Monday, April 14, 2014

Easter of 1971

My family lived in the suburbs of New York for a few years when I was growing up.  Among my memories of those years was Easter of 1971.  It snowed that year on Easter, which made Easter rather difficult to imagine.  I remember my dad driving to church that morning creeping along to avoid an accident in the slippery conditions.  Had Easter been any earlier than it was this year, it could well have been our experience in New York this year. 
As it turns out, though, this Easter is going to be nothing like the Easter of 1971. Spring has arrived.  We are surrounded by new life.  The weather this last weekend was particularly glorious.  It just feels the way I think Easter ought to feel.  It makes it rather easier to anticipate the coming celebration of the resurrection.
Of course, Easter is never more needed than when it is difficult to anticipate and impossible to imagine.  In truth, though, resurrection is difficult to imagine at any time.  Resurrection is always difficult to anticipate. 
In some parts of the world, Easter comes, not in the spring, but in the midst of shortening days and increasingly colder weather, not as flowers are blooming and trees are budding, but as the landscape turns brown and the leaves wither and fall, not as abundance and color return but as barrenness and dark approach.  Easter must be difficult to imagine.  It is never more needed.
I had time a few weeks ago with my oldest friend and his family.  I was glad to see his daughter, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  I had been praying for her.  She returned safely, but not unaffected.  I think Easter may have become more difficult for her to imagine.  It has never been more needed.
Within the past year I have had parts in services on the death of a young single mother taken by Leukemia, of a young woman struggling with her identity as a transgendered person, and of a young Native American deacon whose ministry as a reconciler had placed him at the center of a church fight of international proportions.  It makes Easter difficult to imagine.  It has never been more needed. 
A senseless loss of life in Kansas, apparently motivated by hate, makes Easter difficult for us to imagine.  A mother’s loss of both her son and her father at the hands of a man described as a “raging anti-Semite” makes Easter difficult for us to imagine.  It has never been more needed. 
And Easter, I am sure, has never been more difficult to imagine than it was on the first one.  In the midst of hatred, loss, and broken dreams, resurrection catches us, as it did the first disciples, off guard, unprepared, and by surprise.  Still, Easter comes.  It came on the third day following Good Friday.  It came in 1971.  And it will come in 2014, just a few days from now. 
I’m pretty sure it is always equally needed. 
May this Easter come to you, whether it is difficult for you to imagine or not.  May light triumph over darkness even if the days grow shorter where you are.  May life overcome death even when death surrounds.  May love triumph over hate even when hate seems to have the upper hand.  Easter comes.  Easter comes especially when it is most needed. 
Happy Easter.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Two Views of Salvation

The liturgy for this Sunday strikes two quite different themes related to salvation. 
The day begins with the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  (Mt. 21:8-9)
That’s one way of looking at salvation.
There’s another way, the way of the cross.  We hear about it this Sunday, too. 
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.  And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.  Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  (Mt. 27:33-37)
One way to look at salvation is salvation is something like rescue, like the cavalry (or the king) showing up to save us from danger.  That’s the triumphal entry point of view.  It is salvation from.  We like that a lot, and we greet it with palm fronds and hosannas. 
The other way is less to our liking.  In it, the cavalry doesn’t swoop in and rescue us from anything.  Instead, the cavalry, or God in this case, does something quite unexpected, not saving us but standing with us.  God chooses not to rescue us from our situation but to redeem it by taking it on Godself.  It is more a redemption sense of salvation, salvation in rather than from.  As the Passion narrative reminds us, we respond rather less favorably to this approach.
I think we wish for rescue and instead are offered redemption.  God does not save us from but saves us in.  To be more specific, God does not save us from our mortality, but in our mortality. God does not save us from our humanity, but in our humanity.  God does not rescue.  God redeems.  We choose the triumphal entry.  God chooses the Passion.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Do You Believe This?

“Jesus said to Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?’”  (Jn.  11:25-26)  It is Jesus’ own announcement of the resurrection.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  And just as important as what he said about it is to whom he said it.  Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary.

Martha is better known for another appearance in the Gospels, the story about Martha’s frustration with her sister Mary’s failure to help with the serving when Jesus was a guest in their home.  (Lk. 10:38-42)  Leaving aside what all that is about for now, Martha appears in one other event, a story again about Jesus being a guest in her home.  (Jn. 12:1-8)  All it is recorded is this:   “Martha served.” 
I think the overall message is that that is all one really needs to know.  Martha served.  And it is to her, the server, the one sometimes distracted by all the doing, that Jesus proclaimed the reality of the resurrection:  “I am the resurrection and the life. . . . Do you believe this?” 

