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.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Self-Sacrifice vs Self-Love

This Voice Has Come For Your Sake, Not For Mine

Some foreigners, Greeks, gentiles, outsiders, show up for the festival. They say, “We wish to see Jesus.”. Philip runs to Andrew and presumably says something along the lines of, “Hey, there are all these foreigners who want to see Jesus! What should we do?”

Andrew obviously has no answers. Who wants foreigners around at a time like this! So, they run off to Jesus to tell him the foreigners are at the gates looking for him. Jesus says, in effect, if you want to see me, really really see me, then stick around. You’ll have to deal with my death at the hands of Rome to really really see me. Are they ready for that? Are you ready for that? Are we ready for that?

Then he speaks of a grain of wheat dying in the ground and then bearing much fruit. A metaphor of dying to life in this world to gain eternal life in the presence of God. Which hinges on self-sacrifice vs self-love. “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[John 12:25] William Temple, in his commentary Readings in John’s Gospel, observes that Greek philosophy does not appreciate self-sacrifice, and further observes, “Self-love is self-destruction; self-centeredness is sin, and self-love is hell. It is a condition that is bound to be miserable. The soul feeds on itself and devours itself.” [Temple, p 196] Glorification of God’s name and eternal life come out of self-sacrifice and love for others, even the outsiders.

Then, quoting Psalm 6 Jesus says, “Now my soul is struck with terror!” Then comes a big noise! Some thought it was thunder, so it must have been loud. Some thought it looked as if Jesus was talking to someone, but there was no one there. Must be angels, some surmise. It was the voice from heaven. The same voice he heard at his baptism that said, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” The same voice from the cloud on the mountain top with Peter, James and John and Jesus that said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Are we listening yet?

Now when Jesus says, “Father, glorify thy name,” the voice returns and says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Or, was it thunder? Is he talking to angels? Has he simply lost it and started talking to himself? Should we even think of letting the foreigners see him like this? While everyone is trying to figure out what is happening, Jesus announces, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” Which means for our sake, not His. This voice that keeps coming around is for us, not for Jesus. Which makes perfect sense. He knows the voice. The voice knows him. He has always heard the voice. He comes to get us to listen to the voice.

Surely, we must wonder why we do not hear the voice like Jesus does more often? OR, at all! Would it surprise us to learn that to this very day, 90% of the peoples of the world regularly hear such voices? That modern Westerners are the minority, the anomaly, as those people who do not regularly access this kind of communication with God and Spirits. The question is quite naturally, why not us? And most people say we are too busy to be listening, or think we are too sophisticated to hear voices, or think you have to be crazy or mentally ill to hear such voices. Someone has suggested that maybe it is because we are too grown up. Someone else has pointed out that most other cultures do not make such a big thing out of growing up. And isn’t it Jesus after all who says we are to come to the kingdom like children?

And couldn’t it be that we don’t want to hear anything about having to watch him die, watch him be executed, the victim of state sanctioned capital punishment? Dress it up as being like a grain of wheat, call it what you may, but that is what it is: state sanctioned public execution. In all the debate on capital punishment, how often are we asked to reflect upon what it means that the one who calls us to “follow him” is himself the victim of state sanctioned capital punishment?

All we know is that he says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.”
This voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you. I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” We are left feeling that for God’s name to be glorified, we need to be listening to God’s voice and learn how to become part of the glorifying process. Holy week and all it portends may be dark and scary. But not nearly as frightening as a life of self-love. Or, as the prospect that for others to see Jesus we need to be part of the glorifying process. In Sunday School we rarely hear anything about this voice and its being for us. We typically do not spend much time on how to listen for this voice Jesus says is for us, let alone on our role in the glorifying process.

The creeds do not appear to discuss it. The catechism does not seem to discuss it. Yet, there it is. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Seems as if we best get listening to hear what this voice says. Nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake, he goes on to say.

