Sunday, April 24, 2011

lowercase easter

for some, easter is all about bombastic music and joyful "alleluias"

but for some reason, this morning, i want no music, no loud proclamations ... just silence and awe and reverence

when Jesus came into the world, what did he do, really?
 
He taught us wisdom, but did he give us all the answers?
 
if he had, couldn't we just slap on a bumper sticker that says "Jesus is the answer" and be done with it?
 
some people do that, and I guess it's true
 
but it sounds like nonsense to me, because it leaves no room for mystery

when Jesus was among us, he healed people, but did he end all the suffering?

no

He drank the cup of suffering to the dregs with all the rest of us

He was brutally murdered

everyone, including his own mother, watched him die a slow, agonizing death

then, somehow

in a baffling mystery

Jesus' suffering and dying was transformed

into the sneakiest of resurrections

it went unnoticed but by a few

like a tiny flame that his friends tried to protect from the wind

until they could light some kindling

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople ca. A.D. 400

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

The Harrowing: Suites for Easter

The Harrowing of Hell
Here are six suites for the season of Easter. The first three are meant for tonight and reflect the Church’s Great Vigil of Easter. Suite 4 is about continuing joy (starting with a tribute to Thomas), while suite 5 is about continuing to wrestle with the Christian life. Suite 6 is for the Day of Pentecost, which will land on June 12 this year.

I’d love more suggestions for this list in particular. Personally, I find it much easier to come up with songs for seasons like Advent and Lent than for a purely joyful season like Easter. The danger is to fall into mere happy-clappiness … and I say this not as a musical snob, but as a liturgical snob.

So if someone could shake me out of that a bit, I’d really appreciate it! What are some great songs of pure joy that are not overly sentimental?

As usual, I’ll point out that these songs are under copyright, but the way I have mixed them together is not. Right-click each header to download the suite. But if you hear something you like, please … go buy it!

Suite 1: Fire and Story
XTC - Sacrificial Bonfire
Peter Gabriel - Blood of Eden
Jars of Clay - Flood
J.L. Hosler - Abraham and Isaac
Eva Cassidy - Wade in the Water
Aimee Mann – Wise Up

Suite 2: Tomb as Womb
Sixpence None the Richer - Tension Is a Passing Note
U2 - Grace
XTC - Wrapped in Grey
Dent Davidson - Litany of Saints
U2 - Wake Up Dead Man
Jeff Lee - Easter Proclamation of John Chrysostom

Suite 3: Joy
Isaac Everett - Resurrection
XTC - Easter Theatre
U2 - Beautiful Day
Electric Light Orchestra - I’m Alive
XTC - Senses Working Overtime

Suite 4: Living the Resurrection
Susan Werner - Probably Not
Godspell - Day by Day
Alison Krauss & Union Station - When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart
Sixpence None the Richer - Breathe Your Name
Isaac Everett - Adoration
U2 - Get On Your Boots

Suite 5: Mystagogia
Sufjan Stevens - A Sun Came
Dishwalla - Counting Blue Cars
John Mayer - No Such Thing
Queen - You’re My Best Friend
Susan Werner - Help Somebody
The Beatles - In My Life

Suite 6: Pentecost
St. Mark’s Compline Choir - Come, Holy Spirit
Toad the Wet Sprocket - Nightingale Song
God’s Property - Stomp
Starfield – Revolution
Sixpence None the Richer - I Can’t Catch You
The La’s - There She Goes
Sufjan Stevens - All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands

The Show Must Go On

The Harrowing of Hell

“A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.

“For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.”

- Job 14:1-14

What is the difference, I wonder, between death at a young age and death at an old age? What makes death at an old age perfectly natural and death at a young age senseless and awful? Where is the line between them?

It is so important to look at Holy Saturday from a pre-Resurrection perspective. I don’t think we can really understand it if we don’t. I wonder if the disciples ever thought about Jesus dying. Perhaps they imagined he would die as an old man, having accomplished the liberation of Israel from the Romans and having reigned over the nation for several decades. This would have been a fine death.

Were there any among them who saw Jesus as divine and therefore incapable of death? Maybe … but I doubt it. After all, he was clearly a man like any other man … just a really amazing man. Yet when everything began to unravel, and Jesus was taken away to be crucified, they couldn’t believe it. I don’t think this was because they didn’t believe Jesus could die. I think they just couldn’t imagine God would let it happen.

And this is the human condition around death. We all know it will come, yet when it comes at a time we perceive to be too soon, we just can’t believe it’s possible.

This reading from Job is appropriate for today because it laughs painfully at the notion that a human being, once dead, could return. Yet it’s not like it’s impossible for God. After all, mere water inspires plant life to reemerge. Why should it not be this easy for a man? It’s wistful and poetic and emotional and not the least bit scientific, but we can see the comparison and believe in our hearts that the possibility is there somewhere.

And the cycle of death and life goes on. And we wait—we are waiting, waiting, waiting—for our own deaths, for our release from pain, for the joy that will follow. That joy couldn’t possibly break into this vale of tears … could it?

