Monday, April 30, 2007

Shepherd and Lamb: a Sermon for Easter 4C

“Shepherd and Lamb”
Revelation 7:9-17
April 29, 2007, Easter 4C

Every so often a reading comes along in the lectionary cycle, which cause us to sit up and take notice. For the last three weeks the lectionary has offered selections from what is probably the most hotly debated book in the bible, the book of Revelation, and this morning, we are going to bite.

But first, we have to ask ourselves, exactly how are we going to approach this text? My introduction to Revelation came when I was about 13 years old, and someone gave me a copy of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late, Great Planet Earth—which has been reissued, I noticed recently, in packaging that makes it look suspiciously like those behemoth best-sellers, the Left Behind series. And it is the Left Behind approach—an outlook theologians call “premillennial dispensationalism”—that predominates popular conversation about Revelation, at least, if the sales figures are to be believed. This is the approach that reads Revelation as, essentially, a blueprint for the end of history. But this is just one approach to Revelation (and a relatively recent one at that—it sprung up in the 1830's). There have been a number of other approaches throughout Christian history, and they all deserve at least as much airplay as the LaHaye/ Jenkins version.

One way of looking at Revelation is that it is a description, in code, of first century Christianity struggling to survive in the midst of the hostile Roman Empire. Seen through this lens, the reader can try to match the grand metaphors of the text to the historical events of that era. That’s one approach. But Revelation can also be seen as a kind of mythic/poetic dreamscape, a kind of diary of the journey of the human soul towards Christ. Looked at this way, it is an intensely personal document about its author—but it is also an invitation to each reader to find our own dreamscape, our own journey to Christ. That’s another approach. Finally, Revelation can be seen as a lens through which to interpret all of human history. Viewed in this way, you could say that it is a story about empire and oppressed religious minorities—a story we see playing itself out over and over again.

However we approach Revelation, we would do well to heed the advice of Annie Dillard and lash ourselves to our seats and put on our crash helmets. The text is explosive, filled with whiplash-inducing turns of phrase, and maddeningly obscure and double-edged symbols—despite the fact that this book is called by a name that means “revealing.”

So here we go. We open to our passage, and find that we are stumbling into the middle of a worship service—and we all know how that feels. Awkward! Where shall I sit? Will I know what to do and when to do it? I take a bulletin and try to slip unobtrusively into a pew. And, there is such a huge crowd at this worship servive—countless multitudes, we are told—that hiding out just might be possible. Every race and language and tribe is present and accounted for, and they are all robed in white—like Jesus when he stood atop the mountain and was transfigured, or like the angels at the empty tomb. And they all hold palm branches, just like those crowds of nobodies who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They cry out in a loud voice—imagine the roar of the crowd of ten New Orleans’ Superdomes. They are saying; “Salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb.”

There was possibly nothing that so confused me as a little child growing up Christian as the image of Jesus, the Lamb of God. I am sure I was limited by my context: I grew up in suburbia, with no direct contact with anything remotely bucolic or agricultural. My experiences of “lamb” were twofold. First, Lamb Chop, the little puppet hoarsely voiced by Shari Lewis, and second, that item we sometimes had for dinner with mint jelly. So to be in a worship situation and hear Jesus praised as the “Lamb of God” was truly puzzling to me.

I imagine if you grew up on a farm, or, perhaps within walking distance of the Temple in Jerusalem, you might have a different take. You might instinctively know things about lambs that make this image more comprehensible. It wasn’t until years ago, when I read the following story, that I began to get a glimmer of the meaning of this symbol. I imagine this story has been retold in many a sermon. It’s about a Methodist college chaplain who had an unexpected opportunity to learn something about the “Lamb of God.”

The chaplain [was] driving one day across the eastern part of Washington State. He was forced to stop when a large herd of sheep was being shepherded across the road. As he waited, watching the sheep, the phrase "Lamb of God" drifted through his mind. Seized with the notion, he leapt from his car and bounded up to the shepherd and asked, "What does ‘Lamb of God’ mean to you?

The shepherd was initially startled by the abrupt question from this total stranger, but sensing a level of sincerity, he looked the chaplain squarely in the eye and answered, "I know exactly what 'Lamb of God' means."

"Each year at lambing time, there are lambs and ewes which do not make it. A ewe whose lamb has died is filled with milk, but will not nourish any…lamb she does not recognize as her own. An orphaned lamb could starve because no ewe will accept and nourish it. So the shepherd takes the dead lamb, slits its throat, and pours its blood over the body of the living lamb. Recognizing the blood, the ewe will now nurse, and save the orphaned lamb."

The Lamb of God. This image has something fundamental to do with God taking us in, as orphan lambs might be taken in, and nourishing us. And behold, in one of those whiplash-causing turns of phrase I warned you about, our passage tells us that the multitudes “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”

There is more, though. There is more than animal husbandry going on in these images. We notice, at this surreal worship service, that the Lamb is at the center of the throne—and not only that: we are told the Lamb will be the people’s shepherd. This worship service is getting a little tough to follow. How can we keep up with all theses strange reversals?

We heard Psalm 23 this morning, read and sung for us, so beautifully. This is an image—God as Shepherd—that makes so much more sense to us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—who leads us to green pastures and beside still waters, who gives us rest and anoints our scarred and battered faces and hearts with healing balm. In this image, we are the sheep; we are the lambs! And we are more or less comfortable with that notion.

First century Christians knew the image of the Good Shepherd, as it related to God. But they had another, more mixed association. The king was known as the shepherd of the people. And by the time Jesus walked the earth, by the time the dynasty of the Herods arose, this was an ambiguous image at best. The kings, in a long line back through Ahab and right to the sons of David, had not led the people well. The kings had allowed their desire to amass power to be their overriding concern, ahead of the worship of God, ahead of the good of all the people. The kings had served their own needs and ends, and the people had suffered.

But now, Jesus, the Lamb, will be their Shepherd. And this is a notion so radical, a reversal so colossal, it is hard for us to properly appreciate it. The lamb is powerless. The lamb is totally dependent on others for its care. The lamb is for sacrifice, or for consumption, or for both. To say that Jesus is the Lamb is to say that God allowed Godself to be totally emptied of divine power. To say that Jesus is the Lamb is to say that God identifies with, and stands alongside, the utterly powerless.

The image of Jesus as Lamb of God is a beacon of comfort to those in pain, those in distress, those who are victims of powers and systems they cannot hope to battle or even to protest. People like the early Christians—those multitudes we are standing with, awkwardly, at this strange worship service, those who have whitened their robes with blood. People like the more than two million men, women and children who have been displaced from their homes in Darfur, and who now live in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad. People like the 37 million Americans who live below the poverty line, and who, because of mental illness, disability, addiction, crime, institutional racism, and lack of education, are stuck there. People like those who lived for a nightmarish few days in the New Orleans Superdome. People like those whose doctors turn to them with a CT scan report in one hand and a slightly embarrassed look in their eyes, saying, “I’m so sorry.” All these people know what it is to be utterly powerless. And all these people might, they just might find consolation in the idea of a God who allowed himself to be powerless too.

