Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Any Other Day: Easter, 2017

John 20:1-18
Easter, 2017
So, yeah, it’s Easter again. Is it time, or past time now, for annual baseball-related jokes about “opening day”? Is it time, or past time now, for the traditional hymns and greetings of this day? Is it time, or past time now, for one more Easter homily?
Followers of Jesus have been marking this hallowed memory for close to 2,000 years. Preachers have been preaching about it for almost that long, too. I’m a total newcomer, in those terms, yet this is the 14th Easter in a row that I’ve stood before the gathered faithful who come, today, to this and tens of thousands of other churches seeking … well, seeking something.
Is it time, or past time now to confess that we don’t really know why we are here.
I suspect, in truth, that we have at least that much in common with those who went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.
Why, after all, go to the tomb? Why did they go? Why do any of us go to tombs, to cemeteries, to graveyards?
I posed that question to the Facebook hive last week, on a whim, and received several dozen responses, including:
To pay respects. To remember. To tell stories.
To take rubbings of headstones. To learn history.
To read poems written by long-dead authors.
I was reminded by a childhood friend that we used to visit the nearby cemetery to sled down its hillsides. I’m sure that we must have been respectful. Other friends noted going to cemeteries to run, or to have a picnic, or to teach kids to ride bikes. After all, it’s quiet most of the time, and the traffic is light.
As an adult, I’ve visited historic tombs to be inspired by the life memorialized.
One of my friends mentioned going with her daughter to the grave of Emmett Till to pay homage and tell him we are trying to do better.
I suppose there are all kinds of reasons to go to the tomb; just as there are all kinds of reasons for walking into a sanctuary on this, or any other day.
We come here to remember, to share stories, to learn history, to read poems written by long-dead authors – we call them the psalms and we read one of them most every Sunday morning. We also come to play and laugh with friends. We come to break bread together. Sometimes we come to be inspired and tell one another that we are trying to do better.
Mary probably came to the tomb early on that first day of the week to lament, to pray, to remember, to be alone with her grief. So soon after the horrifying loss of Jesus, many of the other reasons people go to tombs probably didn’t apply. Yet. But one imagines that her heart – and the hearts of Jesus’ friends and family – were already preparing for the kind of grieving, remembering, story-telling, and eventual moving on with lives of joy and sorrow, tears and laughter, that are the mark of any other day.
There’s simply no way in the world that Mary went to the tomb that morning expecting that the stream of “any other days” into which she was already stepping had, in fact, already been replaced by something new.
God has reached decisively into the ordinary flow of time and history and disrupted it, changed its course, carved a new one.
God does that. In fact, it seems to be what God is most fond of. Reaching into the stream of history and interrupting it – sending the waves crashing down a new course, carving out a new stream, and thoroughly disrupting what those of us comfortably swimming in the old stream thought we knew.
Most of the time history unfolds according to recognizable rules of power – those with the power make the rules. They also enforce the rules, and they punish those who break the rules and, sometimes, even those who merely question the rules.
Jesus found himself at cross purposes with those who wielded power, and then he found himself powerless on a cross.
In Caesar’s empire that is supposed to be the end of the story. In Caesar’s empire that is supposed to be the way things are and they way they will remain. In Caesar’s empire this is just any other day. In Caesar’s empire death rules and the cross is the empire’s final word.
Until God says, “no, to all that.” Until God reaches into history and changes the very flow of time. Until God says, “yes” to something new.
Our most fervent prayer today should be for God to reach into history in our moment and shift the flow of time once again. For the flow of any other days has become the flow of the River Styx pulling us all toward despair with no sign of hope, toward terror with no sign of love, toward death with no promise of resurrection.
Tens of thousands of churches are full today, but our collective voice offers a timid and tepid “alleluia” against the devastatingly loud death machine of the culture of empire. Do I paint too dark a picture? I really don’t think so. After all, American leaders decided Maundy Thursday was any other day, and a fine day to drop the largest non-nuclear weapon ever deployed in battle. They did so with no apparent regard for or attention to the voice of the community remembering the love commandment from which that holy day draws its name.
Who knows what atrocities this day will bring? All I do know is that no matter how many people show up to worship the risen Christ in churches around the world today, the death machine will roll along like any other day.
