Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Torture, Baptism and Two Different Gods

Sarah, thank you for your recent connection of the torture technique known as waterboarding to Baptism.  My initial thought was to wonder why we had to have torture connected to Baptism to get outraged and call it blasphemy.  Shouldn’t torture outrage us all by itself?  Isn’t torture all by itself blasphemous? But in the end it was your certainty, the rousing crowd approval of your remarks and then your “doubling down” the other day on your remarks that really prompted me to think about what you said at a deeper level.  That has led me to a new understanding and I’m always thankful for new understandings. 

What really struck me was that you did not view your remarks as a mistake.  They seemed unapologetically consistent with your theology, what you believed to be God’s character and God’s way of interacting with creation.  I won’t pretend to know with certainty the exact details of your theology but I’ll take an informed guess.  My guess is that you believe that in the past God felt enraged, angered and disrespected by the mostly moral failings of humanity.  God became so enraged that He (I’m guessing your God is exclusively male) demanded satisfaction for this sin which God took as a personal affront and since the price required to make up for this affront was higher than any normal human could afford to pay, God sent his son to pay the price for humanity with his violent torture and horrific death as the only adequate substitution possible. 

If my guess is correct, and the character of your God is one that is angry, demands to be paid back for being disrespected and is willing to send His own child to be violently tortured and horrifically killed to satisfy His own enormous level of outrage, then it makes sense that torture and violence would be embraced by God’s followers on people they see as offending them.  Your God’s holy violence models a holy violence used by your God’s followers. 

The Jesus I know, however, has a character which is non-violent, radically inclusive, infinitely loving, compassionate and which never coerces belief or insists people follow him.  Jesus’ character and methods are the clearest revelation, I believe, of God’s character and methods.  Additionally, Jesus’ character and methods are exactly opposite of the character and methods of the God you describe.  The loving God and inclusive Jesus I mentioned before are the ones I know and choose to follow.

This is where my revelation happened.  I remembered that this has happened before in the opposite direction!  Historically, there once was a God who used torture and brutal death to maintain control and create converts and new followers and was referred to as Son of God, Savior and Lord.  Those titles were taken by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who claimed the status of God and used those techniques of violence and torture to demand others respect him, fear him, acknowledge him as God and to create and maintain loyal followers. 

In the first century, in an incredibly subversive move, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth took those same titles of Lord, Savior and Son of God from Caesar and gave them to Jesus!  With that subversive takeover of divine titles, Jesus’ followers proclaimed to the world that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not, that Jesus was the Son of God and Caesar was not and that Jesus was the Savior and Caesar was not.  Significantly, their appropriation of those titles and application to Jesus also proclaimed that God’s character was best demonstrated by Jesus’ character and not by Caesar’s.   

What I now understand is that you and others are doing that same type of subversive takeover of the titles of God and Jesus.  You have removed those titles from the historical character and actions of Jesus of Nazareth and applied them to something or someone you call by those names but who seems to me to posses the character and methods of Caesar Augustus, rather than the character of Jesus of Nazareth. 

In the past I’ve thought that people with the ideas that you expressed the other day and I had the same God and the same Jesus, but simply understood the same God and Jesus from different perspectives.  Now, however, I think what you've helped me realize is that we simply follow two completely different, totally unrelated, entirely separate, absolutely opposite individuals (confusingly) both named Jesus.  These two very different individuals both named Jesus also reveal two completely different, totally unrelated and entirely separate, absolutely opposite Gods with diametrically opposed characters and methods. 

What you helped me realize is that I don't need to argue with you over the character of God.  We simply have different Gods and different Jesuses.  I’ll admit, yours confusingly seem to have the same names of “God” and “Jesus” as the God and Jesus I know, but they have literally opposite characters and methods.  I simply don’t know your God or your Jesus.  Frankly, and no offense intended, but I don’t want to know them.  They sound horrible to me!  I don’t want to follow them and I don’t want to spend any time with them in this life and I certainly don’t want to hang out with them for eternity! 

