Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014 John 20:1-18 “Let It Go”

Every parent of every little girl has probably spent the past several months deeply immersed in a song.

One song. 

Over and over again. 

A power ballad from a movie about a girl who becomes who she is meant to be, although it is not what those around her think is her destiny.

Disney. Yes. 

Animated feature. Yes. 

You know what it is. 

“Let it go.”

For all of you who are so tired of hearing this song for the four millionth time that you’ll scream if you hear it again, here’s the good news. I will not sing it for you. But I will quote the final lines of the song, which may not have registered with you, since you’ve been so driven to distraction by Idina Menzel’s soaring voice:

“Let it go, let it go When I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go That perfect girl is gone                                                                                                                Here I stand In the light of day                                                                                                                                Let the storm rage on, The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Sitting here on this Easter morning, the words land on our ears a little differently, don’t they?

The idea of breaking away from a limited notion of who someone is, of what that person is supposed to do and to be, that there is something better, bigger, more magnificent, more fulfilling…it is at the heart of the movie “Frozen.” But that movie is simply a retelling of a story that has been told for centuries.

We may think we know who someone is. We may think we understand them perfectly. We may, in fact, like the idea that we have marked them, categorized them, fit them into a box marked with their name on a shelf. We like to do that, because then we can manage them. We can pull them off the shelf whenever we want to talk to them, and we can put them back on the shelf when we don’t. We control the relationship. But it is usually not really possible to control someone that way, as any parents of two year olds will attest.

For a long time, when I heard this morning's passage from the Gospel of John, I focused on the heartbreak in Mary Magdalene’s voice, the tension in her arm as she reached out to Jesus – not the gardener, but her beloved rabbi – as he said, “Do not hold onto me.” When all she wanted was just to touch him again, to embrace him. To see him alive after that crucifixion, it was truly a miracle. He was back again. It would be alright. But now he was telling her not to touch him, and that was not the Jesus she remembered, who would hug little children, pat the hands of women and gently caress those who were sick. Not touch? How could this be? And how could he not want to touch her, his old friend, the one who served him so faithfully after her own cure? What was wrong?

It must have been so painful to her. And Jesus knew that, so he explained. He was going away for good, but he needed to tell his followers, and her among them, that he had indeed risen from the dead. He was ascending to heaven, but he wanted to make sure that the disciples knew that this was what was happening, as had been prophesied, so here he was to give her this message. And her task was to go tell them this.

Her task.

But these days, I find myself wondering why he said this to her, to Mary Magdalene. Why not Peter, the rock upon whom the church would be built? Why not John, the disciple whom Jesus loved? Why not the Pharisees, a final poke in the eye to say “see, I told you so?” Why Mary Magdalene?

Let’s think about who she was. A woman who had been scorned by her husband and community because of her illness. Not a harlot – that was a detail that had been added to her story some six hundred years after her death and which has since been refuted. Perhaps someone who had a mental illness or complex medical issues. But a woman who was not only healed by Jesus but who became an “apostle to the apostles.” A courageous woman who stood by Jesus when most all of the men ran away. Perhaps a visionary leader, if some of the Gnostic gospels are to be believed. Perhaps a mystic, if medieval legends have any merit…

But certainly not the most predictable choice of people to whom Jesus would appear to make the point that he had conquered death. But Jesus had made so many choices that were not the predictable ones. Jesus himself was not the predictable King of Kings. We should not be surprised.

So Jesus talked to her, this woman with the complex life story, and told her to go tell the others about their conversation.

And perhaps he used her as the one to bear the good news because she was a living symbol of how Jesus broke out of the conventions of their culture. She was no longer simply a scorned woman, a sick – and ritually unclean – woman, a follower after the disciples because she wanted to learn from Jesus when women were not encouraged to learn in this fashion. She was something more. A healed woman. A trusted and beloved companion. A person who could see something remarkable and listen to the words and understand what was happening. And so Jesus asked her to be the bearer of the good news of Christ. Risen, alive, to go to heaven and sit at the right hand of the Father. She was the one Jesus trusted to convey the message, the courageous one, because this was earth-shaking news and the messenger had to be the right one.

