Monday, April 28, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2014 Easter II John 20:19-31 “Believe”

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

I suspect that we all have a little bit of the apostle Thomas in us. We want concrete proof of things, because we have been trained to believe what we can see or feel or touch or prove using scientific methods or math. It’s how we are trained in school, and we hate it when we are faced with things that don’t fit neatly into a scientific proof.

And so when we hear this story of Thomas, who wasn’t around when Jesus came back to visit the disciples after his death and didn’t believe their recounting of this visit – how could it be? – we become distinctly uncomfortable because we know that Thomas is portrayed as a man whose faith is weak, even though we probably would react the same way if we had been in the situation that Thomas was in.

Let’s reset the story and see how it feels to be Thomas.

Imagine your brother is dying of cancer, an awful cancer that has stripped his body of all energy and health so now he is a mere skeleton with skin stretched like brittle parchment over the frame. You love him, and pray he would get better – a miracle, please God! – but no miracle comes. Then you pray that God would take him because he is so sick and will not get better and it is hard to even go to visit him, with the smell of the sickroom about him and no more words to say…and finally, mercifully, he dies. His spirit leaves his body – is there anything so still as one who is dead? – and you set about the hard work of the aftermath, having his body cremated, having the memorial service, and then having his ashes interred. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Your heart is broken, but you soldier on.

A couple of weeks pass. The ache is still there, like a toothache that cannot be relieved, but instead of a sharp insistent flame in your jaw, it is a dull steady ache in your heart. You can ignore it for a while, but it grumbles away under the surface, flaring up when you have to call the insurance company, or when you try to figure out how to shut down his Facebook page.

You go join some friends at the pub on a Friday night, thinking maybe a beer will dull the pain for a while. You know that’s not the best idea, but whatever…

…and as you get to the pub, your friends say “You will NOT believe what happened today. Remember, when you were over making a sales call to the Framwell account? Your brother walked into the office, looking for you! It was wild, man! We couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, it was him. I cannot BELIEVE you missed him!”

You don’t know whether to slug the guy who’s told you this or to laugh or to cry. A cruel joke, this. What the heck are they thinking? Can’t they see how much you’re hurting?

But they insist. It’s not a joke, your brother was here, he is ALIVE, man, ALIVE!

And now you get mad. This is all nonsense. And you say, “I don’t believe you. Unless I see him myself, touch him, hear him talk to me, unless I see the scar from his PIC line, unless I see his limp from when he jumped into the fishing hole when we were kids, I won’t believe it. You guys are full of it, or else you’re crazy.”

Of course, because what they’re telling you is crazy. You’re a rational human being. You saw your brother die. You identified his body when they took it to the Cremation Society so they would be sure the name matched the person. You prayed and cried and buried him. So your response is the rational one: this is impossible, and I won’t believe it until I see it for myself.

Just like Thomas. Because Thomas was a rational man, too. And he thought his fellow disciples all went a little bonkers – too long hiding out in fear of the Romans, maybe. So he said what he said, just like you or I would say the same thing.

And then something happened. Something utterly irrational. Jesus showed up. And he invited Thomas to put his fingers into the wounds, just to give him the empirical evidence he was calling for to prove that it really was Jesus.

And Thomas was invited into the mystery that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Mysteries…we don’t much like mysteries, because we cannot wrap our minds around them. We cannot prove them. They don’t fit the rules of our understanding of the world, and yet they occur. But Christ keeps inviting us into mysteries. It would be so much easier if he didn’t, but he keeps on doing it.

The great physicist Richard Feynman once said “It does no harm to the mystery to know a little about it.” I think of that quotation every time I am invited by Christ into another one of those mysteries…because it requires me to think a lot harder about a mystery than is comfortable. Especially because it is unlikely that I will figure out the mystery.

When I was in seminary, I took a class called Systematic Theology with a brilliant teacher. Here’s the big joke about that class: we may think that if we try, we can come up with a system to understand God – thus the name Systematic Theology. But our human attempts to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of God, a system to understand the mysterious vastness that is God, always fail. Because God is more than we can imagine. More than we can comprehend.

And oftentimes writers will say that since we cannot use scientific principles to prove God, since we cannot come up with the Grand Unified Theory of God, that God does not exist.

But hear what Feynman, who was writing about science when he wrote the prior sentence I quoted to you, said about the work that he did: “If you thought that science was certain – well, that is just an error on your part.”

But if science isn’t certain, if the nature of the work is a continual exploration of mysteries that we may never know completely, then why do we expect science to answer our questions about the mystery of God?

Because here’s the thing: science is all about exploring incomprehensible possibilities, and nowadays, science plays most creatively in areas that are very difficult to prove using the methods and technologies at hand. We may have had a brief glimpse of the Higgs Boson, we may theorize about dark matter and string theory, but much of what is now being put forth as scientific hypotheses may not be proven in our lifetime, or possibly even ever.

How is that different from being invited into a mystery? Not at all.

I do not know how Christ rose from the dead. It’s a mystery, a miracle attested to in Holy Scripture. But more importantly, I know why he did…to rescue us from ourselves and all the incredibly stupid things we do to damage our relationship with our creator.

That first quote from Feynman? Perhaps it would be helpful if you hear it in the context of the paragraph in which it sits: “The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my eye can catch one-million-year-old light. It does no harm to the mystery to know a little about it.”  And this from a physicist who said he was an atheist…doesn’t it sound like systematic theology to you?

We only know a little about mysteries that are placed before us. We are encouraged to explore them, wonder about them, ask questions, struggle with them.

Did you notice that when Jesus comes back for his little return visit to Thomas, Jesus doesn’t berate him or make him feel bad about the whole “unless I put my fingers into the wounds” business. He simply says, “yes, I know this is hard to understand. Come on over and do what you said you needed to do, so you can start to wrap your head around this mystery. Let me help you to believe.” Jesus is not in the business of making those who struggle with the mysteries feel bad about themselves. He simply gives them what they need to start to believe.

The resurrection is a hard thing for us to understand. Some faithful Christians struggle their whole lives with it. But every now and again, Jesus says, “it does no harm to the mystery to know a little about it” and gives us a flash of insight into it. Not the whole picture – we’re not ready – but enough so that we can say “my Lord and my God. I don’t understand the mystery yet, but I feel it a bit more now. I believe. Thank you.”


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?