Are we squirming yet?
“Hey, wait just a minute, there, David. I may not know exactly what I’m looking for today, but this sure isn’t it!” I trust you’re thinking something along those lines at this point … that’s sure where I was as I wrote this on Good Friday.
And, to be honest, it is my level-best guess at what Mary was feeling as she went to the tomb. Jesus was not the only one executed on that Friday, and Rome would go right on executing others – rebels, criminals, those unlucky enough to get on the wrong side of power. It was, after all, just another day.
And then she went to the tomb. And then she experienced something completely unexpected and utterly unexplainable.
And you know what? It changed nothing … and it changed everything. Whatever the historical reality of the event of resurrection, the experience of the Christ of faith was a tiny, local, deeply personal one. Rome didn’t fall because of it. Corrupt religious practices didn’t reform overnight. Soldiers didn’t drop swords, join hands, and sing “we are the world.” Kendal Jenner didn’t pull out a Pepsi and stop state violence.
 Nothing changed. Nevertheless, nothing was the same.
For, you see, when you go some place expecting to witness only death but, instead, encounter new life the universe shifts. Mary understood that, although I doubt she was any better able to articulate the shift than any of us.
She knew what she expected – death, grief, memory. She knew what she experienced instead – life, hope, joy.
She did not go to the tomb seeking to be part of the founding of an institution whose success would be measured by volume. To paraphrase my friend, Rick Ufford-Chase, “[Volume] is not the goal of the gospel. Faithfulness is a goal of the gospel. Spreading the Good News to the places where people long for meaning is a clear goal of the gospel. Resisting Empire values of domination and power is an indisputable goal of the gospel. Growth for growth’s sake [– volume –] is not a goal of the gospel.”[1]
What Mary knew, beyond question if not beyond doubt, was that she had to share what she had seen and heard and witnessed, that she needed to take good news to places where people longed to hear it amidst all the voices of despair.
“They say he is dead, but I have seen him. He is alive!”
If that fundamental assumption can shift, then everything can change.
They say he is dead, but I have experienced his presence. He is alive!
They say that death has the last word, but I do not believe it.
They say that our community is broken apart, splintered and shrinking, that we are finished, but I believe we have just begun.
They say that I should just shut up because I am a woman, but I have a voice and a story to tell.
They say that the empire of violence and domination will last forever, but I believe love will have the final word.
They say that we should be afraid of strangers, and outsiders, and foreigners, but I know that we, ourselves, all were strangers once until God welcomed us all as friends.
They say slaves should accept their condition, but I say all of us are created equal and endowed with certain rights including the right to be free.
They say that the only important lives are the lives of the important, the powerful, the rich; but I say that queer lives matter, that black lives matter, that immigrant lives matter, that the sick and the silenced matter, that the very old and the very young matter, that the poor matter, and that all of these lives that don’t seem to count for much most any other day in these parts count for everything in the kindom of God on this day and every day.
They say it’s just any other day. But I say, it is Easter. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! And if our voice today is not as loud as the cultural cacophony that surrounds us on any other day, may our voice, nevertheless, sing out a richer, deeper, and more profound “hallelujah!” Amen.

[1] Faithful Resistance, 191.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Hope on a Breeze

Ezekiel 37:1-14

April 2, 2017
When I was in seminary, about 20 years ago, the school honored its homiletics professor with some faculty award that included delivering a speech. Isn’t that just like the entire educational enterprise? Give someone an award for their work, and then make them work more to claim it!
In any case, the professor gave a talk entitled “Preaching Is a Spiritual Practice.” I’ve tried to hold on to that claim, remember it, and live into it now for two decades. Part of that conviction and practice entails the effort to be open always to the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing where it will.
Like Ezekiel, I have looked out across the valley of dry bones and thought, “there is no life in these bones, and there never will be.” And, like Ezekiel, I’ve heard God say, “I’m not done with those bones yet.”
Like my homiletics professor years ago, I deeply believe that preaching is a spiritual practice. I try to be faithful to approaching it that way – that is to say, I try in wrestling with the text of scripture, in listening to the text of the present time in the news and in the life of this community, in pondering the text of a sermon, and in departing from that text in the context of worship – I try in all of that to be open to the movement of the Spirit of God.
