Friday, March 25, 2016

Behind the Stone

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 24th Chapter

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

This past week I was sitting at the dining room table, working on my second or third cup of coffee… checking Facebook and emails like I do most mornings.  Kelly was home, sitting behind me on the couch and she said, “Are you making that knocking noise?”  I was on my third cup of coffee and my leg sometimes bounces a little when I’m nearly fully caffeinated, so I said, “Maybe.  I don’t know.”  

The next day I was sitting on the couch beside her.  It was the afternoon and the caffeine had all worn off and that knocking sound happened again.  It wasn’t my leg after all!  But now it was a mystery!  I like a mystery.  I like figuring things out.  I like fixing things.  So I listened.  It was coming from the basement.  I went down.  Looked around. Then I saw a little finch fly up to the small basement window and peck at the window.  That little finch was really angry with that “other” finch he saw reflected in that window who was cutting into his territory!  So, I went outside and covered up the window so he could stop attacking that rotten, interloping finch and focus on nest building and the other things finches focus on in Spring.  Mystery solved!  Problem fixed!  Solution found!  Man!  That felt good!  

Just one week earlier it didn’t go that well.  I got a call about a person who was homeless.  They were camping.  Not for fun, but because that’s all they could do.  They had just had to move their camp and they had the help of some really good people, but now they needed to move again, because one of the truths about homelessness is that our society doesn’t mind so much if you’re homeless, but we REALLY don’t want to see it.  Somebody had seen it.  So they had to move… again.  “Where can they go?” was the call I got.  It was a mystery.  I like a mystery.  I like figuring things out.  I like fixing things.  So I listened and I thought and I called and emailed.  But I couldn’t solve it.  I couldn’t figure this one out.  I couldn’t fix it. 

I tell you those stories because the story of Jesus’s death wasn’t one that Joseph or Mary or Joanna or the other Mary could fix.  Now, this may be the first time you’ve ever thought about Easter beyond Peeps and Chocolate bunnies OR maybe it’s the 90th time you've heard the story and thought about Easter.  Either way… first time or 90th time… doesn’t matter… Jesus’s death is something WE can't solve or fix, no matter how well we know the story.  First time or 90th time...  we’re all in the same boat, Jesus’s death… all death… it’s beyond our ability to fix and frankly, I don’t like it.  I don’t like unsolved mysteries or unfixed problems.  I’m not happy that when Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’s dead body off the cross, all he could do was lay it in a tomb and roll a stone in place.  That was all he could do.  He couldn’t fix it.  I don’t like that the women who stayed to the end, even after all the men had run off, returned with spices because getting his body ready for burial was all they could do.  They couldn’t stop his death and they couldn’t undo his death.  No matter how much effort they put in, they couldn’t fix it.  I don’t like a problem that can’t be fixed.  I don’t like an unsolved mystery.  

But regardless how I feel about it, the truth of being a regular, mortal, human being is that while there is some work you and I can do to help transform the world’s brokenness into wholeness, despair into hope, illness into healing, addiction into sobriety, scarcity into abundance, fear into courage, death into life… the fullness, the completion, the wholeness of ANY of that kind of transformation is simply and annoyingly beyond us!  

And I don’t like it!  I want to fix it.  I want to figure it out!  But in the end, a full “fix” of any of that IS beyond us.  But here’s the Good News of Easter:  Even when we’ve done all we can… when we’ve reached the end, the bottom, that pitch, dark, hopeless place… when we can’t do anything more… when the ONLY thing we have left to do is gather some spices, put whatever or whoever is beyond our fixing into the tomb and roll a stone in place… the Good News of Easter is that God continues to be at work behind the stone!  People will fuss and fight and argue about HOW God is doing that work… is it literal or a metaphor, bodily or spiritual?  They'll say things like “atonement” and use other churchy words, but the honest folks will admit they have no idea how God works!  But for me, what REALLY matters is that God is working behind the stone... to bring healing when we get stuck in our brokenness, to bring courage when we get stuck in our fear, to bring abundance when we get stuck obsessing with scarcity, to bring us life when we get stuck in death.  

You see, God is determined to have you and me and this entire world transformed from the broken, divided, fearful, desperate and dying place it seems too often to be, into the unified, whole, interconnected, courageous, hope filled, living creation that God is insisting it become.

As disciples, God is calling you and me on this side of the stone, to be at work as the living Body of Christ… God’s hands, feet, heart and mind, walking and working like Jesus did... doing everything we can to heal the broken, bind up the wounded, feed the hungry and comfort the fearful... God is calling us to do nothing less than challenge and change the world.  But God is also reminding you and me on this Easter, just like every Easter, no matter if this is your first Easter or your ninety first, that when we get stuck in that work… and we will get stuck... even Jesus, got stuck on Good Friday.  When we can do nothing more… when we’ve done all we can and have reached the bottom and find ourselves at the end of the road, terribly and horribly stuck… this Easter, just like every Easter, God is reminding us to not lose hope, but to do what we can, even if all we can do is put it into the tomb and roll the stone in place.  BUT THEN God reminds us to hold on to the promise of Easter, because that promise is that God continues to be at work transforming all that is beyond our fixing or figuring, transforming all things from broken to whole and from death into life on the other side of that stone.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Bodegas and Nard

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 12th Chapter

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The hypothesis was that the process people have used for centuries to turn wine made from European grapes into Sherry in Spain could mask or eliminate the less desirable flavor characteristics of wine made from the native Muscadine grapes of North Carolina.  In Spain, where true Sherry is from, they make wine, fortify it by adding additional wine spirits and then age it in large oak casks in the hot, Spanish sun in large warehouses called Bodegas because, let’s face it, “Bodegas” sounds way more romantic than “warehouses.”    

