"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Entering the Passion

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 15:1-47

Sometimes I struggle with the “play-acting” quality of our Holy Week liturgies. When we reenact Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, tromping and shivering around the parking lot, dragging our palms through the air self-consciously, it is hard for me to feel the proper jubilation. When we dip our toes into perfumed water on Maundy Thursday while others touch our calluses, it is hard for me to get past the urgency of my own embarrassment. When we pray over the bread and wine of the agape meal, it is a challenge for me to move my prayers beyond the 21st century hum of the ice machine in the fellowship hall kitchen. When we walk the Stations of the Cross, the ridiculously short distance from one station to the next in our little church can seem stunted, as if I am a little girl pretending to live in my doll house.
Why do we Christians, from the earliest days of the Church, reenact so carefully the last days of our Lord Jesus? Often, I’m afraid that we get caught up in a historical mindset. We long to go “back in time,” to feel what Jesus felt, to see what Jesus saw. We want to be there, to see Jesus of Nazareth, like a movie-goer watches what happens on the screen and feels as if she is there with the actors. I think that’s why the cars in the parking lot and the ice machine in the fellowship hall get in the way of my Holy Week commemoration. It’s as if the characters in a medieval drama that I’m watching are wearing wrist watches or carrying i-phones, interfering with the historical accuracy of my imaginary time-travel.
The purpose of the liturgies, however, is not to allow us to watch Jesus make his way to the Cross, as if seeing the events more clearly would somehow allow us to understand them. The purpose of the liturgies is to invite us to enter Jesus’ Passion ourselves. Instead of us asking, “God, help me to see Jesus, so that I can feel as if I really believe that these things happened once upon a time,” God is asking us to give our entire attention to the story that we are entering: to a story that happened once upon a time but that is still happening today—in our world and in our lives.
I was interested to read that the Passion story in Mark’s Gospel, from which we will read today, could have originally been written as this same kind of participatory drama. Some scholars believe that early Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem would have moved from place to place in the city, walking in Jesus’ footsteps. At each sacred site in Jesus’ final journey, the pilgrims would have recited what happened there, read appropriate words from the Hebrew Bible, said some prayers, and then the groups would have moved on to the next site. They would have ended at the tomb with the announcement, “He is not here; he is risen.” Mark’s Passion Gospel was their script in this ritual of prayerful commemoration.[1]
In a few moments, you will hear a dramatic reading of this script. As the narrator begins, think about the story that you are entering. You know that, as we listen, the ground is going to shift under our feet. Little by little, everyone is going to turn away from Jesus: the crowds, the authorities, even his closest friends and disciples. You are going to watch the Passover King turn into the suffering victim—isolated and completely alone. And God is not going to intervene. God is not going to call the shots. The ugly and unjust powers of the world are going to take control.[2] With the families of those on the German Wings flight, with the prisoners held by ISIS, with the poor and the unemployed, with the sick and the dying, with you and with me, Jesus is going to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” As you listen, don’t stifle his cry. Your mind might try to jump ahead to Easter or to hunt for distractions and excuses to observe the scene from afar, rather than to enter the story. The idea that God’s power can be found in such apparent weakness goes against every fiber of our being. Yet, God’s total presence with us in the depths of our human suffering is the Good News that sets us free.
I will be interested to see what happens today in our hearts when we shake our ancient liturgy up a little bit. We are going to take up our veiled Cross again today at the end of our service, and we are going to parade back out of the church waving our palms once more. This time, we don’t have to pretend that we don’t know the tragic turn that our story will take, for we will have already entered into Mark’s Gospel. This time, we aren’t going to head right back into the safety of our church building, either. We are going to take our crosses made out of palm leaves, and we are going to walk all the way over into the hustle and bustle of Westport Plaza. We are really going to enter the world, in all of its busy distraction, in all of its injustice, in all of its suffering. And, our own hearts heavy with the Passion of Jesus, we are going to offer crosses to anyone who will take one. This time, there is no play-acting involved. This time, it is clear that we have entered the story, and our lives are in the hands of a God who loves us so much that he joined us in our pain and turned our bondage into freedom.
I just read a beautiful blog post that is written in Jesus’ name to the Christians of Indiana, following the recent unfortunate court ruling in that state. The author has Jesus write: “This wild, extravagant, world-altering love I have for my people, was intended to travel from my aching heart, through your trembling hands, to my hurting people.”[3] May the crosses that we pass out today be filled with the “wild, extravagant, world-altering love” of Jesus’ life, death, and passion. May they pass through our weak and trembling hands, in order to reach God’s hurting people, in the Kroger parking lot and in all of the places that we enter, as the Story  of God’s saving Love continues.