Sarah, you are welcome to worship your God and your Jesus.  It is a free country.  But I’m going to worship and follow my entirely different God and Jesus… the ones who are about radical self-giving love, inclusion, forgiveness, generosity and grace and NEVER about death, violence, torture or revenge.  Thank you for showing me this truth!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

This Story is DYN-O-MITE!

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 20th Chapter
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A pastor was assigned to a new church. He wanted to find out how much the congregation knew, so he decided to ask a simple question. He asked the members what they knew about Easter. The first guy comes up and says, "Isn't that the holiday when everyone comes over and you have this big turkey?" "Uh, no," the pastor says, "That's Thanksgiving." 
A second guy chimes in, "Isn't that the holiday where we get that big tree and..."   "Uh, no. That would be Christmas." 
"Oh. Sorry." 
Finally a young woman comes up and says, "Isn't that the holiday when they put Jesus on a cross?" 
"Yes," says the pastor, relieved. "Do you know anything else?" 
"Yes, He died, right?" 
"Yes. Anything else?" 
"They took him down." 
"Yes. Then what?" 
"Then they put him in a cave, right?" 
"Yes, then?" 
"And they rolled a stone in front of it?" 
"Yes. That's exactly right. Do you know anything else?" 
"Yeah. He woke up and...oh, now I remember, the stone was rolled away, and then he got out, saw his shadow, and went back inside for 6 more weeks."

Today is Bright Sunday or Holy Hilarity Sunday or if you want it in Latin, Risus Paschalis.  It started in the 15th century when priests would insert humorous stories into their sermons on this first Sunday after Easter.  Of course, since it was fun, the practice was eventually banned by Pope Clement X but I won’t tell the Pope if you won’t... plus, I have a feeling Pope Francis would probably approve!

I like this tradition, because one of the reasons jokes are funny is that they tell a story with an unexpected ending and Jesus’ resurrection is probably the MOST unexpected ending of a story EVER!  But like all stories with unexpected endings, not everybody gets the resurrection... or as we’ll think of it today, the biggest practical joke of all time.  The people in the first lesson, the people in Acts, they got the joke.  They believed as one.  They were of one heart and mind and everything they owned they held in common.  People don’t do that kind of stuff if they don’t get the joke.

Speaking of jokes, an atheist was spending a quiet day fishing when suddenly his boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster. In one easy flip, the beast tossed him and his boat high into the air. Then it opened its mouth to swallow both. As the man sailed head over heels, he cried out, "Oh, my God! Help me!" At once, the ferocious attack scene froze in place, and as the atheist hung in mid-air, a booming voice came down from the clouds, "I thought you didn't believe in Me!" "Come on God, give me a break!!," the man pleaded, "two minutes ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness monster either!"

You laughed, so I’m assuming you got that one.  But not everyone gets every joke right away.  The disciples at first locked themselves up in a room in fear.  They obviously don’t get the joke right away.  It was only when Jesus appeared to them and showed them the wounds in his hands, feet and side that they finally REALLY got the joke.

How about this one?  Did you hear about the mistake the dyslexic devil worshipper made? He devoted his life to Santa.

How about that one?  Like I said, not everyone gets every joke right away but it’s so important to get THE joke... the greatest practical joke of all time... that I’m going to break a cardinal rule of comedy and explain the joke.  We’ll start with the punch line first.  Are you ready? CHRIST IS RISEN!  Really and truly risen from the dead!  Not just woke up from a really deep sleep, he didn’t get better after being mostly dead.  He is totally and fully alive again after being totally and fully dead.  He had pulled the pin, he was pushing up daisies, he had bought the farm, he was swimming with the fish, had kicked the bucket, he was six feet under, he had bit the dust, shuffled off the mortal coil, croaked, cashed in his chips, and gave up the ghost.  Jesus was dead... BUT... NOW HE IS ALIVE!

