Saturday, April 19, 2014

We Are All Mary of Magdala!

Mary Magdalene in the Garden
At the age of 15, the artist Maurice Denis wrote in his diary, “Yes, it is necessary that I am a Christian painter, that I celebrate all the miracles of Christianity. I feel it necessary.” While still a student he met other painters and formed a “school” called the Nabis – the Hebrew word for prophet – because they felt they would be creating new forms of expression .  Denis became known as Le Nabi aux Belles Icons, the prophet of beautiful icons, and went on to co-found the Ataliers d’Art Sacre, the Studios of Sacred Art, which would create murals and stained glass windows for churches all over Europe.

He is perhaps most famous for having written, “Remember that a  picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface with colours assembled in a certain order.”

The gospels themselves are like that – words, images, stories, memories assembled in a certain order on a flat surface, which, when studied like a canvas or a stained glass window, provide a more than three-dimensional  recreation in the viewer’s mind of just what the artist herself has in mind. And even more importantly, aids the viewer in coming to terms as to just what that moment in time depicted on the canvas or in print might mean for you or for me.

Denis’s Holy Women Near the Tomb (1894) does just that. His particular arrangement of colors and images mean to transfigure our understanding of that moment when Mary Magdalene literally bumps into the Risen Jesus. Mary, fallen on her knees before a radiant and golden Jesus, is far in the background of a walled and fenced in garden, while from a distance but in the foreground Denis has six other figures:  two on the left, angels, waving to the pair in the garden, and the other four, including a young girl (another angel?), heads covered, looking away, looking quiet, looking somewhat fearful, trembling, not quite sure of what is happening, all of them painted in a blue-grey light suggesting early morning light at the break of dawn.  All possible human and angelic reactions are represented by Denis as all happening at the same moment. This pretty much sums up the vast array of different emotions, reactions and understandings of people today whenever they hear,
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

One cannot help but notice the witnesses to the Resurrection are all women, or women and angels. Women. Women who were not considered reliable witnesses at the time of this account. Let alone a woman like Mary of Magdala whom tradition has painted as having been demon possessed, possibly a prostitute, a woman everyone else had written off, and yet, also a companion of Jesus who witnessed both the crucifixion and is first of all his disciples to witness the risen Jesus!

A quintessential outsider, a powerless, and much maligned woman, the likes of which have been on parade throughout the gospels: the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Man Blind from Birth, Nicodemus, Martha, the confrontational housekeeper, Lazarus stinking in the tomb, and now Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

She leaves the house while it is still dark. That is, it is still Sabbath: time to rest. But she who had always been restless until she met Jesus can rest no longer. He was the only person who had ever made her feel healed, healthy, and whole. When she was with Jesus all the demons seemed to vanish into thin air. So she had followed him and ministered to him, listened to him and watched him as he spread his Good News of God’s love for all people.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

So Mary Magdalene is the first to find the stone rolled away from the tomb. She runs back to tell the others. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb! We do not know where he is?" Who is this "we?" Wasn’t she alone at the tomb in the still darkness of Sabbath morning? Are the demons back? Is it possible that she already knows that we who are reading her story are already with her wherever she goes? That we who come to eat and drink with him are somehow inextricably linked with her so that wherever she goes we go, wherever she runs, we run, when her heart is racing, so is ours, because we, too, have been to the tomb in the darkness and can see that the stone has indeed been rolled away?

Mary, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved run back to the tomb. It is like a footrace. Peter, "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved," look like a couple of kids racing down the streets of Jerusalem, the City of Peace, the City of God’s Shalom. Their hearts and feet are racing! The other disciple outruns Peter. But then he puts on the brakes and does not go in. He looks in and sees linen cloths lying about, but stands back. Peter, ever the impetuous one, goes in and sees the cloths, like swaddling cloths, lying all about. As he surveys the scene, the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, comes in. Then, we are simply told, “…he saw and he believed.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

There has been endless speculation as to who this other “disciple whom Jesus loves” might be. Some say John. Some suggest it is Lazarus, who otherwise says nothing in John’s gospel. Others say the Samaritan Woman at the well is the beloved disciple. Still others say it is whoever reads or hears this Gospel and also sees and believes. That is, the beloved disciple is you and me.

