Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon for Easter Sunday 2013 John 20:1-18 “Tag! You're It!"

Each Easter season, I reread the story of Jesus’ resurrection and find a new question in it. Some people, who are undoubtedly brighter than I am, read it and find answers, but for me, I have to work my way to answers by starting with questions. For better or worse, this morning you’re going to journey with me and my question du jour, and maybe by the time we’re done with it, we may have an answer or two…or maybe just some more interesting questions to pursue.

Here’s where I get stuck in this story: we’ve just heard the story – the disciples go to the tomb where Jesus had been laid, and discover that he is not there. All they see in the tomb is the neatly folded cloths that had wrapped Jesus’ body. They leave. Mary Magdalene also is there, and is sitting in the garden, weeping. She sees angels sitting in the tomb, who question why she is weeping. She says she is sad because she doesn’t know where Jesus’ body has gone to, and no sooner than she says this, but Jesus is behind her. It takes her a few seconds to understand that it is Jesus to whom she speaks, and when she does, she reaches out to embrace him, but he says “Don’t! I’m in transit to be with my heavenly Father, and you can’t touch me right now. Just go tell the others you have seen me and that I’m headed up to heaven.”

There are probably a number of questions that come to mind when we hear this. Why did Mary see the angels, but Peter and John did not? Why did Jesus appear to her, and not to Peter and John? What’s that “don’t touch me” business about?

They are all good questions, but I have a differen on that I’m stuck on: why did Jesus come back after his death?

Why would he come back? We could certainly understand him saying, “I wash my hands of that place. I talked and talked and explained and explained and even performed all sorts of miracles, and still they didn’t understand what I was trying to teach. And then they decided they had to kill me off. This was a perfectly good body, still had lots of miles left in it, and they had to go and crucify me! I’m outta here.”

But that’s not what he did. He did come back. He came back despite the fact that the Gospel of John tells us that Peter and John looked into that empty tomb and they “saw and believed,” presumably, that his body was taken to heaven. But then the evangelist adds another line, one that may hold a clue for us: “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

So they believed something had happened, that the Lord’s body had been taken away by divine power, but they didn’t really get the whole “resurrection from the dead” thing.

And all Mary knew was that she was grieving the death of Jesus and wanted to know if someone had stolen his body from the grave, since the stone that had sealed the tomb was rolled away when she first got there.

His body was hidden from her…

…hmmm, a little bit like that childhood game “Hide and Go Seek.”

Sometimes when I get stuck on a question, I got back to the games of my childhood…they help me think through how things work. So “Hide and Go Seek”…how does it work?

Someone who is designated as “It” must close her eyes while everyone else runs and conceals themselves. The person who is “it” must count out loud for a period, then she must go find at least one of the people who are in hiding. After the player designated as "it" finds another player, the found player must run to base, before he is tagged by "it." After the first player is caught, he calls out "Ollie Ollie oxen free" to signal the other hiders to return to base for the next round. Pretty straightforward, right?

So does this fit our story? It might, if we imagine Mary is “it,” the seeker, and Jesus is the one who is concealed…a time period has passed since he was hidden, and she is searching, and in fact doesn’t even begin to know where to find him. But she feels like she has to find him, that it is important. So she asks the angels, and she asks the mysterious man in the garden, who turns out to be…Jesus! And Jesus suggests that she call “Ollie Ollie oxen free” to the disciples, to tell them that they will all get together soon before he finally goes to his heavenly father in heaven.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why Jesus comes back after his death, even though Hide and Seek has helped us understand what’s going on with Mary Magdalene a little better.

Well, if children’s games seem like a helpful tool to untangle our questions, maybe another children’s game will do the trick.

Hmmm…what game? Dodgeball? No, the school systems are banning that one, we’d better not do that. Basketball? No, we’re all too short. Chess? Definitely not. It makes our heads hurt. Gee, Magic Eight Ball? Nope. The answers are so rarely conclusive!

Okay, I’ve got it…how about Tag?

