April 03, 2005

"Touching the Wounded Body of Christ in the World": Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church
Second Sunday of Easter, Year A; April 3, 2005
Genesis 8:6-16; 9:8-16; Psalm 111; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

There’s something that makes me want to chuckle whenever I hear John 20:24’s description of Thomas as the one “who was called ‘the twin,’” because let’s face it: who calls him that now? He’s got another nickname, by which he’s much better known among Christians today, and that’s “Doubting Thomas.”

I think that Thomas needs a better press agent, and I’m ready to apply for the job.

First off, I think the “Doubting” label is pretty unfair. Yes, Thomas wants to touch Jesus. But who wouldn’t? A lot of us feel that way. One of my favorite worship songs (the Wild Goose Worship Group's "Don't Tell Me of a Faith That Fears," from Love + Anger) has a chorus that goes like this:

I need to know that God is real
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world including me

That experience of knowing – really knowing – that Christ is alive, still able to touch and love and heal, is something we want and need, especially when times are dark and uncertain. And for Jesus’ followers in this morning’s gospel, the times feel VERY uncertain.

They’ve had a terrifying series of experiences. They saw Jesus arrested and led away without resistance. The ones who were brave enough to watch saw him crucified. And then Peter and John saw that Jesus’ tomb was empty. This wouldn’t be a reassuring sight to someone living in the first-century Roman Empire. If anyone had seen them around the tomb, Jesus’ followers would have been suspected of grave robbery – a crime that carried a death sentence in first-century law.

Small wonder that, at the beginning of this morning’s gospel, Jesus’ followers are gathered secretly, behind locked doors, for fear of the Judean authorities. As possible grave robbers, they were suspected of a capital crime; as known followers of a man brazen enough to conduct a public demonstration in the Temple courts, in full view of the Roman garrison stationed there, the disciples would be considered highly dangerous to the peace of Rome, and to the Judean leaders Rome supported. So the question on the minds of Jesus’ followers is probably not so much “will we be next?” as it is, “how long do you think we can last?” So to reach them, breathe his spirit on them, and commission them to serve as agents of his forgiveness, Jesus has to come through the locked door behind which they’re all hiding.

Well, ALMOST all of them are hiding. One of them is not. Thomas is not with those cowering in the locked room when Jesus appears to them. And so Thomas doesn’t see Jesus, doesn’t experience Jesus’ breathing on his followers, doesn’t receive the commission the risen Jesus gives the others.

Does this mean that Thomas is less faithful than the other disciples? Not necessarily. In the appearance of the risen Jesus that Thomas misses, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out into the world, forgiving as he forgives. I like to think that Thomas wasn’t present to hear those words because he, unlike the others, was not locked inside in fear, but was already out there, in the world.

Thomas, the disciple who wants to touch Jesus, is onto something:

The path of discipleship isn’t a path of safety. Thomas gets that. Heck, he’s the guy who way back in chapter 11 of John says, “let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Thomas knows that there are worse things than death – like maybe not ever really living at all. Because Thomas is not ruled by fear, he’s out there in the world, while the other disciples are hiding behind locked doors. Thomas doesn’t need to hear Jesus’ commission to the other disciples because he’s already out in the place where he can fulfill it. There’s a gorgeous passage in a short story by Sara Maitland ("Dragon Dreams," from Angel Maker) that I think of when I think of the kind of courage that I can almost imagine as Thomas’ words:

When [you] 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. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.

There was danger out there, but the hope of seeing something else out there was stronger. So Thomas doesn’t need to hear Jesus’ commission to the other disciples because he’s already out in the place where he can fulfill it. He is ruled more by hope than by fear, and so he gets it. He knows that a disciple’s place is in the world.

And Thomas is onto something even more important:

The risen Jesus, the REAL Jesus, is the wounded Jesus. If you want to see the real Jesus, if you want to KNOW that Jesus is alive and at work in the world to touch and heal, look for the wounds. The wounds are the surest sign that this stranger is really the risen Christ. Seek them yourself, crying out with Thomas, “My lord and my God!” Thomas gets that. He gets that he’s going to know the risen Christ when he seeks to touch the wounded Christ. Maybe that truth also helps to ground him as he goes out into a dangerous world.

But there’s something about the report the other disciples give Thomas that seems to throw him off. Thomas starts with a presupposition that’s spot on: there is one Body of Christ. But he assumes that even in the life of the resurrection, there’s only one place or one way to see Jesus. If the other disciples saw Jesus, then Thomas missed his chance. If they received the Spirit in that encounter, then Thomas is left empty.

Not so. Thomas thinks that the unity of Christ’s body and the fact of Christ’s uniqueness means that the body he wants and needs to touch, the body of the risen Christ, is the body that had been nailed to the cross. But it’s not like that. Not any more. All of Christ’s followers can touch the wounded Body of Christ because Christ’s risen Body consists of every one of us – every baby, every grandmother, every teenager, every woman and man and child – who is in Christ has been baptized into the Body of Christ.

Every time we take someone’s hand as we exchange the Peace, we touch the risen, living Body of Christ.

A lot of us have had that experience here, at St. Martin’s. Around shared joys or tragedies, watching a row of women wearing goofy sunglasses on Joy Sunday to celebrate their surviving life-threatening illness, in a casserole in an hour of need from a friend or someone we barely know, in a moment of shared vulnerability in the Commit class or over a cup of coffee, we’ve seen and served the risen, wounded, triumphant Christ.

