Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day principal service, Year C

There's a Franciscan fourfold blessing that I have long loved, the fourth blessing of which is this:

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

I think often of that blessing when I'm preaching, especially on texts like the Beatitudes and other difficult passages in the "Sermon on the Mount." Who really lives that way? Who honors the poor more than the rich? Who honors those who are reviled in society above the respectable people who judge them? Which of our parishes or other communities have shared our resources one another freely so that no one is "anxious about tomorrow"? Whom among us really cares for others' children as we do our own, as we would if we took seriously Jesus' saying that his family consists of not of those related by blood or marriage, but of those who "hear the word of God and do it"?

I remember one man in particular at one parish where I preached regularly who particularly enjoyed my sermons, but who almost always had a bit of a wry grin as he shook my hand to say so. When I asked him about the grin, he usually grinned a little wider, shook his head gently, and said with some affection something like, "What you say is very inspiring. But you're talking about how things are going to be in heaven, and we've got to be realistic here on earth." When pressed for more, he'd talk about how one can't really have a policy of turning the other cheek or forgiving others as God forgives us as long as there are criminals and terrorists around. He'd say that there wasn't much point in trying to address extreme poverty in Africa until all governments there were free of corruption. There was always a long list of things that would have to happen first on earth before we could live as Jesus lived and taught his followers to live -- a list that added up to, "Sure, we'll do all of that -- in God's kingdom. Until we're there, living this way would be foolish in the extreme."

I imagine that there were some folks inclined toward a similar kind of 'realism' among Jesus' earliest followers. I imagine that among the crowds at Jesus' sermons, there were many who heard what he said with great joy, but who almost without thinking laid assumptions around the message:

"Yes, that's how it will be -- once we rid the land of Roman oppressors."

"Absolutely -- when a son of David rules again from David's throne in Jerusalem, he'll make sure the poor are fed."

"I long for that day -- our enemies will be defeated once and for all, and then we can live in peace."

"I believe that all nations will know and worship God, once the evildoers are gone and the rest have embraced the whole Torah."

And what a glorious day, the Day of the Lord, when all of God's promises to God's people can be fulfilled, when God answers the prayer that Jesus taught us: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"!

The Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite service of the liturgical year, I think, in part because of the way its journey through salvation history, through God's creating, loving, and redeeming God's people, renews my hope and anticipation of God's answering fully and finally that prayer. What a vision!

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
(Isaiah 55:1-11)

That's one of my favorite passages in scripture, expressing longings that I think we experience in the twenty-first century with as much intensity as God's people did in the sixth century BCE.

Everyone has the basic necessities of bread and milk and even the wine for celebration; none need be anxious, and all are satisfied.

There are no enemies to fear among the nations. I don't know if you sometimes have the feeling I do just before I pick up a newspaper -- that distant feeling of "what now?" dread -- but that feeling has become a distant memory, as people of all nations rush to embrace, not to attack.

I love the opportunity the Great Vigil gives us to spend time rolling texts like this over our tongues to take in their richness, to close our eyes for a moment to enter into the prophets' vision of the world's redemption. There is no better preparation to receive the Good News of Easter that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

Especially in cultures as individualistic as mine, I think it's often too easy to miss the ways in which this Easter message is Good News for the whole world. The Good News of Easter is not just "Jesus rose from the dead, so we too can live after we die," as numerous mystery religions of the Roman world promised through their gods. And it's worth remembering that Jesus' resurrection isn't the first resurrection in the gospels; God's power raised others, such as Lazarus, before.

But Jesus' resurrection is different. It's not different only because Jesus won't die again, as Lazarus will. The way St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits" of Creation's end, or telos. "End" can mean quite different things in English, as telos can in Greek. It can mean a final stopping. It can mean death. And when we use the phrase "the end of the world," that's usually the kind of "end" we have in mind -- we're talking about destruction and death. But that's not what Paul is talking about when he talks about Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits" of a harvest that includes "the end." Paul is talking about the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, as Christ fully and finally delivers the kingdom, putting an end to every oppressive power and principality, everything that held the world back from its telos of joy, love, peace, and freedom.

Jesus' ministry up to his death on the Cross -- his healing, forgiving, teaching, breaking bread with any who would eat with him, and gathering a community who would continue these practices in remembrance of him -- was a series of early installments of the telos of the world that God promises -- God's kingdom, where Isaiah's vision is fulfilled, come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus was crucified, dying a death considered shameful, nearly all who heard of it would have thought of it as putting an end to Jesus, to his movement, to hope in him as the Christ. Nearly all would have seen it as proof positive that Jesus was wrong about what God wanted from humanity, wrong in saying that his gathering and blessing the impure and outcast was God's action, wrong about all of those outrageous teachings that preachers today try to explain away.

But then the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of the righteous that some expected at the end has started NOW, and everything that Jesus said about and did to bring about God's kingdom has been affirmed by the righteous judgment of the God who raised him.

As R.E.M. would say, it's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. Creation's telos -- the love, joy, peace, and freedom for which the world was made -- starts NOW. Perhaps my friend is right that Jesus' way of life can only be lived by the rest of us in God's kingdom, but in Jesus' ministry -- now the ministry of the Risen Christ -- God's kingdom starts NOW. It starts among us. It starts wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name to live into the reality of Jesus' work in the world.

