Saturday, March 26, 2016

We Rise With Christ!

Easter 2016 -  John 20: 1-18

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Or is he? Book after book, magazine article after magazine article, movie after movie, all try to tell us just who this Jesus was. Or, more properly, is! When to pin Jesus down as being this or being that is only to place him back into some kind of tomb. When we pretend that we know just who Jesus is, we simply domesticate him to be the person we need him to be and close him up in another tomb of our own making.

"The only excuse," writes John Shea (The Challenge of Jesus, The Thomas More Press: 1975), "and a lame one at that, for another book on Jesus is that we are never quite through with him. When the last syllable of the last word about Jesus the Christ has been spoken, a small, balding man who until now has been silent, will say, ‘Just a moment, I….’After two thousand years people still journey to Jesus. They bring a vaunting ego and last year’s scar, one unruly hope and several debilitating fears, an unwanted joy and a hesitant heart—and ask Jesus what to make of it. We have only gradually become aware of the hook in Jesus’ promise, ‘I will be with you always, even to the end of the world. ’This not only means he will not go away, but that we cannot get rid of him! He continues to roll back the stone from the caves we entomb him in. It is only because Jesus insists on inserting himself into the thick of our plots that we insist on commenting on him." (Shea p. 11)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

So after forty days of Lent and the magnificent journey of Holy Week, it all seems to hinge on the actions of one woman; one previously crazy and insignificant woman; one woman who, tradition maintains, once was possessed by evil spirits. A quintessential outsider, a powerless, and much maligned woman, the likes of which have been on parade all of Lent: 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 week in and week out on the first day of the week, that we 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 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 comes in. Then we are simply told, “…he saw and he believed.”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

There is 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. As soon as we step closer to the communion rail and accept the bread and the wine for the first time, we, too, begin to see and believe. And once one eats of this bread and drinks of this cup, one cannot help but have the feeling in your heart that you are a disciple whom Jesus loves. Each time that cup is passed to us at the Eucharist, we look into its depths beyond the dark wine shimmering gold and, trembling, we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

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.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

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. 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.

Like those first disciples she calls, we all race to the tomb and stoop over to see for ourselves. Like Peter, Mary and the beloved disciple, we do not all see the same things, we do not hear the same voices. Except the one voice that calls us each by name.

He calls you today. He calls you by name. He calls you to be his beloved disciple. Jesus calls you to be with him. He calls you to know he is here, even now. He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit. The world needs you, the church needs you, Jesus needs you. They need your love and your light.

As with Mary, he also calls us to let go of him. We can shut him up in tombs of our own making, or we can be like Mary and let go, and go and tell others about our Risen Lord. In letting go, like Mary, we will find that we are more fully embraced by him, by his love and by his God than we could ever imagine.

And like the people who were changed by this one woman’s words, the lives of others will be changed by ours. We are never quite done with Jesus. And thank God, he is never quite done with us!

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

And so are we… And so are we! Amen!

We Awaken in Christ's Body

Easter Vigil Year C
We Awaken in Christ’s Body
We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? -- Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

So wrote Saint Symeon the Theologian, a 10th century monastic in Byzantium. Symeon was called “Theologian” not in any academic sense, but as one who has had mystical, direct experiences of God and has shared them through his poetry and other writings. He often wrote and spoke of the importance of experiencing directly the Grace of God, describing his own experiences as Divine Light.

Something like that experienced by the women at the tomb in Luke. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, “and the other women with them” reported their direct experience of the Grace of God to the apostles. Who, as one would expect from a roomful of men, considered it all “an idle tale.” An idle tale, indeed!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

When the women get there “at early dawn,” the stone had already been rolled away. They went in only to find that the body was not there – the body they had come with spices they had prepared to properly prepare their Lord’s body for a proper burial.

Instead of finding the crucified Christ, however, they were greeted by two men “in dazzling white clothes!” Think, Miami Vice or Saturday Night Fever. These dazzling dudes are suddenly right beside them, terrifying the women. They bowed their faces to the ground.