This music video was the final one for Queen before the death of the band’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury. At this point, Mercury knew AIDS was killing him, but he hadn’t yet announced his disease to the world. The video is put together from older footage because Mercury was too ill to shoot anything new. One month after the song’s release, he did make an announcement that he was ill. Mercury died the next day. Here’s “The Show Must Go On.”

Stay tuned for another post featuring music for Easter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Is there some idea to replace my life?

The entire Passion Gospel is here. These two chapters in John’s Gospel take us from Thursday evening to Friday evening, from one garden to another garden.

I over-seeded portions of my back lawn a few days ago, and I’ve been watering the seeds every morning. This feels like a good thing to do during Holy Week: to aid growth in a barren area. I’m not a gardener like my wife is, but I understand why, for her and for many others, time in the garden is time spent with God. The garden is where seeds go to die and to be resurrected.

Between the wisdom of two gardens, other details in this story seem frenetic, pitiful or ridiculous: Peter’s three denials, Pilate’s wrangling over Jesus’ guilt or innocence, the priests’ determination to get the Romans to do away with Jesus, the inscription “The King of the Jews” over Jesus’ cross, the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ possessions.

Yet these details are where we spend most of our lives: protecting our reputations, trying to understand confusing situations, ham-handedly forcing our own way, being taken advantage of, and taking advantage of others. All of these are very human things—and God loves us in spite of or maybe even because of these things.

But today, I’d rather dwell on the moments of real wisdom and love. Between one garden and another, we find Jesus refusing the way of violence; Jesus announcing that he is not the kind of king one might imagine; Jesus denying that Pilate, and by extension the Roman Empire, has any real power of its own; and Jesus ensuring the future care of his mother by pairing her with one of his disciples.

The goodness of Jesus’ life inspires one more act of wisdom and love. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are powerful Jewish leaders. Up to this point, their efforts to stand up for Jesus have been brave but half-hearted. But today, they collect his body, wrap it, and secure a tomb in which to place it.

This morning I’ll deal with some of the more trivial things: washing and priming walls to get ready to paint tomorrow morning; shopping for groceries; looking for replacement baseboard for the family room; cleaning the microwave. All of these things have to happen. I’ll probably also engage in some kind of self-serving behavior. This happens every day, more than once. But I’ll also be on the lookout for wisdom and love. I’ll start by watering the new grass seed again: this is wisdom and love.

And after dinner, I’ll meet with four teenagers who have been asked to carry the big cross into the church tonight. I’ll invite them to carry the cross for someone in their own lives who is carrying a burden that feels too heavy to bear.

Here’s a song by Sufjan Stevens called “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.” The lyrics are here.

Music for Holy Week is here, including an entire suite for Good Friday. I'll begin to post Easter music tomorrow.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What more in the name of love?

Giotto, Christ Reasoning with Peter
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”


After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
- John 13:1-17


He Qi, Praying at Gethsemane
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.”

Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
- Matthew 26:36-56

Enough said. Here’s U2.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

With a heart of stone, you'll be well protected

"The Last Supper with Judas," Curtis Neeley
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.

After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”

- John 13:21-32

It’s easier not to care. It’s easier on our hearts. It’s easier to go straight to the entertainment news, or ignore that special collection they’re taking up, or make a cynical comment instead of a constructive one. I think I’ve done all three of these things in the past few days alone! But what happens when we don’t care? If Matthew 25 is any indication, we fail to come to the aid of Jesus Himself.

There’s a longing in the heart to return to Eden, to go back to a state of innocence before we were as human as we are now. That longing hurts. Is it any wonder that we build walls around our hearts, or that we simply let them calcify?

Here’s Cher with what may be her finest song: “Heart of Stone.” The lyrics are here.

In a strange twist for a pop song, the real lyrical clincher can be found buried in the background vocals as the song begins to fade: “With a heart of stone, love’s not resurrected.” There are the consequences. There’s the down side to living a life of self-protection.

Judas will use his heart of stone to betray Jesus, and Jesus will go to the cross. All will seem lost. Yet, somewhere in the background, behind all the noise and hate, a seed will be planted. In and among hearts of stone throughout the world, love will be resurrected in the hearts of those who continue to let love in. Love doesn’t enter or take root without pain. Those with hearts of stone have stopped believing it’s worth it.

And what hope is there for those with hearts of stone? The prophet Ezekiel has God giving this reassurance: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). So all is never lost. God will continue to act. God will continue to reach out to those of us who fear we will never feel again, and resurrection will take root once more.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The harvester is near. His blade is on your skin.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

- John 12:20-36

For several years now, I have been especially struck by this metaphor: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Here is a real-life example of death and resurrection. A seed planted must change into something completely different.

I think most of us are seeds that don’t want to be planted. We want to stay just as we are—safe and whole—without understanding that there’s a deeper safety and a larger wholeness on the other side of death. And I don’t just mean our physical death—I mean all the little deaths we don’t want to face. The end of a job or a relationship. A move to a new place. Real, permanent change. Anything that demands that we can no longer continue to be who we have been, or continue to do what we have been doing.

