Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hand-Made Shrines: Sermon on Acts 17:22-31

In the spring of 1979, while the pain of the Vietnam War was still fresh in the minds and hearts of Americans, a penniless veteran named Jan Scruggs helped to form a non-profit corporation. Its purpose was to fund and build a memorial to the men and women who served their country in Vietnam. Within a few years, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund had successfully petitioned Congress to designate a location for the memorial in Washington DC, in view of both the Washington and Lincoln Monuments, and raised $8.4 million in private donations. Then they then held a contest to determine the design.

A 21-year-old architectural student from Ohio named Maya Lin submitted the winning design. Her vision was simple and striking. The memorial is made of two stone walls, each 246 feet and 8 inches long. They are joined at a 125 degree angle and sunk into the earth, so that where the walls join they are about 10 feet tall, and at the outer ends, they are about 8 inches tall. On the wall, in chronological order from East to West, are inscribed the names of every service man or woman who died or went missing in action throughout the more than 20-year conflict. Visitors to the memorial see their own reflections in the dark and polished stone at the same time they see the etched names, bringing past and present together. When the design was first announced, it caused almost immediate outrage—perhaps the greatest controversy over a hand-made shrine in our lifetimes. Early on someone dmismissed it as a “black gash of shame,” and people at the highest levels of government got involved to insist on a statue of three servicemen being placed nearby.

As soon as the wall was dedicated, though, and people began to visit, the power of the shrine became clear. To go there and look at the names, to pray, to cry, to make a rubbing of the name of your loved one—countless people have done so over the past 29 years, and described it as a deeply spiritual and even healing experience. This puzzling shrine that initially sparked so much anger ended up unifying its supporters and critics; it has even, to an extent, unified supporters and critics of the war itself. It has visualized in stark and beautiful terms the enormity of the sacrifice made by those who fought and those who died and those whose fate remains unknown.

In today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is preaching the gospel by responding with eloquent and persuasive language to hand-made shrines he sees throughout the city of Athens. But in the passage just before our passage, when Paul first lays eyes on those shrines, he is not nearly so genteel. Paul is outraged.

I’ll just come out and say it. Paul has been having a bad week. Paul comes slinking into Athens alone after having been kicked out unceremoniously from Thessalonica, and then from Berea, where he has been traveling with Silas and Timothy. When Paul first arrives, he is deeply distressed to see the many, many idols throughout the city. He is apoplectic. So, his first move is to argue. He finds some philosopher types, some Stoics and Epicureans, and he has at it. They are confused, to say the least. They wonder, “What is this babbler saying?” They think Paul has come to preach two foreign gods named “Jesus” and “Resurrection.” Finally, they take him to the Areopagus, which is Greek for Mars Hill. The Areopagus was both the name of a hill and the name of a council that met on the hill. There they question Paul, firmly but politely. And at this point in the story, the narrator decides to give us a crucial piece of information: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Athens is THE place for philosophers and thinkers. It’s the home of Socrates! And that should ring at least one little bell of caution, as Socrates was put to death for “corrupting Athens with strange new gods”—which is just what the Athenians think Paul is doing.[i]

This is where we come in on the story. Paul begins to speak. But instead of decrying the Athenians for their many, many shrines to many, many gods, Paul focuses on just one—an altar that bears an inscription, “to an unknown god.” We know that Paul is actually quite upset at the many varieties of religious expression he finds in Athens. But now Paul realizes what his priority is: his priority is to share the gospel in a way that allows people to open their hearts to it. He comes to understand that, in order to open hearts and minds to the good news of Jesus, he needs to control his impulse to criticize, fight and focus on differences.

