Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Incongruity

Sermon notes for Easter, 2014.

Nearly fifteen years ago this autumn, my wife and I both arrived in the Bay Area within weeks of each other from two very different parts of the world. But it didn’t matter if you came from western Japan or the American heartland: the Bay Area was just as expensive and roiling with newcomers scrambling all over each other to get it while the getting was good. Some of you will remember the dot com bubble, and perhaps some of you, like me, find our current milieu eerily similar.

It seems we live again in a familiarly cynical, self-absorbed time. Business-as-usual involves 101 turning into a parking lot twice a day, sky-rocketing housing prices, old neighborhoods being rapidly gentrified by bidding wars, and an almost palpable feeling that you’d better get yours while the getting’s good.

It always strikes me during Holy Week and into Easter how incongruous, how out-of-step our observance of these high holiest days of the Christian year appear against the backdrop of Southern Marin and the wider Bay Area. And this year felt conspicuously incongruous, as stopping for time only to think about where we are headed and why might just lose us the race. Even more would stopping from business-as-usual long enough to think about a God who dared to risk everything for us – even death on a cross.

To paraphrase another passage of Christian scripture, the cross is foolishness to the world. Resurrection more so. A society of winners and losers depends on the certainty of death and a kind of inevitability for the victors. That is how the world is built and maintained. Even if we don’t always see it, we feel it in our exhaustion and uneasiness with the present time and how it distracts us from the warmth and beauty of a spring day, or the scents of the flowers, or dulls and anesthetizes us from the pain and wonder of those priceless gifts the world has not yet invented a way to commoditize: love, generosity, and compassion.

And yet we are here. Like Jesus’ first disciples at the tomb.

Those first followers gathered at Jesus’ tomb must have also felt – to the core of their being – the sudden incongruity of their lives with business-as-usual. Business-as-usual meant the Sabbath in Jerusalem was over, and much of the population was back at work for a new week. The religious authorities were poring over their latest dust-up with a charismatic pretender who had threatened both their tightly held traditions and their fragile economic/political agreement with the Roman occupation. But fragile as it was, they had come to rely on it for their prestige and power. And with the death of Jesus and the dispersion of his followers, that fragile alliance would hold. Pilate, governor of the occupation, and the garrisons under him had just executed another criminal and rabble-rouser: probably one of many during his tenure. Crucifixion was always a handy way to frighten and shame the locals into line and get rid of threats to the Pax Romana at the same time. So the tribute to Rome from this dusty, irascible, little country in the backwaters of empire would keep flowing for the foreseeable future. The Roman occupation could start a new week resting on its laurels that the drama of the weekend was satisfactorily resolved. They had done their jobs, and business could go on as usual.

But not so for the disciples at the tomb. They had planted their lives in a different garden, in an economic and sociological dead-end, a graveyard far outside the halls of power – about as far away as you could get. Jesus had taught them not to base their lives, their essence and hearts, on the rat race as they had known it. And much good that did them. Now they were far beyond the reach of the comfort of business-as-usual, stuck with a dead teacher, prophet, rabbi, and friend. And who needs a dead Messiah? They didn’t. And even if they had the imagination and savvy to turn him into a political martyr, his closest supporters and friends were scattered in fear, with no political alliances to leverage with any effect. In the tomb with Jesus was the dead barest beginnings of a revolution called “the kingdom of God.” The kingdoms of the world had defeated the Jesus revolution, cutting it down even before it had a chance to fully take root, crushing it under the heel of human empire, the well-practiced art of manipulating the mob, and the weighty, inevitable structures of economic and military hegemony.

And so imagine their surprise when they find the tomb empty, the stone rolled away!

When Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Christ, how can she but mistake him as the gardener? That would be business-as-usual: the only expected stranger we might encounter in the company of the tombs and the dead.

It will take her, and Jesus’ other followers, a moment—or more than a few – for them to perceive the Risen Christ. And it will take a whole community to help us realize what the resurrection means…

God in the Risen Christ tells us it will no longer be business-as-usual. Something fundamental has changed, and God has broken into the world, rolling away the stones of tombs and ushering new life for the dead. The race the world offers is unmasked and emptied of its power over us. We are offered a different kind of life: one not rooted in fear, death, and competition of a cynical and self-absorbed age. Instead we are offered a life that conquers fear and death with abiding compassion, love for others, and unimaginable grace. So the question for us this Easter, then, is this:

Will we decide to continue business-as-usual? Or will we look where the women of the Gospel looked: into the margins, the graveyards, the dead ends of our lives and souls and those of others? Perhaps the incongruity of the broken bread and the common cup will awaken us this Easter to discover Christ rising to new life, the Jesus revolution arising again among us. Perhaps we will uncover our calling again as Christians to “turn the whole world upside down” in ways the world cannot understand, recognize, nor ably oppose.

