Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter 2013

Let’s start wide, and say that something happened, let’s say that two people (Sts Peter and Paul) saw something happen both close up and a ways away, and their lives changed in a way that turned them and the world in a revolution that continues today. 
Then let’s say a third person (St Mary Magdalene) went farther and saw more and we’re not even sure what happened to her. It’s a mystery! But let’s also say these three people; Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (not to be confused with the twentieth century folk-rock group) are like us, can tell us something we need to know about how faith can come from doubt, hope can cast out fear, and new love can rise out of loss in light of the resurrection of Jesus. 
As a first century church teacher, healer, bishop, martyr, St Peter sounds pretty good; but he didn’t always. If you really look at the man as he appears in the early part of the New Testament, he’s… well, to quote a children’s sermon  I gave a few years ago. 
“Sometimes his mouth opened before his mind really thought of what he was going to say or do. He tried too hard. He talked too much. He would say he was going to do something and then not do it. But Jesus still liked him a lot and kept him around.”

That’s an informal but fair summary of how Simon Peter is seen in the Gospels. And there are three ways what happened to Peter then can inform us now.

First, To be fully human; second, to be ready to struggle with the life of faith and with doubt as well; and third; to be willing to change and grow beyond what you think you know about yourself and what you think you know about God as well. 

We’re so tough on ourselves, afraid that we are incomplete when the truth is that we are only unfinished, flesh and blood. We worry that we might be judged for being “incomplete” or for not having our answers right. But if Simon Peter ends a saint then maybe being “unfinished” is the right word for any human saint in process.. Not according to a prearranged plan or filling out an existing exam, less like marching and more like dancing. Two quotes fit here;  the hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” and a bumper sticker which said, “Be kind, God isn’t finished with me yet!”  

Second, Peter models wrestling with faith and doubt. Abraham Heschel writes: "Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human persons. To have faith is to be in labor." And Peter labors on. He gets it wrong, he keeps going, he tries again, he comes ‘round right. 

For we learn how to live a life of faith by struggling with what it means to doubt, and Peter comes to believe something bigger than he knew. And that’s the third point. 

Peter’s faith become bigger than his life. He had to lose the doubt that he was not enough, and live into the faith that God believed in him more than he believed in himself! We can think of faith as a sort of massive self-improvement process; but Peter’s faith comes as a gift to take with an open heart and with empty hands. That’s a good lesson for some of us. 

Now St Paul’s path is almost the opposite of Peter; his Christ comes with a blinding insight; that Paul is to let go, unlearn all those clear cut laws and commandments he had leaned on in living as a Pharisee, a fundamentalist on the straight and narrow path for so long. He had to come to see law and grace in a new way in the wide and graceful light of Christ, in a growing assurance that fear can find hope; and that hope is wider than fear.

This is not easy for Paul (and I would wager it wasn’t too easy for some of the people around him), for this kind of insight can leave you in the dark for awhile, turning you around from following dead laws to living new life, from outer and inner darkness to renewed and inspired insight, a larger life and larger love with more room than you had thought.

And the second thing Paul sees is through his witness of that this new shared life of Jesus, this new spirit, brings together the body of Christ; people of different viewpoints, histories and hopes. So Paul’s grows to find a new harmony in this common way home: to love his neighbor as he learned to love himself, as beloved of God. As Peter had to take on a new faith, Paul had to leave off his old fear. That may fit for some of us too.

A 14th century book “Cloud of Unknowing” has a three bits of advice on meeting God in prayer that fit here. For Peter-type people it says; push upward beyond what you think you know, beyond who you think you are, into the place where God waits to surprise you! The advice for the Paul-people is; press down, leaving behind what you’ve done and who you were, what you believed and fought for, so God can meet you and renew you. 

There is a third way in the Cloud as well. The author says, and I paraphrase mightily here; If all else fails, just say, “Here I am, as I am, right, now. Please help! And that takes us to Mary, who must have been so important in Jesus’ community, and whom we know so little about; Mary with those two angels, messengers, and that mysterious gardener. 

For Mary, as well as for Peter and Paul, Jesus had opened a new way into the mystery of life, His life and deeds seem to speak a word, live out a way, to get past all dead ends and into something new --  more holy, and more fully involved with flesh and blood and community and relationship. More life. New life.

But here she in a dirty grey dawn, walking to a lonely garden where a closed tomb marked the death of the liveliest person she had ever known, the liveliest hope she had ever held, and all she could do is ask someone who looks like the gardener where the corpse of that love may now be hidden.

Gardens are as tough and as wonderful as life: unpredictable places where seed falls into mysterious ground: summers with rich harvest, years when fire and drought kill growth and the fields seem barren: autumn when the promise of rain gives us new hope, cold hidden winters, and warm springs when life bursts into sudden glory. They take time, show history, need much work, can cause calluses, break your heart and back, and yet we love them so.

But if you’ve ever planted seeds and waited for the harvest you know what a garden is worth. So does God. In Christ, God’s seed is planted deep in all that is around us: all that is reasonable, holy and living. Even now, God is casting it wide, letting the seed break apart in darkness, letting it be nourished over time, working the field, never ceasing to weed and watch, that nothing may be lost in life, not even death shall be lost in the light of God!  And in that garden Jesus defeated every falsehood with the power of the deepest truth of God’s love.

