Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bishop's Visit

The Bishop is here for his semi-annual visitation.  That's always sort of a big thing, but it also means that I don't have to preach.

I do like preaching, but it's good every now and then to have a day off, so to speak.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sermon; Easter 2B; John 20:19-31

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Here we are, one week after the Resurrection.  Here we are, one week into the Easter season, with six to go.  We should be singing and celebrating and giving thanks and praise for the Resurrection and all that entails.

That's what we should be doing.

But once again it seems like we return to life as it was.  Once again it seems like we return to doing things as they've always been done.  And, once again, as I began preparing for this Sunday, I was faced with a moment of dread.  Not because I find it difficult to live into a 50-day celebration (although by week 5 it does get hard to keep up the enthusiasm), but because once again I remembered that it's this gospel.  Once again I remembered that we have the gospel passage involving Thomas.  This is the only gospel passage we get every year without fail, and once again I need to find a way to preach on it.

It seems like every year I need to remind people why he shouldn't be called “Doubting Thomas.”  Every year we need to deal with Jesus' rebuke of Thomas' apparent disbelief.  Every year it's the same thing.

But here's the thing – if we think this is the same every year, if all we hear is the same tired explanations about Thomas, if all we see is redundancy from year to year, if all we do is say, “Oh no, not Thomas again,” we just might miss something important.  We just might miss a change.  We just might miss Resurrection.

We really don't know what resurrection looks like.  We know it's a movement from death to life.  We know it involves a change.  We know it's a different way of living.  But the only person who knows what it is exactly is Jesus.  And the only people who have seen it in bodily form are the disciples.  But even they didn't fully grasp it at first, as Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, the other ten didn't grasp it until Jesus showed them his hands and side, and, over in Luke, those two on the road to Emmaus didn't recognize him until after he broke bread and gave thanks.  This Resurrection thing is a little tricky.

The one thing we do know about it is that it's different.  We know that it involves a change.  Jesus was different and was changed on that first Easter day.  The disciples were different and changed after his appearances.  When we move from death to life we are changed and things are different.  And this is what is happening today in John's gospel – Jesus is initiating a fundamental change that, if we aren't paying attention, we just might miss.

You're probably thinking that John's gospel is different enough as it is.  And you're right.  Everything from a cosmic beginning, very few miracles, a different time-line and long, confusing speeches by Jesus are part of its different nature from the other three.

John only records seven miracles.  In addition to those seven miracles, there are a few other places that I will simply call “events” that serve the same purpose as those seven miracles.  That is, these miracles and events take place before people come to believe that Jesus is who he says he is.  Water to wine, sickness to health, blindness to sight, feeding the five thousand, talking with people in Samaria – John records all of these events as the catalyst for belief.

This is different from the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In those gospels, the vast number, if not all, miraculous events take the form of, “Do you believe . . . your faith has made you well.”  In these gospels, belief is generally the catalyst for a miraculous event.

This is important.  It's important because that form of miracle-then-belief that John utilizes is present in today's gospel passage:  When it was evening of the first day of the week, and the doors of the house were locked, Jesus appeared among them.  After he said, “Peace be with you,” he showed them his hands and his side – and it was only then that they rejoiced.  In other words, miraculous appearing coupled with bodily proof led to belief.

Thomas is not with the other ten at this point.  We don't know where he was; for all we know, he was down at the bank explaining about Judas and trying to get his name on the bank account.  But when he comes back from whatever business he was attending to, the other ten excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord.  And here Thomas follows standard operating procedure according to John – he wants to see the wounds and place his hand in his side.  Thomas, in other words, is not behaving any differently than the other ten disciples, Mary, the wine stewards or the blind man.

But then something interesting happens.  Jesus shows up a week later in the same manner, appearing in a house with locked doors and standing among the eleven.  He invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds and Thomas then believes, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.”

And this is where we miss The Big Event.  We get so hung up on Jesus' apparent rebuke of Thomas, we get so hung up on dealing with “Doubting Thomas,” we get so hung up on having to get through this gospel yet again that we miss The Big Event.

That Big Event is this: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

That's it.  That's the Big Event.

That's the Big Event because, up until this point, everything in John has been miracle then belief.  But now, with these words, Jesus is changing how things have always been done.  Now, with these words, belief isn't reserved for those who experience a miraculous event.  Now, with these words, we and untold millions of people can call ourselves blessed.

