Saturday, April 21, 2018

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me
These words from the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, in some way sum up our story as it is parceled out the Sundays after Easter. After the women find the open tomb, Jesus appears to people, invites some to touch him, to feel the wounds, and others to see him. He offers them “Peace,” Shalom in his vernacular. God’s Shalom envisions a reconciling healing of all that plagues us, all that ails us, all that divides us, all that divides us from God and one another. The Bible knows all that divides us from others, from ourselves, and from God, as Sin – a word increasingly absent from our day-to-day vocabulary. We are awash with voices urging us to affirm ourselves and be more comfortable “in our own skin,” accepting of things “as they are.” Sin, originally an archery term for “missing the mark,” just seems old fashioned and unhelpful and counterproductive to the fast and positive pace of modern life.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter every year we pray, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” In a society increasingly devoid of any sense of Sin, it seems ever more bizarre for us to pray to “hear voices,” let alone the voice of Jesus calling us each by name. Yet, every Fourth Sunday of Easter this is what we pray. Our prayer assumes that we hear his voice: “when we hear his voice may we know him who call us each by name and follow him.”

There’s the rub. Following him. Take, for instance, Peter and John in Acts chapters 3-4. A lame man asks them for money. We see them all the time if we drive around the city holding out their hands for some spare cash. Peter says, “We have no money, but what we have we will give to you, the Name of Jesus. Rise up and walk with us!” And he walks! For this they are put in jail, hauled before a Kangaroo Court and threatened. All for having heard the voice of Jesus and follow in his way – the way of God’s Shalom, the way of seeing, hearing, touching and healing a broken world. Peter says, in effect, “Have you arrested us for doing a good deed for this man who is healed? Don’t you really have more important things to be doing yourselves?”

In John chapters 8-10, after Jesus shows mercy on a woman caught in adultery, saves her life really, as she is about to be stoned by a crowd of self-righteous religious zealots. Then  he restores the sight of a man born blind. For this, he is constantly badgered and threatened by one crowd after another. He’s possessed by demons, they cry. They are set to stone Jesus just as they were ready to stone the woman. Note, we hear stories of women around the world still being stoned by crowds and by governments. This is not ancient history. This is happens every day.

As Jesus explains it in chapter 10, there is a crisis of leadership from the top. He speaks of Good Shepherds and Bad Shepherds, or “Hired Hands.” Throughout the history of his people, God spoke of the political leadership as “shepherds.” One of the early Kings had been David, a shepherd boy, thus, we can assume the origin of this metaphor of Kings as Shepherds. Some kings care for the people to the point of laying down their lives for the sake of the people, while others simply look out for themselves. For instance, Solomon. 1Kings chapter 4 tells us that Solomon’s household provision for one day was “thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, fatted fowl, and a partridge in a pear tree.” That is, Solomon and his royal household ate really, really well while the people suffered in debt and were hungry. And it is Jesus who says, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not as well adorned as a lily in a field.” Not meant as a compliment!

Jesus talks about God’s shalom as love that lays down its life for others. Like him, when he calls us by name, we are to become good shepherds as well. The First Letter of John doubles down on this. Amidst those who claimed all you need is faith for salvation, the community of First John says, No! Faith must result in action – “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is to be the life of those who hear his voice calling them by name. But there are so many other voices saying things like, “Trust the markets to provide,” or, “Tax relief for corporations will provide,” or, “Nuclear superiority will keep us safe,” or, “More guns will keep us safe,” or “Everyone ought to strive to  achieve self-sufficiency before taking care of others,” or “We can continue to burn fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow.” There are so many, many voices competing for our listening and believing. Most of whom, none of whom, even care to know us by name. Self-interest and Special Interest is the coin of the realm.

After Jesus lays out the need for Good Shepherds, the story ends, “There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Why listen to him, indeed! Perhaps our prayer ought to be, Lord, please spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me! Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters; can you please make me lie down in green pastures; can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort me, touch me, protect me and heal me? Lord, please give me the time, the place and the space to listen to you!

Why? Because we all want to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition is a desire to know and to be known. All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. Can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. Listen to him. Listen for him.

Those who listen are the sheep of his pasture. We become his people, his body and blood for the world. "His broken body is my broken body upon which others feed. His blood spilled is my blood shed to rejoice the hearts of all." (Aidan Kavanagh, Christ, Dying and Living Still) The one hope is that as folk come to know us that they, in fact, find another– The Good Shepherd. It will be so if we abide in Him and He in us. It will be so if we let him set our hearts on fire with the breath of his Holy Spirit. It will be so as he opens our hearts to the Word of God. We the lame will walk, we the blind will see, if when he calls us by name we will only listen.

There are many competing voices. Why listen to Jesus? Because only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us, really truly knows us because he became one of us. That Voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. He wants to touch us and heal us!  Amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

What's Next?

As all the Easter celebrations and gatherings begin to fade further and further in the recent past, replaced by daily and even hourly revelations of what life is like in our divided nation, thoughtful people ponder questions like: What was the risen Jesus like? What is the
meaning of resurrection? How is this Jesus present now? And, more broadly: What next? What is the way forward post-Easter, post-Modern and post-Election 2016?