The men say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen! Remember what he had said – that he would be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

If that is not a direct experience of the Grace of God, I don’t know what is. Everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to the women dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, on Friday is suddenly, in Him, transformed. Suddenly, they themselves are  transformed. As Saint Paul would write to the church in Rome, they now find themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, the one who has risen!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Suddenly these women are made whole and lovely and radiant in his light – the light of the Morning Star that knows no setting! They have been raise with Christ and in Christ and all that had been dead a mere 36 hours before at the cross – the shortest “three days” in recorded history – was now alive again, and all sadness is transformed to joy as He is already making them, making us, utterly real once more. We have to tell the eleven and the others, they tell themselves.

And off they go, back to the upper room where the men are hiding behind closed doors so as not to be associated with the One whom they called Lord – the One disgraced on a Roman cross – the One buried in a borrowed tomb. One would think they would be overjoyed to hear the News – the really really Good News – that the body is gone and the dazzling ones have announced that he has risen!

In fact, at that very moment he is walking along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and another asking them what’s going on in Jerusalem. At that very moment he is sitting at table with these two roadside companions sharing bread with them while “the Eleven” and the “others” cannot be bothered with what the women are saying.

With one exception. Peter, who had denied ever knowing Him, is beset with the curiosity of this idle tale and gets up and runs, not walk, but runs to the tomb, stoops over and looks in for himself. The evidence supports the women’s tale. He goes home utterly amazed!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Gospel of the Lord. .Praise to you, Lord Christ. So who are we? Can we place ourselves among the women, the first witnesses, the first to bear witness, to the resurrection? Do we find ourselves with the Eleven and others and dismiss this as an idle tale? Are we Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus but now is compelled and absolutely must run, not walk, to the tomb to see for himself? Despite having heard this tale so many times, can we still allow ourselves to be amazed and transformed and let ourselves “awaken in Christ's body as Christ awakens our bodies,” as Symeon the Theologian imagines those who are baptized really are?

May we listen to these ancient voices: Paul, Luke and Saint Symeon. They have known Christ in the flesh. They bear witness to life lived with the Beloved awakened "in every part of our body." They invite us to look into the open tomb ourselves. Look inside and see – the tomb is open, not empty. No it is very full – full of the real presence of the Risen Christ in the lives of those who have seen him, picked up their crosses and followed him. Look – see where they laid him? We awaken in Christ’s body as he awakens our bodies! He awakens as the Beloved in every part of our bodies. This is Easter.  The open tomb issues an invitation:

Know, my sisters and brothers, little by little,
It takes time
Jesus will reveal to you just how much
He watches over you and loves you.
He calls you to follow him
So that you might do something beautiful with your life
And bear much fruit.

The world needs you,
The church needs you,
Jesus needs you,
They need your love and your light.

Let Jesus live in you
Go forward with him!

 Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia!

And so are we, and so are we! Amen!

The Wood of the Manger is the Hard Wood of the Cross

Good Friday 2016

The Wood of the Manger is the Hard Wood of the Cross
I have always thought that to make sense out of Good Friday and just why it is so good requires some reflection upon that other Christian festival that for reasons that are more patriotic than theological outshines Holy Week and Easter in American culture: that would be, of course, Christmas.

So when John writes that it was “about the sixth hour” on the Day of Preparation, he is signaling that in Jerusalem as Passover approaches, it is one chaotic and busy time! And since John also places Passover on the Sabbath, it means that on top of Passover there is the already hectic and frantic running around town that takes place in Jerusalem before the beginning of the Sabbath every week: the shopping areas and markets are just teeming with people buying, selling, haggling, yelling, pushing, shoving, racing and just about every other kind of ing-ing imaginable. Having been in the markets of Jerusalem hours before the Sabbath begins I can confirm that not much has changed in this regard.

Which is to say it is like the Day of Preparation before Christmas Eve, say, when relatives are arriving at the airport, the train station and the front door, some early, some late, a blessed few on time. A day when all bon fide, red-blooded U.S. males are completing long put off last minute shopping. Kitchens are marked off with yellow caution tape with ingredients and spicy invectives flying through the air. Kids are tugging at peoples’ apron strings, overcoats, pants legs and demanding to know when when when can we open the first gift?!? Uncle Pete is asleep in the parlor, while Aunt Hilda is busy trying to convince the household teens that yes, we do dress up for Christmas, and yes, we do dress up for Christmas dinner. While all the while the soft glow of the moon’s beams reflects off the pillows of new fallen snow.

