Monday, April 09, 2012

Easter Sunday and the three witnesses

I want to start this morning with the very end of a poem called "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" by Wendell Berry. I first read it about 25 years ago and it often comes to mind at Eastertime. He starts out:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready-made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.

And then he shares his antidote to all this deadly business: 

So, friends, every day do something 
that won't compute. Love the Lord. 

And he ends the poem with a two word prescription: it simply ends,

"Practice Resurrection"

“Practice Resurrection.”  Maybe that is what we are starting to see in the Gospel of John we just shared. in the way that the three main characters, these three witnesses, in the Gospel work through a new understanding of where, how and why Jesus lives. This isn't easy. To practice resurrection means to practice life and death as well, because the three seem to be tied up together, and this is not always easy.

So many of us long to not be afraid of death. To live our lives as through nothing could destroy us, nothing could wipe us out, could separate us from the rest of life in the largest sense: for is this were true, then we might live life more freely, less concerned with survival and competition, and more in touch with the caring and quality of life – for ourselves and others – on the way. If the end of life were seen as good, godly, connected to God; then the way we travel, the present moment, here and now, day by day, might be seen in a different light.

"So, friends, everyday do something that wont compute. Love the Lord."

But how do you get there from here?

Let's look at the three ways we see touched on, lived out, by the three witnesses we see at the tomb this morning.

First, for John, Scripture simply says, "He saw and believed." For some of us  there can be this given miracle of faith, the gifted sudden insight, the new understanding, when all the old ways we've often seen the world fall away and we look on a truth that surprises us with new life. Even if it look like nothing we've ever known before. That can be mystifying, for as Thomas Merton writes, "If a message has no clothes on, how can it be spoken?" But this fresh love, this new life, the reality of this relationship, rising up in a new understanding, a new creation, the old clothes put aside, the naked truth, and the peace of a new beginning, can come in simply witnessing the moment when the world changes.

It is not that uncommon. Every so often I wake before dawn, put on a robe and make coffee, then move to the living room where there are windows facing east. And I simply sit and watch the light change, the shadows move, the sun rising. I don't say anything, It's a quiet time, but sometimes, as I sit there in silence the changing beauty of the new day reminds me of how and why we live, it reminds me of the truth of love and life in a way I might never learn from any other source. That sunrise makes me remember how light comes in darkness, how new beginning comes when the old times are moved aside, when I simply wait some newborn angles of sight and insight come that I had never expected to see. One morning recently, I just sat there watching; and when the light came and the room was bright I turned around to see the place where I lived like I had never seen it before. Suddenly I saw new life in the middle of my old world, and it was a wonderful day. Sometimes God gives us that gift of new beginning, and  we simply need to simply take the gift of a new insight, a new vision, and live into it like John.

But more often, I think, we're like Peter and it takes more time. We rush in, look everywhere, get confused and unsteady if we can't make sense of it right away (if the burial clothes are gone and the body nowhere), and then we  head out again. No sudden insights there one , but sometimes grace and time and habits and community can arrive over time and help us move into that new world of possibilities.

Peter's faith, like so many of us, is one that is fed in community, one that can be carried by the church. That's what happens for him a few days later, he's back at work fishing with his friends, and he sees, with a little help, what John had seen immediately, the Lord is alive! And this time he moves by faith: he takes off his old work clothes, leaves them  aside like a burial garment, and dives into the deep water of new life. It's almost like another kind of baptism for him.

 It takes Peter time to see, follow, watch; to be washed and found and fed by this new understanding of living with Jesus: it takes good time for him to learn the dance of faith. Those of us who aren't natural dancers can appreciate this: a 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3 rhythm that helps us finally move into living in the rhythm of the resurrection: conversation, communion, community; again and again and again, until we can meet with and move like Christ. Peter even gets a threefold call from Jesus. It's not that he's slow, it just takes time until he finds the message he's made to carry, the life-giving faith that he must live for, the truth for which he can give his life. For Peter, the living body of Christ is found, is seen, in the company of believers, is known in the hands outstretched, the storied shared, the lives knit together in caring company. That may be the model that makes sense for us,

We don't know much about Mary. She may have been a rich woman, one of those who supported Jesus and the disciples in their journey; she may have been a prostitute, perhaps the woman who poured oil on Jesus' feet and rubbed them with her hair; some would say she was the sister of Lazarus, but we don't really know. There are all sorts of stories of who she was and what she means, but this we know; that she was the first at the tomb, she stayed with the mystery of it, she saw the stone had been  taken away, she asked the angels, heavenly messengers, where Jesus has been taken; she cries until a stranger, a gardener, asks her why she cries and she suddenly realizes that the one who asks the question is himself the answer.

