Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Sermon



Stone

Three years ago this May, I spent three weeks traveling and studying in the Holy Land. Every day was packed full with visiting places throughout Israel, my classmates and I had adventures to the tune of singing Christmas carols in the caves where Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, drinking from Jacob’s well where Jesus talked with the Syrophoenician woman, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, renewing our baptismal vows in the Jordan River, taking time to walk across the barren hills of the Judean wilderness, and walking the stations of the Via Dolorosa, the way through Jerusalem Jesus is believed to have walked on the way to his crucifixion. On one of our action packed days we experienced an unplanned stop at the border wall separating the Israelis and the Palestinians. The guards went through our tour bus, checking all of our passports, asking a few of the group to get out and check through personal items. We waited there for a while, with the bus facing the wall and seeing the increasing line of people waiting to pass through the border check point. It was sad to see such obvious division between people who have so much in common.

Last summer I journeyed to Germany and took the time to visit the Berlin Wall, that infamous wall of separation between what used to be West Germany and East Germany. Even in pastoral Ireland, when I visited there, the landscape is littered with stone walls, crisscrossing the rolling green hills. Everywhere I go it seems, there are walls. I lived in Texas. And everyday I heard questions and worries about the wall and the border between the USA and Mexico. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter where we are in the world, we as humans are great at building walls. Stone, brick, concrete. It doesn't matter, we know how to build walls to keep each other out.

When I think of the gospel passage this morning, I see many differences between Jesus and ourselves, however one stands out to me in large letters. Jesus is not stopped by being entrapped behind stone walls. No tomb will contain Jesus. No walls can contain Jesus. No stone will stop a messenger of the Lord. God has done a marvelous work in Jesus. Jesus has overcome death. If even death cannot stop Jesus, nothing can stop Jesus. Not walls, not those we perceive as strong, not massive armies, not the rich and powerful. Jesus has already overturned the foundations of society. The foundation stones of society cannot stop the gospel, cannot stop Jesus.

Along with physical walls, there are, of course, emotional walls holding us back. Letting someone else inside your personal walls is a tell-tale sign of personal connection. All these walls stop us from sharing the community and unity for which Jesus stands. However, when we share our stories of Jesus, when we share our stories of what it is to be human, when we share what our lives are like, those walls come down. We are able to break on through to the other side. We are able to experience a bit of the joy and new life which Jesus wants to share with us.

It is a scary proposition, to live without walls. To break down the walls already in place, with decades of tradition, justifications miles long, and defenses to defy the most powerful forces. Yet, Even though we are afraid, there is no stopping the power of the gospel. There is no stopping Jesus. When walls come down there is plenty of debris and dust and confusion and cleaning up and readjusting to the new way of living. In the freedom of the gospel, that is the work of loving other people. Tearing down the walls and reaching out to those on the other side.



Do Not Be Afraid

Certainly, there is plenty to be afraid of in our current world. War, terrorism, unemployment, hunger, poverty, losing your home, losing your loved ones, losing your life. The list could go on and on for a long time. In the gospel passage, we hear, along with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the instruction, Do not be afraid, we hear it not once, but twice. Once from the angel of the Lord who meets the women at the tomb and, again, from Jesus when they meet him on the way to tell the disciples. The women’s receptivity to what the angel tells them and their ability not to be struck dumb by fear stands in stark contrast to the guards who are watching the tomb who shake at the appearance of the angel and become “like dead men.” (The Bene Gesserit mothers from the scifi series Dune were right, fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.) Fear literally held those guards back from experiencing Jesus.

Yet, we are told, Do not be afraid. Do not let fear hold you back. Do not let any wall, tomb, fence, hold you back. Trust in God. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection goes in so many directions. God has already started a marvelous work in the world. God is about to do a marvelous work in us.

When you are given a mission (and we have been)(you'll hear more about that in a minute) do not hold back. The women are giving a job to do. I would totally understand if they are afraid of telling the disciples about what they experienced at the tomb. Who was going to believe them? In Jewish law, you had to have three women to equal the testimony of one man, so already their witness is in the underdog category. And then to think of the actual message. Jesus is not dead, even though they all already know he has been crucified.  Jesus “has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him!” Those poor women, the men were going to think they were crazy.