Which is to say, most people in Jerusalem are not at all present, let alone aware of, at the insignificant little drama going on down at the Pro-Counsel’s office. In fact, most people in first-century Jerusalem would make it their habit to stay as far away from Pilate, the most brutal Pro-Counsel ever, and his Roman minions as possible every day of the year.

So it came as no surprise to me to learn that there is a long tradition that says the hard wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. It works of course the other way around: the hard wood of the cross is the hard wood of the manger. Christmas and Good Friday really mean to convey the same truth: God chose to become incarnate, that is human, and experience all that being human entails, which ultimately speaking leads to death. Not always the horrible death depicted on the Roman crosses used for executing only the lowliest of the low, but death nonetheless.

To put it another way, being born into this world of Mary the God-Bearer, and being fully human, not part human and part something else, means that he was in fact born to die. That seems obvious to us at this point, but it never seems quite so obvious as we joyfully entertain ourselves with Christmas Carols, building the crèche, swinging the incense, gazing at poinsettias and falling on our knees to sing Silent Night, dimming the lights to inject about as much treacle as one church can possibly bear at one time. It all seems so, well, darling and sweet at the time. Death tends to be the last thing on our minds.

Enter Good Friday to remind us that Christmas is one of the reasons Good Friday is Good. Since receiving a sentence of capital punishment and being executed all in one day does not stir up visions of sugar plums or anything else good in our little Christmas saturated heads. Good Friday is Good because of Christmas – because Jesus Christ the human being means that God entered our reality, allowing that we may, and even should, be human beings before God. Being created in God’s image carries some responsibilities after all, and being human before God is as good a place to start as any. Nevertheless, as Dietrich Bonhoffer has observed [“Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection” in Meditations on the Cross (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1996) p.76ff], this God with us, Emmanuel, is not a simple confirmation of the goodness of humankind. The decisive distinction is that Jesus was without sin.

“Among other human beings, however, Jesus lived in deep poverty, unmarried, and died as a criminal. So Jesus’ human existence already contains a double condemnation of human beings: the absolute condemnation of sin, and the relative condemnation of human circumstances.” p. 76

Yet, despite this double condemnation, of which we are to take careful note, Jesus himself is genuinely human and wants us to be genuinely human as well, while at the same time indicating that we are not the ultimate end of creation, but rather of penultimate status. As such we are to be taken seriously, but not that seriously, since hidden deep within us, like yeast in a lump of dough, are the seeds for the Kingdom of God – that is the potential for life as God truly wants it to be – free of poverty, crime and isolated individuals.

This reality of this incarnate double condemnation does seem inevitably to lead to the Cross – a cross which until later in the Good Friday service is conspicuous by its absence from the sanctuary. Some churches do not even bring it in at all, so powerful is its presence and meaning in our midst. We prefer, perhaps, to meditate on the hard wood of the manger.

Jesus Christ, the Crucified – “This means,” writes Bonhoffer, “that God has pronounced the final judgment over fallen creation. God’s rejection which happened on the cross of Jesus Christ contains the rejection of the human race without exception.” p.77

It is the “without exception” clause that is perhaps deserving of most of our attention. For it leaves no room to boast of our being human, nor the world of its divine order. Lest we think this is primitive stuff, we need only recall that in the writings and visions of the prophets God is frequently pictured as putting humanity on trial with Creation in the jury box. So just for a moment imagine a jury box filled with trees, flowers, birds, animals, fish, whales, crabs and oysters. Their duty as jurors will be to determine whether or not we have succeeded or failed in our duties as Stewards of all creation – the Earth and all that is therein – this fragile Earth our Island Home. One does not need to be a die-hard proponent of Climate Change and its causes to hazard a guess at the jury’s verdict. Rampant greed fueled by consumer-driven capitalism does have its down sides – destruction of the Earth for one, and usually the grinding up of human labor as another. Someone has to fund all those year-end corporate bonuses and golden parachutes. We contribute whether we mean to or not. Usually the grinding of the market economy, so-called, does not allow much time to reflect on all of this. This is one good reason to take time on Good Friday to simply sit and think about the unthinkable.

Yet, it is under the symbol of death –the cross - that human beings are now to live on, “in judgment upon themselves if they despise it, or toward their own salvation if they acknowledge it.” At the end of the day, we can choose – we can choose to see the cross as judgment or as grace. The latter, of course, is what leads to Good Friday being good.