And the temptation, when we’ve seen Christ in one way, in one community, in one person or set of people, is to look for Christ only in those places. I think that’s why Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Living things grow, and change. And the body of the risen Lord is changed and changing too. Discipleship is a moving target. Our mission in Christ is calling us out, into the world, to touch Christ’s wounds in brothers and sisters we haven’t yet met, but whose fellowship we share in the mystery of this table, and of the prayers of the saints.

But do you want to feel Christ’s presence even more deeply? Do you want to have an experience of God’s Spirit moving so deeply within you that every fiber and sinew inside wants to cry out, “My Lord and My God!”? Do you need to know that God is real? Do you need to know that Christ is alive, that sin and death itself are not the last word, but are passing away? Do you need to experience Christ’s presence? Do you want to touch Jesus, and KNOW that Jesus is really right there with you?

Then hear Jesus’ commission to those upon whom he breathes his spirit: you are being sent out, into the world, and specifically to the world’s brokenness. You are being sent to TOUCH those places, to proclaim and participate in the reconciliation and healing that is Christ’s work in the world. You are being sent because YOU -- each one of us about to gather at Jesus’ table here, and at every other table at which bread is being broken in remembrance of him -- are now the Body of Christ, Jesus’ presence at work in the world, called and empowered to do what he did, and more.

If we want to know that, if we want to experience that, we’ll have to leave the rooms we lock ourselves in because of fear. We need to do what Thomas did – step out from our locked rooms, our gated communities, into the world. We need to insist upon touching Christ’s wounds. When we try to sequester ourselves and our children away from the world’s pain, we are hiding them and ourselves from Christ’s wounds.

And the world is filled with wounded members of the Body of Christ. One million deaths every year, one child dead every thirty seconds, from MALARIA, a disease that can be prevented with a mosquito net costing two dollars and fifty cents. The life expectancy in Botswana is down to 30 years old. One in five people in the world survive – or don’t survive – on less than a dollar a day. One person in seven tries to stay alive without access to clean water. A child dies in extreme poverty every three seconds. 36.3% – over one third– of all the children in Baltimore City live below the poverty line.

So much death. Such deep wounds. And yet. And yet. AND YET.
This is Christ’s Body, given for the world. Christ is here among us, despite our locked doors and our security systems. And there is life, and peace, and POWER breathed upon us to do Christ’s work in the world, to carry Good News of resurrection throughout the world. In Christ and through Christ and with Christ, all of Creation is being redeemed, coming to new and abundant life.

What can one person do to heal the world’s wounds? I don’t know, if we’re talking about a hypothetical person, a stranger, nobody in particular. But I know what Jesus can do. We can read about the signs of Jesus’ power and how Jesus used that power in the Bible. But these signs were recorded not to provide us with something to read as we wait behind locked doors, but to inspire us to experience the life of the risen Christ by living as Christ’s Body in the world, touching, loving, healing, forgiving in Christ’s name and to Christ’s glory.

So let the gospel come alive
  in actions plain to see
  in imitation of the one
  whose love extends to me


I need to know that God is real
  I need to know that Christ can feel
  the need to touch and love and heal
  the world including me
-- "Don't Tell Me of a Faith That Fears"

The risen, living Body of Christ is in the world – breathing peace, bringing healing, and sending us forth, in love and in power. Thanks be to God!

April 3, 2005 in Current Affairs, Easter, Genesis, John, Justice, Year A | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 20, 2005

"Reading in the Light" - February 20, 2005

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
Genesis 12:1-8; Psalm 33:12-22; Romans 4:1-17; John 3:1-17

When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to learn to surf. But because I both wanted to avoid buying an expensive surfboard if I didn't know how to surf, and because I didn't want to look foolish in front of all my friends at the beach, the first thing I did was buy a book about how to surf. I figured that if I already knew how to surf when I bought a board and went to the beach, I could spend my first day out SURFING, instead of falling off my board and looking foolish.

This was, of course, a little silly of me. You can't learn to surf by reading ABOUT surfing. Some information about how waves are formed and how you can ride them is helpful, but at some point -- and probably sooner rather than later -- you're going to have to get in the ocean, or you won't learn to surf. You get your board, you get some friends who have been surfing before, and you get in the water. You try to catch waves and mostly don't catch them, and you try to stand up but mostly fall off, but then your friends give you some pointers, and with practice, you can surf. The more you do it -- especially if you do it with friends who do it well -- the better you get at it, and the better you get at it, the more fun it is.

Or take learning to play guitar. Beginning guitarists need a book or something to show them where you put your fingers to make various chords. Going to a class might be very helpful. But no book and no class will do you any good as a guitarist unless you actually get yourself a guitar, pick it up, and try to play it. Personally, I learned to play guitar at youth group. When I was thirteen, I started coming to youth group two hours early every week. I'd meet Chuck, the seminary intern there, and we'd play through the songs we were going to sing that night. I played abysmally, but a little less abysmally each week, because Chuck was really pretty good, and I picked up more and more from him. After a year or two of playing guitar regularly with other people and in front of other people, I was good enough that I could go to a Stevie Ray Vaughn or U2 concert and, if my seats were good enough, I could pick up techniques, chords, or scales just by watching.

Learning to read the bible is a little like that. My sense, from talking with a lot of people, is that one of the most important steps people need to take to learn to read the bible well is to get over the idea that first you learn ABOUT the bible, and once you know enough ABOUT it, then you start reading it.