However, they listen to the angel and Jesus. They do not let fear hold them back. Immediately, they worship Jesus, there on the spot. Worship and fear cannot go together. True worship wipes out fear and unites us in community. Then they go and tell the disciples the good news. They tell the disciples about the resurrection. The benefits of following Jesus are worth the vulnerability, worth the moment of being thought crazy. Biologically, fear is a natural reaction, and while the protective parts of the brain have kept us alive for so long, fear has no place here.

In the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, everyone in the rooms says something together. We call it the Memorial Acclamation. In today's service, in Eucharistic Prayer B, the Memorial Acclamation goes like this: We remember his death, We proclaim his resurrection, We await his coming in glory. Basically, the Memorial Acclamation is the encapsulated version of what it means to be a Christian. We are people who remember Jesus' death. We proclaim his resurrection, (that is part of our mission). And we wait. It does not speak about fear. Christian life is standing up to fear - not letting it stop us.

When angels, messengers of the Lord, come to tell us things, the first thing they say is always, Do not be afraid. Many have ruminated on this and said that obvious angels must be scary looking. However, there is a part of me that wonders whether the reason they say do not be afraid first is because they know what is coming. They warn us ahead of time. What is coming may be scary, they say,  do not be afraid. In this instance, with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, what they are told next is fear inducing. What they are told to do was going to take courage. But what they are told is oh so important! And by no means to be stopped by fear. They were given a mission. A mission from God.



Go!

Do you remember playing hide and seek as a child? Or playing hide and seek with your child? Do you remember trying to be silent, waiting, filled with expectancy…waiting to find or be found. I remember many a game of hide and seek growing up at the Cathedral in Bethlehem, trying to squeeze myself into a particular little cabinet under a counter in an alcove near the offices that contained the office fridge, microwave, and coffee pot. Amid the coffee filters, Styrofoam cups, and napkins, I would wait breathlessly. Feeling suddenly very alone in a small space in a huge building. And when it was my turn to count and seek, wandering those hallways, searching for my siblings, friends, cousins, neighbors, expectantly going and searching, knowing that strung around the building, like a string of pearls, were other children already waiting for me.

Jesus does the same thing. He waits for us, throughout the world. Both the angel and Jesus himself tell the women to tell the disciples to go find Jesus elsewhere. The women are given a mission, Go! He was not in the tomb, he was waiting for them in Galilee. Go! They say. Go find Jesus! He is not here. Funny enough, the women find Jesus even before they get to Galilee. Jesus wasn’t just waiting there for the disciples, he was also there near the tomb. We are given the same mission. Go! Jesus is waiting for us everywhere. He has gone before us and will meet us out there.

Now, you may still question where you will Jesus hiding out in the world. I tell you, Jesus is there. Jesus is here, in the midst of the community present. In the people sitting next to you, in front of you, and yea, even behind you. Jesus is here, in the Eucharist, in the act of giving thanks for all the blessings that we have received from God. Jesus is in Galilee as well, out among the people, among the needy, the poor, the outcasts, the every day ordinary folk. Jesus is out there, at school, at work, in our neighborhoods, at the grocery store. Jesus is on the journey with us, as a pilgrim, wherever we go, we cannot be out of God's reach. Jesus in your heart, waiting for you to find him.

There is always that emotional moment in the game of hide and seek. When the seeker finds and the hider is found. There is joy, there is laughter, there is the knowledge that you are not alone. That is the way it is when you find Jesus, out there in the world waiting for you. When we go looking for Jesus, we will find him. After all, that is the beauty of hide and seek, you already know that you will always find, because you know they are waiting for you. You already know what is waiting for you too, and you will always find Jesus.


Amen.

Good Friday

They laid Jesus in the tomb. A tomb cut out of the rock of the garden. A tomb of stone with a large stone standing in front of the entrance as a door, as a barrier, as a wall. The stone represents the end. Nothing else can happen now. There is such a sense of finality to the ending of the story today. We know death. We have experienced death in our lives before. Death is the end. We see Jesus finish his earthly mission and accomplish everything the Father has sent him to do. I wonder if he felt any sense of relief or success in completing his mission. Yet, it looks so much like failure. There is such a sense of loss. The Messiah, the Christ, the Rabbi Jesus is dead. 