And not to run too far ahead, but it is of course Jesus Christ, the Resurrected that makes Good Friday truly and ultimately Good! For it is in Christ’s resurrection that God brings an end to death and calls a new creation into being. “See,” says the Risen Lord, “I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)

Just because it is Good Friday does not mean that we or the world are frozen in time and place. In Christ being raised from the dead resurrection and new life has already commenced in the midst of this tired old world with its wars and tumults of wars, famine, poverty, cancer, depression, hunger, and all manner of sufferings. In the lives of those who are baptized into the Body of Christ, a beachhead is set. Resurrection is a sign of this old world’s end and of its inevitable future. And so human beings remain human, though sharing in Christ’s resurrection we in no way resemble the old human beings if we are among those who acknowledge the cross as grace. To be sure, up to the boundary of our own death, “those who are resurrected with Christ remain in the world of the penultimate, the world into which Jesus himself entered and in which the cross stands. Thus, as long as the earth exists, the resurrection will not suspend the penultimate, even though eternal life, new life breaks into earthly life ever more powerfully and creates space for itself in that life.” p.78

Incarnation, cross, and resurrection become clear in their unity and in their differences. They make up a kind of mosaic of life in Christ – we cannot survive with just one dimension of God in Christ, we need all three at all times and in all places. “Christian Life means being human by virtue of the incarnation, it means being judged and pardoned by virtue of the cross, and means to live a new life in the power of resurrection. None of these becomes real without the others.” p.78

The wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. The Biblical story begins with a tree in a garden, and begins all over again on a tree in Jerusalem. Good Friday is good when we take the time to reflect on just where we stand in the midst of the three dimensions of life in Christ – Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection. Where we find our selves and where we can see our selves makes all the difference in the world and for the world. Even in times as chaotic and disruptive as the sixth hour on the Day of Preparation, we come to prepare ourselves to be fully incorporated into the full life of Christ and the Body of Christ, His Church.


Maundy Thursday 2016

Maundy Thursday 2016
Do As I Have Done To You
This is a night of quite mixed traditions: Last Supper, foot washing, altar stripping, all-night vigil. There is the Passover first described in Exodus. There is Paul’s take on the Last Supper. There is John’s take on the Last Supper. We compress them all into this one night we call Maundy Thursday.

The name derives from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment or mandate, and the phrase in John’s Gospel: "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you").

Although it is often assumed the Last Supper was a Passover meal, even a Passover Seder, John’s account quite definitely places it “before the festival of Passover.” For John, it is not Passover and it is not a Seder meal.

The ritual behavior of blessing bread and blessing wine, however, is quite common around Jewish dinner tables year-round, especially on Sabbath eve. What is unusual is Jesus’ self-identification with the bread and wine.

Oddly, out of all five chapters in John’s gospel that describe the Last Supper, there is no mention at all of bread or wine. None. It can be seen in other parts of John’s gospel, but it is conspicuously absent from the Last Supper.

Instead, John offers the unique description of Jesus washing feet. He takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water in a basin and begins to wash feet and wipe them with a towel the night before Good Friday.

Perhaps we remember Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing his feet with oil and wiping them with her hair the night before Palm Sunday – Spikenard Saturday. Perhaps we remember that foot washing was done by the lowliest of household slaves.

It is an extreme posture and activity to assume. Not unlike overturning the tables in the Temple precincts to make a point. Not unlike withering fig trees to make a point. Not unlike accepting a drink of water from a Samaritan woman in public. Not unlike eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, blind, lame and sinners of all kinds.

Jesus was not a moderate. He did not play it safe.

He picks up a towel. It has been said by some that Jesus’ entire life was a ministry of the towel. When he was born in a lowly stable, his mother wrapped him in something like a towel. He stanches the flow of blood in a hemorrhaging woman with something like a towel. He prepares and cleans up tables before and after meals with towels. He wipes feet with a towel. And when he dies on the cross, he is wrapped in something like a towel and placed in a new tomb.

So thetowel can be said to summarize his entire life and ministry of service to others. All others. Especially those who were not welcome much of anywhere else.

Maybe that is why Peter at first refuses to participate. Maybe that is why Peter pulls back from having his feet washed: he does not want to think of himself as being lumped in with all those others, all those unclean and sinful people Jesus insists on welcoming all the time.

