Sunday, March 27, 2016

Belief and Doubt and Forgiveness of Sins

John 20:19-31

It came across my news feed this week. A young friend from another time and place is in distress.

I would not venture to offer the multiple causes of her worry, however there was this. An older friend suggested she might think about coming back to church for the support of God's people there would surely be a gift to her. And my young friend politely thanked her but said that since she no longer believes it would not seem right to ask for help only when she was in need.

I ached to read this. And not even so much because of her professed lack of belief, but because of her decision to cut herself off from those who would support her on this journey of faith which inevitably holds its ups and downs, its times when faith runs deep and in times when doubt threatens to overtake. And as you might imagine, as I thought of her struggle with faith, I also found myself thinking about Thomas as we encounter him now. Thomas who was not there with the others that first Easter night and who could not, would not let himself be convinced by their heartfelt witness. Thomas, who vowed he would not, could not believe until or unless he put his own hand in the wounds Jesus' carried still. Thomas who is known more for his doubt than his belief, but who in the end believed as surely as all the rest.

Indeed, I found myself thinking about Thomas and I am reminded of what I have long known. We simply cannot force another to believe. Indeed, I cannot even force myself to believe. On their own, all of my convincing arguments and proofs fall flat. Rather, faith comes only and always as precious gift. I will say this, though. It does help to surround myself with others who carry and are carried by their faith. It has never helped me to cut myself off from the community of believers --- no matter where I find myself on the spectrum of doubt and faith, belief and skepticism.

And yet, I am struck today that Jesus does not spend much time that first Easter day in making a case for belief in his having risen from the dead. No, even before the disciples are done rejoicing, we realize that Jesus is not so much concerned with eternal life which his rising from the dead would imply, but with this life now. Oh yes, we hear that even before they can fully take in the wonder of who is standing before them miraculously alive again, Jesus is breathing on them the power of the Holy Spirit which enables them and us to forgive and which calls upon us to discern when and where such forgiveness is called for. Jesus is inviting them and us to extend the same Peace he spoke when he entered into their fear behind those locked doors.

This should come as no surprise to us, of course. For this is the One who spoke to those who would condemn about 'casting the first stone.' This is the One whose story of the forgiving father resonates in every time and place. This is the One who uttered words of forgiveness even as he hung dying on the cross. Oh it is so that this should come as no surprise to us for Jesus came to heal that which was broken -- perhaps especially that which is broken between and among and through God's beloved children --- and what better way to do so than forgiveness?

Oh yes, I came to this long ago: one cannot simply convince another to believe. But when our faith runs deep and when it does not, we can still live as those who believe, bearing witness in our words and in our deeds the truth that Jesus lives. And is there any more powerful way, is there any more surprising way, is there any more life changing way to do so than with forgiveness? Indeed, I can't help but wonder, has the world ever needed it more?

Indeed, what more powerful witness could there be for my young friend than this? My prayer is that she will soon and often encounter others of God's Own People living the truth of Jesus' being alive. And not just in words spoken, but in outstretched arms of forgiveness and grace. And Peace.

  • I have always found the existence of 'faith' or 'belief' to be a mystery which cannot be forced but which can be invited. What is your experience of this?
  • On this reading of this familiar story, I am struck by the fact that Jesus does not pause long in proving his resurrection to the disciples. Instead he moves on to what this means for their lives, for our lives, for our whole life together. And he speaks of forgiveness which has been, in my understanding, a primary gift of his living and dying and living again. What do you make of this?
  • Where do you see forgiveness needed in your life, in your community, in your congregation, in your workplace, in the world?  What would it look like for you to be a bearer of that forgiveness?  How might you be called to be an embodiment of the Peace that Jesus brings?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thin Places: Finding Words for the Mystery of Easter

Luke 24:1-12

It was such a tender time for us then --- still, even after a couple of years since his dying.

Oh, the surprise of it had worn off some, this is true. And the grief was not so raw. Even so, with every joy and every struggle we could not help but wonder if it would have been different in some way if he still was.