Reflecting on four Bible passages, with help from Texts For Preaching [CD ROM version: Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, Newsome Jr, Presbyterian Publishing Corp.] reveals that those living in Israel before, in and after the first century were pondering much the same questions as we are. That is, we can simply read the Bible, not necessarily as a religious text, but rather to gather some kernel of insight as to how we might move forward in our own time. Psalm 4, Luke 24, Acts 3 and 1 John 3 all address people struggling with similar crises and issues that face us today. Taken in chronological order of appearance:
Psalm 4, the oldest of the four texts, dating back at least to the 5th or 6th century BCE, comes with the instruction “to be played on stringed instruments.” It is a prayer, a plea, meant to be sung. Perhaps we might see it as an early pre-cursor to The Blues. Addressed to a community in crisis, the message in the psalm is that the victories of sinners are only temporary and meaningless, that only repentance can bring true happiness, and that only in the peace of the Lord can “I dwell in safety.” Many are saying, "Oh, that we might see better times!" Sounds contemporary enough no matter what side of the many societal, national and international divides where we live. Psalm 4 concludes, “7 You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. 8 I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Offers Brueggemann et al., “The singer may be severely troubled, but all the trouble is confidently contained in the scope of a functioning, working, trustworthy relation to God. Even severe trouble is held within the deep awareness that comes with a life utterly devoted to the purpose of God.”

Next up, Luke chapter 24, sometime late in the 1st century CE addressed to a community in crisis. Not only has one side of a divided community lost its leader, Jesus, but by the time of Luke’s writing the Jerusalem Temple, the center of Israelite universe, lies in ashes, burned to the ground by Rome to quell an uprising that began in 66CE. It is the day of Easter, the disciples are in a closed room in Jerusalem for fear of the government authorities. They have heard an account from some women that the tomb of Jesus is empty and he is risen. They dismiss this as “girl talk.” Meanwhile, the risen Jesus accompanies some followers on their way home, inquires as to why they seem so sad, teaches them some Hebrew scripture, and agrees to share a meal with them. When he takes, blesses and breaks the bread at the table they suddenly see it is Jesus who is with them. He immediately vanishes. Or, does he? Does he ever? Their hearts are burning.

Then he appears to those behind closed doors. They think this to be a ghost, an apparition. He says, Peace, the peace of the Lord, the peace of God, the same peace that allows the singer in Psalm 4 to fall asleep confident that she is safe with God. He urges them to touch his hands and feet, the sites of the wounds from the cross. This peace of his was bought at a dear price. Then of all things, Jesus asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” Really, that is what the text says is his first request! They give him a piece of fish – like the three fish that fed 5,000, like the fish he is cooking on the beach in John 21 when he invites the disciples to, “Come, and have breakfast!” Ghosts don’t eat fish. Then he imparts three things they must know: 1) He “opened their minds to the scriptures,” including the Torah, the Psalms and the Prophets; 2) His resurrection appearance is no miracle, but part of a larger framework of Biblical narrative that brings to fruition God’s plans and purposes; 3) He indicates that what is next is their continued mission, their part in this ongoing story: the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the move from Jerusalem to all the nations, the disciples as witnesses, the promise of divine power.

That is, there is a future, and a better one at that! Acts 3 offers an example. As Peter and John are on their way to the Temple to pray, they meet a lame man on the way. He asks them for alms. Peter says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” For this they are put on trial. The text addresses the latest crisis. Their defense: we didn’t do this. God in Christ Jesus did this. Then Peter says, “19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”

Peter’s message of hope turns from the past (“Repent therefore, and turn to God in order that your sins may be wiped out”) to the future (“and that [God] may send the Messiah appointed
for you”).  For you who do not believe, or don’t want to believe, there is a Messiah that will be appointed for you. For you. Despite your evil ways! We have seen it all before. Time and again the Bible tells of times when ‘persons unintentionally accomplish the will of God by plotting evil and, in so doing, participate in one of the grand mysteries of the life of faith. As Joseph observed so long before, when musing over the failed efforts of his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Even our evil can be made good in the hands of God.”’ (Brueggemann, et al.)

Finally, from the second century comes a Letter called 1 John, addressed to a Christian community divided within itself, with some having left the community over a dispute over the relationship between faith and action. They have left because of their belief that faith alone brings salvation. Now in chapter 3, verse 2 the author(s) of this letter delicately balance the present time of crisis with a hopeful future not of our own making: “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” That is, the future will bring changes. What those changes are is uncertain. This cannot be predicted or analyzed. Verse 7 ends affirming that it is right and ethical action that is required of those who remain in the community of God’s Beloved, what Dr. King called The Beloved Community: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he [God] is righteous.” Faith and Action go hand in hand – which leads us back to Jesus affirming that faithful study of the texts of the tradition equips us to a life of action, mission, forgiveness, and divine, not human, but divine power.