[1] Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark,  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 54.
[2] Ibid., 55f.
[3] John Pavlovitz, A Letter to Christians in Indiana, From Jesus,” found at http://johnpavlovitz.com.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Moldy Alleluia's

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
 Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today, I have to tell a story on myself. On that first cold and snowy Sunday of Lent, you might remember that I invited the kids to come forward to plant “Alleluia seeds” in our Lenten chest here by the pulpit. I had put some good potting soil in the bottom, and I handed the children some large seeds, which were really gourd seeds. Following my instructions, the kids pushed the gourd seeds down into the soil with eager fingers, and then we closed the lid and circled the box with heavy chains, entombing those “Alleluia’s” for Lent just as securely as Jesus’ body had been sealed inside of his tomb. The idea was that, on the Saturday before Easter, I would surreptitiously  help God perform a little “miracle,” by opening up the box and inserting some colorful pansies that I had bought at the store. The gourds, of course, would not have grown, and when you all arrived on Easter Sunday, the box lid would be thrown open, a banner proclaiming “Alleluia” would unfurl, and each child would be able to take home an Easter flower, resurrected from the box.
          A week or so ago, I was here in the church planning the Easter banner placement with Julie, when Rob came up from the organ and pointed out that we had better check on the seeds in that box. “It’s going to get nasty in there,” he warned. “Without light and air, those seeds are going to mold in that damp soil, and it’s all going to start stinking. You had better take them out before Holy Saturday.”
Yuck, I do not like mold. So I gingerly unwound the chains and opened the box, my lip curled and nose wrinkled in the expectation of finding death and rot. But guess what we found?! Those gourd seeds had sprouted! Without any light or air or water, ghostly pale shoots—some of them 5 or 6 inches tall—were tottering on thin, twisted stalks in that box. At the base of each shoot was a wad of nasty grey mold, like a little cloud. But out of those grey clouds of death, pale life was struggling to emerge, despite the chains, despite the darkness.
          I marveled. It was almost like a miracle—a miracle that I hadn’t controlled or orchestrated. But it wasn't the happy Easter miracle that I had wanted. That Easter miracle was joyfully colorful, and it did not involve mold. Somewhat reluctantly and with a sigh, I rolled up those little plants in a plastic garbage bag, along with the moldy soil, and I threw the whole thing in the trash. Now the box is clean and ready for Easter, I thought. I’ll just get some more potting soil on Holy Saturday, and I’ll plant my pansies in there, and we’ll be all set for light and music and joy and Alleluia’s on April 5.
          I didn’t really feel bad until I read today’s Gospel. 
          There were some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. They were looking for Truth. They were seeking God. They had perhaps heard of Jesus’ healing miracles. They had perhaps heard snippets of his wise teaching. So they asked around, checking with those among Jesus’ followers who could speak Greek. “We want to see Jesus,” they inquired. “Which one is he?” 
          But then what happened? John’s Gospel doesn’t describe for us their encounter with Jesus. What did they say to him? What did they think? We have only Jesus’ address to the disciples: that depressing comment about the seed planted in the earth that has to die in order to bear fruit. I imagine that those Greeks took one look at Jesus, the scruffy Galilean rabbi, with his dust-stained robes and his dirty bare feet, standing amid a crowd of shabby-looking Jewish peasants, smelly fishermen, and low-life women, and they didn’t see what they were looking for. I imagine that they looked at Jesus like I looked at the weak plants in our Lenten chest: “This is not the miracle that I’m looking for,” they might have mumbled. “This is not the God who can save me.”And perhaps they turned and walked away.
          And who can blame them? Who doesn’t prefer the pansies of our own devising over the sickly shoots that we find when we open the box? “Why does Jesus have to die?” we whine. Why would God kill God’s own beloved Son? Why does Jesus tell us that we have to die in order to live? Why is Christianity so full of death, so full of talk about failure and suffering and loss?
          In our world, we sure don’t like to talk about death. Even though we know, deep down, that we will all die, we don’t like to dwell on it.[1] We try to cover up our aging with creams and vitamins and even surgery. As a society, we tell ourselves that enough money or enough power over others can protect us from death. We even strike out at other persons and nations in order to kill them before they can kill us. We lose ourselves in work, in drugs, and in all kinds of addictions in order to push down the fear of our own vulnerability. Survival is the name of the game in our world. Just look at the old TV show, “Survivor.” It is all about doing whatever it takes to “survive,” to win the game, no matter who else is hurt or trampled on. On that show, even team cooperation is only an artificial and temporary path to individual triumph.  The appearance of working together with others on a challenge is only thinly veiled manipulation. We humans alone, over all other creatures, are able somehow to fool ourselves that, with enough effort and control, we can avoid death. Why nurture moldy little gourd sprouts when we can throw them out and buy Easter flowers?