It's the best punch line ever, but every joke needs a good set up.  The set up for this joke goes all the way back to that time when Jesus was in the wilderness being tested by the Devil.  The devil wants to give Jesus power over everything on earth…but there’s a catch.  Jesus has to bow down and worship the devil.  Jesus is pretty quick to realize that this is not a great deal after all and says no way.  After that, the devil decides that he will get Jesus the same way he has gotten everybody else…the devil will have him die!  Plot, plot, plot…scheme, scheme, scheme and then you arrive at Good Friday and Jesus is dying on the cross.  People around him laugh at him, just like the devil is laughing at him.  “Should have taken my offer" says the devil, "then you wouldn’t just be hanging around!”

You see, the devil, the Empire, sin, darkness, evil and death thought that they had won another one; one more person dead, one more victory for death and one more cosmic raspberry from the devil.  BUT WAIT!  Just when the devil, the Empire, sin, darkness, evil and death thought that they had pulled a fast one on God THOUGHT they had killed God’s Son, it turns out the joke is actually on THEM!  With that one punch line... CHRIST IS RISEN!...  God has taken the horns off the devil, turned the world up side down, forgiven sin, banished death and shined the zillion watt light of Christ into every dark spot in every place and in every time.  With that one punch line... CHRIST IS RISEN... God not only gave Jesus life in the resurrection but also gave life to you and me and ALL OF CREATION a life that starts now and goes on for all eternity!  And that's what makes this the biggest and best joke of all time.  Death and the devil have snatched a total defeat from the jaws of victory!

Speaking of the resurrection, do you know why didn't Jesus replace the stone from the tomb when he rose from the dead?   Well, he was born in a barn.

Once you get the greatest joke it literally changes EVERYTHING.  There may be people who still say you have to work your way to heaven.  But once you get this joke you can laugh at that!  That work’s been done!  HE IS RISEN!  There may be people who think that there is still a battle raging between good and evil, but once you get the joke you can laugh at that too because HE IS RISEN! and the strife is over, the battle is won.  The joke has been told and the punch line given.  It REALLY is the most unexpected ending and an amazing joke that changes EVERYTHING.

So, do you get it?  Because there’s one more thing about this joke (and really, it’s true of every good joke) and that is, when you hear a really good joke and you get it, you just can’t help but want to pass it on.  That’s what the folks in Acts went and did... they passed it on.  The Scripture says, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony.”  The Greek word that gets translated here as “power” has the same root as the word “dynamite.”

The best thing about the resurrection is that it is powerfully true whether you believe it or not and this joke is powerfully funny no matter who gets it and who doesn't.  But I know that our lives get better when you do get it and our lives get even better than that when you live it and we really begin to live the fully abundant life God wants for us all when we take the story of life and light and love as our own story, and tell it and share it in everything we say and do in the world.  So, on this Holy Hilarity Sunday, remember to tip your waitress, try the veal and then go out there and pass on the greatest joke ever told because like J.J. Walker always said, this story is "DYN-O-MYTE!"  Amen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Expect the Unexpected

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, The 28th Chapter
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the
women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