Brueggemann et al. conclude: “These texts assert the news that life can begin anew, that the community can be reorganized and individual members regenerated. In our jaded, habitual faith, we most often do not expect change—for ourselves. … These texts cringe neither from the notion of personal newness, nor from the larger truth that Easter can disrupt all that is old and failed. The entry of the One who is touchable and who nourishes may indeed reorder life for all of us who are untouched, unfazed, and endlessly wanting better nourishment.” What next?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Thomas Remembers

Thomas Remembers
Thomas. Most often recalled as “Doubting Thomas.” [John 20:19-31] Thomas bears much disrespect throughout the history of the church, a church that we must finally admit often fails in its most foundational charge: to remember. What is to be remembered is the violence done to a young man from Galilee. What is forgotten is that his death was not unique. The torture Jesus endures was visited upon many. It had been visited upon many before Jesus and continues to this day. Think Black Lives Matter, think Me Too, think of all the unfettered gun violence. Thomas does not doubt. Thomas remembers. He asks to see the wounds. He calls all who would join him in saying of Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” to remember.

Yet, often such violence is masked by words such as “virtuous suffering,” and “self-sacrificing love.” Or, notions that to be faithful followers of Christ we must “join him in his suffering.” This kind of thinking is what the author of the First Epistle of John calls it “atonement” - at-one-ment - quite possibly the most damaging ideas of all Christian theology: “...and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world..” [1 John 2:2].

The idea is simple, and born of repeated attempts to make sense of his torture and death on a Roman cross: Jesus died to save us from our sins. Seems simple enough. It is not. The idea that the torture and death of Jesus on the cross saves us in effect sanctions violence at the very heart of Christianity. Even the most cursory reading of Paul’s letters and the four Gospels contradicts any such conclusion. That is, Jesus is consistently portrayed as one who sets out to bring others, all others, especially those whose lives, like his, bear the marks of similar violation and violence,  closer to the presence of God through acts of healing, exorcism, and building up communities of healing, forgiveness and love. He most often calls us to “follow him” in doing all of this. Thomas remembers. 

We forget. We forget that earlier in John’s gospel it is Thomas, and Thomas alone among all the disciples, who, when Jesus decides to head toward Jerusalem and to visit the home of his friend Lazarus, and all the others warn that it is too dangerous, there are those who wish to “kill you,” it is Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas does not doubt, he remembers.

 We forget. We forget, or have never been told, that when the fourth evangelist John says, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” that the word is Judeans. And those disciples hiding from the violence that had just been meted out upon their Lord were themselves Judeans. Most scholars today acknowledge that Judaism as we know it had not been developed in the time of Jesus. Yet, in the church’s forgetfulness, and lack of any careful reading of the texts, much damage has been done in both preaching and sanctioning anti-Semitism right up to The Final Solution. And the church forgets the context of the Risen Jesus as he commissions his disciples saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

For in the world of Jesus, Thomas, the disciples and the Jewish people, forgiveness is not as simple as the church continues to misrepresent it. Nor is Jesus inventing some new practice. In the world of Jesus and his disciples Israelites forgive others all the time. Especially on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day to repair the damage we do to one another, a day to confess sin and forgive sin. If I have sinned against you, damaged our relationship, I can apologize and ask for forgiveness, which you may grant. But if the confession seems insincere, or the damage is still so great and so painful, you are not obligated to forgive. Tradition then says that I may come back a second and even third time to ask for forgiveness. And again, you may forgive, or you may “retain” the sin - and after three times, then I can approach God to ask for forgiveness. That is, it is a process. Some sins cannot be forgiven. There is no cheap grace.

Sadly, the church has not always remembered this. And so women who have been victims of domestic violence have been counseled to forgive and thus “share in the sufferings of Christ.” Victims of sexual harassment have been told to “get over it and move on.” Even in this past few weeks, some American Evangelical pastors have publicly defended serial sexual abusers by saying, “The sinner understands that he or she is forgiven in the eyes of God. We understand Sin and Forgiveness.” Communities that have been ravaged by gun violence, including those charged with keeping the peace repeatedly shooting unarmed Black men, are told, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” All of which overlooks the context in which Jesus was tortured and violently killed. All of which conveniently overlooks the context of forgiving or retaining sins in which Jesus and his followers lived and died. Thomas remembers this.

Elie Wiesel, when asked about forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust replied that he did not have the authority to forgive on behalf of the millions who were tortured and killed. “Who am I to forgive on behalf of so many people?” As the author of Ecclesiastes might sum it up, there is a time for forgiving sins, and there is a time for retaining sins. Which is what Jesus appears to confirm.

Then he breathes on them as God had puffed the first breath into a handful of dust in Genesis 2 to create the first person. Jesus breathes new life into them in their moment of fearfulness and forgetting. “Peace - Shalom- be with you. My shalom be with you.” His shalom means justice and peace for all people. Shalom means healing all that is broken in this world. He puffs on them as one might puff on dying embers to fan them into flames - flames of justice, love, healing, and most of all, the presence of God. Atonement, at-one-ment, does not, at the end of the day, require us to share in his sufferings and violent death, but rather that he, Jesus, he, the Word, he God, is present with us in our suffering and violent deaths. That we are with him in his mission of healing a broken world. The difference in this understanding of at-one-ment is the difference between life and death. Often the church has forgotten this. Thomas asks to see the wounds. He remembers all of this.