And yet, it is also so that life went on. Indeed, our grief was somewhat eased with the new life which came with my nephew, Michael, who burst into our world less than two months after we stood together in a frigid January cemetery and commended my dad into God's eternal care. And yes, we couldn't help ourselves as we peered into his tiny face, and watched as he grew into a fearless toddler --- wondering if somewhere in the genetic makeup passed along we might get some glimmer of my dad. We thought we did, of course. It was, quite simply, our oh so very human attempt to grasp at eternity in the natural ways of this world. In much the same way we look for Resurrection every spring as well. Or at least we do in these parts of the world where we know the new life that comes with winter letting go.  And yet, the Promise of Easter is different somehow. It is more difficult to grasp, it seems to me, and so very hard to understand. For this New Life, this Resurrected Life, is outside and beyond most anything we have ever experienced in this world now. By its very nature, it flies in the face of all that can be explained.

And yet, on one occasion, it was young Michael himself who found words to speak of that which first and finally gives us hope. Indeed, he could not have been more than three years old when he sat at a table with his mother and older brother, Andrew. In those years, Sarah was doing all she could to keep the memory of our dad alive --- for Andrew, at least, who would have been but two on the day of his funeral. Perhaps Michael was feeling left out. Or maybe it truly was something more when he announced that he had met Grandpa, too.

"You did?!?" Sarah said, wondering at what he would say next. And Michael went on, "Yep," he replied. "I was coming down when he was going up."

In his childlike telling, it was as though they had crossed paths in some heavenly holding place in-between -- some wondrous place known only to God and long since forgotten by the rest of us for the time being. My earth bound mind pictures it as some sort of celestial escalator --- with a landing half way. And yet is difficult to say exactly what Michael spoke of then. Now a young man, he has no memory of that sharing and his certainty that day. But oh, we wonder still if he was on to something as he announced his experience of a place which sounds forth this truth: in our living and dying and all that comes before and after? God's beloved are held in the very heart of God.

The Gaelic say, of course, that there are 'thin places' between heaven and earth. Perhaps it is so that the very young and the very old or the very ill among us recognize these best of all. For instance, it is so that you and I who walk alongside those who are dying have watched and listened as visions are experienced and conversations are held with others who have long since died as though they were gathering right there themselves. Those of us who are still so very bound to this earth cannot see or hear them, but we find ourselves convinced that there is something more in the room than what we can possibly comprehend. And yes, there are other times and places, too, when we sense the 'holy' in extraordinary ways on any other given day. These are beautifully described here in this article in the The New York Times.

And oh, could there have been a place more 'thin,' than that first Easter Day when the women made their way to the tomb to find it empty? Although, they could hardly believe it and no doubt struggled to find comprehensible words for it, mustn't they have known that they were standing in a 'thin place' when they were reminded that it was foolish to look for the living among the dead? Oh, it is no surprise, of course, that Peter and the other apostles could not take in what the women hurried back to share, even as we shook our heads so long ago to hear the youngest among us point to something so wondrous. And yet, one has to believe that they knew there was something more afoot as in Luke's account, Peter ran to the tomb himself and left somehow changed --- amazed at what he had seen.

And so I wonder now how on this Easter Day as we gather in song and praise surrounded by the fragrance of spring and the sound of trumpets. I wonder how it is that we will experience these places, our places now, as 'thin.' I wonder how and where heaven will meet earth this year.

It is all mystery, of course. The sort of mystery that words perhaps cannot quite capture. And yet we seek to speak them still. Like young Michael. Like the women at the tomb to so long ago, we, too, have been captured by this mystery and though our words may stumble, how can we not speak of it? And in the speaking? By God's own doing, perhaps others will find themselves in a 'thin place' as well. Oh yes, maybe through our words, heaven will be brought just a little bit closer to earth. Indeed, maybe in the telling, others will sense the presence of the Risen Christ as well.

  • When and where have you experienced 'thin places?' When have you sensed the truth of God's Promises? When have you known the Presence of the Risen Christ?
  • Sometimes we are those who have received this good news and sometimes we are those who are called to share it. In those times, how has your faith in God's Promises been shaped or changed?
  • It is so that birth and death, living and dying is fraught with mystery. And how much more mysterious is that which we are called to proclaim on Easter! For you, what words, what stories best capture and convey this mystery?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

This Dying: We Could Do No Better Than This

John 18:1-19:42

We took our confirmation youth to the funeral home a few weeks back.

It is a long standing tradition in our congregation --- one surely made easily possible by the fact that an active member has been the owner of a local funeral home for many years. As you can imagine, this gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about life and death and God's promises.

And so it was we sat at supper before we went, encouraging our young people to come up with questions. What would they like to know before they went? This was their chance to ask anything at all.