In my family, there is a story that gets told almost every Easter.  It’s a story from way, way back when I, ironically had the same amount of hair that I have now, but was much, much shorter.  My parents invited a big group of their friends over for Easter dinner.  My dad made a beautiful leg of lamb on the hibachi he brought back from Southeast Asia... he had rubbed it with herbs... slow roasted it over coals for hours... took it off the grill and set it on a cutting board on the counter to rest before carving it and then went out to the living room to check on the guests.  When he came back into the kitchen, our German Shorthaired Pointer, Duke had pulled the leg of lamb off the counter and was eating it on the kitchen floor.  That Easter, things did not go as expected.  
After I became a pastor many, many years after Duke had his best Easter dinner ever, a man walked up to me the week before Easter in the congregation I served in Colorado and asked me, “Is it ready?”
“Is what ready?”  
“Your Easter sermon!  It’s the big one!  The Gettysburg Address of sermons!  It’s the one sermon that really matters!  Do you have it ready?”  
I know I preached a sermon that year at Easter but since I can’t even remember the details of it I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as memorable as the Gettysburg Address and I have no delusions that one day it will be chiseled in marble somewhere or memorized by school kids.  Needless to say, my sermon that day probably didn’t live up to that man’s Easter expectations.
But you know what?  Maybe it’s in the nature of Easter that things happen outside of what we expect.  The two Marys from the Gospel story came to the tomb that first Easter morning with what I think were pretty realistic expectations.  They expected to find Jesus still laying in the tomb and still very much... well... dead.  They expected that, because for all of history before then (and frankly for all of history since then) dead people... well, dead people stay dead. 
The two Marys came to that first Easter with some expectations and I think we all come to Easter with expectations.  Some of you, I’m sure, came expecting a certain Easter hymn.  Some expected this would be two hours of your life you’d NEVER get back!  Some expected flowers.  Some expected that church was the price you had to pay to get to eat with the family later on.  Some expected to be uplifted.  Some expected to be bored to tears, some expected to feel God’s presence, some expected they wouldn’t be welcomed, some, I suspect, expected a pulpit pounding sermon and a pastor yelling that you needed to “get saved” and I know for certain that some of you expected bacon at breakfast. 
But there seems to be something about Easter that things don’t tend to go exactly how we expect them to go.  When the two Marys got to the tomb they expected the stone to still be in place, but it wasn’t.  They expected Jesus to still be laying in the tomb, but he wasn’t.  They expected that he would never be present with them ever again, but he was.   
In the other stories in Scripture where Jesus appears after Easter, he doesn’t seem to be expected either and to be honest, if I were in their sandals I wouldn’t have expected Jesus to appear either!  But story after story Jesus does the unexpected and there he is!  There’s the story where Jesus joins a couple of people walking along a road and even though they were followers of Jesus before, they didn’t recognize him until they shared dinner with him.  There’s the story of Jesus making his way mysteriously through walls and locked doors to be with the disciples which certainly wasn’t what the disciples were expecting.  There’s the story of the disciples who went fishing (because what else are you going to do after the guy you’ve been following for three years gets killed) but then they saw someone on the beach grilling fish and that someone turned out, unexpectedly, to be Jesus.  
Jesus showed up unexpectedly over and over again after his death.  Sometimes, it seems he showed up in a flesh and blood sort of way where the people who encountered him could do things like touch his wounds, eat a meal with him or grab his feet.  But sometimes he appeared in ways that aren’t quite explainable, doing things that rational people like me find hard to understand, like walking into locked rooms or vanishing in the blink of an eye.  
The two Marys encountered Jesus that first Easter morning in a way they didn’t expect... in a way they could really NEVER have expected and yet they did experience him, somehow alive and at work in their lives.  The disciples encountered Jesus in ways they didn’t expect and really, how could they possibly have expected it?  And yet he was somehow alive and active in some way in their experience.  So how about you?  Have you experienced Jesus alive and at work in your life?  Think for a minute about how you might expect that to look.  Think for a minute what you might expect that to feel like and where you might expect that encounter with Jesus to happen.  Now... remember, sometimes we do encounter Jesus where we expect, like in the elements of bread and wine in communion or in the waters of the font, but Jesus also seems to make a habit of being present and active in people’s lives in other ways they absolutely, positively NEVER expected at all.  
So maybe the real question we need to be asking ourselves is not where might Jesus be alive in our lives or how might that look or feel, but where out there in the world have we been missing seeing, feeling and experiencing Jesus in our lives because he’s been alive and active in our lives all along, just in ways and in people and in places we had never before expected he would or could be!  Perhaps the real lesson for Easter is that when it comes to experiencing the living Christ we would do well to expect to experience the living, active, Lord of all in the most unexpected ways!  Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Sorta Like

The Passion According to St. John
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.
First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus
answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