Daily we are reminded of just how damaged the world still is. The steady stream of reminders is often overwhelming. Jesus breathes on us. He fans our dying embers into flames once again. “Let us say, that life shows the face of God, only in fleeting glimpses, by the light of night fires, in dancing shadows, in departing ghosts, and in recollections of steady love. Let us say that this is enough, enough for us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, enough for us to stand against violence, enough for us to hold each other in benediction and love.” [Rita Brock&Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Beacon Press, Boston -  p252]

Thomas does not doubt. Thomas knows and remembers all of this. The question is, do we?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
Welcome to the Easter Sunday news round up. Breaking News! This just in from an excavated home just outside Jerusalem. A manuscript believed to be from the 1st century says the crucifixion was a hoax, and - get this - no such person as Jesus had ever existed. It was all an elaborate plot of a group of rebels attempting to cause a crisis at the Passover Festival as their opening move to drive the Romans out of Jerusalem! The man playing the part of one Jesus of Nazareth was hidden while his twin brother James the Lesser volunteered to be crucified so the man playing part of Jesus could return to his alleged followers, members of the rebellion, on several occasions, thus perpetuating the idea that he was the Son of God! Further, if you believe any of this I have several bridges leading out of Manhattan up for sale. April Fool!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

What we do find in Mark 16:1-8 is just as intriguing! Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome who go back to the tomb, we come back here every year, year after year after year, expecting to find something, expecting to learn something, expecting to see someone. That someone is Jesus. Instead we find a young man, perhaps the one who fled the scene in the garden naked, now in a white robe saying, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one. He has risen, he is not here ... but go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

Do not be amazed?!? This is just not how it works. The women have every expectation that just like the night before there was a big stone in front of the cave-like tomb. And Jesus’ tortured and dead body should be inside. On the way there they wonder just how they will get the stone moved out of the way so as to pay their respects and perform all the traditional rituals that Joseph of Arimathea did not perform: the bathing and anointing of the body. Yet, the stone is already rolled back. The tomb is empty, except for this strange young man in white looking as if he just stepped of the set of Saturday Night Fever! He says the tomb is empty, but it isn’t. There he is. And who is he anyway? More importantly, says Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, "The tomb of Christ was not empty. It was open!  It remains for us an open invitation."

Let’s face it, in this world we like it when things are predictable. Dead is dead. Stones are heavy. Strange young men in white do not just appear in places where you expect to see a dead body wrapped in a linen cloth. No wonder we are told the women are frightened. If something as certain and inevitable as death is no longer predictable, then the world has changed dramatically. Pardon us while in fact we are amazed!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

A character called The Misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, puts it this way: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t have done it. He has thrown everything off balance.” We like balance. We crave predictability. We desire order. A good man like Jesus is suddenly hard to find! The last time there was such an other-worldly experience like this was on top of the mountain, Peter, James and John were there. Three men. They saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah! They heard a voice from the cloud declare, “This is my Son. Listen to him! They had listened but could not comprehend that he would be rejected, tortured, crucified by Rome, and three days later rise from the dead. Since Friday they are nowhere to be seen. Instead there are three women are told that Jesus, their Jesus, is on the loose! He is not present as a lifeless corpse. He is not a dim memory in the past. He is a living presence! The young man says he goes ahead of us, into the future to meet us there and claim us as his own, not on our terms but on his! And he wants to see the unfaithful disciples – the ones who disappeared at the end. He especially wants to see Peter who had denied even knowing him three times. Proving once again, our God is a God of forgiveness and second chances!
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

These three women are given a task: to go back to the others and tell them The News: He is Risen and will meet them in Galilee! A simple task. An important task. There is just one problem. According to Mark they are afraid to do so. Terror and amazement had seized them. They flee the scene and tell no one for they are afraid. Here endeth the reading. This is a problem. Open a Bible and you will see that long after Mark ends the story right there, others have tried to fill in a more satisfactory ending with Jesus appearing here and there, and people handling snakes and all. But Mark wants us to stop right here. We are left to ponder this strange ending. Stranger even than an open tomb with no one in there but the Man in White. If the women don’t tell anyone, who is going to tell the disciples and Peter to go back to the beginning of the story, back to Galilee, back to his baptism by John and the voice that proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If the men have abandoned him, and the women are afraid to tell the story, who is going to spread the Good News, He is Risen and going before us to greet us and lead us on?
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

Many find this ending to Mark’s story problematic. Even disturbing, if not simply perplexing Yet, here is where Mark gets it just right. There is one group remaining to tell the story, to announce the news, to return to Galilee and to walk in the way of Jesus. There is one group of people left to carry the Word into the world, bring Jesus into the context of everyday living and take up the path of discipleship: that would be all those who hear this story! That would be us! We are the rest of the story! "The tomb of Christ was not empty. It was open!  It remains for us an open invitation."

