An Easter Sermon

a Homily for Easter
Text: John 20:1-18

a sunrise

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc

The Recap

I know that many of you were unable to attend the many parts of Holy Week and so missed the opportunity to know what we are actually celebrating this morning. So here’s a brief recap.

  • On Sunday, Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd, arrives in Jerusalem. He makes it very clear that His God is GOD, not Caesar, when he enters riding a donkey in mockery of Rome.
  • On Monday, Jesus visits the Temple and drives out the money-chagers and dove-sellers for their participation in a system of economic exploitation. He says that our job is to worship and live, not obsess about the rules.
  • On Tuesday, Jesus returns to the Temple to teach the people, but before He can, He is confronted by the Temple Authorities and harassed for His lack of credentials “By what authority” they ask Him. Jesus proceeds to school them and humiliate them in front of everybody. So the authorities begin to hatch plans to get rid of Jesus. The rest of the people, however, are raving about His teachings and how he has revealed the hypocrisy of their leaders: in the Temple, their King, and their Roman occupiers.
  • On Wednesday, Jesus is anointed for burial with an expensive oil, called nard (which is still very expensive, by the way) and the disciples protest. Let’s sell it they argue. Jesus tells them that this anointing is the Good News.
  • On Thursday, Jesus has the last supper with his closest followers, teaching them that the most important attribute of the Christian community is intimacy and vulnerability. He is then betrayed, arrested, and brought before the authorities. Sounds vulnerable to me.
  • On Friday, Jesus is tried, convicted, and killed by Rome.
  • On Saturday, we have Sabbath. Nothing.

Which brings us to this morning. The empty tomb. Mary Magdalene witnessing, proclaiming the Good News to the disciples.

A GOD worth believing in

Easter is nothing without Holy Week. A story of Mary Magdalene and the tomb is of no value if we don’t also make sense of who was in the tomb and how He got there.

And it is actually destructive to wipe it away as merely GOD’s doing. GOD made it all happen (we’re often told)—needing to balance some divine checkbook—but don’t worry about any of that nonsense because Look! It’s balanced!

Nor should we get too caught up in the blood of Friday that we never arrive at the tomb to find it empty. To hear that Jesus is not there—He is risen!

The true reason we can’t do Easter without Holy Week is that we can’t believe in GOD if we are never left with nothing but belief. If your life isn’t on the line, it isn’t actual belief.

And we certainly can’t have belief strong enough to survive if we don’t have a GOD worth believing in. Like a GOD that believes in animal and human sacrifice of any sort. A GOD that wants us to continue the ancient tradition of the scapegoat: to place our base desires for vengeance and violence upon an innocent victim, just because we have trouble getting along. A GOD that cares more about what we wear to church than how we treat the people we find there. Or step over to get there. A GOD that expects everyone to just know what GOD is thinking. A GOD that says typos in the bulletin are totally more important than praying for other people or forgiving them for their mistakes.

No. The GOD we know frees and restores. The GOD we know is moved by people who have faith: from Noah to Dorothy Day. The GOD we know rejects our expressions of violence in place of adoration; pragmatism in place of hope; outrage in place of love.

The Good News

I was brought to tears several times this week. First was the murders in Kansas City when a supposed Christian killed three Jewish people on the first day of Passover. Now, this weekend, news out of Ukraine that Jews in Donetsk, a city in east Ukraine, in the midst of ongoing violence, militarism, and invasion, are being asked to register with the pro-Russian forces or face deportation. So like the anti-Semitism of Nazi-era Germany, so connected with our past and disturbingly, with our present.

This news out of Ukraine was breaking as many of us prepared for Good Friday services in which we read the Passion from the Gospel we call John with its references to “the Jews” and bathed in 2,000 years of religious history of scapegoating the entire Jewish culture. Not forgetting that Jesus is a Jew, but choosing violence and hatred because sometimes violence and hatred is all we know. And yet, we are not making Good News when violence and hatred are what we express–on a culture, a group, or even an individual.

That is only true because Jesus broke that mold. No matter how many times we try to recast it, we can’t. The scapegoat is gone. Gone from us. Gone from our tradition. Gone from our people’s experience. Gone from GOD.

The innocent one, the one killed for insurrection, carried no weapon. The innocent one brings with Him an end to the evil we would wage. The innocent one isn’t the only thing risen today.

