Friday, March 28, 2008

Three Things Mary Magdalene Did

“Mary,” Jesus says to her. And in one word he tells her all she needs to know: Despite the worst that the emperor’s violence could do to him, the power of God at work in Jesus Christ is proving itself strong and true, God is still casting down the mighty from their thrones and raising up the lowly. And Mary is still entirely known and perfectly loved by the very same Jesus to whom she has entrusted her life, her future, and her past.

Whatever we think we know about Mary Magdalene, we think she had a past, the kind that people these days explain into microphones. If Mary previously had looked for love in the wrong places, what passed between Jesus and herself gave her the experience of being entirely known and perfectly loved. With him, she had no explaining to do. The dignity he saw in her caused her to understand herself.

In this Easter morning that we spend together, I hope that you will have some moment in which you hear Jesus call you by name. And that you will recognize in his voice the One who knows you entirely and perfectly loves you.

“What are you looking for?” he may ask, inviting you to do your part, opening yourself, naming as much as you know of your own truth so that he may name to you the fullness of his truth, show you your place at his table, cause you to feel the dignity of bearing God’s image, and call you to the mission for which you’re matched precisely by your past and your gifts, and more precisely yet by the grace he gives you.

Will he say to you what he said to Mary? “Do not hold on to me…” He may, if you’ve outgrown a Jesus who hasn’t kept growing, as you have, one that you’re clinging to because he’s familiar, though you’re not altogether sure he knows your name or has much to say. Jesus, the one who promises you the truth that shall set you free, may say, “Trade in that bobble-head model of me and clear the way for a relationship…”

And will he urge you to “Go to my brothers and sisters,” as he did Mary?

Could that mean, “Stop trying to navigate life all on your own. Find the circle of people, build the friendships, invest in the community that feeds your spirit with truth, that has vision and mission worthy of your time and passion”?

The world in which we live needs the a building-up of human brotherhood and sisterhood. Our one world, torn apart by opposing empires committed to forces of terrorist violence and to forces of counter-terrorist violence, will be in agony until the peaceable power of God is built among us. We who believe that this reconciling and respectful power is to be found in Jesus Christ have vision and mission that deserve our time and passion.

Mary Magdalene shows us how to respond. Though Jesus has gone so far away, Mary will not leave him. To embrace the whole world, Jesus has died the death of a criminal. This has shocked and distanced most his disciples, that such a death should come to such a man, but Mary will not let what she doesn’t understand separate her from him. Jesus has gone far from the circle of his friends—but she was once far from that circle, too, and his was the love that drew her in and knew her as a whole person.

As he would not lose her from that circle, so she now will not lose him. She must learn what has become of him, she must find him. Notice that she does not recognize him when he appears near her. Her Jesus is growing. The circle he is drawing now will take him into all the world, and he needs her to find her place among the apostles who will take his Word into the world, who will be his hands and feet, his voice and his compassion to make the peoples of the world one in God, free in God.

The first thing she did was to seek Jesus. Had she not done that, she’d have had no evidence that he could still call her by name. The second thing she did was to let him grow, from the teacher whose voice and touch she knew, into the light of the world whose voice and touch she would carry to the world.

This Easter Day, I hope that in our time together you will find evidence that Jesus knows your name. I hope that you will feel encouraged to keep seeking him and to recognize how he is with you. That you will catch glimpses of how your relationship with him might be growing, and leave here with a fresh, even surprising, sense of how your gifts and passions fit his mission in this one world that so needs his peaceable power.

Three Things Mary Madalene

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Abundance of Holy Week

This sermon refers to John 11:1-45

Yes, another long Lenten Gospel. This time, I’m not so sure it’s about a person low on the totem pole of social and economic influence. Not, this week, a blind beggar regaining his sight at Jesus’s hand, nor a Samaritan woman having her thirst for love slaked by the Lord of love. This time, we’re told a story that shows Jesus at work in the middle class.

When we meet them at another famous moment, Mary and Martha are running their own household and appear to have some means. In that story (you’ll recall that Martha was banging pots in the kitchen, Mary taking note of every word Jesus was saying in the front parlor), Lazarus isn’t mentioned. Perhaps by then he was dead for real, as tradition reports that after he emerged from his tomb, Lazarus proved such an influential witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ that he had to be rubbed out by one or another of several powers-that-be, threatened by too much moving and shaking.

Here’s just the right story for crossing over to Holy Week. When Jesus enters the capital city of Jerusalem next Sunday—when he pulls up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House—he won’t be arriving by limousine as Queen Elizabeth would. He’ll be seated on a donkey, while around him will be his ragtag team of disciples. As usual, they’ll looking lost and unsure about what he’s up to now.