Maybe Peter was the first to think, “There but by the grace of God go I.” Something a lot of well-meaning Christians like to think is what God’s grace is all about.

I used to help serve meals at Paul’s Place and had a music and prayer ministry there. One day Bill Rich, a colleague and friend, turned to me and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” I have never forgotten that.

I believe that is at the heart of Jesus and the washing of feet. There we all are. We are the poor. We are the sick. We are the broken and brokenhearted. We are the slaves escaping from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke. We are the poor Syrian child who has no mother or father tonight. We are the poor Mexicans threatened by the drug cartels. We are the devastated families in Brussels, in Paris, in Yemen, in the Ukraine, in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives have been torn apart by terror and war. We are the young black men and women stopped for driving while black, shot before a trial of their peers, incarcerated for minor offenses. We are the poor child born of a crack addict tonight. We are the men, women and children infected with HIV/AIDS. We are the hungry, the tired, and the unemployed. We are the mother, father, sister or brother who sits on Death Row. We are the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad waiting and wondering what tomorrow might bring. We are First Responders everywhere who work tirelessly day and night to meet our most urgent needs.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word accepted a drink of water from a despised and broken woman.
And the Word touched a bleeding woman. And the Word fed thousands of hungry people.
And the Word picked up a towel, washed everyone’s feet and gave dignity to all of human kind.
He made us one with himself and with all creation.

He taught us how to love one another as he loves us. As He loves us. As God loves us.

Washing feet, eating bread and drinking wine makes us his own. This is his table not ours. He denies no one a seat at his table. We are to welcome everyone who comes to it. He gives his body and his blood for the life of the world – the whole world – everyone, every place, every thing, every speck of dust.

He invites us to do to others as he has done for us. Welcome them to his table. Wash their feet. Wipe them with a towel. His towel. Tonight we can feel what it is like to live with him. We hold the bread of life in our hands. We drink from the cup of salvation. He says, “Do to others as I have done to you.

We see in his body and blood all the peoples of the world, all sorts and conditions of humankind, and we join with him and say, “There by the grace of God am I.” Amen.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mercy Now

Mercy Now
Lent 5-C - John 12: 1-8                                  
Kurt Vonnegut once preached on this very story. He calls it Spikenard Saturday. It’s the night before Palm Sunday in John’s gospel.  In a sense it is about mercy – mercy now, not later. Although as the story unfolds Jesus allows that there will always be time for mercy now. Perhaps that is what is meant by The Eternal Now – being merciful yesterday, today and tomorrow; being merciful always and in all ways.

At the outset Vonnegut says the one good idea we have been given so far is to be merciful. Perhaps, he ponders, one day we will be given another good idea and then we will have two good ideas. In the meantime, he believes that music – that ineffable expression of the human heart almost hard to define and even harder to understand why it moves us so – music is that second good idea being born.

Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and his inevitable showdown and march to the scaffold, has returned to Bethany and the house of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus who had been as good as dead until Jesus, having mercy on him, called him out of the tomb and ordered the crowd to “unbind him and set him free.” Lazarus, of course, is a stand-in for all others, for all of us, who are bound by sin – the sin of whatever it is that separates us from the love of God as our prayer book defines it. Sin is what makes us unable to accept God’s mercy now.

Martha is serving dinner. No surprise there. Mary, now behaving much more like Martha, assumes the position of the lowest household slave and begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with nard – the costly ointment from the Spikenard plant. This is all at once humble, merciful and downright extravagant on Mary’s part. As Judas the Traitor would observe, this ointment could bring in 300 denarii on today’s market. One denarii was about one day’s wages. Nearly a year’s worth of wages being lavished on Jesus’ feet.

It takes someone like the late Kurt Vonnegut to see the humor in all of this. First off you have the King of Kings, Lord of Lords being anointed. But unlike the kings of old who were anointed meshia, messiah, God’s chosen, with oil on their heads with the oil flowing down through their beards, this King of Kings gets his feet anointed. Additionally you have a woman doing this – a woman who should not even be seen with men other than her husband in those days – let alone wiping his feet with her hair. And what of the irony (?) that it is Jesus who will, the night before Good Friday, assume the same posture as Mary to wash his disciples’ feet, rather than the disciples caring for their master. Something, as we say, is afoot.