This is good news and it happens because of resurrection.  This is good news and it happens because there is change.  This is good news because things are now different than they've always been.

If we think things haven't changed, if all we see is the redundancy of the same tired story over and over again, if we think this story is about Thomas, we're missing The Big Event.  That event is that Jesus is no longer doing things as they've always been done.  That event is a fundamental change in the format of the story.  That event is Resurrection.

This Easter, don't be in such a hurry to get back to life as it was.  This Easter, notice what has changed.  This Easter, notice Resurrection.

Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Three-legged Stool

Yesterday afternoon I worked the first spring scrimmage game for the SOU Raiders (2014 NAIA National Champions, btw).  It was good to be on a football field again and hang out with the guys.

To be honest, though, I was a little bored.  Seven-man mechanics is a whole lot different from the four- and five-man mechanics I normally work.  But it was still fun.

After the scrimmage the crew went out for food, drinks and fun.  Shortly after we got there, another official joined us.  The other six guys on the crew new him from having worked a lot of small college with him.  I had met him briefly when he came to our high school group and gave a presentation on working in the Pac-12.  So, yes, he started where we all do, Pop Warner and junior high, and moved up the ranks to officiate in the Pac-12.

As it turned out, he got "The Call" a few days ago . . . he is now one of several new officials in the NFL, which includes Sarah Thomas.

Anyway, he and I got to talking about things and he asked me if I were looking to move up into college.  I said, "No," and gave him a variety of reasons.  But we got to talking about what differentiates a "great" official from an "average" official.

**I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP**

"A great official understands all three aspects of the game and can integrate that seamlessly into his officiating.  There's this thing I like to call a three-legged stool -- Rules, Philosophy and Mechanics -- and the great officials know the importance of each."

I replied, "You would make a great Episcopalian."

Who said there wasn't theology in football??

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Sermon; Easter Day; John 20:1-18

The book of Genesis begins with two creation stories.  The first is the six-day creation story and is similar to other creation stories from neighboring societies.  It is orderly and liturgical in nature as it works to bring order out of chaos.  And, among other things, it is deeply poetic: And God said . . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . . And God said . . . and there was evening, and there was morning.

In the second story, creation takes place in the span of one day, and this story is more relational in nature than the first.  God creates a human to be placed in a garden, and the garden is surrounded by four rivers – the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates – from which it is nourished.  God gives the human the job of caring for the garden.  Then God creates animals of all kinds because it's a big and lonely job.  And God invites the human to be part of the creative process.  Finally God creates another human, and the man and woman live together with God in the garden.

As the day goes on, the woman finds herself in a conversation with a serpent.  The serpent never blatantly lies to the woman, but it never really tells the whole truth.  The woman eats fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then gives some to her husband who was standing next to her.

Later than evening, God is walking through the garden and calls out to the man.  Both he and his wife hide because they are naked and ashamed.  What follows next is the original pass-the-buck story as he blames both God and the woman and she blames the serpent.  The result of all this is that the man and woman end up being banished from the garden before they can eat from the tree of life.

The rest of the biblical story, all the way through Revelation, is all about restoring that damaged relationship.  The biblical story, at its core, is a constant effort by God to bring humanity back into a good and intimate relationship that was present in the garden on that day of creation.  As it says in the Eucharistic Prayer, “Again and again, you called us to return.  Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law.  And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son.”

That Son, Jesus, is the embodiment of the relationship between God and humanity.  Through Jesus, God once again walks amid his creation.  Through Jesus, we are once again able to stand in the presence of God without being ashamed.  The Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is probably the greatest miracle to have ever taken place.

It was because of the Incarnation that, we believe, the relationship between humanity and divinity was restored.  It's not prefect, but it is restored.  Through Jesus we can see God reaching out to be involved in our lives.  Through Jesus we can see what it means to live with God at the center of our lives.  Through Jesus we have an example of what it looks like to include people we normally exclude.  Through Jesus we can see what sacrificial love looks like.  Through Jesus we can see forgiveness in action.  And through Jesus we know what it means to die to the world but live in God.

The person of Jesus gave us all these examples.  The person of Jesus invited people to follow him and learn once more what it looked like to be in relationship with God.

One of the things that restored relationship does is to nourish us.  A healthy relationship nourishes us in a variety of ways.  A healthy relationship can nourish us physically, spiritually and emotionally.  Jesus is telling us that in our restored relationship with God we will be nourished, and we will be nourished through him.  In John's gospel, Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life and the living water.  Furthermore, he makes the audacious claim that those who eat the bread of life and drink the living water will never die.