The Truly Good News

When Jesus was anointed on Wednesday of His last week and the disciples were freaking out because the oil could be sold to feed the poor, Jesus tells them that they’re on the wrong track. They are obsessed with money and action and doing the right thing. And Jesus says a curious thing. He says

wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Whenever the Good News is proclaimed, her story will be told. In remembrance of her, not Jesus. Her story is gospel. The Good News today isn’t just a risen Christ, but the rise of these women. The woman anointing Jesus; Mary the Mother at the cross; Mary Magdalene at the tomb. The rise of the nameless and the voiceless. The rise of the poor and the powerless. The rise of Good News that is actually good! News of generosity and thankfulness. News of change and redemption. News of resolve and faith. News of tenderness and mercy.

News captured in the gentle hands of the woman rubbing the oil on Jesus’s skin, in Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, in Roz and the small group of drivers making sure Charlotte was with Stu in his last days, in all the acts of true power and authority that make us whole, that make us holy.

This is the Good News and this is what we mean when we declare as one that Christ is risen.

Faith In Spite of Death

a Sermon for Good Friday
Text: John 18:1-19:42

By what authority?

There’s a telling moment toward the beginning of Holy Week that explains the drama that is unfolding. A moment that involves a simple enough pair of questions:

By what authority are you doing these things?
Who gave you this authority to do them?

Authority.
It is the very crux of the story.

For us, the question is simple. By what authority? GOD. GOD has given Jesus authority because, well, Jesus is God. Or at the very least, GOD’s authority is found through Jesus. That certainly is a variation of the answer Jesus would give if He gave answers rather than responded with new questions.

But the Temple authorities, the people asking Jesus this question on Tuesday of Holy Week, aren’t thinking like that. They are thinking about people. Which person authorized this? Who are you to be teaching us? Where are your credentials, Jesus?

Their response to Jesus is clearly based in fear. Each step along the way, Jesus proves to be smarter, wittier, and quicker than they are. He is more magnetic than they are, and the people have fallen in love with Him. They love Him and they love His message. So the Temple authorities respond, not from a place of theology or tradition, but of pure politics. Jesus is a genuine threat to their authority.

At the same time, Rome is beginning to get antsy. Jesus is causing a problem for them, too. Problems need solutions. So they find a way to take care of their problem, permanently.

It would be disingenuous not to mention that Jesus started it all. He is the one who entered Jerusalem in a political way. He is the one who made a big political statement at the Temple the next day, overturning the tables and driving out the moneychangers and dove-sellers. He is the one who chose to expose the hypocrisy of the Temple authorities by shaming them in front of their own people.

Jesus was clearly making a political statement. It is no wonder that his adversaries responded from a political position.

Jesus’s authority

Each of Jesus’s actions reveal His sense of authority. That it is not His will, but GOD’s. But Jesus has a very different idea of how to express authority.

For Jesus, it is not about ruling the people, but communing with them. It is not about reinforcing GOD’s rules of behavior, but witnessing GOD’s actions in our midst. It is about living the way GOD calls us to live, creating the blessed community that GOD has revealed in the world and in Scripture, and working toward the great Shalom, the great sort, the great restoration of the world.

Jesus is preaching justice and new life. Jesus is preaching food for the hungry and sacrifice for the wealthy. Jesus is preaching hope for tomorrow and action for today.

For Jesus, the Kingdom isn’t about who is in charge, because that is not up for debate. And He is quick to remind them that He isn’t the answer, either. Truly, the authority isn’t human at all. The authority isn’t rules or a book. The authority is GOD and everything else isn’t.

The faith of Christ

Today, Jesus has died. God is dead. And we will do what we do when we’re afraid. We scatter and desert Jesus. We run away. Away from our fears and our problems. Our anxieties and our losses. Our pain and our conflict. We run. And we leave behind the mother to watch her son hang there.

We abandon our faith for certainty. And we know without a shred of evidence to the contrary that up there on that cross is not really GOD, for GOD is untouchable. And up there on our crosses are certainly the deserving dead.

The authority of Jesus’s life is GOD, but not His death. The authority of every life that comes into this world is GOD’s. And for far too many, the authority of their deaths are on us. On our negligence and bigotry and cowardice. On our need for certainty and blame. On our obsession with rules and outrageous systems of injustice.