Maybe it was just the group of 7th graders I was with, but they were not terribly good at articulating their curiosity. Or maybe they just weren't all that curious. It's hard to say. One finally wondered at how hot the crematorium had to be to do its work. He guessed 350 degrees. I assured him it had to be hotter than that as that is how hot my oven is when I bake brownies.

And so that Sunday night we set off for the funeral home. We gathered in the rooms where families come together to be greeted by and cared for by family and friends. We went downstairs into the "casket room" where a whole variety of caskets are on display. We went through the back exit into the room where bodies are prepared and we heard about how embalming is done. We saw the oven which cremates the remains of those for whom this is their choice and we learned that, in fact, it needs to heat to at least 1400 degrees Fahrenheit to do its job. We saw the inside of the immaculately clean hearse. And we went back into the basement of the funeral home where the funeral director opened up his pop machine and offered everyone a free can of pop. A few questions were asked at this time, but perhaps not surprisingly, these were mostly posed here, by the adults who have, by now, lived long enough for their questions to be grounded in experience.

Perhaps it is so that questions about matters such as these do not enter much into the minds of those who have not yet experienced life changing losses. And so far as I know, this was the case with the particular group of young people we accompanied this time. I know in many places this would not be the case. Either way, maybe it is so that until you have hand delivered a check to the cemetery to purchase a plot a couple of days before it would be needed; until you have had to decide on what casket to bury a loved one in, until you have had to discern what exactly should adorn a gravestone? It is all academic. Interesting, perhaps, but not entirely relevant. And yes, of course, I thank God that evidently this was is the case with the particular group of 12 and 13 and 14-year-olds who were in my charge that night. Had they even been to a funeral? Some of them, yes. Had they yet known the meaning of heartbreak that can accompany death? Thankfully, no.

Or maybe there lack of curiosity stems from this. Perhaps this generation has seen death simulated so much that it is for this reason it seems unreal. It is hard to say, of course, and probably I will only begin to understand when I take the time to go deeper with them one day soon.

This much I do know for sure, though. When I was a few years younger than this group of confirmation youth, I had no concept of death whatsoever. Indeed, the only experience I had up until I was nine or ten years old was the image before us in the Passion now. Oh yes, I can well remember playing outside with my sisters and our friends and when the drama we were enacting called for death? The one so afflicted would lie down on the ground with his or her arms outstretched --- striking the pose that the cross forced on Jesus when he died.

Of course, time and experience taught us that not all deaths look like this one. All who die are not first betrayed, denied, abandoned, humiliated, tortured and publicly executed. At least not like this. And yet, most, if not all of us at one time or another experience each and all of these. We pray of course, that this will not be the case in our final days, but who among us cannot in small ways and maybe large ones, too, relate to what Jesus experienced? Surely this is one of the gifts of Good Friday that you and I can know for certain that Jesus knows our suffering because he endured it all himself.

Oh, it is so that many of us and perhaps, large parts of each of us, would rather skip over Good Friday altogether. Until life offers the hard lessons which death brings and we yearn to understand it more deeply. Until we have known our own suffering, deserved or not and we long for the certainty that God truly understands. Oh yes, until or unless we have come to the heart of the truth that nothing in us deserves the gift given to us on the cross of Jesus, well maybe this death, or the deaths of those we love, or our own certain death do not pique our curiosity or our outrage or our wonder at all.

At least I know this is so for me.

And yet, I am grateful that this dying was the one which shaped my understanding of death from the time I was so young. For while it was as horrific as it possibly could be it was also marked by the very real tenderness of Jesus we hear about in all four Gospel accounts: as he heard and responded to the plea of the criminal hanging next to him, as he looked down on his mother and commended her into John's care, as he spoke words of forgiveness to those who had put him there, and as he entrusted himself into God's eternal care. It was a terrible death, this death. No doubt its only redemption was in the One who suffered so. And because of this? Somehow because of this this dying, this death is both gift and model to all of us who will one day also die.

I could do no better than this, it seems to me. We could do no better than this.

  • Did the death of Jesus on the cross shape your understanding of dying and death when you were young? Why or why not?
  • Are there parts of his dying which you would want to emulate when it is your time to die? What parts would those be?
  • Has the experience of Good Friday become more meaningful to you as you have gotten older? Why or why not?
  • I cannot help but wonder how the Good Friday Passion is heard and experienced differently in those parts of the world where such as this is not only words on a page or images on a screen but are lived out in horrific ways in the experience of the people. What is your experience of this?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Donkey: A Subversive Choice?