Jesus had broken out of the box of what would be expected. He had been crucified. His body died. They had buried him in the tomb. Days had passed. And yet he was alive, not dead. He was beautiful, strong, restored, and yet he was different…and on his way to heaven soon. Hard to wrap our minds around it, even though we’ve heard the story all our lives. How much more surprising it would have been to Mary Magdalene and to the rest of the disciples in that moment!

And when Jesus told Mary that she could not touch him, she could not hold him, he was also telling her that her holding him and touching him in the old way, in the way that one human being touched another, she would hold him back from being who he was truly destined to be – the son of God who is intended to sit at the right hand of his heavenly Father. She had to let him go, as painful as it was for her. She had to release him from the old box of his human existence.

Mary Magdalene had broken out of the box of the identities that society had placed on her. As she let go of her old identity, she became the one whom she was destined to be, the bearer of the good news to the disciples.  There can be no doubt that she was truly the perfect messenger.

Jesus keeps breaking out of the box that we try to keep him in. Jesus is not just the Sunday School sweet guy with the white robes and soft clean hair who loves kids. Jesus is also the one who argues for the care of those in need. Jesus is not just the person from two thousand years ago whom we think of once a week, barely. He is the ever-present, ever-living God among us. He will not be contained into the limited view that makes us comfortable. He will not be tamed. We need to let go of the small Jesus that we have constructed and let him be who he is: God, who conquers death and gives eternal life.

But the corollary to this understanding that Jesus, the Son of God, is larger than the box in which we try to confine him, is that we, too, can be larger than the way we believe we are expected to be. We can grow as Mary Magdalene grew, beyond societal strictures and conventions, beyond the names others gave her and others give us. She became a critically important part of the leadership of the early church. We can grow in the same way.

If you remember nothing from this sermon this morning, remember this: Jesus’ rising from the dead is the sign that we have the capacity to do more than we dream possible, for God and for God’s people. Let go of the old limitations. Let go of your fear.

Sing, as Jesus might have:
“Let me go, let me go, I go on to God’s right hand.                                                                                                 Let me go, let me go, this is what you must understand.                                                                                        Here I stand In the light of day
Let the whole world know, That death cannot hold me down anyway…                                                                                       That we can live in a better way.”

Sing it. 
Pray it. 
Believe it.                                                                                              


Friday, April 18, 2014

Sermon for Good Friday 2014 Isaiah 52:13-53-12

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

It is not the norm to preach on the Old Testament on this day, Good Friday, when we hear John’s story of the pain and suffering of Jesus as his human life comes to an end. But I would suggest that if we are trying to make sense of John’s story, we need to hear what Isaiah has to say.

It is not necessarily true that Isaiah is speaking specifically about Jesus – a prophecy of what is to come – but it is certainly about one who suffers in service to his people. And even more importantly, this one not only accepts suffering in the course of his work, the suffering actually becomes the tool of his work.

If we did this today, we’d be accused of being masochistic. Who would do this, to deliberately suffer? To appear noble, perhaps, by stretching ourselves well beyond our breaking point to be applauded by the crowd? To tolerate it because it occurred while we were doing our work, much like we get a sore back when we work too long out in the garden? To accept it as a logical consequence, when our feet hurt after walking ten kilometers?

But this servant, the one of whom Isaiah speaks, takes the punishment…and it is an awful punishment…reviled, marred beyond human resemblance, with stripes, despised, rejected. This is not a minor sprained wrist here. It is having been lashed and broken, infected with all the diseases of humanity, crushed with pain.