But reading the bible is like learning to play guitar. Sure, it helps to have some books around the house that give you information ABOUT what you're reading. But books ABOUT the bible do much more good if you read them in tandem with the bible itself -- you can't really learn to read the bible without picking up the bible. And like learning to play guitar, the best way to learn is to find someone who's pretty good at it and go through a piece of it together.

This morning's sermon is part of our year-long Preaching/Teaching series. And the unit in the series that I get to do is the easy one -- it's the unit on scripture. I say it's easy because if you want to know how we interpret the bible, the best way to find out is to watch someone interpreting it. So this morning, I get to do pretty much what I always do -- I'm going to take up our scripture readings, what I know about the context in which they were written, and what I know about what's going on in our community and in our world, and I'm going to interpret the scriptures, pausing the action every now and then to tell you about what I'm doing, much like sports commentators -- like on the "CBS Chalkboard" -- will pause a football game from time to time to show you with X's and O's where things are going and what happens when they go that way. This sermon will have a number of those "Chalkboard moments" as it goes on.

So ...

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit -- which (chalkboard moment!) I say because when I'm interpreting scripture, I want to be intentional from the start about acknowledging and honoring God's presence. I want to read scripture prayerfully.

This morning's gospel has Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a Judean leader, coming to Jesus, secretly and at night. Having read John's gospel carefully a number of times, I've noticed that it has a LOT of language about light and darkness -- it's an important theme for this writer. And if I read all of chapter 3 instead of stopping where the lectionary reading stops, I see that Jesus says in verse 20, "Those who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, lest their deeds be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been wrought in God."

Chalkboard moment! I get a lot more out of this passage when I take the time and care to get familiar with the language and themes of the whole document in which it appears. Because I've done that, I can say, "Aha! Nicodemus is someone who will only come to Jesus secretly and in the dead of night. He's literally "walking in darkness" -- he is not a good guy, in the eyes of this writer."

Of course, there are some clues in the passage that Nicodemus is not reading Jesus' ministry very well. When Jesus says that "you must be born from above," Nicodemus makes two major mistakes in one statement. When Nicodemus says, "look, I can't exactly crawl back into my mother's womb," it's clear that he's taking Jesus' language about birth literally when it's better understood metaphorically. That isn't going to help Nicodemus arrive at a good reading of what Jesus is about. How can I do better than Nicodemus here?

Well, having noticed this repeated use of "light" and "darkness" imagery in the Gospel According to John, I could turn to a good study bible or commentary to help me see how this theme is used. And in that process, I come across the information that the Gospel According to John most likely comes from a community that also produced 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation. I can use a concordance to see where this language comes up in all of these documents. And I come across some very important verses in 1 John.

1 John 1: 6-7 says this:

If we say we have fellowship in him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

And 1 John chapter 2 (verses 9-11) says this:

Those who say they are in the light and hate their brothers and sisters are in the darkness still. Those who love their sisters and brothers abide in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But those who hate brothers and sisters are in the darkness and walk in the darkness, and do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded their eyes.

Wow. Some things are starting to come together in my mind about Nicodemus and the way that people like him are portrayed in the gospel. Nicodemus is someone who walks in darkness. The community that gave us this gospel associates walking in the light with walking in love alongside brothers and sisters, and walking in darkness with hatred of brothers and sisters.

That might shed some light -- no pun intended -- on something else that's intriguing in this morning's gospel -- something that I raised earlier, and kind of dropped to the side as I paused to figure out what the writer's attitude toward Nicodemus was. And that's this language of being "born from above" in the passage. This is important language for a lot of people. We talk about being "born again," making a fresh start as we become a new person in Christ. That's cool. But my study of the images of "light" and "darkness" is making me start to think that maybe there's another really important dimension to Jesus' invitation to us to be "born from above," and it has to do with that other important theme in John's community -- and that's the insistence that anyone who's really following Jesus shows it by loving brothers and sisters.

Those of you who have been through the Connect class may already see where I'm going here. If you know that I have been born "from Marge," which happens to be my mother's name, and you run into someone else who you find out was also born from this very same Marge, you'll know that you've met my brother Mike. People who are born from the same person are brothers and sisters.

So when Jesus invites Nicodemus to be "born of the Spirit" -- the same Spirit from which all of Jesus' followers are born -- the invitation and the obligation is to be drawn into relationship not only with God, but also with others who have been born "of the Spirit" -- our brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe Nicodemus would have done well to take Jesus a little MORE literally on that point.

If this is making me say, "wow, that's exciting -- I want to know more about what this means!" or, for that matter, if it's making me say, "wait a sec, that's scary -- being in relationship with brothers and sisters wasn't a fun experience for me growing up, and I hope that being a Christian isn't about more of the same," then there are a number of ways I can explore further. I can get out my concordance and find out how this "brother-sister" relationship between Christians is described elsewhere. I can get out one of my favorite books about the cultural world of the New Testament to find out what that language might have meant to the first readers of the Gospel of John. I can pop by Dylan's lectionary blog, and read about how John's strange-sounding language about "blood" and Paul's equally strange-sounding arguments about circumcision in Romans point toward some insights they share. Or best of all, I can go to the Connect or Commit class and say to my table, "OK, I was reading the Gospel of John the other day, and it got me really thinking about this ... what do you think?" and we can all puzzle it out together.

