Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter: The Deepest Mystery

The women who go to the tomb at dawn on Easter morning are not seeking resurrection. They are doing the age-old work of being women: preparing a body for a proper burial, one final act of love for a friend, a way of being faithful to the memory of the teacher and leader.  

So ritual is what brings the women to the tomb that morning. Love is what brings them to the tomb that morning. Faithfulness is what brings them to the tomb that morning.  

And it is those things—ritual, love, and faithfulness—that put them in the position to discover that Jesus has been raised. Had they not had those things—ritual, love and faithfulness—would the message to go to Galilee have ever been heard?  

It is no coincidence to me that simple and humble loving actions are what put these women in the position of seeing the angels and becoming the first evangelists for the resurrection. God’s grace is always there; we are the ones who are either open and available to that grace, or not. If we give in to despair after the cross, we may never know that Easter is possible.  

And those three things that brought the women to the tomb—ritual, love and faithfulness—may be similar to what has brought us here today. The ritual of Easter Sunday—you go to church, even if you don’t do so the rest of the year. We seek the ritual of the story, the music, the prayers, the communion with one another and God. Even the ritual of the Easter egg hunt. Ritual has brought us here today. 

Love has brought some of us here today. Love of a family member who wants us to be here; love for this church, this community; love of God; love of Jesus.  

And faithfulness has brought some of us here today. Faithfulness to the Gospel; to seeing Jesus through these three days we have just completed; faithfulness to loved ones who passed on their faith to us.

So now that we’re here, what surprising message are we available to hear? 

When I was reading through the scripture lessons for the day, I saw that the last verse of the 1 Corinthians reading was “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” I usually try not to think of death as an enemy; it is natural, it is universal, and I believe that the death-denying-ness of our culture is dangerous because it doesn’t allow us to die well and with dignity. But this verse resonated with me, partly because it harkens to me of the Easter promise that death “has no more dominion over us,” but also because I knew I’d seen it recently in connection with some popular culture icon—I just couldn’t remember where. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Where had I seen that? Google came to my rescue. It’s the verse that’s engraved on Harry Potter’s parents’ tombstone in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is very much about resurrection—about how offering yourself freely to death vanquishes evil and death and causes the triumph of love and life.  

English children’s literature is very much about resurrection; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is probably an even better example of how “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” than Harry Potter is. Aslan, the lion, the Christ figure, has been sacrificed on the Stone Table by the White Witch. Susan and Lucy are mourning when they hear a loud crack as the Stone Table shatters and Aslan’s body is gone.

            “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

            “Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself….

            “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

            “It means, said Aslan, “That though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

And with that, Aslan takes the girls on his back and goes to the witch’s palace, where she has turned all sorts of good creatures into statues, and one by one Aslan breathes on them and they come back to life, and together they go and vanquish evil and the witch once and for all. Death has been destroyed; life will prevail.  

I don’t usually like using words like “magic” to describe the Gospel; Jesus’ resurrection is not a magic trick. Resurrection is not a fairy tale; it is not magic; it is not fiction; it is not an “idle tale” as the male disciples believe when they hear the women. It is real. Hear Paul’s confidence in his letter to the Corinthians today, “…in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” We really will be raised with him. Those aren’t just words we say to sound nice, a cold comfort in the shadow of death. But C.S. Lewis’ idea of “deeper magic” as a stand-in for what I might call “deeper mystery” works for me. What we are celebrating today is the deepest of mysteries.  

Because we don’t understand entirely what happened at that tomb in today’s Gospel. It is a deep mystery. And we don’t understand entirely how that triumph over death has released us from death, too; how it is that to paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ words from the novel, “Death will start working backwards” for us as well as for Jesus. The world is not comfortable with mystery today—we would prefer certainty. But certainty is the root of fundamentalism. Mystery is the root of compassion; of discovery; of creativity. Certainty can keep us hiding out after the cross, because Jesus is dead and there’s nothing more to say about that. Mystery is what allows us to go to the tomb, even if we’re not sure what we’ll find there.

