Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Risen Life: Matthew 28:1-10

Resurrection begins in darkness, and fear, and loss. That’s where we have to start.

I know that seems like a strange thing to say—our sanctuary is anything but dark this morning, nor is it particularly fear-filled. Voices and instruments are ringing forth with glorious, jubilant music. Flowers are sprouting from dry wood and chicken wire; lilies are nodding their lovely heads as if in blessing. There is an abundance of light, not darkness. There is joy, not fear. There is fullness, not loss.

But this is because we know the ending of the story, so we were able to plan for it—the giddy joy, the festal pageant. The two Marys who went to the tomb on Easter morning knew no such thing. They knew darkness. They knew fear. And they knew the empty, aching depths of sorrow and loss. So, that is where we have to start. In the darkness, with the Marys. In the fear. In the loss.

Hello darkness, my old friend, we can hum right along with those great prophets, Saint Simon and Saint Garfunkel. We have wondered when that proverbial point of light was going to show up at the end of that egregiously long tunnel. We have found ourselves shaken to the core—feeling real fear—when we heard the diagnosis, or understood the terrible news, or saw the pink slip. We have said goodbye—or not even had the chance to say goodbye—to someone who is irreplaceable in our lives. It doesn’t take too long for most of us to find a point of connection with the Marys, moving without a sound through that darkness.

Matthew tells us that the women went at the very first opportunity to “see” the tomb. That makes sense, emotional sense. It is not uncommon for us to respond to a terrible and sudden death by wanting to gather as much information about our loved one as we can—we want to see the poor, battered body, we want to see where he or she has been laid to rest. Other gospels offer other rationales for the early morning visit. But today we listen to Matthew: the Marys went to the tomb in order to see where their beloved Jesus lay.

Their first opportunity to do this came early in the morning after the Sabbath had ended. And so they left in darkness, made their way to the place. And suddenly, we are told, there was a great earthquake. Except the word used in the gospel, the original Greek, is a little more colorful than “suddenly.” It means more like, “Look here!” Look here! There was an earthquake—not because this was the moment of resurrection, but because an angel had burst through to this realm from wherever it is that angels live. Look here! Things are happening that are outside the norm, that cannot be explained by nature. Look here![i]

And then there was the fear. The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were having their own bodily earthquakes, they were so terrified. And the angel says what angels tend to say, when they make their terrifying appearances: Do not be afraid.

I think it can be hard for us to find this point of contact, the kind of fear that must have overwhelmed the Marys and the big tough guys who were lying there quaking with terror. We have been so jaded by a culture that uses fear as a thrill, as a drug, to sell movie tickets and videogames. But this isn’t that kind of fear. We know all too well the kinds of fear I’ve already mentioned—the pink slip fear, the terrible news fear. But this is fear of another brand altogether. This is fear-of-God fear, a fear that has gone unfashionable in this era of “Jesus is my best buddy” spirituality. A professor of mine used to talk about how the ancients viewed God. He compared God’s holiness to radioactivity—God was understood to be powerful and terrifying, and best worshiped from a safe distance.

At the same time, this very fear contains within it a seed of joy—because that terrifying power has accomplished the impossible.

“Do not be afraid,” says the angel, who then reports the most astonishing, joyful, terrifying good news of all. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified…He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him” [Matthew 28:5b, 7b]. Look here!

The angel tells the Marys the wondrous, inconceivable news. Jesus is not dead. He is alive again. And he’s not some kind of weird Zombie-Jesus-alive (you have to love the internet—keeping us aware of trends we didn’t even want to know about). No: he is truly, gladly, deeply alive again. And not only that… he is going ahead of them, back to Galilee, where it all began.

Galilee. A look back through Matthew’s gospel will remind us of what happened in Galilee.[ii] Galilee is where Jesus was baptized, throwing in his lot with humanity and hearing God’s words of blessing and affirmation. Galilee is where Jesus began to preach and teach the good news. Galilee is where Jesus gathered around him, first a small band of disciples, and then more and more people until he was being followed by crowds numbering in the thousands. Galilee is where he began to lay his hands on people to heal them—restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame. Galilee is where Jesus began casting out demons, setting people free. Galilee is where Jesus began welcoming outcasts… women, children, tax-collectors, lepers… all those on the margins, all those who were powerless. Galilee is where Jesus fed those crowds of hungry, hurting people. Galilee is where Jesus started to show and tell the world what the risen life would look life, the life he described in that enigmatic phrase, the kingdom of heaven.