And yet, I still often look at a situation and see dry bones even though I seem to hear God still saying, “I’m not done yet.”
At such moments, however, I am reminded that I do not do this by myself. I trust it’s clear that I deeply believe that God is part of it, but what I really mean is that I remember that your role in preaching is every bit as important as mine. We are in this together.
If you don’t bring your own openness to the wind of the Spirit moving in our midst, well then I really might as well be speaking to a collection of dry bones. Preaching is a spiritual activity; it is not a magic show. It is also never a one-person show.
We’re live-streaming this part of worship these days, and there are usually a few folks who catch us on Facebook. If this were magic, then I could say, “touch your hands to the screen and receive a blessing,” or, better, since we do this via Facebook, just “like this sermon and … blah, blah, blah.”
But this is not about magic; it’s about something a lot deeper than that. It’s about trust.
It’s about trust in the God who looks at death and says “I prefer life.”
Now I know that we are in the middle of Lent, that season that begins with the stark reminder of the truth of our mortal condition: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But as the lectionary texts of this – and, indeed, of every season – continually remind us, God loves life.
In the beginning of the whole story, God looks at the darkness and says, “let there be light.” You don’t have to read far into the text before we find God looking upon the barren woman – Sarah – and saying “let there be life.” In the texts today, God looks upon death and says, yet again, “let there be life.”
The gospel reading today – which we didn’t read because, frankly, it’s just way too long for reading in worship – is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Martha, from the dead. There’s a whole lot going on in the 40-some verses in which the author of John tells the story, but two verses struck me in particular this week as I read the familiar tale.
First, that verse most famous for being so short: “Jesus wept.” He wept when he saw his dear friend weeping. In other words, Jesus was compassionate – he suffered with his friend such that when she wept he wept. And, second, just a bit further on, this verse: “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”
The Greek word translated there (and also a few verses prior) as “greatly disturbed” is ἐμβριμώμενος (embrimōmenos). ”Greatly disturbed” is not a bad translation, but it misses the sense of anger and indignation in the original. One might say, “Jesus came to the tomb and boy was he ticked off.”
Jesus looks upon death and it makes him angry. On first reading, that might seem like the most human response imaginable. But upon a bit of reflection, I find it more God-like than human. There are times, of course, when we respond to death with anger – violent deaths and careless ones tend to make me mad, and I know many folks who get angry in response to premature deaths from cruel diseases – but more often death leaves us just plain sad.
It leaves us sad because there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps in his anger Jesus is touching the divine within himself because God clearly loves life and, it seems just as clear, hates death. Moreover, God is everywhere about the divine work of bringing life forth from death. Resurrection is the pattern of God’s creation; a fact that is plain to see this time of year as new life springs forth from cold, and seemingly lifeless dirt.
That pattern is literally life-giving, but it does not deny the reality of death. Again, this is where Christian faith and life differ from magic. If our faith were magic the cross would not be our central symbol.
After all, we worship Christ crucified, and our oldest confession of faith states that we believe in Jesus Christ … who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
That confession goes on to say that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life-everlasting,” but it’s pretty light on the details.
I wish it were not so. That is to say, I wish I knew what lies on the other side of death. I wish I could stand up here – especially when “up here” is at a funeral – and declare such knowledge. I wish I could stand up here and say that when I’ve heard God call me to prophesy to the dry bones it was literal truth, and that I could read the Lazarus story as literal truth – as history reported rather than as faith proclaimed.
But if I could do that, then preaching would not be a spiritual practice, for it would not be a practice that invites me and you to trust something beyond what we can know.
Christian spiritual practices invite us to open ourselves to that which is beyond what we can touch and see. Such practices always engage what we can perceive through our senses: we can speak together and hear one another; we can walk the labyrinth and feel the ground beneath our feet; we can draw out prayers and see the colors; we can light a candle and smell the rising smoke; we can come to the table and taste the bread and cup.
But what we see and hear and taste and touch points beyond the sensual to the spirit, to the wind that blows where it will, to the God who loves life and invites us to life it fully and richly accepting that it follows a path from dust to dust, but the path we make as we walk that dust can be even more remarkable than a valley of dancing and singing where once there was but the rattle of dry bones.