The invitation of the open tomb is for us and anyone and everyone who dares to look into the tomb to see Jesus. Anyone who is ready to step out of our own tombs of our own making, return to where it all begins, and follow him. Those who do are his Beloved Disciples. He is well pleased with us!  Know this, my sisters and brothers, the world needs you, the church needs you, Jesus needs you. God needs you! They need your light and your love. There is something beautiful only you can do to bear much fruit with your light and your love for the life of the whole world. Jesus is on the loose. He is alive in you. Go forward to Him and go forward with Him. He goes before to greet us, to claim us, and to thank us for all that we do in His name. For we are the rest of the story!

Alleuia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleuia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleuia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
And so are we! And so are we!

Friday, March 30, 2018

In The Laughter Room

In The Laughter Room
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?
Did they hear when He told Peter, “Peter, put up your sword”?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
            -Bob Dylan, In The Garden, from the album Saved
Sometimes it feels as if it is all too too much. Good Friday. Why is it good? What is truth? Were we there? Are we there? Did he really have to die? Can we see what is going on in these narrative stories we call The Passion? Can God’s Passion ever become our Passion? And as Nobel Laureate in Literature Bob Dylan asks in this song from what is often called “his Gospel years,” When they came for him in the Garden did they know?

Which is the question, of course, that is meant for us. We are “they.” When they come for him in the Garden do we know? Do we know He was the Son of God, do we know that he is Lord? Do we hear him when he tells Peter, “Peter, put up your sword?” Bob Dylan. Robert Zimmerman. A poet from Hibbing, Minnesota invites us to put ourselves in this story and answer the questions as if it is we who are in the Garden. Or, we who are in front of Pilate. Or, we who are in the crowd of Judeans. Or, it is we who are so busy that day of Preparation for the Passover, that day that when the sun goes down will begin the Sabbath, quite possibly the busiest day of the whole year as all Jerusalem must get all the arrangements in order for the Passover celebration before the sun goes down on that Friday – are we just too busy to even notice what is going on with Pilate’s little show-trial, let alone are we even aware of the all too common liturgy taking place just outside the city as the Empire tortures and kills three more young Jewish men, one of whom is there only because he stood up to it all, to all the shows of power and so-called might and strength and named it all for what it always is: the falseness of this world?

For those who take the time away from so much frenetic busy-ness to stand in solidarity with the Man from Galilee, the goodness of Good Friday is revealed. God does the revealing. God pulls back the curtain just long enough for us to see what real truth and life and light and goodness really look like. The simplicity of it all is easy to miss even for those of us who are there and do take the time to watch the horror of it all, the terror of it all, and accept the gift that is revealed and given in the midst of so much terror, in the midst of such really dark darkness.

Pilate asks the question we all want answered. What is truth? Although coming from a local political hack and stooge who was so inherently ruthless that even Rome had to recall him and strip him of his authority, these words sound more like rhetorical mockery than a serious question. But for those of us who choose to enter into this story year after year after year, we want to know the truth. And we may as well admit it right here and right now that the Church, that institution that claims to be the Body of Christ in the world, has gotten it wrong over and over again as it took on the mantle of the very Empire against which it was once upon a time the most vocal critic in word and deed.

You can see it in the silken royalty of its vestments, the pomp and circumstance of its rituals, at times so ostentatious as to have caused that other poet of truth and prophecy, Maya Angelou, to surmise that somewhere in our great churches and cathedrals there must be a Laughter Room. While at Trinity Church, Wall Street, just steps away from the very heartbeat of what we euphemistically call “the economy,” she watched the procession into the church and surmised: “I just looked at the service, and you Episcopalians do it so well. Those gorgeous vestments you wear, and those candles and the singing. And there is that man who came in carrying that great silver cross with this look of great serenity on his face. And I thought to myself, what you should have right off the vestry is a laughter room. You parade around with all these wonderful things and every once in a while you go in there and ha, ha, ha, and then you come out of the laughter room and you pick up the cross and keep going.” Frederick Buechner shrewdly observes that in all religious traditions and ritual we act as if we know what we are doing. When in fact, we  don’t. And how wonderful of Maya and Buechner and others like them to give us permission to see the folly of it all and allow ourselves to see ourselves in all our pieties attempting to glorify God and take a moment to just admit, ha ha, we really don’t know what we are doing. And can we imagine God sharing in the laughter as well? [The Remarkable Ordinary, Frederick Buechner, p 50-51]

Because, after all, it is God who glorifiees God. And it is God who glorifies us as well. We call it grace, but it is glory. We who are created in God’s own image strain to look into the mirror and see that. Too often too many of us look into the mirror and see that terror, the horror, the utter aloneness of that man hanging on a Roman cross as a warning to one and all that the power and authority of Empire is not to be challenged. Yet, like Paul Harvey, we are those people who do know the rest of the story. We know that the real laughter room is in that empty tomb, a cave carved into the hard rock of the Kidron Valley, the Valley of Gehenna, a smoldering garbage pit just outside the walls of Jerusalem. If we really truly put ourselves into this story and accompany the women who look into the tomb and find it empty, the Man from Galilee is nowhere to be seen, then we ought to be able to catch at least a glimpse of why Good Friday is so good! And we can also imagine God’s own self offering a “ha ha” as the brutality and ultimate impotency of the Empire is finally revealed! And was revealed when they came for Him in the Garden and he tells Peter to put up his sword once and for all. Because in the end all the swagger and bullying and torture and killing of Empire is exposed for what it truly is – the ungodly behavior of those who would not know the truth if it bit them on the nose! But alas, I get ahead of the story.