All this takes only a moment. Then the boys return to their respective homes. Only Mary stays behind, all alone, weeping. She stoops to look in, and where before there had been nothing but swaddling cloths lying all around, there were now two angels asking her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

And as she blurts out her answer she turns and bumps into someone else who is also asking her,
"Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why is everyone asking me these questions? Who are those men in white in the tomb? Can’t any of them see what has happened? Oh, no, it’s the demons again! I’m losing my mind! "You’re the gardener,” she says. “You tell me! Where have you put him? You should know, not me! You work here. You tell me. Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why indeed!!" Then it happens. He says one word. "Mary."
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

She has heard this voice before. Only one person ever said her name in just this way. But it does not look like him. It cannot possibly be him. But suddenly her heart is racing again! It is about to leap out of her chest as she throws herself on the one she has supposed to be the gardener! Thank God I am not crazy after all. The demons are not coming back! They are never coming back. It is Jesus. "Rabboni!" she cries as she embraces him.

And for a moment it seems as if it is all in her hands, in her embrace. It appears as if she can hold it all back, keep him there, hold onto him forever and ever, when he says, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the father, my father and your father, my God and your God. Go and tell the others."

And with that, she is given a new task: to go back and tell the others. And our text simply says, "She went and told the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord, and she told them all the things he had said to her."

It took courage for Mary to go back to the tomb. It took even more courage for her to let go of Jesus. But in doing so, she gives birth to the Church. By her witness, by her testimony, the history of the world is changed, made new, transformed. Her words to his friends are the first Easter sermon ever preached! Because of her testimony, we know and experience resurrection today! Mary continues to run through the ages to this very day, gathering us all to be a community of his people, his beloved disciples. She is first to know that the disciple whom Jesus loves is her, is you, is me, is anyone who will take the time to look into the empty tomb to see and to understand that  we come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. God’s love never leaves us, but surrounds us on all sides at all times.

As with Mary, he has new tasks for each of us, a new purpose in life, a renewed spirit within us. For that is what resurrection is: new life, new purpose, and a new spirit. We are all God’s beloved disciples. Like the people who were changed by her words, others lives will be changed by ours.

God needs you. The world needs you. They need your time, your words, your care, your love. This is what I believe Maurice Denis depicts in his paintings. This is what John depicts in his Gospel. This is the most elemental truth of all: You are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with you. Living out of this simple resurrection truth, as with Mary of Magdala, the world will be changed and made new. Since that morning when she risked everything and embraced her new role in life the world has never been the same.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
And so are we… And so are we! Amen!


Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Is Good



Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story – what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles – one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John, Jesus is Light – and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith, we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today’s world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy at the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military struggles in Syria and Venezuela, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know something about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil – specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Even more so, John and his community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

This month, on April 4, Episcopalians celebrated the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the church we observe the date of the martyr’s death, not his birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination – segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters, Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century’s most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr’s book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” It has been observed that individuals rarely act immorally or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group – however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the “herd mentality” that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history.

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, “goodness” or “godliness” can always stand and act on its own merits.
This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which, that year, was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of “rubberneckers” always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences may be for those who dare to act out of goodness and godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day, that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill in her book “The School of Charity”:
 “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.”

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the Last Supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he”; Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit?

It is that “giving up” that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means “spirit,” “breath” and “wind.” All three are understood to come from God. God’s breath is our breath, God’s spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit: the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to evil. To stand our ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or to simply walk away and say we will not participate.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, to how much goodness and godliness even one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John’s, it is that final moment, when Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit – that moment when God’s Passion becomes our Passion.

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is, will we accept his spirit?

Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His Spirit. The world needs your spirit. The church needs your spirit. You can accept His Spirit, which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.

The World needs you. The church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another.

Our choice must be to accept that spirit of goodness and godliness, the spirit of God’s divine charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When we do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good – a very good story. This is why we call it Good Friday!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Jesus's Passion for God



Palm Sunday as Street theater? Guerilla theater? Political theater?
One May Day around 1970 I was asked to take part in some anti-war guerilla theater on the Trinity College campus. An improv group was staging spontaneous anti-war skits all over the campus all day long. My job was to disrupt them. Dressed in a long, leather coat and military cap, I was to play the role of the Specter of Fascist Doom. Once they had attracted a crowd and were into their anti-war skit, I would show up shouting them down, ridiculing their phony liberal stunts and even physically disrupt what they were doing. Evidently I did a good enough job at it that people, even people I knew well, were worried about me. They offered to buy me coffee to calm me down, tried to break my “character,” and were honestly concerned about my well-being! Over the next ten years or so I participated in other street theatre troupes and demonstrations, including the one-day No Nukes rally that shut down Manhattan with the fabled Bread and Circus oversize puppets leading the way. Not a car on the streets that day! Talk about getting the world’s attention.