And he does it not because he expects glory, although Isaiah suggests that glory is in the offing, somewhere off in the distance. He does it simply because it is the only way to accomplish that which is necessary, the saving of a bunch of wayward people who are lost sheep, going every way but the right way. Sheep whom most shepherds would have written off. Stupid, distracted, confused, arrogant, misguided sheep, who do not count the cost of their meandering to those around him…the cost to the one who will gather them again…

…because someone, some One, is going to gather them in. And to do that requires more than a little effort. No, it is more than a mere walk up a hill whistling for some sheep. It is, in fact, like rescuing lost mountain climbers from a crevasse on Mt Everest. And in the rescue effort, the One who saves them will die, because it is only through him lifting them out of the crevasse, letting them climb onto his shoulders as he braces himself against the frozen walls, that they can climb out before he slips down into the darkness of death. He is the only one who can do it, even though he knows that he will die in the doing of it.

Who is this servant? Isaiah may or may not have considered his suffering servant in this poetic passage to be a prophecy of the one we know as Jesus, but our Lord certainly fits the picture that Isaiah paints. It makes a strange sense of the mystery that is Jesus’ willingness to take on this pain. Why would Jesus – the son of God – not choose another less painful way to fix our waywardness?

Jesus accepts his ending because he knows it is the blood price for our iniquities, for our waywardness, for our sinful choices. He is the sacrifice. He is the one who was slain to redeem us from our sins. He is the one who knew exactly what he was getting into and said yes to it

Because he loved us so much that he could not abandon us to our brokenness. He could not let us wayward sheep continue to meander through the cold night on the hillside without water or shelter. He could not let us fall into the crevasse of an eternity without relationship with the One who created us. And if his suffering and death was necessary to save us, he would die.

Isaiah sings “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” The two things are inextricably entwined. To make them righteous, he must bear their iniquities.

If they are to be brought back into the sheepfold, back to base camp, he has to suffer…and because he loves us, he freely chooses suffering as the tool of our salvation. A suffering that is humiliating as well as painful, one that marks him as a failure as well as a criminal, one that subjects him to injustice …why? that we might have a justice that is more than we deserve.

Whether Isaiah knew he was writing about Jesus or not, we have no doubt that the evangelist John knew Isaiah’s servant songs and realized, as he was writing, how Jesus’ sacrificial death suddenly made sense.

This is God’s way, the way that we lost sheep sometimes forget. Jesus was willing to be that suffering servant, simply to rescue us from ourselves, whether we deserve it or not, because this is what God’s love requires. Not forcing Jesus to die for us, but asking that Jesus freely choose to die for us, because love is a free choice.

This night when we remember his death, we too have an opportunity to choose. Choose faithfulness. Choose righteousness. Choose love. Because in freely choosing love we show how we have learned from the gift Jesus gave us. We are the reason Jesus died. Given this gift, how can we do anything less than try to deserve it?


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2014

What would you do if you knew your life was coming to an end? Would you try to check off everything on your bucket list? Would you want to reconnect with old friends, settle old disputes, say you’re sorry for some offense against another some time in the past?

Or would you simply want to be with those whom you love, telling stories, laughing, shedding a few tears, hugging, enjoying the company?

A friend told me of the final weeks of her husband’s life. How it was, in a way, a long and beautiful party. He wasn’t able to get up and about, but folks who loved him came to him, shared stories, shared food, spent time holding hands, hugging, confessing and rejoicing. A celebration of life while anticipating the end that would come to him, as it comes to us all. There were moments of darkness and moments of life, but his family wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

It seems that Jesus’ choice at the end of his life was a simple one. A meal like any one of a thousand meals he had shared with his friends, and yet not like any other. Jesus had told them many times that his time with him would be short, and that it would not end well. They didn’t want to face that, of course. None of us want to face the loss of one whom we cherish. But he had warned them.

And then there was the surprising entry into Jerusalem, with crowds singing the praises of Jesus. One or two of the disciples may have thought “so much for all that talk of dying young.” The dinner – anticipating  the passover meal – that they would share seemed celebratory after all the accolades as they entered the city. And yet the host, their beloved rabbi, seemed subdued.