If I read carefully and prayerfully, and talk with other people who are willing to struggle prayerfully alongside me with the text, I can come up with all kinds of insights that will challenge me, excite me, and occasionally confuse me. Whatever those insights are, if they're of the Spirit, they're going to draw me into relationships that are characterized by the fruit of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I know that because I've also spent some quality time with Paul's writings -- but more importantly, because I've spent a lot of quality time with my sisters and my brothers in Christ, praying, singing, squabbling, breaking bread, and wrestling with scripture. Because whatever else we're doing, when two or three of us are doing it together in Jesus' name, Jesus shows up.

I read about that with some friends in a very Good Book.

Thanks be to God!

February 20, 2005 in Community, Genesis, John, Lent, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 13, 2004

"In the Image of Love" - June 15, 2003

Trinity Sunday – June 15, 2003
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-16

Some years ago, my brother Mike was working on a Ph.D. in mathematics. I'm a humanities gal through and through -- I spent a lot of effort in college doing research on which sections of "Physics for Poets" and "Rocks for Jocks" would let me skate through a bachelor's degree without ever having to pull out a calculator -- but every now and then, Mike would try to explain to me what he was doing. Most of what he said about it went too far over my head to register, but I do recall him saying at one point that he was proving that two plus two did not really equal four. Perhaps it was questionable that two is in fact two. The whole thing was simply unfathomable to me.

I think Mike would chuckle to see me now, standing up in front of you all on Trinity Sunday, about to tell you how the concept of Three being One has become an energizing and life-giving force in my life.

Believe me, it's been quite a journey to get to that point. I can remember in my church membership class when I was twelve asking the clergy about the Trinity. Yes, I was pestering clergy even then! I could get that it was important to say that Jesus is God incarnate, but I couldn't get how one and one and one can be One and not three, and I definitely couldn't get why it was important to say that God is three and God is One if it was something that by definition was a mystery, something we couldn't understand. My teachers struggled bravely to provide me with answers. The first answer I remember well. I was told that the Trinity is like H20 -- it can be ice or water or steam, but it's all water. Makes sense -- no contradictions there! As it turns out, that's pretty much what the Monarchians taught way back in the fourth century, before they were condemned as heretics at the Council of Nicea, the body that produced the Nicene Creed we say almost every Sunday. Most of the explanations I've heard over the years line up with ancient attempts to make more sense of the Trinity, to explain more precisely how God can be one God in three persons, and these apparently more sensible explanations were pretty much all condemned as heretical. After years of study, I felt like I was back to square one on the whole project of trying to understand the Trinity, and after observing all of the arguing back and forth over the centuries -- arguments that sometimes played out on the battlefield, with bloody conflict between bishops and their armies -- I was starting to feel like it wasn't a project that could do much to build up the community anyway.

So my efforts to understand the doctrine of the Trinity went on hiatus for a while. While I was in seminary and starting my Ph.D., I did read some explanations of the Trinity that seemed solid, but I have to admit that I didn't find them very interesting. I'm a people person, and I get most excited about theology when I can see how it informs our life together as human beings -- when it tells us something of how we can be Christ's body in the world in a way that furthers God's work of reconciling the whole world to God's self. I was excited by the writings of African theologians who spoke of ubuntu, a word from the Nguni language in Africa which Desmond Tutu (in No Future Without Forgiveness) describes as meaning that "my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound, in yours ... a person is a person through other persons." "A person with ubuntu," Tutu says, "is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole."1 That's a thoroughly biblical idea that a humanities gal like me can get excited about. Ubuntu is not just an abstraction -- it's an idea that has been and can be incredibly powerful in helping communities heal and reconcile. In South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, ubuntu inspired the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, put an end to the spiral of violence that had enveloped so much of the nation. The tortured could look in the eye the very people who had tortured them and say, "What you did to me was a crime because I am a human being and not an animal. And you are responsible for it because you are a human being and not an animal. My humanity is tied up in yours. My humanity is affirmed by my choice today to treat you as a human being, who even now can make the choice not to behave hurtfully. Wounding you and punishing you will not heal me. I forgive you."

How powerful that is! If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships, human dignity is not a limited good -- and the more I honor you, the more honor there is for me. If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships, I don't have to worry about whether another person is getting off too easily. I don't have to fret about whether my colleague, my rival, or my enemy is being treated better than they deserve. If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships -- if it's true that my humanity is inextricably bound in yours and honoring your humanity affirms mine -- there is more than enough mercy to go around, and it is possible, as the prophet Amos writes, for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an EVER-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). An EVER-flowing stream -- an inexhaustible and unending torrent that makes our weather this spring look like the driest August in the Sahara.

All this is true -- IF ubuntu is fundamental reality, and not wishful thinking. That could be a pretty big "if." What encouragement do we have as Christians to stake our future on that "if"?

We have the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God, in God's very self, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. These aren't just hats that God wears at different times and can put aside, or different ways of being in different circumstances -- that idea was what got the Monarchians condemned. Our doctrine of the Trinity says that this is who God was, is, and will be -- fully, the eternal nature of the eternal God. And it tells us that God -- in God's very and eternal self -- is the kind of relationship, the kind of self-giving love, that we as Christians strive to live into in community.

God in God's very self is Creator. A Creator needs Creation in order to be a Creator. Without Creation, God could not be God's self. God is love, and love that isn't narcissism requires an Other to love. So God NEEDS Creation. God needs us. God's identity is bound inextricably with us, the identity of God as Father is inextricably bound with the identity God gives us as God's children. The hunger we have for the God who made us and loves us reflects the hunger God has for us, the hunger that gave birth to each of us and to the world in which we live.