We don’t get to hold the new gift before we let the old one go. We have to let go first.

Our song today is “Love” by Sixpence None the Richer. The link is to a live performance on MTV, but the quality isn’t very good, so I’ve also included a link to the lyrics.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You say you want a revolution?

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
- Hebrews 9:11-15


“Once for all.” That means never again. Centuries before, not one but several different prophets tried to get across how unnecessary it was to cook animals on an altar to please God. The world was just beginning to grow out of the childish notion that the divine favor would only rest upon us if we sacrificed something. Now, a sacrifice can certainly be a show of love and trust, and this is a good way to deepen a relationship. But it is never necessary. And when it becomes dogma, and when it becomes so rooted in society that it becomes a way to exploit the poor and fatten the privileged, then it is not only unnecessary to God … it is hateful.

This was the situation Jesus stepped into. The temple sacrifice system was so entrenched that nobody could imagine any other way. Like the system of indulgences in the medieval Church, or the system of slavery in the American South, it was an economic institution that was a deep part of the tradition—never mind the thousands upon thousands of lives it destroyed.

So after telling many parables about what God is really like, and finding that the people still couldn’t get free of the dominant paradigm, Jesus did something unprecedented. He became a parable. He stepped right into the metaphor and made it literal. It was the only thing that could get our attention, and it cost him his life. Jesus became a temple sacrifice and unmasked the dark forces at work in the system so we could reject them. He ended temple sacrifice once and for all.

Ever since, we have created other entrenched institutions to keep people at arm’s length from God, all the while telling them these are the hoops God wants them to jump through. Christianity in America has become a parade of “You Shoulds” with unspoken logical conclusions.

-    You Should read the Bible [so that you can understand God].
-    You Should pray more often [so that God will love you].
-    You Should come to church more often [so as to get away from the corrupt world].
-    You Should accept Jesus into your heart [so that you will be saved].
-    You Should get involved in a ministry [so as to show your loyalty to the church].
-    You Should give the church more money [so that God will love you more].
-    You Should send your kids to Sunday school [so that they will come to do all these things, too].

Add to that a worship of radical individualism that despises the need to rely on any other person for our well-being. What happens when we set that alongside the example of Jesus, who had no home, but wandered from one place to another, confident that people would support him?

Throw in a culture of such overwhelming financial prosperity that even in a recession, we’re far better off than most of the rest of the world. But we can’t recognize that, because we think our newly manufactured clothes and technological toys and huge vehicles and processed food and infinite entertainment options represent a minimum standard of human dignity! How can we set these things alongside the words of Jesus, who urged us not to worry even about where our next meal will come from?

Many centuries ago, the Church claimed a monopoly on Jesus and turned him into whatever it needed to maintain the status quo. It’s no wonder that people are running away from Jesus in record numbers. They think he belongs to the Church, instead of the other way around. And the Church is propping up the culture.

Well, we may not be able to change the culture, so let’s transform the Church. Let’s change the Church from a place called You Should to a place called We Do:

-    We Do immerse ourselves in millennia of tradition and writings that fascinate the mind and transform the heart.
-    We Do engage in prayer practices that make us more mindful of God at work in our lives.
-    We Do gather every week and on special occasions to come close to the mysteries of God and to show each other, in tangible ways, the infiniteness of God’s love.
-    We Do learn about Jesus, who taught us, healed us, and revealed God’s love to us in a new, unprecedented way. We understand that Jesus was and is a living icon of God.
-    We Do reach out into the community with concern for those who are not our members (and most of whom never will be), freely giving our time, talent, and money to help heal broken places and situations in the world. We are more concerned for the ongoing revealing of God’s Kingdom in the world than we are for the ongoing institution of the Church in forms we are familiar with.
-    We Do support the work of the Church with our money so that all these things can continue. We acknowledge that the fear of not having enough money is less relevant in our lives than we think it is, especially when we live in community with each other and let people know, in good faith, what we truly need.
-    We Do immerse our children in the Church from birth, involving them in as many ways as possible and teaching them our practices and traditions. We recognize that they already have their own relationship with God that will develop in ways that surprise and delight us.
- This is what We Do. And we hope it benefits you, regardless of whether you choose to join in our efforts or not.

In a community in which we are doing these things as a matter of habit, maybe we can learn to ask for what we need and receive these things from each other with no strings attached. Maybe we can somehow learn to live with less, or at least needing less—so that when financial prosperity fizzles, we won’t panic and flail and fall into depression or desperation. A world full of disconnected individuals will suck this planet dry. But a world full of caring communities that also honor and love individuals? Well, that can change everything!

It’s a new kind of revolution: the kind that doesn’t trample on any individual, doesn’t remove our free will, and doesn’t claim to have all the answers. When it comes to church, let us never say to another person, “You Should.” Instead, let us say, “We Do,” and then humbly suggest, “Come and See.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

But that was when I ruled the world ...

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

Jerusalem bells are ringing! Roman cavalry choirs are singing! The King has arrived!