          Jesus has to die in order to prove to us that God is stronger than death, and that “survival” at all costs is a poor substitute for true relationship with God and with one another. Jesus has to die, so that he can rise, so that he can be lifted up to where we Greeks can see him, to where we Greeks won’t wrinkle our noses and turn away toward life’s false yet glittering promises. Rowan Williams writes, “the importance of Jesus’ resurrection is not that it somehow proves there is life after death in a general sort of way. What it proves is that God keeps his promises … The violent and terrible death of Jesus does not stop God from giving what he wants to give, giving consistently and steadily. If Jesus is raised, we can count on the faithfulness of God.”
          Do you believe that the love and faithfulness of God are stronger than death—stronger than death in all of its fearsome forms? Physical death, emotional death, the death of dreams, the death of desires, the death of perfection? How much of yourself do you dare plant in the ground, willing to let it die so that God can transform it, and use it in ways beyond your control?
          I didn’t have to look far and wide for examples for today’s sermon. Fortunately—or unfortunately—they were laid this week in my empty lap. So I have two more stories today for you to place alongside my story of the Alleluia seeds. First of all, I hold up today two very brave and daring parishioners—two parishioners who believe enough in God’s faithfulness to risk a form of death. Harvey and Chuck both heard God’s call to service, and they publicly entered the discernment process for the diaconate. Years of study, years of prayer, years of painful change in their lives and schedules, years of exposure to the prying eyes of the Church: years of vulnerability. While Harvey withdrew from the process last year, Chuck learned just this week that the Church hears a call for him to special lay ministry, rather than to the diaconate. While Chuck accepted disappointment with the mature, steady reaction that we would expect from him, I know that hearing a “no” from the church like this is like a death: it is the death of deeply cherished dreams and hopes, the death of a certain self-image before God. Putting oneself in the vulnerable position for that death to happen is like allowing oneself to be buried in the breathless darkness of the earth. As their brothers and sisters in Christ, however, with faith in God’s faithfulness, we will be there to watch the transformation as Chuck and Harvey grow into the new life that God has in store for them—the new life that won’t look like the life of their imaginings, the life of their own construction—but it will be the kind of divine life that bears fruit and holds eternity deep within it. It will be a life that they would not have known, had they not first opened themselves up to know death.
          The other death that we are facing as a parish right now is the death of our Saturday night informal mass. The numbers and the energy at this service have been fading over the past few years, and yet I have wanted to avoid its “death.” I have not really trusted in God’s faithfulness—instead, it was all about what I as rector could do to keep the service alive. As we enter Holy Week, however, I have decided, with the counsel of the Vestry and after discussion with Saturday attendees, that we will bury this service in the ground after Palm Sunday, and we will wait to see what new plant comes up sometime after Easter. I don’t know how long the seed will have to germinate in the dark before something new arises. I don’t know if the fruit that it will bear will be the Easter pansies of my imagining, pansies of a popular and wildly successful new service, on a different day… But I do know that God is faithful, and that this death will somehow bear fruit for us at St. Thomas, and for God’s Kingdom.
          We all love the joy and triumph of Easter Sunday. My wish for us as a parish however, is that when the pansies and the Alleluia’s come out on Easter—and they will—we will remember the real story of life arising from the darkness of a cold, Lenten afternoon, in an empty church. I know that I, for one, need to be much more prayerful in my tendency to pack up and throw out the tender shoots of life that don’t mesh with my own hopes and dreams. So I invite you to come to church this Holy Week in order to live the death of Jesus. I invite you to live that same vulnerability in your own lives and in the life of this parish. “Let go with Christ, die into his love; and rise with Christ, opening yourself to the eternal gift of the Father.”[2]

[1]Much of this train of thought is inspired by Rowan Williams’ Easter Sermon, “The Denial of Death,” found in Choose Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) 135f.
[2] Williams, 142.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Can we see the stars from Ferguson?


Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

    I love the poetry of Psalm 19—the image of the heavens telling the glory of God, of the sun dependably running its course, steadfast and golden, giving structure to our days and our nights. When I was very young, my father, a NASA scientist, would carry me outside every night as part of our bedtime ritual. Through the branches of the big oak trees in our front yard, he would point out the moon and the stars. Remembering my daddy’s protecting arms and the clarity of his astronomy lessons, I continue to be comforted when I look at the night sky. The constancy of the stars tells me that all is right with the universe. The unchanging order of the constellations, so mysterious and distant, yet so full of twinkling light, feels like a silent call to order, a divine harmony that rings out to the end of the world.
It’s no wonder that Psalm 19 is paired in our lectionary today with the Ten Commandments—the moral structure for so much of our world. While we might not describe them with the zeal that the psalmist uses to describe God’s commands—more desired than gold and sweeter than the drippings of the honeycomb—we enjoy their “rightness” and their clarity. I remember memorizing the Ten Commandments as a young child in Sunday School. I have grown up with their clear “shalls” and “shalt nots” putting their stern stamp on my moral fiber. When we asked a group of you last week in Pub Theology about your understanding of sin, you all quickly honed in on the defining role of the Ten Commandments. “They give me something to follow,” you said. “They give me a standard against which to measure my actions.”
 The 10 Commandments don’t just provide us with order and measure in our personal lives. In the Christian West, they moved long ago even into the realm of civil order. In the 9th century CE, Alfred the Great prefaced his code of Saxon law with them, and the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes used them in formulating his understanding of the social contract. Given their structuring function and their tie to our laws, it’s no wonder that some Christians today want to post them in the local courthouses. It’s not just the history of the Commandments that we proclaim, however, when we clamor to make them a public monument. We are using them as a cultural shorthand, as a symbol and an icon of God’s influence in our society.[1] “There is something greater than the moral relativism of the post-modern world,” these signs proudly proclaim. “This house, this city, this court is grounded in God’s immutable Law. So there!” The louder the opposition protests that religious statements do not belong in public places, the more some Christians insist that the presence of the 10 Commandments are all that stand between us and civil, as well as religious, chaos. They have become a cultural symbol of order and measure.
Order and measure. How we long for it. How we fear the threat of moral chaos. The policeman Javert, in the musical drama Les Misérables, sings a song that uses Psalm 19’s imagery: “Stars/ In your multitudes/ Scarce to be counted/ Filling the darkness/ With order and light./ You are the sentinels/ Silent and sure/ Keeping watch in the night/ … You know your place in the sky/ You hold your course and your aim/ And each in your season/ Returns and returns/ And is always the same.” Javert is obsessed with order, with the order of the law. For him, a criminal like Jean Valjean, the man for whom he spends his life hunting, will always be guilty, no matter how Valjean has repented and reformed his life. For the lawman Javert, grace and mercy are signs of weakness. They upset the balance of reward and punishment. As Javert continues in his song: “And so it has been and so it is written/ On the doorway to paradise/ That those who falter and those who fall/ Must pay the price!/ Lord let me find him/ That I may see him/ Safe behind bars/ I will never rest/ Till then/ This I swear/ This I swear by the stars!”[2]
          I wonder, though … Do the stars require such a vow? What the psalmist loves about God’s commands is not really the order that they bring to earth. What the psalmist loves is the trusting relationship with God that the commands teach us. It is the divine voice in the heavens that comforts him. It is the glory of God that shines in the stars—not just their order and precision. The psalmist loves the stars because they reflect the light of their trustworthy Creator. How easy it is to latch on to the Ten Commandments, posting them in public places, using them individually as a measuring stick for my soul (or even more often, for the soul of my neighbor). How easy it is to hold onto them for clarity, rather than to live deeply into the trusting relationships that they imply.
        We need to remember that the structure that the 10 Commandments give us is not based on reward and punishment. Reward for adherence is mentioned only in the command to honor father and mother. The only mention of punishment is found in God’s warning that God is a jealous God. Not surprisingly, God does not need to use sticks and carrots to motivate us to hear God’s words. The motivating factor is trust. It is found in the recognition of God’s authority as Creator and Lord. It is found in remembering all of God’s prior acts of redemption, in remembering how God has always been with us.[3]