The weapons of the Jesus revolution, after all, are not fear, guns and steel; nor are they venture capital, hedge funds, and technological innovation.  They are instead compassion, generosity, forbearance, forgiveness, and that wild peace in the face of death that resurrection engenders: a peace that signals our freedom from the final tool the world employs against us, death itself. And these priceless Easter virtues are here for the taking. Will you take them up again?

We remember today this promise: we are first and foremost an Easter people. This world will pass away, just as did the Roman Empire and many kingdoms since. Jesus lives forever. And so, then, might our truest selves born anew in him: our Easter selves, fresh as the spring, fragrant as the flowers, powerful as the seasons, and given as new life for everyone.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Good Friday Project

Sermon Notes Good Friday, 2014

Good Fridays were always busy for my family. As a high schooler, I remember hearing the passion according to John’s gospel in our little mission church, and then driving up the road from McPherson, Kansas, to Lindsborg, where my parents and I would play in the annual performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was, at one level, my first acquaintance with the distinctions between two biblical renditions of the passion narrative. It was, at another level, finding a way to really begin to grapple with the texts at the very heart of our religious tradition. As a youth, Bach’s musical treatment of the passion always moved me, as he would capture the emotion of each verse and repeat it in glorious counterpoint passing between orchestral sections and the double choir. . . until its meaning sank into the very depths of the soul. It was, you might say, a striking example of eighteenth-century lectio divina.

I remember my first Good Friday without playing in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a capstone, and how empty I felt without it. Recovering a sense of deep engagement with the passion narrative then became part of my struggle to grow up spiritually, to grow up in faith.

Richard Rohr argues, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. . . Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust.”

Good Friday is precisely about all these things, and no amount of theology seems to get us beyond the absurd, tragic, the nonsensical, and the unjust nature of the passion. And yet, it is tempting as we have often done in the Western Church: to simply project all of that onto Jesus, call it redemptive, and then go home. But that, we all learn sooner or later, is not enough.

One of the great steps in my own journey was to reflect in recent years with my spiritual director on my own pain and suffering. At a critical point in that conversation, I finally said out loud – with more than a little trepidation after years of ordained ministry – that I had learned my pain and suffering were nothing compared with others’.

“Yes,” he replied, “but it is still your suffering and pain.” No one else’s. Just as much in need of redemption as anyone else’s. And no amount of undertaking the odious task of comparing my suffering with others’, or denying it, or looking for the right pill – spiritual or otherwise – to take it all away would accomplish that.

Until we are ready and willing to see the cross as God’s identification with our own suffering, individual and shared, we will not get past treating Jesus as only a mere scapegoat, only a cosmic carrier of our sins. Jesus’ suffering, much as we often misapprehend our own prayers and theology, is not a simple substitute for ours. Good Friday always ran the risk of turning into an abstraction for me: the next step in completing a theological formula that would perhaps end all my heartache and pain. But reality ultimately confronts and challenges our abstract notions about salvation. Most of us learn through the trials of experience that no matter how much we focus on Jesus’ suffering or think about it, it doesn’t take away our own. I often wonder if this isn’t an unspoken reason that many people leave the church or abandon Christianity all together. At our worst moments, the Church has sometimes behaved no better than snake oil salesmen, promising relief if you buy the mythical magic formula.

But we must learn that Jesus’ suffering is not some great cosmic talisman to ward off our pain. And the Church is not a simple pharmacy where we pick up our medicine and then go home and follow the prescription.

No, Christ’s suffering faces and transforms ours. In the old language, his redeems ours. His takes on the absurdity, tragedy, nonsense, and the injustice of our lives and makes it – sometimes with great endurance and sweat – all something holy. Through the cross, he takes the awful pain and messiness of this life and infuses it with meaning, purpose, and transformational power. And if we let the cross do this work in our lives, it not only transforms us, but turns us into true Christians, ready to help transform the pain and suffering of others. That is what we might call the project of Good Friday – a project that begins with Jesus, and into which each of us is called. We have been, of course, very much like the disciples, running away in fear and denial. And yet the cross remains: our invitation to become part of the mighty salvific act that God is offering all of humanity in Christ.