What does it mean for us to believe in a God who stands firmly alongside the powerless? For one thing, it might mean that we are called to do the same. There is a professor on this campus who defends the people no one wants to befriend—those on death row. In addition to arguing their cases before circuit courts of appeal or the Supreme Court of the United States, he goes to their mothers’ homes, their children’s baptisms and high school graduations. And for some of them, he stands on the other side of the plexiglass partition as they breathe their last.

Not every Christian is called to that particular ministry. But all around us, all around us, people are going through their own ordeals. Maybe you know someone who is suffering with depression, or someone whose addictive behaviors worry you. In the name of the Lamb, God may be calling you to be with that person. Maybe you know someone who is going through a terrible break-up, or who is in a life or death struggle to remain in their program of study. In the name of the powerless one, God may be calling you to accompany them on this leg of their journey. Maybe you know someone who is battling a terrible, unfair illness. In the name of the one who stands with us, God may be calling you to stand with them.

We can probably take off our crash helmets and undo our seatbelts now. Because whether we view it on a cosmic scale or on an intensely personal one, the book of Revelation is finally, simply, about God’s love for us. That’s all. That worship service we stumbled into is going to continue, day and night, because, like a Good Shepherd, the Lamb promises to provide the people with all they need—to lead them to green pastures and beside still waters, to give them rest and anoint their scarred and battered faces and hearts with healing balm. In the end, it’s all about the love of God for us… the radical, world-altering love of God that promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes, even as we wipe the tears away from one another’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Birth Day

I turned 46 years old this morning at approximately 7:15 AM... I think. I know most of what I know about my birthday from my adoptive parents. For example, though my birth mother recalls my being born as the sun rose, my Mom always clocked it at 7:15: the moment when she got the call. That's when I was "born" as far as she was concerned.

I think that's fair.

My longing for what I believed was a relationship with my birth mother began in my mid twenties. I had always taken the party line, that is, the position I instinctively knew my (adoptive) parents hoped I would take: that adoptees shouldn't/ needn't know their birth parents, that the parents who raised me were my "real" parents, that looking for birth parents might prove an intrusion into their lives that would be unacceptable.

Then, when I was 25 and married and thinking about starting a family, I had the following dream: the family friend who had helped to arrange my adoption took me to the city where I was born to meet my birth mother. We met at a "mom and pop" grocery store (!), which also had booths, presumably for sandwiches from the deli. In the dream my birth mother was indistinct-- I couldn't see her, or make out her features. What I did see was my own shadow on the wall. As I looked at my shadow, I thought, "I'm pretty, and I'm nice. Why didn 't she want me?" I awakened in tears, and I knew that, sooner or later, I would begin to search in earnest.

In the state where I was adopted, the law (at least in the late 80's and early 90's) required the consent of all three parties in order to open adoption records: the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents. It didn't matter whether I was 19 or 91, if any of the three parties objected, I had no legal right to see my original birth certificate or to learn the identity of my birth parents. That meant I had to ask my parents to sign a letter giving their permission. It is one of the hardest conversations I ever had with them-- harder by far than when I told them I was getting a divorce. But they took a leap of faith in love, and signed a letter I had prepared. I submitted a packet requesting the files be opened, and waited for the surrogate court to do its work.

About two months after I made my request I received a phone call from a woman at the courthouse. They had obtained my birth certificate, and called directory assistance in the sate of my birth mother's last known residence. They got three numbers with the same unusual German surname, dialed the first one, and got my blood uncle, who wept upon hearing who was calling. He called his sister, my birth mother, and, shortly thereafter, I received my phone call from the court clerk, followed by a letter from my birth mother to "Katherine Mary" (the name she had given me). I called her a few days after receiving it.

I wish I could write of a happily ever after reunion, the sense of my half-self being cured and made whole. I wish I could say that my longing for what I thought was a relationship with my birth mother was fulfilled, and I continued through life satisfied with this relationship, at last, intact. The woman I met was similar to me in body type, with the same blue eyes. Like me, she is a singer, though she has a big clear soprano-- much like my daughter's-- to my chocolatey mezzo. Like me, she is religiously inclined, though she has remained true to the Roman Catholic faith of her childhood. Like me, she is a writer (though she tends to poetry while I, of course, tend to sermons).

But the truth is that she feels like a somewhat distant relative, one whom I know loves me a great deal, but one for whom I don't have a great mother shaped hole in my heart. My mother died a year and several months ago, and no one-- not even the woman who carried me in her womb for nine months-- can replace her.

Today my birth mother called me to tell me some news. My youngest half-sister (I have two, and three half-brothers) gave birth today, on my birthday, to her firstborn son. He is a boy. His name is Gabriel: man of God.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cry, Cry, Cry: A Sermon for Sunday April 22, 2007

“Cry, Cry, Cry”
Revelation 21:1-6; Romans 12:9-21
April 22, 2007

When I was in seminary I took my daughter to see “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim musical, which was then running in revival on Broadway. It is a play which cobbles together a bunch of well-known and not-so-well known fairy tales—Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Baker’s Wife, and others. The stories are told in such a way that they weave in and out of one another, one plot line cropping up unexpectedly in another story. At the end of Act One, when maidens are matched with princes and Jack gets away from the giant with a golden harp, everyone sings a song called “Happily Ever After.” Yes, that’s the end of Act One. Then comes Act Two, and it all falls apart. An angry giant rampages through the woods, wreaking death and destruction, and immediately the recriminations start, with everyone looking angrily at everyone else, singing “It’s your fault.” “No it’s your fault.”

As the whole nation responded this week to the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, I had a curious experience of déjà vu. I listened and read and watched and waited for the voices to rise up, angry voices with their authoritative pronouncements. A desperately unhappy and paranoid and angry young man had shot 32 people to death, and then himself—and the whole country clamored to know, Whose Fault Was It? And everyone gave the same answer—It’s YOUR fault.

Here, in no particular order, are some places where Americans assessed blame this week.

Some said, Campus security, you failed—it’s your fault.

Some said, it’s those lax Virginia gun laws—NRA, it’s your fault, and you too, spineless congress—it’s your fault.

Some said, this is the result of sin. The young man who did this allowed sin to overtake him. Young man and Satan, it’s your fault.

Some said, no, it must be his parents; they must have raised him wrong, damaged him or abused him, or spoiled him, or pampered him: family, it’s your fault.

No, actually, others said, it’s the legal system: judge who didn’t keep him locked in the mental institution, it’s your fault.

Some said, it’s this liberal, weak-sister educational system that never teaches students anything useful, like self-defense—academia, it’s your fault.

Others said, what about bravery? What about personal responsibility? Victims, it’s your fault.

And some even said, God is punishing America for its complete sinfulness and depravity. America, it’s your fault, and God, it’s your fault—but of course, you are God, so you must be right.

Everyone who commented gave essentially the same answer—it’s your fault, not mine. It’s their fault, not ours. Sometimes I think our response to a horrible event such as this has the effect of a Rorschach inkblot test: how we respond has more to do with our personality characteristics and emotional functioning than anything verifiable or external to ourselves. In many ways people responded absolutely predictably, with the left blaming institutions and laws and the right leaning on personal responsibility.