Still, they feasted, remembering the old story of how the Israelite children were passed over by the angel of death while the children of their Egyptian overlords died, because of the mark of the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. A passing over, a saving of God’s people, with the enemy vanquished, and lots of food and lots of wine.

But Jesus seemed not to be focused on the Passover story. Instead, he began with a simple gesture, a washing of his disciples’ feet. A normal sign of hospitality in that dusty corner of the world, but it was usually done by servants, not the host, because it was a humbling thing, kneeling before someone and addressing their dirty feet. And it made the disciples uncomfortable, but he insisted that this was necessary. He must serve them. He must.
And as the meal progressed, as he told them to remember this meal, these words, remember and repeat them so that they would never forget him, there was a momentary ache, a twinge in their hearts. What was he talking about? Was he back into that business about dying soon, about going away? Didn’t he remember the joyous cries of the crowd?

But he insisted. “I am going away soon. I will always love you. Love one another.” A dark, plaintive note in his voice as he said it, and they looked down, not wanted the others to see the tears now welling up in their eyes.

Because this was a Passover like no other, because there would be no passing over this son of Israel. This son would die. The Angel of Death would not pass over him and leave him untouched. No, it was his turn, Israel’s turn, to lose its first son, the son of God.

The last meal together was full of laughter and stories and good food and wine, but the darkness was gathering. The one who served them by washing their feet would serve them, and us, by offering himself as the sacrificial lamb. A dozen hours later, the lamb would be slaughtered, dead, broken. The jokes and the wine forgotten. The jostling over who sat where around the table no longer important.

But the words and the sacrifice are remembered. We remember them each time we share the sacrament of Holy Eucharist together.

Our service of Holy Eucharist is formal. Sanitized, in a way. Lots of formal language, none of the casual and lively conversation that marks most family-and-friends dinners. None of the spilled lamb juice, the olive pits, the crumbs of flatbread on the cloth. And I fear that we forget the joy and love and worry and emotion of that meal, the humanity of that meal,  in our Sunday services.

It was a meal, friends. A meal like any other, and yet like no other. A meal with human beings sitting around the table with the one who taught them and loved them to the end. Messy. Imperfect, emotional. And yet the one we need to remember, in all its beautiful imperfection. Because it was a gift from the one who chose to be the sacrifice, the one who volunteered to not be passed over, to give himself to us and for us.

So as we gather around the table tonight for this meal, this remembrance of that last meal, I pray that we can feel in ourselves all the emotions that dwelled in the hearts of Jesus and his disciples that last night. As we clear the dining table after having been fed, I pray that we can feel the sense of something lost, something remembered, the sacrifice, the darkness ahead, so that we can feel what will follow that darkness.

Eat. Drink. Laugh. Cry. Tell stories. And never, never forget.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sermon for Palm Sunday April 13, 2014 Matthew 21:1-11 “Reading Signs”

Doug and I went to the movies on Friday night and saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s a great movie, although it’s not for kids by any stretch of the imagination.

This was a movie made by the wonderfully strange Wes Anderson. From the very first moment of the movie, it was clearly Wes Anderson, he who made “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Fantastic Mr Fox,” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” The signs were all there: quirky music, odd visual images, famous actors playing very unconventional characters. 

We love these signs – they’re sort of a short-hand way of telling us what to expect. And movies are notorious for these. Oftentimes, the signs for movies are musical. The thump-thump thump-thump that lets us know that the great white shark is coming in “Jaws.” The pentatonic sequence from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The theme from the Godfather…

Other signs might be visual. Wes Anderson movies usually end with a slo-motion sequence, taking us to a place of calm and meditation. Rain, shadows, darkness? Film noir. A field of flowers? A romance. A jumble of tumbleweed? A cowboy movie of some sort.

Costumes, setting, all contribute to our expectations of what the movie will be about. And motifs like this date all the way back to ancient stories that were transmitted orally, not written down.