The authority of Jesus, however, is life. And that authority remains, even in death.

Today and tomorrow, we resist the urge to desert Jesus; to run away, to scatter—for we are already scattered. Instead, we are here as witnesses. Witnesses to the wonders Jesus has done. Witnesses to the love that has invaded and transformed our lives. Witnesses to the work Jesus has done.

And we pledge to live the way Jesus has taught, act the way Jesus has shown, pray the way Jesus prayed, and we live out the Kingdom as if the Good News Jesus proclaimed was worth bringing here. Living or dead, Jesus has brought us here and defined the very nature of our faith.

For faith is not faith if it is dependent on Jesus. Today, all we have is faith. And each other.

More Good Friday

Here is last year’s sermon about the cross, which is still one of my personal favorites. And check out the one from 2012 which deals with how we choose responsibility for the crucifixion. If you haven’t noticed, something about Good Friday brings out the intellectual side of me…

Not Alone: Maundy Thursday and the Building of Intimacy

a Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The Cup

This year, it was helpful for me to remember that we have developed a different way of marking days from Jesus’s time and place. Then, the day began at dusk. So this, Jesus’s final day, has begun. He gathers His friends for dinner, for a final teaching. Small. Subtle.

In the version of the story we receive from the gospel we call Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus brings his followers together to eat. In the middle of dinner, Jesus takes the bread from the table, breaks it, and passes it around saying “Take; this is my body.”

He takes the cup, blesses it, and passes it around. They all drink from the cup. Then He tells them what they’ve just consumed:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Thus begins the end. Jesus has eaten with all of His followers, including His betrayer. It is now time for him to go and announce Jesus will be on the move. To tell the Temple authorities where they might find this blaspheming zealot. The Messiah. The self-described Son of Humanity.

Jesus takes His disciples out to the Mount of Olives and says:

“You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

I always miss that part. Peter’s denial, which comes next, is so prominent. Of course Peter would say that he would never desert Jesus. Just as he believes he’ll stay awake through the night and protect Jesus from arrest. Always the guardian, protector. And Jesus’s response is heartbreaking.

Regardless of Jesus’s actual words, Peter must have heard Jesus this way:
Yes you will Peter. No matter what you say, you will desert me. You’ll fall asleep. You’ll deny me. You can’t be my guardian.

It isn’t just Peter; it is all of them. They flee. They avoid being arrested. They miss the trials, the torture, the rejection. They are gone at the end of the day, when Jesus is left to die.

Scattered. Gone.

I wonder where we desert Jesus. When we abandon Him, when we scatter; what we avoid and who we reject.

Our desertion only seems different, but it is somehow the same. When we confront our authorities; our culture, our tradition; our comforts, our egos, our very beliefs; how often we scatter. We abandon our faith for institutional security.

In fact, I wonder if there is truly much difference between Peter and Judas. Besides the obvious, of course. In the end, both desert Jesus, the community, the mission. All of them do. Perhaps it is only that Judas can’t come back.

We take it for granted that Jesus will face His trial and death alone. Without Peter, His followers. Perhaps Jesus must face this by Himself. It is not their time or ours. Not yet anyway.

It is this solitary scattering that Jesus prepares them for. This day begins in unity. In sharing. In eating the same food and drinking from the same cup.

When, in the gospel we call John, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, He tells them to wash each other’s feet, that they are to be Christ for each other as Jesus was Christ to them.

He tells them to create intimacy.

It begins with intimacy. Sharing. Being vulnerable to one another and open to GOD’s transformation.

Our very sacraments embody that intimacy; as we are held and washed and marked with oil. When we share from a common loaf and drink from the same cup. As the disciples did. Our lips touching the very cup our neighbors’ lips have. We gather, for centuries now, in intimacy.

We begin this Triduum sharing with one another. Allowing ourselves to be open to GOD and one another. Because what comes after is wounding and troubling. What comes next tests our relationships and our relationship with GOD. For next is the scattering.

Tonight, may we hear Jesus’s words to Peter as if they were meant for each of us: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” That is Jesus’s response to rejected intimacy—treated as the very rejection of Jesus, of GOD’s mission.