Of course, I'm not saying that everything that's going to happen to bring Creation to its telos has already happened. A person could figure that much out with a newspaper, if Paul's letters weren't at hand. But the Good News of Easter is reason enough to toss our list of things that have to happen before we can experience God's kingdom among us -- before we can live into the way of Jesus -- and invest the energy we formerly devoted to making such lists to look for the Risen Christ and his work in the world. As Paul wrote:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 6:3-11)

God has raised Jesus from the dead, and NOW -- not in some distant future or in some other world -- those of us Baptized into Christ's Body have been freed from slavery to sin, and are free to live with Christ in the way of Christ. The first fruits have been gathered in, and a more plentiful harvest is ripening. Tell everyone the Good News -- as St. Francis would say, using words if necessary. We have the opportunity to participate in the spread of God's kingdom in ways more powerful than words -- in doing justice, in proclaiming peace, in embracing the outcast, in treating the most vulnerable among God's children with the care we'd give our own flesh and blood. God has in Easter given us all the proof we need that the time has come:

Christ is risen!

Alleluia! And thanks be to God!

April 6, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Easter, Eschatology, Inclusion, Isaiah, John, Justice, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Resurrection, Romans, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Exodus 3:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Luke 13:1-9 - link to NRSV text

The General Ordination Exams (GOEs) one generally has to take to be ordained to the clergy in The Episcopal Church often cause seminarians preparing for them a great deal of anxiety, and sometimes they deal with this by rehearsing with their friends some previous years' questions or questions they think they might be asked. One genre of GOE (or at least GOEs of the past) is the "coffee hour question," which asks the person being examined to imagine him or herself as a priest approached by a parishioner during the coffee hour between services and asked a pastoral question of some kind. This was one of the "coffee hour" questions some friends of mine were tossing around over margaritas some years back:

A seven-year old girl is a member of your parish. Her mother has recently and very suddenly died. She approaches you during coffee hour and asks, "will I see my mommy in heaven?"

The table sprang into conversation about a variety of things -- 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, different ideas of the immortality of the soul -- and how they could be explained to a seven-year-old girl. It was an interesting conversation. But when I was asked how I would answer the question, this is what I told my friends I'd say to the girl:

"It sounds like you really miss your mommy."

That's what I'd say. That's the first thing I'd say, anyway. Other things are important, in my view -- especially 1 Corinthians 15 and the varieties of Christian hope of the resurrection -- but I can't imagine having a conversation with that girl that meant anything at all without starting from where she is, and where I think she'd be would be is desperately wanting to see and touch and be held by her mother, and being in great pain for the lack of that touch.

I feel similarly, and I tend to respond in similar ways, most times people ask questions that start with "Why did this happen?" or especially, "How could God allow this to happen?" In my experience, this is not the time for a learned or wise discussion about consequences of the Fall, how human mortality underscores the preciousness of the present moment, or even -- as much as I love to discuss Paul at just about any possible opportunity -- the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15. So far, every time anyone has asked me how God could allow suffering, evil, and death, I've found in further conversation that we ask someone else about those categories because of something very specific.

In other words, "Why did this happen?" often boils down to at least one or two other things that need to be named, both statements, both statements, not questions:

"I'm in unspeakable pain." This is almost certain.

"I want God to take away the cause of this pain, and I'm confused, frightened, and angry that God doesn't seem to be here, or good, or to care." Sometimes we say things like this because we're actually thinking and feeling about God. Usually we say this because we're in unspeakable pain, meaning (quite literally) we don't feel able to speak about our pain.

This Sunday's Hebrew bible and gospel readings suggest that the pastoral response starts with recognizing and honoring that pain.

In Exodus, God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings," and that is the beginning of deliverance for God's people.

And in Luke, when some of God's people come to Jesus with a news report -- that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had murdered Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem -- that boils down to a statement -- that this is too painful to bear, and perhaps even to name -- and therefore comes out also as something like a question: "How could God allow this?"

There are at least a thousand clichéd answers to a question like that. God needed some more angels for the heavenly choir. These clearly were pilgrims who forgot to pray (or behave in the prescribed way -- usually meaning the way that the speaker wants people to behave). Or the last resort of someone desperate for an explanation: "everything happens for a reason, and God allowed this to happen because something better will come of it."

That last answer is less awful that the first ones I listed, but it isn't the one that Jesus gave. To the smug who are convinced that God arranges all suffering as well as all joy, and delegates each according to the human values of the smug, Jesus offers a word of warning; he says, in effect, "you are no better than these people, you're no less mortal than they, and if anyone figuring in this conversation is courting disaster from God, it's you."

If it were only the smug who had brought the report, the question, and the pain Jesus heard, it would have been understandable for Jesus to stop there. But he doesn't. He affirms that those who died were not sinful in a way that others weren't, and he tells a parable about a fig tree. As Malina and Rorhbaugh point out, a pious Israelite who planted a fig tree would let it grow for three years to get it to a point where it was capable of bearing fruit, then would allow it to go unharvested for three years before coming back for three more years to harvest fruit and to assess its potential fruitfulness. In other words, the wealthy absentee landlord of the parable (not a particularly sympathetic figure in Jesus' parables, and especially not in Luke) is actually being more than reasonable in saying, "this tree had its chance for nine years, and it's fruitless." Heck, nine years is just shy of a quarter of the life span of a man (women died sooner when childbirth was so dangerous) who by some miracle survived childhood (when most perish in the world's climates of scarcity).