What if Jesus had done as the crowd thought he might? What if he had led an open revolt, overthrown Herod, and kicked the Romans out of Palestine? With Pilate in town for the Passover, it was the perfect time. Maybe he could have pulled it off!

But what happens to kings? After David and Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel had split and eventually been taken into captivity in two waves. No kingdom lasts forever. No king reigns forever. Who would ever want to be king? And what kind of kingdom would this become?

So Jesus sits on a humble donkey as the people rally around him, and already he’s thinking, “I’m going to be betrayed this very week. And my own friends are going to deny me. When it comes down to it, even Peter won’t have anything to do with my name. The end is near.”

As human beings, we can’t cling to anything—not even life. Nevertheless, Viva La Vida.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Who will love a little sparrow?

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

- Jeremiah 31:27-34


Jeremiah spoke hopefully of a new era—of a time when God would not seem distant and removed, but present right in the hearts of each one of us. As Christians, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s hope: God became a human and lived among us, demonstrating a love so deep and internal that we can never run away from it.

Yet we still have trouble understanding how the God who created the universe could also be the God whose light shines in our hearts—the God of galaxies and the God of quarks—the God of grand concepts and the God of vulnerable feelings—macrocosmic and microcosmic at the same time. We get stuck in childish notions that imagine God merely as a powerful old man, or merely as a vague energy field, or merely as a harsh judge, or merely as an embracing parent. God is all of these things and infinitely more. We are who we are because of who God is—not the other way around.

We cannot know God completely, and yet, God wants to be known. And God will keep finding new ways to be known in each of us. Are we listening?

Brace yourself: it’s going to be a big week. Jesus has arrived in Bethany and is getting ready to launch a demonstration tomorrow: a demonstration of the power of humility, of rightful indignation at injustice, and of courage in the face of certain death. What will happen when that death finally comes?

On this last day before Holy Week begins, let’s go back to Ash Wednesday for a moment, where our whole Lenten journey began. God’s eye is on the sparrow, Jesus has told us. Really? Every sparrow? The mystery of death is deep and wide, and Jesus is about to plumb those depths.

Friday, April 15, 2011

You're the simple tune I only write variations to.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well.
- John 12:1-10

Mary knew Jesus. And before we say more, let’s get straight that this is not Jesus’ mother Mary we’re talking about here, but Mary of Bethany, who may or may not also have been Mary Magdalene—that’s a topic of considerable scholarly debate. There are so many Marys in the Gospels, you could certainly be forgiven for confusing them. But Mary of Bethany definitely knew Jesus. This Mary shirked her housekeeping duties (to the dismay of her sister Martha) in order to listen to Jesus’ teachings. This Mary grieved with her sister Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus, and then rejoiced when Jesus frightened death away. It seems that, spiritually, Mary was a step ahead of the game.

Jesus and the disciples have come to Bethany because it is their launch point. Bethany is a mere two miles from Jerusalem. On Sunday morning, Jesus will ride into the city on a borrowed donkey, and the events of Holy Week will begin. But tonight, Mary surprises everyone. She graces Jesus’ feet with spikenard perfume worth a worker’s wages for a year—a year! And then she scandalously caresses Jesus with her hair and, I imagine, with free-flowing tears.

Mary understands that in the days to come, Jesus is going to give himself away until there’s nothing left. And until he does, Mary intends to stay as close to him as she can. She’s going to anoint his body for burial while he’s still alive, so she can inhale the fragrance that will always remind her of her Lord. Mary knows Jesus so well that she knows his days are numbered, and she’s already grieving. Why is this so hard for Judas to understand?

Oh, but I’ve been Judas. I totally get where he’s coming from. When’s the last time you dropped a year’s wages on a bottle of wine, no matter how important the occasion? And if you had, don’t you think some good Christian would have objected to a $20,000 Chateau Lafite?

Now, I don’t believe this aside about Judas being a thief. He may have been stingy, and he may have totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and purpose. But Judas was so passionate about law and order that he turned Jesus in for incitement, and his conscience wouldn’t even let him keep the blood money. And then he hanged himself over it! No, Judas was a slave to the law—he was no thief. It’s a shame that the writers of John’s Gospel felt the need to slander Judas, as if his name wasn’t already reviled worldwide. Feel free to disagree with me—that’s OK.

So where was I? Oh yes. Mary knew she had one last chance to show Jesus how much she loved him. Have you ever given an extravagant gift—more extravagant than the situation called for? Whether you’ve had the means to donate a lot of money to a good cause, or you’ve just splurged on a present for your spouse without an occasion, it’s kind of fun, isn’t it? Because deep down, the one receiving the gift knows it’s not about the money. It’s just that you couldn’t pass up the perfect gift.

In Mary’s case, the gift is so perfect it’s prophetic. What’s a year’s wages compared to Jesus? Can you answer that for yourself? Mary knows Jesus well enough to understand that he is worth more than anything money can buy.