Martin Buber (in I and Thou) puts it this way:

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know that God needs you -- in the fullness of His eternity needs you? How would humanity be, how would you be, if God did not need humanity, did not need you? You need God, in order to be -- and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. ... There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of human persons, of you and me.

This talk of God's need might sound foreign. It was very foreign to the Greek philosophers with whom Paul was in dialogue. Greek philosophers thought of God as an "unmoved mover" who needed no one, whose power lay in complete freedom from passion. When they referred to humanity as God's children, they meant that humans share with God the ability to be rational, that we too could be freed from passion and need. But God's eternal nature as Redeemer speaks against that. It puts the cross, the PASSION, and God's passionate pursuit of us, God's beloved, at the center of the divine life. God, in God's very self, is self-giving love -- the kind of love that unconditionally treats others as worthy of love and honor. Jesus' earliest followers didn't get that very easily -- they kept waiting for Jesus to show the world who he was by showing his power. They waited for him to throw off all this meek and mild Clark Kent footwashing stuff, put on his cape, and beat the villains into submission. We're not much different sometimes -- we talk about the "Second Coming" as a time when Jesus will finally show his power by taking names and kicking butt. There was already a second coming of Jesus, though -- we call it Easter. And there was a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, as the risen Jesus came back to his disciples, and his message was "peace be with you." Some years after that, Jesus came to Paul in blinding glory, and the message then was to follow Jesus by going to the Gentiles and heretics Paul had been persecuting and serve them instead. There have been billions of comings of Jesus since Easter, for Jesus promises to come wherever two or three are gathered. The Trinity tells us that God's very self, God's ETERNAL nature, is Jesus' nature, Jesus' love as revealed in scripture -- loving and forgiving others as if love and forgiveness were in unlimited, inexhaustible supply for eternity -- because they are.

They are unlimited in the life of the Trinity itself. Some speak of the Holy Spirit as flowing from the love between the Father and the Son, spilling over all Creation as the Spirit hovered over the waters before Creation had form, uniting Creation in the love of the Trinity. For this reason, the theologian Jürgen Moltmann calls the Spirit the "unifying God," God poured out over all flesh, inviting all people to join in the Trinity's loving dance, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control -- wherever the Spirit is present. The fruit of the Spirit -- qualities characteristic of loving relationship -- makes clear what is implicit in the doctrine of the Trinity -- that God in God's very self is relationship. God is love.

And we are made in God's image, in the image of Love. To be God's self, God needs Creation, needs to forgive, needs to unify in love. We humans, made in God's image, also need others, need to forgive, need to unify to become most fully our true self, the self God made us to be. God's self is revealed in Creation, in the forgiveness spoken from the cross, in every relationship that bears the fruit of the Spirit; we find our self in God as we enter into those relationships with others, as we love them in ways that are creative and self-giving and uniting, as we experience God's love through them.

God is love. The Triune God is ubuntu, is love found in loving, is self found in self-giving, is unity in relationship, is now, is then, is ever, is everywhere. And so ubuntu is not wishful thinking; it is the rhythm of the life of the Trinity, of the universe. As Thomas Merton writes in Love and Living:

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone -- we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be feel real until we let ourselves fall in love -- either with another human person or with God.

Love is the image in which we were created. Let us confess our faith in the Trinity -- the God who is fully, mysteriously, and eternally the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer – and confess it not just in the Creed but with our lives, with our passion, with our offering of ourselves to God for the sake of all whom God loves. Amen.

June 13, 2004 in Community, John, Trinity | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 16, 2004

"Fear Not, O Soil" - May 16, 2004

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 67; John 14:23-29

As you may remember, last week we had some excellent guest preachers, who chose as their subject Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you." What impressed me most about their sermon is how open they were in talking about the barriers and struggles they (and we) encounter trying to live into that command.

They're a tough act to follow, so I want to build on the important things -- the crucial things, the foundational things -- they said to us last week. Those things were crucial and foundational for those of us who want to follow Jesus because when Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," there’s a good chance that the word he is referring to specifically is the "new commandment" from last week's sermon, the commandment from John 13:34 to love others as Christ loves us. Last week's gospel told us that our love proclaims whose disciples we are; this week's gospel builds on that by saying that our love for others is how we experience God's love for us, and how we make where we live into God's house, God's home, the place where God's Spirit lives on earth.

Some of you have heard me talk about the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus was growing up, that was the place he was told was God's house, God's home, and he was told what made it possible for God's Spirit, God's holiness to be present there to an extent not possible any place else. Such a holy place had to be carefully guarded and protected. The conventional wisdom is that pure things are pure because they haven't come into contact with anything dirty. As soon as something dirty -- even something little -- penetrates into something that's clean, the dirtiness has spread, and the whole thing is dirty. For example, let's say I'm baking a cake for a special dinner. I've made the batter, and I pour it into the pan. Then I remember that I need to scoop out the catbox before the guests arrive, so I make my way to the bathroom where the catbox is, set down the cake pan next to the box, and start scooping the catbox. Just a little tiny piece of what I'm scooping from the catbox falls into the cake pan. Can I go ahead and bake the cake, and tell my guests that there's only one chunk from the catbox in the cake, so if they get the slice of cake with the cat-generated surprise in it, they can just pick it out, or let me know and they'll get a new slice? I don't think so; the minute the tiniest chunk from the catbox gets in the cake, the whole cake has to be thrown out. That's why not very many people would have the cake pan anywhere near the catbox. Pure things have to stay well away from dirty things to stay pure. If your hands are clean, you can't touch something dirty, or your hands will be dirty. So God's people guarded the purity of the Holy of Holies very carefully, because if the wrong sort of person, a dirty person, got in, the place wouldn't be clean. And God's house has to be clean, right? Conventional wisdom is that God's holiness, God's purity, means that God can't live in a place where impurity or sin dwells. Conventional religious wisdom in many quarters still says that if we take seriously that this is God’s house, if this is a place where God is to be at home, we must be very careful here to keep everything in its place – if we can’t keep the dirt outside where it belongs, at least we should make sure everyone knows just how dirty we think it is.