I think we want to know whose fault this is. As a nation, and as individuals, we crave clear-cut answers at times of crisis, answers that will tell us what to do next. We want to take action in response to tragedy and horror—we want to do something, and we want to do it now. Some of the actions people take are spontaneously beautiful and heartfelt. Silent candlelit vigils come to mind. And some of the actions people take are heartbreaking—like students of Asian descent fleeing Virginia Tech’s campus for fear of retribution. And some of the actions people take are sick and horrifying, as in the case of the death threats that have already been made against the university president and the shooter’s family. We want to know whose fault it is so that we can do something—anything—in response.

But the question of fault, at this moment in time, leads us down a primrose path; we think we’re going somewhere, but we’re really being led astray. There will be a time for assigning responsibility, and hopefully that will be done carefully, and by people who have the appropriate expertise, and without some political agenda attached. But we can’t and we probably shouldn’t try to answer that question because, right now is not the time for that question. Right now is the time to cry.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we don’t know how to grieve in our culture. We don’t know how to cry. One reason for this, I think, is that American culture values action so highly. Grief appears to be too passive for our taste. But you know, all our resistance against grieving, all our, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move on” bravado is not scriptural in the least, and it is not faithful. Scripture tells us clearly, there is a time to mourn—it is one of the seasons of human life. We need to learn to enter it faithfully.

Jewish tradition contains much wisdom about how to go through the grieving process. The excellent and informative website, Judaism 101 explains that mourning practices occur in periods of decreasing intensity. When a Jew learns of the death of someone close to her, she tears her garment—the tear is over the heart if it is a parent who has died. In the first phase of mourning individuals remain at vigil beside the one who has died, and have as their only responsibility preparing the deceased for burial. Jews practice prompt burial, often burying the deceased before sundown on the day of death—one of the Virginia Tech professors, an observant Romanian Jew, was flown to Israel for burial within 24 hours. After the burial there follows a seven-day period of mourning known as shiva. During this time, the parents, spouse, siblings and children of the deceased are gathered into one place so that they may grieve together. If you visit a house of mourning, you are not supposed to offer shallow platitudes. You are expected allow the mourners to initiate conversation about their loved one. If you visit a house of mourning, you are not supposed to distract the mourners with other, lighter subject matter—this is disrespectful to the process. The goal is to allow the fullest possible expression of sorrow.

One of the most fascinating practices Jews observe is the saying of the mourner’s Kaddish. This is a prayer that is recited, usually by a son, every day for a year following the death of a parent. I always assumed the Kaddish had death as its subject, that it had to do with the memory of the loved one, or that was a prayer seeking God’s comfort. Not so. The prayer begins Yit’gadal v’ yit’kadash… “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days…” The prayer is a powerful hymn of praise to an almighty and sovereign God, that God’s name be praised, glorified, exalted on earth and in the heavens. Judaism 101 explains:

After a great loss like the death of a parent, you might expect a person to lose faith in G-d, or to cry out against G-d's injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, publicly… and reaffirm faith in G-d despite this loss.

The process of mourning, in Jewish culture and practice, takes those who grieve on a journey from the most intense period of pain, through a time of relative seclusion and reflection, and into a time of affirmatively praising God, so that the faith may grow even when hearts are broken.

Chapter 11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans culminates with a prayer that is not unlike the mourner’s Kaddish: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” …For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”(Romans 11:33-34, 36) And then chapter 12, from which our reading is taken, begins with a great, sweeping, “therefore.” Therefore—and what follows is a lengthy list of affirmations, telling us how Christians should live in the face of the marvelous mystery that is God. And in that long list we find this verse: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (v. 15).

Weep with those who weep. This is our commandment, the one that guides us in a moment like the one we are living today. This moment, when the fairytale that is supposed to be American life is interrupted and we all wonder, stunned, where that rampaging giant came from, is a moment in which we can only follow that simple and yet somehow difficult commandment, “Weep. Weep with those who weep.”

Near the end of Act Two of “Into the Woods,” many of the characters have been killed by the giant—who, it turns out, is a wife, angry and heartbroken because Jack has killed her husband. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood keep a sorrowful vigil with the Baker, who by now is a widower. Cinderella sings to the little girl,

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you're on your own.
Only me beside you.

Still, you're not alone.

No one is alone. Truly,

No one is alone.

The characters, faced with irreparable loss, weep together, and in doing that, something new is born—a new community, a new way of being in a post-rampaging Giant world. But first they have to allow themselves to feel the loss, to cry together. We have in our community many connections to the people at Virginia Tech… our stories are woven together, our plotlines appear in each other’s stories. No one is alone. God is sovereign, and unsearchable, and has given us to into one another’s care. No one is alone. Amen.

Photo is by Kevin Cupp, Virginia Tech student, courtesy of flickr and Catherine+.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Five: Surprised By Joy

Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No."He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. (John 21:5-7)

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5b)

This week I've been watching parents of the young people slain at Virgina Tech trying to make meaning out of the lives of their lost children, and each one seems to begin by focusing on something joyful about that child. It's a gift that most humans have brains wired to respond in that way. For some of us it can be harder to work our way out of dark places, but I believe joy remains the key. It is the spirit of resurrection.

Tell us about five people, places, or things that have brought surprising, healing joy into your life.

1. My Daughter, the effervescent Petra (not her real name; a character she would like to play on Broadway some day). She is beautiful, funny as hell, smarter than that, and she has a writer's sense of irony and poetry. She holds her cards close to her vest: I have to guess about her inner state sometimes, though she still leans on me, like a puppy, when we watch TV together. She can be found singing a clear, high A in a Gilbert and Sullivan air in the shower.

2. My Son, the bold and brash Larry-O (also not his real name, but an allusion to a wonderful actor of yesteryear in honor of my son the thespian). Did I say bold and brash? I meant sensitive and caring. I know he took upon himself the burden of caring for both his parents through a wrenching separation and divorce. When I watch him on stage I weep because he is so damned talented and it is all him (though we can safely say the blissful baritone is thanks to my lane of the gene pool).

3. The women. I can't name them or describe them. They are from every age of my life, from the time I was 17 on upwards. Women with whom I have laughed until I thought I would collapse from oxygen deprivation, who have listened to me howl in agony, with whom I have shared my struggles to be ordained, to be healthy, to be sane. Women who have loved me through it all, and who constantly call me to my better self. They know who they are.

4. The sky, the endless wonder of it... fairest blue or inky-deep, clear and sparkling with or without big puffy clouds or fiery pointed stars, steely grey or falling down on me in the form of rain, sleet, hail and snow... I drive 50 miles to and from work, and the sky is a more dependable companion than any radio station or iPod. It takes my breath away with its beauty. Everyone laughs at me, because I'm forever saying, "Look! Look!"

5. Music. Mostly jazz and folk/ rock these days, but always a new discovery around the corner. Recent finds: Julie Miller, Arcade Fire, the Weepies, Damien Rice. Still love: Radiohead, David Gray, Ani forever, ditto the Indigo Girls.

