Sunday, April 26, 2015

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I don’t like this particular saying, no good deed goes unpunished.  It seems profoundly unfair.  And it is.  Maybe it’s not true in general.  It is in this week’s lessons, though.

Peter and John had healed a lame man, someone who had habitually begged from people as they entered the temple.  The powers that be were not pleased. 

The rulers, elders, and scribes, along with the High Priest and the high priestly family, demanded an answer about this.  “By what power and by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)

Peter answered.  “[I]f we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”  (Verses 9-10)

That rather turned the tables.  We’re used to passing the buck in the face of blame for doing something not so good.  Peter and John, though, pass along the credit rather than the blame.  No one knew quite what to do about that. 

If you’ve got a problem with good deeds, take it up with Jesus.  If you don’t, well, then what’s all the fuss about?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Love and Resurrection (and Fear Again)

The theme of fear continues in the third week of Easter.  Two weeks ago it was Mark.  Last week, John.  Now this week, Luke.  It is a common theme.  The response to the good news of resurrection is fear, or perhaps better understood, Easter is not only about life’s confrontation of death.  It is about love’s confrontation of fear. 
Love is risky business, as the life of Jesus so powerfully reveals.  We know it in our own lives, as well.  Love inherently runs the risk of rejection.  It runs the risk of disappointment.  It runs the risk of pain.  It runs the risk of betrayal.  It runs the risk of loss.  There is just no getting around it.  Risk is simply the cost of love.
And still, love is the one thing that makes life matter.  It is, I believe, the only thing that lasts.  It is, for that reason, the essence of resurrection.  Resurrection is love’s greatest proclamation.
Jesus response to the fearful disciples in this week’s gospel (Lk. 24:26b-38), is not to ignore the fear.  In some ways it is to confirm it.  He does not say, as he sometimes does, do not be afraid.  Instead he shows them his hands and his feet, which bear the wounds of the crucifixion.  The response of Jesus is not to erase the fear, it is to confront it in all of its painful reality.  Love does not make fear go away.  It is, though, what overcomes it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Fear, Peace, and Safety

The Gospel for the second week of Easter is always the same, John’s account of the evening on the first Easter (Jn. 19:19-31).  And every year I have a hard time getting beyond its opening words:  “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”   (Jn. 19:19)  Despite all that had happened, the doors were locked out of fear.  Fear, it seems to me, is the great enemy of the resurrection.

It is odd.  Fear ought to be the thing most defeated by Easter.  If Easter defeats death, the source of perhaps our greatest fear, what have we to fear anymore?  Yet, even at the beginning it was not so.

We humans are just fearful creatures.  We know we live in a world with much to fear.  Violence erupts around us in horrifying ways.  Our pursuit of wealth leads us to fear not having enough in the midst of being abundantly provided for.  Pride provokes the fear of being found out to be what we really are.  Fear leads us to choose the tomb, which at least is known, over the resurrection, which pushes us into a world we have never known.

And although Easter ought to be the antidote to all that fear, it is not.  By the evening of Easter Day, we find ourselves again locked behind closed doors.  His own rising to life again notwithstanding and the announcement of his own resurrection notwithstanding, Jesus simply refuses to leave us in our fear, as much as we might hope he would.  Jesus calls us forth from behind the doors, even when we have them most tightly locked up.

To begin with he offers peace.  “Peace be with you,” he said three times in the passage.  Peace.  Peace.  Peace.  But peace does not end there.  The only real solution to our fear is the response to peace.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21).

The sending is related to the peace.  Our peace is not in staying safely tucked away behind the locked doors.  It is in being sent.  It is in getting out there.   We aren’t going to find out it’s safe out there until we take a chance to find out.

Peace be with you indeed.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Subsistence Easter

I met a woman named Audrey last week.  She lives in Arctic Village, Alaska.  I met her when she stopped in to visit Florence, my host for the night in the village, after church last Thursday.  She came in for conversation from the Arctic spring evening, still light at 9:30, and only 10 degrees below zero (which is 40 degrees warmer than the winter!).
On the way into the house, she passed the freshly hunted caribou left by the door earlier in the evening.  She offered to come by the next morning to prepare the meat for Florence, an elder of the village.  She did.  Her work produced three large sacks of fresh meat for Florence and her family. 