Jesus is telling us that through him we will be nourished with life-giving bread and water.  Jesus is telling us that, if we partake of the nourishment he is offering, we will never die.

On the one hand we know that isn't true.  We all die.  Even Jesus died after being crucified.  But what we believe to be true is that through Christ we receive new life.  Through his death and resurrection we also will be raised to new life.  What that looks like exactly, nobody knows.  But what we believe is that, through Jesus, we are returned to a right relationship with God, nourished by his grace and given life-everlasting.

It is this resurrected life which we are given a sampling of today.  Early in the morning Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb.  When she gets there she sees the stone had been rolled away and the tomb empty.  After telling the disciples someone had stolen the body, she goes back to the empty tomb and is met by two angels.

In tears she turns away from the angels and is confronted by Jesus.  She confuses him for the gardener and wants to know where they've taken the body.  Jesus calls her by name and she immediately recognizes him.  She is the first to encounter the resurrected Christ.  She is the first to get a glimpse of life-everlasting.

But know this:  when Mary thought he was the gardener, she wasn't wrong.  One reading of today's gospel passage places the tomb in a garden.  That would certainly explain her thinking Jesus was the gardener.  If it was located in a garden, then what we have here is that Jesus, bread of life and living water, closes the circle opened in that second story of creation.

A river flowed out of Eden and became four branches – the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates.  That water allowed the garden to grow and provided nourishment for the people living in it.  And the people in the garden tended it, living in perfect relationship with God, where he called them by name.

Jesus, the living water, proceeds forth from God the Father and divides into four branches – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  This living water allows the garden of the gospels to grow, and the bread of life found in those gospels provides nourishment for us.  Through Jesus we are called to tend the garden of the gospels.  Through Jesus, we are are called to tend that garden and live in relationship with God where he calls us by name, just as he did with Mary.

Jesus Christ is risen today and is calling us back to the garden of life and relationship.  Let's not make the same mistake Mary made and see Jesus as the lowly gardener.  Instead, let's see Jesus for who he is, the Master Gardener, who desires nothing more than to nourish us and live in perfect relationship with us.

Jesus Christ is risen today.  The tomb is empty, and we are being called back into the garden to eat from the tree of life.

Amen.

Sermon; Easter Vigil; Mark 16:1-8

Out of all the gospels, the ending to Mark is the most confusing.  First, we have the question of “which ending?”  The passage you just heard is where Mark seems to have ended his story.  That gave rise to some people really not liking how it ended, and adding on another two sentences stating that everybody did exactly what Jesus told them to do.  This is called, “The Shorter Ending of Mark.”

A shorter ending, though, implies a longer ending, and so it is with Mark.  This longer ending includes stories of appearances, proclamations, disbelief, speaking in tongues, snake handling, poison drinking, faith healing and the Ascension.  Just in case you couldn't figure this out, the Longer Ending of Mark is not really popular with Episcopalians.

But there you have it.  Three endings; the first totally unsatisfactory, the second and third trying desperately to tie up all the loose ends.  It reminds me of the ending to “The Sopranos” with the screen cutting to black in that final episode.  The original ending was unsatisfactory to many people, so they all started filling in the gaps.  So it is and was with Mark.

For today, though, we have that original, unsatisfactory ending to the gospel: So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

How does this make any sense?  For a gospel whose first words are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” how is this good news?  This is no way to end a story.

And it's doubly disappointing for us.  Not only is it a disappointing end to the story, but this is Easter.  This is the Passover of the Lord.  This is when we are to celebrate his victory over death.  This is when we shout, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen! . . . . . .”  We light candles, turn on the lights, ring bells and make a joyful noise.  And this is what we get – they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid??

That ain't right.

We may not think it's right, but it's what we've got.  So rather than focus on what we think isn't right, or on what we don't have, let's focus on what we do have.

What we have before today is Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  What we have before today is the Last Supper, betrayal, desertion, arrest, denial and crucifixion.  What we have before today is death.  What we have before today is Jesus in a tomb.  And then we have today.

Early on the first day of the week, Mary, Mary and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body.  When they drew near they noticed that the stone had been rolled away.  Upon entering the tomb, they were greeted by an angel and they were afraid.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said.  “He is not here.  Go, tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee and there you will see him.”