Thanks Songbird. I feel the joy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Horror, Sorrow

I feel a strange need to apologize to any who were offended by my post on housepainting last night. In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, I realize it was trivial. But I also had nothing to offer at that point; I was exhausted and unable to cobble together anything of meaning or worth. Here is what I shared this morning with the students in the campus ministry I serve.


Dear Friends,

I suspect we have all been struggling, along with the whole country, to
understand yesterday's shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
State University. It is my understanding that the University, through
our office of United Religious Work, is planning a memorial service to take
place later this week. I will forward information to you just as soon as
it becomes available.

Some of you have heard me quote John Calvin, who affirmed that the
psalms offer an anatomy of all our human emotions; shock, horror and fear
are no exceptions. I offer here Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city;
it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar,
the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
"Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth."
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

And I offer this prayer, a collect for a time of tragedy:

God of compassion,
you watch our ways,
and weave out of terrible happenings
wonders of goodness and grace.
Surround those who have been shaken by tragedy
with a sense of your present love,
and hold them in faith,
Though they are lost in grief,
may they find you and be comforted;
through Jesus Christ who was dead, but lives
and rules this world with you. Amen.


As is often the case, I found the photo above on Flickr,
uploaded by GarrettB.If you go to that site and type
"Virginia Tech" in the search engine, you will see that
people are uploading photos of friends and loved ones who
died. It is heartbreaking... now the tears come.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Beautification Project

Petra had a snow day today. I slept with my laptop on the bed beside me (remind me never to do that again) so that I could check the school closings the moment I woke up, and allow the two of us to return to sleep without unnecessary movement. I awoke at 5:30, saw that our district had indeed cancelled, and dozed until her alarm went off at 7. Then I called, "Honey?"

"Yes?" came the groggy reply.

"School's cancelled." I expected her to turn over in bed and go back to sleep. She did, but only after running into my room to kiss me on the cheek. Oh, long may this last.

When we both had slept our fill we rose, had coffee and bagels, and did what he have been preparing to do for about a month: we painted our dining room.

We were both nervous. We had been through the whole ordeal of removing the wallpaper, prepping the walls, spackling, painting two coats of the white base to cover the more egregious flaws that had been hiding beneath the paper. But when the moment came to begin, we were both nervous. We were applying paint using a technique called "Tuscan Accents" from Lowe's, and we were sort of terrified of messing up. The house has been in a state for a month, and I swear, if I could walk through my living room and not have to go the other way for all the boxes and excess furniture, I might have left it that way. But we took deep breaths, read the (scanty) instructions over, decided who got to plug her iPod into the stereo first (Petra did-- the Hairspray soundtrack) and plunged in. The time was about 11 AM.

At 3:15, we put down our brushes and scraper, and stood back to look at our handiwork. Tuscan gold. I tell you, it is beyond beautiful. At the risk of sounding like I'm on retainer for Lowe's, here's my observation about why this was so satisfying. It's pure genius. Because you are after a sort of mottled, weathered look, the fact that you are an amateur and not artistically gifted at all is no drawback; it may even be an asset. Our uneven strokes and paint application are precisely what the technique requires. After we had finished I ran upstairs to take a shower so that I could run out to get us some lunch; when I came back downstairs, I swear, it was even more beautiful than I had remembered.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Behind Closed Doors: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter

“Behind Closed Doors”
John 20:19-31
April 15, 2007

Elaine Pagels is one of our preeminent scholars of early Christianity. This is the first paragraph of her book, Beyond Belief:

On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the sanctuary of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.

Pagels goes on to explain that, just the day before, she and her husband had learned that their two-and-a-half-year-old son had a fatal lung disease, and probably would live no longer than a few months, perhaps a few years at the most. Though a scholar of religion, it was fear and trembling brought on by the illness of her son that brought Pagels, for the first time, face to face with the question of faith. What, she wondered, is faith exactly? For much of her life she had assumed what many modern-day Christians and atheists alike assume: that faith equals accepting a certain set of doctrines or beliefs. As Pagels found a home at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, she came to question when that definition of faith took hold. I would ask whether that is a real or even useful definition of faith. I would ask whether that definition of faith leads to the kind of fear and trembling that keeps people behind closed doors, afraid to show themselves.

The disciples are behind closed doors when we find them this week—closed and locked doors, in fact. It is the evening of Easter Sunday, and the resurrection doesn’t seem to have quite caught on yet; it hasn’t entirely taken hold. There is a mood, not just of skepticism, but of stomach-churning fear. Jesus’ body is missing from its tomb, and the strange and unlikely testimony of Mary Magdalene having encountered a gardener—or was it Jesus?—is circulating like wildfire. None of this yet signifies new life or glory to the disciples. Instead, it signifies danger. It signifies fear. It signifies, close the doors and lock them, for God’s sake, lest they find us and kill us too. The disciples, all but one, are a family brought to paralysis by this powerful fear. They are a family that does not know, yet, how to face death.

Everyone is there on this night, with one exception: Didymus Thomas, whose real given name is Judas, but “Judas” isn’t really such a good moniker at the moment; so everyone calls him by his nickname: “Twin.” Whose twin Thomas is remains a mystery. Everyone is there, in the upper room, except for Thomas the Twin, and we can imagine this group, huddled together for fear of the religious authorities, speaking in low tones lest spies overhear them, trying between them to figure out what on earth and heaven has just happened.

And then Jesus appears in their midst, despite the closed and locked doors, despite their fear, or perhaps because of it: Jesus appears, and says to them, “Peace. Peace be with you.” And he shows them his hands and feet, which bear the marks made by the nails and the spear. Jesus says “Peace,” and, like the infamous picture of Lyndon Johnson raising his shirt to show the scar from his gall-bladder surgery, he invites his friends into the old, intimate familiarity. Yes, he says, it’s me. Peace. And Jesus, without going on to explain exactly what this means, breathes the Holy Spirit on them. We can just imagine:

The Spirit releasing the friends of Jesus from the fear that has kept them locked behind closed doors…

The Spirit giving them the gift of peace…

The Spirit conveying the good news of God’s forgiveness of sin…

All these things and more are conveyed by Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to his friends. My denomination has a brief statement of faith that claims a number of wonderful and extraordinary things as the work of the Holy Spirit.

In a broken and fearful world

the Spirit gives us courage

to pray without ceasing,

to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,

to unmask idolatries in church and culture,

to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,

and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon his friends, he unleashes a power whose chief attribute is courage. Jesus finds those living in fear, behind closed doors, and gives them courage to do all the things they need to do, including coming out from behind those doors, including facing death, if they must.

But there is someone missing this night, the night on which Jesus breathes courage into his friends. Thomas the Twin is… well, we don’t know where Thomas is, but he is not locked behind those doors. When Thomas finally finds his way to his friends and gets wind of what has happened, he speaks bluntly: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

And so we return to that fundamental question, the question that haunted Elaine Pagels and which haunts our reading this morning: what is faith? Does faith consist of believing what we have not seen? Is it giving our assent to propositions which, by their very nature cannot be proven? Is faith our willingness to believe what others have witnessed? What is faith?