How do we respond to those whose faith is different from ours? At a certain point in my life I had lunch every day in a cafeteria with a young woman who told me that my church worshipped idols, and so it wasn’t the true church. I didn’t find her persuasive. I was never moved to visit her church or to find out anything about it at all. On the other hand, I was invited, once upon a time, to talk about my faith with an acquaintance who was a Presbyterian minister. She asked me a lot of questions about what I believed. As I answered her, I started to look at my own faith, and hers, with new eyes. A few years later I found myself standing in front of her congregation as I became a member.

Critics of the initial Vietnam Memorial design had to encounter the Memorial in order to have a change of heart about it. They had to visit it, to go there, and experience it. And when they did, their hearts were opened. They had a transformative experience.

I wonder if that is what has to happen to us in order to be able to connect to people of other faiths? Paul, in the end, was able to look at the shrine to an unknown god and say this: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” [Acts 17:24-25]. Paul was able to conclude that, for whatever reason that shrine was built, he could, in good conscience, see it as a shrine to the God of Jesus Christ. In our conversations, my friend the minister was able to open up a space where I could see her faith and she could see mine, and we could recognize where they met. Part of that recognition had to do with understanding what is the human-made part of that faith expression, and what is the eternal part.

About 11 years ago the Rev. Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian minister, addressed the PC(USA) annual Peacemaking Conference with a speech about religious diversity and pluralism. In his speech he included an image that became the Presbyterians’ own big controversy of that decade. This is what he said:

Imagine a holy place ringed with windows, and light is shining from outside this holy place through stained-glass windows into the holy place. Do you have that image in your mind? Well in this analogy, the light is the truth, the windows are religions, and the holy place is the world. Light shines from outside through the windows into the holy place in the same way religions are a vehicle by which truth comes into the world. If you take anything of what I say today, take this next thing. The window is not the light. The window is not the light. And religions need to be distinguished from the truth that they let into the world.[ii]

Every church, every religion, every expression of the truth, whether it be molecular biology or the air-speed velocity of the unladen swallow, is connected in some way to God—the God of Jesus Christ. If God is truth, then all truth is derivative of God in some way. And at the same time, every church, religion and expression of the truth is mediated by people, fallible human beings, describing their own experiences. The truth of God is more enormous, more overpowering, more glorious than any human vessel can hold, be that a church or a lab experiment. Rev. Ficca did not deny that Jesus was the way or the truth or the life; he merely said, as Paul said, that God cannot be confined to shrines made by human hands, that we should not confuse the human-mediated expression of religion with the eternal truth it reveals. And, of course, Rev. Ficca and Pastor Paul came to their tasks with different objectives: Ficca’s goal was to promote peace between diverse cultures. Paul’s was to share with one culture, the culture of Athens, a gospel he knew they had not yet heard before.

In the end, Paul was persuasive, and he lived to preach another day. By opening himself to the truth he recognized in a pagan shrine Paul was able to preach the gospel in all its particularity and power. And at the same time he was able to recognize that perhaps it was the God of Jesus Christ who had moved the Athenians to create that shrine in the first place.

Each one of us, every person who wants to follow Jesus, is a minister of the gospel. We are called to give witness to our faith, to point up at the particular stained glass window through which God has shown us the truth. And one way to share our faith is to recognize that, truly, in God, we all “live and move and have our being”—a line we all recognize as scripture, which came to us through Paul from an anonymous non-Christian poet.

At the same time, every person who wants to follow Jesus is called to remember that he called peacemakers “blessed.” We are called to be people of healing and peace, within ourselves, and within our communities, and throughout God’s beautiful and broken world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] C. Clifton Black, “Commentary on First Reading: Acts 17:22-31,” Working Preacher, April 27, 2008 [].

[ii] Rev. Dirk Ficca, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World,” 2000 Peacemaking Conference, Orange, CA [].

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Way, The Truth, The Life: Sermon on John 14:1-14

I have a neighbor who has invited me to many lovely Christmas open houses, where I met her father. Mr. C. was always pleasant, though he had a disconcerting way of making conversation. “Hi Mr. C.! Merry Christmas!” I’d say. And he would respond, “I hope I don’t see another one!” When I asked my friend about it, she replied, “He’s really hoping for the rapture.” At his funeral a couple of years ago, more than one speaker mentioned what they were sure was his bitter disappointment at meeting Jesus at the pearly gates rather than being taken up in the clouds.