I think Judas had the mindset we often have when Christmas shopping: Well, he’s only my cousin. Is $25 too much to spend? Twenty? What about a gift for my brother’s girlfriend? Fifteen? If they get engaged first, should I up it to thirty? So I’d like to ask Judas: How much nard would have been an appropriate amount for Jesus? Maybe an eighth of that? Or a month’s wages? Is Jesus worth more than a diamond engagement ring? Where would you draw the line, Judas?

See, Judas is the fun police. He’s well-intentioned, but he’s insufferable. I’ve known people like him, and I’ve got enough bleeding-heart tendencies to slip into that attitude myself occasionally: somewhere in the world right now, someone is suffering. And as long as that’s true, none of us is allowed to have any fun!

But it’s no use, don’t you see? There will be many other opportunities to help the poor. Tonight, Jesus is moving inexorably from life toward death, and Mary knows it. Judas knows it, too. Judas is already wondering, “What if he’s not the Messiah after all? Mary may have thrown away a year’s wages, but I’ve thrown away three years of hard work and passionate hope! What if the only way for me to stay in control of this situation is to turn Jesus in?”

Mary has a different perspective. She may not know how any good could possibly come from Jesus’ death, but she is relinquishing control. Mary knows the words from the Prophet Isaiah:

    Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
    I am about to do a new thing;
    Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
    I will make a way in the wilderness
    And rivers in the desert.

And maybe this psalm was on her lips too as she worked to ease the fire in Jesus’ head and feet:

    Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
    Like the watercourses of the Negev.
    Those who sowed with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
    Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
    will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Mary will go out weeping, carrying the seed of faith that is to be buried in the ground, dead to the world. She doesn’t know how God’s grace will work—just that it will work. It has to, because it comes from God.

Here’s a song I always imagine as one for Mary: “Melody of You” by Sixpence None the Richer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A place that has to be believed to be seen

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, "He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?" Others were saying, "These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?" At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."

Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one." The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, "I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?"

The Jews answered, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God."

Jesus answered, "Is it not written in your law, "I said, you are gods'? If those to whom the word of God came were called "gods'—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, "I am God's Son'? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. Many came to him, and they were saying, "John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true." And many believed in him there.
- John 10:19-42

It must have been so frustrating for Jesus to hold out a vision of God’s love that was so liberating and watch so many people reject it. We have a very hard time believing God could love us so much! Yet, as Jesus says, nobody can snatch his sheep from his hand. In spite of everything, Jesus always held out a vision of hope. We’re nearing the end. Walk on, Jesus—walk on.

Music for Holy Week is here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Unraveling: Music for Holy Week

Giotto, "The Kiss of Judas"
Are you ready for Holy Week? As promised, here are some ready-made music mixes. The music is under copyright; the way I have mixed the songs together is not. PLEASE: if you hear something you like, go buy it!

(Right-click the headers to download each suite.)

Holy Week Suite 1: Binge
Isaac Everett - Preparation
U2 - Magnificent
Matisyahu - King Without a Crown
Living Colour - Cult of Personality
Coldplay – Viva La Vida

Holy Week Suite 2: Purge
Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus
Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution
The Beatles - Revolution
Prince - Thieves in the Temple
Stone Temple Pilots - Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart

Holy Week Suite 3: Supper
Sting - Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)
Sixpence None the Richer - Melody of You
Leonard Cohen – The Guests
Isaac Everett - Valediction
Son Lux - Betray

Holy Week Suite 4: Betrayer
Cher - Heart of Stone
Judybats - Being Simple
Audioslave - Like a Stone
U2 - Until the End of the World
U2 - With or Without You

Holy Week Suite 5: Garden
Don McLean – Vincent
Coldplay – Death and All of His Friends
Dan Bern – God Said No
Sixpence None the Richer - Love
U2 - Pride (In the Name of Love)

Holy Week Suite 6: Crucifixion
Sufjan Stevens - For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
Isaac Everett - Execution (Psalm 22)
Jesus Christ Superstar - Crucifixion
Sufjan Stevens - The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake
Gregorian Chant - Victimae paschali laudes
Isaac Everett - Sermon (What Wondrous Love Is This)

Holy Week Suite 7: Lamentation
St. Mark's Cathedral Choir - Were You There
Isaac Everett - Lamentation (Stabat mater)
Sufjan Stevens - To Be Alone with You
Radiohead – Where I End and You Begin. (The Sky Is Falling In.)
St. Mark's Compline Choir - Lamentations of Jeremiah

Trying to take this all in

"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers."

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

- John 10:1-18

I once saw a drawing a child had made of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A wolf was about to attack the flock, and Jesus was flinging himself between the wolf and the sheep with an expression of fierce anger, holding out his staff to frighten the wolf away. It was a gripping image.

This sheep-and-shepherd imagery may be hard for us as Americans to grasp, especially if we live in the suburbs or the city. Yet I still find it one of the most compelling. Granted, it doesn’t give us humans a lot of credit for our intelligence, but maybe that’s OK. At the end of the day, we all feel lost and in need of a rescuer and protector.