SOMETHING happened on that cross.  Something that literally changed the universe... the fancy church word for it is salvation.  But, how does salvation work?  Don’t feel too bad if you don’t know, because the early Christians didn’t know and since you came out to worship tonight, I’ll tell you a secret... neither do I!  Salvation is God’s work and it’s beyond human understanding so we do the best we can to talk about this thing we’ll never fully understand.  
The early Christians did the best they could.  They looked around them and used images and references that the people they were talking to might understand and said, “Well, what happened to make us and all of creation right with God on the cross is sorta like…”  and then they wrote a bunch of things down in the Bible that are their best attempts to describe something beyond description.  
Some of the people those early Christians tried to explain this thing to were Jewish.  The Jews at that time had a system of sacrifice where you took an animal, brought it to the Temple and then killed it to be made right with God again.  For those people who understood that Jewish religious system, the early Christians said that what happened on the cross is sorta like that.  Jesus is the perfect and complete sacrifice that makes us right with God once and for all.  
That seemed to work in the Jewish world but outside that world…it didn’t make much sense.  So, as the apostle Paul walked around telling people what happened on the cross he told the Colossians that it’s sorta like a reconciled relationship... you know, like when a couple fights and then are brought back together.  Down the road, he told the Romans it’s sorta like a courtroom where the judge lets a guilty person go free and to the Ephesians he said it was sorta like what happens in the market when you buy something.  He said that what happened on the cross is sorta like God buying us back from death.  Then, other writers told people that what happened was sorta like a military victory over a terrible enemy and Jesus won a great battle over evil. 
So, which is it?  What REALLY happened between all of creation (including us) and God on that cross?  HOW were we made right with God?  Was it a final sacrifice or reconciliation with someone you love? Were we purchased back from death or was it a great military victory over evil or did the guilty get set free? 
Of course one way to settle this is to pick one image, ignore the rest and insist that you are right and everyone else is wrong.  I got in big trouble once because I told someone the “final sacrifice” idea was one idea but not the ONLY idea.  They insisted that the ONLY answer was for me to believe that God requires some payback for all my sin and naughtiness.  Jesus’ suffering and death was the sacrifice God demanded.
It’s not that the “final sacrifice” answer is wrong and something else is right, because it obviously resonated with those early Jewish people who were experienced with a sacrificial system.  But that image doesn’t resonate with me.  I’ve never done sacrifices but I have messed up relationships so the relationship image Paul used with the Colossians makes more sense to me. 
It really doesn’t matter what image works for me or for you, because none of them are meant to be taken literally and ALL those images are trying to point us to the same, exact thing, just in different ways… that God loves us... to death... and then back to life again!  That love is cosmically bigger than hate, prejudice, selfishness and greed.  This Biblical mixture of images and ideas all come together from every different place and time and culture to tell us all that God is up to much, much more than just saving a few people who happen to stumble on the one right image and say the one right prayer and believe the one right story.  

What God is up to is nothing less than the salvation of The WHOLE world, ALL of creation... not just for a select few, but for every single sub atomic particle of everything and everyone everywhere.  So, behold the Cross of Christ on which hung the salvation of the WHOLE and God means the WHOLE world!  Amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Put on the Love Goggles

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the  13th Chapter
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and
tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Tonight is Maundy Thursday.  The word “Maundy” comes from the same root word as the word “mandate” and a mandate is, of course, something we are told to do.  Many people think that the mandate Jesus gave on Maundy Thursday was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but that’s not it.  Jesus gave the disciples that mandate AT the Last Supper all those years ago but what Jesus commanded his disciples to do, both then and now, is to love one another.  

That Last Supper and this mandate came at the end of a very strange and amazing journey.  The disciples had seen miracles, healings and demons cast out.  They had even seen the dead raised.  They had heard teachings in the synagogues and preaching in the countryside.  They had seen tears shed, voices raised and Pharisees and scribes taught lesson after lesson.  They’d even seen Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop! 