How do we read the Bible? It sounds like such a simple question, really, and I’ve heard all sorts of answers to it in my lifetime, as I’m sure you have. And this week we’ve gotten to watch, along with the entire world, an example of someone reading the Bible in a very particular way, and then making some very bold claims based on that reading, which, in turn, has inspired people to watch closely to see whether that claim had any basis. Well, to be more accurate, I’m afraid many people watched in order to be able to pat themselves on the back when those claims turned out to be false. Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network read the Bible this way: he worked out a very complicated system of numerology and mathematical equations, based on what he believed were the dates of the great flood and the crucifixion of Jesus, and with the help of those calculations, concluded that the end of days would commence May 21, last night, at 6 PM, with earthquakes rolling through the time zones. At that hour, according to Mr. Camping, the righteous would be taken directly into heaven, and five months of tribulations—war, famine, disease, and the revealing of the anti-Christ—would commence.

Reaction to Mr. Camping’s claims about the end of the world as we know it has been mixed. The New York Times reported this week on families that were divided by the belief—the ones that stood out to me were Abby and Robert Carson and their three children. Abby and Robert believed Mr. Camping’s claims (perhaps they still do), and so Abby left her work as a nurse to become a full time missionary on behalf of Mr. Camping’s prophecy. The children do not believe the claims, and are dismayed, for example, to see that their parents have stopped saving for their college educations. They are even more dismayed to be told by their mother that they will not be getting into heaven. Their fourteen-year-old son Joseph said, “I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore, because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”[i]

There was a lot of merriment at the Camping followers’ expense this week. People threw post-rapture parties, and played pranks involving piles of clothing left in conspicuous places, and, I am assuming, playfully speculated at which Christian neighbors’ cars or houses they might like to move into after those Christians were snatched up by the spirit in the sky.

And I am assuming as I write this that as we gather on Sunday May 22, none of it will have happened. Why am I assuming this? Well, it’s not because I simply can’t believe that the world will end. I can believe it, even apart from the proclamation of our faith. I think such a thing is not only possible; given the choices we make as individuals and as nations, I think it’s entirely likely that our planet could cease to be the hospitable home God created it to be. I am assuming that no rapture will have occurred on May 21 because I believe Mr. Camping and his followers employed a flawed method of reading scripture. I believe there are good principles we can employ in reading the Bible that will help us to be guided by it, and be enriched by it, and deepen our relationships to God through it, and that Mr. Camping, at least in his vision of the end times, did not employ these principles.

The latest edition of “Horizons,” the magazine for Presbyterian women, is devoted to the Bible, and among the very good articles there is one called “How Do I Read the Bible?” This article shares seven simple guidelines adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) nearly thirty years ago. Take this one, for example: “Seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of all the Bible.” This guideline could have helped Mr. Camping. It could have reminded him of Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel, “…about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Mark 13:32] Another of the guidelines: “Let the focus be on the plain text of Scripture, to the grammatical and historical context, rather than to allegory or subjective fantasy.”

Look, for example, at our passage from John’s gospel. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins. Do not let your hearts be troubled! “Believe in God; believe also in me.” At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has all but completed his earthly ministry. He has changed water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. He has talked to Nicodemus at night about life, the universe, and God’s plan for salvation. He has verbally sparred with the Samaritan woman at the well, and explained that he is the Living Water. He has fed the crowd of more than five thousand and explained that he is the Bread of Life. He has healed the man born blind, and explained that he is the Good Shepherd and the gate for the sheep, and that he has other flocks that are not of this particular fold. In other words—Jesus has gone about a program of inviting, welcoming, challenging, feeding, teaching, and healing people—all the people. Jesus has been in the process of giving away his life so that others might live. And now, in this moment of the story, he is looking ahead, and what he sees there is the cross, where his program of giving away his life will be complete.

