Sunday, April 22, 2012

"In God's wildness is the hope of the world"

My sermon for 3 Easter B, April 22, 2012
This Gospel passage about Jesus eating fish with the disciples after the resurrection led to a very memorable conversation around my table at Easter dinner a few years ago. All those present were clergy, and you have to understand that by the evening of Easter Day, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy are punchy, irreverent, exhausted and uncensored… and so thinking about this story in the context of a Nathan’s presence at dinner that night and a certain book on his bookshelf, someone… it might have been me…but Jonathan thinks it was him… wondered aloud, “Since Jesus ate after the resurrection, did the resurrected Jesus poop?” As we know from that favorite book of Nathan’s, all living things eat, so “Everyone poops!” 

Now at one level that is the absurd conclusion of a resurrected Jesus who eats, and is totally not worth spending time on…but at another level, Jesus is the son of a God who created the dust of the earth, and who said that creation was good—all of it, from the sun and moon to the heavens and seas, the land and trees and every creeping thing of every kind up to human beings. And whose Son was fully human, and knew all the intimacies of human life. 

So the risen Jesus eats. And if he eats, he’s real. That’s the whole focus of today’s Gospel: the confirmation of the embodied, whole, physically present Jesus after the resurrection. The New Creation, of which Jesus is the first fruits, it is not just a spiritual—or ghostly—realm where we leave our bodies behind and exist someplace in the ether. It is physical, and involves touch and taste and sensations.  

Now we can understand why the disciples thought Jesus might just have been a ghost or a spirit (the word for ghost and spirit is the same in Greek—pneuma), since he had just appeared to some of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus and then vanished from their presence. The same thing is true in the Gospel of John, where Jesus just appears in the upper room ignoring the walls and locked door. But also, in that Gospel, Jesus eats something to show his incarnate reality, and again it is fish (and bread) that he eats. Each time the risen Jesus is revealed in John and in Luke, it is through the physical: the breaking of bread after the road to Emmaeus, the physical presence of Jesus in the upper room showing his wounds, the breakfast on the beach in both Gospels.  

Most Christians in the first two centuries deliberately moved away from understanding God and Jesus in terms of the purely spiritual or purely intellectual. There were Gnostics and other sects who sought the Gospel for only a spiritual or intellectual elite, but the Christianity that has survived was universal and balanced the spiritual with the corporeal. 

We love God with all our heart and our mind and our souls… and our bodies aren’t far behind. It reminds me of the vows said over the rings in our wedding service, which conclude with “With all that I am, and with all that I have, I honor you...” A marriage that is only intellectual or only emotional or only physical will never last. It has to be all of ourselves that we (imperfectly) offer to our spouses. Our relationship with God is the same—it can’t be just our hearts, or just our minds, or just our souls or just our bodies. It can be—and hopefully sometimes is—all of those. And the body part matters, both our physical bodies and the physical creation around us.

And so it is a wonderful coincidence that today is also Earth Day. The Episcopal Church recognizes Earth day not by calling it earth day but by designating two holy people associated with the natural world to be remembered on this day. The first one you’ve never heard of—Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who was an Episcopal Priest and explorer who was in the first group of people to climb to the summit of Mt. McKinley. 

The second person we honor today as church is someone you have heard of—at least, I hope you have: John Muir. The naturalist, the man who brought together the Sierra Club and Theodore Roosevelt to begin the National Parks System and protect Yosemite and Sequoia from development and exploitation. The man who fundamentally knew that creation was good and must be preserved for us and our children and our children’s children.  

Muir would probably fall into today’s “spiritual but not religious” category; his father made him memorize most of the Bible under threat of beatings, and so Muir moved away from such organized—and brutal—expressions of religion. But you can hear his constant relationship with the divine in his writings about nature and about his life. He believed that our primary source for understanding God was the book of nature. He wrote in his Travels in Alaska, "Every particle of rock or water or air has God by its side leading it the way it should go; the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness; In God's wildness is the hope of the world." 