That’s conventional wisdom. But you know what's coming, don't you? How much does Jesus teach conventional wisdom? St. Paul puts it well: Christ's wisdom is foolishness to the world. The world says that you make a place clean by separating out the dirt, by keeping dirt in its place, in the flower beds outside. And I think some of our anxiety about dirt and what to do with it springs from our knowledge that we are dirt. We see others as dirty because they remind us of something in ourselves that we don't want to face. We have to make our boundaries between us and them, pure and impure, clear because we don't want others to think we're like those people, the ones who do those awful things. Those people are dirt; our hands are clean.

But God formed each and every one of us from the dirt; we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Each and every one of us –rich and poor, gay and heterosexual, black and brown and white, torturers and tortured, the virtuous and the wicked – all six of the people worldwide who might actually fall into either of those categories – and the vast teeming billions of us who are not virtuous or wicked, but neither and both of them at once – each and every one of us was formed of the same dirt. The same rain falls on each of us, and the same sun shines above us in the same sky. The same God blesses us with that sun and rain.

If the pew Bibles I’ve ordered were here, I’d ask you to open them right now to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, so we could take a look at the demand Jesus makes there of those of us who presume to call ourselves Jesus’ followers. It’s one that sounds impossible: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Perfect? Doesn’t God know that we’re creatures of earth, that we’re dirt? But here’s how Jesus defines being perfect like God is perfect: it’s loving like God loves. Specifically, it’s about being every bit as indiscriminate as God is, in sending the same rain, the same sun, the same love and the same blessing on each and every one of us – and lest we start thinking that means, “each and every one of us good people,” Jesus specifically says, in Matthew 5:45, “on the righteous and the unrighteous.” If you want a “biblical morality,” that’s it.

But surely God doesn’t expect us not to discriminate between bad people, dirty people, and good people – people like us? God doesn’t, but if that’s not enough to tell us that such indiscriminate love and blessing is God’s will, then maybe we should take a moment to remember that in the biblical story, in our story as God’s people, we are not only all formed of the same dirt, but as humans we are all given life by the same Spirit, by God’s spirit breathed into the dust we are. That’s what Genesis tells us.

God's Spirit does not dwell in spotless temples of white marble, but in earthen vessels. The temple where God's Spirit dwells, the place where Christ and God the Father make their home on earth, is in the dirt. It's the Body of Christ. We don't need to get rid of the dirt to make Christ's home, to be Christ's Body, to build the temple; we need to love the dirt. Get rid of the dirt, and we’re not cleaning house; we’re driving God’s temple out of our church – the church we call ours when we forget that it’s God’s. The church we call ours when we forget that it is Christ’s Body, where our Baptismal Covenant obligates us to seek and serve Christ in all others.

This is in no way saying that we should take God's presence among us lightly, or that we can experience the fullness God wants for us without hard work done intentionally over a lifetime. But it's not the sort of work we might think. It's not trying to get rid of what's dirty, or trying to be different from those dirty people out there. It's the work of seeking out those we're tempted to think of as dirt, whoever that is, and loving them as Christ loves us. If we want to experience God's purity, we need to go out and make some mud pies. Because as we learn to love those who stretch our ability to love, we see the face of God. As we learn to love dirty people, we can recognize that we too are people of earth, of dirt, and we experience what we can't understand with worldly wisdom: God's holiness, God's purity does not flee from dirt, but requires it, as God's purity is pure love and forgiveness.

So Jesus’ word to us in today’s gospel is “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Don’t be afraid of getting dirty, of experiencing our shared human identity as creatures of earth. Or as our Old Testament reading says, "do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice!" Don’t worry about what will happen when we bestow our blessing as freely as God blesses us with sun and rain and the breath of life, of God’s Spirit. Open the doors of God's house WIDE. If we’re going to call this God’s house, we should invite every creature of earth to come in and join the feast. Don't fret about whether they'll track in the dirt from outside. And don't look for ways – especially not on the Lord’s Day – to make people ashamed of dirt. That’s not the Word Jesus asks us to keep. We are called as God’s people to proclaim God's word that God is in the midst of God's earthy people, and God's people shall never be put to shame.

Thanks be to God!

May 16, 2004 in Easter, Inclusion, Joel, John, Purity, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 18, 2004

"Touching Is Believing" - April 18, 2004

Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 5:12a, 17-22, 25-29; John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter is always the Sunday of Thomas “the twin,” sometimes called “doubting Thomas.” And here at St. Martin’s, it’s also a day when we baptize children, so I find myself reflecting on the connection between the Baptismal Covenant and this Sunday’s gospel, in particular Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe.”

