Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fear & Great Joy

Year A
Matthew 28:1-10

The beginning of this Easter scene rings true to me.  The first sentence is so familiar with the women going to visit the grave of their executed rabbi.  It is what we would expect after the pain and loss of Good Friday, these two women going to pay their respects, walking to the sealed off tomb.  Though drenched in grief, the scene is also safe and predictable.  Death is contained inside the tomb, it was horrible what happened, but it’s all cleaned up now and tucked away.  Now the woman simply need to go through the proper grieving motions and lay their flowers outside near the stone that shields them from death and the obscene injustice they just experienced.  

This scene rings true for me because I know the safe, somewhat easy pull to hole up inside a self-made tomb.  My daughter is now fully healthy have three months of prolonged, though not serious, illness. Through our frustration and fear I jumped into control mode -- there were schedules, spreadsheets, medicine alerts on my phone and pages of instructions written to anyone who would came to care for the suffering patient.  Even though it was miserable, it was also safe and predictable, holing up in the house and focusing on nothing else but getting better, attempting to control what was never within my control anyways.  Sometimes, our tombs are just easier.

Yet, here we are on Easter morning! We know the death-filled tomb is not where the story stops.  And just when this scene feels all predictable and gloomy...everything changes.  Now you need to know something about the gospel according to Matthew.  If Matthew were alive today he would be writing scripts for major action movies -- because in his storytelling style, the dialogue is pretty weak, but it doesn’t matter because the action sequences are what we come for anyways.  So of course, in this resurrection story the quiet graveside scene literally bursts open with an earthquake! The whole earth is trembling at the prospect of resurrection, an angel appears right there on the tomb and the guards pass out from fear and shock. And then, this other worldly, angelic being rolls the giant boulder aside and says to the women, “Take a look, it’s empty, he is not here.”

Death has not won, predictability be gone, containment and confinement are not the ways of God -- everything is broken open, the earth is trembling, the women stand strong, the tomb is empty!

The scene is sensational and dramatic with the reach of the resurrection reaching cosmic levels.  It is all good news -- so why do we hear, twice, in this short scene these words “Do not be afraid.” First the angel says it to the women, “Do not be afraid.” and then the risen Jesus appears to them on their run back to Galilee and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Why would our freshly risen Lord, God of heaven and earth, the one who has just defeated death be addressing the fear of two women? Our God is so good, in that as massive and cosmic as the power of the resurrection is, the promises of our God of grace and life are for us, the frightened, doubting, broken children of God. The angel and Jesus speak to our humanity knowing that even though there is now triumph and miracles, there is still the human experience of fear and loss.

Today, Easter worship services around the world will mirror the tone of the Matthew’s dramatic scene.  Bold, brilliant music fills our sanctuary, high liturgy, new Easter dresses and freshly pressed shirts abound.  We raise the bar on this celebratory day and the drama is high...just as gospel writer, Matthew, would want it.  Could we also make space in our Easter Sunday to hear the words of the angel and Jesus, to allow the promises of the resurrection to not only be big and dramatic, but to also be personal and for you.

What if Easter were not all about big music, fancy brunches and your Easter best?
What if the risen Lord were showing up in your life?
If you could hear the words “Do not be afraid” what tomb would burst open?
What stone could be rolled away?

Ruminating on the image of the stone rolled away brought to my memory a church I once visited in Baltimore, MD. This Lutheran church is located in the zip code which holds the most homicides per year in our country...almost all of them being drug related. The people of the church got tired of their parking lot being used for drug sales, they got tired for the corners of the church property not being safe and welcoming places. The first reaction was to lock up tighter, make their church building into a seemingly-safer, more predictable tomb-like building. Of course, nothing changed, no new life was moving, the hostility of the neighborhood was only rising. And then, the Spirit of God began to move in that place. The people of the church felt called to roll away the stone and respond with a love for the neighborhood and a love for the drug dealers and so they starting moving! This little Lutheran church partnered with NA – Narcotics Anonymous and began hosting meetings in their basement. The once a week meeting quickly filled up, so they moved to two a week, then three and in under a year the church was (and still is) hosting 8 meetings a week with over 800 substance addicted people attending.

New life being birthed, the power of the resurrection, it is never all easy or all good.  We live in the tension of great joy and trembling fear, promises of Easter morning and the pain of grief and loss.  That was true in Baltimore, the deals still happen on the corners, the unthinkable is all too common in that zip code. Yet, the people of God now have a voice too! The presence of NA empowered the church to begin an after school program...that church is a witness to the hope of new life.