While sitting around and talking, Audrey mentioned that she had prepared seven caribou that day.  She proudly showed me the tools she used, one with a beautiful handle made of a bone worn and polished from many hours of Audrey’s use.  And Audrey described her work. 

The hunters bring her the caribou.  She prepares them and places the meat in heavy-duty sacks made of tarp-like material.  Then she drags the bags on the snow delivering the fresh meat that is the staple of the Athabascan diet to the people of the village.  She describes it as what she does now that her arthritis prevents her from doing heavy work.

It did not escape my attention that she was telling me about this immediately after sharing in the village’s first Eucharist in several months and in the same breath as how much she wants the traditions of the church to be taught to the village’s children. 

But here’s the amazing thing to me.  When asked how much she charged to prepare a caribou, Audrey said, “Oh, I don’t charge anything.  It’s just what I do.”  There was one exception.  As long as people eat the meat and share it with others, Audrey doesn’t charge anything.  “But if they’re going to take it to Fairbanks and sell it, then I charge.” 

The Athabascan people of Arctic Village have what we would describe as a subsistence culture.  Although this is changing, traditionally at least, they hunt what they need to survive, they eat what they have hunted, and then they hunt some more.  They take what they need to survive from the herd and from the land and no more.  What Audrey does is part a living out of that culture.

To my ears, formed in a European culture, subsistence means something different than it does to Audrey.  To me, it means barely being able to survive.  To Audrey, I learned, it just means surviving, something I might more likely use the word living to describe.  My understanding leads me to ask, “How much do you charge?”  Audrey’s understanding is “It’s just what I do.”  It’s just about living.  There is a world of difference.   

I’m not finished processing all the important things I think there are to learn from Audrey, at least the ones I can grasp.  But one of them seems to have something to do with this Holy Week and the Easter that follows it. 

I’m seeing the resurrection through the eyes of a new understanding of subsistence this year.  From Audrey’s perspective, subsistence isn’t barely enough.  It is just enough.  One Eucharist in a few months isn’t barely enough.  It is just enough.  

I wonder if I’ve been looking at Jesus as barely enough.  I think what Easter may be about is that Jesus is just enough.  That’s all that is really necessary—enough.  And really, that’s all I need to know about it.  It is enough.  Anything beyond enough, like taking caribou meat to Fairbanks, gets charged for. 

Easter is enough to survive.  And it comes at absolutely no charge.  When we try to take more than we need, that’s when things get messed up.  The way of Jesus, the Easter way, is a subsistence spirituality, at least in an Athabascan sense of the word.  It is enough for living.  

So that’s the Easter I wish for all of you this year, a subsistence Easter, and the peace that comes from knowing, not how much to charge, but that what we have been given is enough, not barely enough.          
Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The End Begins Here

