how costly the gift of God’s grace can be.

God cautions Samuel not to “look on the outward appearance” but to “look with the heart.” Most of us who preach on these readings will be tempted to make our real text this wonderful sentence from Antoine de Saint- ExupĂ©ry’s The Little Prince. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It’s a good text and might be appropriate for a talk to the Rotary Club, but it’s not what the Bible is telling us. God longs to give us the vision he gave to both Samuel and the man blind from birth, but are we ready to receive it? Samuel was quite clear about the consequences of seeing with God’s eyes: “If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” (1 Sam. 16.2) If God opens our eyes the way Jesus opened the eyes of the man in John 9, then we will see that the powers of this world can maintain the status quo only by declaring themselves to be the real arbiters of the truth and by turning a blind eye to God’s new work in Jesus. We will see the spiritual bankruptcy of our self-aggrandizement and that the Cross is God’s judgment on human pretensions. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, real vision is costly; it is free but not cheap.