Sunday, April 01, 2018

Christ making things new... Alleluia!

Easter Sunday
John 20:11-18

In the gospel of John, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb alone. The stone is missing so she runs for help—Peter and John come running. John arrives first but hesitates outside the tomb. Peter rushes in. They didn’t understand exactly what had happened at this point… and they went home wondering… but Mary stayed there, weeping. She bent in to look again, and saw angels through her tears. “Why are you crying?” they ask. But she doesn’t wait to hear their answer.  Maybe in her distress, she is still searching for the lost body of Jesus… or maybe she saw some look of recognition in their faces…and turns…
Mary turns and there he is but she doesn’t recognize him. She assumes the person standing there is the gardener.

This detail captures my imagination. The gardener… I imagine Jesus with dirt under his fingernails, planting seeds, watering tender plants… Well, what would you do first if you were raised from the dead? “Oh, you know… a little gardening.” Like God the creator in the first garden, Jesus—who has been with God from the very beginning—the risen Christ is tending a garden when Mary turns toward him.

And then we get to look on knowingly in this story, we know it’s Jesus while Mary figures it out.
“Why are you crying?” Jesus asks, and once more she tries to find her lost Beloved One.
Jesus says her name, and Mary recognizes her Lord—alive!
As unbelievable as it was, somehow she knew it was true.

Resurrection, it seems like, it often like that. When we have resurrection stories, we usually start kind of like this… “Now, don’t think I’m crazy but…” And then we tell our story of life coming right out of near-death, or actual death.
When we’re in the middle of times of betrayal, suffering and death, when we’re in the grief-filled waiting, it’s hard to hold on to hope of resurrection.
When we are able to hold onto hope even through the worst times, it’s a gift.
Like Jesus who on maybe the most disappointing night of his life created a meal for us to share every time we gather where we remember and experience Christ’s living presence in the ordinary things—bread, gluten-free wafer, juice, wine—ordinary things, and the words “for you,” and in everybody who receives those gifts.

When we are able to hold onto hope even through the worst times, it’s a gift.
Like Jesus who from the cross as he was dying forgave strangers and promised paradise to criminals. Who from the cross created family between his mother and the disciple he loved, making sure they would care for one another when he was gone, so that when it was all finished they would able to be a blessing as family, to family that would one day extend all the way to us.

When we are able to hold onto hope even through the worst times, it’s a gift.
When we’re waiting, because we reached over and felt our loved one was cold as stone. When we feel like we’re in a tomb because everything we own is disrupted, or our relationships are strained, or we’re facing challenges that are completely overwhelming but we’re trying to move forward into new visions, a new day…

Holding on to hope for spring through snowfalls in April, with our chalk in hand, our bubbles to blow, our seeds ready for planting… this is all gift. Right now, we wait, but in time, we’ll be looking back at the waiting time, remembering how resurrection was both happening and on it’s way all that time, already and not yet. It was just hard to wait.

Mary’s gift, Mary of Magdala, was holding onto hope of finding Jesus’ body just as tenaciously as she stood by through his ministry, even when he went to Jerusalem, even at the crucifixion. Once she realized Jesus was alive, she was prepared to hold onto him and never let him go again… but in this moment in his journey, raised from the dead but not yet ascended, Jesus points her forward. Your gifts of hope, love, and telling the story can’t be contained right here—I need you to bring these gifts to my disciples, hovering in fear behind locked doors.

Now, here in the garden, Jesus points out to Mary that he is no longer God’s Only Son… now, they are all God’s children. They are invited to have the same close relationship with God, kinship with each other, closeness with God’s purpose. They are asked to replicate Jesus’ relationship with God far beyond what they could have ever imagined.

So, what about for us? When the apostle Mary comes to our locked doors and says, “I have seen the Lord! I thought it was the gardener, but when I heard my name, I knew Christ was alive! And listen to this—he said something so much like his ancestor Ruth. She said, “Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16). Jesus said to go to Galilee—our home territory—where he will ascend ‘to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

I can only imagine that once she delivered the message, she traveled on… back to Galilee, to her synagogue in Magdala (5 kilometers from Tiberias) to share the news of love and deep joy.
And I can only imagine that this is what God hopes we might do today… like Mary of Magdala shared the news of love and deep joy, that whatever our circumstances, the risen Beloved One calls our names and invites us not to hold on tightly to the source of love so much as spread it, break up evil from the inside with unfathomable love.

I had the opportunity to see the film A Wrinkle in Time this weekend, based on the science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engle (first published in 1962). At one point, a wise character says about the uncertain 14-year-old main character, “I think we need to tell her something, I think we need to show her why this is so important…” and then they begin to show a greater reality to Meg than she could have ever discerned on her own. They’re involved in a cosmic struggle between forces of hate and forces of love, and they ask her to use all her faults and the gifts she doesn’t really know she has yet in this cosmic struggle. She learns that finally who are different, who have had wounds, who have doubts and struggles, but who practice deep love-in-action—those are the gifts that are needed most.
Madeleine L’Engle’s vision was very shaped by the gospel of John—who also saw the influence of Christ as cosmic, and the need for knowing our belovedness to God as critical for this time, for every time.