THAT was the hypothesis.  Next, the hypothesis was tested.  Wine was made, a small scale replica of a Bodega was made and the telltale flavor chemicals that characterized real Sherry were measured as they developed.  In the end, Sherry was made, but the hypothesis… that the sherry flavors could mask the less desirable flavor characteristics of native North Carolina grapes, was proven false.  The skunky, funky flavor of Scupernog Muscadines would not go away, no matter how many romantic, Andalusian, terms you used for the process. 

Things didn’t turn out as hoped and that was a bit of a bummer to be honest.  If it had worked, the grape growers in North Carolina might have found a new market for their grapes.  But what we did learn is that the grape growers in North Carolina shouldn’t invest their money creating a Sherry Bodega.  It also got a kid a Master’s Degree in Food Science and a job at The Coca-Cola Company where he met his future wife.  So, it wasn’t a total waste. 

Things don’t always turn out the way we’d like or think they should.  When Jesus showed up in Bethany at Lazarus’ house, nobody thought things were going the way they should.  Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and THAT had become the final straw.  He wasn’t just annoying to the Romans and their allies any more, he was gaining a following and that was dangerous.

Nobody needed to be psychic to know what was going to happen when Jesus walked the one and a half miles from Bethany to Jerusalem.  When he walked in, they would kill him.  What was up for grabs in Lazarus’ dining room that evening was not what would happen to Jesus, but what would the folks gathered there DO with the real, devastating, disappointing, overwhelmingly sad fact that things were not going to end up as they had hoped or expected.  Their hypothesis had been that Jesus would become the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  Kick out the Romans and rule like King David, ushering in an era of peace where swords got beat into plows and spears transformed into pruning hooks and everyone had time to sit under their own fig tree!  But now it was clear.  It wasn’t going to be like that.  The question that night was how would they react now that things didn't go as they expected or hoped?

Today’s Gospel shows us four ways folks can react when things go terribly, horribly wrong.  Option A:  Lazarus’ reaction…  just sit there at the table in stunned or accepting silence… we’ll never really know which.  Option B:  Martha’s reaction…  run from the truth, stay busy and push the thought from your head.  Option C:  Judas’ reaction… Try and change the subject from Jesus’ obvious, impending death to something else… anything else.  Option D:  Mary’s reaction… Lean into the truth… even though the truth is horribly painful.   

The “right” answer we’re meant to learn to pick from this lesson is what Mary chose, but why is THAT the RIGHT answer?  What she did was strange… She went into the bedroom and found a jar of perfume.  She came to Jesus and didn’t anoint him on the head, as you would the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but anointed his feet as you would a body for burial and wiped it from his feet with her hair in an overwhelmingly intimate gesture and the house was filled with both aroma of his coming death and her intimate, deeply felt grief.

Jesus knew what going to Jerusalem meant.  The hypothesis that Jesus would become the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and rule from Jerusalem for a thousand years was proved false. They all knew it.  By returning to Bethany, Jesus was not simply acknowledging that reality, but leaning into it… leaning into The Way of the Cross and one of the most annoying things about The Way of the Cross is that it ends in death… real, terrible, painful death… and Jesus was leaning right into it and everyone in the room knew it… everyone in the room saw it… but only Mary chose to lean right into it WITH him.

I don't think she was thinking that night that real transformation only happens through death and resurrection... that real change requires giving up our own agenda... that the promised land only comes after a long walk in the wilderness... I think the only thing she knew in that dining room was that Jesus was determined to walk the path to the Cross... and in faith and love and devotion for Jesus, she decided to walk with him on that path. 

You may have noticed that even here in Maine, things STILL don’t always go the way we expect or hope they will go.  The Way to the Kingdom of God, STILL takes unexpected turns in the wilderness and the story is STILL strewn with unexpected and frankly, unwanted plot twists even here… thousands of miles away from Bethany and thousands of years later.  And you and me… we STILL face the exact same choice that Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Judas had in Lazarus’ dining room when things don’t go as expected or how we might have hoped... We can sit in stunned silence, run from the truth, try to change the subject or lean into it, acknowledging the pain and walking forward in faith.  

We do, however, have something those four didn’t have.  We, unlike them, live on this side of Easter.  Even in the midst of Lent, we hold onto the promise of Easter each Sunday… the Sundays in Lent aren’t counted as part of the 40 days you know.  So each Sunday we remember that Easter really does follow every Good Friday and so we proclaim the mystery of faith… Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  And with that promise, with bread and wine nourishing us for the journey, we have a bit more strength to choose like Mary chose and lean into the path that Jesus is walking even when that path isn’t the one hoped we would be walking and isn’t at all the way we had expected to go. 

You may have noticed that things have not gone as hypothesized here at 209.  The experiment has gone in a way we didn’t expect.  The author of the story has added in a plot twist and yet, Jesus continues to walk the Way of the Cross, continues to call us to follow, to be transformed, and continues to ask us to TRUST that the path he walks, even when the path leads through pain and tears, disappointment and grief, doesn’t end in a tomb.  The path Jesus calls us to walk continues THROUGH the wilderness, through the hurt and through death itself and into an abundant, resurrected, transformed life that is more than we could ever ask or imagine.  Amen.