Luke 19:28-40

I have written of the colt --- or donkey --- which Jesus rode into Jerusalem in this space before. You can find my thoughts here at: Humble and Mounted on a Donkey. As you can tell from the title, my thoughts a few years ago focused on Jesus' humility as he rode into Jerusalem.

While I have not entirely changed my thinking about the animal which was Jesus' mount that day, I find myself moving in a little different direction this year. Indeed, this time through I am wondering at the possibility that the choice of a this young donkey was, in fact, intentional for other reasons as well. Indeed, perhaps this choice was downright subversive.

In part, my thinking has shifted because I found myself paging through the book of Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season  where I came across a piece written during World War II by a pastor in France. This is a story, or rather a series of short stories shared with his congregation entitled: "How Donkeys Got the Spirit of Contradiction." In these stories, Pastor Andre Trocme leads his people through reflections about the stories in the New Testament where a donkey shows up. Like the one we imagine carried Mary into Bethlehem with Joseph walking alongside. Like the same one which may have aided their escape to Egypt. Like the one the Samaritan might have used to help rescue a wounded man as he moved him to a place of safety where his healing might begin. And yes, indeed, the one we hear about today.

This pastor created scenario after scenario where the owner of the donkey hesitated to allow his animal to be used by these people for their various journeys and where again and again the donkey in it strength and stubbornness refused to bow to her master's fear. His point?  His listeners were living in a time and place in history where fear dominated and where their faith called them to exhibit courage --- perhaps even stubbornly so. As the donkey did again and again. These words introduce these stories:
On a Christmas Day during World War II in Nazi-occupied France, Pastor Andre Trocme gathered his congregation together in the Protestant church in the small mountain village of Le Chambon. The people of the area had formed an underground network for saving refugees, many of them Jewish children. Fear kept them from talking too much to each other ---  none of them knew which of their neighbors might betray them to the German occupiers. The rescuers of Le Chambon knew that they might face concentration camp or worse if found out.
Wishing to strengthen his congregation in their resolve to do what is right, Pastor Trocme told them stories about Jesus' life. Later collected into a book, these original, child-like stories testify to the power of faith to enable ordinary people to risk their lives for strangers. (p. 13)

Oh, I do wonder how those same stories might speak today for I wonder where we are called to exhibit a 'spirit of contradiction' in the face of threat or fear, despair or disillusionment. And so again I do wonder if the choice of a donkey was more intentional in a different way than I first thought. I wonder if as we reflect on 'the donkey' we find ourselves coming to the heart of the meaning of Jesus' actions during the last week of his life.

Certainly this view is supported in The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, a collaborative effort by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. In their opening pages they speak of two processions entering Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30:

One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers from the peasant class...
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus' procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate's proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus's crucifixion. (p. 2)
Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagle mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds; the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. the swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. ( p. 3)
It is so that my other commentaries do not speak of this 'other procession.' And yet, it makes sense, for we do know that there was a more visible military presence in the city on high holy days such as the Passover with the goal of being a visible reminder to the crowds of who or what was really in charge. It follows that these symbols and tools of  'imperial power' would have had to arrive somehow and perhaps this was exactly how this came to be that there were too processions taking place at the same time. And so Borg and Crossan assert that Jesus' actions were very intentional, that he planned this so as to contrast with what was happening on the other side of the city. More than that, by his actions, Jesus drew on the ancient memory of the people who would recall the prophecy of Zechariah:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth." (Zechariah 9:9-10, NRSV)
Oh yes, it seems this colt, this young donkey was so much more than a sign and symbol of Jesus' humility. Rather, in keeping with this prophecy, it was a sign and symbol to all those who witnessed Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem that God was not yet done with them. More than that, the prophet speaks the truth that the one riding that donkey had been sent to offer the world another way, another path to victory, an avenue to true peace. And this other way? It surely flew in the face of the chosen values and methods of the powers of this world. It still does.

I am not yet sure how I will preach these images on Palm/Passion Sunday this year. As I move towards Holy Week, though, I am pondering these questions:
  • If Jesus were to ride into my town today, what would be his means of transportation? What signs and symbols would speak today?
  • If, in fact, the choice of the colt was subversive and meant to run counter to the 'powers of this world' at the time, what 'powers' would Jesus be working against today? What does Jesus' peaceable entrance contrast with today? What would his message be?
  • I am struck by Pastor Andre Trocme's efforts to encourage his congregation to "stubbornly and courageously" reach out to help others in a time when there were real, deadly consequences for doing so. How does THAT message speak today? Indeed, where and how are we called to be "stubbornly courageous" in our compassion --- even to the point of risking ourselves?
  • Certainly, there are many entry points into the story of Jesus' Passion which can help us begin to grasp its import and meaning. The colt, this young donkey, continues to capture my imagination. As you read through this story, what captures you?


Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Anointing

John 12:1-8

It was some years ago now that I went to call on a man who was in his last hours of hospice care.

I made my way in through the side door into the kitchen for his hospital bed was blocking the front entry. When I entered I found his wife of 60 years, his daughter, and his son-in-law sitting around the room. In that moment their attention was not on the one occupying the bed, but on one another. The conversation was easy and light --- or as light as it could be, given the circumstances.

Something brought them up short, though, for even though they were talking with one another, their hearts were riveted on the one who was dying. His breathing had changed.

We gathered close. We offered prayer. And before we ended, we realized that his breathing had ceased altogether.

I am not often there for precise moments such as these, but when I am, one senses one is standing on holy ground as we wonder at the mysterious line between living and dying. This time stands out, though, for this is what happened next.

His daughter picked up his hand and began to study it. We watched then as his fingers became mottled. For of course, when the heart stopped pumping, the blood flow stopped as well

She was entirely respectful, to be sure. Her gesture was not without love. She was simply curious and full of wonder at this mystery. But it was also unusual. In fact, I expect I remember it so well for I had not seen the likes of it before nor have I seen it since --- this utter sense of ease in the presence of death.

I thought of this today as I sat with the image before us now of Mary anointing Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair. (One notes, of course, that this is not the case in all four Gospels. In Matthew and in Mark, Jesus' head is anointed with this precious perfume --- understood to be a sign of his kingship, his royalty.)

Oh yes, I think of this now for it was the practice in the time of Jesus to anoint the body before burial. And this practice, as I understand it, always began with anointing the hands and the feet --- the extremities --- before the rest of the body was prepared. The hands and the feet --- those places where often the signs of death can first be detected. And yes, those same hands and the feet --- those parts of us which often first meet the world of the living.

And so it was that Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die, as she anoints his feet, clearly she is foreshadowing what custom would soon entail anyway. And more than that, of course? Jesus speaks out loud this truth that Mary had bought this costly perfume for just this purpose: to anoint him on the day of his burial. She must have known this day was at hand.

  • Perhaps this was only possible because Mary had already seen the promise of God literally coming alive in the wonder of Jesus having brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Maybe Mary knew enough of God's power to allow herself to be used as an oh - so - tender predictor of what would follow.
  • Or maybe it was simply all she had and all she could do and so she did, thus foreshadowing the posture Jesus would take on with his disciples a few short days hence when he knelt to wash their feet. Maybe she was simply willing to stand (or kneel) in the mystery and to trust.

Still, I am captured now by the powerful symbolism of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. I am remembering, for instance, the command to Moses to take off his shoes for his feet were standing on holy ground. And I find myself deeply aware that for many of us, our feet ground us --- they are where we first physically meet this world God has made. And I wonder, I do, whether the act of taking off one's shoes is not only a sign of respect, but a way in which we come closer to "the holy" itself.
  • And so I wonder if by anointing his feet, Mary is also recognizing this --- that in his living, Jesus was as 'grounded' as the rest of us. And that in being so 'grounded,' he made all of this and all of us somehow holy, too.
  • Oh, I do wonder if she was honoring his utter humanity, even as she worshiped his divinity.
  • I wonder if she was kneeling in the mystery where we often first see death, too, in feet and hands when life leaves us.
  • And I wonder, too, what this looks like now today. For it seems to me that you and I are called to honor the same in one another. As Mary did. And of course, as Jesus did.
A long time ago I witnessed a daughter holding her dad's hand as life left it. She did so with respect. With a deep sense of wonder. And an unusual measure of comfort.

I do wonder what it would look like if we all approached the places where life meets death with a deeper sense of wonder. I wonder if we could, if we would, only hold one another's hands, if this might bring a greater gentleness to our life together. Indeed, what amazing gifts might must be ours if we could kneel and honor the humanity in another? I imagine we might just start to see the holy there as well.

And there is this. While Mary saved that pound of pure nard for the day of Jesus' burial, she anointed him while he was still alive. Mary anointed Jesus for continued love and service. And for sacrifice.

Oh, how might we begin to see this world change if we also did this for one another?