The problem is that those of us, who like the foreigners want to see Jesus, are the very people to whom others come expecting to see Jesus. In us. In what we say and what we do. In his book, By Grace Transformed, [Crossroad, 1999] the late Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., discusses just how it is others “hear the voice” and come to see Jesus. Gordon puts it this way:
Every single one of us is significant to somebody else. The people to whom we are significant will catch this thing from us if they know that we are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely devoted and loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ. But the trouble is that, in those moments we think of as off moments, others decide whether or not we are truly committed. The times a person says, “I must talk to you,” or, when we are weeding the garden. Or, working in an office. Grading a road. Nailing on a molding or painting a room. Cooking a meal. Speaking to a child. These are the times and places where the other person decides who we really are. There can be no “off moments” for Christians if our faith and its vitality are to be contagious. (p.10)
That is, glorification of God’s name comes in our most mundane moments. It is up to us to glorify God’s name. To do that we need to listen for The Voice. The Voice that is for our sake, not for his. The Voice speaks to us so that we might know how Beloved we are. So that we might know how well pleased God is with us. Once we hear this voice and believe it, others will see Jesus in all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stop, Look Up and Live

Impatience. Impatience quickly devolves into anxiety, which in turn devolves into anger and a kind of lashing out at everything and everyone around us. Think of traffic slow-downs when you need to be somewhere at a particular time. Or, some of us may recall when it took several minutes for a computer to boot-up. As processors became faster, the boot-up times became shorter, until now if starting up takes a little longer than usual due to updates being loaded, or a processor trying to make sense of an improper shut down, we become impatient, restless, anxious. And who knows what we will say or do as we allow our impatience to get the best of us.

Impatience seems to be related to a kind of amnesia – we forget how things used to be. It used to take longer to get from point A to point B; it used to take longer to get a computer up and running. Or, like the people of God in the wilderness [Numbers 21:4-9] who forget what it was like to be slaves in Egypt, who forget that God is providing daily bread, become impatient and complain. God seemingly becomes impatient with their impatience and sends poisonous or firey snakes to nip them on the heel, killing some. Talk about impatience! Yet, as with the flood incident, God repents and directs Moses to erect a pole and place a bronze serpent on the pole so that when the people are snake-bitten they can look up to the bronze serpent and live. That is, God provides a solution to the problems that had resulted from so much impatience.

This strikes us as odd, primitive and even somewhat perverse. Yet, the prescribed action – stop, look up and live – is meant as a sort of intervention for our impatience. The intervention helps us to become patient – able or willing to bear some momentary or even extended discomfort, opposition, difficulty or adversity – to control oneself when provoked. Note, that this intervention depends upon our trusting the instructions to look up and live. Such trust is what the Bible means when it speaks of belief – belief in anything ultimately depends upon trust. And such trust comes from our experience that such trust is justified.

All this, impatience, intervention, trust, belief, is in play as Jesus meets with a respected leader of the community, Nicodemus, who visits Jesus at night to find out more about this person who has been baptized by John, turned water into wine, and created quite a stir outside the Temple claiming to be the New Temple, as the place where God’s name and God’s presence now dwells. Nick is knowledgeable in many things, and he knows that one who does these things must be of God [John 3]. Jesus replies in language and metaphors that demand Nick’s and our careful attention.

At the heart of it all, Jesus asserts that to fully grasp what is going on one needs to be born anothen – which can mean “again,” but in the overall context of chapter 3 more likely means “from above.” There are many words in English that have more than one meaning: a plant can be vegetation, or it can be a factory; meal might be a time to eat, or, can be grain that has been milled or ground. Nick begins to question how he might climb back into his mother’s womb to be born again, while Jesus is speaking of being born from above, born of God’s Spirit, which comes from we know not where and carries us we know not where. Jesus seems to offer an invitation to re-boot or re-start one’s life to be lived in and by the Spirit Wind or Breath of God. It is an invitation to always begin again; to abandon the settled arrangements and understanding of things and venture into a whole new way of doing things.

Understandably, Nick blurts out, “How can these things be?” still not catching on to the aboveness of anothen. Here Jesus demonstrates utmost patience in the face of Nick’s impatience and says, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” At this point John the Storyteller leaves Nick behind. And Jesus uses another word that has two meanings: hypso-o – which can mean ‘lifted up’, but also means ‘exalted.’ Here it literally means both things – like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus will be lifted up on the Cross, which will be the moment of his becoming exalted. He who has come down from above will be lifted up and can be, like the serpent, the One you can look up to, the One who can be trusted, and you can be healed of all your impatience and misunderstandings.  