So if you didn’t come here today seeking resurrection, that’s fine. We aren’t always seeking resurrection. The women certainly weren’t on their Easter morning. They did not even know that resurrection was something they could hope for. Sometimes we cannot even imagine what resurrection would look like for us. But God can. God’s imagination is greater than ours. We each have an empty tomb inside of us where God has raised something that was once dead and is now alive. So let us rejoice and be glad—as the choir already sang from Psalm 118, “The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; God’s right hand has raised me. The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I shall not die, I shall live and recount God’s deeds!”

Friday, March 29, 2013

Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit

Preached at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church at their ecumenical seven last words service on March 29, 2013

This is the last word, and I’m going to try to use it to sum up everything we’ve heard today by using our imaginations. 

Put yourself in the position of Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Bartholomew, Philip, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, James son of Alphaeus, and Judas son of James on the day of the Crucifixion. You’re hiding out. You’re scared you’re going to be arrested. You haven’t slept much for the last few days. You’re pretty sure that your teacher has been executed. Or maybe you’re still holding out a little hope that there will be a miracle and God will intervene. Either way though, you feel incredibly guilty, because by rights, you should be with him. He would be there for you. You might be angry, too—how could Jesus have let this happen? He’s dead, and you’re at risk; this was supposed to be about the reign of the Kingdom of God, and now the kingdom of the world seems to be a lot more powerful. And so every noise outside, every knock on the door, brings a surge of adrenaline—who is it? Is this it? 

Finally, night is falling, and the women return to your hiding place. It’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and a bunch of other women that you’ve known since Galilee—I’m following Luke’s gospel here, since that is where this last word comes from, and those are the women he names. And the women tell you the story that you’ve heard today—because they were there. They were with Jesus at the cross, and they recount—each a little differently—what they heard and witnessed. 

Jesus is dead. There was no miracle. No divine intervention. He said some things from the cross—some of them kind of hopeful. At least he died comparatively quickly. He has been buried in a tomb—the women know where it is and accompanied the body there.

How do you hear their words and story? Is it good news? Do you feel uplifted and comforted when you hear that Jesus’ last words, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” are a prayer? Or is it just one more confirmation that Jesus is gone, and that his particular gifts and miracles and inspiration are over?

Or do you believe the women at all? The disciples won’t believe these same women when they testify to the empty tomb, which admittedly requires a bigger stretch of imagination, but maybe you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Maybe you’re angry at them—jealous, in a way—because they were there and you weren’t. Of course, it would have been easier for them as women to be there and not be noticed—you might have gotten arrested if you were there, but they could be “just women” and do the business of women—comforting, weeping, grieving, and burying the dead. But maybe they’re not telling the truth. Maybe he didn’t really die. Or maybe he didn’t say all those holy things from the cross—maybe he was just screaming and crying and in agony and the women are covering for him, putting verses of the Psalms and forgiveness to his executors and his fellow criminals in his mouth as a way of keeping his memory untarnished.  

These disciples—and these women—were human beings, with human frailties and broken relationships that influenced how they heard and how they told and how they interpreted the story of the crucifixion. Just as we are human beings with human frailties and broken relationship that influence how we hear and tell and interpret the story of the Crucifixion.  

And just like them, it matters what we testify to—it matters what we open our eyes to see and who we tell and how we tell the story of what we’ve seen.  

To what is Jesus testifying, by saying, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit?”

The first word, “Father,” is striking because it is the one change from the verse of Psalm 31. In that psalm, it is into Yahweh’s hands that we commit our Spirit. Jesus changes it to Father. There is a new intimacy to this relationship between God and Jesus and God and God’s people. Children have a claim on their parents for love and safety and care. And Jesus has passed that claim and special relationship on to us. Even from the cross, as it were, Jesus is reminding us that we now claim God as our Father and Mother; that the images of the angry and vengeful God of our bible are being replaced with a God of love and nurture and familial intimacy. 

Who testifies to this truth today? For myself, I discover new understanding in being a parent. I always understood God as Father and Mother figure, but to be a mother and understand the bond between me and my child and extend that to God’s bond to us is extraordinary. I know how visceral and strong that connection between my four year old son and I is—I know the depths of love, the depths of frustration, and the willingness to sacrifice. If I can feel that for my son, how much more must God feel that for me. We can look to our own families to testify to this.