John has one answer, and Jesus gives it in a few verses. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). We can hear this statement one of two ways. We can hear it as a gauntlet thrown down—a “Believe or else.” Or we can hear it as a love letter to those who will come later, a love letter to, among other folk, us.

What is Thomas’ answer? Even though John draws a portrait critical of Thomas, readers of John throughout the ages have come to have a great deal of sympathy for the disciple forever known by the adverb “Doubting.” After all, all Thomas is asking is the same thing the other disciples have already experienced: a first-hand encounter with the risen Lord. Is that so wrong? Suzanne Guthrie offers a spirited defense of Thomas in a sermon published a couple of years ago in the Christian Century. Suzanne says,

Like Thomas, I want truth. I don't want a faith of smoke and mirrors… Faced with my own tardiness, depending upon second-hand accounts, whom will I believe?

…For 11th-hour laborers and others who are slow-of-heart, Thomas's caution makes him a more credible witness. Furthermore, after the invitation to touch the wounds of Jesus, he penetrates even beyond the superficial excitement of the moment. It is… Thomas who delivers the punch line that kicks off the next 2,000 years of professional Christology: "My Lord and my God!"

In order to come to faith, Thomas needs an encounter with the risen Lord—just as all the other disciples have already experienced. In that sense it is completely unfair to single him out as unfaithful or doubting. Also in that sense, the traditional definition of faith we had at the beginning—adhering to a certain set of propositions—doesn’t make much sense. In the end, faith isn’t about bullet points on a list. It is about a relationship with the one who died and rose again.

Pagels continues her story of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

Standing in the back of that church I realized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears on a child; and here was a [diverse] community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine…I returned often to that church… because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there… my defenses fell away…

Though this careful scholar of religion does not put it in precisely these words, I am going to boldly go where she has not gone, and say this: what she found at the Church of the Heavenly Rest was an encounter with the risen Lord through his body, the Church.

We all need the body. Researchers tell us how people and animals fail to thrive unless they are held, unless they are in close, intimate contact with other people and animals. We all need the body. We all need the reassurance of a smile, or the challenge of a rebuke when we are wrong, or the bliss of being held in the arms of our beloved. We all need the body, and we all need all the things that nourish the body—clean water to drink, the balance of healthy foods, ample sleep, and time to play. We all need the body.

Thomas encountered the body of Christ behind the closed and locked doors, because stony limits cannot hold love out, and what love can do, that dares love attempt. And Elaine Pagels encountered the body… the body of Christ in the Church, not a stone or wood edifice, but people, the people of God. She needed the same things we all need. We all need a place to weep. We all need a place that mirrors the diversity of all God’s people. We all need a place in which to sing and celebrate. We all need a place where we can acknowledge our common needs, where we can say, “This is what being human looks like.” We all need a place to deal with and process what we cannot control or imagine: life, its pains and joys, its twists and turns, its devastations and delights, even death itself. We all need, in order to come to faith, an encounter with the risen Lord, and this is where we find it.

What is faith? I believe the gospel points the way for us: encounter comes first. Faith is a relationship, relationship with God through our relationship with God’s people. As we sing, struggle with the meaning of scripture, and commend our world and ourselves into God’s care, we participate in that relationship. That relationship, my friends, is faith. That relationship is what can remove our fear and replace it with the Sprit’s courage. That relationship is what allows us to step out from behind those closed doors. That relationship is what stirs our hearts to make the bold and grateful claim, “My Lord and My God.” Amen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Documentary: Secrets of Mary Magdalene

Last night as I was settling in with my TiVo of the season opener of The Sopranos, my cell phone rang. It was my BFF, and she was seriously excited: there was a documentary about Mary Magdalene on the local PBS station right now! Secrets of Mary Magdalene is a 50-or-so minute look at "the most misunderstood woman in history." Boasting experts such as Susan Haskins, Elaine Pagels, Jane Schaberg and Dierdre Good, the show was not short of academic heavy hitters. I abandoned Tony, Carmela, Janice and Bobby at the lake house, and settled in for a different kind of fun.

But, oh, the cheese of it all. Complete with a breathless, historical-thriller soundtrack, silly-looking recreations (complete with one scene of a rather spoon-chested Jesus kissing Mary on the mouth and another of a tarted up Mary Whoredalene eating GRAPES), and a hatchet-like editing job that allowed none of their experts to really get into the meat of her area of specialization, the whole thing was a disappointment. I mean, does anyone seriously think the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman (Hey! NOT Mary Magdalene!) is an enacting of the hieros gamos? I felt like I was reading The Mists of Avalon-- a great read because it's fiction, people, not history!

The documentary had its good points. It did attempt to make some sense of the fact that Mary Magdalene shows up at "every significant moment" in Jesus' life (debatable, but I'll accept it for the moment) and yet her role was downplayed to the point of her becoming associated with prostitution for more than a millennium. It also gave a nod to those who don't want to lose what one expert termed the "therapeutic fiction" of that idea... the approachableness of the saint, the idea that, if she could be a faithful disciple of Jesus, we all can. Now, this is a very Roman Catholic notion, and the same one which leads directly to things such as Mary MOJ Co-Redemptrix theology. But I see the point.

Another wonderful aspect to the documentary was its use of art. It was like what one of my professors called "roller skating through the Louvre." The use of some paintings that are quite well known, as well as many I had never seen before, gave the whole thing a visual richness that was quite pleasant.

I suppose my problem with the documentary boils down to its unwillingness to sort the wheat from the chaff where Magdalene is concerned. Are there not certain things we can say about her definitively? Elaine Pagels shocked me by asserting that, far from cementing Magdalene as apostola apostolorum, the resurrection encounter in John's gospel shows just the opposite-- that Jesus, having not yet ascended, is not commissioning Mary at all. Rather, Jesus (apparently-- I had never read the passage this way) ascends to his Father after this encounter so that he can breathe the Spirit on the disciples when next they meet in the upper room. The end result is that Mary's encounter is inferior to the disciples', indeed, she cannot be considered a disciple at all.

This is not my reading, but I'd hate to have to go toe to toe with Pagels to debate it. I was looking, in this visually sumptuous doc, for some serious analysis, which dribbled out here and there, side by side with choice bits such as "Mary's not a goddess. She's more like a sister." Well, OK then. That's one reading. But my preferred reading is that she is the pre-eminent witness to both crucifixion and resurrection, and therefore a Mother of the church.

But hey. That's just me.

I wonder how Tony and Carmela and Janice and Bobby's game of Monopoly turned out?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rising: An Easter Sermon/ Magdalene Monologue

Luke 24:1-12
April 8, 2007, Easter Sunday, Year C

Let me tell you a tale… a tale of rising. Of a small band of spirit-broken women rising in the dark to go to the darkest place, and finding it instead a place of dazzling light… of our going to the place of death and finding it: a place of rising. But I warn you… there are some who have heard our testimony and called it an idle tale, empty talk, foolish words. You will have to judge for yourself.