The invitation today is the same one God spoke to Ezekiel: preach to the dry bones and call forth life! That is the world of the Lord to the church, and that word invites us to think deeply about life and about death.
The first step on a resurrection journey is often one that requires us to let go of that which needs to die and name that which needs to be born anew. You may have noticed that the space is full of crosses this morning, and in a time of quiet over the next few minutes I invite you to think about that which needs to die in order for something new to be born in your own life. What do you need to let go of or set aside or put down? As you think of these, I invite you to write them on one of the small crosses spread around the room.
What do you want to take up or take on? Perhaps that question might also be “who” – whose concerns do you wish to take up or take on? Put more simply, who or what are your praying for? What are you praying to become? As you ponder those questions, I invite you to take one of the brightly colored markers and color in a space on the big cross that is lying on the floor in the center of our gathering this morning.
Let us prayerfully enter a time of quiet.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Little Things

1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41; Psalm 23
March 26, 2017
So often it really does come down to the small details, the little things that mean a lot. I am notoriously lousy at the little things. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me … and, while you’re at it, lift up a prayer for Beth and every other administrator who has ever worked with me! Oh, and, surely another one for Cheryl.
But seriously, you’ve heard about folks who cannot see the forest for the trees? My challenge in life is the opposite: I can see well beyond the forest, but I’m quite likely to smack my head up against a tree that I never even noticed.
Still, even as I am rubbing the sore spot on my forehead, I recognize the importance of the trees and of all of the smaller things that make up the system that supports the tree that stands in the forest that stands in mountain range that stands at the edge of the ocean.
The story of David, from beginning to end, turns on the small things. It starts when God nudges Samuel to notice David’s eyes – the little things lead to David’s anointing. It continues when David picks up five smooth stones, and there is a straight line between the small stone and the fall of the Philistine empire. David’s own fall from grace begins with a small thing: a glance out the window where his eye catches sight of Bathsheba.
The entire story turns on the little things. That’s not unusual. Most of our lives turn on little things – a glance, a moment, a choice, a distraction. The small things add up to huge ones. Every crashing wave is made up of tiny drops of water. The cancer that devastates a body begins with one cell mutation. The life you lead began with a single heart beat.
The smallest unit of a community is one individual. The smallest unit of a nation is a single citizen. The little things matter.
With David’s five small, smooth stones in mind, I’m going to mention five little things this morning. They don’t have any great theological heft to them in and of themselves, but I think they matter. I’m guessing that one or more of these will make you squirm just a bit as you think of your own choices around them. I’m OK with your squirming, because each of these small things is, in fact, something that I either continue to wrestle with in my own life or have come to some resolution only following some lengthy squirming.
The first one is simple – as simple as it is hard: hang up and drive. No, seriously, do that. No call – and certainly no text – is as important as the life of the pedestrian crossing the street in front of you or the guy riding the scooter through the intersection whose red light you missed because you were distracted.
Obviously, there were neither cell phones nor scooters in scripture, but there is great emphasis on paying attention, as the story of David’s anointing reminds us. God doesn’t exactly tell Samuel to hang up and drive, but God all but says “shut up and listen.”
And, yeah, this one is personal. But it’s way more than that: almost a third of all traffic crashes involve at least one driver using a cell phone. The research on this is abundantly clear: it’s not the hands holding a device, it’s the brain distracted by the conversation that matters. The last two years have seen the biggest spike in traffic fatalities in the United States in more than a half century. Traffic experts are clear about the cause: it’s drivers on devices.
If you receive calls that are so important that you can’t let it go to voicemail, then you need a driver. Seriously. If the boss complains when you say, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t answer immediately because I was driving,” give ‘em my number. I’ll refer them to my sister.
The next one is also simple – and, of course, a challenge. What’s for dinner? Or lunch? Or breakfast? Yes, our food choices matter. They matter to our bodies, of course, but they also matter to the wider world, indeed, to the planet, itself.
Food matters throughout scripture, and one imagines that it played a significant roll in the celebration of David’s anointing. Though their concerns were different from ours, scripture frequently focuses on food choices, food preparation, and food justice.