The believing Jesus is talking about as essential to life is not something you do with your head.  It is far too easy to say even that it is something you do with your heart, although that gets closer to the idea.  The believing that leads to resurrection is much more active than something to keep on the inside.  Rather, it shows forth in the work of the hands.  It shows forth in walking with Jesus along the way of including the outcasts and healing the sick.  It is active in proclaiming release to the captives.  The life of the resurrection is not something that has to do with what one thinks.  It has to do with what one does.  It has to do with what one invests because of what one hopes.  It has to do with acting.  That is the only sort of belief that matters in a Jesus sense.   

Belief in the resurrection is about acting on that belief.  That’s the sort of belief Jesus said would defeat even death.  And that’s why, I believe, he picked Martha to share this good news with.  Servant that she was, she had already shown her believing abundantly.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Motive of Faith

The seminal story of faith in the Bible is that of Abraham.  It was the lens through which the early church came to understand Jesus.  Paul put it this way:  “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  To one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  (Rom. 4:3, 5)  It’s pretty important stuff.
The Old Testament lesson this week is the very beginning of Abraham’s story, from a time when he was still known as Abram and not yet as Abraham. 
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:1-2)
There are three points to note.
First, God told Abram to go.  He was to leave home, all that was familiar, and journey to a place as yet unknown to him.  Abram believed God, although there was no evidence to say he should, and risked everything.  God said go.  Abram went.  Faith requires action.
Second, Abram took the risk of acting out of self-interest.  God promised that if Abram did as instructed, he would become a great nation.  That’s what was in it for Abram.  Abram’s motives and intentions were not selfless at all.
Third, God did not need Abram’s motives or intentions.  I don’t think God much cares about intentions.  God does care about behavior.  What matters is that we act and not much why we act.  God cared that Abram acted on God’s call.  That was enough.  God took that, whatever the motives that might have been behind it, and made Abram’s action a blessing. 
The movement is always outward.  Go.  And the movement is always for blessing.  Perhaps motives or intentions are just irrelevant.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What did you preach on today?

I had a wonderful few days this weekend.  I spoke at a conference on church leadership, and while in the neighborhood, I attended the celebration of a music director who had served a parish for 60 years.  The former filled me with hope at the dedication of local leaders and their enthusiasm, as well as their honest confrontation of their struggles as the church enters unchartered territory.  The latter filled me with awe at the dedication of a devoted servant of God who had patiently enriched the praises and prayers of a congregation through music for 60 years. 
As wonderful as it was, I arrived back at the airport on Sunday night happy but pretty tired and ready to get home.  I was thinking only about relaxing for a minute with a drink and then somehow getting through a late flight to New York. 
When I drove the rental car into the return lane, the agent checked me in, reminded me that I’d left my phone in the car (!), and then asked, completely unexpectedly, “What did you preach on today?”
I was sure I couldn’t have heard her correctly.  “I beg your pardon,” I said.
“What did you preach on today?”  I was startled but realized my collar, from which I hadn’t had time to change, had given me away.
I was relieved that the answer, actually, should have been “nothing.”  Perhaps that is more often the case than I would like to admit.  But what I said instead, with some relief that I was going to dodge a bullet, was “Oh, I didn’t preach today.” 
She was not deterred.  “Well, what was the sermon about where you went to church this morning?” 
Oh, rats.  I decided, wisely I think, not to get into the fine point that we had had Eucharist with a sermon the night before and explain how Saturday night and Sunday morning are the same thing, liturgically speaking.  I knew it wouldn’t have gotten me off the hook anyway. And I didn’t go into the fact that I’d been to Morning Prayer Sunday morning and Evensong Sunday afternoon, each without a sermon.  I figured that could only make things worse.  In fact, I was a little disturbed about when I thought about the implications of a Sunday without any expounding of Scripture, the Saturday night technicality notwithstanding. 
So in a moment of controlled panic I wracked my brain to remember the sermon.  I was frustrated with that because it had actually been a good sermon, quite a good sermon.  Had I not been paying adequate attention?  Regardless, I was not prepared for a quiz.  And the sermon was so good that it warranted more than a ten second synopsis.  I was frustrated with my obvious lack of faith.  I blurted something out at first that clearly didn’t make sense.  She responded with a puzzled look and a “Huh?”
More wracking of the brain.  Finally I blurted out something, which though not profound, was at least minimally coherent and actually related to what the preacher had been trying to impart.  I was pleased that I could remember, basically at least, the Gospel lesson at issue.  I mentioned the book and the chapter and hoped she would give me a pass on the verse. 
It worked.  She was satisfied.  Sort of. 
Then she went on to tell me about her preacher’s sermon that morning.  God was not in a break-giving mood apparently.  She remembered that her pastor had preached on Psalm 150, and she remembered the point of the message, which was that we should not judge how others praise God.  Everyone praises God in her or his own way, he had said, and that none of us is in any place to make qualitative distinctions between prayers and the manner in which they are made.   
I can only hope it applies to her memory of her encounter with a very tired preacher in a purple shirt last night.  It is interesting to me, though, that I remember more about the sermon she heard than the one I did.  And I assure you it has nothing to do with the preacher I heard.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Being Whole