I think it has become common to think of Easter in terms of the celebration of God’s power and glory, in raising Jesus from the dead. And—yes, a thousand times, with my whole heart to that. Nothing is impossible with God, not even this. And yet—if that is all Easter is to us, a time to simply lean back and admire our powerful God from a detached position, to cheer and applaud and then go home—I fear we have missed the point of Easter, the heart of what it is really all about. Resurrection is not a magic show God did to entertain us, empty tombs, angels and earthquakes notwithstanding. Resurrection is a life God invites us to participate in, right where we are, starting now.

Look here! Resurrection is about the risen life. And the risen life, Jesus has already shown us. We can see it. It looks a lot like the life he lived back in Galilee. Gathering together with people who long to follow Jesus. Sharing the good news with others. Healing, drying the tears, mending the tears in our own and others’ lives. Living a commitment to radical welcome—no outcasts. Feeding the hungry. This is the risen life.

From the most ancient days of the church it has been the custom to receive new members into the community—gathering together those who want to follow Jesus—at the first service of Easter. Today we welcome such a follower into our midst, someone who wants to do that work with us—sharing the good news, healing, welcoming, feeding. P. wants to share in the risen life we have found here, in this place.

Look here! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! And he invites us to the risen life, each and every one. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Richard S. Dietrich, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 28:1-10,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 349.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Perspective on Matthew 28:1-10,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 350.

Art: Empty-Tomb by He Qi, at He Qi Gallery

Friday, April 22, 2011

Maundy Thursday Meditation: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26


Here we are, gathered around tables for our family meal. And it’s a lot like a family meal, because everyone’s here…well, almost everyone. Dad can’t travel any more, so he had to stay home. And that makes it hard, because we miss him. And our cousins are so busy—the kids are playing on traveling sports teams, and they aren’t even in town. But a lot of us are here—the adults, the children, gathered around the table, ready to share some stories of our lives together. This is a lot like a family meal.

Except, it isn’t like a family meal, is it? I mean, if we were gathered at my house for a family meal, my specialties tend towards things like a stir-fry of vegetables and chicken over rice, or, my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce, or, chili. I don’t believe I’ve ever set a table with just these two items, bread and juice, simple, unadorned. And if I did… honestly, at my house, there would be a lot more. Big hunks of bread, pitchers of juice, so that no one would leave with a growling stomach. But we’re not in my house. We’re in a house where each of us, every one of us, including me, is a guest. And we’re at a table, around which all our individual stories yield, on this night, to one story, the one story we share as people of faith. So, it’s like a family meal, and it’s not like a family meal.

Paul, with the good folks at First Church of Corinth, had his hands full. They gathered together to share a meal. But at Corinth, something had gone very wrong. Paul describes it in the passage just before our reading starts. He says,

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? ~1 Corinthians 11:20-22a

The people of Corinth gathered around a dinner table in a home—and it was inevitably the home of one of the wealthiest members of the community, because—who else could afford that kind of space, to welcome large numbers of people? And in those days, the more you had, the more you got. So, the wealthiest members of the community could arrive earlier, get a head start on their eating and drinking, and they would be served the superior food and wine, the best of the best. The poorest members of the community could only arrive much later, after their long workday had ended, and they would get the leftover food and inferior drink, the dregs. As Paul so eloquently put it, “What!” This is the Lord’s supper?

And he answers his own rhetorical question. No. This is not the Lord’s supper. And he reminds them,

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

~ 1 Corinthians 11:23-25

Jesus, on the night he was to be betrayed by one of his dearest friends and companions, gathered with them around a table. He took a loaf of bread, and he gave thanks for it, and he broke it, and he gave it away. And he said, “This is my body. This is my life.” Jesus took the life that God had given him, and he gave thanks for it, and allowed it to be broken and given away.

This is why we gather. This is why, it is very much like a family meal, and not at all like a family meal. This is the story we share, our story, the story of God in Jesus, giving us, not only teaching, and beatitudes; not only healing and wholeness; it is the story of God giving us life, God’s own life, so that we will live.

And the life we are invited to have looks very different from a great big table around which only the wealthiest and most elite get to have all the goodies, while the poorest and most vulnerable go without. If we want to be part of that life—well, it’s all around us, it’s just outside these doors. It’s celebrated in popular culture, on TV and in music and online, and it’s advocated by political parties as the American way. Some even try to say, it’s the Christian way. But, it’s not.

This is the way of Jesus: to take our lives and give thanks for them, and then to give them away. To be as concerned about what the person next to us is eating as we are about what we are eating. To be as concerned about the stranger who knocks on these door as we are about our own families. To give our lives away, not in exchange for bigger and glitzier and more fabulous lives, but more deeply fulfilling and loving and Christ-like lives.

