Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sermon for April 16, 2017 | Easter Sunday

Why Do You Weep?

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. She ran at once to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, breathlessly panting, “They took the Master from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The disciples then went back home. But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”

“They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him. Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

Jesus said, “Mary.” Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!” Jesus said, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her. John 20:1-1

So, have you ever had someone ask you a question you didn’t want to answer? I’ve found there are a lot of great ways to dodge the question. For instance, when asked a question, a common social custom is that you should answer, yet in reality what’s the worst that will happen if you just don’t respond? The simplest approach to dodging the question is avoidance -- just to refuse to answer. Or you can ignore the question -- just act as if no question was asked and continuing the conversation by talking about something else.

Or try this: next time someone asks you a questions you don’t want to answer, become quiet and stare back at the questioner. This is an advanced practice, but when you become comfortable with it, then it is only the other person who feels the discomfort of your icy stare.

A straightforward refusal is simply to say that you are not going to answer the question. “I'm not going to answer that.” If you parents raised you to be polite, then you can soften the blow by apologizing first. “I'm sorry, I'm not going to answer that.”

Another strategy is called turning the tables, which means exchanging roles so you take control of the situation and act as if you are in charge, with higher authority than the other person. If you want to be advanced in this strategy, act like you are offended that someone asked you the question in the first place. Tell the person they have no right to ask that particular question.

And there is the famous move called, “answer a question with another question.” Parents do this all the time when we don’t know the answer, or don’t want to answer. Teachers do it, too. “That’s a good question. So what do you think?” It’s kind of annoying, but I do it all the time.

It turns out, Jesus also had that annoying practice of speaking in questions. He rarely gave a straight answer when anyone questioned him. Instead he asked a question back. Or remained silent, like when he was questioned before Herod and Pilate on Good Friday. Or he did something weird like draw in the sand with his finger, while someone’s life hung in the balance. Or he told offbeat stories that raised more questions than they answered. It’s no wonder the disciples seemed confused all the time. Sometimes we might think, “Oh come ON, Peter! Come ON disciples! How can you possibly not get it when you’ve got Jesus there in front of you? How on earth are we meant to manage?’ But on that first Easter morning, even the least charitable of us could reasonably expect Mary and the other disciples might need some sort of explanation of what’s going on.

We don’t get a lot of details about how a man, who dies on a cross as a criminal and is buried in a sealed garden tomb, rises from the dead, rolls away the stone, and lives again. Even the angels, Gods messengers, the ones who are supposed to spell God’s messages out, even THEY join Jesus in answering questions with questions. And not even sensible questions.

“Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Jesus asks.

Isn’t it obvious why Mary is weeping? Isn’t it a no-brainer who she is looking for? Why doesn’t Jesus just come right out and comfort her, and tell what has happened? Why can’t he say, “Mary! No worries. It’s me! This is what I was trying to get at the other night. I had to go through death so that I could conquer the fear of death forever. God’s love has always been completely free. There are no conditions. I went through the violence, punishment, and torture from human hands to show that God is never violent, punishing, torturing, or vindictive. I have shown you to way to salvation. God is love. God is compassion. God is mercy”?

But no. First the angels, then Jesus, start by asking a question – ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ We don’t know, of course, what tone of voice Jesus asked this question in, how we should read it. Was it perhaps sympathetic? “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Or maybe it was said with affectionate exasperation? “Woman! Why (on earth) are you weeping? Here I am standing in front of you!” Sometimes I feel that is the tone of voice that God uses with me when I’m praying: “Oh for goodness sake, Matt! I do love you, but puh-lease … you can be slow to catch on sometimes!”

Or perhaps the emphasis is on the why. It seems obvious to us, that Mary is weeping because she is upset at the death of Jesus, and now she feels lost and helpless because his body is gone and so she can’t even do the simple but important things for his body that she came for.

Woman, why do you weep? We could ask the same question today. “Women, why do you weep?” Let’s not ignore two millennia-worth of women who have been weeping: Weeping over children dying in infancy; weeping because they are unable to feed their families; weeping with sheer, mind-numbing exhaustion and hopelessness at the end of a 16 or 18 hour working day, at the end of which they are as poor, as enslaved, as indebted as they were at the beginning; weeping over war, over injustice, over death, over persecution; weeping with fear; weeping with shame; weeping with loneliness. Women, why are you weeping?  Maybe it’s a cue for us to remember how God takes all humanity’s grief seriously. God does not rush in to fix or answer the question of why bad things happen. God doesn’t tell Mary that she’s wrong to feel the pain of sorrow. He doesn’t say “There, there, it will all be OK.” God comes alongside us in our grief and asks us to talk about it.