I recently heard someone say, “We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And for a split second that sounded right to me.  The world out there does seem pretty dark and cruel.  But then a truth hit and I knew...that statement is alienating and wrong. Quite frankly, I’m not all that good and righteous... I’m not sure any of us are all that good and righteous to place ourselves in the glory of Easter morning and place the rest of the world in Good Friday. If we are an Easter people it is because of what Jesus has done...and if Jesus has raised us up with the brilliance of this day, then hasn’t Jesus also promised this new life to the world? We are not an Easter people living in a Good Friday world...we are God’s people living in God’s world.  The world is not stuck on a perpetual loop of Good Friday, if we want to cast “the world” aside like that, then we are the ones living without hope. God is alive, our Savior lives and this astounding, shocking, miraculous news is for the whole of this world that God so loves and it is for you.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, do not be afraid, for our Savior is not in the tomb.  God’s great love has once again shaken the earth with power, do not stay stuck in the tomb, but step out in faith and hope. Do not be afraid.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Good Friday Protection

Good Friday 2017
Year A
*True confession, this is a re-worked Good Friday sermon I wrote a few years back. Unfortunately, the themes of selfishness, oppression, and fear remain strong in our world, so it still spoke to the current truth of Good Friday.

We all need protection. We worship inside tonight to be protected from outside forces – the cool breeze, wild animals, the falling darkness.
There is so much that we want protection from. As we are bombarded by horror stories on the nightly news...we are more and more aware of every threat, every potential for harm, every dark corner, every danger is raised. We are oh, so aware of all that we want protection from.

In the passion story according to the gospel of John there is a constant theme of protection. The acts of protecting are not overt, the acts of protecting do not help everyone. Certainly, Jesus was not protected. But at every step Jesus was the one protecting.

In the garden, at the moment of his arrest Jesus steps forward to meet the military detachment, meaning 600 military soldiers. 600 armed men all for the arrest of one unarmed man. Jesus steps forward and says, “leave the others alone, it is me you are looking for.” Protection is present for every other person in that garden. Even Judas, even the betrayer is protected.

And while he is walking the road in Jerusalem, the slow, heavy and death-filled march with the cross Jesus stops. Jesus looks at his mother, the woman who bore him in a crude animal stall and who will now watch him die like a crude animal. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is standing next to a disciple when Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son.” And then, to the disciple, “Here is your mother” introducing person to person, protecting his family, protecting his followers. Jesus is making sure that no one will be left alone in their grief and despair. Jesus is giving protection from emotional isolation, protecting his mother from all that it meant in that day for a woman to be without the connection to a man. Even as he walks with the cross on his back, Jesus is offering surprising and meaningful protection right where it is needed the foot of the cross.

Jesus is even protecting the Word of God. Throughout the reading of the gospel we heard the recurring theme of Jesus doing something or saying something in order to fulfill what had been written. Since the beginning of creation, God's word has been giving hints and glimpses into what the life and death of Jesus would mean for the world. And here, throughout the passion story Jesus is obedient to the Word of God. Jesus is obedient to what the prophets spoke in God's name. Jesus is protecting the promises and will of God, so that our sinful and broken world might know judgment and saving grace through this cross he is carrying. Those simple words, “to fulfill what the scriptures have written” are historical and rich acts of protection.

There is so much that we need protection from, and Jesus is the one offering the protection for us. And what about those that need protection from us?

Who protects Jesus from our sin and our pride?
Who protects from our foolishness and lack of compassion?
Who protects those in the world who are most vulnerable? We remember the persecuted Christians in Egypt, the civilians in Syria, the peaceful Muslims in our own country, the mentally ill, the elderly, the lonely.

When our pride and fear and hardened hearts keep us from speaking up or acting out, who protects the least among us? Who protects from the news headlines and the alarmist reports? Who protects the victims of hatred and cruelty? Who protects those that suffer from emotional pain and persecution? Who protects when we're too busy, too good, too selfish, too righteous?

The unarmed, betrayed, rejected one. Why does Jesus protect us? To save us from all suffering and evil? No, we are not rescued from hurting and sorrow, nor are we protected from the cross of dying. Jesus protects us from every being alone, Jesus protects us from surrendering to the darkness of our lives by creating a way – through death and life – to the God of love, the God of relationship, the God who suffers with us, the God who ultimately forgives by the way of suffering and death and love.

Jesus takes all of this to the cross and protects us by uniting us with the criminal, the forgotten, uniting us even with the ones we hurt, with the least and lonely, with those who are sick, with those who are dying.