But Muir might never have gotten to that wilderness but for an accident. After spending the Civil War as a draft dodger in Canada, Muir found work as a sawyer in a mill. In early March 1867, he had an accident with a tool he was using when it slipped and struck him in the eye. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks, and was unsure whether he’d ever regain his sight. When he did, he made the decision to follow his dreams of exploration and live in nature. Muir later wrote, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”

The lesson Muir took from that was to be in nature; to read see God in the book of Nature. I see God in nature, too… or actually, I feel God in nature. I breathe God in nature. Especially in the kind of wondrous natural surroundings where Muir spent his time—Yosemite and Sequoia. They were beloved wild places when I was growing up in California. Encountering deer outside the cabin door, discovering the magic of a hot fire in a fireplace on a cold and snowy night, and always the incredible vistas. It’s impossible to feel big or important when you’re in Yosemite Valley, because the valley instantly puts things in perspective: it is ancient, we are transient. Humans build things that are pretty big… but nature is bigger. But also, like Muir, we realize that such beauty is something that cannot belong to one person, or even one people or one nation. It is something that needs to be cherished and loved by all; something that deserves the protection of all, because it is at once the most permanent and solid thing we can encounter, and the most fragile and vulnerable.     

In the Revelation to John, heaven comes down to earth, not the other way around. Scripture is not about earthly creatures going “up” to heaven; it’s about waiting for the new heaven AND the new earth, and in Revelation, the heavenly city comes down out of heaven to make its home on earth in a new a glorious way. The writer of Revelation, and many other theologians, particularly Augustine, saw heaven in terms of a city—a place where people meet, where there is exchange of ideas and glorious architecture and an ordered society—things that all made sense as desirable in the first century culture. But maybe today heaven might be better thought of as a wilderness. A beneficient, beautiful wilderness. I’m not sure I could imagine a better heaven or feeling closer to God than I do at the foot of Yosemite Falls. Just as Jesus comes, not as a ghost, but as a real, physical person, heaven might have the tactile solidity of El Capitan, the rootedness of a redwood or sequoia tree, and the glacial pace of change that measures time in ways we cannot comprehend. And just as when you stand in Yosemite Valley you have a sense that this belongs to everyone… perhaps we might know that heaven belongs to everyone, through God, as well. 

Muir wrote, "We all flow from one fountain—Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Ecstatic Community

My sermon preached at Epiphany on Easter Sunday, 2012

“Alleluia! Christ is… missing? Christ is missing indeed? Alleluia?”

That might be a more appropriate acclamation for the Easter story in the Gospel of Mark than “Christ is risen.” You all came to church today to hear a resurrection story… but instead, Mark gave us an empty tomb story. Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels to be written, and the author did not give us a clear resurrection appearance like Matthew, Luke, and John. The very last words of the entire Gospel of Mark are the very last words we heard today in the Gospel: “For they were afraid.” In order to believe in the resurrection, we have to trust the word of the young man in white; and we have to trust that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome got over their fear enough to tell the other disciples, go to Galilee, and see the risen Jesus. This was so disturbing for subsequent editors of the Bible that they “corrected” Mark’s omission, tacking on an ending more like Matthew’s a few centuries later. Scholars have since found older copies of the Gospel that end here, in fear.

But fear is not a bad place to end in 2012. There is plenty of fear in our world today. Fear about where the global and domestic economy is heading; a lack of trust in institutions, leaders, and government; violence and discrimination at home; terrorism—both past and threatening the future; wars ongoing, concluded, and looming. We know what it is to feel afraid, and to be uncertain about how the story will end: will there be a glorious reunion in Galilee, or will we get to Galilee and discover that Jesus is not there? Or will we be so afraid that we don’t even go to Galilee to see if Jesus will meet us there? The ambiguity of Mark’s ending mirrors the ambiguity of our own time.

When we are faced with these fears, how do we respond? Do we retreat or do we move forward? I never thought I would quote John Wayne in a sermon—certainly not in an Easter sermon. But the Duke said: “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” When we’re scared to death—God calls us to act with courage.