You know, of course, of the events of these past days…about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a teacher and healer mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel… we, my sister Joanna and I, Mary (who was the mother of James), and the other women—many others—had bound our lives over to his service, traveling with him, providing for him, so that he could go about his great and mighty work. You know all this… I will tell you what you don’t know.

I will tell you how it was to rise on the morning after his terrible death, having had no sleep the night before, haunted as we all were by the image of his torn and bleeding body, and the sounds of Joanna weeping and moaning on her pallet, and the endless pacing of Mary by the fire. I will tell you of the great expanse of emptiness of that day, on which we were too exhausted even to speak to one another, each locked in her private world of grief and pain. Ordinarily the idleness of the Sabbath is so sweet, and the great Sabbath of Passover sweeter still: a day on which our memory of slavery makes our modest leisure grand, even kingly. But this was a Sabbath like no other. There was no pleasure in celebrating our liberation; there was only the stillness of the shiva, the seven days of mourning. We women circled one another in the small home where we were guests, each like a wounded animal, eyes bloodshot and swollen from torrents of tears, each of us fearing contact even with our closest companions, would unleash anguish too terrible to bear.

With sunset came the small relief that the Sabbath was ended, and so now we could, at last, do something… we could, at least, prepare the spices and ointments with which to anoint his battered and broken corpse. Joanna set to measuring out the olive oil: one half of a kab, about one and a half of your liters. Mary and I measured the spices: I, the 85 shekels each of myrrh and cassia, and Mary about half that amount each of sweet smelling cinnamon and aromatic cane: all told, about a hundred pounds by your measure. Then we set about crushing the spices, with mortars and pestle, and finally, working them into the sweet oil with our hands. As we worked our old familiarity returned in tiny increments. A quiet word here, a nod and a touch of the hand there. We looked into one another’s haunted eyes, in that dim, fire-lit room, made closer and more intimate by the release of the powerful scent. We looked at our hands…these hands…for how long had these hands served Jesus, providing payment for lodging, preparing a meal, weaving and mending garments? These hands, these women’s hands, now fragrant with the oils and spices with which we would anoint Jesus’ body, had only days before chopped the bitter herbs and mixed the dough for the unleavened bread, had taken the Passover lamb from the fire.

Late in the evening we finished. The anointing oils were prepared. We sat before the small fire, gazing at one another, wondering at the work we had just done. We were of one mind: we had served him in life, and our service was not ended. His burial would, finally, be proper, done in accordance with the law. He would not be forgotten. We would render him this final service, this final honor. One by one we excused ourselves and lay down for what we expected would be another long night, but one which, at least, promised the relief of a day in which we could rise and go to the tomb.

Rising… rising in the dark, so that we could proceed to the tomb unharrassed by the Romans, who were still standing vigil lest an uprising occur. The night had been surprisingly short. We dressed quickly, each taking a flask of the prepared spices, and set out. Our walk was long, the tomb was on a hillside, and so we steadily climbed. As we walked it occurred to me that we had not planned well: I remembered the stone. The tomb had been sealed, as each of us had witnessed just two days before, by the rolling of a large stone in front of it, a great enormous stone, like a millstone. How would we roll it away? We had watched Joseph, surprisingly hale and strong for a member of the council, straining and struggling with the rock even with the help of another man, a man we didn’t know. I murmured my worry to Joanna, who replied that surely the three of us could manage it together. In our anxiety we walked all the more quickly, and we arrived winded.

At the tomb we stopped short: the stone was already rolled away. I had a first, ridiculous thought of relief, that we wouldn’t have to struggle with it, followed by a terrible sense of foreboding. Why would the tomb be opened? Who would have need to go the body of Jesus, aside from us? Flasks still in our arms, we crowded into the small space, and found it empty. I turned to my companions, and we saw the panic and confusion in one another’s faces. Huddled at the mouth of the cave, we opened our mouths in protest, and we all began speaking at once.

How can this be?

Where is he?

They have taken our Lord!

Who has taken him?

Why would they take him?

Where would they take him?

I felt anger rising in me… there was one clear culprit, in my mind—the skittish Roman soldiers, who had shown such fear of our peaceful band, and who had treated Jesus with such brutality and contempt. Of course they had taken him… they didn’t want the tomb to become a shrine. They wanted him to fade into obscurity: they wanted his life to count for nothing.

Suddenly I was aware that someone else was in the small space with us, and I whirled around to speak my mind, Roman soldier or no, only… How can I explain to you what I saw? If I were to say I saw the light of a thousand flashes of lighting that might begin to convey the brightness. If I were to say I saw the brilliance of ten suns at midday perhaps you would begin to understand. Two forms stood before us. Were they men? We had heard the secret story, murmured by John and James when Jesus was not listening—they had seen two men, who they swore were Moses and Elijah, appearing in brightest glory. Was that who stood before us? All these thoughts poured into my head in an instant, and I did the only thing that made sense: I threw myself to the ground, and hid my eyes from them. Around me my companions did the same.

Then in my ears sounded something like a noise of rushing water, and also music, and yet I understood words in it. This is what they said:

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

And the whole world was filled with the greatest silence. As I lay face down on the stone floor in this place of death, I heard those words in the deepest place in my heart. And this is the truth: I didn’t want to hear those words. How cruel, to raise our hopes, even for an instant. How cruel, to give us even the tiniest spark to flame. My anger flared again, and again I heard the rushing water music.

He is not here, but has risen. Remember…?

Remember? Of course, I remember. I remember every moment, from the instance he called the demons out of me and made me whole. I remember every word from his mouth, every touch of his hands.

The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

He is not here, but has risen.

And I knew what I must do… I knew what we must do. There was now no doubt in my mind about the brilliant beings: they were messengers of God. I must go—we must go—and look for him among the living.

And so, rising, we did. And we found him. And you will not believe where we found him.

We found him… walking along a road as we made a weary journey.

We found him… at table with us, as we broke bread for our evening meal.

We found him…in our own homes as we talked about these things with one another.

The disciples who dismissed our story at first have seen him now. They have eaten with him, touched him, spoken with him. And they too were terrified and startled but they have seen, and they have believed. The empty tomb was not enough. That I understand. That, I think we all understand. But they—we—all found Jesus, by following the advice of the messengers.

This is what I want to say to you: Stop looking for him among the dead. He is with the living.

He is along the road as you travel from place to place. Look for him. He is there.

He is at table with you, when you break bread. Look for him. He is there.

He is in your home, at your workplace, at the marketplace, and everywhere you are. Look for him, He is there.

And now I leave you to tell me. Was it an idle tale, my tale of rising? Before you answer, look for him. Look for Jesus among the living. And then tell me your answer. Amen.


Image: He Qi Gallery.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Magdalene Monologue II: The Passion

I had expected him to disappear.

Drop by drop, as they beat, gouged and humiliated the life out of him, he would seep slowly away, I thought. Seeping into the ground like the blood and bile that would pour out of him.