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Jesus has been raised and is going on ahead of you to Galilee.  Jesus and his disciples spent a lot of time in and around Galilee.  Andrew, Peter, James and John were from that area.  It's where Jesus calmed the sea and walked on water.  It wasn't his home base, but it's where he spent a lot of time.  It's where he called the first third of his disciples.  And this is the place he's going back to.

He's not going back to Jerusalem to appear before the Pharisees and Pilate in a “Gotcha!” moment.  He's not going back to the city where he was crucified to give all those people who wanted a sign the biggest sign imaginable.  He's going back to Galilee.

This is important and this is why the women were terrified and said nothing to anyone.  They were terrified and said nothing to anyone because Jesus was going back to Galilee.  He was, for all intents and purposes, going home.  He was going back into the normal and ordinary lives of normal and ordinary people.  It's one thing to proclaim the good news of Christ in far away, exotic places to people with whom you have no connection.  It's one thing to proclaim the good news of Christ to people you may never see again.  But this . . . Jesus is going back to Galilee.  Jesus is to be found in the drudgery of every day activities.  And that can be terrifying.

Go and proclaim the gospel, making disciples of all nations – beginning with your friends and family.  There's a lot of risk in that; after all, Jesus' own family thought he was a bit unstable.  If they thought that about Jesus himself, what about us?  Jesus is risen, he is not here.  Go and tell your friends and family what you have found.  And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

When it comes to family, friends and religion, we can be gripped by fear.  Some here might have come from a non-religious background and might be worried about being labeled superstitious, gullible or a Jesus freak.  Some here might come from other denominations and be looked down on because, well, it's the Episcopal church.  Some here might have family and friends who have left the Episcopal church because, well, it's the Episcopal church.  Religion in general, and proclaiming the good news in Christ as you hear the Spirit calling you, can be a scary proposition.

So here's a deal for you.  When you leave here, rather than showing up for the family Easter dinner or egg hunt and shout, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  And I want to tell you all about the empty tomb,” recognize that Jesus has returned to Galilee.  When you leave here and are gathered together with your friends and families, recognize that that is where Jesus is – back home.

I invite you to do this as an Easter discipline.  The Easter season lasts fifty days, a little longer than Lent.  But instead of focusing on repentance, fasting and self-denial as we did in Lent, focus on seeing Jesus in the normal, every day people of your normal, every day lives and routines.  And then finish the story.

Mark's gospel ends suddenly, unsatisfactorily, and, more importantly, open-ended.

We went to the tomb, but he is not there.  He's back home.  He is to be found in our every day living.  Where the story goes from here is up to you.

Where will you find Jesus this Easter and what story will you tell?

Friday, April 03, 2015

I thirst

The annual mainline ecumenical Good Friday service is at noon today at the church down the street from us.  In the planning sessions for it, the host parish wanted to do meditations on the seven last words of Christ.  The clergy from the other congregations were each assigned one of them in which to offer a short (emphasis on short, since we're trying to do this during the lunch hour) meditation.

I took, "I thirst."

Here's my Good Friday meditation on those words.
================================================================

I thirst.

And no wonder.

Jesus had been betrayed by one friend and deserted by all the others.

He had been whipped to within an inch of his life, humiliated, abused and nailed to a cross.

He was stressed to the breaking point – physically, emotionally and, depending on what gospel you read, spiritually.

After that torment and after hanging on a cross for several hours, his body was desperately in need of fluids.

In that condition, – beaten, tortured, abandoned and mocked – I imagine that he was desperately in need of someone to care for his body.

Jesus, the man, was desperately in need of someone to give him a drink.

I thirst.

And no wonder.

Jesus spent his whole ministry crossing boundaries.

He welcomed the sinner, the impure and the outcast into his midst.

He stood in opposition to social norms by treating foreigners and those of lesser status with respect, dignity, and as equals.

He dared to touch those infected and contaminated with diseases and untouchable illnesses.

He defended the powerless from those in power.

Jesus, Son of God, embodied the words of the prophet Isaiah when he said, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Jesus, the Living Water, embodied the prophet Amos when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Jesus, Son of God and Living Water, desperately thirsted for justice.

I thirst.

Will we offer water to the thirsty?  Will we care for those in need?  Will we welcome those who don't look like us, dress like us or smell like us with respect, dignity, and as equals?  Will we touch those infected and contaminated with diseases and untouchable illnesses?  Will we defend the powerless from those in power?

Jesus thirsts.  Do we?