In many ways, it’s a puzzling statement. It certainly goes against some modern sensibilities. A lot of the scientific quests of the 20th century seem predicated on the assumption, “blessed are you who, because you won’t settle for somebody else’s word for it, finally see for yourself.” A lot of us grew up with that assumption, so Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe” is counter-intuitive. It goes against a modernist view that stories are for children and fools, that what we really need, what life is all about, is “facts,” things to which the authorities – the newspapers, the pundits, the four out of five dentists – attest, things that are measurable and therefore feel more certain.

But, Greek geek that I am, I have to take a look at the wording that the gospel uses. When Jesus is talking about “believing” here, he’s using variations on the word pistis. Pistis is often translated in our English bibles as “faith,” but it would be more accurately translated as “trust” or “allegiance.” Pistis, the “belief” that Jesus speaks about here, is NOT saying yes in your head to some kind of doctrinal statement or creed. Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems pretty uninterested in that kind of thing. That’s especially true in John, in which Jesus talks about “the truth” not as a creed, a confession, or a theology, but as a person – specifically, as the person of Jesus. The pistis, the “faith” that Jesus commends in today’s gospel, is not trying to convince yourself that an idea is true; it’s an allegiance, a willingness to invest in a relationship, to be true to a person.

That speaks powerfully to correct folks on the opposite end of the spectrum from the “blessed are you who must see for yourself” crowd. I’m talking about those of us who are tempted to say, “blessed are you who are willing to sign off on this handy creed I’ve got of things all right-thinking Christians believe, even if every experience you’ve got of love and of life go against it.” And by the way, I don’t think that either end of any theological or political spectrum has a monopoly on this way of thinking. But this way of thinking, the kind of “belief” that means trying your darndest to talk yourself into assenting intellectually to an idea, is at best a distraction from what Jesus is talking about, from the kind of faith that we’re talking about when, in the Baptismal Covenant, we say, “I believe.”

The whole continuum, the whole debate between the “blessed are those who won’t agree to something without proof” and the “blessed are those who will agree with what I think is the right interpretation,” has little to say in the end about faith, about the kind of belief to which young ________________________ are being committed today in baptism. What we’re committing our children to this day, what we’re recommitting ourselves to this day, isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing; it’s about trusting and uniting. There’s a leap of faith being taken today, but it’s not one of saying yes with our lips and our brains to an idea or an ideology; it’s of saying an irrevocable yes with our hearts and our hands to a person and a community.

But I’m going to side with Thomas for a moment here. Don’t say yes to Jesus before you’ve met the risen Jesus for yourself. Would you marry someone before you’d met them? Probably not. And those of us who are married know well that when you get married, you’re marrying into a family; best to meet the family too. In Jesus’ case, it’s not as hard as some might think.

If you want to meet the risen Christ, it’s as simple as hanging out where he hangs out. Invest compassion as well as time and treasure with those with whom Christ suffers today. Find a stranger on the road you can invite to break bread with you and your fellow travelers. Listen deeply for Christ’s voice where two or three are gathered in his name. In short, don’t rely solely on books, or even on solitary prayer to find Jesus. Connect with Christ in community. Thomas was absolutely sure of one thing before he saw the risen Jesus for himself. He knew that if Jesus was alive, Jesus would be seen in the flesh.

Thomas was right. We still encounter Jesus in the flesh. We might not see him with our eyes, but we’ve got something in common with Thomas: the surest way for us to encounter the risen Jesus and to know him as Lord and God is by touching (and being touched by) Christ’s Body.

And that brings me back to baptism and our Baptismal Covenant. We can’t live the life of the baptized outside of community, without other human beings with whom we can form relationships of justice, whom we can love, whom we can forgive, and from whom we can receive what Christ wants to give – the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. I love to hear conviction in the congregation’s cry of “We will!” in our vow to support the baptized as they live into the covenant they’ve made, or their parents have made on their behalf. Our journey isn’t always easy; Jesus’ call to proclaim Good News with our lives, to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, to strive for justice and peace among ALL people and respect the dignity of EVERY human being, is as much in tension with our culture as it was in first-century Palestine. The new disciples will need our support. And we need theirs. We need all of the gifts, the creativity, and even the wounds of Christ’s Body to know life in Christ.

We need to meet the risen Jesus to know eternal life in our own lives. We need to be nourished with the Body of Christ, and not just on Sunday mornings. The more demanding our lives, the less we can afford to go it alone. However and whenever you can do it, I urge you to be every bit as demanding as Thomas. Touch the Body of Christ. It’s a gift that is all the more precious for being broken. Do it in the Connect? class, which starts tonight. Do it as you break bread with friends at a weekday lunch. Do it at home and at work, as you seek and serve Christ in those around you and as you intentionally surround them with prayer. Do it and you meet the risen Christ.

It must have been hard for those who saw Jesus before his death on the Cross to understand how they could see his face in the face of a child, or an old woman, or a community, to trust that they could meet the risen Jesus amongst their bickering fellow disciples, or amongst the enemies they feared. They thought they knew Jesus’ face, having seen him in Galilee.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and who have come to trust. When we are willing to touch the wounds of the Body of Christ, as we are willing to bare our own wounds to our brothers and sisters in Christ’s body, we find the life, the healing, the joy we long for. We find Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

April 18, 2004 in Baptism, Faith, John, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 09, 2004

"Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Places" - April 9, 2004

Good Friday, Year C
Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 69:1-23; John 18:1 - 19:37

Matthew, Mark, and Luke present Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – the meal we remember particularly on Maundy Thursday – as a Passover meal. The Gospel According to John, however, goes out of its way to say that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation, the day before the Passover meal would be eaten. I find the question, though, of which day was the one on which Jesus died far less interesting than the question of what points the gospels are making in presenting things as they do in each of their unique takes on the meaning of Jesus’ death.