As a healthy religion, our tradition of the cross encourages us to offer our pain to God. Sometimes it will be relieved. Sometimes it will remain. But either way, the promise is that it will be transformed into grace for us. As a great religion, our tradition of the cross offers us a pathway to transform the suffering of others as well. Sometimes we will be able to relieve that suffering. Sometimes we will not. But either way, the cross calls us into the transformative acts of compassion that end the loneliness that suffering engenders. We then carry it together, lightening the load for one another. And God in Christ carries all of us together.
In that way, we see that our suffering is shared, and ultimately made holy. In that, we partake in God’s sharing with us in Christ, broken in the bread, poured out in the common cup. All that has blighted our life, then, is re-purposed for redemption. Our suffering is like Jesus’, and his like ours: offered out of love rather than resisted or denied in fear. And our life, like Jesus’, becomes an offering poured out for all the needs of others.

Recovering a deep engagement with the passion narratives for me began with recovering a fuller sense of my own pain and suffering, my need to see that redeemed, and my choosing to actively participate in that redemption. And that is where we all begin again together on Good Friday: at the cross, with the suffering of Christ identifying with our own, remembering our place on the cross with him, and seeing in his eyes our own reflected back. . . and through them, a God who loves us so earnestly that no part of us is beyond the renewing, life-giving touch of the divine.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Stubborn Salvation

Sermon Notes for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A


Most of us gingerly dip our toes in the waters of faith through hope. I hope there is more than this life. I hope the virtues like love and fidelity are worth it. I hope death is not the end. Hope is given as a Christian virtue, of course, but I find it somewhat remarkable that I can’t come up with a single verse in any of the gospels that Jesus commands us to hope. It’s only a word that appears in his absence or expected presence.

And so we come to another of the great “I am” statements in John this day – John’s rewriting of the familiar and ancient Torah, beginning with the creation narrative, disclosing as he did to us last week that by working in Jesus, God has not yet arrived at the seventh day sabbath rest… and this day recounting another play on the “I am” of the burning bush, the divine disclosure of being both primordial and eternal, both transcendent and imminent, both wholly other and fully present.

The focus is on the stinking tomb of Lazarus, that festering wasteland of death that haunts so many of our worst fears and wrecked dreams. John does not hesitate to ladle every possible oppositional force into the story, reminding us that Christ, the Word of God’s great “I am…” is up against every conceivable human obstacle.

On discussing making the journey to Judea, the disciples are rightly worried their teacher is walking into the inevitable, deadly trap of the religious and Roman authorities in the Jerusalem orbit. Thomas, ever the realist bordering on cynicism, offers resigning snark worthy of twenty-first century:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John must want us to feel the inevitability in this story we all feel about the finalities of this life, the surrender to forces beyond our control, the undeniable reality of our suffering and the press of death.

Mary is too grief-stricken to greet her friend and savior. Martha, the more pragmatic of the two sisters meets Jesus with a thinly veiled accusation:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…”

followed by a thin sliver of hope:

“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

But when Jesus offers unwavering assurance that her brother will rise again, Martha retreats to an abstraction about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, somewhere off in a murky future where hope for a struggling life might find some projected justification. The present suffering of loss –a brother, breadwinner, and kin companion in life’s brief journey gone – is just too much for hope to bear.

And so it is for Jesus when he arrives at the tomb and weeps with his companions. John compels us to consider a God who does not will our suffering or plan it to test us or use it to punish us, but rather who enters into it with us. This is a dangerous God who is not manipulated by clever prayers or incantations or pleased by the bribes of priests or even by our most righteous piety. This is a God who suffers with us, sheds tears, breaks with our hearts, and feels the gnawing reality of our finitude. This is a God who knows our limited vision, the real humility of our impotence, and the uncertainties that grind away at even the most vibrant faith.

This is a God who risks all danger to be with us at the very end, in the dark and bitter deaths we all inevitable experience.

And, a bit like Ezekiel, Jesus, when confronted with the undeniably dead and dry bones of every broken dream, promise, and ended life, does not respond to the question, “Can these bones live?” with a tepid “I hope so.”

Hope is not enough, at least not as we understand it these days as a shrug in the face of all human limitation. Instead, Christ, like Ezekiel, surrenders to the sublime power of the Creator: “Oh, Lord God, you know.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” God in Christ says to a hopeful Martha and to us in the sacraments, at our deathbed, in our suffering, and in our darkest hour of despair. So stubborn is our promised salvation, it will not yield to our tepid hope or our deepest hopelessness. So stubborn is God’s love for us, it will not be confined to platitudes or vague projections about an afterlife. So stubborn is the resurrection that Jesus embodies, we can only respond with the silence of Lazarus as we are raised from our own stinking tombs, and ordered set free by the great I AM.