But through that whole strange and different journey, one thing stayed the same.  Jesus always saw all the situations and all the people he encountered in a very special and unique way.  It was as if he had a special set of glasses through which he saw the world.  No matter where they went, he saw things and people differently than anyone else.  But now, as Jesus faced the end of his time on earth, he wanted to pass on to the disciples his special set of glasses... He wanted them to take on his unique and holy way of looking at the world.  

His unique vision... the special way he saw the world was to see the world through the lens of love.  “Just as I have loved you”, he said, “you also should love one another.”  Love was the special set of lenses through which Jesus saw everyone and all of God’s creation.  Now, on Maundy Thursday he gave the mandate that when his disciples look out at the world around us, we too are to see the world through the lenses of that new commandment of self-giving love.  

In essence, this was Jesus’ last will and testament.  It was the way he wanted the disciples to both remember what he did AND was also his vision for how he wanted them to live into the future.  This message... this mandate to live lives of self-giving love was so important that Jesus didn’t just TELL them that night... he also SHOWED them.   

Silently, Jesus took off his outer robe filled a basin with water, tied a towel around his waist and knelt at the feet of the disciples.  Jesus was acting out this life of self-giving love... the servant life he wants us all to live.  He physically DID what was in his neighbor’s best interest, no matter what society would say about it.  The senior was serving the junior.  The teacher was serving the student.  The Lord was serving the commoner.  This was Jesus’ acted-out last will and testament:  The disciples lives... our lives were to be lived out and understood from this servant perspective... On our knees, staring at the dusty feet of those around us, serving and loving in everything we say and do.  This is what Jesus wanted his disciples to know before he walked the path to his death.  This is what Jesus wanted his disciples to see before he was nailed to the cross.  This is how Jesus wanted his disciples to live, from that time forever more.  The thing about this mandate... about Jesus’ call to selfless love, is that it’s timeless.  

Love works no matter what else changes in the world.  As technology and society and culture changes and we look around and see things those first disciples could never have imagined... one thing doesn’t change....  the power of generous, self giving, servant love is the same love that always has and always will lead Jesus’ disciples in the right direction.  Of course Jesus’ disciples back then didn’t remember that when Jesus was taken away and crucified, but as Jesus’ disciples here in this place, we’ve got one up on those disciples from back then... we know that Easter is coming!

Easter is coming and no matter how things might change in our personal lives or in the life of our church that fact... that Easter is coming... can give us the courage to hold tight to Jesus’ mandate of selfless love in even the hardest and darkest times.  It is easy when things get hard to forget about love.  It is easy in those Good Friday times to forget the mandate and Jesus‘ call to see everything and everyone though that unique lens of selfless love he passed on to us disciples on that first Maundy Thursday... but Easter is coming!  So remember... Jesus, with his last will and testament, has given us the power both to see and transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  He has given us the gift of his vision... the gift of his lenses that allow us to see the world with love... even as everything else around you changes and shakes and even fades to darkness... remember... you have been given the greatest power in all of creation... the power of selfless love.  So as Jesus first loved you also should love one another.  Amen. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Yeah, But

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 11th Chapter

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you
laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 

During the last few weeks we’ve had a series of Gospel stories from John.  It started with the story about Nicodemus and Jesus telling him and all of us that the way we get faith, is a lot like the way we are born.  If you think about a baby being born, that baby isn’t in control of when they are born and in a similar way we aren’t in control of when we believe either.  Our life in this world and our life in faith are both simply and only gifts from God. 

That seemed like a pretty clear message to me, but maybe it really wasn’t all that clear to everyone.  It’s almost like Jesus told the Nicodemus story and then someone listening in said, “Yeah, but.”  “Yeah, faith is a gift, BUT Nicodemus was a righteous, good, Jewish man, so could THAT be what he did to deserve God’s gift of faith?”  Aren't there some qualifications to deserve God’s gifts of love and grace and faith?  Do you maybe have to be righteous, seek Jesus out like Nicodemus did, be Jewish or maybe even be a man to qualify for God’s gifts?  