I can see your skepticism on your faces, but let’s think about the rules of Tag. It starts off very much like Hide and Go Seek. There’s someone who is designated as “it” who then has to run around and try to touch, or tag, another person in the group, so that the new person is “it” and everyone else runs to avoid being tagged.

Tag. What does that have to do with theology? Well, work with me here, folks.

Let’s start with the premise that Jesus is “it.” That’s the easy part. We know that Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah who died on the Cross to redeem us, is the ultimate “it.” He has been tagged by virtue of his divinity to be the only one who can save us. So, as “it,” Jesus has been on earth as one of us, as a human being, to…what? Play tag with us?

In a weird way, yes. He has been playing tag with us. He has been touching each of us and saying “You’re my beloved. You’re it.” He has been willing to play the game by human rules. Unfortunately, it was a game that had a pretty unpleasant end, as we heard about on Good Friday. He got tagged by the religious leaders and Pilate and was sentenced to death. Sounded like the end of the game for this player, but like all really expert players, he tweaked the rules a bit, added some holy grace.  The tag didn’t really end the game, although it changed it. He was still “it,” the one who was our source of salvation, and he was perfectly fine with continuing to be “it.”

But Jesus had a problem. He had been playing with a bunch of disciples, good folks, but they weren’t the brightest folks, and he was afraid that all he had taught them, all the fine points of the game of redemption, really hadn’t stuck. Those of you who have coached the under-5 year old soccer teams know what I’m talking about here.

So even though Jesus had been tagged, and by rights should have stepped out of the game, he still had something to do. He had some tagging to do.

He needed to come back to earth and tap his followers on the shoulder and say “You’re it. I am going to be in heaven with my father, and I need you to continue the game. I need you to go out into the world and share the game, its rules, its joys, its frustrations. I want you to tell the story of the greatest tag-player of all time, and all the ways that your lives have been enriched by participating. You’re it. Go out and tell everyone about this!”

Ahhhh…that makes sense now. Jesus had to come back, to remind everyone he had told them this was going to happen. He would die, but he would rise again, and would sit at his heavenly Father’s right hand. Jesus had to come back to remind them that was it their job now to share the story. They were “it.” He’d coach from the sidelines when and if it was really necessary, but it was for them to continue the game.

And the thing we are about to do now, this sacrament of Holy Baptism? How does this fit into the game?

You might say that each of these three little ones is being tagged. Tagged as God’s own beloveds, tagged as ones who will, over time, learn how to play the game. As they grow in their knowledge of the story of Jesus, the one who died and overcame death to rise again, they will understand that they can share that glorious story, too, and the hope that is embodied in that story. They are tagged as Christians.

Tag. You’re it. Go and share the story. Live the promise. Sing it out: Alleluia!   


Friday, March 29, 2013

Sermon for Good Friday, March 29, 2013 John 18:1-19:42 “Ars Moriendi”

 In recent days I’ve been reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering.” It is a masterful account of how Americans dealt with death during and after the Civil War. The war, like all wars, created a large number of dead and dying people. In fact, the civil war was responsible for the death of 750,000 men. 750,000…greater than the number of dead for all armed conflicts in which the United States engaged, from the Revolutionary War to the current engagement in Afghanistan.

One consequence of that terrible toll of death was how to handle the mortal remains of those who passed. Often, in the heat of battle, bodies simply remained on the battlefield. The winning side could go out and retrieve their wounded and dead, but the losing side would retreat, and often their dead comrades in arms were either left where they lay, or shoveled into mass graves.

There was a great focus in Christian thinking during that era on dying well, what the medieval spiritual writers called “Ars Moriendi,” or the Art of Dying. They wrote the treatises on good dying during the time of the Black Death, when millions died of the plague. But the concept of Ars Moriendi was equally potent when the Civil War was raging. Such a good dying, in the period of the Civil War, included being in good relationship with God, at peace regarding one’s death, and sending loving thoughts to those whom the dying man left behind.
And so men would often write letters to their loved ones before a battle, talking about how they knew that death was near, saying that they were ready to be with God, were not afraid, and that their loved ones should know that they would wait for them in the Heavenly realm. If they were wounded or died in battle, comrades in arms would write such letters to the families of the wounded, giving them comfort that they had not been alone, they had been reconciled to their death, and that they were ready to meet their maker as children of God.

