Thursday, April 24, 2014

Frequent Flyers and Occasional Flyers

Scripture for Easter Day includes Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

Sitting in this room at this moment are people who assemble here pretty much every Sunday. If our pews were lined with memory foam, the pews themselves would have the imprint of these folks. (Oh, my… I hope I haven’t unwittingly inspired the vestry to explore church growth through better upholstery...)

We who come here often do so to have the moving parts of our lives reassembled, parts that seize-up and rub against the grain of best intentions and deepest hopes, and need freeing. I think all of us in this category see ourselves as seekers who come here as one way, one important way but not the only way, to allow God to do that healing, that correcting course, that restoring of perspective, that forgiving, that we acknowledge we need and want.

There’s another chief reason people become frequent flyers in a place like this, and that is that we make it a chief priority to retune our gratitude for life, ordinary life and all that is gracious and wondrous about it, and extraordinary life in which we see God’s hand and God’s likeness in remarkable experiences of the human spirit, new awareness of the whole shimmering mantle of interdependence on this planet, and fresh instances of ethical courage. We sing the scales of appreciation and gratefulness, Sunday by Sunday, such basic training for daily practice, moment by moment practice, that the heart of our communion liturgy is called The Great Thanksgiving.

And sitting here this morning are visitors and guests and perhaps a few who required a bit of persuasion to attend. This second category of who we are together today includes frequent flyers from other churches in other places, and you’re here perhaps because you’re visiting local family and friends. And some are occasional flyers, occasions like Christmas and Easter and the match-hatch-and-despatch occasions of weddings, baptisms, and funerals… and whenever the spirit moves.

If it weren’t for all of you, we regulars would be mightily disoriented today. We would be looking around us wondering, “Where ARE they? All those people who remind us that this place is not ours but God’s? All the Easter peeps who represent a wonderful challenge to our complacency and remind us of our mission to all people, not just some.

So it’s to you, our visitors and guests, especially you who aren’t necessarily conscious of being spiritual seekers; and even more especially you who are quite certain you’re not in any rush to take on yourself the responsibilities and contradictions, the trappings and potpourri of pew mates of organized religion)-- to you I dedicate this sermon.

I invite you to notice that in our first reading, from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter sets the bar for inclusion in the Kingdom of God at a pretty accessible level: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

No partiality. Radical equality. Frequent flyers in this room, the church’s regulars, are on equal footing with the Christmas and Easter folks, in God’s eyes. But more radical yet, neither gender nor class nor race nor religion works against you in the new creation God set in motion, that first Easter Day . The wealthiest in the 1% and the poorest in the 99% have adjacent seats at the heavenly banquet (assuming that the 1%ers are able to fit through the door, through the famous eye of the needle, heaven’s own homeland security).

One of the two basic requirements set by St. Peter is, “Anyone who does what is right is acceptable to God.” I for one believe it does fuller justice to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to say that anyone who does what is right is approved by God, even treasured by God.

But here’s the thing: What is right? Who gets to determine that? On the one hand (we might call it the upper hand) God does. And by the time the great vision and wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, their passion for justice and mercy, had passed into the obedience of Jesus Christ, God’s definition of what is right is compressed like a diamond in the brief and brilliant summary: You shall love the LORD your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole strength; and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And on the other hand, translating that into right action towards our neighbors is what we might call the lower hand that reaches out to open or close doors, embrace or distance, keep or share, brandish a sword or wield a pen, an olive branch, a green card. .

And on the third hand—oh my, someone lend me a hand!—ah, that’s what the community of faith does: Because what is right must fit not just God’s upper hand to guide and my lower hand to accomplish, but also a healthy love of self; because of the necessity of this foundation of faithful self-care, the community of faith engages people in augmenting their own self-care with spiritual practice, ministries of outreach, fearless exploration, and personal opportunity to recover from exhaustion and abuse within a sheltering-but-challenging environment of support and safety, prayer and sacrament, faith and hope and love. And because we know doing what is right is costly, we make it our aim to engage people in renewal and repair, rather than rules and obligations.