The hope of lives modeled on Jesus is what brings us to gather around these tables tonight. Jesus, who gathered around a table with his loved ones to mark the Passover, the holiest night of his people. Jesus, who took his life and gave thanks for it, and allowed it to be broken and given away. Jesus, who even shared that life, that bread, that wine, with the one who had thirty pieces of silver jingling in his pockets, payment up front for a kiss.

Here we are, gathered around tables for our family meal. Everyone’s here who could make it. But even those who are not here—God’s people wherever they may be—are a part of this family, and a part of this story. We have before us, not a seven pr even three-course feast, but the very tangible reminder, the very real presence, of Jesus with us. Jesus, reminding us: we are one. My story is your story, as my table is your table. My life is your life, to be share with the whole beautiful and broken world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ones Who Had Been Dead: Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” ~Psalm 130:1-2a

You have been there.

The father explaining to the children that mommy has died.

You have been the father, or you have been one of those children.

The mother who is a paramedic arrives at the scene of the accident to see that it is her son who lies bleeding.

You have been that mother.

The couple who sit with the doctor to hear the diagnosis, the very bad news. You have been that patient, you have been that spouse, you have even been that doctor.

The man who hears that he is being “downsized”—that quaint euphemism, the cultural cousin of being “super-sized,” perhaps? You have been that man.

The woman who holds the bills in her hand, and knows—she is not going to make it. She is going to lose the house. You have been that woman.

You have been the father, the mother, the daughter, the son. You have been the sister, the brother, the beloved, the cousin. You have been the woman, the man, the adult, the child. You have known loss. You have known death. You have been to the valley of the dry bones, and walked amidst their clattering emptiness. You have been there.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

I believe most of us have had at least one experience in our lives when we truly felt we were in the depths. When we read stories from scripture like this one, we get it. As a friend wrote this week, “We do not always live in the land of resurrection. These places of dry bones, these decaying bodies, these sealed tombs are real to us.”[i] I would add that, unlike the times of resurrection, which it is so easy to take for granted, to wear lightly on our shoulders like a summer shawl, the times of the dry bones are unforgettable. They are often the turning points, the events around which we find the definition of our lives. There is always a ‘before’ and ‘after.’

Ezekiel 37 is probably the portion of this prophet’s writing most well known to Christians. And I think there are good reasons for that. It contains stunning, memorable imagery, visual and even auditory—we can almost hear the howling of the Spirit-Breath-Wind, and the rattling of the bones. (Every time the text says “breath” I am going to say “Spirit-Breath-Wind,” because there is one word for all three in Hebrew, ruach. So every time the prophet says that word, his audience heard all three.) The passage offers an experience of the Israelites that seems to enter into dialogue with New Testament stories of God’s power triumphing over death. And—to be blunt—there’s a lot of stuff in Ezekiel that you don’t want to read. It’s just plain ugly. For beauty and for hope, this passage is truly one of the highlights.

But beautiful and memorable stories from scripture don’t exist in a vacuum. And it is good for us to pay attention to the story behind this story, the tale of the Babylonian exile. It’s good for us to remember that the prophet himself was one of those taken into captivity in the year 597 BCE. Before the Babylonians invaded, Ezekiel had been a priest in Jerusalem—serving God in the Temple, the holiest place of his people’s living faith. He had been held in honor, a leader among his people. But then came the Babylonians, who laid siege to Jerusalem for two long years, destroying the Temple, bringing with them desolation and destruction and disease and famine. Ezekiel became a priest-in-exile, a priest without a Temple, which is something like a fisherman without the sea. And in the midst of his work, telling the exiled Israelites what had gone wrong and what God wanted them to do about it, Ezekiel’s wife died. And God instructed him not to mourn her, so that he could be an example to his fellow Israelites who should not mourn the loss of the Temple.[ii]

This is the man whom God swept along on this Spirit-Breath-Wind-blown vision, and placed in a valley with bones as far as the eye could see. The image was most likely a familiar one, a memory from the time of the two-year siege—an image of an army that had been utterly routed, whose defeat was so absolute, there was no one left even to tend to the dead. This is story of the man whose desolation is so complete that when God asks him the leading question, “Mortal, can these bones live?” he can only mumble his numb reply—“O Lord God: You know.” In other words, I have no idea.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

The valley of dry bones is everywhere we look.

It’s a seaside village in Japan where the homes and inns were swept out to sea and even the oyster beds and seaweed farms were destroyed by the tsunami.

It’s a village in the Ivory Coast where a thousand people were massacred in a single day.