Our trials, all that we face in the coming days, all that happens with our families, friends, and loved ones, all of it can be faced as a whole community thriving on intimacy, vital relationships, and healthy actions. Or we can go it alone—without GOD, without community, without anyone.

The truly amazing part is that we even have a choice.

Speaking: Palm Sunday and the liberation of Jesus

a Sermon for Palm Sunday A
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

palms - narrow

Photo Credit: Drew Downs

Something to Say

What would you say and how would you say it?

That was the basis of the writing exercise we did Wednesday night.* Imagine that you have a prime time block on TV on Thursday night; 50 million people are watching, you have a nearly unlimited budget, and freedom to make the program the way you want it to be.

  • What concern would you address? What change would you hope to see?
  • How would you communicate that message? A drama or a comedy? A reality show or documentary? A benefit concert or an update of a classic musical?

With this exercise, we were hoping to unlock our passion and purpose. And, of course, our creativity.

The root of Christianity is communication; communicating GOD’s purpose in the world and in our lives. Often, our problems come from our unwillingness to hear or see what GOD is doing, dreaming, or hoping for us. Or from our unwillingness to share what we hear or see. Our pain and our will so often get in the way.

The Message

Palm Sunday is all about communicating. Jesus has a message about GOD and about the Kingdom of God. He presents it as a visual contrast:

  • Pilate, entering Jerusalem at one end of the city with the visual reminders of political power: the flags, the soldiers, the warhorses. The city receives the might, dominance, aggression, supremacy of a Roman official who comes to the great city to oversee order during the Passover.
  • Jesus, entering Jerusalem differently, with the visual reminders of humility: the peasant clothes, the unwashed fisherman disciples, the donkey. Jerusalem receives humble, weak, patient, hope in the Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi who comes to expose the world’s greatest power for its true weakness.

Jesus has a message that contrasts with Rome’s. A message that is understood only when Roman and Jewish authorities are exposed. Only when the great city’s turmoil is revealed as sin; as not of GOD; as preventing the people from being in a healthy relationship with GOD.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil”. A city which spent the previous thousand years and would spend the succeeding two thousand years in near-perpetual turmoil. Constant conflict. Virtually never communicating GOD’s mission through a unified voice: the Kingdom of GOD is at hand.

Breaking Rome’s Message

Jesus’s message will shape the coming days. The Temple, the authorities, the disciples, the mission will be the wood of daily devotion, as Jesus builds His final statement, His elevator pitch. He will build the chair that will become His cross.

Still, for the carpenter, His mission, His masterwork is nearly complete.

The message Jesus communicates is so easy to us. Too easy. Peace. Freedom. Love. So often that message is filtered through Rome’s message of Peace (through war); Freedom (through order); Love (through hegemony and oppression). For Jesus to confront Rome on Rome’s terms is to abandon His message of peace, freedom, love. For peace through war is not peace, but war. Freedom through authoritarian rule and the fear of domination is not freedom, but tyranny. Love through hegemony and oppression is nothing at all like love. And nothing like the Good News.

In riding a donkey, Jesus shows the Kingdom of God, communicating the real character of the Kingdom; communicating what a true God (not Caesar) does to care for all the children. Love and sacrifice. Hope and trust.

Even in the midst of turmoil, a great cloud of witnesses forms to receive the Son of David, the unifier. He is a great prophet of humble origins. He is blessed by GOD! He has come to us! The crowds surround and compel Him.

Jesus Speaks

In focusing on the entrance to Holy Week, my hope is that we can stay in this moment longer. This space has Jesus’s hope and humility and purpose. It sets in motion the things that are to come, but these things can overpower the nature of what Jesus is doing. The tradition and the dogma dominate Jesus, turning Him into an object of belief and transform His story into a creed: the Romanizing of our very liberation!

What Jesus is doing instead is communicating a way of being. He shows us protest. He shows us conviction. He shows us what loving GOD looks like, including laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

This time of year, we are called to remember Jesus and live like Him, love like Him, pray and eat like Him. We are called to gather not like Rome or the Temple Authorities, but like Jesus and the disciples. We are called to be apostles, all of us, inheriting the mantles of our ancient ancestors who lived with, loved, and followed Jesus.

Despite His attempts to communicate we often misunderstand Jesus. He came to be with us. To be one of us. He came to learn from us and speak like we do. He came to play with us and help us and love us.