But the gardener, who doesn't own the land and isn't the one who benefits most from its profit -- seems to care more about the tree than the fruit, and seems more than happy to devote extra care -- a year of it -- when no law or custom requires it and he has nothing to gain personally form it.

Sometimes, I speak primarily as a scholar of these texts. Sometimes, I like to indulge in a little pastoral imagination, which I hope you find responsible, and here's some of it:

I think to think that this was a crazy gardener who actually cared about the life of the tree, and who saw a fruitless tree more as a wounded life worth healing than a wasted opportunity for profit in need of clearing. Is that a responsible reading of the text? Perhaps. I've said before that, as a rule of thumb, Jesus' parables are defined by their shocking reversals, and that if we read one of his parables and find no unexpected behavior, we need to re-read with our eyes, our mind, and our imagination more deeply engaged. It would be crazy for a gardener to care about a tree in that way.

But isn't that just the kind of crazy way God cares for us? Isn't that the crazy kind of love Jesus showed for us, and particularly for those of us with few or no qualities traditionally seen as giving a person the kind of respectability and status to expect any need or pain to be noticed and responded to?

And if the conversation with the person who says, "will I see her again in heaven?" or "why did this happen?" or "where is God in something like this?" continues, it will turn in that direction. I'll be honest that I don't have a constant and unshakable emotional sense of the way God cares for us beyond reason. I'm also being honest when I say that this is one of the reasons I spend so much time and energy reading the bible, and why I thank God for communities of people who will carry me in prayer when my own prayers, and even my own scripture reading, seem fruitless. Because I choose to believe, even when I don't feel it, that God knows and shares the sufferings of God's people, and God's immeasurable love for us and inexorable power to redeem is at work even when I don't perceive it.

I don't believe in perfection, that everything happens as it should or is orchestrated in a way that is personally beneficial to God's people or to me by conventional reckonings. I believe in redemption, that even or especially amidst great suffering and real evil, God is bringing the universe toward the justice and love, the peace and wholeness, for which it was made and for which it aches.

Thanks be to God!

March 8, 2007 in Exodus, Faith, Lent, Luke, Pastoral Concerns, Redemption, Resurrection, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 14, Year B

Deuteronomy 8:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 34 - link to BCP text
John 6:37-51 - link to NRSV text

I often say that I don't believe in perfection, but in redemption.

I want to talk about redemption this week.

There are several reasons for having that topic on my mind at this moment.

The first is that the texts suggest it to me. The gospel passage for this Sunday is part of a lengthy monologue in which Jesus relates Exodus 16's account of "bread from heaven" to his own ministry, and to God's ministry among God's people. The writer of the Gospel According to John is inviting his Christian community specifically and repeatedly to think of their journey in tandem with that of the Hebrews from Egypt -- the journey from slavery to freedom to serve God, from being dominated to being agents of God's liberating work, from being no people to being one people, God's people.

There's an intriguing detail in the biblical story of the Exodus that doesn't often get much attention, but that also invites drawing parallels between the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the journey of the Johannine community (i.e., the community that produced and read the Gospel According to John, the biblical letters attributed to John, and the book of Revelation). With most of my books still in boxes from my move, I can't check my books, so I hope a sharp-eyed reader will catch me if I'm misremembering when I say that the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was what the earliest Christians were talking about when they said 'scripture') is pretty clear on this point, which also comes across in the NRSV, though less strongly:

What God told Moses to ask for, and what the Pharoah did in the end, was not to 'release' the Hebrews, but to send, almost drive them out. My recollection, which I hope an astute reader might confirm or correct, is that in the Septuagint, the word used is exapostello (and if someone knows how to transcribe a long vowel in Internet-friendly text, please tell me -- that last 'o' is an omega). That's the verb to "send out," but it's often not the kind of "sending" you'd want. It's the word the Septuagint uses to dismiss a wife in a divorce. It's a word used to dismiss a servant empty-handed, or a prisoner to her doom. What we remember and retell explicitly in every Passover haggadah starts with something translated more accurately as God saying "send my people out, that they may serve me" than "let my people go." And the Egyptian people don't line the streets to heap floral leis and good wishes upon the Hebrews after resisting the command to send them away; they drive out their former servants with a fear that, given the horrible things the Hebrew god has visited upon them, is as understandable as it is great.

Small wonder that in the Passover celebration, God's people are urged to recall tears and bitterness. It's not just about remembering the bitterness of slavery; it's also about remembering the tears and anguish of the families who lost husbands when the Sea of Reeds closed over the Egyptian army, or lost an elder brother or firstborn son in the plague of death.

So amidst such tears, is the story we tell of Exodus as liberation to celebrate a lie?

This is the kind of question that makes me say that I believe in redemption, not perfection. And it's a question burned freshly in my mind this week.