Even before “doing what is right,” St. Peter names “fearing God” as the attitude essential to this new creation into which Easter invites us. If any word in the Bible could use an extreme makeover, isn’t it fear (at least fear of God)? Ancient religions were built on fear. The Old Testament brims over with fearsome encounters with God, though our best take-aways from the Hebrew scriptures are their insistent assurancs of God’s lovingkindness and covenant loyalty. Building on that foundation, the New Testament keeps sending angels into the script—both at Christmas and at Easter, and all along the way—urging all the players to fear not!

So today in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, the two Marys leave the empty tomb “quickly with fear and great joy” and run to tell the other disciples the astonishing things they have seen and heard.

Easter is about joy commingling with fear to create reverence, the attitude of awe and gratitude for the gift of all that is sweet and spectacular in ordinary life and all the grace of extraordinary life that is beyond our earning, better than our designing.

Fear is always in the mix of how we experience mystery, always part of how we handle uncertainty and the not-yet-known. The faith we build and practice must be brave and broad enough to welcome fear to come in out of the cold, in under our own roof—God’s own roof-- where we can examine and reassemble the moving parts of our lives, find the freeing we need, and the guiding and the forgiving and the encouraging.

For the new creation opened on Easter Day takes the reverence that joy makes of fear and calls us to use it, to offer it in renewed commitment to do what is right: for God, for neighbor, and for self.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Raising Lazarus

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Monday, I noticed a little clump of snowdrops blooming, at the base of the maple in our front yard.

Tuesday, I saw several white fists hugging the earth at the center of the Christmas rose in our front garden. By Wednesday, these buds were opening, persuaded apparently that the sun was to be trusted. I guess hellebores don’t mind the calendar too precisely (but, to give it all the credit it’s due, Diana reminds me that it did bloom at Christmas).

Meanwhile, out back, the Lenten rose hellebore has set its pink buds, but they’re so tight that they a week or so to catch up with the season. I know that feeling.

Wednesday, the first crocuses bloomed in that south-facing garden, just a handful.

Thursday, the purple, gold, and white had spread, and those crocuses were feeding the first phalanx of bees. Now, that was the crowning proof that winter has released its grip. What a surprise, and what a pleasure, to see those bees.

A lot can happen in four days. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, his old friend Lazarus had lain in his tomb that long. St. John’s purpose in that detail-- four days-- seems to convey the conventional expectation that a body would be in rapid decay by then. Such is the arithmetic when the mind is set on the flesh.

I would much prefer to set my mind on the front garden, to see what four days can accomplish. There’s grassroots training in the mathematics of resurrection, encouraging us to rehearse for Holy Week, when three or four great days will persuade us that death has released its grip on life.

It’s right in keeping with Jesus Christ that right from the start of this great Lazarus story
St. John tells, Jesus seems persuaded that death will not get the final say. Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, had sent messengers to Jesus, urging his quick return to do something about this pending loss that would leave them bereft—and would grieve Jesus too, for everyone knew that these two men were close friends.

But Jesus does not react. He stays two days longer where he and the disciples have been on a mission that exposed them to an angry crowd ready to stone Jesus for blasphemy. Most of us would have jumped to the opportunity to escape such danger—who would blame him for backing down, when a good friend is at the point of death?

But it’s in keeping with Jesus that he’s persuaded that death will not have the final say over him. He stays until his work is done. Then, as he sets out for Bethany where the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary had been his frequent sanctuary of shelter and renewal and rest, he announces, “Lazarus is dead; let us go to him,” as if those two clauses weren’t at all as contradictory as they sound to us.

From John the Gospel writer, John our patron saint, here is another long story in our Lenten cavalcade of long Gospels in which Jesus goes one-on-one, with increasingly wondrous results.