Now, courage isn’t a word or concept the Gospels have much to say about. The Hebrew Bible is full of the word “courage” as this person and that person “take courage” and act in faith. But the Gospels only use the word “courage” once—the Gospels are not centered on individual acts of valor or bravery. Where courage comes into it is in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles which talk about encouragement a lot—we are called to encourage one another—to give each other courage. In the Christian life, courage is a collective endeavor, something you give to others, not something you do on your own. To hold hands, to stand behind, to lift up each other so that we believe we are capable of all that God desires for us. It is no accident that Mark has not one person but three go to the tomb: any of the women by themselves might have been overcome by their fear and not ultimately responded with faith. But with three of them to encourage one another, the good news could be shared later. The two Marys and Salome must have encouraged one another to share the message with Peter and the other disciples, so that even though they were afraid when they left the tomb and didn’t want to tell anyone, by the time they returned to the city, they had found their courage and were able to tell what they had seen—because there’s obviously more to the story than Mark records, or we wouldn’t be here today.

Can we, too, have the courage of our faith? The courage that the story doesn’t end, even when the words on the page do—the courage that God really does love us, intimately, even when we are broken? Can we have courage as people who worship the prince of Peace, that war and violence are not inevitable; that for people who worship the one who fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and two fish hunger is not inevitable; courage that as people who follow the one who suffered and died and rose again that our personal struggles may be horrific, but that they end not with the cross but with the resurrection? I believe we can.

In the face of every legitimate and practical and obvious answer why we should conform to the world and give up on these things, to believe takes incredible courage. As much courage as it did for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome to overcome their fear that Jesus’ body had been stolen and instead to repeat the words of the man in white that Jesus would see them in Galilee. And then to pick up, travel to Galilee, and meet Jesus there. Believing isn’t just in your head, or even just in your heart. It’s something you do with your feet and your hands.

If we don’t believe that peace, ending hunger, healing, compassion—can be possible, then they won’t be. We can participate in the self-fulfilling prophecy of the world, which says that what’s sexy sells, image is everything, greed is good, violence has answers… or we can have the courage to preach a different Gospel; the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, who has been raised, and who will see us in Galilee.

If that’s the gospel you want to believe in, that you want to share, that you hear Jesus preaching in every story in the Gospels, then this is the day to celebrate that and the place to do it. Epiphany is—and I pray will be ever more every day and every year—a place where we believe with courage. And audacity. Where we feed the poor. Where we send kids in Tanzania to school. Where we educate children at our Day School. Where we make beautiful music, offered for the glory of God. Where we welcome strangers into our fellowship and worship every week. Where we care for the sick in local hospitals both as medical professionals and as spiritual caregivers. Where we take seriously the New Commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us, in a community that is young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, black, white and every color in between.

There can be no closed door or impossibility in our own lives that is more closed or impossible than the simple fact of Jesus’ death. Jesus is dead. The women go to the tomb not to greet him but to anoint his decomposing body as a final act of love. But it is in their loving and courageous compassion—going out late Saturday night to buy ointments and spices, getting up early on Sunday morning to get to the tomb, with no real plan for how to roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb—it is in that act of compassion that the door is opened for something so much greater. The announcement of the resurrection by the man in white—the angel, as inexplicable characters dressed in white usually are meant to be understood.

Mark says today that the women at the tomb were seized with “terror and amazement” at the message of that man in white. A better translation than “terror and amazement” might be “trembling and ecstasy”. The Greek is tromos kai ekstasis. That courageous community of the first three witnesses of the resurrection is an ecstatic community.

Now, if you googled the term, “ecstatic community” you probably wouldn’t find churches—I know that’s a phrase I didn’t want listed on the history of my work computer’s google browser, so I didn’t dare look it up. And yet that is what we are called to be. A community that trembles with ecstasy. A community that knows deeply what it is to be afraid—that doesn’t wear rose colored glasses, and sees the daunting reality ahead of us. But also a community that embodies joy from head to toe. A courageous, ecstatic community, continuing the tradition of the Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, by living the gospel, practicing compassion, and loving one another as he loved us. And when we encourage one another like that, it is then that we can proclaim with confidence that Christ is risen… not missing. Because he is here, in our midst, in every one of you, in me, and in all the space in between. So Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

And Still I Rise

My Maundy Thursday sermon for 2012

This is my body  Jesus says of the bread tonight. And this is my body he says of us. These are the twin elements of communion—linked to Christ through bread and through each other.