Today I’m struck by this verse: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Let’s remember this verse as we plunge inexorably toward the relative gloom of Holy Week. The entire Christian story is about life, not death. Death is subsumed in the abundant life Jesus gives through his willingness to sacrifice himself.

Here’s my very favorite song about living life abundantly: “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When life is hard, you have to change

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

- Romans 10:1-13

Talking about faith is such a tricky balancing act. It’s difficult to present to somebody else the reality of what lies in your own heart. Christians, I think, are especially lousy at it—or maybe I only say that because that’s the view from inside.

Paul was the first to explain Christianity to people of all different cultures. Here he is at his most eloquent, yet still, there’s a problem. In the act of trying to explain that God saves us through mere faith and not works, he begins to make faith sound like another kind of work. He makes God’s love sound conditional. This is what leads many Christians to insist that God will love you only if you change yourself first. This doesn’t impress people! It makes God just another tribal god alongside many others on the grocery store shelf—a distinctive one, an idol with some interesting ideas, but a mere idol nonetheless.

In reality, it’s the other way around. Nothing I do can make God love me more. Nothing I do can make God love me less.  I do have the power to change myself in a way that can make me more receptive to God’s love—except that sometimes I don’t. In those cases, God not only loves first, but God acts to save first. God does all the work when I can’t muster the wherewithal to do any of it. And when I finally see that this has happened, I am inspired to do good work in the world.

Even if I never put it into words, and even if I’d never heard the name Jesus before, my innate understanding of God’s love for me is what keeps me going. The story of Jesus and how he fits into all this is a gift to me, but I would not need to understand it in order to benefit from it.

A lot is about to change in my life. Change is like death: we fear it, we worry about what will happen to us, and then we inevitably go through it. The time just comes. And God is with me at every step. Here’s Blind Melon with “Change.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Resurrection Today

sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The Fifth Sunday in Lent/ April 10, 2011
Listen here.

My great-grandfather, Samuel Lichtenberger Hosler, lived to the age of 96. I remember visiting him and my great-grandmother a number of times at their home in Sedona, Arizona. He was the first person I knew who died, and my family traveled from Idaho to Arizona for the funeral.

When we arrived at the funeral home, his casket was open. My Granny took my brother and me up to see Great-Grandpa lying there in his best suit. I looked him up and down, and then I announced, loudly, with all the self-confidence of a precocious 8-year-old, “He looks like plastic.”

Now, in general, I don’t remember my Granny being all that understanding about children’s capacity for bluntness. But she must have been in the zone that day, because she smiled and said, “You’re right! He sure does.”

I went on. “His hair is too neat. He never combed it like that.”

So Granny reached into the casket and messed up his sparse white hair a bit.

But I wasn’t finished yet. “Where are his glasses?”

They were in the pocket of his suit jacket. Granny took them out and put them on him. “Is that better?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “But he still looks like plastic.”

It used to be commonly believed that the souls of the dead waited for the resurrection, lying in patient silence until the end of time, when Jesus would call us all out of our graves at once. In more recent centuries we have developed the idea of the dead immediately going to heaven, as if heaven were a faraway place we could be teleported to, zillions of light-years away, but on the same timeline. Indeed, I remember saying to my parents, “I bet Great-Grandpa is sitting down right now at a big banquet table in heaven for his welcome dinner.” Either way, when someone dies, we can see that our loved one just isn’t there anymore and isn’t coming back. We don’t see resurrection happening … or do we?

Today’s Scripture readings are all about death and resurrection. The Psalmist feels dead. He is waiting like a body in the grave for the Lord to redeem his people. For him, redemption and resurrection will come with forgiveness.

The famous Ezekiel story of the dry bones is a vision—an unusually vivid, waking dream. God asks, “Can these bones live?” And the prophet’s answer is very wise: “Oh Lord, you know.” Ezekiel understands that we can never assume we know where there is hope and where there is not; who is worth saving and who is a lost cause. Let us always leave that judgment to God, who is always about to do a new thing.

So, then, on to the really new thing that God is doing in Jesus. In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are playing their usual game of treating metaphors literally and getting very confused as a result. In this case, the subject is a dead man, not an entire dead nation, so we can hardly blame Jesus’ friends for planting themselves firmly in literalism and refusing to budge. After all, death is so undeniable when it stares us in the face. It can seem indecent, nightmarish … too real to bear. Jesus tries to explain Lazarus’ death to them in metaphor, first telling them that this disease isn’t fatal, and then telling them he’s only sleeping. Finally, when it’s clear that the disciples don’t get it, he gives in: “OK, OK! Lazarus is dead. Is that what you want to hear?”

They’re already annoyed with him, because Jesus has been quite unhelpful. Everyone knows he can cure the sick. Why, then, did Jesus wait for two extra days to come to Bethany? I can understand Martha and Mary, in their grief, trying to shame him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those of us who have lost a loved one, especially one who was still young, may have prayed something very similar: “Lord, where were you? Why didn’t you keep this from happening?”