Naturally, the first question after any loss is why? Even if there exists a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a person died, it is never enough to comfort the bereaved after the loss of a loved one. The disciples must have asked this question as we do today. Why? Why did Jesus die? The most direct answers to the question also leave much to be desired. Jesus died because of fear, because he had to, because it was the only way to show us how much God loves us and set us free.
 
Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because of human fear. At that time, fear in the midst of the leaders, fear of uprising, fear of the unknown, fear of people being, saying, believing, and doing differently. Certainly, though, we cannot blame those at the time for their fear. We have the same fear living inside of ourselves. It comes out in our prejudices, it comes out in our ability to allow people to fall through the cracks, it comes out in our desire to stay within groups of like-minded people. We hold on to those same fears as the people living in ancient Palestine. We have for generations and centuries. Fear is many times as much as an end as death. We cannot get past our fear. 

Thankfully, fear is not the only reason Jesus died. Jesus most definitely could have saved himself. Jesus' death is an event which people have dissected for centuries. However you look at it though, Jesus died because he had to. Jesus in a way, allowed himself to be killed. He sacrificed himself upon our fear to show us a better way. Not once does Jesus act out in fear during the events leading up to his death. Jesus' death is not a ransom for a vengeful God - no, Jesus gives of himself. Its an act of self-giving that many of us cannot fathom, our sense of self-preservation is too strong. Jesus gives everything he has and is, his mission, his ministry, his family, his life. We may never be able to understand why he had to die. 

Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because it was the only way to show us how much God loves us and to set us free. Really? Death was the only way? I think of the story of Lazarus and the rich man, who asks Abraham to send Lazarus back as a dead man raised to go speak to his brothers. Yes, really, it was the only way. The largest things holding us back from life, from love, from freedom, are fear, sin, and death. Jesus had to go through those things in order to be able to save us from them.

During the season of Lent, the Adult Formation group discussed six heresies that have to do with Jesus' nature. The first question we discussed was whether or not God does suffer. The orthodox position, the non-heretical position, on this question is that God in human form did suffer as Jesus. In his suffering, as both divine and human, Jesus bridges the gap between human beings and God, a gap which only exists because of fear, sin, and death. Through Jesus we have a way to encounter, engage with, and become one with God.

Through breaking death, God saves all of us from our sins and the power of death. In Jesus' death, there is hope. There is not only a promise of forgiveness, but a very concrete act of forgiveness. By taking on the consequences of our actions, by removing them, Jesus opens up the possibility that we might live freely in gratitude and peace.

Why did Jesus die? Jesus died for us. We celebrate and we memorialize this every year. Jesus' death is both a very communal event and a very personal one. We come together to stand at the foot of the cross, at the door of the tomb to witness to Jesus' death. To witness to the insufficient reasons that the Son of God had to die. To witness to the loss that we feel. To witness to the end of a way of life on earth. Jesus died for us and we come together today to remember his sacrifice on our behalf. 

Amen. 