Some friends -- my former bosses when I worked at St. Martin's parish in Maryland -- lost their eldest son this week. I can think of few people who seemed as full of life and purpose as well as gentle good humor as their son Mike was. He was 33 years old and very active when, while on a weekend camping trip, he died of a massive heart attack. Nothing can prepare a parent for such a shock and loss, and in any case there was no prior indication that anything like this might be coming. Having lost a 26-year-old elder brother almost as suddenly almost exactly ten years ago, I can barely -- but only just barely -- imagine how my friends, Mike's parents, are feeling.

If we lived in a perfect world, we might say, as many well-meaning people said when my brother died, something like, "God took him for a reason," and we might even try to supply a reason, like "God called him as an angel" (as a number of people said of my brother), much as we could say of the Egyptians' tears (or the tears of the Israelites who lost loved ones to the plague of poisonous quail later in the desert) something like, "this happened so that God's glory could be shown in mighty works." Maybe that works for you. It doesn't work at all for me, and to be honest, I've never met anyone for whom it really did work, for whom it really rang true over time and at a level of deep self-awareness.

So is the story of life and hope, of freedom and celebration, a lie?

I don't think so.

I think that something happens within and among us, something that's happening all the time around our messed-up world, amidst all the pain and bitter tears, as our stories take shape in our journey with God.

That something is called redemption.

Redemption doesn't say (as Stoic philosophers said) that there's no such thing as slavery to someone whose mind or heart is in the right place; it is a word, a story, a narrated act in community that frees someone enslaved to a new set of relationships, a new identity in community in which that person can live much more fully into her or his God-given identity and God-issued call. When we say "God is redeeming the world in Christ," we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness in the world to grieve; we are saying that God's power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin (that's a word that needs to be said sometimes), and brokenness in the world -- all that it is meet and right as well as just plain HONEST for us to grieve -- is being incorporated into a larger story, a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the life of the world are about redemption -- about making whole -- and resurrection, bringing new life.

This is not some Monty Python-eque "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song to be sung mindlessly amidst and in denial of pain. Anyone who spends enough time with enough children, artists, visionaries, or prophets knows that stories -- especially ones told truthfully and well -- knows that stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are, or can be, acts of the word in the world that bring very real and powerful life and light into the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God spoke, and there was life, and light -- a whole world come into being. The story of God's people -- of Exodus and John, among other stories -- being inspired by God, is more powerful than bean-counting so-called "pragmatists" might imagine.

As I write, I keep thinking of an experience I had on a youth group retreat -- one I blogged about on Grace Notes, my personal blog, in an entry called "Fingerpainting and Forgiveness." Please take the time to read it if you can -- and don't skip the comments. The last comment there as I write this shows something how an evening in which I told a story in a community, and we told more stories in childish art, became a larger story in which someone none of us on that retreat had met found freedom and new life. When I say that I believe not in perfection but in redemption, I'm saying that I believe that when your sin and my sin, your brokenness and grief and mine, are offered to God and into the story of God's stumbling, broken, grieving and gifted people journeying with all Creation toward healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with one another and with God in Christ, the ashes and dirt become in their own way a part of God's art, an expression through God's grace of the love in and through and for which God made all in Creation that was, is, or will be.

So I write this week in pain, and with tears -- for my friends' eldest son, and for my friends; for a world in which too many sons and daughters and mothers and fathers are torn from us far, far too soon; for hunger and war; for fear and darkness and oppression. And I write in hope in Jesus the Christ, who in the Gospel According to John spoke to a community driven out of their homes, their synagogues -- a community in which many had been "sent forth" as prisoners condemned by the testimony of those they had called neighbor -- and said, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus said to them that in the midst of their alienation, their grief, their tears, he was with them, sustaining them, incorporating their story into the Great Story of reconciliation that is the story of the world God made and loves --

A story of redemption. The Johannine community saw its end like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am coming to make all things news." Also he said, "Write this, for these worlds are trustworthy and true."

-- Revelation 21:1-5

I say through tears: See, God is coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the vision of God's prophets, who tell the story of God's past, present, and coming redemption of the world.

Pray for those who mourn. There are too damn many of them, though it is God's blessing and glory that their comfort is even now at hand.

I feel it is too bold to say, but in faith I'll say it: Thanks be to God.

August 9, 2006 in Current Events, Deuteronomy, Evangelism, Healing, John, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Redemption, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2)

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 4:5-12 - link to NRSV text
OR Micah 4:1-5 - link to NRSV text
1 John 1:1-2:2 - link to NRSV text
OR Acts 4:5-12
Luke 24:36b-48 - link to NRSV text

Jesus was well known -- perhaps even best known, at least in some circles -- for his proclamation of the kingdom of God. "Kingdom" isn't a word that necessarily means all that much, or all that much that's relevant, to those of us who don't live in a monarchy, but I think Jesus himself provided a pretty good translation for that phrase even for us in the prayer he taught his followers, "your kingdom come, [that is,] your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Our imaginations could run wild on that one. What kind of a catalog can you come up with for things that would be different if God's kingdom had come, if God's will were being done on earth as it is in heaven? Heck, what would NOT be different?