The Gospel for this week caused me a lot of spiritual confusion for a long time.  It was of a particularly dangerous sort.
Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Mt. 5:48)  One of my particular spiritual weaknesses is perfectionism.  It can do a lot of damage.  And these words of Jesus appear at first to confirm rather than challenge that perfectionism.  They appear to suggest that perfection is something attainable if only one expends enough effort.  Fortunately along the way, I came to realize the fallacy of that. 
I had always taken perfect to mean perfect as in a moral sense.  I suspect that made me a particularly difficult person to live with.  It wasn’t doing me any good, either. 
The light went on when I realized that perfect had another meaning.  It also means whole, complete, healthy, at peace.  This is what Jesus hopes for us—wholeness more than perfection in the way we normally mean it.  It’s the Hebrew concept of shalom.
Wholeness, though, is not somehow effortless.  I’m afraid it has no small amount of hard work, too.  And that is what Jesus has been talking about in the verses leading up to what he had to say about being perfect.
For example, just before the verse about being perfect, Jesus had been teaching about love.  Loving those who love you is relatively simple.  Not all love is reciprocated, though.  Sometimes love is met with indifference; sometimes, with hatred; sometimes, with harm.  That’s when love is difficult.  But anything less than love is also less than whole.
Love is not complete in the way God’s love is complete when it discriminates even between those who are evil and those who are good, the righteous and the unrighteous.  Love cannot be whole if there are any it refuses to reach.
That’s why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (vv. 43-44)  Love that includes some and excludes others is necessarily incomplete.  Love that is less than all is also less than whole.  Love that holds back cannot be fully at peace.
Perfection is in loving as God loves, even when it is difficult, especially when it is difficult.  It’s not that it’s a matter of morality.  It’s that it’s a matter of being whole.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Affording Division

The Church has suffered two major schisms, and I’m afraid, lots of minor ones.  The major ones were the Great Schism of the 11th century and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.  The latter especially has led to further splintering even to our own day.  We are in the midst of such an event in Anglicanism right now, and of course, we are a product of the major split that occurred with the Reformation and its expression in England.  Breakups, including church ones, have no small connection to issues of power and money.  Power not only corrupts; it divides.  Money is not only the root of much evil; it is the root of much division.  Both are true in the Church. 
But power and money played another role in our divisions, I believe.  Both of the major schisms occurred at the height of the Church’s power, one at the height of the Middle Ages, and one at the end of them.  The Middle Ages were a time when the Church and the State were most closely identified.  In many cases it was difficult to tell them apart.  Church politics and secular politics intermingled freely and naturally but not always righteously.  Though there may have been some cracks beginning to appear by the time of the Reformation, both of the major schisms occurred at the height of the Church’s power, privilege, prestige, and wealth. 
In short, the Church split because it could afford to.  One part of the body could afford, in a quite literal sense, to say to another, “I have no need of you.”  Division was a luxury for solving differences that the Church could afford to buy.
It is no longer so.  And in that we share something with our ancestors who long preceded the schisms.  They were tempted by division, too, but they resisted.  I think the reason is that lacking the privileged position in society that the Church later came to enjoy and take for granted, schism was simply a luxury the Church could not afford.
Paul wrote about it very early on in the Church’s missionary life. 
For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?  For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?  What then is Apollos? What is Paul?  Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.  (1 Cor. 3:3b-9)
In the early days of planting and watering and tending, the Church could not afford division if it were to thrive.  Maybe there was a time when it could.  If so, the time has surely passed.  The reality of the Church’s life now is that division is a luxury we can simply no longer afford.  There’s just too much planting and watering to be done.