Only then does Jesus say something that isn’t a question. It’s not really an explanation either. Jesus simply says her name. “Mary.” That’s when she recognizes him. That’s when he sends her out to tell the disciples things she is hardly sure of herself -- to announce things she must feel very unprepared for. Maybe Mary thinks she might have to dodge some questions herself. How does one explain something so unexplainable, after all?

How about you? Why are you weeping? What are you sorrows? God hears, and listens. God takes our worries and our pains seriously.

And then, if we are aware and awake, you will hear God speak your name. And says: “Go. Go to my friends, to my sisters and brothers, and tell them that you have seen the Christ.

My prayer for all of is that, with Mary leaving the tomb, we can affirm a word of hope: “I have seen the Christ.”
I have seen the Christ and I refuse to be controlled by fear.
I have seen the Christ, and I refuse to dehumanize another.
I have seen the Christ and I will tear down the walls of gender, race, class, and sexual identity.
I have seen the Christ and will I love my enemies.
I have seen the Christ and I will stand with the poor.
I have seen the Christ and I will forgive those who've wronged me.
I have seen the Christ so I will resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace.
I have seen the Christ and so I will demonstrate the power of resurrection in our world!


Sermon for April 9, 2017 | Palm Sunday

“Who Is This Man?”

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 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!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” ~ Matthew 21:1-11

Where is the most troubled place in the world? According to the Global Peace Index, Syria tops the list. After the news of the past week, it’s not hard to see why as the country continues to be ravaged by a civil war considered to be the deadliest in the 21st century. It is a place of conflict and confrontation. Syria is also a place of deep significance to Christianity. Jesus gave his greatest and most memorable sermon, the Sermon on the Mount in Syria. Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop before the eyes of his disciples during a meet-up with Moses and Elijah in Syria. Syria is the home of prophets and the cradle of civilizations. It is now in a serious storm of killing and violence, a place begging for peace even as it is destroyed from within by its own government and from the outside by the tussling empires of the world.

Some think that Jesus is not done with Syria. In the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, there are writings called, “The Book Pertaining to the Turmoil and Portents of the Last Hour” which say, “... Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels.”  In other words, Islamic prophecy predicts the return of Jesus in Syria. While some Muslims understand prophecies like this as literal, many other Muslims have never taken prophetic predictions as fact. With regards to the return of Christ, one Imam commented, “… to me the second coming of Jesus represents a coming peace between Muslims and Christians to establish a kingdom of peace and justice on the earth.”

As I prayed for Syria this week, I imagined that tide of peace. I imagined Jesus the anti-warrior in a Palm Sunday parade, not to Jerusalem but to the most troubled place in the world. I imagined Jesus returning to Damascus to the cries of Hosanna! Save us! I imagined people waving palm branches, the symbol of victory, the symbol of triumph, the symbol of peace, the symbol of life. When weapons often become the final arbiter of a fight, when violence seems to have the last word, I imagined Jesus riding to Syria and speaking the ironic words inscribed on the hilt of Mohammad’s sword, “Forgive him who wrongs you; join him who cuts you off; do good to him who does evil to you, and speak the truth although it be against yourself.”

As I prayed, my imagination took me to a place where Jesus, as the Christ of cosmic, universal love, entered Syria from all directions at once: north south east and west simultaneously —  a multi-directional protest. Sounds crazy, no? Then I read a similar idea by Ken Sehested of the Baptist Peace Fellowship. He proposed this idea years ago: Find a group of faith leaders from around the world—Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith traditions, and any and every religious tradition. Gather those so moved by the horror unfolding in Syria that they’re willing to take serious risks in response. Divided this unlikely entourage of faith leaders so that one group goes to Turkey, on Syria’s northern boundary; another group to Iraq, to the west; another to Jordan in the south; and the fourth split between Lebanon and Israel in the East. At a predetermined time, each of the four groups pushes past border checkpoints into Syria, banners flying and songs chanting, demanding that all conflicting parties — both within Syria and international backers — come to Damascus, be locked in a room and not allowed out until the framework of a negotiated process were reached. What if these leaders pledged to complete this mission even if it meant dying in the process?