Naturally, his friends and followers are frightened. They do not fully—or perhaps even partially—understand. And so he seeks to reassure them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins. “Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” The Greek word for ‘house’ can also be translated as ‘household.’ And ‘household’ implies extended family, friends, those who normally gather in a place. Even more interesting is the word translated ‘dwelling places.’ The Greek word means ‘tent,’ or ‘temporary dwelling’—a far cry from the familiar “mansions” that still resonates in many of our brains. So how about this for an alternative translation of that whole sentence: In God’s extended family there are many places to rest on your journey. Jesus is not making promises here about eternal real estate, as if we can put a down-payment on some kind of condo in the clouds; a quick look at the work he has been about would seem to make that clear. Rather, he is assuring his friends and followers about eternal relationships, about the eternal welcome and hospitality of God.

“You know,” Jesus says to those who have been following him around and watching him heal and eating the bread he’s blessed. “You know the way. You know the road I am on.” And Thomas, the one who is forever saddled with the unfortunate nickname ‘Doubting,’ says something he is not well-known for saying: he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” You want to know the way to God? It is the way I am on. It is the way I have been showing you all along. It is the way of inviting, welcoming, challenging, feeding, teaching, and healing people—all the people.

Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story that is very much on point for those of us who are hoping to see Jesus face to face one day. He speaks of a devout follower of the Buddha who rushed to see him—and ignored a fellow human being who was in dire need along the way. When he came to the Buddha’s monastery, he was unable to see him. His eyes could not perceive him. The one who can see the Buddha is the one who seeks him in the needy and suffering.

It is a remarkable parallel to Jesus’ words in another gospel. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:35-36, 40]. Those of us who want to see Jesus have already been shown the way, and the truth and the life. We know the way. It is the way of spending our lives for others. We don’t need strange calculations, though we do need scripture—the full witness of scripture. We don’t need to leave our jobs, though we do need to follow Jesus’ way while we are in those jobs. We don’t need to ignore our families; we do need to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

How do we read the Bible? What, for example, does scripture suggest to us today, in the aftermath of the rapture that wasn’t? Today I am thinking about those Christians who have been so concerned about the emotional aftermath for Mr. Camping’s followers that they have made it their mission to minister to the May 21st crowd. They camped out around Mr. Camping’s headquarters to bring a message of hope to the possibly devastated believers, and to help them to begin to put their lives back together. There it is: the way of Jesus in that compassion and hope.

Today is a day for recognizing that we have to take scripture seriously enough to approach it with humility. It is a day to keep in our prayers those who awoke this morning devastated or confused or desperately disappointed, and if we know them personally to reach out with compassion. And it is a day to recommit ourselves as servants of our servant Lord, who poured out his life for everyone, and who invites us to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Juliet Linderman, “Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending,” New York Times, May 20, 2011.

* Image: Rapture Cupcakes, Courtesy Unvirtuous Abbey

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lead Me On: Sermon on John 10:1-16

As many of you are aware, I recently celebrated my fiftieth birthday—I believe I saw quite a few of you here at my surprise party! Now that I’m fifty, one of the benefits, I figure, is that I can repeat myself with impunity. So, to that end, some of you have heard this story. Many of you have not.

The year was 1989. My son Larry was not quite two years old, and I was in graduate school , studying for a Master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry. I was planning to go on to study Jungian psychotherapy, or maybe—maybe—try to be a hospital or college chaplain. One warm late summer day I was driving down Route 128, on my way to an interview for a Field Placement position at a Hospital in Quincy, MA. And, even though I didn’t understanding it completely, there was something momentous about this interview for me.

It was going to be the first time that I, born and raised Roman Catholic, had ever laid eyes on an ordained woman minister.