He isn’t a thing to be believed, but the person of our liberation. He is here! We are here! This is our Jerusalem!

 

*The exercise may be found in Lloyd Edwards’ Discerning Your Spiritual Gifts. It is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it.

Unbinding: emptying the tomb

a Sermon for Lent 5A
Text: John 11:1-45

picture of barbed wire

Photo Credit: manoftaste.de via Compfight cc

Preventing Death

Our story is almost over. Jesus is nearing Jerusalem. And in one final, glorious act, Jesus reveals the very thing He has come to do. A big show of great, inhuman power, in which the whole purpose of the mission is revealed.

For us to get there, we have to abandon our own blindness.

Martha, then Mary reveal the human confusion in Jesus’s mission; confusing prevention of death for an act of love. But we already know that “for God so loved the world.” To Jesus, prevention of death is not an act of love. Lazarus needs to die.

The text tells us that Lazarus’ death is needed to reveal GOD’s glory. We may then jump to the conclusion that his death is a pawn in a game; a ransom or exchange. That some eggs need to be cracked to make an omelette. Sorry Lazarus. We may see his death as a permanent sacrifice, intentional and meaningful; for a greater purpose.

But the necessity of Lazarus’s death is based not on permanence of physical death, but the temporary and subjective nature of true death. Jesus’s power is found not in preventing death, but in bringing life. It is not in intervening in Lazarus’s death, but giving him new life.

All those people Jesus heals in the gospels are given new life: restored to community and given a true life. It is a symbol of restoration, not prevention.

Protecting Ourselves

Clearly we confuse the nature of restoration. We talk as if Jesus would turn back time and return us to those greatest hits of our lives. Honor roll, graduation, wedding day, birth of children, whatever highlights flood back to us. Or when we could stand up straight, play tennis, sing, hear! That a God of reconciliation and restoration is in the business of preventing pain.

That our savior keeps us from dying—rather than saving us from the death we already possess.

We’re all bright enough to know that this isn’t literally true. Friends, spouses, children have died and we know that they knew the love of Christ.

So our blindness and unbelief comes out in other ways. That our families and churches and communities must be protected. That if Jesus truly loved us like we love Him, we would never die. Never suffer. Jesus wouldn’t sit there and wait, only to raise us from the dead later.

So wasteful. Painful. Intercede, Jesus! Keep me from feeling pain. Keep me from doubting you. We may be tempted to leave our family and friends because of grief. Go somewhere else. We might be happy there. Maybe.

We are promised a true life, not a permanent one. We are given gifts to share, not squander. We are saved, not protected. We are offered mission and certain death.

Restoring the Afflicted

Jesus arrives in Bethany, which means “House of the afflicted.” It is just two miles from Jerusalem. His death is immanent, days away. Like Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night in chapter 3 and the woman at the well running into Jesus at noon in chapter 4, the death and return of Lazarus is literarily bonded to Jesus’s death and restoration. No room for prevention. As Jesus says elsewhere to Peter when the disciple vows to prevent Jesus’s death: “Get behind me, Satan!” Lazarus is to die and be restored.

It isn’t about family or life or death. It isn’t about how much Martha and Mary love their brother or convince Jesus to perform a magic trick. It is about the glory of GOD being revealed. Lazarus is no prop. The stone is rolled away, Jesus calls Lazarus by name, and a risen man is revealed.

The man shuffles out, feet and hands bound by cloth. He needs to be freed. So Jesus calls for his freedom. “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, held captive to death, to the ritual of binding the dead to permanent rest, prevented by the living to live again.

The people are told to unbind him and let him go. Perhaps still bound by their obsession with permanence; forced to remain shackled by expectations, even in death.

Jesus reveals what GOD does: unbind and restore. And what is to happen next will reveal that truth to everyone. After Jesus dies He will be unbound, then let go.

Unbinding

Lent invites us to an annual reminder of our regular need to learn and be restored. That the Christian purpose is to restore the world. A world fractured by division, bitterness, and greed, long before us. A world bound by human rituals of death and imprisonment. Jesus returns to remind us “Unbind him and let him go.” Like Elsa in Frozen, we are told to “let it go.”