Then there was the Saturday afternoon we drove two car loads of youth group, food and clothing into Manhattan to distribute to homeless people. It was around 1991. One group of homeless persons told us to go park near a small park across the street from the United Nations and just watch and wait. Sure enough, from beneath the UN came a woman in a bathrobe and fuzzy pink slippers. She made her way across the street into the park where there was a public toilet. When she was headed back across the street I spoke to her about our mission of food and clothing. She said she would be right back. When she returned she invited us down into a service tunnel below the UN where a small community of people had set up camp with cardboard boxes. Some explained that they even had apartments elsewhere in NYC, but felt this was a safer place than the neighborhoods they came from.  They told us that when an important dignitary would visit they would be sent back to the streets for a few days, after which they would return to their refuge beneath the international community overhead.

When interpreting a story like Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, usually referred to as Palm Sunday, or his Triumphal Entry, we need to remember a few things about that ancient city and its militarized life as part of the Roman Empire on that particular day. The Old City is surrounded by a wall. Homeless people, the poor, the lame, the blind, orphans, widows, outcasts of all kinds were usually relegated to being outside the walls to ply their trade as beggars. This would be particularly true during the festival of Passover when true believers and curious visitors from all over the ancient world would be there. Pontius Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, make sure there were no rebellions, no demonstrations. So the streets would be cleared of one and all who might make a scene and whose presence might be “unpleasant”.

Further, when the emperor or king or other high officials would visit, they would arrive in procession, often on horseback, the rabble being further marginalized ,appointed folks would line the roadway leading into the city cheering and welcoming the leader, even if they despised the regime. Like at the UN, the way would be cleared for a triumphal and controlled procession, mitigating any sense of danger or demonstration.

So it is Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus has a plan. He sends two of his disciples to get a couple of less than royal steeds – a donkey and her colt. We can imagine the crowd outside the walls of Jerusalem. Not  your A, B or even C list characters, but all the hoi polloi who had been rousted out of the streets by Pilate’s legions to keep the peace as the crowds in the city swell for the Passover festival. Jesus mounts the donkey. The people tear off parts of their already ragged clothing and tree branches and begin a mock-procession like that of the emperor’s – only it is not. It is political theater at its best. It makes fun of the emperor. It makes fun of King Herod. It flies in the face of all of Pilate’s careful preparations for another peaceful Passover.

Simply put, it makes a statement against all the powers that would control and regulate Judean society at the expense of those who had been expelled from the city – the poorest of the poor, the one’s Jesus says God loves. The people along the road are loving it! And why not? It’s their first taste of what it can be like to be a Roman citizen! And after all, had not this young man from Nazareth shown them the first shreds of dignity they had ever experienced in their marginalized lifetimes?

Once in the city, we are told, the city is in “turmoil.” “Who is this?” people are asking. What is he up to? Why doesn’t somebody do something to stop it? Who let all these people inside the gates of the city?

The prophet, “they” say.  Prophet’s in the Bible are not fortune tellers. Biblical prophets beginning with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea all the way up to Jesus are bearers of an alternative consciousness to the dominant consciousness. They critique and challenge the status quo. Is it right to spend so much time and money on festivals and sacrifices while God’s people suffer?  The Passover festival and ritual meal, the Seder, is itself an embodiment of such an alternative consciousness – we were slaves in the empire, God heard our cry, God sent us a man who could lead us to freedom. What a perfect time for Jesus to launch his plan.

What happens next tells the tale of what his plan really entails. He and his rabble go to the Temple courtyards where there is a marketplace to support the religious rites. People are selling animals for the appointed sacrifices. If you travel a long distance to the Jerusalem Temple it may be too exhausting for your livestock, so fresh, perfect sheep, goats and doves are on hand for your convenience. There is also a currency exchange. You cannot make offerings to the Temple priests with Roman coins which bear image of Caesar and the words, “Caesar is God.” It would be sacrilege. It would be blasphemy. Jesus drives out the animals and overturns the tables of the currency exchange! He strikes at the heart of the Temple, and thereby the city’s, economy. The religious and civil authorities cannot be pleased.