For, of course, we of the occupied territory-- we non-citizens--had seen it before: one of "our" element-- some filthy, vile criminal--would be torn open publicly to serve as a human civics lesson. The life would stream away in his cries, pour away in his tears, puddle at his feet like blood, crawl desperately out of the rent-apart places in his skin, looking for another shell to inhabit. As they scourged, spat, hammered away, the life would surge desperately forth, trying in vain to find a habitable oasis, some-- body.

This is what I had come to expect, the deadly long night before, hiding in alleys, straining to hear uncouth conversations. I would watch him disappear, and, in the end, thank our God that it was at last over. And he would be no more. And it would all be for naught. And the remnant would flee-- by the Temple, they had already fled, and I knew it. And what would be left would be nothing. This is what I had come to expect.

How surprising he was, even in death. How unforeseeable.

I followed. Not even at a distance any longer, for once his end was at hand, of course, so was mine. Though they'd never waste Roman soldiers' energy crucifying me. So I followed, and my old reputation was dragged forth again. "And there's his madwoman," some drunken reveller hollered from the crowd as we stumbled by. "There's his whore." But I recalled such filth only later.

For all I could see was that life, in him. The life-- whipped, dozens of times, and as the blood crusted around the wounds and mixed with his sweat, he seemed to be all the more-- alive. It was as if life was not draining from him, but rather distilling in him, becoming all the more potent. And then, most horrible, as the nails pierced his wrists, and those of my sex were moaning and fainting, his eyes burned with still more life. More fire, not less, smoked behind those black and blackened eyes. Sparks flew.

"He's alive!" I thought, ridiculously. "Still, he lives!"

And then, shattered, he did die. The eyes hooded and the embers died, and there was no breath at all in him.

It happened so fast. Most men take three days to die, and weeks more until the crows pick the bones clean and the dogs have finished up the bones. This man lived and lived three hours on the cross-- and his death sounded like a sudden anvil in my ears. He was, utterly, extinct.

Copyright, 1995 (yes, well before "The Passion of the Christ").

Truth on Trial: a Sermon for Good Friday

I preach this at noon today. Peace, friends.


“Truth on Trial”
John 18:1-19:42
Good Friday, April 6, 2007

This passion begins and ends in a garden. This may be completely counter-intuitive for us, but not for the evangelist, for whom there is great and deliberate purpose in every choice, in every word. The passion begins and ends in a garden. In between, truth is put on trial. Political operatives stake out their territory and push their points. Bureaucrats get caught up in a fight protesting that it is not theirs, but of course it is. And there is suffering, deep, profound and tortuous. And there is death, final, absolute. All between two moments in a garden.

One scripture scholar has described the passion as having four “acts.” Act One, Jesus is arrested. Act Two, Jesus is tried before the Jewish religious authorities. Act Three, Jesus is tried before the Roman authorities. Act Four, Jesus is crucified and buried. In the gospel of John, written down perhaps 60 to 70 years after the fact, we have a carefully, even beautifully constructed passion account in which Jesus, in every word he utters, speaks on behalf of the truth. In Act One, as he is arrested in the garden, Jesus greets the detachment of soldiers with their lanterns and torches and weapons with great calm. Though our English version obscures what is happening in the Greek, Jesus affirms his identity while simultaneously stating over and over the ancient and unsayable name of God: I am, I am, I am.

In Act Two, Jesus before the high priests, focus keeps shifting back and forth from the interrogation to Simon Peter, warming himself at a fire and trying unsuccessfully to fly below the radar of various gossips and hangers on. Jesus invents nothing and denies nothing. All he has done, he has done openly, all he has taught, he has taught openly: the truth. He experiences the first bit of physical brutality and is transferred quickly to Pilate.

In Act Three, Pilate receives Jesus in the praetorium, and due to the scruples of the religious leaders, who will not enter, the Roman prefect is made to shuttle back and forth between the accusers and the accused. Pilate tries to escape responsibility for what is about to happen. Ultimately, the reality of the situation—the truth—sinks in, and Pilate questions Jesus, to find out whether he is indeed guilty of sedition.

At the risk of sounding defensive, I think it is important at this point to do some corrective framing about Pilate. As a character, he tends to be depicted in film and art as an attractive, even appealing human being, caught up in events greater than himself. In the Gibson film the praetorium is something out of a designer showroom, all soothing colors and fine fabrics, and Pilate is a kind of renaissance Everyman, quiet, intellectual, reasonable, offering Jesus a cold drink. In point of fact, Pilate was a particularly brutal military leader, present in Jerusalem to quell any potential uprising at the politically charged festival of Passover. Pilate was so merciless in discharging his duties (known as he was for the countless crucifixes lining the well-paved Roman roads) that he ultimately offended even Roman sensibilities with his brutality, and was finally recalled from his post, after which point he fades from the historical record.

Jesus is finally asked by our somewhat airbrushed Pilate, “What is truth?” Unable, in the end, to see that Truth is standing in front of him, Pilate elects to do what Pilate is best known for doing, by all accounts. Pilate decides for death. Act Four.

Act Four is the act of suffering. I don’t know about you, but I hold in my memory certain icons of suffering, by which I mean images or visions that represent human suffering, that will not let me go. Let me be clear: these are icons not only of suffering, but also of cruelty, of what the poet Robert Burns called, “man’s inhumanity to man.” Here are two of the images I carry: First, Eli Wiesel’s devastating description of his first night in Auschwitz, “…the small faces of the children whose bodies [he] saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.” And second, Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally beaten and left for dead, strung up on a fencepost in Laramie, Wyoming. I have recently added a new icon to my mental list: the haunted faces of US servicewomen, who are being deployed to Iraq in record numbers, and who are coming home with unprecedented levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result both of the horrors of battle and the private terrors of sexual assault by their peers and commanders. As a lifelong Christian, of course, the suffering of Jesus is the great icon, if I may call it that … the one in whose shadow all the others stand. The suffering of Jesus, the Truth, at the hands of those who fear that truth.

What is truth, Pilate asks? If we are to believe the Jesus of the gospels, it is the bringing of good news to the poor, the proclamation of liberty to the captives, the restoration of sight to the blind, the freeing of those who are oppressed. What is truth? If we are to believe the Jesus of the gospels, it is giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and comforting presence to those in prison. What makes the suffering of Jesus the icon of all our human suffering is this truth for which he is crucified.

Near the end of Act Four there a moment that is often thought to reflect the real humanity of Jesus: the moment when he commends his mother to the care of his beloved disciple. And so it may be, Jesus who, in addition to being Truth personified is also simply a dying son worried about his mother. But this moment carries a heavier burden of meaning as well. In this act Jesus reminds us that, in the new community of discipleship, we are no longer to act merely in service of kinship ties. This action contains the new truth, that family and tribe are overruled by the gospel imperatives, as a new family is formed around radical, tradition-breaking love and caring beyond our own borders and sensibilities. It is this truth that so terrifies the powers and principalities, who rely on tribal and ethnic identities and hatreds for the consolidation of their own power. It is this terror that convinces them that they must put truth on trial and put it to death. It is this truth that is, forevermore, made holy by this death.