As I was driving I was listening to Amy Grant, singing:

Lead me on, lead me on

To the place where the river runs into your keeping.

Oh, Lead me on, lead me on.

The awaited deliverance comforts the seeking… lead on.

As I drove something converged in me. In an instant everything clicked, and I had what I have since called my “road to Damascus” moment, as if I were the apostle Paul and I had been knocked down by a bright flash of light. I suddenly understood with great clarity that I wanted to be an ordained minister—or, that God wanted me to be an ordained minister—or, that the ordained ministry somehow wanted me. It was piercing and powerful, so powerful that I threw my hands up into the air in utter elation… and then, because I was driving down Route 128 outside of Boston, I quickly put them back on the steering wheel where they belonged. And at that same moment, my elation was sucked right into a vortex of despair, because I knew I could never, ever answer that call. My church, the church that had given me my faith and introduced me to Jesus, wouldn’t allow it.

Sometimes, it seems as if God is trying to lead us places where we simply cannot follow. And then… we have to figure out if it really is God trying to lead us there, or if it’s something else. Like ego, or greed, or a false idol of what we think we’re trying to attain. But in the end, if we think, if we believe, in the core of our being, that it is God who is leading us, what else can we do but follow?

Lead me on, lead me on.

Aside from the image of “Father,” there is almost no image that has captured the Christian imagination so powerfully as the image of the Lord as our Shepherd. To speak of God, or, specifically, Jesus, as Shepherd, is to recognize the ways in which Jesus leads us on. He leads us on a good path, where he gives us food, water, everything we need. He leads us to resting place. He leads us through times of trouble and danger. He leads us through times of indecision and confusion. He leads us on.

And this image comes to us, not only from the beloved Psalm 23, but also from today’s passage in the gospel of John. John’s gospel stands out from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as being different—its timeline is different, its stories are different, and, most noticeably, its Jesus is different. In the other three gospels, Jesus points away from himself and towards God. But in John, Jesus is constantly talking about himself. He is constantly making these “I am” statements.

I am the living water.

I am the vine.

I am the bread of life.

I am the good shepherd.

I am the gate for the sheep.

Jesus, in identifying himself as both shepherd and gate in the same soliloquy, may, in a sense, be setting us up for some confusion, but somehow it all holds together. The passage we’re reading is from chapter 10. We read most of chapter 9 about a month and a half ago—do you remember the story about the man who had been born blind? And how Jesus healed him, and then the religious authorities were exceedingly distressed, because someone who wasn’t in the union was doing union work? The story ended, or so it seemed, with the formerly blind man being kicked out of the faith community by the religious authorities because of his steadfast insistence on crediting Jesus with his healing. But, in fact, the story doesn’t end there—because this is part of the same story. This is another feature of John’s gospel—the explanations. The theology. John’s Jesus tells us what he’s going to tell us, then he tells us, then he tells us what he told us. And here, Jesus is explaining what just happened in terms of these “I Am” statements. Jesus is speaking to the religious authorities.

And he’s saying, “I know you folks like to think of yourselves as the gatekeepers. But, in fact, you are not the gatekeepers, because I am the gate.”

You know, I used to think of that image, of Jesus as the gate, as being one of protection… and of course, that is part of it. In the ancient near and middle east, it was common for shepherds to sleep across the opening of the fold, so as to literally put their lives on the line for the sheep—any predator who was seeking to snatch a lamb had to get through the shepherd first. So, of course, for Jesus to say he is the gate is for him to give us that powerful image of the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. In that sense, the gate and the shepherd are one and the same.

But there is something else as well. The shepherd leads the sheep out through the gate, we are told. Why? Well, because that is how the sheep get to the water, and the grass, and the good fresh air—in other words, that’s where abundant life is. And so the gate/shepherd, in addition to being an image of protection, is also an image of freedom. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to be protected in the enclosure of the sheepfold by the shepherd who is the gate. And there is a time to leave the fold and seek abundant life—while still, at the same time, following the shepherd. And… I can testify personally that leaving the fold can cause anxiety and fear, at the same time it offers the tantalizing promise of abundant life.