The Pilates of this world and in the Church itself fail to see that Truth is not an idea, not a doctrine, but a man of flesh and blood. God’s new revelation and Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.” [Underhill, The School of Charity, p. 26.]

The ultimate act of God’s love and Charity occurs in that final moment when the Truth looks down from the cross, utters the final words, “It is finished,” bows his head and hands over his Spirit. God’s Spirit, which in Hebrew and Greek means spirit, wind and breath all in one single word. He just hands it over to us. It is Richard Rohr who suggests, in his book, The Naked Now, that the unspeakable name of the God of the Passover and Exodus, the God of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, represented by four Hebrew characters, yodh-hey-vav-hey, or the sacred tetragrammaton, YHWH, was meant, is meant, to imitate the sound of breath, of breathing: Yah-Wheh. If so, the first word we speak when we are born, and the last word we speak when we die is God’s name. It is the name we speak with every breath we take. It is this breath, this spirit, that gives us and all living creatures life! Rohr goes on to observe that there is no Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Daoist way to breathe. There is no European, Asian, African, Middle Eastern way of breathing. There is no rich, poor or middle-class way of breathing. The playing field is leveled. And science confirms that we breathe the very same molecules first emanated from the first moment of creation that have sustained the earliest life forms, the earliest cave men and women all the way through to the astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station! It is no longer a claim of religion, philosophy or mysticism. We truly are One.

Jesus hands this Oneness over to us as we dare to take a few moments out of our otherwise overly busy and distracted lives to step into this story, stand in the laugher room before the cross and receive his final gift to us and to all that lives – the gift of his breath, his spirit. If we allow ourselves just a moment to re-member this, it will be enough as we return to the busyness and challenges of the world about us. Just that moment of awareness is enough to carry us through another day. Acceptance of his breath, his spirit is what makes this day a good day. The Good Day. And perhaps if we can string enough good days together we might collectively hear his voice, put up our swords, recognize those around us as breathing the same breath, uttering the same divine name with each breath, and accept one another as Good as well. Altogether we can step into the Laughter Room, say a final ha-ha to all we thought was so important and true, and emerge from that room as One People. Some may say it is a dream. Those who accept the gift of God’s divine charity handed over on the cross know it as Truth. And it is good. So very very good! Amen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Do This In Remembrance of Her
The Church reflects on three texts on Maundy Thursday: The instructions regarding Passover; Paul’s reflections on the Last Supper to the Church in Corinth; John’s portrayal of the Last Supper. In all three texts it is about anamnesis, “remembrance.” What we remember are God’s saving deeds in the Exodus Deliverance and Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. This is no passive remembrance. This “re-membering” that we are called to do is meant for us to actively enter into the Paschal Mystery itself. As Paul reminds us, we are to proclaim his death every time we gather to share this ritual re-membering of this meal. A meal that that has deep resonances with Passover and is meant to remind us of just who we are, whose we are, and what we are meant to be doing.

One might recall from Palm Sunday’s reading of the Passion in Mark the story of the unnamed woman who appears as Jesus is having supper at Simon the Leper’s house. She brings an expensive jar of ointment, nard from the oxnard plant, pours it over his head and anoints him. The disciples whine that the ointment ought to have been sold and the money given to the poor. They scold her. Jesus’ reply to them is key to understanding what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story” as Jesus points to her faithfulness in discipleship and servanthood while exposing the disciples’ lack of understanding and hypocrisy:  “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Try to remember a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Last Supper, when we have heard this story recounted? When has this unnamed woman ever been given her due? Paul in his correspondence to the Church in Corinth that every celebration of the Last Supper is a proclamation of our Lord’s death and promised return. Jesus is saying that every such proclamation must recall “what she has done,” concluding with the words of anamnesis at every mention of the bread and the wine, his body and blood - “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” This unnamed woman’s living out the good news of servanthood to all people stands in stark contrast to those whiners, would-be disciples.

After all, after his walking around the dusty and rocky roads of Israel from Galilee to Jerusalem, what she is doing for Jesus must feel really really good. One might conclude that the would-be disciples are jealous! And then try to justify their jealousy by getting on their high horses of pretended concern for the poor. This is not hard for us to imagine in today’s social and political climate, which oddly enough is very much like the social and political climate in the first century Roman Empire. This unnamed, and heretofore unmentioned, woman is held up by Jesus as the archetype of discipleship. To further make his point, Mark's Jesus does not say “Do this in remembrance of me” at the Last Supper. Instead, he says we are to remember her.