And on both occasions there is a disciple, Judas on this night, Peter on Maundy Thursday, who protests just what is going on. Judas, who represents our inner Pharisee and inner Puritan, all of a sudden holier than the King of Kings himself! “No way! This cannot be right! Why don’t we sell the ointment and give the money to the poor?” Believing in his heart that he has finally understood what Jesus was about. And despite the unkind editorial remarks of the editors of the fourth gospel, we should admit that in fact he is not far from wrong. His mistake here is that he is simply not living in the moment as we might say nowadays.

Imagine, for just a moment, having walked nearly a hundred miles or so on the rocky and dusty highways and bi-ways of Israel without much more than sandals on your feet under the hot sun by day and through the cold, chill air at night. Now close your eyes and try to imagine someone like Mary massaging your feet with oil and wiping them with her hair. Is that a smile creeping across your face right about now? Can we allow ourselves some idea of just how Jesus, who knows that in a mere few days he will feel all the pain and suffering that a mortal can feel when he dies on the cross, might feel right then and there in Bethany? No doubt it feels really really good.  Can anyone blame him at all for feeling that way?

It is a wonder that Jesus does not come out with anything more stern than his astute observation, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Of course by now we all know it was said in Aramaic, and may have sounded more like, “Don’t worry, Judas. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone. I have a tough road to go from here. Why not let her show me a little mercy now?”

Vonnegut says that’s it. That’s the joke. “Do you really think there won’t be enough poor people to serve after I’m gone?” might be the sense of it here. It is often hard to see the humor in the Bible because, well, it’s the Bible. And dark humor like this is often difficult to pick up even in real life. But what we are meant to do is laugh at ourselves and at the notion that there was no more time than that very moment to sell the oil and serve the poor when in fact it is our lifetime vocation as the body of Christ! “Don’t sweat it, Judas, you’ll have plenty of time and money to do that yourself. After all, as the editor says, you have the purse and all the money, AND you are a thief!” Do we get it now?

Judas did not get it. And neither do a lot of well-meaning Christians today. Verse 8 tends to be heard as something more like this, “Poor people are hopeless. We will always be stuck with them. Jesus said so.” Which then appears to give people warrant to say other things like the poor are helpless and hopeless because they are lazy, or dumb, or drink too much, or take drugs, and have too many children, and on and on it goes.

The Thursday following Spikenard Saturday Jesus takes Mary’s lead, gets on his knees with a wash basin and towel and begins washing feet and saying, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” That is, there is no end to a life of serving others as I have served you. There is no time for being merciful as important as the present moment. Show a little mercy now, not later.

If we could not understand it on Spikenard Saturday, surely when we see Jesus on his knees washing feet on the very night he would also say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” surely, he must be thinking, they will get it now. Surely we do, don’t we?

So let Jesus wash your feet. And know that when we wash others’ feet and take care of the poor that we are in fact joining ourselves with Mary of Bethany in anointing and caring for our Lord’s feet as well. As you do this for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do it for me.  Amen.

Words and Music Mary Gauthier
My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over it won't be long, he won't be around
I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now
He's a stranger to freedom, he's shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it's almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it's going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now

Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, they'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life and life itself could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance between hell and hallowed ground

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Join The Party Every Day!

Join the Party Every Day!
Lent 4C – Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32/ 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

When I was ordained into the priesthood I received a telegram that read in part, “Dear Kirk Alan Kubicek, May this day mark the beginning of a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves.”

This would be the task for all of us as Jesus illustrates in the 15th chapter of Luke. Often called The Prodigal Son, it might better be titled The Generous, Loving and All Merciful Father. Or, The Ungrateful Brother.  Or, The Steward of the Household of God. Or, Life Among The Pigs! It is true that Ernest Hemingway tried out almost 50 different titles for his book A Farewell to Arms.

So we read that tax collectors (read “collaborators with the Roman Oppression) and sinners were flocking to see him and listen to him. Obviously he is teaching at the dinner table as the Pharisees and scribes are sneering, “Look, this man welcomes and eats with sinnerssssssssssss…..”, offering their very best serpent impersonation.  Overhearing them Jesus does what he does best. He tells a story about a young man and his father. We are all too familiar with this tale. The young man wants and gets his inheritance right now. The beginning of the instant gratification movement! Of course he squanders the money and ends up literally among the pigs. Pigs, you may recall, are not kosher. They are unclean. Yet, there he is wishing that he might eat some of the pig slop.