Jesus' earliest followers were exposed to a lot of speculation on that point. It was, as far as we know about first-century Judaism, a pretty popular point upon which to exercise imagination -- as one would expect for any not ground into utter despair in occupied territory, when the vast majority of people were shut out of citizenship, out of literacy, out of social mobility. And then there were the people who were shut out even further on account of their illnesses, their dishonored relations, or their honorable family's disowning them. They were lucky if they still felt included enough in any kingdom to dream of God's kingdom.

And so they dreamed. What would be different -- or better yet, what would NOT be different -- if God's kingdom really had broken through to this world?

When Jesus began his ministry of proclaiming God's kingdom, and more vividly and dangerously yet, living that out as reality in healings, exorcisms (driving out the powers of darkness with God's power is bound to get people's hopes up about driving out ALL oppressive powers with God's power), drawing together and building up God's people for the new world dawning. Small wonder that his disciples, given the kinds of hopes Jesus raised, seem often surprised at how much seems NOT to have changed despite Jesus' coming and proclaiming God's kingdom come.

A lot did change, to be sure. Lives changed when people were healed of diseases or freed from spirits that had shut them out of community. Women and men cast out by their families found a new family in the community of Jesus' "mother and sisters and brothers" who heard the word of God and strove to live it out together. And to be fair, eschatology -- speculation about what the end of the old era of injustice and the dawning of God's kingdom -- for many Jews in Jesus' time was focused on the time of the resurrection, when those who were martyred for righteousness were restored to live out the lives so unjustly cut short.

However, a few might have understood how Jesus could proclaim God's kingdom and still anyone could see that so many oppressive forces remained seemingly in power by seeing Jesus' message as being about what God would do in the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Many would have fled -- and did flee -- at Jesus' crucifixion; if they thought that before Jesus' death he would one of these days jump into some first-century equivalent of a phone booth and fly out in a suit with a huge 'M' on his chest (the 'M' being for 'Messiah' -- and props to Scott Bartchy for the image), that hope was dashed when Jesus died. But some might have clung to hope, thinking that at least on the day of resurrection, Jesus would be vindicated, and woe to his enemies on that day! Jesus would come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar's unstoppable cyborg in The Terminator -- a 'Christinator' before whom all enemies would flee, and then, if not before, NOTHING would be the same.

Well, this Sunday, we see what happens when the first light of the great day of resurrection appears, when God's chosen is vindicated, and here's what the glorious resurrected Son of God does:

He proclaims peace. He tells his followers not to fear. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to his followers, whom he commissions to proclaim freedom from sin and debt. Oh, and he eats some fish.

In other words, as far as people expecting some grand and explosive special effects moment, this is a transformation as anticlimactic as that of Princess Fiona in Shrek. The orchestral score swelled and has gone silent, that blinding burst of light came and went, and the world is still looking like a troll by any conventional reckoning.

And you know, that's why Shrek is still one of my favorite movies about the kingdom of God.

Because it's not about conventional reckoning at all. It never was.

A reader who's been paying careful attention will notice that Luke portrays the risen Jesus as doing precisely what the pre-crucifixion Jesus did. He eats with people. He proclaims peace, even (or especially!) to those caught up in spirals of violence they reckon to be inescapable. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to those who will hear -- precisely as he did at the very beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4.

On this glorious day of Easter (the whole season is Easter, folks -- like the whole twelve days of Christmas are Christmas!), it's worth recalling that from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry among us, he has been proclaiming that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," today is the day in which God's kingdom breaks through to this world, today is the day of the new life we've been waiting for. The people who thought that the "today" of Luke 4 was some kind of funky metaphorical time (much like the stuff people repeat about the various Greek words for time and the very, very special and absolutely distinct dimensions of meaning for each) probably continued to think that Jesus was spouting some kind of barely sensible metaphor or just plain kidding around when he said stuff like, "if it is by God's finger that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

But what if Jesus wasn't kidding?

What if Jesus really meant that TODAY is the day of salvation, the glorious day of the Lord, the day of resurrection, the day of the coming of God's kingdom?

I think sometimes that this is half the point of the accounts in the canonical gospels of the risen Jesus' appearances to his followers (or, in the case of Paul, to someone he was calling to be his follower). The day of resurrection, life in the kingdom of God itself, the glorious day we've all been waiting for looks a great deal like any day at all breaking bread with Jesus.

That's not to say that we have nothing left to hope for. Not at all. It's to say that if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that the God of Israel -- of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebeccah, and Leah, of Rahab and of Mary -- the Creator of the world, has raised this same Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and the way he lived among us as finally, ultimately righteous, if Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Christ of God, the anointed agent inaugurating God's kingdom, then we have to believe that the life of the kingdom of God is like Jesus' life:

Healing and freeing the outcast, eating fish with out-of-work fishers and breaking bread with women of any or no reputation or name. Speaking peace, of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, because weapons have no use at all in a world in which all are called to bless their persecutors and minister to their enemies. The writer of 1 John wasn't kidding when he said that he spoke of what was said and heard "from the beginning"; for this the world was made, and this is the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus birthed in community with any who would care for it, from the beginning. This was the life Jesus lived to the ending, even to death on a cross from which he did what he always did -- speaking peace to his fearful followers and his tormentors alike with his last breath.