Then, no longer speaking to Nicodemus but to all of us, the whole world, the entire kosmos, comes the line that has been made famous in so many stadium end-zones and behind home-plate, the one and only “John 3:16”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This tells us several important things about God: God loves and God gives. Created in the image of God, then, we are meant to be those creatures who Love and Give. What God gives is God’s whole self – nothing less. Further, the object of God’s love and generosity is not just me or you, it is “the world.” We are to Love the World and Give so that we and the world might have “eternal life.” Eternal Life.  Which is not only life after death. It is meant to be life lived in the presence of the  God of Love and Giving here and now. Or, as Gail R. O’Day puts it so well in her commentary [John, Westminster Bible Companion:2006, p. 45]:  “ ‘Eternal Life’ does not speak of immortality or a future life in heaven, but is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. ‘Eternal Life’ is John’s way of talking about the ‘Kingdom of God’: life lived according to God’s categories. Jesus’ offer of his own life through being lifted up on the cross makes eternal life possible for those who believe [trust]. This is the new life Jesus promised Nicodemus…because it is only when the crucifixion is fully in view that one can begin to understand what Jesus means by new life [from above].”

Like those in the wilderness some 2,300 years ago, we are an impatient lot. The paradox of technological advances only makes us more impatient with the world about us until we are tempted, encouraged really, to retreat from the world about us and all that makes us impatient into some form of electronic screens – which in the end only serve to make us more impatient, more anxious and often more angry.

To what or to whom do we look up? That’s really what is at stake in this story John tells in chapter 3. The Buddha, some 600 years or so before all this, had a teaching called Finger Pointing Toward the Moon. The Buddha knew that his followers might spend all their time looking at the finger rather than to that to which it points. Jesus, like the Buddha before him, knows that we often get so caught up in the teachings and traditions that we lose sight of what and where all of this means to point us. All that is asked in this teaching is that the world embrace the Love and Generosity God offers in the gift of his Son. O’Day concludes, “If one enters into that Love, one enters into Eternal Life. [ibid, 46]” Life lived here and now in the presence of God. As always, we are free to choose to look elsewhere. We can spend all of life just staring at the ‘finger’ and never see past our impatience. Or, we can stop, look up, and live.  

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Jesus Our Temple?

Jesus and The Temple
When listening to the story in John 2:13-22, commonly referred to as The Cleansing of The Temple in Jerusalem, readers need to take context into account. After the majestic first chapter and its Hymn to Jesus, The Word of God through whom all things were created, Jesus the Word who pre-existed the entire universe steps onto the scene where John the Baptizer is holding his River Baptism and Revival Meeting. Twice, on successive days, John proclaims to his camp followers, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” when Jesus comes into view. The Lamb of God, the Paschal Lamb of the Passover. The people who would become Israel are saved by the blood of the Paschal Lamb when the Angel of Death passes over Egypt. Jesus is the new Paschal lamb.

Next scene, Jesus and some followers attend a wedding reception where he solves a crisis of hospitality. They have run out of wine, so he turns three large jars of water into wine. Not just wine, but good wine, thus allowing the celebration to continue. Jesus, if anything, practices radical hospitality. Then comes the episode at the Temple – which, of course, by the time of John’s telling the story has been burned to the ground, the result of the “zeal” of a northern Galilean attempted revolt against the Roman occupation. Jerusalem, The Temple and all of Israel lies smoldering in ashes in the days of John the evangelist.

Jesus causes excitement as he disrupts the bazaar outside the Temple proper. This is odd since the sale of animals and currency exchange is necessary for all Israelites to perform the appointed sacrifices with animals and money suitable for the appointed sacrifices. Of course, again, by the time of the fourth gospel there is no Temple, no place to offer sacrifices, the central act of worship in Israel at the time, a crisis of major proportions. He then claims the Temple as his “Father’s house.”  He is immediately questioned by some local Judeans, Southerners: who do you think you are to be doing these things? A typically enigmatic response claims that if the Temple were destroyed, he could build it up again in three days. They say it has been under construction for forty-six years! You have got to be kidding! But, says the narrator, he was speaking of the Temple of his Body. Jesus himself is the answer to the crisis.