As we ponder this, let us re-member the fourth gospel’s account of the Last Supper - what a seminar classmate once called “The Felliniesque Last Supper.” John’s is by far the longest account of that night, and yet makes no mention of bread or wine whatsoever across several chapters. This is odd in and of itself. Nor does John portray this as a Passover meal at all: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That is, the evening occurs before the Passover and is focused on three things; 1) Jesus is going to die, 2) that the loves them to the end, and 3) a he gives them and us a new commandment - “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This is where Fellini comes into the picture. Jesus immediately disrobes, picks up a towel, a basin and a pitcher of water and begins to get down on his knees and wash their feet. No bread. No wine. Just foot washing, which was usually the job of the youngest child or slave in the household. We might re-member that we must enter the Kingdom like a child. We need also re-member that good hospitality in that environment meant washing your guest’s feet on arrival as they too have been walking around in sandals or even bare feet on those dusty and rocky roads.

Perhaps Jesus recalls just how good it felt when the unnamed woman anointed him and wants to these whining hypocrites of his to feel how good true servanthood and discipleship feels as well. Think here of other disciples like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman, Linda Brown, Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, not to mention Miriam, sister of Moses, Mary the Mother of God, Martha and Mary of Bethany, and all women who know what it means to have “love for one another.”

Note that Peter recoils and rebels from having his feet washed. He wants none of it. Perhaps he already senses the punch-line and does not wish to submit to a lifetime of servanthood to the poor in the name of Jesus. This story urges representation in the lives of all who would be followers of Jesus, not mere recollection of an odd story. This stripped down foot washing tale is not merely about humility and service. It foreshadows his death and as such presents it as the ultimate act of servanthood for us, and as our liturgy reminds us, for the whole world - everyone and every living thing therein. This odd story is meant to disturb us at least as much as it disturbs Peter, and it is little wonder that it is immediately followed by Jesus’ betrayal!

Then there is the matter of love as God and Jesus mean it. This completely unconventional and disturbing tale of the Last Supper gives great depth of meaning and understanding of just what Jesus means when he says we are to “love one another.” Love is defined as more than feelings, more than liking, more than compassion-from-a-distance. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John’s Felliniesque Last Supper also gives deeper meaning and understanding of Jesus’ terse reply to his whining disciples in Mark’s account, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Fortunately for us, we always do have Jesus. If what he told his disciples is the Good News, which often sounds like Bad News to those of us who sincerely want to follow him but are disturbed, like Peter, at the cost, then this is the even Better News: we always have Jesus. And more importantly, he always has us. Elsewhere he says, “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age!” This not only means that he is with us, but that we cannot get rid of him! As long as love one another as he has loves us. And oh yes, let us remember what the unnamed woman did as she demonstrates a life of serving others with great extravagance!  Amen

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Jesus' Passion/Our Passion

Jesus’ Passion/Our Passion according to Mark
We call this narrative of the events leading up to and including his crucifixion The Passion. The standard account goes that Jesus died for our sins. Mark offers no such assessment.  Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, says it is “Jesus’ passion for God” that gets him in trouble with Rome and with the Jerusalem Establishment which leads to his death on a Roman Cross. Borg appears to be in accord with Dorothy Day who is more explicit: “I don’t think of the Passion as the Crucifixion. I think of His whole life as “the Passion.” I don’t mean to become a theologian now; I have never been good at theology. My mind isn’t abstract enough. But when I think of Jesus I think of someone who was constantly passionate; I think of all His experiences as part of His passion: the stories He told, the miracles He performed, the sermons He delivered, the suffering He endured, the death He experienced. His whole life was a Passion - the energy, the love, the attention He gave to so many people, to friends and enemies alike.”

The texts [Mark 14:1-15:47] suggest that Mark would agree with Day and Borg. As Dorothy Day makes clear, the account in Mark from beginning to end portrays a Jesus who is hard at work while he is alive to address what might best be thought to be “our sins”: hunger, social isolation due to a variety of causes, unfair taxation, rampant indebtedness causing a greater gap between social classes due to increased taxation by Rome, some national leadership acting as “clients” for Rome against the common man and woman, and an overall lack of living out of the heart of the Sinai Covenant which he sums up as Love of God and Love of Neighbor. This last understood not as romantic or even filial love, but rather a commitment to meet the needs of others, to do something helpful for others, all others, especially those without resources such as widows, orphans and resident aliens. Jesus frequently accepts all others regardless of ritual purity into the life of the community of God’s people - something he calls The Kingdom of God.