What isn’t hard to imagine is made clear by all these long Lenten Gospels: he was known throughout Galilee and Judea for what he did, healing the sick and the blind, restoring the alienated and loveless to their place at the table of God, even turning the tables on death itself. Now Jerusalem gets to meet him, and everyone turns out because everyone has heard of this fearless healer and teacher—could he be the Messiah promised of old?

The guardians of religion and the pillars of civil government have also heard of this Jesus. To their eyes, his parade on Palm Sunday is a subversive entry into Jerusalem, a city packed with pilgrims at Passover. The high and the mighty have heard that he subverts all normal standards of decency, eating with sinners, breaking the blue laws, daring to arouse hope among the poor. Here he comes to grandstand and set the city in commotion.

Well, no. He has come to keep Passover with his disciples, his chosen family. He has come to keep Passover with us. Maundy Thursday will take us there to that upper room where he must subvert his own friends’ standards of power and authority, for right at the time he most needs their understanding and openness to the complex suffering that awaits them all, they neurotically compete for his Most Valuable Player award, arguing among themselves who is greatest. Until he shows them greatness, stripping down to his wet gear and washing their feet to reach their hearts and their imagination. Enough, at least, that it wasn’t lost on them (and on us) forever, when he took common bread and table wine and made them perfect expressions of his love for the human race.

This year, Laurie and her helpers (Adrienne, Sam, Diana) have created in our window ledges 14 imaginative Stations of the Cross, speaking to us in 2008 the story of Jesus’s way of the cross, from his condemnation to his crucifixion. My favorite one is number six, the legend that St. Veronica wiped our Lord’s face with her veil, leaving on it the imprint of his likeness. And there, in a bowl of water that seems suspended in air, the exact likeness of the window above (the one that tells its own story of The Pilgrim’s Progress) is reflected. That’s a sight that exactly expresses the story it means to communicate. That’s success. That’s sacrament. And that’s symbol.

It’s what Holy Week is so good at: sights and sounds that show well what the love of God is in Jesus Christ, what the hope is that we have through this victory of Spirit over force, what courage and passion amount to when gotten hold of by a Messiah who will weep but not kill, will empty the tomb of his friend by filling it himself.

This year, in addition to our noon to 3:00 p.m. Preaching of the Passion, a joint service with our Methodist neighbors, and a later-evening liturgy, we’ll also offer an early-evening Stations of the Cross for children. What holds true for Worship Outside the Box on Sundays will apply also to this Good Friday service: it will be brief, and it will welcome not just children but all who want fresh ways of seeing and hearing this greatest story ever told.

In our Foundations course last Monday, Jim led a discussion of stewardship. We were reminded how, with God, life is experienced as abundance. The arithmetic of grace is not about our earning the love of God, but about our receiving, undeserved, not just the fullness of biological life but also the intense movement of spiritual life and, through them both, deeper than them both, the transformation that we call eternal life.

With a religion like this, we should wonder that Holy Week is such an embarrassment of riches? That Easter begins, not with sunrise Sunday but with sundown Saturday, because Easter requires darkness for the Christ light to penetrate and illumine, showing wordlessly in perfect expression what happens when the astonishingly generous love of God meets openness in us. And then Word is heard, ancient stories (like Ezekiel’s today, but you haven’t heard the Valley of Dry Bones until, on Easter Eve, you hear those bones rattle and watch inert bodies lying in this aisle rise as the breath of God blows over them) helping us see how the love that reaches us in Jesus has been reaching for us right from the beginning of time. And Word becomes flesh, as this Easter Eve young Will is to be baptized into the Body of Christ.

Somehow, this rich legacy of Holy Week isn’t yet, after 2000 years, as familiar or as popular as the bling of Easter Day, when every seat will be taken. In the early centuries of our religion, there was no Easter Day without Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve. It was all one seamless veil bearing the imprint of his likeness. Why not see if you can experience Holy Week that way, this year? Why not know for sure why you’ll be in church on Easter Day—and not at home watching one empire or another rise or fall?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Seeing the Light

Readings for 4 Lent mentioned in this sermon:
Ephesians 5: 8-14
John 9:1-41

I am using in this sermon a concept of the “social program” of Jesus that I met in John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan L. Reed’s book In Search of Paul, and am also indebted to Martin Smith, whose book A Season for the Spirit feeds me, each Lent.

A man blind from birth. Think of that: he has had to depend on his other senses, to navigate life. Until we have to do without the full sight of an eye for a while, how can we imagine the extent to which we depend on sight as we move through each day, and especially as we move through the night.