The central testimony of Jesus in this word is his commendation into the hands of God. Now we often use those words—“it’s in God’s hands” as a way of offering comfort. It’ll be OK—it’s in God’s hands. Whenever I picture the hands of God, I actually picture the hands of Jesus—hands that are pierced and wounded, but that are, ultimately, safe. So that when we commit ourselves into the hands of God, we are not committing ourselves into a place where there is no pain, or suffering. We are not even commending ourselves into a place where there is no death. We are commending ourselves into a place where we are not alone. We are commending ourselves into a place where God’s justice and mercy reign—while recognizing that the world rarely follows God’s justice or offers mercy.  

Who testifies to this truth in our world today? Who acts as God’s hands today? Whoever shelters the poor, whoever cares for the sick, whoever advocates for the jobless… those are the people we should be listening too.

Finally, Jesus is witnessing to his possession of a Spirit; a Spirit that we share. We have a Spirit, and it has infinite value, to us and to God. We are precious creatures, beloved of God, made in the image of God, and undeserving of torture or abuse. And so when we—or others—find our spirits being tortured and abused and crucified, we are called to speak out and stop it. And this is where knowing who we trust to testify to us matters. Because as one person or group is being tortured, another person or group will deny that torture. We are called as Christians to be smart listeners; to be skeptical of power; to give the benefit of the doubt to the poor and downtrodden. The women are important witness of the crucifixion and resurrection not just because they were the faithful ones who were willing to take the risks of being at the foot of the cross; and arriving at the tomb before daybreak; but because they follow in the footsteps of so many of God’s chosen prophets by being the less likely; in the same way that God always chooses the younger son over the older; the way that God silences Zechariah while giving voice to Elizabeth; the way God chooses Mary as the mother of our Lord rather than a woman of power or renown.

With the renewed interest this month in Latin American Roman Catholic Archbishops, I’ve been reading a little Oscar Romero. In The Violence of Love he says, “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the church must cry out. It takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer, even though they be unbelievers. They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”

Archbishop Romero also said that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” When we see Jesus speak those last words through eyes that have cried, we know it’s not just about him. It’s about us. 

“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” I give up. I cannot take care of my spirit any more. I need your help, God. My hands are not large enough, strong enough, constant enough to hold myself together. I have to commit my Spirit to you, God, because it’s too much for me. So, here. Take my Spirit. Hold it. Love it. Open it. Break it. Let it die if it must, so that it can be reborn. 

Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Gospel of You

We preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the church—each of the four Gospels, in their own way, begin with some statement about how what follows is the “good news” or gospel, of Jesus, as understood by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They heard the stories of Jesus, and then interpreted them and wrote them down and they became the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke, etc. We then hear their Gospel of Jesus, internalize it, interpret it, and proclaim it—so it’s still the Gospel of Jesus, but it also belongs to us. There is a Gospel of Jennifer—and a Gospel of Janet, and a gospel of Edings, just like there’s a Gospel of Mark or Luke or John. Our way of understanding the good news of Jesus and our way of sharing that with the people we meet—whether by our words or our deeds or the model we set—is our piece of the Gospel.  

And that way that each of us has Good News to share about our relationship with Jesus is how I’ve entered today’s Gospel reading, because there are some really interesting characters present, with widely divergent Gospels all contained under the roof of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is the Gospel of Mary of Bethany, in today’s story? What is the Gospel of Martha--of Lazarus—of Jesus? And intriguingly, what is the Gospel of Judas—because I think even he has good news for us today. We’ll get to him at the end.  

But first, let’s start with the Gospel of Mary of Bethany. Mary’s good news is that we can love Jesus fully, no holds barred. Mary is insightful—she is anointing Jesus for his burial, yes, but also as a king—also as the Christ—the anointed one. Mary is not burdened with practicality; she loves to an extreme and expresses her gratitude on behalf of her family in this over-the-top way. And while she is ridiculed for it by Judas, she is honored for it by Jesus. How many times do we want to do something big—audacious—splashy—for our faith, and hold back over “what will people think?” Mary is not concerned with that—and even when Judas speaks out, Jesus immediately turns it around to honor her, in just the way that Jesus will honor our wild audacious gifts. 