This was, no doubt, a comfort to the families who received such letters, but one of the great sadnesses for these mourners was that they would not know where their loved one lay after death. There was often no marked grave, no place where the mourners could go and commune with their dead family member. Wives and mothers wrote to the Secretary of War, asking about their boy – was he alive? If he was dead, where did he lay? Thus, advocates like Clara Barton pushed hard for a way to keep track of those who had died and their resting place, to provide solace to families and to end questions about whether or not their brother or son or father was truly dead. If one of the hallmarks of Ars Moriendi, the good dying, was being at peace with the Lord, another equally important one was that the family was able to lay the person to rest with dignity for his mortal remains, with prayer and a marking of his final resting place.

Thus, many of the dead had the first part of that good dying, but the latter part – a time and a place of prayer and commendation, with family present and a marking of the place – was often missing. In fact, the federal government worked for a decade beyond the Civil War seeking out the unmarked graves so that those who had served and died would be properly accounted for, reinterred, and named on an appropriate marker or headstone.  Ten years after the war, the struggle for Ars Moriendi still consumed the souls and resources of a nation trying to recover from its wounds.

I tell you this story because on Good Friday we, too, struggle with Ars Moriendi as we listen to Jesus’ death and burial. He died on a political battlefield – certainly no one could doubt that his death was as much a battle of Romans and Pharisees against a religious or political reformer they distrusted and hated – and his death was not attended to by his followers, just a few of the women who were a part of his band – his mother, his aunt, Mary of Magdala. 

Did Jesus die a peaceful death? He seemed resigned to what was to happen, and accepted it with little argument. In other versions of the passion story, Jesus cries out seemingly in despair “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (a quotation from Psalm 22), but in this version from the Gospel of John, he simply says, “It is finished.”

And then it is over, and his body is taken in the dead of night to a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimethea. No mourners weeping, no priests intoning prayers, no incense, only a little preparation of the body before entombment. Even the women are not present, those faithful women who had been the only ones to stand at the foot of the cross. It is simply a gentle disposal of Jesus’ body to a safe place, an appropriate place, a bit of a rush because of the impending Passover feast, but it does not comport with all the proper burial rituals of 1st century Jews. Not an artful death, not a good death as the medieval scholars and the Civil War widows might have envisioned one. A lonely death after a hard, hard dying.

I wonder if Jesus felt abandoned while he was slowly dying on the cross, if he felt like he had failed in his mission, if it all was worth it. Or did he know that this was the last good thing he could do, to complete the prophetic vision, to deliver redemption?

If that was the case, it was the most artful of deaths, the one that had the most meaning for all of Creation.

If we reflect on the primary qualities embodied in Ars Moriendi, in the Good Death, what are they? To be in good relationship with God – no question that Jesus meets this standard. He is the Son of God, fulfilling his mission by dying on the cross. To be at peace regarding one’s death: those words “it is finished” seem to say that he is reconciled to what has happened, and accepts that his earthly body is completing its task. To send loving thoughts to one’s family? Remember Jesus instructing the beloved disciple to treat Mary as his own mother, and telling Mary that this disciple would now be her son? Jesus is attending to the business of providing for his mother’s welfare once Jesus is gone.

There may have been no conventional synagogue service, no traditional burial service with weeping women wearing torn garments, no public symbol of the honor that this man, this Son of Man, deserved at his passing.

But make no mistake. This was “Ars Moriendi” in its highest expression. Some of the trappings were missing, but they were merely that – external symbols. What truly mattered in a good dying was embodied in this most horrific of deaths.

