Riding the Roller Coaster

2nd Sunday Easter 4-23-17 Acts 2:42-47; Ps: 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-3

I have never been on a roller coaster. I am more than willing to die having never ridden on a roller coaster.   I have ridden some emotional roller coasters though, and the period of time from Palm Sunday thru Ascension would certainly be a fine way to illustrate one of those!  Just our readings today are good examples of the valleys and peaks of the emotional roller coaster the disciples experienced.

We read from the Book of Acts, of people devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles in the Jewish Temple, living in community, praying and practicing their Jewish faith together, seeing miracles and healings, everyone sharing their wealth and possessions, eating their meals with “exultation and sincerity of hearts, praising God.” New people were daily proclaiming their faith in the Risen Christ. This was a period of time when they had the approval of the people of Jerusalem.   Clearly this was a peak emotional time.

We get confused with the language, though. Was it a social commune or the beginning of communism?  Maybe they were a community that had Communion every day.  Maybe we unthinkingly forget that they lived in reality.  All the apostles had gathered in Jerusalem.  Many other followers, referred to as “the disciples,” had joined them.  They had brought their families with them for the Passover celebration.  They were fisherman, carpenters, potters & weavers from villages throughout Judea, but there were no Bargain/ Red Roof Inns in Jerusalem.  No Red Line to make the commute home easy.

Culturally, the Judean Jews lived in a much closer community than we do.  They were accustomed to open doors and open lives. So they were taken in, room was made for them in local homes. They were living together out of necessity.  What was happening to these believers was alternately too scary, too exciting, too amazing and too powerful to just… leave.  Their shared experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection made it easier to share their lives. Was it the end of time?  They were riding a roller coaster, waiting for the world to change.

We would like to think that time was perfect and maybe even something we could re-create, but Thomas and Peter both understood this was a bubble in time. We recognize bubbles in time.  Ask anyone who deals in “retro” or “antiques” or  even politics.

In the 1st letter of St. Peter we read,  “Blessed be God… who…gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading…Even though you do not see him now -yet believe in him, rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” That is certainly peak material, befitting the Peter we recognize.  But right in the middle of that he inserts a valley.  “…although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold…may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew a lot about faith and failure, belief and betrayal, triumph and testing.  That’s how Peter learned to be The Rock.

Thomas was the holdout among the Twelve; he was a wise man and I have come to respect him. He was more than happy to be subjected to ridicule or rejection by the others.  He told them he didn’t believe everything people said; he wasn’t interested in the newest religious rumors or fads.  He needed proof, he needed to see and touch.  He was willing to risk being wrong, just as he was quick to believe when Jesus came to him.  He went from valley to peak in seconds! As I read some of the newest books out about Jesus and watch some of the more sensational “documentary re-creations” of the Crucifixion on Television these past weeks, I hear some strange mis-information – how Jesus had political motivations and so on, that directly contradict the Gospels.  We need more fact-checkers like Thomas.

Thomas reached possibly more people with the Good News than Paul did. Thomas traveled east, to the sub-continent of India, witnessing to his faith and establishing churches.  It wasn’t all good- he was martyred there, in 72 AD; he poured out his life for Jesus.  Records from the 16th century describe him as beloved by the Muslims, the Christians, and the Hindus.  In fact, at that time, a Muslim maintained his tomb.  If only we could live the faith like Thomas!  This Sunday is celebrated as the “Sunday of Thomas” by the Orthodox Catholics brothers and sisters.

Even our Psalm is a roller coaster reading, the lectionary just conveniently omits the valley part: “All the nations surrounded me on every side.  They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns.  I was hard pressed and falling, but the Lord came to me.”  It is a Psalm of Eucharist (thanksgiving) sung as the people processed to the temple, but it does not fail to acknowledge that life can be very hard; bee stings and thorns/ hard times and pain are part of life.  At the same time, we are reminded that God is with us always.

So today we remember that our heroes, those super-faithful followers of Jesus, were locked in a room out of fear. Thomas had serious doubts about the resurrection.  Even after a glorious Easter, our heroes were beaten and jailed and killed for their faith.  But the “inexpressible joy” is also a real part of our Faith.  We learn that goodness and love and faith are more complex than the emotion of success or fulfillment that accompanies them.  By bearing pain and sorrow, we find faith, too.  Our flaws and our wounds are refined and purified, like precious gold, in our resurrection faith.