This week, as many of you know, a majority of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to change a passage of our Book of Order. This change expands the understanding of who may respond to God’s call to be deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament—who, when the shepherd calls them, can say “lead me on,” and then follow. There is a lot of misinformation floating around about what this change will do to the church, so, first, I’d like to share with you the new wording:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

This is the new standard for all who hope to serve in one of our three ordained offices. Joyful submission to the good shepherd—following that shepherd, wherever we are led—in all aspects of life. A careful examination of each candidate’s calling and gifts and preparation and suitability. Guidance given by Scripture and the Confessions.

What is left out of these newly ratified standards, is this: there is no litmus test for exclusion. People cannot be ruled out simply on the basis of their sexuality. There is an acknowledgement that the shepherd calls whom the shepherd will call—that the shepherd is, in fact, the gate, and the gatekeeper, too, and it is up to churches and presbyteries to use all their wisdom and discernment to try to recognize that call where they may. No church or presbytery will ever be forced to ordain someone it does not believe to be a good candidate. Presbyteries and churches will seek to discern God’s will in community—as we always have.

It was a little over fourteen years from the day I had my “road to Damascus” moment until the day I was ordained a minister of Word and Sacrament. Our denomination has been struggling with this question of sexuality much longer than that… thirty-three years, by one estimate. And just as I had to leave the church of my childhood in order to follow as God led me, many have left our church, seeking to follow that shepherd who promises abundant life. Sometimes, it seems as if God is trying to lead us places where we simply cannot follow. This is as true for the church as it is for individuals. And then… we have to figure out if it really is God trying to lead us there, or if it’s something else. But in the end, if we think, if we believe, in the core of our being, that it is God who is leading us, what else can we do but follow?

I ask you to join me in prayer:

Almighty God, we give thanks for a rich heritage of faithful witnesses to the gospel throughout the ages. We offer gratitude not only for those who have gone before us, but for all who have sought diligently to discern the mind of Christ for the church in every time and place, and especially in this present time.

May your Spirit of peace be present with us in difficult decisions, especially where relationships are strained and the future is unclear. Open our ears and our hearts to listen to and hear those with whom we differ. Most of all, we give thanks for Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord, who called the Church into being and who continues to call us to follow his example of loving our neighbor and working for the reconciliation of the world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