It’s anywhere in small-town USA where the grind and steam and commotion of manufacturing went silent years ago, leaving boarded up windows and empty warehouses in its wake.

It’s your kitchen table or mine, in the aftermath of a conversation that leaves our eyes dull, and our hearts aching, and our souls crying out to God.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!

So we are blown into the valley by God’s Spirit-Breath-Wind. Ezekiel comes out of the dryness of the death his whole community has known, and he knows personally. And we come out of our own dry and dead places—the lost hopes, the lost loved ones, even the loss of creativity and energy that can dissipate when we are overwhelmed with the demands of living.

Then the prophet hears the voice of God.

We’ve been crying, “Lord, hear my voice!” and in response, we hear the voice of God. God is speaking to Ezekiel, and I confess, I have spent at least a little time wondering what the voice of God might sound like. In the film “The Ten Commandments,” it sounded like Charlton Heston—because he was not just Moses in that film, he was also God! In the New Testament, when God speaks to Jesus at his baptism, we aren’t given a description of the sound, only the words. There is one passage that comes to mind where the voice of God is described—and it is not what we expect:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. ~1 Kings 19:11-12

The voice of God comes to another prophet in “the sound of sheer silence.” Could that be how it comes to Ezekiel? Could that be how the voice of God comes to us?

Out of the sound of silence, God makes an outrageous, outlandish promise—each bone coming to its bone-home, knit again to its brother bones. And the clattering of the bones witnesses to the delivery of that promise. And then God makes another unbelievable, impossible pledge: the Spirit-Breath-Wind entering the reanimated corpses, making them, not something out of “Dawn of the Dear” or even “Shaun of the Dead,” but real, human, living, sighing creatures. And the howling and moaning of the Spirit-Breath-Wind witnesses to the honoring of that pledge.

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel” [Ezekiel 37:11].

I don’t think this is a throwaway line. It’s not just you and me and the prophet any more. We are startled by the sheer numbers of the people, the enormity of the crowd. The outlandish, improbable promises of God are made to a whole people, the whole people of God. The experience of death, the experience of loss, is one that isolates us and separates us—bone falls away from brother bone. The experience of receiving that revivifying, rejuvenating Spirit-Breath-Wind of God is one that knits, mends, and binds us back together. Wholeness begets wholeness—when we receive that healing breath, we are knit together, not only in ourselves, but with one another. Our healing is not ours alone, just as our life is not ours alone. It all happens in God’s community.

You have been there. You have sensed the breath of God warm on your face in the silence of your prayer. You have felt the Spirit settle in your heart like a cat curling up in front of the fire, after a time spent with those you love. You have felt the wind from heaven blow through your hair, sending a tingle down your spine as some words entered your soul—maybe from a hymn, maybe from a child. This is God’s last word: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act” [Ezekiel 37:14]. In the sheer sound of silence God speaks to us. God tells us, “I am here. I am with you, forever, to the ends of the earth.” In knitting us back together, God acts. God tells us, “Look around you at the whole people of God whom I have given you. Find me there.” We have been there, and we will be there again. It is the outrageous, outlandish promise of God. God places the Holy Spirit-Breath-Wind in us, and we will live. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Paul Bellan-Boyer, “Lent 5—I Felt the Lord’s Power” at City Called Heaven


[ii] David G. Garber, “Commentary on First Reading” at


Monday, April 04, 2011

The One Who Could See: Sermon on John 9:1-41

What do we see?

Last Sunday I walked into the sanctuary, and about a half dozen people were standing in the aisles, looking up. What I was looking at was this: The Thoughtful Christian class was looking for symbols in the sanctuary. They were looking for signs of Jesus as Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and Light of the World. But what did I see? I saw people looking for bats. Because, one time, there was a bat in the church. When I saw people looking up, that’s what I “saw.”

In today’s reading from the gospel of John this kind of thing happens over and over. People see, but they don’t see. The first people to do this are the disciples. I imagine the disciples out for a walk with Jesus on a day very much like yesterday: fluffy cumulonimbus clouds. Green buds appearing on trees. Crocuses pushing up through the dirt. A stiff breeze, but the sun still warm upon the face. A wonderful day to be alive. A great day to have an intellectually stimulating discussion with their rabbi. And then they happen to come upon a man who is blind—has been, from the day he was born. The disciples seize the moment, pose a question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And this is the first instance of it: people seeing, and not seeing. The disciples look at the blind man, who is a beggar, because there is no commission for the visually handicapped, there is no Braille, there is no job-training. They look at the blind man and see a theological conundrum. They look at the man and they see a question of sin and punishment.