It is a prophetic gesture charged with meaning: the religious and civil authorities have lost all sense of the vision God has for G             od’s people. Those who are excluded from life in the Empire and life in Jerusalem will not be forgotten – at least not by Jesus and those who follow in his Name. Such affluence and arrogance inside the city while outside the city walls people are suffering will not ultimately be allowed to continue. This cannot make God, my Father, happy. Then Jesus returns to Bethany, the city of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, to get a good night’s sleep before the week’s events unfold.

Triumphal Entry? Or, political, guerilla theater? Recently the church has come to call Palm Sunday The Sunday of the Passion. I like to think of it as Jesus’s passion for God and those whom God loves – the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed, all whose lives are marginalized by the dominant societal consciousness and economic practices.

It can be interpreted that things did not end well. After all, just a few days later Jesus would be executed by the state – crucifixion on a Roman cross, also outside the walls of the city - a fitting location for one who devoted his life, death and resurrection to the cause of all who live outside the system.

But, the Caesars are gone, and Jesus’s little demonstration community remains. There are, of course, new Caesars, and new marginalized communities outside the walls of mainstream society. To honor Palm Sunday would be to honor Jesus’s passion for God and his love for those whom God loves. Amen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Unbind Us and Set Us Free



Unbind Us and Set Us Free
John 11:1-45
The Raising of Lazarus from the dead. “Unbind him and set him free,” says Jesus. The lectionary stops the reading short, however, of what Paul Harvey used to call, “The rest of the story.” The very next verse, v.46, begins the tale of how the Pharisees and chief priests conspire to have Jesus killed – and Lazarus as well for refusing to stay dead! As Kurt Vonnegut preached one Palm Sunday, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”

So death is in the air. This is why when we read the Fourth Gospel we need to remind ourselves how it all begins: Jesus, the Logos, the Word, capital W, was with God and is God, and through the Word all things were made that were made, including the earth and everything and everyone that dwells therein. (John 1:1-3, Psalm 124) For John’s community, God is love. That is, we come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. John begins with the beginning of life, all life, springing from God’s eternal Word – the Word that became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood - Jesus.

“To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace - shalom,” says Paul to the Church in Rome.(Romans 8:6) This Spirit rises up within us like a spring of living water “gushing up to eternal life,” as we heard last Sunday (John 4:14) It is already in us – given by the Word.

Lent is a time set apart to stop and contemplate and connect with this Spirit within. Like the Samaritan Woman, however, there is often within us, hidden below our surface lives, places of loneliness, fear, alienation, insecurity and brokenness. Combined with our addictions and various idolatries fed to us by an obsessed consumer driven culture to which we turn to cover over this brokenness, we lose sight – and we lose sight of any tangible connection to this Spirit within.

If I have learned anything teaching world religions these past five years, almost all religions share with Jesus the idea that there is something within us that must die before we are reborn into new life with God. Jesus repeatedly makes the case that one needs to lose one’s self to find one’s self. We often mistaken this for things of our body so we give up things thinking the spiritual self will magically arise, which only allows us to avoid the real problem. The Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr writes about this: “What really has to die is our false self created by our own mind, ego, and culture. It is a pretense, a bogus identity, a passing fad, a psychological construct that gets in the way of who we are and always were – in God. This is our objective and metaphysically True Self.” (Yes, And, p.272 - Franciscan Media, Cincinnati:2013)

A dear colleague and friend in Christ once likened this all to sailing on a ship. These hidden fears and not so hidden idolatries, this false self, act very much like the rudder on a ship - set deep beneath the surface of our lives unseen, where these insecurities and idolatries can direct the ship of our life without our even being aware that they are there. In one sense, Lazarus can represent the death of the Life of the Spirit within us, which separates us from our life in God, what Jesus in John calls true life, and peace, or the shalom of God - a peace that includes justice and peace for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being - to which we need to add every creature and every thing in all of creation, which creation we have suddenly come to realize, in historic and cosmic terms, we have seriously mistreated.