It is good that we meditate on this most holy of deaths, and reflect upon what it might mean in our own lives. There are two directions we might cast our eyes. The first would be on the Cross, as we give thanks for Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for us, to redeem us. The second, and in some ways the harder one, is to look at our own lives. It is in our lives, of course, that we understand how we will die. Will we die the good death, knowing that we were in communion with the One who created us? Will we die at peace, knowing that we did what we could while we were able to bring the reign of God to our world? Will we die satisfied that we did what we could to attend to our families and loved ones, that no forgiveness was left undeclared, no thank you left unspoken, no arrangement for care left unplanned? Most important, will we have lived our lives in a way that pleased God?

We look up at the Cross. We see the dying and exhausted Jesus upon it. We know that no great funeral procession will mark his death. But we know that his message and the procession of followers continues even until today.  This is truly a good dying, the one that yields life beyond the grace. Will your life and your death approach that standard of goodness?


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2013 John 13:1-17, 31b-35 “Feet”

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475

The Gospel of John has a very particular focus when it tells Jesus’ story: John wants us to know how Jesus, the Son of God, is also a friend and a servant to those whom he loves. Stories like the moment where Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” Stories like the one we hear today, the story of the Last Supper, where Jesus prefaces the meal that they are about to share by doing something that was an accepted practice of hospitality in the ancient world: by washing his companions’ feet.
They did that for a simple reason. They lived in a dusty sandy place. If they were to gather around a table for a meal, one way to distinguish between a meal eaten “on the run” and one that was a more formal meal. It was considered a refined thing to do, to help a guest cool off and feel refreshed before a meal.
But even considering that this was an act of hospitality, the host of the meal wouldn’t do it himself. He would order his servants to do it. It was beneath him to crouch down and wash someone’s feet. Feet were a dirty part of the body. Who knows what those sandaled feet had stepped in? Feet are sort of yucky.
So it came as something of a shock to the disciples when Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his middle, and bent down to wash the feet of the disciples. He knelt first before Simon Peter, who was horrified. Simon Peter knew who Jesus was, and knew what Jesus was – his teacher, his rabbi, his Lord, the Messiah. If it wasn’t appropriate for a regular host of a meal to wash the feet of the guests, it most certainly wasn’t appropriate for the Messiah to do it. So Peter protested, but Jesus said that this was a necessary thing – that Peter could not be a part of Jesus’ world without this. And Peter, ever the one for big emotional gestures, said “Don’t just wash my feet, then ! Wash my hands and my head!”
But that was too much, that gesture, and Jesus said, “No, only your feet. The rest of you is clean.” It was, in a way, a symbolic gesture, this washing. Cleaning off the dust of the world in preparation for something important, this final meal together. An act of loving service for them.
Imagine if you went to the White House for dinner with the President – you can imagine any President whom you like for this imaginary moment, because it makes most sense if it’s a President you like. So you go through all the security clearance to get into the building, noting the snipers on the roof and the Secret Service officers with the little earpieces and such. You are going into a fabulous house, where a wonderful meal will be served and you will hear the words of this President whom you admire so much. You queue up because of course there is a receiving line. You wonder what you’ll say when you reach the President and his wife, and hope you don’t say anything stupid. Your feet hurt a little bit, because you’ve bought new shoes for this special occasion, but it’s worth it because you want to look good.
The queue is moving very slowly and you think “I wonder who is talking off the President’s ear. Don’t they move folks through these lines quickly?”
But when you finally get through the door to where the President awaits, you can’t see him…but then, you do. He is on his knees. His dinner jacket is off. What’s going on here? Wait…can it be possible? He’s washing the guests’ feet! That’s ridiculous! He’s the President. He shouldn’t be touching people’s feet, washing them off, should he? It’s a lovely gesture and all that, but he is the President. Presidents don’t do that. And then you start thinking about your own feet, about the corn on your left little toe and the beginnings of a bunion, and you wonder “how could I possibly let him touch my beat-up old feet? He’ll be disgusted by them.”