Ten years ago an interfaith group of Christian and Muslim women in Liberia did just this sort of action and extracted from those warring political leaders a political framework to end the civil war. Is it crazy to think about hundreds, maybe thousands of national and international religious leaders converging on Syria from every point on the map? Is it too unrealistic to even imagine? Maybe. Is it any less far-fetched to think that cruise missile strikes against Syrian government forces will lead to a pause in the conflict and negotiations for a permanent settlement?

What if Palm Sunday emboldened a legion of those who, with the same courage and character of Christ, followed a wild and untamed God into the jaws of destruction for the healing of the nations, and for the children of Syria?

The very thought of it terrifies me … so now I’m ready to accept the message of Palm Sunday.

Look at the history of the world — the wars, fighting, and the protests throughout the Middle East — and you will recognize the turmoil that fills the heart of humanity.  Look at the turmoil in our own lives, and realize that we don’t have to march into the war-torn areas of the world to find cruelty. We can experience it in the fear and uncertainty of our future, the loss of financial security, a broken marriage, estrangement between parent and child, a disease that interrupts life’s plans. Each of us could name and describe our personal chaos. Think about a time when the foundations of your world were shaken; when your beliefs where challenged by turmoil; when the way you always did things did not work anymore and it made the way forward unclear. When our lives get turned upside-down, we mostly want life, people, God back to the way it was before. Some will pray to God to fix the problem and end the mayhem. Others will come to church seeking answers or an escape from the turmoil of our world.

Here is something I’ve been wondering. What if Jesus rides into our lives to create turmoil instead of soothing it? What if Jesus has been creating turmoil since the day he was born? I’m uncomfortable even saying it. If given a choice, I want the tame Jesus who brings comfort and security and makes life easy and happy. Read the Gospels closely, and we realize that comfort and security are not what Jesus is about. His life, his teaching, his behavior all caused turmoil. Palm Sunday is no exception. Jesus knew how to create chaos to find peace.

When people talk about peace, it is often about making our inner life at ease. Instead of being in a disturbed state, we wish to be calm. But the very process of trying to make our egos comfortable means navigating the process of discomfort. If we try to force ourselves to have inner peace, we lose our peace. A person who is trying to be peaceful will never actually be peaceful. Why? Because the peace that she achieves is only about making herself comfortable, and that comfort is temporary. Maybe you go to the shore to find some peace, because that is a place where you can relax. For a while, it works. You are peaceful. Suddenly lifeguards warn you to get out of the water because of sharks.  What happens next? All your peace disappears. Life is in turmoil again. It’s actually better to be disturbed at that moment. If you are in turmoil, you will respond to the warning. If you remain in a meditative trance in the face of chaos, you become complacent in the face of danger. Turmoil is not the problem. Complacency is the problem, and ego-worn paths to peace lead to complacency.

Waving palms and shouting “Hosanna, Save us!” will neither hide nor relieve the turmoil if those who praise peace are not also willing to confront the powers that create chaos. Those palms in our hands are the artillery of peace. They help us shake and agitate, disturb and disrupt. The palms branches in our hands point us to contradiction of Jesus’ identity and leave us asking, “Who is this?”

Jesus is not sweet baby-in-a-manger of Christmas card fame. Jesus is not our buddy and our pal. Jesus is not our copilot. Jesus is a life-giving, God-revealing, peace-creating man of turmoil. “Who is this?” How is he going to save us?  Doesn’t he know that if we follow him, we will all get into trouble? Does he really know that cost of choosing to bring human life into alignment with God’s life. Who is this? He is the one who teaches us the intimacy of washing feet and sharing a cup of wine. Who is this? He is the one who breaks open our lives, as if breaking bread at table with friends. Who is this? He is the one who shows us that to be powerful we must become powerless. Who is this? He is the one who says the only way to genuine hope and success of humankind is love and humility, not oppression and force.  Who is this? He is the one who calls us to die before death comes. The turmoil Jesus brings is the chaos out of which the hope of peace will be born on Easter Day.

Who is this and what has he done to us? He is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. Today Jesus is entering the most troubled place in the world.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Sermon for April 2, 2017

Wells of Compassion 

Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration paid a visit to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said, “Sir, we want to meet Jesus.” Philip told Andrew about it, and they went together to ask Jesus. 

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.

“Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! Father, bring glory to your name.” 

Then a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.” When the crowd heard the voice, some thought it was thunder, while others declared an angel had spoken to him. 