John is given sudden insight, Peter's faithful call comes through the grace of the community and the sense of the sacraments and the scripture, Mary is saved, sees the Lord, comes to know Jesus resurrected, because, even with all her tears, she keeps on asking questions. The tenth century Saint, Symeon the New Theologian, says the Spirit is most often shown in the gift of tears, and The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century text, says that sometimes the best prayer is simply to say "Help!" Perhaps it is that our desperate desire for wholeness, to find the face of hope, will take us along some mysterious way to find ourselves face to face with the Christ we seek, for that's what happens to Mary.

May we, today, be willing to join this company of witnesses, may we be ready to receive the insight of John, to take the road of sacramental community and ministry of Peter, and to let our tears and our desires lead us, like Mary, to the Lord of Life; that we may join in that company and add our voices to that chorus, "We have seen the Lord."

For Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sermon: Palm Sunday in your City, in your Heart.

This morning I want to start with a story.

In March of 1972, a bit over forty years ago, my grandmother, Eva Storey, came closer to dying. She was just eighty, had been dealing with leukemia for several years, with a few remissions and one time what seemed like a miracle recovery, but now it was coming closer to the end.  Her eldest child, my uncle, flew out from the East Coast to be with her and I remember, as if it were yesterday, the day he carried her in his arms, followed by his younger sisters, my mother and my aunt, across the lawn to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.

 I stood watching from the kitchen window. I might've been crying. But two things happened that I remember: first, something like the music of the Sanctus, a sense of bells and music sung by some great choir; “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And, second, a conviction that came into the middle of my pain and felt like sunlight in the center of that dark day. “Thank God,” something in me said so deeply, “Thank God we matter this much.”

Now the moment that touches me from the Gospel for this Palm Sunday is at the very end, when Jesus looks "around at everything" before heading out to Bethany with the twelve.  I wonder what he saw: and my hope is that he sees, everything, all of us, exactly as we are, in all our living and dying, and he knew – he knows – how much it matters. And that gives me great comfort.

I don't know about you, but there's been lots of living and dying in my life this year, this Lent.  Early in the year my best friend John Davis' father died after a long life. His family has adopted me as their American son so I was part of the mourning and preparation for the funeral, and that time reminded me of deaths in my own family: father, mother, brother, nephew; good friends who died too young and too soon of heart conditions and HIV, suicide and substance abuse. And then last month I spent a few days around Numurkah after the floods hit; saw people whose homes and hopes had been  flooded out, washed away: great courage and great sadness.  Then two weeks ago I got a call from California that my niece, Lisa, had passed away after courageously living with cancer for several years: not yet fifty, loving husband, two children still in their teens, a beloved younger sister; and her mother at her bedside at the last. Then finally last week, Fr Glyn Reese of St John's, Wodonga, who I am proud to call a friend, found that his  elderly parents  had been murdered in their home in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Glyn and his son Anthony flew over there right away, his wife Liesl and daughter Laura are joining them for the funeral tomorrow night. Too much life and too much death.

 And I think Jesus sees all that as he looks around Jerusalem, sees all our fears and anger and anxiety about death, see all the trials and tragedy of our everyday lives and he walks right into the middle of it all: maybe he even carries us along like an elder son into the middle of that very noisy city. And even though it might not feel like it, I think there is some good news there.

The English theologian, Austin Farrer, writes that we are invited to exchange our living death for Jesus' dying life.  We are invited to stop holding on so tight to our fears and our hopes and our tensions and our ideas about the times we live in; and instead to have faith that Jesus will take us in his arms and guide us through the middle of it all. Now (as they used to say) that's the good news; and the bad news is that we can only get there from here, from exactly where we are, by being exactly who we are: being mixed bags of fear and hope and hate and love and longing and death and life, just being who we are as the Lord hugs us close in the life of Christ and takes us right through the middle of each and every death into the heart of God's eternal life.

 So the events of the coming week in our church calendar give us a kind of circle tour of all the sites of the human condition: we see power politics and cunning betrayal, compassion and community, virtue and violence,  death and resurrection. And, for each of us, that will resonate with our own histories and hopes, stories we remember, people we miss, things we fear. Holy week can be a difficult way to follow. But Jesus knows this route, looks and sees all there is in Jerusalem, in every city, in any city and country, in our own homes and hearts: so that nobody and nothing shall be outside the loving embrace of his ultimate love.

Sometimes it's not easy to take this in. We might not always think that the universe could be knit together so carefully, we might not be able to hope that the holiest One will hear our fear and hope and loneliness. But we are called to have faith that Christ holds us close through these crises, these dangerous opportunities, that Jesus will take us through every turn, every tight corner of the human journey from birth to death and beyond, will take everybody everywhere, and bring us home, to what we call heaven to what we hold in hope in our hearts at the last.

That's why we call it Good Friday, because God meets a every needless tragic death, all the violence and the shortcuts of the city, all the separation from what we  care for, and Christ carries all that home in love.

So this week stay close to your Bible and prayer book, to your church and community, to all your friends, feelings and your fears, and to your hope and your heart too: because the heart of God, the God of love we see in Jesus Christ, journeys to Jerusalem to meet His death and to bring us life. And we must thank God that it matters this much.