Sunday, April 25, 2010

EASTER 4C

Bill Countryman, who will lead our diocesan conference in Harrietville in November, talks about Jesus’ “obnoxious discourses” in John’s Gospel: when Jesus says thing that are so upsetting to the theological and spiritual sensibility of his listeners that they must either leave Jesus behind or forsake their old understandings of how holiness works in order to move into a deeper relationship with God here and now and face to face.

There are several of them: “Unless you gnash your teeth on my flesh and drink my blood you will not have my life in you” would have been highly offensive to his hearers. “Before Abraham was, I am” could have sounded close to insanity, but the last line in todays Gospel is the clincher.

Jesus says, “The father and I are one.” And there is no wonder that the people in front of him have trouble with that. How can you believe that this human being is a picture of ultimate reality, that the ultimate truth of love and grace and presence and what lasts is exactly what we see when we see Jesus? That’s stretches us beyond easy belief and beyond most modes of understanding. Maybe that’s why he says it.

An Irish poet of the earliest twentieth century wrote this prayer: “Christ, ...keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard.” and that kind of double vision is helpful in the practice of the Christian life: getting used to looking closely and compassionately at what is directly in front of us, as well as keeping one eye open towards the ultimate view, towards what finally lasts. C.S. Lewis writes, I think in The Screwtape Letters, that God wants us to be focused on eternity as well as on the present moment, for it is in the present moment that eternity meets time.

So when Jesus says, “The father and I are one,” the question is how we can live into it, and meet it in the give and take of our daily lives? An answer might be in watching for what one English theologian from the 1950s called “God-shaped events.”

The word “God” might mean “holiness, justice, compassion, connectedness, truth, love.” And sometimes we give or receive small packages containing those actions and events, or we see these transactions carried, acted out in the life of others. I’d be very surprised if there were anyone here today who had not recently given or received some “God-shaped” gift or event. They happen all the time: a casual but sincere “how are you going?”, a pat on the back from a friend, they are often surprising: my own lap is a frequent recipient of a package of furry brown cat-love from a Burmese named Snooks and his purr is an eloquent hymn of praise, I have no doubt he is a God-shaped event. Everyone carries similar stories and we are all called to be thankful witnesses of such occasions given and received by  persons, pets or places; whatever unexpected presence presents itself, whatever reaching out in love comes our way.

So maybe there are just three reasons why we are here today: to expand our capacity for participating in that kind of event; to cultivate an appreciation and understanding of Jesus as a fully fleshed out God-shaped event in the middle of human life; and to learn to hand on more of these Jesus shaped events in our daily life and ministries.

But to take part in receiving and giving that quality of love in our daily neighborhood means to hold on to a radical hope and a radical vision in the daily shaping of our life; requires a clearer and more disciplined picture of how God meets us today. And to have God’s eternal caring come into focus might mean a kind of expansion or even explosion in the ways we usually see the world.

Perhaps there are times for visions, at least for seeing things in a new way.  Two thousand years ago the taken for granted way of being in the world was worn out and a new vision was waiting to be born. Like now, the old rules and roles, the motives and mythologies, stories of success and failure, images and ideas of good and bad or right and wrong were all changing and there was a breakdown between past and future. Paul and Barnabas’ conflict with the Jewish and Greek in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows a bit of slippage between world-views. A bit later, when the persecutions of Christians start in the Roman empire, where people as well as institutions were dying, we find new and more radical visions in the Revelation to John where martyrdom is seen as the prologue to a future promise, a great hope for those who have died:


They are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

It’s a beautiful image but it I still think of Woody Allen wondering about how he could get to heaven on a New York Crosstown bus. Wherever you are, it’s the same question: how do you get there from here?

Someone once said that the world was a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. We come here to flesh out our deepest belief that the world is finally a love story. We come to this place to reengage ourselves in the present moment at the exact place where it meets eternity, to keep our eyes heavenward and our pity fresh, because both are needed. This is not an easy way out

Thomas Merton tells about a left-wing French Catholic mystic who used to cry while riding in the Paris Metro; crying because people were so beautiful and there was so much misunderstanding! To really look at the world that God loves can break your heart open, can stretch it out to hold both bad and good; will open it wide to the tragedy and absurdity of those young men dying at Gallipoli 95 years ago, to the loneliness of old men and women dying alone now, for young peopled addicted to sex or drugs or money, consumed by unworthy passions, in the absurdities and obscenities in the exercise of world power and politics and religion. It made Jesus weep. We may also need to open ourselves to see this madness and glory mixed together in all our daily lives, but we can only let this happen in the light of a great hope.

This liturgy is where we begin. A Lutheran pastor named Jaroslav Vajda once started noting what happened in the Eucharist. It turned into a poem and then a hymn.

Now the silence/Now the peace/Now the empty hands uplifted
Now the kneeling/Now the plea/Now the Father’s arms in welcome
Now the hearing/Now the pow’r/Now the vessel brimmed for pouring
Now the body/Now the blood/Now the joyful celebration
Now the wedding/Now the songs/Now the heart forgiven leaping
Now the Spirit’s visitation//Now the Son’s epiphany/Now the Father’s blessing
Now/Now/Now

And if all this is true, than this Eucharist, this story, this great community gathered over time is on the edge of heaven; and if Christ is the face of the Father rushing to meet us in human flesh, then every moment is suffused with eternity, every beginning blooms with love and every moment, bloodied and broken, lost and lonely as it may be, finds love at the end and a hope of Heaven. And that is our hope.

Several years after his first poem, Vajda wrote this as well. It works well as a coda.

Then the glory/Then the rest/Then the Sabbath peace unbroken
Then the garden/Then the throne/Then the crystal river flowing
Then the splendor/Then the life/Then the new creation singing
Then the marriage/Then the love/Then the feast of joy unending
Then the knowing/Then the light/Then the ultimate adventure
Then the Spirit’s harvest gathered/Then the Lamb in majestyThen the Father’s Amen
Then/Then/Then

If Jesus and the Father are one, then God has come to the middle of all our daily lives and deaths, and we are all called to eat the bread of angels and drink in the surety of Christ’s call of light and love to all people, to all the world. For this is our homecoming feast and we must rejoice. In the name of Christ. Amen.