Why should we be surprised, all told, that this is what the risen Jesus does? And for those of us who have experienced even the slightest whiff of the messianic banquet in the fellowship Jesus welcomes us to -- with sinners and saints, with the joyous and the grieving and the bewildered -- why should we be surprised when Jesus' table in the messianic kingdom looks a great deal like the table Jesus set for his followers from the beginning, on the night before he died, on his first days after God raised him from the dead?

And for any who hunger or thirst for a new life, a different world, a peaceable kingdom in which each one of us is welcomed for the beloved child of God we are and is growing into the person in Christ we were meant to be, what kind of sign are you waiting for? There is bread and wine, there are people to journey with, and the life of the risen Christ, of the new world, is here among us, if you're willing to seek it where Jesus did.

Today is the day of resurrection, of the inbreaking of God's kingdom, and no regrets of yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow should keep you from it.

Thanks be to God!

April 27, 2006 in 1 John, Acts, Easter, Eschatology, Luke, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Easter Day, Year B

Have you ever had a moment when watching a movie when you really, really wanted to shout out to one of the characters, because: a) you just KNEW what was going to happen, given the genre conventions and other information at your disposal, though not necessarily at the characters'; and b) you also just KNEW that what the character was about to do was not going to fit well with what you knew about how the universe of that story worked?

It happens in romantic comedies: you just KNOW about two-thirds of the the way through the movie that if only the hero would come clean to his beloved (or maybe the genders are the other way around in the particular story you're watching) about that silly lie/stupid game/what-have you s/he'd been playing when they met, the beloved could handle it. You know that's what's going to have to happen to get to that happy ending you anticipate; the hero (or heroine) doesn't.

It happens in horror films. I wish I had $5 for every movie in which some character who would be perfectly sensible in real life I'm sure responded to some other character's disappearance/mysterious rending and slurping noise outside/etc. by traipsing outside (usually in some really flimsy clothing) to investigate, when we ALL know that this is precisely what you are NOT supposed to do in the genre.

I'm convinced that genre is important in terms of how we see our life stories as well. What I've been talking about -- that business of you as audience knowing something that the characters don't know and SHOULD know to make things right as you both understand it -- is called dramatic irony, and I think that in a lot of ways Easter is the biggest injector of it into the stories of our lives.

We all have heard and in many cases have internalized stories of how the world works, of what our lives are about. I once knew a woman who told her life story -- and more importantly, lived it out -- as if it were a tragedy. She started with so much potential, but every moment thwarted her. Now she was in a position where she might actually graduate from college, and she was dating someone she was convinced was her true love ... and that made her all the more convinced that something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong. She or her beloved would die in a car crash, or something equally tragic was going to happen. The possibility drove her to distraction -- literally, with respect to her studies, and soon her extensions in courses were lapsing to 'Incomplete' marks which lapsed to F's. But what if she saw her life as a comedy -- starting the story with challenges, and finishing it with love and wholeness? Might that help her make decisions and find courage to live her story out that way?

At 3:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday, Jesus' followers faced a story they knew all too well. Poor people meet someone who says that they working together can make a real difference in the world, see that much more of God's kingdom come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. These stories are dangerous to people in power, and it's amazing how quickly people in power -- people who are quick to dismiss such stories in their earliest stages as the musings or wishful thinking of religious crackpots and ne'er-do-wells -- will crack down on the storytellers and the chief actors.

Judas the Galilean, Theudas in Egypt -- these were just a couple of the people whose stories were familiar to various factions of the hopeful in Roman-occupied Palestine, and the end of such stories was all-too-familiar too. The empire strikes back, but with no grand episode to follow: the would-be hero, "our only hope," dies in some particularly shameful way, and the crowds following scatter. The empire continues, and sensible people give up any idea that the story of the world is an epic or a romantic comedy, and start thinking more like Macbeth did in his worst moments: it's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury (why can't they at least let us sleep, if we're not going to hope?), signifying nothing. It's like Waiting for Godot without the humor, and maybe with some annoyingly obvious super-title as a kind of Cliff Note on the play in progress: HE'S NOT GOING TO COME, YOU IDIOT, AND IF HE DID, IT WOULD MAKE NO DIFFERENCE.

And all the landlords and factory owners chime in:

So get back to work, you louts. Just get back to work.

I suspect that Good Friday and Holy Saturday were as hard as they were for Jesus' closest followers at least as much because of the ways it fit so very, very well into stories they'd internalized as The Way Things Are as they were filled with any kind of shock. Perhaps they'd entertained hope that things would really be different with Jesus. That "perhaps" became a "what if?" so very, very strong that women and men left their homes, their families, every kind of security and respectability they knew to gamble it on the possibility they imagined when they looked at Jesus:

That maybe -- just maybe -- the world is headed for the destiny for which God made it. Maybe the world was made by a good God, who cares -- not as an inventor who hopes that his machine runs as planned, though he long ago moved his attention on to other projects, but as a lover or a parent lives with the one s/he loves, intimately involved and constantly encouraging and empowering the beloved on to something more beautiful and joyous and faithful and whole. Maybe the universe really does arc toward the justice for which it aches.