The hang ups and the hurt. Let it go.
The judgment and criticism. Let it go.
The need to control everything and make it the way we want. Let it go.

We aren’t saved, we are being saved.
The GOD mission isn’t done until we complete it.
No one retires from ministry as long as Lazarus is bound. As long as Jesus is bound. Stuck in that tomb. Where we can blame one another for our problems. When we do that, the tomb is still full of the dead. The buried.

Let Jesus go. Unbind Him and let Him go.

The funny thing is that Jesus cannot be bound. Jesus is fulfilling the mission whether we’re here to do it or not. If St. Paul’s won’t do it, Jesus will find others to do it. Because Jesus isn’t bound by us (He can’t be).

Our work is not to preserve St. Paul’s. It is to restore the world.

We must let Him go. For next we follow Him to Jerusalem.

 

 

 

Say Goodbye, Mr. Snow Pile

what is left of the snow pile

Once you were mighty. Now, not so much.

I know you were the biggest snow pile by my home in years. A mountain, really. Quite powerful and treacherous. Mighty.

You lasted, and grew through the winter.

And I see you are still holding out hope. Your friends have all gone. It’s just you now. Your former glory: a memory.

You don’t have much left.

Don’t worry. I won’t forget you. Never. I promise.

But now it’s time to go. You need to let go and be free. This is goodbye, Mr. Snow Pile. Be with your snowy loved ones.

Leaving the Cave: seeing, believing, and true power

a Sermon for Lent 4A
Text: John 9:1-41

Plato’s Cave

In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher introduces a strange scenario in which a prisoner is trapped in a cave. The prisoner knows nothing of the world as we know it. He’s stuck in one place, staring straight ahead for a long, long time.

Behind him is a fire, which casts shadows on the wall. The prisoner can see only the shadows. In fact, they are the only thing in his world that moves. People carry things behind him and the light of the fire makes these objects, and not the people, visible in shadow.

When the prisoner hears things, he begins to make the connection between the sound and the shadow. He makes the intellectual leap and comes to believe that the shadows themselves make the sounds.

Then the prisoner is set free. He can turn around and see the fire. The objects. The world as he knew it is different, but he doesn’t understand it. The fire is hot and bright and it hurts. But nothing like what he experiences when he leaves the cave.

Outside, the world is enormous. Limitless. The sun provides much more light than the fire in the cave. So much moves. When he goes back inside the cave, he can begin to make sense of what he has seen. But he can’t return to who he was.

Freedom

We are introduced to a man living in a sort of cave. He was born blind. Jesus comes, spits on the dirt, making a muddy paste, like clay. He rubs the clay in the man’s eyes and tells him to go and clean himself up. Then he’ll be able to see.

Freed from this prison, the man slowly begins to understand. He doesn’t just go from seeing the world in darkness to light, but he goes from misunderstanding the nature of the world to understanding who has come to redeem it.

This man isn’t the only prisoner, set free to see the world with new eyes. Everyone in the story has been set free. Unfortunately, they struggle to leave the cave, afraid of the light. And the light of Christ.

Staying Stuck

We see in the cave itself, a place where the real and the imagined collide. The prisoner reasons the best he can that the sounds he hears are made by what he can observe. From the confines of the prison and the existence as prisoner, this makes a great deal of sense. And having these truths, developed over time, challenged by something new or different really does hurt. Observing the fire, the source of all these images doesn’t ring immediately true.

All humans fight the revelation of truth. Studies reveal that we are more likely to believe wrongly after given statistical evidence to the contrary. In other words, we believe more when we’re proven wrong. We reject proof so easily, we can call it part of human nature.

The physical world, then; the place in which we can best observe and associate, much like the man in the cave; becomes the source of our greatest conflict. The man was blind. Now he isn’t. In the physical world, there is no solution that makes sense.

So they/we retreat. Afraid. We don’t know how this will effect what we believe. So we reject it.

Tradition

At the beginning of the story, it isn’t only the Pharisees that are confused by the healing. It is the disciples, too. Not just the story’s bad guys, but the good guys. If it strikes the bad guys and the good guys, then it is time to admit that it is everyone’s problem.