We like to have clues of what will happen next…

…and in today’s reading of the passion of Jesus Christ, signs abound. Ironic signs, to be sure, but signs.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem. He’s just performed a miracle – the raising of Lazarus from the dead. He’s on a roll – everyone is talking about how amazing he is. He heals! He preaches! He teaches! All the people are amazed by him, and now he is coming to Jerusalem, to the great Temple. And he must make a grand entrance, so he sends the disciples ahead to fetch him an animal to ride in on, actually two – a donkey and a colt. I sometimes wonder whether he sort of stood up with the two animals, with one foot on each, like a trick rider in the circus, or whether he rode for a while on the donkey, then switched over to the colt. But notice how this is the first time he ever seems to travel anyplace other than by foot…and there’s the sign that something different is happening, something that doesn’t really fit into who Jesus is. And anytime that happens, something that doesn’t fit, it makes us uncomfortable. We know something bad may be happening here.

Then he rides into Jerusalem, and everybody’s yelling and screaming with joy, waving branches of trees around, and putting them on the ground so jesus doesn’t even have to put a foot on the dusty ground. But didn’t Jesus spend the past three years walking from place to place, nobody laying out a carpet of branches to protect his delicate feet? And sometimes people were mean to him, and sometimes those pesky Pharisees were there trying to trick him with weird legalistic questions. But now Jesus is riding into town and everyone is saying he is the prophet, the anointed one, the one coming in the name of the Lord. Despite the fact that Jesus has sidestepped that kind of naming throughout his ministry. Despite the fact that he often said, “Don’t tell anyone about what we are doing.” But now he seems to accept the acclamations of the crowd.

Another sign, the shouts and the branches, just like the riding into town. So unlike the itinerant rabbi going from town to town by foot, with a few disciples. It’s a sign, a signal that something bad is happening.

Because in every dramatic movie we see, when the protagonist does something out of character, when he is most applauded, we know that something bad is going to happen. He will be destroyed after he has been uplifted. Like every political candidate we admire, until we learn of their flaws. Like every teen musical star who is viewed as pure and unspoiled, until their circumstances change as they age, and they become the troubled adults. Those are motifs we see over and over again.

And then there’s Jesus. Not a political star, not a rock star. Something very different, the very son of God, the one with the power to change the world…and he knows the signs as well as anyone. He knows this change – the crowd’s applause, the branches, the ride – is a sign that the end is near, because he knows they will turn on him, just as we turn on our political heroes and our favorite performers. He sees what awaits him, because he can read the signs, the motifs, as well as a famous movie critic or political pundit.

It will end. It will end badly. We have heard the horror of it in the passion story.

But there is another sign, not as obvious as the palms and shouts. It is not a part of the first reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that one we read outside, the story of the palms.

No, it is near the end of the story of the Passion, which we just read, the darkest and most frightening story in the Bible, at the point when we are most exhausted by the listing of horror after horror that we are no lonegr really paying attention.

Jesus has died, at last. And at the moment of his death, the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and an earthquake shakes the ground so violently that even the dead are shaken out of their tombs.

A sign that something irreparable has been broken. Frightening to those who were a part of it, certainly. But also a mark of reordering, of violent change.

As if we didn’t already know it, those of us who have heard Jesus’ story. That which was solid has been broken, so that something new can be constructed of the remnants. That which seemed permanent has been shown to be vulnerable.

And yet, in that vulnerability is the possibility of something new and better. Jesus’ body is broken, like the trampled palm branches underneath the feet of the crowds. But out of that body, there is something reborn, not made the same way as the old way, but something stronger, more resilient, purer through the suffering.

Signs are all around us, giving us clues and cues of what is happening. Palms, songs of praise, wails of death and destruction. But after the signs, another set of signs: children, new flowers, sprouting fruit trees. A new beginning will be coming soon. Wait and watch for the signs. There are there, if you only choose to see them.