Now, Jesus looks at the man, and he sees something else altogether. Jesus looks at the man, and he sees an opportunity to show the world just what God is up to. Jesus looks at the man, and he knows the goodness of God can be revealed through him.

And then Jesus, casually, as if he does this sort of thing every day, spits on the ground, and makes mud with his spit, and he rubs the mud on the man’s eyes. He sends the man to a pool called “Sent,” with instructions to wash. The man returns, and he is no longer blind.

Suddenly the man is able to see the world as it is: fluffy clouds. Green buds appearing on trees. Crocuses pushing up through the dirt. Trees moving, just a bit, from the stiff breeze, but the sun still warm on his face. He is a man who can see.

But the problem continues, of seeing and not seeing.

What do we see?

First, the neighbors. They are all abuzz. The see the man, but they are convinced it cannot be him—because the man they know is blind, the man they know is a beggar, the man they know cannot see. This man can see. “Who are you again?” they ask. “It’s me!” he replies. “Well, you look like him, but—no, no, really, who are you again?” They look at him and they see someone else. When they finally see that it is, really, truly, honest-to-Godly him, then they want to know the dirt. “Come on, how’d it happen?”

“Jesus made mud with his spit and put it on me and sent me to Sent to wash.” (I think that’s something like saying, “He sent, sent, Sent me!”)

What do we see?

The next ones are the Pharisees, the religious leaders. They’re the upright ones. They see everything in terms of who is in and who is out, who is keeping the law, and who is breaking it. They see the man who can see, and they see: evidence. Evidence against Jesus, who is already on their radar for the signs he has been performing, signs of God’s goodness. But they don’t see them that way. They see someone who is a nonconformist, who performs miracles, and therefore is doing work, on the Sabbath. They see someone who doesn’t obey the law the way they want him to. They barely acknowledge the formerly blind man…they immediately move on to what he means, what he signifies to them. He ceases to be a person. He becomes a tool, a device they will use. He becomes an issue.

This can be a very painful passage for people who have actual loss of vision. They don’t enjoy being turned into issues. I have a colleague in ministry happens to be blind. She says that every time this passage comes up in the lectionary cycle, she receives dozens of phone calls from people asking her advice as to how to preach it without doing damage to the visually impaired. She encourages us to figure it out for ourselves.

One thing we can do is to recognize the difference between literal and metaphorical blindness, and do our best to encounter visually impaired people as they are, and not according to what they “signify” to us. It’s a tricky balancing act.

The disciples look at the blind man and they see a question of sin.

Jesus looks at the blind man and he sees an opportunity for God’s goodness to be revealed.

The Pharisees look at the blind man and they see an opportunity to make trouble for Jesus.

Even the blind man’s parents, God bless them, don’t seem to be able to see their own son. They look at him, and they see the loss of their place in the community, the threat of being kicked out of their synagogue.

What do we see?

The man who was born blind is given sight. He is also given faith, but it takes him a while to find it. By the end of our passage, after having navigated all these people who see him as a metaphor, as a symbol, he knows one thing. He can literally see now, and he’s glad. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that, now, he no longer has to beg for a living. And now that he no longer has to beg for a living, he can support himself. He can learn a trade. And now that he can support himself, he can go to worship in the Temple. Jesus has restored this man to fullness of life in the community. Not to mention, the ability to see the extraordinary beauty of the fluffy clouds, the green buds, the crocuses pushing up through the dirt. And so he proclaims, strongly, “Lord, I believe.” And he recognizes Jesus for who he is, one of those names the Thoughtful Christians were searching for in the sanctuary when I thought they were looking for bats: Jesus is the Light of the World.

What do we see?

Do we see people who look like sinners to us? Or do we see people whose struggles are unimaginably hard?

Do we see opportunities to trick and trap one another, prove ourselves right? Or do we see opportunities for God’s goodness to be revealed?

Do we see the transformation that is possible when we let the Light of the World shine in our lives? Do we see the healing that is possible when we become bearers of that light to a world filled with darkness?

This is our call as members of the church.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity. The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.[i]

Wash my eyes that I may see

Yellow return to the willow tree

Open my ears that I may hear

The river running swift and clear

And please

Wash my eyes

And please

Open my ears

Wash this world that is one place

And wears a mad and fearful face

Let the cruel raging cease

Let these children sleep in peace

And please

Wash this world

And please

Let these children

Sleep in peace[ii]

The new reality. Real vision. Real healing. Becoming bearers of the light of Christ to the world. Thanks be to God: this is our call. Amen.

[i] G-3.0200, Book of Order, Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II

[ii] Greg Brown, “Wash My Eyes.”