          Indeed, in the original Hebrew, God gives us not ten “commandments” but ten “words,” ten “words of instruction.” They are the only words spoken directly by God to all of God’s people together. While a commandment can be barked out and thrown at us as an order to be obeyed, words of instruction and teaching are heard through the building of relationship. “Now that I have brought you up out of slavery in Egypt,” God explains to God’s people in today’s reading from Exodus, “it is time for you to learn how to live in covenant with me. Here is who I am, how time will unfold in this community, and how you will relate with one another and with me in this space that we share.”[4]
First, here is who I am: I am your creator and sustainer. You must not allow anything to come between you and me. I alone can satisfy your longing. As the creator of all that is, I cannot be limited by images of your own devising. Neither can I be manipulated by your words or by any magical incantations of my mysterious name. Nor can my name be used to show that I am on your side.
Secondly, here is how you are to structure your time: As the sun crosses from day into night, so will your time with me have order and pattern. Your time will be ordered for the building up of relationship, with me and with your neighbor. Right relationship involves participating in a time of rest, the Sabbath built into creation itself. You are also to ensure the uninterrupted flow of tradition between generations, so that wisdom and faith can pass unimpeded from parent to child forever.
And finally, here is how you are to order your common space: This community space will not be a space for the destruction of human life through killing or for the destruction of the family bonds through adultery. No one, not even the powerful, may take what does not belong to them. Justice must reign, with impartial judges and credible witnesses who will protect the cry of the vulnerable among you. You are to be satisfied with all that I have given you, and your care for your neighbor must show in your actions and fill even the secret recesses of your hearts.[5] Seen in this light, the 10 Commandments, explains Walter Brueggemann, are not to be taken so much as “a series of rules … but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.”[6] The Ten Words are a gift from God, a life-giving gift.
I recently read that a right-wing Christian, Matthew Hagee, had claimed that the unrest in Ferguson was being “stoked and orchestrated by unnamed nefarious forces which seek to spread chaos and undermine social cohesion.” If the Ten Commandments were being followed there, continued Hagee, “none of this would ever have happened.”[7] In other words, if black people weren’t killing and stealing, then there wouldn’t be any trouble. I can hear a racist version of Javert in Hagee’s words, wringing his hands over the threat of chaos and holding up the Commandments over our heads like a guillotine. I imagine that Hagee might have agreed, too, that a giant stone tablet in front of the Ferguson courthouse emblazoned with the Commandments would have prevented trouble.
Hagee is wrong. The real problem in Ferguson is greater than any individual crimes. The real problem in Ferguson is that basic breaches of trust have created a broken system there. While the courts this week did not convict Officer Wilson for his action in the killing of Michael Brown, the criminal investigation pointed right to this systemic breakdown of trust. In a mostly black community, only 4 out of 54 police officers were black. Racist emails were freely circulated within the police department. African Americans were stopped and searched without cause. The city raised revenue by issuing arrest warrants for petty things like jaywalking and late fees.[8] The way forward in Ferguson lies with widespread repentance: turning back not to stricter laws, but to building trust by respecting the dignity of every one of God’s children.
       As a young girl, I learned to love the stars because I saw them from the secure perch of my father’s arms. We too have a secure perch in the arms of our Heavenly Father. As Christians, we have been adopted into God’s Covenant and are heirs of God’s promises. May we live our lives secure in that knowledge. May we rejoice in the glory of the stars, free from fear and recrimination.

[1] Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2.
[2] http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/lesmiserables/stars.htm
[3] The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 416.
[4] Martin Buber, quoted in Johanna Van Wijk-Bos, Making the Wise Simple (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2005), 160.
[5] Much of this interpretation of the commandments is found in: W. Sibley Towner, “Exegetical Perspective on Exodus 20:1-17 in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 78-79.
[6] Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in her commentary on Exodus 19 in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 75.
[7] http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/hagee-strict-rules-and-ten-commandments-would-have-prevented-unrest-ferguson#sthash.d1H6dz7G.dpuf

[8] http://thetandd.com/news/national/experts-ferguson-must-move-quickly-to-rebuild-public-trust/image_9bda2291-57f5-5693-99ea-ca23ae8cd5ed.html