Consider that on the way to Jerusalem Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit despite it not being “the season to bear fruit! The next day it withered - perhaps as a sign that the Jerusalem leadership, in collusion with Rome, was no longer working on behalf of all the people. Coupled with his scene at the Temple , not as an action against the sellers in the outer courtyard who performed necessary duties for those who come to offer sacrifices, but again like the fig tree, a prophetic outburst declaring those elements of the  governing structure in collusion with Rome out of touch with covenantal love for God and neighbor, all the while. So it is that Mark portrays the Jerusalem leadership looking for any excuse to arrest Jesus, but not publicly since upon his entrance to the city he had the support of so many pilgrims who had either followed him there for the Passover, or had heard of his actions once there. More importantly, this leadership was under pressure from the governor Pilate to keep the peace during the Passover Festival. The man from Galilee, already home to several revolts, could cause such a problem.

So, they grab him at night in a garden, put up some stooge witnesses who perjure themselves, and finally make-up a blasphemy charge for his answering, “I am” when asked if he was the Son of the Blessed One. “I am” is God’s reply to Moses when asked for his name. Mocking him on the way,  they present him to Pilate. But now Mark portrays that the charges are changed to pretending to be King of the Jews, leader of an insurrection against the Empire, since Pilate cares nothing about blasphemy. Never mind Jesus ordered his followers to put down their weapons.  Never mind that such a pretender would properly be King of Israel, since King of the Jews was reserved for local client rulers like the Herod family on the Roman payroll. Pilate toys with Jesus, asking sarcastically, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies with just as much sarcasm, “You say that I am!” This would be true since Pilate would be the one to supervise Herod as King of the Jews. Pilate then cleverly, and cruelly, manipulates the crowd suggesting he could release Jesus the King of the Jews, or a rebel-murderer named Jesus Barabbas - Bar-abbas is Hebrew for “Son of the Father,” the name by which Jesus calls his God and father, abba. Despite the fact that there is no recorded historical instance of Pilate or any Roman client releasing a prisoner on the Passover, especially not a rebel and a murderer.

Pilate’s soldiers mock the presumed pretender king just as the Jerusalem crowd had done. Jesus abused to the point of weakness cannot carry his own cross piece, as was the custom, so Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service, Simon Peter having already denied even knowing Jesus three times had fled the scene. Note the irony, one Simon, a stranger at that, replaces the Simon who had followed Jesus from the beginning and would one day be the leader of the emerging church in Jerusalem - demonstrating that our God is indeed a God of second chances! Mark uses only five spare words to describe the crucifixion itself: “And the soldiers crucified Jesus…”

Like Simon Peter, the disciples are nowhere to be seen. Instead some women who had been traveling with Jesus and the disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem were at the crucifixion: among them Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger, and Salome. Peter, James and John who had been with him on the mountain of Transfiguration are not there. In the place of James and John who had asked to sit at his right and left hand in the Kingdom were two more rebel-bandits also crucified, one on his right and one on his left. More irony indeed.

Once Jesus breathes his last, a mile away the curtain in the Temple guarding the Holy of Holies is torn in two - Mark uses the same word as when the Heavens were torn apart at Jesus’ baptism and a voice proclaims, “You are my Son, my Beloved.” There’s no reason not to think, however, that one of the Roman Centurions agrees, but rather continues the mockery of his comrades: Truly this man was God’s Son! Yeah, right! The torn curtain in the Temple may indicate grief and mourning. Or, reveals just who Jesus is. Or, the Temple and Jerusalem leadership’s collusion with Rome is revealed once and for all.

In the absence of Peter, James and John, the two Marys and Salome watch as Joseph of Arimathea takes the body to be buried. Joseph who, according to Mark, was on the council that handed Jesus over to Pilate, wraps him in a linen cloth (the same left in the Garden by the mysterious young man who fled naked into the night?), forgoing the traditional bathing and anointing rituals associated with burial customs. Joseph places him in a cave-tomb and rolls a rock over the entrance. He does this so as not to allow a corpse to render the coming Sabbath polluted, unclean, not out of solidarity with the Jesus movement. After all, Jesus’ death is just one among too many millions of Jewish deaths at the hands of Rome, and by Christians from the Crusades to the Holocaust and beyond. We must also remember that when Christians tell this story year after year that Christian preachers have used Holy Week texts to call upon Christians to harass and even kill Jews - I have known Jews in America in my lifetime who have had to run for their lives during Holy Week.

Perhaps we ought to tell this story, suggests Richard Swanson [Provoking the Gospel of Mark, p. 158], so that our eyes are lifted “to see the faces of other victims of Empire.” As we hear Jesus’ cry on the cross perhaps we can hear the death songs of American Indians who were slaughtered and driven from their ancestral lands; or, the deaths of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the martyrs of El Salvador; the killing fields of Pol Pot, Rawanda, East Timor, Myanmar; or, those left devastated in Haiti and Puerto Rico; not to mention the increasing number of Americans living below the poverty line, and the countless victims of mass shootings and terror attacks; all of whom it can be said of Jesus, “He was numbered among them.”

After all, a faithful reading and listening to this narrative as presented by Mark is meant to inspire us to stand in solidarity with Jesus and all those among whom he is numbered. As Dorothy Day put it, “His whole life was a Passion - the energy, the love, the attention He gave to so many people, to friends and enemies alike.” Perhaps his passion will become our passion as once again we listen to this narrative.