Martha’s gospel is about taking action and supporting other people in their ministries. She’s the one who goes out of the house and finds Jesus after Lazarus’ death and accuses him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Today she is taking action again—making the meal, serving her beloved brother and Jesus, and probably contributing to the possession of ointment (more on that later). Martha is not splashy or fancy. But she sets the stage and makes those actions possible for those who can make them. Mary’s gratuitous action of anointing Jesus is made possible by Martha’s work, which has real value. The Mary/Martha story of her serving and Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet isn’t in John’s gospel, but its essence is contained here—perhaps Mary has chosen the “better part” by anointing Jesus, but she is only able to do so because of Martha. 

Lazarus proclaims his good news at first just by virtue of sitting at the table. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead; he is the living embodiment of the promise of New Life. But Lazarus’ presence also reminds us that having ointment for burial in this household is not a coincidence. Lazarus’ body would have been anointed before his burial… which makes me wonder if the ointment Mary uses on Jesus may be left over from Lazarus, or maybe even other family members.  

Now this is entirely my own imagination, so take it for what it’s worth, and I know very little about 1st Century burial practices. I don’t know if when someone died you went to the local apothecary to buy just as much ointment as you needed…. Or if it was something you had stored around the house in case of need. But there’s some beautiful imagery to me if the ointment used for Lazarus, the first man raised from the dead, is the same ointment that is then used to anoint Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus and who will be raised himself and who raises us. Or, what if this ointment is more like the loaves and fish—and it is the ointment not just for Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family, but gathered from among the community—perhaps Mary went from house to house in Bethany asking them to share, saying “I need ointment for the burial of someone we love”—until there is so very much to pour out all at once. 

So much abundance, of course, that Judas objects. There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Judas’ reputation in the last 50 years—Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind, where Judas’ affection for the poor is assumed as sincere; more recently the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas from the early centuries of the church portrays Judas as acting on Jesus’ instructions and was the only real, true disciple who understood Jesus. A few years ago, the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adlai Guirgis played at the Public Theater to much acclaim, and it was fascinating—Judas being retried in purgatory by Satan for his crimes.   

I’m not interested in rehabilitating Judas, per say; but what I do notice about Judas in today’s text is that in the other three gospels in the scene where a woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment, it is not Judas who objects. It is “some of the disciples”—no names, but understood to be some of the good guys, who are just—as usual—misunderstanding what Jesus is doing. John is the latest gospel written. It intrigues me that the last telling of this anointing story, the last word, if you will, lays this malapropism on Judas’ doorstep—and adds that he has been misappropriating the common purse—a detail contained nowhere else in scripture.

Do we try to make people look worse in hindsight than they really were when we want them to be our scapegoats? I hope that the gospel of Jesus is about escaping the cycle of blame that the world teaches us to enact—not about conforming to it and participating in it. In a few verses, Jesus is going to wash ALL the disciples feet, including those of Judas. I think Jesus’s Gospel as a whole is pointing us away from making Judas the scapegoat for our own doubts, our own frailties, our own misunderstandings of his gospel. We need to own Judas’ question: how do we appropriately praise and honor and worship God with the best that we have to offer and strive for justice and care for the poor? That is not a question to be dismissed—whether it’s Judas or another disciple or Jesus himself who raises it.

So here’s the good news of Judas: we are all going to fail Jesus at one point or another. We are all going to put our own pet projects ahead of those of the gospel sometimes. We are all going to be out of sync with our communities sometimes. And Jesus is still, still going to love us, wash us, redeem us, and save us. Judas isn’t alone in this. Peter will deny Jesus. The other male disciples will abandon him. And they will all be welcomed back. Even Judas—I believe—finds welcome back with Jesus in eternal life. And taking Judas at his word—and not at John’s word—his reminder of that balance between devoting our resources to praising God and devoting them to justice on behalf of God is one we should also keep in mind.

With all this in mind, what is your gospel? What is the good news of Jesus that you have to share with the world? What kind of ointment do you have to pour on Jesus? What tough questions do you have to ask of God for the benefit of all of us? Who do you serve so that they can deepen their relationship to God? And what part of your story is a story of resurrection—of new life? Where have you experienced Lazarus’ story… what part of you is coming to the table today that used to be dead and is now alive?

You have a gospel to share. Bless you for it.