To answer those questions that aren’t in the scripture stories but certainly have been asked through the ages, Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  She was not not righteous, she was not seeking Jesus out, she wasn’t Jewish and she wasn’t a man.  In fact she was actually the opposite of all of those things and STILL was a person who received all of God’s love and grace and faith purely and simply as a gift.  

“YEAH, she did receive God’s gifts of love and grace and faith, BUT, she talked with Jesus for a long time.  Could it be that you need to build a relationship with Jesus first and be converted in order to deserve the gifts of God’s love and grace and faith?

And so there's another question that isn’t asked out loud in the scriptures but certainly has been asked over and over again throughout the ages.  To answer this next “Yeah, but” question Jesus tells the story of the Man Born Blind.  The Man Born Blind literally did not see Jesus coming!  He didn’t ask Jesus to heal him and Jesus didn’t ask him if he wanted to be healed either!  Jesus just walked up to him, made some spit/mud and wiped it in his eyes and told him to go wash!  God’s love, God’s grace, God’s gift of faith really is a complete and total no-strings-attached gift!  

“YEAH, he did receive his sight, BUT, the man did do SOMETHING, he followed Jesus’ instructions and went and washed in the pool of Siloam.  Could it be that we too need to do SOMETHING to receive God’s infinite love and grace and faith.”

And so we have another question that isn’t printed out in black and white in the text but certainly has been asked and debated over the years.  So, to answer this latest “Yeah, but” question Jesus tells the story we read today... the story of Lazarus.    

In each of those other stories Jesus tried to make it clear that God’s love, grace and our ability to believe is simply and only a gift from God.  But in each of those stories just the interaction of Jesus with the people seemed to make the “Yeah, but” folks believe that maybe they had a part to play in deserving or qualifying for God’s gift.  So in a last ditch effort to help the “Yeah, but” folks really see that God’s love, grace and faith really and truly are a complete and no-strings-attached gift from God, Jesus tells a story that stars a dead man... and actually Lazarus is even worse off than that!  The common wisdom of the day back then was that the soul hung around a body for three days, but by day four, the soul was for sure gone and there was absolutely, positively NO HOPE!  Then, as we hear in the King James version of this story it’s even worse than that, because “He Stinketh.”

By telling the story of Lazarus, Jesus answered the “Yeah, but” folks questions once and for all by showing them that all that is required of us, is EXACTLY the same thing a lifeless, soulless corpse which stinketh can give... which is absolutely, positively NOTHING!  Lazarus wasn’t a righteous Jewish man who sought Jesus out... he was a corpse.  Lazarus didn’t have a conversation or develop a saving relationship with Jesus... he was a corpse and Lazarus wasn’t going to go wash anywhere or do anything else because, you guessed it... he was a corpse!

Lazarus came out of that tomb, not because he lived a certain way, not because he was born into a certain family or tribe, not because he was convinced in conversation by Jesus and not because he did anything, believed anything or figured out anything.  He came out of that tomb and lived again simply and only because Jesus said so!  He didn’t have a choice.  He didn’t even have a chance to say yes or no!  His new life came to him simply and only as a gift and the same is true for you and for me.  

The “Yeah, but” folks continue to try and look for what they need to do to deserve or qualify for God’s love and grace.  They continue to wonder how they need to act, what they need to do, how they need to live in order to get God to give them the gift of God’s love, grace and faith.

YEAH, I understand folks still have trouble with the idea of the completely free, no-strings-attached, grace filled abundant love of God... BUT that’s just not the right question!  We shouldn’t be asking what we need to do to GET God’s love... because we’ve already got it!  The real question we need to be asking is, now that we have been overwhelmed with the abundance of God’s love, what should we do with all of it?  

You are about to enter a new day as a congregation.  Your new pastor is on her way.  You have a new relationship with the church in Norway.  The stone has been rolled away and you are coming out into the light!  Take a deep breath of the fresh, new air.  Help one another unwrap whatever might be left that could be binding you up and may you all together begin to live again in the abundance that is God’s love and life.  Amen.