Martha deals with her grief in a very human way: “Everyone says to me that my brother is in a better place, that he will lie in wait patiently and then be called out of his grave at the end of time. But it doesn’t help. Today is the day I miss him. Today is the day I want him back. What are you going to do about this today?”

“But today is what it’s all about,” Jesus replies. “I am the resurrection and the life today, in your life, not just at the end of time. Do you believe this?”

Then Mary shows up, and Jesus gets emotional. We hear that he becomes “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The original Greek words, etaraxen and embrimOmenos, carry connotations of angry indignation as well. Is Jesus angry with his friends for not understanding? Is he angry with death? Is he angry with the whole situation?

And then, on the way to the tomb, Jesus begins to cry. At the reality that his friend Lazarus is truly dead and was laid to rest four days ago, Jesus becomes angry, frustrated, offended, and sad all at once—just as any of us might. But why? If he’s trying so hard to be reassuring, why isn’t Jesus himself reassured? I wonder if he knows what might happen as a result of this miracle—what plots it will set in motion. I wonder if he knows that his own entombment is not far away.

“Roll away the stone,” Jesus commands. Now in her usual way, Martha jumps in here with a practical consideration: “Jesus, there’s a decaying corpse in there! Are you sure about this?”

But this is the same Jesus who has touched lepers and chatted with Samaritan women; he’s the last person to worry about becoming unclean. He’s doing away with all the purity codes that divide us and enslave us. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see?” There it is again: sometimes you have to believe something to see it. That’s how Stone Chorlton put it in our Lenten reflections booklet.

And then Jesus prays out loud, and this is what I hear in his prayer: “God, I know you always hear me. But I thank you anyway for hearing me. I know you’re always with me, yet still, I invite you to come in. I know that Lazarus is held in your eternal embrace and that death is nothing to fear. But my friends are still stuck in literalism, and they could use a little convincing … Lazarus, come out!”

And Lazarus comes out. And Jesus’ next command to the people is this: “Unbind him. Unbind him and let him go.”

God is always doing a new thing. Don’t see it yet? Let’s take a quick glance back at the scope of John’s Gospel.

1)    Jesus has turned water into wine.
2)    He has healed a dying boy.
3)    He has made a lame man walk.
4)    He has fed 5000 people on five loaves of bread and two fish.
5)    He has walked on water.
6)    He has given sight to a man born blind.
7)    He has brought Lazarus from the grave.

These are the seven miracles John built his Gospel on, all the while acknowledging that this is only a small sampling. In the last verse of the Gospel, he writes, “There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Do you see? We’re not just talking about whatever works the man Jesus happened to accomplish in 30 short years in Palestine. Every time we hear the Gospel read, Jesus is reaching into our own lives, shaking us loose from dry literalism and doubt. We don’t need to wait for the resurrection. Despite all of human nature, we don’t need to worry about death at all. Not even in death is there a place where Christ is not—even if we can’t see it right now. And as for our beloved dead, we, too, can unbind them and let them go.

In the meantime, Jesus’ other miracles point us to millions of little resurrections we can see!

1)    A dead party comes to life.
2)    An illness passes, or an injury heals.
3)    We think life has passed us by, and then new opportunities and renewed abilities surprise us and excite us.
4)    We don’t think there will be anyone to help us, and then there is.
5)    We don’t think there will be enough to go around, and then somehow there is.
6)    We discover perspectives and ideas and light we never could have imagined before!
7)    Resurrection is happening today, all over the world, wherever people love and care for each other. Because that is God’s Kingdom, always breaking into the world.

In next week’s story, the people will proclaim Jesus king—a new kind of king—a king with no army, no palace, no money—but a king who possesses everything in the universe because he trusts God completely.

Don’t miss the next chapters. Come next Sunday, and then join us for all of Holy Week! This is the Christian story, our family story, the reason we’re all here in the first place. This is high drama, and it is Good News. It is Good News for my great-grandfather and all our beloved dead. But it is also Good News for us. Christ is the king of the living. Jesus is the resurrection and the life today! Amen.

You’ll never see the end of the road while you’re traveling with me

You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call "my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call "beloved.' " "And in the very place where it was said to them, "You are not my people,' there they shall be called children of the living God." And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively." And as Isaiah predicted, "If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah."

What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, "See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

- Romans 9:19-33

“Objects of wrath that are made for destruction”? No! No human being is merely this. We are all objects of mercy. So I have a real problem with this passage. I realize that Paul’s point here is to show that Gentiles also are precious to God, and not only Jews—and that those who think they can earn their way into God’s good graces just don’t get it. But see, I’m one of those, too. I know in my heart that God loves me no matter what, but my mind keeps me striving to save myself.

If I were convinced that God made certain people only to destroy them, I couldn’t worship God. Either Paul is wrong, or he’s using this literary device to shake us out of our complacency. If it’s the latter, I think it’s a pretty poor literary device, because it doesn’t lean in the direction of hope.

The Christian hope is that we are all held in God’s embrace, no matter what—whether or not we ever really “get it,” God will keep showing us love in new ways until we do. And as Paul writes in another place, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.