They ignore the healing, the good thing, the saving, the reuniting and reconciling, the work, the missio dei that has occurred right here. Everyone (except the formerly blind man) misses it. Why? They’re obsessed with the physical and who to blame. No time to celebrate—we’re busy assigning blame. So what if the man can see and the laws of nature have been manipulated by the Son of Man—I want to know who sinned in the first place.

Tradition hates the truth. It is too busy with details: the hows, the whos, and the whys. If he heals, it must be good. If he does it on the Sabbath, he must be evil. If he is blind, he must have deserved it. We’re in power, so we must be better than they are. The poor deserve it because GOD must like it that way. All of this blaming and judging prevent the people from seeing. This is the proof that we are blind.

In the story, the people get evidence of the miracle, and yet they continue to resist. They refuse to exit the cave. They reject revelation in their midst. Remember, these people represent the religious world—its authorities and its cultural expectations. For us, in our time, we have watched the end of Christendom: when Christianity was not only the favored, but the ruling religion. Blind to its problems. Oblivious to the way it breaks its own rules and rejects its own Christ. Protected its own interests, even when children were abused and minorities were lynched. For God, of course.

The One Who Believes

What a great image this troubling story ends up giving us, however. The smart, the capable, the leaders and future leaders, are all still blind. But this man is able to see. Not just physically, but spiritually. He comes to get it. And we see, when the Pharisees come back, trying to get more info about Jesus and his response is either purely naïve or delightfully edgy:

“I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Because the true power of this story is not in the mud rubbing or magic tricks. It is that this man who had yet to actually see Jesus in the text was telling the world about him. Because giving and hearing the testimony of one who believes is related to becoming a disciple. Like the woman at the well, who told the people of her city and they came to believe through her.

This isn’t about hearing or seeing only. It isn’t about the physical or the rational. It isn’t about how much we believe or how we put it into words so much as how we share it. How we gather and how much of ourselves we give to it.

We are free to leave the cave, to see, as if for the first time. But we have to allow our eyes to adjust without giving up. We have to trust that we’ll be able to make sense of what we see and that GOD is still with us. Just as it was promised. Always with us. Trying to save us. Even if we are trapped in the prison of our own making.

I hear them: Lizzie and the talking dead

Lizzie claimed she could hear them speaking. They called to her. They conversed. They wanted to play tag.

The frightening psychological undercurrent of “The Grove” on The Walking Dead, which I spoke to last week, still lingers with me.

I was reminded again as I read this humorous reflection on the zombie church by John C. O’Keefe: Lent and the Zombie Apocalypse.

And yet, there is something terribly unfunny and tragic about our willingness to think that the zombies talk to us–that we are to listen. As if communication is truly what they are after. Sometimes, the most destructive thing we can do is to pretend that the person seeking to eat our brains should receive easy access to our ears. Yesssss…bring it real close…that’s it.

Chomp!

From Night to Day: reconciling, faith, and the Kingdom walk

a Homily for Lent 3A
Text: John 4:5-42

The Story

Our scene turns from Nicodemus, who seeks Jesus at night to an unnamed woman who stumbles upon him in the middle of the day. I think we are supposed to juxtapose these contrasting characters from chapters 3 and 4. Night/Day. Man/Woman. Named/Nameless. Leader/Commoner. Insider/Outsider. Hebrew/Samaritan. So many differences.

And so much story. I’d understand if you lost track in the middle. Here’s my recap:
Jesus has to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. His followers get hungry and take off. Jesus sits by a well that happens to be the one where Jacob met Rachel. A woman comes up and scandalously converses with this foreign man (alone), discovering (of course) that he isn’t a normal man. The woman goes back and tells everybody; they want to see Jesus for themselves. Disciples return with food. Jesus tells them the true food is ready to be harvested right here. The townspeople meet Jesus and invite him to stick around. He does; for 2 more days.

Big story. Lots of dialogue. And big ideas. Which makes for a pretty cool story of relationships, Jesus, and the mission Jesus is on. We could certainly spend hours on this. Which we won’t [don't worry]. But what makes this story sing is the back story and what they are there to do.

The Back Story

Jacob has 12 sons. And 3,000 years ago, there were 12 tribes. Of course that’s on purpose. These tribes were united under two kingdoms and then, under King David, they became one. Under David’s son, Solomon, they remained a united kingdom. Then, upon Solomon’s death, they fought and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded. Then, two hundred years later, in 730 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom, where the Samaritans are in Jesus’s time.