The words of institution sound so normal to us today… we hear them so often, and we know some of the many interpretations they carry with them..  what must they have thought at that table, that night, when Jesus said them?  Or in Paul’s community of Corinthians, to whom he is writing them… what did they mean for them? 1980 years ago (more or less) a group of friends sat around a table eating a meal and were confused… and at every meal that that group of friends—and subsequent groups of friends of those friends—ate to remember the first meal, the meanings have gotten richer, if not crystal clear.

Tonight is about the new covenant and the new commandment.  A covenant is an agreement between two parties; it’s mutual—neither side can impose it, and both sides have duties to uphold under it.  In the Old Covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents—signs of its fulfillment were land and progeny, and eventually the law. The signs of the new covenant on our side are our worship and our praise, our continuance in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and prayers; our obedience to the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  And on God’s side, God gives us eternal life. 

On Saturday night, we will renew of our baptismal vows at the Easter vigil.  Tonight is the renewal of our baptismal action. The washing away of our sins, the intimacy with one another and God that is what communion is all about.  We eat, we drink, and we serve one another….  And then we mourn together.  It’s like in cultures where women still prepare bodies for burial. You wash the body lovingly, wrap it in cloth, and prepare it for the tomb. That’s communion—with the one who has died and the sisterhood of servants. Tonight we do that to the altar—the stand in for Jesus’ body. We take away all the stuff that’s excess.  The candles, the cross, the linens, the furniture, until all we have left is the table. And that stays.  Empty. And then, when it’s all away, we can mourn for a while.  Go to the garden and weep and pray, and keep vigil with the body. 

I have here the Fermentum.  This is a piece of the bread that was consecrated by our bishop on Tuesday at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  In each church in our diocese (or at least in the churches that remembered to get their piece of the fermentum) it will be placed in the cup or on the plate of bread we consecrate tonight as a sign of our communion one with another beyond this parish’s boundaries.  You might hear in the Latin fermentum a sound like “fermentation”… or hear the meaning behind it which is the idea that it is leaven; it is yeast.  It is one tiny piece that imbues the whole assembly with communion with the wider church. 

Jesus is the leaven for our gathering.  His body has died so that ours may live.  So that he may be the leaven that brings us fully to life: that causes us to rise.  You only need a little bit of leaven to make all the dough rise.  Communion is leaven: in both directions. In our community,  love, the bonds of affection, accountability, faithfulness, they all help us to rise.  Partaking of the bread and wine draws us ever closer to Jesus, ever closer to rising to eternal life with him.  And we are called to be leaven in the world---the living organism that in being mixed with diverse ingredients creates something wonderful and delicious. It’s not about making everyone be exactly like us or believe exactly like us, it’s about taking the unique message of Christ out into the world and setting the Gospel free to grow and thrive. 

In the Passover story from the Hebrew Bible tonight, we are reminded that after slavery comes freedom.  In the Gospel and Epistle, the message is that after death comes life. Both attest that after violence and oppression come relief and a rising.   Which made me think of the poem by Maya Angelou, “And still I rise.” May be we the leaven to the world that gives us confidence in our ability to be raised, and to rise.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It is finished

A sermon that will be preached at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church on Good Friday, 2012
It is finished. 

Except it isn’t. If it had been finished on that Friday afternoon nearly 2000 years ago, we wouldn’t be gathered here today. John’s gospel doesn’t end at the 30th verse of the 19th chapter, it keeps going to detail the resurrection and ascension. Without the resurrection, without the continuation of the story, there would be no Christians, no Church, no victory over death, no first fruits of eternal life. Sadly, it isn’t even the end of the indignities upon Jesus’ body—he has yet to be pierced by the spear. The work of Christ does not end on the Cross; death is not destroyed by Jesus dying, it is destroyed by Jesus rising. And even now, the work of Christ continues in the Church, in the lives of those who follow him and pray to and with Jesus… it will not be finished until his return, and I’m not even sure if that will be the end.  

But Jesus thinks it’s over. And in that gap between personal experience and theological reality lies our shared humanity. 