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ordinary Stones

Palm Sunday
4/9/17

The reality of the situation this morning is, that after the story we read and heard, I feel emotionally tired and confused. We could rename this day, Whiplash Sunday. Palm Sunday is the most emotionally confusing day in the whole liturgical calendar. Why do we start with Jesus being proclaimed King, only to witness the whole story of him being betrayed, condemned, crucified, and dying, and then leave it there. Waiting for the rest of this week to reenact the story again. What is there to be gained from starting in triumph, only to end in defeat? What is there to be gained from starting in celebratory community, only to end in personal isolation? What do we gain from listening to the hopes of an entire people for their freedom, only to end in their leader being nailed to a cross?
There is a deep seated irony in the layout of the church service this morning. We come together to share this story, letting it rest in death for a while, and then after the prayers, and the peace, we are going to celebrate the rest of the story in Eucharist, in sharing communion, before we have even told the whole story.
Yet, it is into this irony that we must walk. The paradox of this week is that it is the greatest journey of our lives. This is part of the reason we do it over and over again every year. We celebrate a terrible story of human pain and suffering, because the ending is the defeat of all pain and suffering. We share this story this morning because this paradox of killing our Savior takes time to sink in, to stretch our minds, our hearts, so that we will be open to the working of God in our lives. This paradox turns our worlds upside down, inside out, front to back, in the best way imaginable.
I have a lot of favorite things about Jesus and his way of doing ministry on this earth. One of my favorites is his ingenious way of using the ordinary things of this created existence, the every day materials, to share extraordinary ideas. It is another paradox, for a day saturated in paradox, that the ordinary can be extraordinary. What strikes me as ordinary in the Passion gospel story today – but as also extraordinary, is the image of the rocks splitting at the end.
A stone takes time to make - thousands of years to make. And yet, we see the rocks splitting in this story almost instantaneously. Bible imagery of stones is not one typically talked about. We talk about bread and wine, we talk about fish and boats and water, we talk about the wilderness, we talk about hearts and minds and bodies, we talk about tents and temples, but not stones.
Yet, stones, the end result of soil being compacted through pressure for a long time into something very solid, stones are littered throughout scripture. I can think of Jacob's pillow when he dreams of the ladder to heaven, countless altars, pillars, idols, the foundations and pillars of the temple, the imagery of the chief cornerstone from the psalms, the tablets of stone on which are written the ten commandments, the stone with which David kills Goliath, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, the heart of stone imagery, stones crying out, children of Abraham being made out of stones, Jesus' temptation to make bread out of stones, the destruction of the temple, not one stone will be left upon another... all the way from the beginning of creation through to the splitting of the rocks and tombs of stone being opened when Jesus dies. 

In every day literature, we use stones to represent the most basic of things and situations. Stone walls to keep each other out or to keep ourselves and our stuff safely inside. And those stones take time to break. In a way, we are given time, this Holy Week, to contemplate the stones set before us now. We need time to contemplate, to meditate, we need this week to see the stones before us and figure out how to knock them down. So that when we get to the tomb, we don’t get entrapped by his rock. We are left with the image at the end of the passage of the earth shaking and stones being split. How extraordinary!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Community of all the Saints

At St. John’s this year, we have been focusing on the theme of community for Lent. We have been reflecting on community in the newsletter each week, we have been learning about the agreement that makes it possible for St. John’s and Grace to be together in community during our Wednesday night program, and we have been studying some of the theological questions which have brought together the Church community throughout the centuries. While Lent is a time of many different spiritual practices, there is one pretty popular one that focuses on this theme of community, especially the communion of all the saints.

Lent Madness is a Lenten spiritual devotion that seeks to inspire and educate people about the communion of saints through humor and competition. Based on a tournament style, single elimination bracket system, those who take part in the community of Lent Madness gradually learn about different saints throughout the season of Lent and eventually chose one saint from the year’s original pool of 32 to win The Golden Halo. Each day the community votes based on the biographical information, quotes and quirks, legends, and even kitsch of each saint in the bracket. In this way, many learn new stories and ways that people throughout the world and centuries have lived and worked for Christ.

It is always good to remember and learn from those who have walked this journey before us. We walk as pilgrims on the way, following in the footsteps of thousands of faithful people. Learning about them and each other can inspire us on our own journeys. As we head into Holy Week and the hard walk of following Jesus to the cross, remember that we do not go alone. We make this walk together, with those we can see and those we cannot.

(If you would like to learn more about Lent Madness, visit their site: www.lentmadness.org)


See you on the journey!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Stones in the Way