Simply put, there is a disconnect. We are bound by these inner demons and idolatries which disconnect us from the Love of God and the Love of others - all others. This is when we need to remind ourselves that We Come from Love, We Return to Love, and Love is All Around. Jesus comes to remind us of this simple truth.

When we do take time to contemplate all of this, we no doubt begin to feel like Mary and Martha: Why hasn’t he come yet! We called for him, he says he loves the three of us, why isn’t he here. Jesus’s willful and chosen delay in coming is baffling. Although as the disciples point out, going any closer to Jerusalem, which Bethany surely is, would be dangerous since the community and religious authorities have already been threatening to kill him. As we know from our perspective, however, as those who know the rest of the story, that is not Jesus’s concern!

Perhaps, I have been thinking, he delays because he knows that to do the work he has come to do, connect people to the Spirit within and lead us to New Life, we first have to die - death is a prerequisite to resurrection. Dying to the hidden fears and insecurities and idolatries that we do such a good job of tamping down as far and as deep below the surface of our lives as possible, dying to our false self is a prerequisite to healing, to unbinding, to resurrection, to New Life.

Perhaps we need to feel the pain of Jesus’s delay to see, as Martha does, that he is Life and he IS and still is and always will be Resurrection! “Yes, Lord, I believe,” declares Martha. As with the Samaritan Woman, perhaps the most broken woman in all of the Bible, Martha becomes the first to declare Jesus is the Christ, God’s Anointed, God’s Messiah. Not the disciples, not Nicodemus, not the chief priests and Pharisees, but a broken, hurt, grieving and quite frankly angry woman is the first to make this declaration in John’s Gospel! That is astonishing in and of itself! It is as astonishing as the Samaritan Woman becoming the first evangelist! It is as astonishing as shepherds being the first witnesses and proclaimers of the Incarnation, the birth of God in flesh and blood in a manger!

I am sometimes afraid that we have lost all capacity to be astonished by this tale, this story that holds the key to eternal life here and now with the God who is the Word, the God through whose word brings all things into Being, who with a word gives light. Not just to the world but to the entire Universe and quite likely, as we are now learning, to ALL Universes! It is, we are told, a light which shines in the darkness of our waiting like Martha and Mary. A light which shines in the darkness like that of the Samaritan Woman. A light that shines in the darkness of the night in which Nicodemus sneaks in to ask a few questions of Jesus so as not to be seen and subject to the kind of trouble that lies ahead for Lazarus and Jesus. A light which shines in darkness and which, according to Saint John the Evangelist, the darkness has not and cannot overcome.

As Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?”

Martha is one of the first to learn that Jesus waits for us to die so that he may then come and unbind us forever from all the demons that lurk beneath the surface once and for all. It is he that can unbind us from a life devoted to the false self. This death, then, is the good news. As Paul might put it, dying is life if it unbinds me once and for all from my false self and connects me to God’s Spirit within “gushing up to eternal life!”

We come from Love, we return to Love and Love is all around. We have only forty days to contemplate what all of this means for us as individuals and as members of a community of Christians, as citizens of a nation and as citizens of the world. Forty days. Not, in the overall scheme of things, that long - just a blip on the cosmic scale of time. But it is enough and more than enough if we let Jesus come to us in his own time to unbind us and set us free! Amen.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Light!



Light!
 John 9:1-41
It struck me the other day that the gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding - the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John's gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through  him, and without  him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John's gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: "I Am the light of the world." John has already told us this "in the beginning." And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, "I Am," we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, "Who shall I say sent me?" The voice from the bush replies, "I Am who I Am...you shall say...I Am sent me to you."(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, "Light!" Jesus says, "I am the light of the world." This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean - who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he "no better and no worse than any other man"?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind - and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others - especially others who are not at all like ourselves.
The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness - he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.
Even Jesus' own disciples believe he is blind because of his own or his parents' sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man's sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean - rather like the untouchables in India. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away - they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religiousies to "see." -to see the Light of the World - The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be the light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him - give him a drink - so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Well anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus says, "There is something you can do for me." The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind (notice how he, like her, is so marginalized that he has no name!) becomes a vocal advocate for God and The Light of the World! He has dared to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world. Prisoner 24601 became a person who compassionately cares for others all the while accepting and acknowledging the wrongs he has done.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God's work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time.  Amen.