We are liberated! Get to know the feeling of liberation and release. We will never see the end of the road while we’re traveling with Jesus. Here’s Crowded House.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some say we're born into the grave


The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

- Ezekiel 37:1-14

This is one of the great stories of the Bible. One year at a church Halloween party, I heard someone tell it to a group of kids, sitting in darkness, complete with sound effects (a bunch of drumsticks in a box rattling around). And, of course, we all know the old spiritual about “dem dry bones”—not to mention the bleak, hard-rockin’, excellent Alice in Chains song.

But what is the main point of this story? To what does Ezekiel’s vision point? Well, the story isn’t actually about physical death, for one thing—it’s about spiritual death. It’s about a whole people feeling cut off and hopeless. And there’s a promise here that all is not lost—God will restore their hope. But when?

The Gospel reading paired with this one is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this story isn’t about physical death, either—at least, not exclusively. There are a million little resurrections happening in our lives every day, from a healed injury to a rekindled friendship to a new perspective. Sometimes these resurrections may seem to take too long—but they do come. Even when everything seems hopeless, hope is on the way.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I only ask, "May I share dinner with you?"

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

- John 6:60-71

It’s happening: do you feel it? The tension is ramping up. Somebody is close to being fed up. Somebody is starting to think that this Jesus movement is getting too big—that maybe the man they’ve followed all this time isn’t really in control. Doubt has crept in, and soon it will strike.

Meanwhile, those who would stay loyal can’t imagine any other possibility. If they only knew … but they will know soon enough. They, also, will drink a long, slow draught from the same cup.

Here’s Son Lux with “Betray.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

And if you don't ask questions, you won't know why

Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call. For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin.

I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust. The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.

Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die; so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord. He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. “O my God,” I say, “do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.”

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away; but you are the same, and your years have no end. The children of your servants shall live secure; their offspring shall be established in your presence.

- Psalm 102

I saw a church reader board the other day that says, “Faith is a journey, not a guilt trip.” That’s certainly been true for me. Like the Psalmist, I sometimes cry out to God. At other times, I go along blithely forgetting about God. At still others, God and I walk silently together, not speaking much but totally aware of each other’s presence.

Lent has been like all three of these things for me this year. I cried out in indignation at the disasters in Japan and at political turmoil here in the U.S. Some mornings, I thought, “Oh no, do I have to write again today?” But most often of all, I’ve felt God as a constant companion on my travels. I need this most of all: I need to be able to ask God questions, and not just when I'm desperate. But sometimes I feel desperate, too, and I know God understands.

I’m a sucker for great, catchy pop songs, even if they were never really hits to begin with. This song was a hit at one Texas radio station in the summer of 2001. But I love the minor key and the desperation of it; it feels like a psalm to me. Here’s “Pray” by Tina Cousins.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Before you were born, someone kicked in the door

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?

O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.
It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother's children.

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.

Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies.
Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.

- Psalm 69:1-23

First of all, today I defer to my colleague, the Rev. Karen Haig.

“Before You Were Born” by Toad the Wet Sprocket is a song about a person who may always have felt like this Psalmist. I couldn’t find the studio version, so here’s a live version, and also the lyrics.

What strikes me most about the song is that there is apparently a community of people walking with the subject through his pain on the road to redemption: “Just keep on there breathing/ We’ll help you down the long, long road back home.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I am the silent one inside

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

- Romans 8:1-11

I don’t like the dualism of this passage; it operates under the Pauline assumption that everything to do with physical matter is impure, while everything spiritual is pure. This was a Greek idea that had begun to affect Judaism and took strong hold in Christianity. But the Hebrew idea is that the body and spirit cannot be treated as separate things, because it is in their working together that the miracle of life occurs. And since Christianity is based on God coming into bodily form, how can we possibly keep the two separate?

My father-in-law said to me the other day, “I have an analogy for this. The body is the hardware. The mind is the software. The soul is the experience of the user interacting with the other two.” That’s much better.

Paul begins to redeem himself in verse 9: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Then he lapses back into dualism by asserting that some people are still “in the flesh” because they don’t have “the Spirit of Christ.” It reminds me of that bumper sticker: “Got Jesus?” As if we could go to the store, buy some Jesus, and drink it.

Yet every week, I go to the altar rail and consume the Body and Blood of Christ. There’s a deep mystery at work here. Acclimated to having this meal every Sunday, if I miss a week, I notice. It’s not unlike going to Grandma’s house every single Sunday—there’s a relationship there that I need to keep fostering. But in this case, that relationship will never end.

In the meantime, it’s still Lent, the weather’s still lousy, and spring seems worlds away. At this time of year, it’s easy for me to fall into self-doubt and become my own worst enemy. So back to church I go—back for another round of bread and wine, of silent prayer, of communal prayer and singing, of visiting with the other travelers on the road. Time to engage the mysteries yet again. And yet again, I will feel that thrill of seeing something of what God sees—in me, in those I love, and in the world.

Here’s Paula Cole with a song for emerging from the cocoon: “Me.” (And what a fabulous video, too!)