The one personal change that any of us can make that will have the largest impact on climate change is to cut back or cut out consumption of beef. Moreover, how we think about our food not only says something important about how we think about larger systems, the decisions we make about food shape those systems. For example – one small example – take the egg, and, please take the one that came from a cage-free chicken. Choosing to buy cage free chicken eggs is not so much about the life experience of a chicken – although who’s to say that the stardust that became me is more important in the grand scheme of things than is the stardust that became the chicken. No, the choice is about the agricultural system that so profoundly separates us urban and suburban consumers from our rural neighbors that we have completely forgotten that we are, in fact, bound together.
So, yes, what I’m saying is that the entire phenomenon of Donald Trump can be explained by looking carefully at the life of chickens. I’m not going to do that this morning, but if the whole point is to remember that little things mean a lot, then we begin to see how social change results from the accumulation of countless small choices.
Our “yes” to some things and “no” to others matters. Which brings me to the third small thing: RSVP. Or, better, the lack thereof. What I mean to ask is, whatever became of the RSVP? I am far from alone in noticing – and mourning – its loss in the culture.
As one blogger noted a while back:
Prepare thine hair shirt as penance: Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of the most correctly etiquetted person in the history of the world has decreed that "We are worse at RSVP-ing than we have ever been," and this critical mass of incompetence is ruining everything.[1]
I don’t know if it ruins everything, but it sure does make it hard to plan for food! From my own internal struggles with this, I’m convinced that our failure to respond and make commitments to invitations is symptomatic of a culture that is so awash in choices that we’ve become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. We so fear committing to one thing because something better might come along that we wind up stuck.
The story of the anointing of David would have been short and pointless if the elders of Bethlehem had ignored Samuel’s invitation to conversation because they hoped a better invite might be coming. Also, as I said, it makes it hard to plan for food.
Our inability or unwillingness to say “yes” or “no” bleeds into a fourth small thing: lack of civic engagement. We, the citizens in the great democratic experiment of the United States, have too often become passive consumers rather than active participants in the civic arena. Progressives and other Democrats can complain about last fall’s election outcome until the cows come home, but the truth is, when more than 40 percent of eligible voters don’t bother to cast ballots the problem lies not so much with an archaic electoral system as it does with a systemic failure to engage.
This is a huge issue, so it might seem out of place in a list of little things, but really, on an individual level, it is a small thing: as small as a post card or a text or a call to a public official.
Samuel could have ignored God and anointed the first of Jesse’s sons. After all, he was a strapping, good-looking, strong lad who looked the part of king. Samuel could have said, “I vote for you,” and then just gone home to tend to his own garden and complain about the new king.
Voting, of course, is the lowest level of engagement. Sitting on the sidelines complaining about the officials is for fans at a ballgame. If you are bothered by policy decisions of local, state, or federal officials, then get out of the stands and into the game.
The opportunities are endless, which, no doubt, is part of the challenge. When there are so many issues, how do I decide where to put my energy?
Well, what do you feel most passionate about? What cause or issue grieves you the most? Angers you the most? Or most makes your heart sing when things go well? Give your energy there. It’s a big country. There are plenty of other voices for other concerns, but the country desperately needs every one of our passionate voices.
The fifth small stone may seem like the least significant in a list of little things, but it might just be the stone that brings down the giant. Create beauty and choose joy. That’s it. That’s the small thing: celebrate the small things.
In Leonard Wolf’s memoir of the war years he writes,
One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”
We cannot choose the time we are given, but we can choose what to do with it. God said to Samuel, “How long are you going to sit there grieving the old king? Get up and get going!”
We do not get to choose so many of the things that happen around us or to us, but we always get to choose how to respond. If the times are ugly, create small beauty and celebrate it. It’s a little thing, but little things mean a lot.
These are five small stones that I carry around, that I wrestle with, that sometimes weigh upon me but that, at other times, remind me and inspire me. Each of them, ultimately, is about making a choice: to what will I pay attention? What will I consume? To what will I commit? How shall I engage the wider world? What attitude will I bring to the decisions, the commitments, the engagements, the beauty I choose?
This morning, I invite you, in a time of prayerful quiet, to think about the small stones you carry. Which ones are like a pebble in your shoe, that irritate you, that hobble you, that you need to get rid of? Which ones are like a reminder that you carry in your pocket, a touchstone that, when you feel its presence, inspires you to act? What are the little things that mean a lot in your life?