And what if that's so? Why buy stock in a dying empire? Why pour heart and soul and precious hours and energy into relationships that are all about capital and its uses, about master and servant, about the countless iternations of being around one another without being WITH anyone? Why spend another instant on anything other than that for which you and I and the whole world was born?

That's a dreamer's talk. We know that; I'm sure any one of us could remember parents or teachers or friends or lovers or bosses or co-workers saying as much. If the dream is just dreaming from which responsible people eventually wake up, then trying to stay in the dream is just a recipe for stasis or loss in terms of the world's measures of achievement and heartbreak in terms of what happens when a dream meets disappointment.

Judas the Galilean died. Theudas the Egyptian died. Martin Luther King's words may live forever, but his body died from a bullet before I was born. And so what?

So what? Here's a what if:

What if the universe really does arc toward justice, toward wholeness and reconciliation and life?

Jesus died. That much is true, and no Christian should say otherwise. (This, by the way, is why the Gospel of Judas is a big deal to historians, but not to Christians; to Christians it's just another attempt for people who don't want to believe there is such a thing as death for anyone good to believe that a figure as powerful in the imagination as Jesus taught them as much. He didn't.) Jesus died, and it wasn't pretty. Jesus got the worst of what the world and all its empires and armies -- plus all its pettiness and personal betrayals -- have to dish out. If we've entered fully into Holy Week, we've entered into that experience, and of God's full, involved, passionate presence with all who suffer.

Jesus died. As far as Pontius Pilate was concerned, that was the end of the story -- a story as familiar as it was unimportant, of one peasant among countless dying in the way that it's an uppity peasant's lot to die. Not even a tragedy -- that would give the story too much dignity. Just a very short story that even then wasn't over quickly enough.

And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the very Creator of the universe and inspirer of every true prophet, raised this Jesus from the dead.

This was not the happy ending, and I love, love, love how the writer of the Gospel According to Mark gets it across to us, because Jesus' resurrection is SO not the end of the story, of the Good News that we have for the world.

Because Jesus' resurrection is not just about Jesus.

It's about God. Jesus didn't raise himself, you know -- at least, that's not what the scriptures in our canon say. God raised Jesus. Jesus had the nerve not only to hang out, break bread with, and bless and forgive the dregs of society, but to say that GOD did the same. Lots of good fathers and mothers taught their children what kind of end would find someone who tried that kind of stunt, someone who tried to insinuate that the God of the universe was the same kind of indiscriminate deadbeat he was, and respectable society breathed a huge sigh of relief when Jesus met the death they all said he was headed for. Work hard, pay your taxes, and don't cause trouble, and you could take over the family business; follow someone like Jesus, and you'll end up just where he did. The cross. Game over, and it wasn't all that fun for anyone.

But that is nothing like the story we have to tell. The story we have to tell is that the very Creator of the universe raised Jesus as a righteous Son of God from the dead, and that means that God is every bit as ridiculously, incomprehensibly loving and merciful as Jesus made God out to be. So the story of Jesus' resurrection is a story about God.

It's also a story about the world.

The Creator of the world raised Jesus, vindicated what he said -- and, more importantly, how he lived. So if Jesus was right about God, then maybe God wasn't joshing when, looking at the world and at humanity in it, God said, "It is very good." Maybe God means to make good on God's word.

Actually, no maybe about it. Jesus' resurrection confirms for us that those wild-eyed prophets -- all the way down to Jesus, and on to Jesus' followers -- are right when they say that the world really is good, and the God who made is really and truly and absolutely tirelessly is about redeeming it from anything that tries to say or make it otherwise. The might of the world's mightiest empire couldn't stop Jesus or his followers; not death or Satan or any kind of power can't either.

The Creator of the universe, the Lord of all that was, is, or ever will be, is redeeming all that there is, and as a witness to Jesus' resurrection, I would not dare to bet against this God.

So what if the world really is headed for justice, for freedom, for peace, for love, for wholeness?

I'll close with an image from my youth in southern California, where I loved to surf. It's a common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel yourself along the surface of the wave. Not so. Surfing is really more like well-planned falling. The wave rises up, and if you're at the top of it and pointed downward on a surfboard that floats on the surface, the board will be propelled down by gravity, while being held up by the water beneath. The trick of surfing isn't to paddle hard enough to get to where you want to be -- it's to align yourself with the wave and the shore such that the simple force of falling down with gravity's power and the simple fact that on a smooth and buoyant surfboard pointed in alignment with the wave and the short, the path of least resistance downward will be parallel to the shore. That's how you get a long, exhilarating ride.

So what if God raised Jesus from the dead? What does that say about the world, about our place in it?

Mark does a wonderful thing with this. Mark 16:8, the last verse of the book, is pretty much a half-sentence in an obviously interrupted train of thought. Later Christian writers tried to finish it in centuries to come with things that made sense to them -- appearances of the risen Jesus who gives detailed instructions on what to do until the end of the world itself. But Mark did something different, and brilliant.

Mark ends the movie where it's obvious the story isn't over. He says that a mysterious young man greeted the women at the tomb, told them to tell Jesus' other followers that Jesus isn't in the tomb, that he has gone ahead of them. The women leave.