One of the favorite tactics of conquerors to this day is to replace the identity of the conquered with their own. And one way they do this is by genetically altering the populace. Or, less politely, they rape the women. The children the local women bear are now 1/2 like them. The next set will be 3/4. Then 7/8. And so on. The Assyrians didn’t know the biology of that, of course. But they could see it in the skin, their complexions, the hair of their offspring. All visible genetic markers.

Through this, the Samaritans clung to their identity. They were Children of Jacob. Worshippers of a GOD revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then to Moses and Aaron as YHWH (or Yahweh). The God of the Hebrews as told in the ancient stories. Victims of abuse and occupation, then othered by their brothers, the Hebrews. Those Samaritans.

Not pure-blooded, the Samaritans were considered ethnically-mixed and foreign. Even one drop of blood makes them a different race. Lesser. Other. The Hebrews felt justified in destroying the Samaritans’ Holy Mountain and site of worship, much like the Romans would destroy the occupied Hebrew’s Temple some 40 years after Jesus. The evils of prejudice are revealed within our friends and foes alike.

The Well

Then we have the well. The well is important to this story because this is the well where Jacob first sees his beloved Rachel. Where he gives her sheep water. Where she invites Jacob back to meet her father. A well of love and peace. Where a foreigner named Jacob is reunited with his people. Jacob is the displaced foreigner, living in someone else’s land in Canaan. Laban and his daughters are the insiders. The whole family is reunited in marriage.

We are supposed to see Jesus as Jacob. He, this displaced foreigner, reuniting the whole family through water, with a drink from the well.

And this nameless woman is Rachel. As Jacob is named Israel by GOD and Rachel weeps for all of their children as her own, even those born to her sister and their servants. In Jeremiah 31 GOD responds to Rachel’s tears with comfort:

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,

says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

The children will come home.

The Disciples

When the disciples return with food, Jesus teaches them about where real food comes from. That GOD tills the soil, plants the seeds, waters and keeps them, and months later, the vegetables burst through the soil, ready to be picked. He says to them that here, in the land of their half-breed enemies, GOD long ago tilled and planted and watered and kept these people. And now the disciples are called to harvest. Now, not later.

What he is trying to tell them is: Forget what your parents told you. What your teachers told you. What your leaders, like Nicodemus told you. These are GOD’s people and you are called to bring unity. The harvest is ready now.

When Jesus speaks to His disciples, He does so with the understanding that they are the xenophobic bigots they were raised to be. Their culture has lost no sleep othering their own people: brothers and sisters, born of Jacob (and his four wives). He tells them that this is their work: reconciling the separated. For this place that our Moms and Dads told us to avoid is the very place GOD has planted and we are to harvest.

This story speaks to much of our bigoted past and present. It speaks of a culture to which we are complicit. We, a nation of immigrants, rejecting today’s immigrants. Bias against people who are culturally different in any perceivable way: in race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, political affiliation, economic status, education, self-expression. Our many biases are on constant display.

And yet, if we are following Jesus, we find ourselves, always in foreign territory, miles from home, even when we walk to church. For Jesus never stays where it is safe. He goes. And we are to follow. Even if its where our parents refused to take us. Our heavenly parent is driving us. Through Samaria, the dangerous mission field, then on to Jerusalem, a much more dangerous place.

For in GOD, the Kingdom is not only united, it is unity itself. It is not 12 tribes living as different kingdoms with different boundaries. It is one. The Kingdom of GOD.

Lent, the season we’re in now, is about reconciliation and becoming aware of redemption and unity. It is about our becoming mindful of what breaks us apart and what brings us all together.

Like the twelve brothers selling one of their own into slavery, GOD brought the eleven to Joseph. So we, the privileged and comfortable are brought to a new land, our own Egypt that we might be saved. That we, the foreign occupiers might remember our displacement and how we continue to displace our brothers and sisters.

We are reminded because GOD loves us. GOD wants us. In spite of our bigotry and hatred. Or our selfishness and fear. We are called to come together. We are called to listen. Above all, we are called to love. Love from our woundedness. Love as Rachel loves all her children. Love in the place we live, even if our parents would hate to see it. Love as parents love children. As GOD loves us. All of us.