As Act Four draws to a close Jesus is laid in a new tomb, in the garden which, as it turns out, was right there, in the same place where he was crucified. Because, of course, this gospel account is not finished. There is more, and the garden is redolent with suggestion of what that “more” might be. For the children of Auschwitz and Darfur, and for Matthew Shepard and combat specialist Abbie Pickett, how does that “more” play out? Can their suffering, in any sense, be made holy?

Confronted with the present reality of suffering, the gospel truth is clear: we are called to offer release, to offer healing, to offer restoration to the beloved community to those who suffer. Suffering is not, in itself, holy; let's not glorify it as such. But what is holy is God’s presence in the midst of suffering. What is holy is our every effort to alleviate that suffering. What is holy is the raising of our voices in loud, noisy chorus in protest of that suffering. For those whose agony, like that of Jesus, is in the past tense, perhaps it is our remembering that makes it holy. Perhaps it is our refusal to silence the truth that can make holy the icons of suffering each of us carries within. The passion begins and ends in a garden, and now it is finished. We know what lies buried. Now we wait for what might grow. Amen.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Do You Remember? A Maundy Thursday Sermon

I preached this sermon two years ago; I share it now. Blessings my friends, on this blessed night.

Do You Remember?
Maundy Thursday 2005
1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35

You have eaten this meal; you have gathered around this table.
You have sat opposite the one you love, the one who loves you.
You have sat near the one with whom you are vying for position.
You have sat next to the one who betrayed you.
You have sat next to the one whom you betrayed.
You have leaned into the bosom of the one whom you knew
would not live to see another sunset….
and you have leaned close to the one whose parting
was an earthquake of surprise.
Do you remember?

You have gathered around this table of tradition,
Asking, “Why is this night different from every other night?”
“Why this food? Why right here? Why right now?”
You have eaten the familiar bread, the workday fruit of the vine,
Suddenly transformed into… you knew not what. Something greater. Something more.
Do you remember?

You have watched as the one you love, the one who loves you, took the bread.
You watched the hard-working hands handle the steaming, fragrant loaves…
Who baked the loaves?
Who packaged the flour?
Who milled the grain?
Who planted the seed?
All the work of all these hands, now before you on the table.,
And being held in the strong and gentle hands of the one who loves you
And whom you love… the taking of the bread.
Do you remember?

You have listened as the one you love, the one who loves you, blessed the bread.
You listened to those words…
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts…”
“Lord, bless this food to our use and our lives to your service…”
“Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, Melech ha-olam,
ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. Amein,”
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe,
Who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen.”
The blessing spoken in the voice of the one you love,
the one who loves you… the blessing of the bread.
Do you remember?
You have smelled the scent of the warm loaves as they were broken
By the one you love, and the one who loves you…
Bread that is broken for you, and for those all around the table,
Broken for your nourishment.
Bread that is broken so that everyone would have their fill,
Broken, because that’s the only way bread can be shared.
Bread that is broken, so that one loaf is many pieces,
Broken, but still one loaf.
Bread that is broken by the hands of the one who loves you,
And the one you love… the breaking of the bread.
Do you remember?

You have reached out your hands to receive the bread as it is given,
Holding the warm morsels in your own hands,
Bread that you received from the hands of the one you love,
The one who loves you.
Bread that is given to you, and to all those around the table,
Given for your nourishment.
Bread that is given so that everyone would have their fill,
Given to you, one piece among many
of the loaf that was taken, blessed and broken,
by the one you love, and who loves you…
The giving of the bread.
Do you remember?

Do you remember the taking, the blessing,
the breaking and the giving of the bread?
Do you remember the taking, the blessing,
the pouring and the giving of the fruit of the vine?
Do you remember the words spoken by the one you love, the one who loves you?
“Take, eat, this is my body, given for you; this is my blood of the new covenant.”
This is my body? This is my blood?
This is the body of the one who loves you?
Do you remember?

This body and blood, which have been taken—
The one who loves you took the form of a human, the form of a slave,
the form of one who stoops to wash your feet.
The one who loves you takes this body and this blood.
Do you remember?

This body and blood, which have been blessed—
The one who loves you blessed this body, by living a sinless life,
a life for others,
a life of healing and blessing,
a life of casting out demons, and dining at the wrong tables,
a life of restoring sight to blind eyes,
and the ability to walk to broken legs…
The one you love blesses this body and this blood.
Do you remember?

This body and blood, which have been broken and poured—
The one who loves you, and whom you love, was broken.
The body was broken, hung on a tree,
Broken by hatred, broken by fear.
The life was poured out, like so much blood,
Poured out for you, and for many.
Poured out in love, poured out with forgiveness…
Poured out like water on a baby’s head.
Poured out like water in a bowl,
Poured out to wash off dusty feet and dusty hearts.
Poured out, because the one who loves you loves you to the end.
The one who loves you breaks this body, pours out this life.
Do you remember?

This body and blood, which have been given—
The one who loves you, and whom you love, was given,
Given to you, given for you,
Given to all, given for all,
For everyone around this table,
For everyone around every table.
Given so that you might be healed,
so that you might get off the soul transplant list.
Given so that you might learn to give,
given so that you might learn to live.

Do you remember? Do you remember?

You were there, and you, and you… I remember. I promise.

You were there at the taking, and the blessing, and the breaking, and the giving.
You were there eating this meal, you were there at the table.
You were there with the one you loved, and who loved you.
You were there with the one with whom you were vying for position,
And with the one who betrayed you,
And with the one whom you betrayed.
You were there, taking, blessing, breaking and giving,
And listening to those words:
Do this.
Do this in remembrance.
Do this in remembrance of me.
You were there. Do you remember? Do you remember?

Photo courtesy of Billy Reed and Flickr.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Counting the Omer

You shall count for yourselves -- from the day after the shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving -- seven shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after te seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days... ~Leviticus 23:15-16

You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu'ot for the L-RD, your G-d ~Deuteronomy 16:9-10

One of the beautiful things about working in a place where there are at least 27 religious communities, all sharing roughly the same space, is that we are aware of one another's lives of prayer. We can't pretend, as in the old joke about the Southern Baptist gone to heaven, that we are the only ones here, the only ones with a connection to God.

This morning as I entered my office I passed members of the Jewish community at prayer, and was reminded, of course, it's Passover. And today (or, rather, tonight) marks the day when Jews begin to count the omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot (the celebration of God giving the Law).

A blessed Pesach to all.
Photo courtesy of Flickr and HayleyHyatt.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

On Preaching in Holy Week

I expect the religious blogosphere will become quieter this week, as we all prepare for the extra services and give extra preparation to what feels like THE sermon of the year.

I preach on Good Friday this year for the first time ever. Having been ordained in 2003, this is not so extraordinary as it sounds. I feel the burden. I sent an email to a number of colleagues asking them about a couple of points of interpretation of the RCL passage from John (18:1-19:42). They responded in varieties of ways, everything from a lengthy email discussion and telephone call, to, "They are coming for not for theology, but to be fed. Feed them."

This strikes me as some of the best preaching advice I have ever been given. So, on this week in which we celebrate, among other things, the sacred meal of our tradition, I say to my sisters and brothers in the blogosphere: let us feed them.

Back to the sermons.