Once, in the home of Simon the Leper, “as [Jesus] sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (Mk. 14:3).  With their minds on caring for the poor, some of the disciples complained and scolded her.  In her defense, Jesus said,  “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (v. 7).
I have always found that a very strange thing to say, especially for Jesus, who had devoted so much of his life to the care of people who were poor and who was, at the time the event occurred, transgressing social boundaries by dining in the home of a leper.  It makes a little more sense in Jim Wallis’ paraphrase:
You know who we spend our time with, who we share meals with, who listens to our message, who we focus our attention on. You’ve been watching me, and you know what my priorities are.  You know who comes first in the kingdom of God.  So, you will always be near the poor, you’ll always be with them, and you will always have the opportunity to share with them.  (God’s Politics, p. 210)
When you put it all together, could it be that Jesus was not advocating a narcissistic waste of assets held in trust for the poor, which doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me, but something much more radical—that he and the poor are one?  Could it be that Jesus was saying that the point is not the poor as if the poor were an abstraction and the point is not poverty as if poverty were nothing more than a social issue?  Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to stop wasting time on the poor as an unidentified mass of humanity or on poverty as a subject rich white people talk about over cocktails, to stop dealing with poor people, who have a tendency to be anonymous, and start dealing with people who are poor, who do not?  Could it be that Jesus was saying, is saying, to start being with the poor, indeed to start being the poor? 
If that’s right, it is no wonder that some of the disciples found this such a difficult thing to hear. 
And here’s the most interesting thing.  This event, and this teaching have a context in the story.  We don’t usually associate them this way, but they are the beginning of the passion.  These are the words that lead directly to Jesus’ suffering and death.  These are the words that lead to the completion of Jesus’ entire purpose.  This is the story that is the beginning of the end—the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross as well as the resurrection and the glorification of Jesus to the right hand of God.   
The very next verse after this story, after all, is this:  “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (v. 10).   The end begins here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A True Story

I went to see “McFarland” Saturday night since I already had my sermon done.  “McFarland” is the true story of something of a misfit coach who ends up teaching PE in a high school where most of the students are the children of migrant farm workers.  He sees something extraordinary in these young people, namely their ability to persevere and adapt.  And he forms them into a cross country team, leading them in their first year to win the California State High School championship.  I recommend it to you. 
It is a great story, made even more interesting because it is “true.”  I say true reservedly because I’m sure Hollywood took some dramatic license, but the fact that the details may not be precisely correct does not in any way lessen that the story being told is true in the deepest sense.  “McFarland” a story about human beings caring for one another, about the struggles of poverty, about believing in those around you, and most of all, about believing in yourself.  It has an element of self-sacrifice.  There is obvious love.  There is welcome for the stranger.  There is risk taking.  There is hope.  There is overcoming the odds.  And, of course, there is resurrection. 

It was one of those rare movies when people clapped at the end.  No one wanted it to be over.  Everyone cheered the triumph of the human spirit.

So, I left thinking, we’ve got a pretty good story, too.  It is a story of liberation and freedom.  It is a story of courage.  It is a story of weakness confronting power.  Like “McFarland,” it is a story with no small amount of self-sacrifice, love, welcome, hope, and perseverance.  It, too, is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.  It is, by all means, a story of resurrection.

So, I asked myself, why aren’t we telling this amazing story we have in a way that makes people stand up and cheer?  Why is it that we can’t get people into our “theater” to hear the story, let alone never want to leave?  Do we need to get slicker, I wondered; maybe take some artistic license with the details. 

And then I made a visitation yesterday to Good Shepherd in the Bronx.  A few years ago, Good Shepherd would have been doing good to have 20 people on a Sunday.  Yesterday there were nearly 250.  And here’s the amazing thing.  They wouldn’t leave.  The liturgy itself lasted nearly two hours.  The announcements at the end went on a good half hour.  And then there was lunch.  It was for the bishop’s visitation I assumed.  Nope.  They do it every Sunday.  It’s a McFarland story.

But here’s the main thing, I think.  McFarland, you’ll remember is a true story, taking liberties with details notwithstanding.  I wonder if the real difference in Hollywood and the Church has something to do with whether we believe the story we’re telling is true.  Do we really believe, as Exodus says, that God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery?  Do we really believe it is true that Jesus faced death out of love for us?  Do we really believe it is true that God delivered Jesus from the grave?  Do we really believe it is true that a ragtag and somewhat inept group of Galilean fishermen set out to change the world out of love and had the perseverance to succeed?  Is it our lack of confidence in the truth of our own story that causes people not to want to stand up and cheer and never want to leave and not something that is wrong with the story itself?

And that’s what brings me back to Good Shepherd.  I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I think what’s going on there has something to do with a congregation that believes the story they have to tell is true.  I know it’s not a perfect congregation, but I know they’re doing something quite right.  Whatever they’re doing right, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with a “McFarland” approach.  It has to do with telling a true story.  And knowing it.