Lent 5A
4/2/17
Jesus if only you had been here...
We all know what it feels like to have loved and lost. Maybe you have lost a beloved pet, a spouse, a child, a parent, or another family member or friend. Maybe this loss hit you in ways you hadn’t thought it would, making life harder, each day more painful, making rational thought less focused. We all know the feelings of individual loss. And as a congregation, St. John’s has gone through communal losses, the losses of beloved community members, the loss of church buildings due to fire, the loss of priests due to death, vocation change, and family transitions. Each time one of these situations happen, we find it easy to say with Martha and Mary from the gospel passage today, Jesus, if only you had been here… implying that if Jesus had been here, we would not have had to lose what was beloved to us. Both Mary and Martha voice this longing to Jesus, knowing that he could have stopped their brother Lazarus from dying, and feeling sorely his lack of presence in that moment. Surely, we have all thought at some time or another, Jesus, if only you had been here.
Martha is the first one in the passage to voice this lament, Jesus, if only you had been here… Naturally, Jesus doesn’t answer her with a straight forward reply. No, Jesus offers truth to the pain. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In listening to Jesus say this, there is that immediate momentary joy, there is a way to escape death! The immediate and momentary joy of good news… before the other shoe drops. Because then there is the realization of truly what Jesus is speaking about, what it means to believe in him.
Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
Martha answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers yes, however John tries to make it clear in this passage that this answer is not the fullness of belief, you can’t just SAY that you believe. Full belief in Jesus requires our souls and bodies. Our hearts, our minds, our strengths, our weaknesses. Giving ourselves to Jesus is like giving ourselves in marriage. In Church tradition, we talk a lot about Jesus being the bridegroom and the church being the bride. We talk a lot about how Jesus is married to the church because there is a fundamental fullness to the self-giving that happens in true marriage. A person doesn’t give themselves partially to another in marriage, a marriage will only work well if they give fully of everything they are, have, and will be. Do you believe? Have you given fully of yourself to Jesus? It is a hard question to answer with a firm yes! Giving everything we are and have takes real dedication, practice, and devotion. We are human and we fail at times. In this story, we hear Martha give more of an affirmation of believing in who Jesus is than Peter ever does in the book of Mark. In the gospel of Mark, this would have been good enough as a firm yes, however, John demands both word and action. John is waiting for Martha to show her belief in her actions.
John demands both word and action in showing belief in Jesus. Unfortunately, John finds Martha lacking in the action department. So, what does this look like? Who is really living into belief in Jesus? Society and Christianity differ on who can be considered to be really living. Society says that you need to have tried everything, been bold in relationships with other people, climbed the career ladder, traveled the world, and tested human boundaries to be really living. Basically only the people who cliff jump or are CEOs of startup companies or celebrities are the people who are really living. Yet, Christianity has a very different idea of what it means to be really living. To live a full life in Christianity means to live fully into belief in Jesus Christ, into the new life given to us through his death and resurrection. We see this in those in our community who are tirelessly working on behalf of others. Who give themselves over to devoted prayer for others, who show up to support those who are hungry, homeless, lacking healthcare, economic stability or education. Those who care for those who no one else cares about.
What about the rest of us? What is stopping us from giving our full selves? What is stopping us from living real and new lives? I think of the stone between Jesus and Lazarus in this passage. Stones were symbols of death and isolation in ancient times. Most graves were constructed of stone, as the safest way to keep animals away from the dead. That stone, keeping Lazarus and his smell in, acted as a boundary wall, keeping Lazarus stuck where he was. Sometimes the walls between us and Jesus are stone walls, sometimes they are brick walls. Sometimes they are the walls of our offices or our houses or even our church. Sometimes those walls are inside of our minds, thoughts and ideas that isolate us or hold us back from living fully and in newness. Anytime I think of boundary walls inside the mind, I think of Pink Floyd’s famous album, The Wall. If you’ve ever fully listened to the album, you know the disaster that comes from the main character building an emotional wall between himself and the world, in part brought on by the loss of his father.
No matter what kind of wall, stone, brick, or emotional, holds us back, Jesus calls to us.
And Jesus doesn’t just call us up on the telephone politely. No.
He shouts.
Lazarus, come out! Elizabeth, come out! Dave, come out!
There is a saying in the more evangelical denominations that Jesus had to specifically say Lazarus’ name because otherwise all the graves would open and all the dead would have risen. Can you imagine? Can you hear Jesus calling your name now? Come out! Come out from behind the stone that is holding you back. Let the community of the church help unbind you! Be unbound! It’s not just Jesus that unbinds Lazarus, the community of Jews present helps as well. Let this community help you be unbound. Heed Jesus’ cry, hear the Good Shepherd calling to you, come out! There is work in this world waiting to be done which can only be done by Jesus working through us. Come out! Be unbound! Believe in him! Live fully into Jesus’ love for you.
Amen.