 

Advertisements

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure & Finality

Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality

He is risen! He is risen indeed!  This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith.  After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith.  But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed.  It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.

American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.

So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world?  It’s not always easy.  But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives:  the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.

Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God.  Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse.  This approach to life is pretty futile.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years.  It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.

The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society.  They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  Life has become victorious over death.  We must live and share this truth!  Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.

Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.

Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure.  Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.

Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.

Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people.  He offered choices.  He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives.  Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return.  He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort.  There is no end to God’s love.

Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference.  Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product.  I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter.  I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith.  I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.

The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves.  When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.

In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm.  At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement.  Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?

Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come.  In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart.  So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed.  Let’s look at them.

Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.

Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point.  Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.”  What does scourged mean?  The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends.  It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely.  A person rarely survived this.  The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him.  He would have looked hardly human after being scourged.  He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.

Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”

Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.”   Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (That would be 72,000 angles.)

Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.

Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.

Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)

Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.

Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)

But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment!  Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out.  Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise.  May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful.  And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn  (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.”  By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”

It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him?  No.  Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me!  You know the Psalm.  Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always.  God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin.  To say otherwise denies the love of God.”

St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35-39)

 

 

 

Dry Bones or Live Bones?

5th Sunday Lent A, 4-2-17; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Dry Bones or Live Bones??

Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us.  Let’s start with Ezekiel.  As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture.  So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel.  The peasants were left, abandoned.

Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land.  He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen.  Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future.  He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding.  But the vision is more than just restoration.  It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story.  Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’”  And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.

Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.

From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again.  The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land.  But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.

It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John.   At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness.  Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it.   There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death.  Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.

John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time.  At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Christians expected to live to see him return.  But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.

Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died.  For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused.  They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.

John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.

When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come sooner?”  But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.

Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her.  Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.

Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.

This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John.  It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge.  Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.

When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering?  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services.  These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people.  But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.

Homily, April 2, 2017. the 5th Sunday of Lent

5lentToday’s first and third readings bring up the idea of Resurrection or rising from the dead. In Ezekiel, we see the “Dry Bones” passage maybe best known from the song “dem bones goin’ to rise again”. Ezekiel is not addressing resurrection directly, but is addressing a people captured and enslaved and dragged off to Babylon. The prophet was reminding the people that God had not abandoned them and would restore them and bring them home. From lost hope, God will give them a new life.

5lent4In the Gospel, we see Jesus is in no hurry to run to Lazarus’ side when he hears he is sick. Instead he waits three or four days until he travels to Bethany. At this time, he knows Lazarus is dead, yet he knows what he is about to do. In the middle east, Israel included, it is the custom to bury someone immediately after they die, usually before sundown. Obviously, the climate and the lack of embalming and other means of preparation of the body makes this a bit of a necessity. It was a culture, where family and friends prepared the grave and carried the person out and buried them. The reality of death to them was stark and harsh. Even for us today, death is a hard and stark reality even if we in some ways deal with it in a much different manner. With death there is a finality that all 5lent2people must confront. As Christians we see it in light of Jesus. In John’s gospel, we have seen Jesus raise a little girl, a widow’s son, and today Lazarus. The little girl had just succumbed, the widow’s son was being carried to his grave, and Lazarus was four days in his grave. Here are three instances of the dead coming back to life. Such a happening had reverberations in Jesus time, but surely raises the question of what is death, what happens after 5lent 3death even today in our time. We know Jesus said we will live forever, but what could this mean. It is not something easily answered or even understood, and only truly know by faith.

Faith tells us God is love, and that love embraces and lifts us all up. As we are joined to him in life through his spirit and his love, that union and joining is one that continues through life, passing us through that passage of death into the love-filled life of eternity. The raising of Lazarus was an important act before Jesus’ own death and resurrection to point out his power over life and death. Our lesson is to see that God’s love is always with us and even in sorrow and loss, he is there. Life as well as love itself continues in some way we will only know when we experience it ourselves.