He had reached his bottom as we say in Twelve Step groups. The text says he came to himself. Spiritual teachers would say he woke up! He realizes that even his father’s debt-slaves get better than this pig slop. So he decides to go home, repent to his father and ask if he might work the fields as a hired hand. He has been humbled indeed.

Before he even gets to the front door his Father runs down the road to greet him and kiss him. Then the Father turns to a servant, apparently the steward of the household, and orders him to bring the best robe, a fine ring and to kill the fatted calf so there can be a party to celebrate the son’s return, “…for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now he is found.” The Father is genuinely happy, merciful, abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing his Son.  The party gets under way.

The older brother was just coming in from a hard day’s work in the fields. He hears the music and asks, ‘What’s up?’ A servant tells him the news. The brother is incensed and refuses to go in to join the party. The Father comes out to invite him in personally, but the brother will have no part of it. “I have obeyed you and worked my tail off for you day after day and you have never given me so much as a young goat with which to party with my friends!” No doubt he is pouting as he whines.

The Father reminds him that all that is his will one day be yours since your brother already has claimed and spent his inheritance. But we had to celebrate. We just had to! For this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now has been found!

We are never told if the brother relented and joined the party. Jesus leaves it right there for the scribes and Pharisees and tax collectors and sinners and for all of us to ponder.  There is no moral or explanation. Evidently he feels there is no need for one. It is, as we say, self-evident. Or is it?

Without giving it any thought, how many of you identify with the younger son? Perhaps you have squandered an opportunity, or have let go of your relationship with God and/or with others and really really know what it is like to be eating slop with the pigs! Or, how many of you identify with the older brother? I mean really, if there was ever a justified moment for righteous indignation, coming in from the fields and hearing the music and merriment and then realizing it is for your no good reprobate younger brother! Resentment is easy to fall into, just as easy as the younger brother fell into the pig pen. Then who identifies with the Father? You have known the pain of loss – of having lost a child, or at least one that is as good as dead. Or you have felt estranged from a close family member or friend, and yet you still yearn to somehow make things right again. You want to return to a relationship with that person no matter what the cost. And when it happens you put on the Ritz and celebrate and embrace that lost soul unconditionally just to be reunited with one you believed to be as good as dead.

That leaves one final character in our story for today: who identifies with the slave, the servant, the household steward. Does anyone identify with him, this debt-slave? Ironic, isn’t it, that the word steward derives from the term “sty warden” or keeper of the pigs! We ought to all identify with this servant, because that is who we are. St. Paul writes in the fourth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians – “…we are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

The Father (God, Abba, Father?) entrusts the entire household to this debt-slave. This servant has access to all the finest possessions in the household: fine robes, fine jewelry, the finest food! The Father trusts this debt-slave with all of this, just as God in Christ trusts us with all the finest gifts of creation, with creation itself, and with the mysteries of God. As Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we are given a specific ministry – that of reconciliation. As such, we are ambassadors for Christ. This, writes Paul, is what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God.

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” We are stewards of the mysteries of God!

I am told Carl Jung’s understanding of dreams is that we are all of the characters in our dreams working out our own internal stuff. Applying that to this story, it is reasonable to assume that at one time or another we all are the young son, we all are the older son, we all are the Father, and we all are the steward.  We can only imagine what the scribes and Pharisees made of all this. We can be sure the tax collectors and sinners understood it right away and left the supper table humbled and with a renewed sense of life and purpose and gratitude.

As stewards of the mysteries of God, we are all given a mission of reconciliation – as my mentor Elie Wiesel wrote to me that day long long ago, “a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves.” It was only when the young son came closer to himself that he was able to repent and return home. His Father was so eager to get closer to his lost son that he ran down the road to embrace him. So it is that God waits upon us to come closer to ourselves, our true selves. It is only when we reconcile ourselves with ourselves and others that we truly are home again. We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming – a coming home to God.

We are not told what the older brother did, but my hope and my prayer is that one day he too “came to himself” and joined the party and truly came home again. The Father loves them both. The Father invites us all to join the party every day! Amen.