On the Road with Jesus: Monologue Sermon on Luke 24:13-35

I have just put the bread in the oven—four beautiful, fragrant loaves. Their scent is beginning to permeate the house. That smell… well, there’s nothing like it, is there? It’s the smell of nourishment, of care, it’s the smell of life! I have always loved this particular part of women’s work, baking the bread and bringing it to the table. But now… it always makes my heart burn with joy, as I remember the day we were on the road with Jesus.
It began as a day of confusion… three days, really. My husband Cleopas and I were staying in Jerusalem for the Passover and of course the news—the terrible news—spread like a raging fire over parched earth. We had learned within hours of the terrible event, of what had happened to Jesus of Nazareth—whom we had believed to be a prophet. Whom we had believed to be the Messiah. We had heard how our leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and how the Romans had crucified him.
And we had hoped… how can I even convey to you what we had hoped? We had hoped that he, who wandered Galilee free as a bird on the wing, would lead our people to a life of freedom. We had hoped that he, who spoke of putting away the sword, would lead our people to a life of peace. We had hoped that he, who healed every kind of disease and malady, would lead our people to a life of wholeness. And how our hopes were no more. They were nothing but foolish wishes. Those in power had shown us what happens to those with dreams of freedom, peace and wholeness.
And so we had planned, on the first day of the week, to leave Jerusalem, to return to our village, Emmaus. We couldn’t bear to stay in that place where our hopes and dreams had been killed. We needed to return to family, and familiarity. We needed to go home.
But then another story started to spread—and this one wasn’t fire, it was wind, it blew into the place we were staying early that morning. Some women of our group astounded us. They had gone to the tomb early that morning, and they did not find his body there. They came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.
Cleopas and I whispered together in a corner. “What shall we do?” I asked. “What can we do?” he said. “There’s nothing for us here. There’s nothing but cruel taunts, inviting us to hope again and be crushed again. There’s nothing to do except to go home.” And so that is what we did. On that day of confusion we set out for our home village.
I love to walk with my husband. He is unusual, I think, in that he likes to talk. And that is what we do, when we take a journey of several hours or more. We talk about all the things we don’t have time to talk about in the day-to-day busyness of our lives. We talk about what matters to us. That day, we talked only of Jesus.
We talked of the day Cleopas first saw him. He had been working with his brother hauling rocks from a quarry to build a pavilion for a wealthy man in our town. Emmaus is known for its hot springs, which means those with money travel here for their health. Cleopas and Markus paused in their work, in the heat of the day, and saw a man sitting by a well, surrounded by people who were jostling one another to get closer to him. When they too moved closer, they heard him tell the most remarkable tale—a tale about a Samaritan and some Jews and a man who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead, and how the Samaritan saved him, while the Jews did nothing. Markus scoffed and turned back to his work, but there was something in the words that captured my husband’s attention. “Is it possible?” he’d asked me that night, as we leaned together over our supper. “Is it possible that not all Samaritans are evil and godless? I’ve never thought about it before.” The next day Cleopas took me to see him. I was skeptical. But Cleopas was insistent. He had learned his name—Jesus, of Nazareth—and he had heard that, not only was he a teacher, but also a healer.
As Cleopas pulled me through the village, I felt my face burning with shame. I knew why he was taking me to see this healer. We had been married for more than three years, and I had yet to bring forth a child. The other women were starting to look at me with that terrible pity they get when they decide one of us is barren. A woman who is not a mother in my village—well, she may as well be dead. She has no value. Not to my Cleopas, though. I knew my husband treasured me. I knew that I had value to him. But it still pained me that he thought I needed to be healed.
When we arrived, there was a great commotion. The crowd gathered around Jesus was full of men shouting, and arguing. At the center of it all, a man sat on the ground at Jesus’ feet, talking quietly with him. But when we drew near enough to see who man that was—Cleopas and I clutched one another in shock. It was Jacob, the beggar. Jacob, cousin to my cousin. Jacob, who had never been able to utter a word. Jacob, who now was conversing with Jesus as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Jacob had been mute, and Jesus had opened his mouth.
Cleopas turned to me and said, “Mariam, what more evidence do we need? This man—he is the Messiah. He is the one who will save our people. I don’t understand everything he says, but the power of God is in him.” And that day we became his followers. We didn’t leave our home; we couldn’t. But we followed him from afar. We met others who believed he was the Messiah. We heard by word of mouth when he would be anywhere near, and we went to see him, as far as a two-day walk, just to be near him.
We talked of all these things as we walked toward our home. As we walked and talked, a stranger joined us on our journey. It was not such an unusual thing. Pilgrims were leaving Jerusalem, now that the great Sabbath of Passover was past. It is always safer to travel with company than to go alone on unknown paths.
As Cleopas and I paused in our conversation, the stranger asked what we were talking about. When I heard his voice, it struck me: there was something familiar about it, but I didn’t give it much thought. In our village, everybody was somebody’s relative. Cleopas asked him, incredulous, how it was he knew nothing about Jesus. But then the stranger began to talk, and it was clear: he knew everything.
He began to tell us about the Messiah, and how it was necessary—necessary—for him to suffer, and only by suffering would the glory of God truly be revealed. He explained that the Messiah had been foretold by the prophets—he reminded us of the words of Isaiah, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… by his bruises we are healed. [Isaiah 53:4-5].”
He told us how God was victorious over death, and that the Messiah truly lived, just as the women had said.
We were silent, and our hearts began to burn with something indefinable, something we would only understand much later. But it was as if we had been walking around in a fog—a cold cloud of misery and grief and crushed hopes—and now, the sun was coming out, on that dusty road, all because of the words of a stranger.
As we approached our village, the stranger bid us farewell, but we couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. Cleopas asked him, pleaded with him— “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” And so he entered our home.
Everything that followed was somehow familiar and brand new all at the same time. I ran to my sister’s house for some bread, and then we sat at table together. My sister had just taken the loaves from the oven for her own family’s meal. The smell of the good grain and the yeast filled our small room, and it was warm in my hands as I carried it home. The stranger took the bread in his hands and closed his eyes in prayer: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu, melech ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; Blessed are you, Lord God, king of all creation, who brings forth bread from the earth.” And he broke the bread and gave it to us.
That was the moment when we saw. That’s when the fog lifted. That’s when we understood, finally, that Jesus was with us. That’s when we knew him, when he broke the bread and shared it with us. That’s when we understood we had been on the road with Jesus all day long. As I took the bread from his hand, he looked into my eyes, and I knew that I was healed—but not in the way Cleopas had anticipated. I don’t have a child. But I knew in that moment that my value did not depend on being able to produce a child. I knew myself to be loved, by my Messiah and my God. That is how I was healed.
Can you smell the bread now? Every time I place the loaves in the oven I remember that he left us this sign, as an
everlasting reminder. Every time that scent fills our little house, I know that he is with us still, and that we are taking the good bread from his hands..
Every time Cleopas and I walk together, I know that we are on the road with Jesus again. I know that he is, truly, leading us to freedom and peace and wholeness after all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Paul and Eutychus: A Ballad in Eleven Limericks for Holy Hilarity Sunday