John presents Jesus as dying on the Day of Preparation as part of his presentation of Christ as our Passover. In 1998, I was fortunate enough to hear Rabbi Alexander Schindler (former head of Reform synagogues in the U.S.) speak, and I will never forget something he said. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means “the narrow place,” Schindler pointed out; God leads us out of the narrow places.

I’d always loved the haggadah, the liturgy of the Passover meal, but each year, as I continue to reflect on what Rabbi Schindler taught me that night, my appreciation deepens further still. The haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” from Deuteronomy 26:3-11. The story of our Exodus, as God leads us from “the narrow place,” goes back at least to Abraham. When humanity’s vision of the world and the powers that made it is in the narrow place of thinking that the gods are as thirsty for human bloodshed as humankind is at our worst, in a culture in which parents sacrificed their sons and daughters so they could be more successful in agriculture, politics, or war, God’s voice speaks to Abraham as he loomed over his bound son Isaac, and God says, "Stop it! That’s enough!" God goes with Abraham to that dark and narrow place and led him to a wider place, a wider vision of who God is and what God wants from us.

The Passover haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, “When we were slaves in Egypt,” from that same passage in Deuteronomy. “When we were slaves in Egypt,” we are called to remember. And in the Passover, we remind ourselves that when humanity sees power merely as domination, when humanity treats difference as a reason to subjugate the “other,” God raises a prophet to say, “Enough,” to lead us out of the “narrow place” of slavery, into the wilderness in which we are freed to become God’s people, and to treat one another as God treats us.

Not that we stayed looking and moving forward on the journey God set us on with Abraham and Moses. Humanity’s history, or even the front page of any major newspaper today, tells of us sacrificing our sons and daughters to all kinds of powers and causes, trading lives for what is far less precious than life. We enslaved peoples captured in wars, from colonies, or by poverty and debt, practicing slavery in legally enshrined and more subtle de facto ways. We experienced how, when we treat human life as cheap, our own lives seem worthless. We found as we enslaved others that our greed had enslaved us. We tried to protect ourselves from death by killing, from violence by violence, from pain by wounding others, and amidst all of our score-keeping and fantasied and practiced revenge, and in the person of Jesus, God said, “THAT’S ENOUGH. Never again.”

So there is Good News on this Good Friday, in this dark place. And the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the Cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.

And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.

In the person of Jesus, God came to that dark and narrow place, to our Mitzrayim. In Jesus’ arms, stretched out on the Cross, God showed us the wideness of God’s mercy. The most powerful person in all Creation became powerless for our sake. The only person who could rightly be called “lord” or “king,” the person before whom all earthly kings will one day kneel, took upon himself the treatment humankind dealt to a slave convicted of treason. The judge of the nations was stripped naked – no loincloth to cover him – set to suffer anonymously among hundreds of anonymous suffering and disgraced men, and violated with a shameful death. How often do I hear someone these days say, “God will not be mocked!” But Jesus, God made flesh, was mocked, and humiliated, and tortured, and murdered, and on that dark day said, finally and for all time, “That’s enough. Never again. IT IS FINISHED.” Not with a decisive blow back at his tormentors to put them to shame, but with words of healing, of reconciliation, bringing together the human family with his last breath. The power of that demonstration has never been equaled, because Jesus’ power is not like the power of worldly kings. Jesus speaks truly when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of the order, of the kosmos, of this world. What earthly ruler do you know who would behave as Jesus does in such dark times? But Jesus’ light shines all the more brightly in the darkness of Good Friday.

This is a dark place we visit today. But we need to be here. We need to visit the dark and narrow places, to open our hearts not only to the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed, but to the contemptuous, the persecutors, the oppressors. Because the dark places in our hearts are populated by all of these; we scorn and despise and persecute and try to kill what we most fear in ourselves. It’s hopeless – or it would be hopeless … but Jesus put an end to that. There is freedom for slaves and slavers alike through the one who became as a slave to all, as we discover in this dark place. All scores were settled in the refusal of this one to settle the score. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as we discover in the midst of our Mitzrayim, our narrow place. The darkness and the fear and the pain and death itself have been cast out: IT IS FINISHED. Sacrificing our sons and daughters in Haiti, or for that matter in Baltimore and D.C., to the narrowness of mind that follows poor or no education because of our narrowness of vision: IT IS FINISHED. Enslaving one another and ourselves to ambition and injustice because of our narrowness of heart: IT IS FINISHED. The God of the universe has proclaimed definitively, for all time: Enough bloodshed. Enough shame. Enough suffering. In our narrowness of spirit, we once thought these were needed to set things right, but one greater than Moses has freed us for all time from that narrow place.

And we are free. Free to love, free to serve, freed from every system and every habit that made us, those we love, and our world suffer. It is finished – all of it – and we are free to claim the vision of a world made new, the immeasurable wideness of God’s mercy.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

April 9, 2004 in Atonement, Genesis, Holy Week, John, Justice, Passover, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)