Then Jesus told them, “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this to indicate how he was going to die. John 12:20-33 

Parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. Each of our bodies lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just as many cells reproduce in a healthy body. Our bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years. What an enormous relief to me. It’s those cells that refuse to die off that pose the real problem, because they cause diseases like cancer. Most pre-cancerous cells die before they can cause cancer. The ones that don’t die continue to mutate. They get in the way and block healthy development of the body.

So, when it comes to our bodies, I am always dying. It’s a great thing. With each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second, hundreds of thousands of cells die off to allow the possibility for more. I keep dying so life may abound. 

The healthy rhythm of existence goes like this: Life leads to death. Death brings new life. Might this hold true in our spiritual and emotional lives as well.  Can new life come without death? We know all about death-dealing ways. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit. Holding on to regret strangles hope. Trying to control events and other people lead to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. What happens when we learn to forgive, to let go, to love enemies and work for compassionate justice? Might we find new life? Let’s look to today’s Gospel passage and see how John’s gospel answers the questions.

In the passage for today, Jesus tells a story about death and life, the rhythm of decay and new growth.  It’s Passover time, and hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem. In this wild mass of humanity, some Greek travelers listen in on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. As they listen, they notice that one of the disciples has a Greek accent.  And so they approach this disciple, Philip, and they ask him in Greek, “Can we see Jesus?”

Realize this: Jesus has six days left on the earth. He knows how he is going to die. He knows when he is going to die. Only six days left. Any other time, Jesus might answer their request directly. But Jesus is distracted.  He’s preoccupied. If you knew you only had six days of life left, where would your mind be? Here’s where Jesus’ mind is. He says, “Unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.”

That’s a weird answer.  The Greeks just want to meet Jesus and instead he talks about dead wheat. Maybe there is a connection: If you really want to see Jesus, then you start by recognizing the importance of dying in order to live.

I know, I know, we don’t like to think about death.  As W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” But, let’s get real for a moment. How would you feel if you knew for sure you were going to die six days from now? In the few days that you had left, would the thought consume the rest of your life? Would you become philosophical about death? Would you make any amends? Would you have any regrets? Most of us don't know when we are going to die. Oh, it will happen. We just don't know the details. So, with the time I have left, whether it's a few days or many decades, I have an intense desire to make my time on this planet count for something. I want the world to be better because I lived here and loved here. I want to know that my spirit goes on to nourish others – that my body will return to dust and feed this weary earth. As the environmentalist Edward Abbey said, "If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me."

In olden days, as in some places and cultures today, communities dug wells where there was deep, abundant, clean water. When the community needed access to water, people didn’t move the well to the city. The city went to the well. The well did not change to accommodate the people. People changed their lives to go to the well. Change was a matter of survival. Spiritually nourishing relationships work the same way. Political structures change over time. So do nations and languages. So do morals and ethics. So do customs, habits, and ways of life. But human need remains the same.

As generations come and go, people still require the inexhaustible abundance of a well. Spiritually speaking . . .
What are the good wells in the lives of our communities?
Where are the deep wells from which you draw waters of life?
Which relationships provide refreshment in your life?
To where do you keep returning when you need some drink in these parched and arid times?

Some wells are no good. They are dry and empty, or the water is stale and polluted.
Do our communities draw from wells that harm us?
Do you keep trying to draw water from dry wells, hoping that it will be different each time you return there?
Is it time to stop drinking from unhealthy waters or some toxic relationships?
Is it time to abandon a poisoned pit in order to find refreshment and abundance at another well?
These questions have to do with the rhythms of death and life, decay and growth. Accepting that change happens. Change is dangerous. And it hurts. And it’s part of the script of life. The world must perish so that beings can bounce back, deal with the new, and live again.

A comic I read online, called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal puts it this way:

Here is something true: one day you will be dead.
Here is something false: you only live once.
It takes about seven years to master something.
If you live to be 88, after age 11, you have 11 opportunities to be great at something.
These are your lifetimes.
Most people never let themselves die.
Some are afraid of death.
Some think they are already ghosts.
But you have many lives.
Spend a life writing poems.
Spend another building things.
Spend a life looking for facts.
And another looking for truths.
These are your lifetimes.
Use them.

Jesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat.  For whoever will find life will lose it, but whoever loses life will find it.  If anyone would serve me, they must follow me.  They must follow me in death.”

Science Watch, March/April 2000

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...