And who protects Jesus? No one.

You do not.
I do not.
God does not.

Jesus is on the cross, alone, forsaken.
And he speaks, “It is finished.”

Our separation from God – it is finished.
The ruling of darkness is our world – it is finished.
The brokenness of our hearts – it is finished.
The final word of death – it is finished.

All of this, finished, in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Only Jesus Christ has truly offered the protection we so desire and need, and we have to live with that, and in that.
It is finished.

Membership and Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday 2017
Year A
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have been thinking a lot about membership lately.  Maybe it is because we have a new member evening coming up next week, maybe it’s because I restarted our family membership to the YMCA, or maybe it is because of this night, these scripture readings and this Savior that I have been musing about membership, inclusivity, what it takes to be a church.

When the bureaucratic higher ups of the church want to know about our membership what they expect in return are numbers. They want to know how many people are here on Sundays, how many folks remain on our roster and who many households are giving regularly to support the ministry here.  Now, you are all savvy enough to know that those numbers describe certain elements of a congregation, but in no way do they define the church or exhaust the multifaceted ways in which we come together as a spiritual community.

I fear our human inclinations to organize ourselves are typically marked with such formalities, clear lines we can draw around ourselves and then around others.  We like to know who are “members” are, who are family is so that we know exactly where our allegiances should lay.  When families do not fit the mold, when church attendees are different than the mainline, when neighbors look, act, or think differently -- we begin the human inclination of line drawing, label making.

At a church I used to work at there was a group of older woman that always sat on the same side of the large sanctuary, about three from the front.  They labeled that pew “widow’s row”.  I was working as a musician at the time and spent many a service up in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary filled with people, but always found myself wondering about widow’s row.  They looked so neat and orderly with their differing shades of silver hair filling the pew.  One day I asked Lolly about when she began sitting in widow’s row.  She said she never really had a choice, the first time she showed up to church after her husband’s death, the women surrounded her and brought her right up to her new home pew in the sanctuary.  Lolly said it was not until her husband’s death that she realized coming to church was probably really difficult for those who did not fit the mold of a “normal” church family.  Lolly said something I will never forget during that conversation, she said I think I’ve always been friendly as someone who came here with my spouse and family, but I don’t think I was always welcoming, not like those widows were to me on my first Sunday back.  Friendly, yes...welcoming, maybe not.

I thought of my conversation with Lolly when I read the scene of Jesus washing the disciples feet.  It seems, at first glance, like a really “nice” story, just a friendly teacher doing a friendly thing for others.  Yet when Peter gets embarrassed by this act of humility and intimacy, Jesus’ response signals to us that this is so much more than a friendly gesture.  Jesus says, “Unless I wash your feet, you will have no share with me.”

Jesus is showing Peter, who will soon lead the community of Jesus’ followers and build the church, how a community that is united by Jesus will be defined.  Jesus wasn’t counting their feet, he wasn’t checking out the quality of their sandals to see how much money they may have, he didn’t even check to see who was in a proper family or Jesus wanted this community to be unified by the grace and generosity of God.

That is what tonight is all about.  We began with confession, remembering our sin, remembering our part in exclusion, and then there is the intimate gesture of hand washing (do not be surprised when we take the courageous step to feet washing).  Jesus took the posture of what a nameless slave would sometimes do, but often, with the dusty, dirty nature of feet at this time even a gracious host would simply make clean water available to their guests and they would be washing their own feet.  Jesus steps over the social boundaries, he moves away from the place of honor at the table and aligns himself with the lowliest of people.  He takes off the robe, wears and towel and insists that the unifying act of his people will be that they are washed, touched, and loved through the humble servanthood of God.

The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “command”.  Tonight is “Command Thursday” and Jesus’ command to us is clear “Love one another as I have loved you.” Please notice this is not the golden rule “treat others like you would like to be treated” -- our human nature does not define the church of Christ, thank God!

Jesus says we are to love one another with a posture of humility, awareness, nurture and love as he did on that night when even though he stared death in the face, even though he knew God had placed all things into his hands, he still picked up the basin and towel and loved first.  Like those women in widow’s row who had looked death in the face, then waited for their new sister in grief and ushered her into a row of support and belonging, could we, the church in the valley, take a posture of such welcoming?

Amidst bombings, international tensions, hostility in our own land, tragic deaths in our church, let us pray with our whole hearts...God, help us to love one another has you have so loved us.  Amen.