And it is SO not the end of the story. Coming centuries later, there are things we figure happened next: the women told the men. The men probably didn't believe them at first, but eventually (hopefully not as slowly as men came to believe women's witness about things like ordination) came around. Jesus' followers and Jesus' liberating word did go to Galilee, and Samaria, and Rome, and Egypt, and Spain, and even unto Los Angeles and El Paso and the Falklands and Auckland -- you get the idea.

Well, you get the idea if you use your imagination.

That's what the non-ending "ending" of Mark's gospel compels us to do. Use our imagination.

And that's a very good thing to do, because there are still messengers who can tell us reliably that Jesus has gone, is going, will go ahead of us, to places and contexts we haven't dreamed about yet.

In other words, I doubt this movie is even two-thirds over. Jesus is risen! What if that's so? What if God is really redeeming the universe? What if Jesus isn't just here, but has gone ahead of us, is waiting to meet us? For Pete's sake -- the original St. Pete, whose nickname when his friends wanted to rib him must have been Peter "Surely Not" Cephas, for all the times he couldn't believe what was in front of him until he got his board aligned with it and let it carry him along.

Jesus' resurrection tells us that, contrary to what those who fancy themselves the Powers That Be in this world might say, Jesus' way is worth betting your life, your world, the whole world on, because the Maker and Lover of the whole world is behind the movement. Jesus' resurrection tells us that God's way isn't the undertow that will leave us cold and alone, but is THE wave -- the most exhilarating ride there is, if we're willing to align ourselves with it.

Jesus' resurrection tells us that the Creator of the universe is bring the universe to LIFE, and you can bet your life on it -- with God, with Jesus, with us.

Surf's up!  The Lord is risen!

And thanks be to God.

April 15, 2006 in Acts, Easter, Isaiah, Mark, Redemption, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Ezekiel 37:1-3(4-10)11-14 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 130 - link to BCP text
John 11:(1-17)18-44 - link to NRSV text

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
    LORD, hear my voice; *
    let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
My soul waits for the LORD,
   more than watchmen for the morning, *
   more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
    for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
    and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

--Psalm 130:1,5-7

Out of the depths they called to Jesus. Mary and Martha were in dire straits. The way they'd been living was in many ways exactly in tune with Jesus' radical call; they lived with their brother Lazarus and remained remained "unattached," a path that gave them a great deal of freedom, including the freedom to be extravagantly generous, as Mary was when she poured out ointment worth a year's wages for many onto Jesus' feet. Everybody hearing this story knows about that gesture and what it meant, as you can tell from how the gospel identifies Mary as "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair" in verse 2, even though that event doesn't happen in John's gospel until the next chapter (props to the Social-Science Commentary on John for that point). Everybody knows that these people, this family of brother and sisters who lived with God as their father, are being faithful on the path Jesus showed them.

And now the risk involved in that path is frighteningly clear to Mary and Martha, as their brother Lazarus is dying. Lazarus is the only male in the household in a culture in which a woman without a man was profoundly vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. Lazarus was not only a beloved brother, but was also the closest thing to Social Security that Mary and Martha had, and he was slipping away.

So they called to Jesus, calling on him (in verse 2) as one who loves Lazarus, and challenging Jesus to behave in a manner in keeping with that love. Jesus doesn't come. He doesn't come to be with his beloved friend as he lies dying, and he doesn't come to honor his friend by being present at his funeral.

When the sisters get word that Jesus is finally on his way, Martha impetuously and angrily runs out  to meet him -- conduct that would have been seen as scandalous, or even dangerous for a woman alone. She runs at Jesus with the depths of her grief and anger.

If nothing else, her situation proves that being faithful to Jesus is in no way a guarantee against pain and tragedy. There is no one on earth whose righteousness, wisdom, hard work, or good planning will preserve her from seeing the depths that Martha sees. Good people become widows and orphans. It's a fact, and no less of a fact for Jesus' coming.

But there is something else. We can cry to God from the depths.

There is no depth, no loss, no tragedy, no disease or death, nothing on heaven or on earth or under the earth that can place the world or anyone in it beyond God's redemption. Good people become widows and orphans, but God defends the widow and the orphan, and will not leave those God loves bereft. What Sara Maitland writes in the voice of a grieving mother in her short story "Dragon Dreams" (from Angel Maker) strikes me as a psalm, a cry from the depths, that resonates with the longings of all of us who have seen grief:

So that is why I am writing to you. When my child died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... Wherever there is a perfect sunrise, a dark cliff, a small pool of water, a distant city wreathed in morning mist, there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.

And there is something more than that, even, something more fundamental to the order of the universe: that God is redeeming the universe God made and loves. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we worry that it is too late, Jesus shows that it is never too late. After we have become convinced that all is lost, when we are ready to concede to death and are seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus demonstrates that there is no loss, no death, no tragedy, no depth, no power in heaven or on earth on under the earth that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's redemption, beyond the reach of infinite love and abundant life.

Open every dark place to light and air; this is the time to uncover and unbind!

the green of jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of jesus and
the future is possible

-- lucille clifton, "spring song," good woman: poems and a memoir 1969 - 1980

Thanks be to God!

March 9, 2005 in John, Lent, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Redemption, Resurrection, Year A | Permalink | Comments (11)