But just in case we get to mystical, too out-of-body, too big, John also places the risen Christ right in the dirt—gardening—and later on he’ll breathe on them and invite them to touch his wounds. They’ll cook and eat some fish together at the lakeshore. It’s all very down-to-earth. You’re invited to take this down-to-earth love to a family gathering today or to the next place you encounter a stranger. You’re invited to practice it as you share a ride, give an offering, sing and pray. Christ is alive and is already at work—making all things new—tending roots and branches, with buds that will become leaves and fruit. Yes, this is for you.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Whom then should I fear?

On last Wednesday evening’s Prayer Around the Cross, we gathered in this space and heard the words of Psalm 27: The LORD is my light and my salvation; who then should I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Then, we acknowledged, “Many of your people, O God, are full of fear…”
We named people who fear because we have no home or because our home is no protection… because we’re worried for our children or our parents… because we’re defending our freedoms or fighting injustice… because no one can live up to our expectations or because we’re always on the outside.

We said out loud, “Many of your people, O God, find your face to be hidden, and your grace to be distant…” and we sang, “Do not forsake us…”

So now, today, we turn our eyes to Jesus—the King of Glory—and at the first sentence of this gospel reading, it is as if all his glory is gone. He has been forsaken. He has been publically abused, mocked (with a crown of thorns and purple robe), and when the chief priests and police see him, they don’t appear to have even a touch of pity. They just call for Pilate to finish the job and put him to death.
Empire is a merciless system… all must have absolute loyalty to the Emperor and everyone knows it. But even in the midst of a merciless system, people along the way of the story all make attempts at mercy. Nicodemus asks before Jesus’ trial, “Don’t we hear people out before we condemn them?” (John 7:50-51) After Pilate tries to bully Jesus, Jesus tells Pilate, “Don’t worry, I’m more responsible for being in this position than you are…” and in the face of that, Pilate tries to release Jesus… but mercy doesn’t appear to win the day. Jesus is handed over to be crucified.

What do we do in the face of systems that appear to have no mercy, where attempts at courageous, nonviolent, truth-telling and resistance are met with condemnation, violence, and even death? Our students told their stories this morning. Other students across the U.S. did not experience support from their school administrators, teachers, and communities. I read about one student who was the only student at her school to protest. Two others in Arkansas were paddled for their non-violent resistance, and a teacher stood behind the practice. Many students throughout the U.S. and several in New York State were suspended (and they didn’t even leave the building). So… stopping a violent system is no easy thing. It may look like mercy hasn’t won the day… but the good news in the story is that while things may get worse before they get better, we can know for sure that if the story is at its bleakest moment, if hope is lost, if killing and death have won, that is not the end of the story.

Jesus knows this… through and through… in the gospel according to John. Everyone Jesus meets encounters a mirror—Jesus shows them who they are, and that can be troubling or inspiring or some combination of both. But Jesus also shows them who Jesus is, and as they glimpse Jesus, they experience a God-of-embracing-love like they can’t quite imagine. It transforms them… From Nicodemus, a man wandering in the night to a man who questions his peers in Jesus’ defense. And the Samaritan woman who becomes a bold witness to the God who comes with transforming love to her community and to the ends of the earth. To Pilate who hands Jesus over, but is met with reassurance that he doesn’t really have any power over him…

Jesus is clear throughout the gospel of John. Even through the betrayal of closest friends and those crowds who adored him, even in the trial while Pilate is  exceedingly afraid” (as bullies perpetually are…), even on the cross, Jesus is remarkably clear about God’s power. Jesus won’t condemn even Pilate… and although we can’t know how it felt on the inside, Jesus appears fearless.
In the face of that, they call for Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus’ own people declare as a mob their ultimate loyalty to Caesar – not to God – it’s devastating… 
Any one of us, and all of us in a crowd together can crumble… we can turn against each other, turn against love, against God…We fail to do what we are powerful to do, we become exceedingly afraid…

And Jesus, this Jesus who comes from above, who shows us who we are more clearly than anyone else, refuses to judge us.
The encounter with Jesus discloses what’s true about us… but more importantly, it shows us what’s true about Jesus, what’s true about God.
Disclosing human shortcomings is never the last word for Jesus.
Self-giving, powerful, love-in-action is the last word… in Jesus’ living, in Jesus’ dying, and in the miracle and mystery of the resurrection.

Throughout the gospel of John, the encounter with Jesus discloses what’s true… about Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Pilate, Jesus’ own people…
But even the truth about ourselves moves us to regret, those are not the last truths…

Servants of Caesar are known by their violence. Jesus says everyone will know [God’s] servants by their love. Does our testimony in word and deed reflect our citizenship in the alternate kingdom from above, where servants of the Beloved are nonviolent, vulnerable lovers of friend and foe? Or do our words and actions suggest that our first allegiance is to something else -- a nation or [ideology] or religious institution?If the answer is not clear, the good news is that it is precisely this [messed up] world of Pilate and the religious authorities and our own hearts that God loves.[1]

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. 
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well…
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for [God’s] grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.[2]

Jesus loves you as you are, and so together, we can confidently take the long view—as we March for Our Lives, feeling confident we can make a change—and when at the end of the day, we feel despair about whether we have had the impact we hoped. Here’s another passage shared with me this week:

Nothing we do is complete…

Holy God, grant that all who seek your face in times of trouble may see your goodness in this life through Jesus Christ, full of unending mercy.

[1] Commentary by Meda Stamper,, March 18, 2018.
[2] This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979 and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980. [Widely, but incorrectly, attributed to Oscar Romero}.