Yes. I did that.

7On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. 10But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. 12Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted. ~Acts 20:7-12

There once was a man, came from Tarsus

A Pharisee, who much scripture parses;

He got it in mind

Those Christians to find,

And treated them by far the harshest.

Of course, he was none other than Saul,

Who after he saw holy Stephen fall,

Set out for Damascus

With one simple task:

To rout Christians out, one and all.

But Saul had another thing coming:

For while he was threats and murder humming,

A heavenly light

Did rob him of sight,

And left him there, blinded and bumming.

But our Lord spoke to Saul in his blindness,

And out of God’s goodness and kindness,

His persecution was iced

As Paul came to know Christ,

Who frees us from all that can bind us.

Now instead of to Christians being hostile,

Our Saul started preaching the gospel.

And in a neat trick,

His P.R. to fix,

Saul became Paul the Apostle.

Flash forward, and Paul’s been out preaching,

And healing and traveling and teaching,

And scuffling with Pete

To let Gentiles meet

‘Cause it turns out they too are Christ seeking.

And Paul was a hard working guy,

And though he worked hard and he tried,

Sometimes he did drone,

He’d go on and on,

And from boredom, someone actually died.

And this was the case with young Eutychus,

And he was neither a brute nor cuss.

He just needed a nap,

So his eyes shut did snap,

He fell from a window and raised a fuss.

He fell out of a window and on his head,

And so, to their shock, they found him dead.

Paul took him in his arms,

And said, “Don’t be alarmed:

His life is still in him—let’s break some bread.”

And so the Lord’s Supper they shared.

And then, Paul more gospel declared.

Paul talked until dawn,

Yes, he went on and on,

But this time the people were spared.

So Eutychus lived to tell the tale,

For God healed him, down to the last detail.

For even a preacher,

That long-winded creature,

Can’t stand in the way: God’s love won’t fail.

Thanks be to God (that’s over). Amen.