But he continues with the next person in line, gently washing the feet of an elderly Supreme Court Justice. Those feet are a lot more gnarly than yours, you think, but he is gently toweling them dry now. And he is on to the next person, a woman who is struggling forward on crutches. One foot is in a cast, and the President gently washes the exposed toes, and the woman giggles a little, and the President looks up and smiles.
And now it is your turn, and you slip off those new shoes. You can see and feel the beginning of a blister on one toe, and the warm water he pours over your feet feels so lovely, so comforting, and then the towel softly dries your feet, and you move on. You say nothing, but it is a tender moment, this thirty seconds or so when this man whom you admire washes and dries your feet, and you suddenly don’t feel shy or embarrassed, just grateful. In the moment, you do not feel shocked that the leader of the free world is on his knees in front of you. You simply feel appreciated, even loved. You feel like he knows you in a special way, having done this for you. You feel that he has served you in a caring way, and it changes the whole tone of the meal that is to follow. You are not merely supporters of the President, you are his friends. All because of feet.
That may have been something of the feeling that Peter and the other disciples experienced when Jesus surprised them by kneeling before them and washing their feet. It was not the right thing to do – this was not his job. They should be washing HIS feet! But here he was, showing them his loving care. Showing them, in a way this mere words could not, that they were cherished by him, so much so that he was willing to debase himself by washing their feet. Their FEET, for goodness sake! Because, as the gospel says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He loved them enough to take off his tunic, wrap a towel around his waist, get a bowl and a pitcher of warm water, and get down on his knees to wash their dusty, dirty, camel-dung-spattered feet.
In the days ahead of him, Jesus would choose to debase himself further, giving himself over to the monkey trial, the flogging, the crown of thorns, the nailing to the cross, the suffocating death. Washing feet was such a small thing, in comparison to what was to come. But to the disciples, it was a shock, and an intensely uncomfortable thing.
In many churches, people resist re-enacting the foot-washing. It makes them as uncomfortable as Simon Peter was. They fear what a foot-washer will think of the  state or the smell of their feet, as if it matters. They worry that they will giggle in the midst of this solemn ceremony, because their feet are ticklish – I wonder which of the disciples had ticklish feet? – or they think that they will get germs from the water or the towel.
But I wonder what it would feel like to make ourselves vulnerable enough to accept such an act of love? I wonder if we can truly have our share of Jesus if we worry more about what someone will think of our hammertoes and our chipped toenails than about how we can receive the gift of humble love from another.
The disciples, even Simon Peter, got over their objections and received that loving gift from Jesus. Even Judas had his feet washed, which may account for his great grief when he came to himself and realized what he had done.
I am not suggesting that we will wash each others’ feet right now. I would not do that without warning you first, so you could spiritually and physically prepare yourselves. But what I hope you will consider is how we so often refuse a gift of humble love from another rather than receive it gratefully. We so often see it as a sign of weakness without admitting that we are afraid to make ourselves so vulnerable in the course of such a tender act liking having someone wash our feet.
Jesus made himself vulnerable from the moment of his birth. He did not come to earth as a powerful divine force. He came as a fragile newborn. He did his work on earth as a human being, subject to the flu and indigestion and stepping in that camel dung, and in the end his human body was broken in the most humiliating and painful ways man has devised to punish another. He chose to be vulnerable. And then he asked those who believed in him to make themselves equally vulnerable, and the first step to achieve that vulnerability was allowing him to wash their feet. Because unless you make yourself vulnerable in that way, you can have no share of Jesus.
So on this night when we prepare for the next step to the Cross, we pray that we can overcome our own fears and make ourselves open enough, vulnerable enough, faithful enough, to allow Jesus to care for us as only he could do, to acknowledge that his death was the gift that we may not have deserved, but that he gave freely, to accept that we are his beloveds. Each of us, hammertoes and smelly feet and bunions and chipped pedicures and all, beloved enough for him to serve us as we need him to serve us. Feet are a good starting place, as we ready ourselves to walk to the Cross.