First was the Samaritan woman he met at the well, overturning ancient cultural prohibitions that were meant to keep men and women separate, unequal, alienated. But his mission is to work the works of God, and with her he manifested a reconciling love that made her an apostle to the people of Samaria.

Last Sunday, Jesus encountered the man born blind. With him, our Lord’s mission is to work the works of God by both restoring his sight and by dismantling a nasty theology that blamed the sinner for his own suffering, and blamed God for running a universe based on getting even.

Today, the next step in the ladder rising toward his own passion, his own death and resurrection, we hear this rehearsal for Easter, Jesus betting the store on his trust that death will not have the final say.

There is much to appreciate in this gritty story. Martha, known for her embrace of the active life, for her conviction that acts of generous care can keep death at bay at least a while, it’s Martha who runs to meet Jesus on the road and scolds him for being too late to prevent her brother’s death—but if he will hurry and bombard heaven with his prayer, who knows what will happen?

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus declare to her. “I think I know what you mean,” replies Martha, “At the last, when all is said and done, and God makes right all ancient wrong, and the just rise to their reward, Lazarus will be among them. But what about now?”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Though she says she does, am I imagining it, or is she muttering to herself, “For heaven sake, there he goes again, rhapsodizing the way I hear Mary do when she speaks of him…” So Martha runs back to the house to pull Mary away from her praying, and says to her, “the Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Which is to say, “Get it through to him, will you, that we need some action here! Use your contemplative language to say what my activist soul does not know how to say.”

When Mary does, she uses her sister’s exact language (“Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened…”) though I hear her words as gentler, and her words dissolve into her tears, the deeper vocabulary of the contemplative way.

Her tears disturb Jesus. He could have said to Mary, “Mary, hear your own words: if I had come sooner, this grace wouldn’t have happened either, this astonishing confrontation between life and death that we’re about to have…” Instead, he goes with her beyond language into spirit, and joins her in weeping.

And he becomes even more disturbed, says John. Jesus goes to the tomb. “It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’”

Martha, the activist, protests this ultimate action. Fear grips even her.

Is it even clutching his vocal cords as he dares to speak the Word of life? “Lazarus, come out!” He bets the whole store, the very kingdom itself, as he who is the Word of God evokes, from the other side of death, the response of faith. By the terms of this story, the dead are not beyond the gracious reach of God.

It is said that the raising of Lazarus accelerated the growing campaign to do away with Jesus. The reported return to life of a dead man embarrassed the authorities, threatened the authorities. Lazarus had long been in their crosshairs, too: the kind of radical justice that Jesus stood for, Lazarus had stood for. And now here he was, standing again—explain that however you will—they just couldn’t shake free from this fellow.

In the next chapter of John’s Gospel, it is a few days later. Jesus the itinerant preacher goes away for a few days, then returns to Bethany, where the sisters Martha and Mary prepare a dinner for Jesus. Lazarus is at the table, among the disciples. It is then that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume, which hindsight would show to be in preparation for his death. It is then that Judas Iscariot turns on them all, complaining that the perfume should have been sold to feed the poor (as if he cared about the poor… he kept the money box and used to steal what was in it, so we’re told).

And it is then that we are told that great crowds of people come, not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. And it is on account of Lazarus that many people are believing in Jesus.

And it is then, the next day, that Jesus and his disciples come to Jerusalem, and those crowds take branches of palm trees and go to meet him, shouting Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!

The voice of Wendell Berry’s musing farmer could be the voice of Lazarus:

“However long I’ve stayed away,
coming home is resurrection. The man
who has been gone comes back to his place
as he would come naked and cold
into his own clothes… The dead,
too, denying their graves, haunt
the places they were known in and knew…
To the place we parted from in sorrow
we return in joy; the beautiful shore,
eternal morning, unclouded day.”

Wendell Berry
Leavings 2008, No. 10, in his collection Leavings (Counterpoint, 2010)