Sermon; Maundy Thursday

The reading from Exodus is the traditional reading for this service, as it recounts for us the meal and preparations for the Jewish Passover feast.  The Passover meal, or Seder, is both a remembrance and a celebration.  It is a remembrance of the preparations the Hebrew people made in anticipation of being freed from bondage in Egypt.  It is also a celebration of the night that God released them from that bondage.  This is the night when the Hebrews were saved from death and released from bondage.  This is the night when they crossed over from slavery to freedom.  That is what makes this night and this meal special.

This is also an important time for Christians, but this is no celebratory meal.  This is the night we remember Jesus sharing his last meal with his disciples.  This is the night we recognize that Jesus changed the meaning of this meal from the Passover to Holy Communion.  This is the night we remember when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to die.  This is what makes this night and this meal special.

Tonight we do not celebrate the Passover.  For us, our Passover celebration is still a few days away.  Tonight we remember Christ’s last meal with his friends.  Tonight we remember Jesus' command to love each other and the example he gave us in humble service.  Tonight we remember that one of his own friends betrayed him.  Tonight we remember that the other eleven deserted him.  No, this is not a celebratory dinner; this is our last supper before we betray him, deny him and watch him taken away.

According to John, Jesus knew his hour was at hand.  He knew he would be handed over to be crucified.  He knew he would soon be departing, so he was working at preparing his disciples for the coming events.  And on this night he gave them a new commandment.

The first thing he did was to wash the feet of his disciples, all twelve of them.  In this way he was showing them what it meant to be a servant leader.  In this way he was showing that he cared for all of those who followed him, including Judas.  And then, after washing the feet of his disciples, and after Judas had left to betray him, Jesus gave them a new commandment, “That you love one another as I have loved you.”

This is the crux of the mission of God – to love one another as God loves us.  It falls to us to make disciples of all nations: not through obedience, not through fear, not through coercion, but through love.  And it starts with learning to love ourselves and those closest to us.

If we can't love each other, how will we ever convince people that God loves them?  If we are not able to serve each other, how will we be willing and able to serve others?  Besides us, who are the people whom we are to serve?  They are those gathered here, certainly.  They are also the people who live across the street and across town.  They are those who are both the same and different from us.  It is our love and service to one another that will help reflect God's kingdom.

This is the night Jesus was betrayed.  It's easy for us to look back and blame Judas.  It's easy for us to say, “Not I.”  But how many times have we betrayed Jesus' command to love others in favor of following the rules?

It has been said that Judas didn't intend for his betrayal of Jesus to lead where it did.  Judas, like everyone else, was looking for the Messiah to come and restore Israel at the expense and removal of the Roman occupiers.  Judas got caught up in binary thinking – if this, then that.  If I turn him over to the authorities, then he will have to use his power and establish himself as the Messiah.  But that's not who Jesus is, or what Jesus is about.  How many times have we betrayed the Jesus who is in favor of the Jesus we want?

This is the night Peter denied Jesus and all eleven deserted him.  It's easy for us to fault those men and say, “Not I.”  It's easy for us to say we would have stood up for him in the face of persecution.  But people take the easy road of self-protection over the risk of speaking up all the time.  Not many people were willing to speak up for the Jews and risk their own lives during the Nazi regime in WWII.  Not many white people were willing to stand up for the rights of black people during the 50's and 60's.

For us today our denials don't come in the face of extreme persecution, or even at great personal risk.  Maybe for us today our denials come when things are going well.  When blessed with success or an unforeseen windfall, do we remember to thank God and reciprocate?  Do we pass that good fortune onto others in the name of Jesus, or do we chalk it up to good luck or personal skill and leave Jesus out in the cold?

And tonight we remember the time Jesus was taken away from us.  Tonight, because of our betrayal and denial, we remember the times we effectively asked Jesus to be gone.  All symbols of Christ in our lives are removed from our sight.  The sanctuary is laid bare.  The things that seem to connect us to God are willingly removed form our life and we are left with our own memories and thoughts.  What does it mean to be alone?  What does it mean to be without Jesus?  What does it mean to turn our back on someone in favor of our own comfort and safety?

Unlike the Passover meal, this is not a time of celebration.  This is the last supper before Jesus is taken away from us.  This is the time when we are served by the master.  This is the time we betray and deny our Lord and Savior.  This is the time we either stand idly by and watch, or actively participate in, the removal of Jesus from our lives.

Over the next three days, may we contemplate those mighty acts of our Savior which we ourselves are unable to perform.

Amen.