This man has learned to feel his way, to reach out with hands and feet to tell him where he is. He has learned to listen far more acutely than most of his neighbors. His sense of smell has shown him many times what’s happening around him.

Likely, he has depended on a stout walking stick to reclaim balance when he loses it, to use as a sensor ahead of him, tapping his way. I imagine him counting on those who treated him humanely to take him by the hand and lead him through those moments and places that had changed—a military barricade blocking a familiar crossing, the marketplace reconfigured for a festival.

Dependence is a key word in describing his life. He is a beggar. We aren’t told that until a quarter of the way into his story. But that’s because everyone hearing his story in early times would know that a blind man begs.

Notice about this story what you may have noticed about last Sunday’s equally lengthy Gospel: that so much airtime is given to a story, to the full and even prolonged story of one person’s recovery, the recovery (in both cases) of a person right at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, a Samaritan woman married five times going on six, and a beggar who is blind. A whole bloody chapter! I can recall just one Gospel story that is longer than either of these, and that’s the one we will read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the story of Christ’s Passion.

So can it be that these long stories also testify to the Passion of Christ? Did our ancestors in the first and second centuries keep these stories because in them they saw clear-shining that light of the world, Jesus, and heard without doubt the heartbeat of his mission, the mission that brought him right into the noose knotted for him by men who could not stand his rocking the boat of church and state?

Jesus’s primary objective was not to resist imperial Rome and upend a rigid and self-preoccupied church. Those rockings of the boat were the collateral damage (though we have learned to call them collateral blessings) of his primary purpose: to take the dream of global justice and put flesh upon its bones at the local, ordinary, everyday level, and not just there and then, but here and now, by penetrating our eyeballs with the sights, and piercing our eardrums with the sounds, of recovery, healing, and to make clear that his love alive in us will make us unafraid to love just as boldly as he loves, across all borders of class and race, sex and creed, wellness and illness, freedom and bondage.

We get part of the picture when we see Good Friday caused by the words Jesus spoke in public squares. The other part, and I believe the bigger part, is his public embrace of the poor. That this appealing and persuasive preacher chose to spend his mealtimes with the rough refuse of the social order—isn’t that what the wealthy and privileged often think of the service sector, especially the night shift, and certainly the prostitutes—this they found subversive, not just that he enjoyed eating with them, but that he would use those mealtimes to teach the same radical equality among people that he would then show while on the road.

Neither the politicians nor the priests knew how to value this social program of Jesus. From the plight of the poor in America 2008, neither does our society know how to value his purpose. From the preoccupations of the Church, we could judge, neither do we Christians.

Sight is restored to a man born blind. I remember Oliver Sacks telling the story of a rare success in surgery, repairing the eyes of a man who had been born blind. At first, this man just drank up life, bowled-over by finally seeing all that he had seen only by his ability to imagine. Then, weeks or months later, he was so overwhelmed that even with his ability to see restored, he stopped seeing. Was it that what he actually saw failed to correspond to the reality he had built within his mind? Or that his dependence on his other senses was so thrown out of balance that he couldn’t cope with the overload? Or that his imagination couldn’t recognize a future? While I don’t recall the full story, I believe his whole health unraveled, at the end—not a Hollywood ending. One that suggests that we might want to take this story one level deeper than its surface.

Isn’t there a being-born-blind that happens to many of us in the western nations, who have no sense of our relative wealth in a world burdened with poverty, until we cross the borders of our insulated lives and come up against the mud and saliva of another world, and receive new sight, insight, as a gift of the Christ who is at-home on that side of the border as he is on this?

Isn’t there a being-born-blind that makes us see the faults and weaknesses of others more critically than we assess our own? And isn’t there a critical not-seeing the relentless lovingkindness of God who wants to forgive offences and build mercy in each of us? We slip into projecting onto others those faults and failings we can’t face in ourselves. We humans perfect the art of spitting at those we scorn. We need our spit to fall into God’s dust. We need humility to kneel, to go down into the earth, stir the mud of our conflicts into a poultice that we apply to our own eyes, to see through our own issues, through to what matters.

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”

These long Lenten Gospels urge us to seek light. More than our wintering instincts, making us long for spring and nudging us to move our clocks ahead an hour next weekend…

The light we seek will be kindled at sundown, Easter Eve.

Its flame will light the great Paschal candle that will lead us into this darkened church in procession to its resting place at the altar, as three times along the way we stop to hear sung, “The Light of Christ!” And respond, “Thanks be to God!”

Then, one by one, our little lights are lit from that great light, wordlessly re-enacting what happens when God’s astonishing love for us in Jesus Christ meets our readiness to be open.