As the fourth gospel places this at the beginning of the story, alongside his being proclaimed “the Lamb of God,” the Wedding incident and now the Temple incident – the issue is not so much the commodification or corruption of religious practices, nor “cleansing the Temple,’ which is a place he often frequents, but rather it’s about the identity of Jesus. Who is he? He is the Lamb of God who secures our freedom from sin; he is God’s Son; his Body is replaces the Temple, which in fact had been under construction for over 600 years, not forty-six. His questioners, perhaps collaborators with the Jerusalem Herodian establishment, who in turn collaborated with Rome, seem to have lost track of this history. All they remember are the renovations of the pretend King of the Jews, the Herodian crowd. They have lost all connection to who they are and whose they are. Yet, in all fairness, his claims are as difficult to grasp as have been his actions so far. His actions announce that he is restoring the terms of the covenant between God and his people, Temple or no Temple, which rather, hinges on Love of God and Love of Neighbor, rather than sacrifices. Feasting on Jesus’ Body and Blood, like the manna in the wilderness, will sustain us through good times and bad. He comes to restore communal life governed by the commandments received at Sinai.

As outlined in Exodus chapter 20. The first four commandments outline our relationship with the God of the Exodus, while the remaining six establish a base-line for how to “love one another.” Due to our own cultural context, we often misconstrue many of these. We rarely note that this is not at all a monotheistic statement. “Other gods” are acknowledged. Therefore, there are to be no images, no idols, since the God of the Exodus is astonishingly inscrutable, and cannot be packaged so as to become any sort of utilitarian tool to obtain whatever we want. Similarly, the command against false use of God’s name has no basis in vulgar language, but rather that we have no standing to harness or exploit God’s name for anything outside God’s own distinctive purpose. This is a peculiar Church temptation, suggests Walter Brueggemann: to claim God’s “endorsement” for all sorts of moral, charitable and institutional purposes. God cannot be claimed as the patron of our pet projects. [Brueggmann, et. al. Texts For Preaching, WJK]

And we totally misconstrue the very center of this command structure, the insistence on a day of rest, Shabbat, Sabbath – which command constitutes at least one-third of the entire text in Exodus 20. Sabbath is no religious or pious concern, it doesn’t mean “going to church,” but rather a concrete act by which slaves distance themselves from “the abusive production schedules of the Empire. In a consumer economy like ours, covenant with YHWH of the Exodus requires rest, breaking the vicious cycles of production and consumption. Such rest is woven into the very fabric of creation and helps us recover our sense of creatureliness and to resist all pressures to be frantic consumers who find our joy and destiny in commodities.” Building and filling more and more barns will never satisfy our hunger or thirst for happiness. Yet, when was the last time any one of us took a whole day off?

Jesus, in his crusade to restore a true sense of covenant life could foresee the kind of production and consumption frenzy we take for granted in the established bazar outside his “Father’s house.” Which leads to the only command stated twice: the Tenth. “Thou shalt not covet….and if you did not hear me the first time, Thou shalt not covet!” In Hebrew when something is repeated it indicates superlative emphasis!!!! This command makes me tremble. The algorithms in Facebook connive with the algorithms at Amazon and Music stores I peruse and tempt me to covet over and over again. Covetousness is at the heart of what we euphemistically call “the economy.” Surely, many will recall that after the tragedy and terror of 9/11 we were directed, commanded, “to keep shopping.” We are awash with so much designed and targeted covetousness that we don’t even recognize that covetousness surrounds us on all sides, on every screen, 24/7, 365 days of the year, 366 in Leap Year.

Abraham Joshua Heschel observes that the gift of the Sabbath may be the antidote to all this covetousness that ultimately will never make us happy! Heschel also asserts that Sabbath is not a religious practice, but rather represents a break, a time-out, from all forms and cultures of endless productivity and consumption! All of which only serves to make us frantic and exhausted, instead of joyful and free. [AJ Heschel, The Sabbath, Shambala Press]

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” [1 Cor 1:25] Paul speaks of the cross – our Passover. The Jerusalem crowd was threatened by the man from Galilee’s crusade to return to covenant principles founded on Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Caesar’s Empire was threatened by any and all who followed his lead in a return to basics; a remembering of our basic identity. Yet, who Jesus was, is and continues to be has outlived the Temple and the Empire. He is the Lamb of God. He is God’s Son. His Body represents the center of God’s presence where the Temple left off in the year 70 CE. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Perhaps we can find something to do in what remains of the forty days of Lent that can help us to hear his call to follow him in restoring a covenant relationship with God, with neighbor, with all other people, with the Earth, and with the entire universe as well.