How many of us, at a hospital bedside, have waited hours or days or weeks, longing to finally be able to say the sentence, “It is finished.” Finally, the pain and suffering, the agony is over, and the person we love is at peace. Thank God it’s over. Or at other times in the presence of death the sentence, “It is finished,” brings disbelief, despair—surely this life could not yet be snuffed out. Surely this isn’t the end. But somehow, numbingly, it is. There is clarity in death. We know what it is to say, with Jesus, that a life is finished. 

But our lives never are finished. Is the agony and pain and suffering finished at the point of death?—perhaps, but eternal life has just begun. It looks like we are finished, as realistically as it looked to those on Calvary that Jesus’ life was finished. But in neither case does death have the last word. The reason we chant alleluia at the grave is our sure and certain hope that resurrection follows death, that death does not finish us any more than death finished Jesus. It doesn’t take away the appearance of finality, or the reality of earthly loss, but it does extend hope. Which takes a lot of faith. But for me, it also challenges me to find another way of understanding Jesus’ proclamation of “It is finished.” In my life, where does “It is finished” resonate beyond the fear and hopelessness at the hospital bedside? Where does it proclaim good news for our lives, and not just our deaths?

One image of that proclamation stays with me all the time. It is Jose Clemente Orozco’s painting, Cristo destruye su cruz, Christ Destroying the Cross. It is one of my favorite paintings, by this Mexican painter of the early 20th Century, depicting an indigena Christ, an Indian Christ, who has pried himself off the cross, and wielding an axe, has chopped it down. His hands and feet are gruesomely wounded, and the crown of thorns is cast off to the side. The cross is falling onto a blazing fire fed by burning books. And Jesus stares hauntingly out at us looking at him, exhausted, suffering, but liberated. It is so arresting that the first time I saw it, in a museum in Mexico City, I just stood there staring for 20 minutes feeling my understanding of the cross shifting and growing. 

It is a very different embodiment of Christ declaring, “It is finished,” than the Gospel; but in its own way it is no less orthodox or compelling. Here he is demanding that the suffering of his people be finished. Here the indigena Jesus is proclaiming, “It is finished. Enough. My oppression at the hands of Spain, of the Church, of the government, of the rich, is over. I have been on this cross for 400 years, neither able to live, nor being granted the peace of death, and it is finished. My people are free.”

In the midst of Christ’s work of liberation we have too often not only crucified peoples and nations, but we have prolonged their anguish. Orozco’s painting to me has been a profound reminder that when we see someone—whether an individual or a group—on the cross, suffering, it is our responsibility as Christians to take up Christ’s words and say, “It is finished,” and help them down. The cross is the primary symbol for Christians to remind us of our own sin, our own complicity in crucifying Christ; and also the symbol of our salvation, our affirmation that our sin does not have the last word. Therefore, today, when we pass by our present sins, the Cross should remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, and also invigorate us towards finishing our sins.  

So what are the sins we are passing by today as a people? Who—and what—is on the cross today, in need of our cry with Jesus to let their suffering be finished? It is too long a list. The billion people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day. Women, around the world and here at home, who are oppressed, and abused, mutilated, forced into marriages too young to safely bear children so that one woman dies in childbirth every minute somewhere in the world. Prisoners held without trial; hostages who are kidnapped from their families. The victims of genocide in Sudan and elsewhere. Boys forced to be soldiers and commit atrocities that damage them for the rest of their lives. And right now, the very earth itself is suffering on the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son.” Jesus comes to redeem the whole earth, so when the very earth is gasping for breath because of our sin, it joins him on the cross. 

A thousand of these crosses stand on hillsides compelling us to cry out “Enough! It is finished! We will no longer join in this sin!” If we leave here today, having spent these hours at the foot of the cross, and do not carry that awareness of Christ’s suffering out into the world, and the willingness to proclaim with Jesus that “It is finished,” then we continue the sin that killed our Lord. If the cross is only a thing of the past, and not part of our present, then why have we spent these hours sitting at its foot? I would pray that we will leave here today with the sure and certain hope that Christ’s work is not finished, and that it continues through his Body, the church, in all its many members, and part of that work is to finish the suffering of the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, and the earth, that they might be liberated, freed, and resurrected with Christ.