And Jesus comes to meet Mary, and us, there; love lives and speaks to her in a life that lives beyond death. Do not hold on to an old truth, Mary, meet the mystery of love in a new way,. Let love lost be born anew. For life is now forever new! 

And because she had followed him so faithfully to this dead end, he sends her as the first apostle to this new beginning, and she goes to the disciples with the Gospel news; I have seen the Lord. And it all begins there! 

Three witnesses, three ways three people responded to an almost unbelievable influx of new life, a new way of living, where doubt leads to faith, fear comes to hope, loss finds greater love. There darkness is overcome by a light shining almost two thousand years later, a light that has changed the world and will, make no mistake, continue to do so until Christ is all in all.

For Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia, 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Dealing with Dirty Deaths and Cleaning Gardens - Lent 3C

To start with a confession: I’ve always envied people who can dance well. I’ve even known a few professional dancers who were very serious about their training, practiced stretching and moving much like athletes do, kept themselves fit and limber in their lives, and I’ve always admired that. Now I’ve been working on fitness and stretching in recovering from the shoulder replacement surgery in December and am I am doing regular exercises for range of motion and strength; sitting and standing, on the floor and in the pool too and I am getting better. I can’t quite dance yet, but I am getting there!

This is important to me because for a long time I’ve believed we’re called to dance with life, with each other, and with God. That came back to me when I was reading the lessons we just heard for today: first in Jesus’s response to follower’s questions about folks murdered by Herod,  about people killed by a falling tower;  then in the story that follows about the gardener who pleads for the barren tree to be saved for one more year because it still might bear fruit: and earlier in the prophet Isaiah, the Old Testament lesson, with his proclamation of the heavenly feast, the great Jubilee banquet which turns out to be well worth waiting for. Because both the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel have to do with stretching and balancing and that takes me back to the Lord’s prayer as a kind of dance: so listen and see if this makes sense to you. 

When we say, “Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name,” we stretch out! Even though the word for God in the Greek or Aramaic is close to Papa or Daddy in our language; it is still the God of the whole universe! So we reach out far and then return home when we ask  Abba that: “Your kingdom come, your will be done/ On earth as it is in heaven.” Do you see the start of a dance there? Reaching out to the God who is beyond the universe and call him Papa. and returning to the very particulars of our own life. 

“Give us today our daily bread.”  Even though we’re invited to call God of the universe our Father, we are still asked to acknowledge the fact that we are fragile, flesh and blood, in need of fuel, in danger of starvation. I think most of us have it pretty good nowadays, compared with most of human history, but even today, even now, maybe not here but in countries not too far away, there are people starving to death today. So they might pray this prayer in a different way than we do, and perhaps we might think of them when we pray it.

Then (and I use one translation), “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Again, for most of us indebtedness does not mean slavery or servitude. But I think, for most of the world and over most of our history, debt means the danger of losing your own freedom and that of your family. Again, prayer as the most basic kind of petition for food and for freedom.

The two final petitions focus even closer on the most naked vulnerability: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” God knows we need a prayer there, and in Jesus God sees a lot about trials and about evil: at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism, tempted in the wilderness, Jesus knows hunger very well;  and on the last day of his life, when evil is looking at Him face to face, Jesus cries out, “I thirst.”

As God asking to be called Abba, Father, calls us both to reach out and to come close; so God in Christ Jesus comes close to us, lives deep into human life, knows well our troubles and travels, and shares a lively and inspired life with us. For in the center of who he was, and how he lived, there is a moving faith, a deep hope, a spirited love moving towards, ready to turn, to stretch out, even on the wood of the cross, with the belief that acceptance wins over rejection, that life prevails over death, that God’s purpose rises up in a single love that last forever. “For the kingdom the power and the glory are yours.” As Jesus stretches out to live that life, we reach out to pray that prayer, in every day and every way, as we live our lives. 

So let’s look at the lessons for today.

People come to Jesus and say , “There is corruption, there is violence, there are random accidents and death. People are hit by things that seem to make no sense. Why?” And Jesus doesn’t answer directly. Instead he tells them, “Repent, turn around, put on a new mind, understand love anew!”  Jesus doesn’t teach a way or give us an answer that gets us past all the bad stuff; instead he comes with us right through the middle of life, into all the good and bad, into all the life and death with the promise of resurrection at the last. No theory, no insurance plan, no roadmap; but a lively companion on the way, and the great assurance we will make it through at the last.

In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis,  says, at the end of life (and in the middle of everything, in every moment) there is one conversation. Either we say to God, “Your will be done” or God says to us, “your will be done.” Every moment, every turning, every choice, provides a chance to dance, a place to meet with God (in the immensity of the universe and the smallness and poverty and particularity of our own lives) and move into, and live out this conversation. And in this we are just like Jesus.

It often isn’t easy and our religion doesn’t have easy answers, because it is larger than life!  It’s not like a legal contract, It is more of a dance party, or a relationship, a romance; and it does not take place in an examination room or a court house or a prison. If you want to stay scriptural, you can say it takes place in a garden! So Eden in Genesis is a garden party where wrong choices about whose will will be done seem to break the the party spirit for a long time, and where we look to be lost. But towards the end of his life on earth Jesus goes to another garden, Gesthemane, where with faith and no small sacrifice, he turns round right to brings us home again; where what seemed to be the dead-end of love and hope turns out to be the mystery of a new beginning. And there still no easy answers, for  even when Jesus is put to rest a garden tomb, when, Mary Magdalene, perhaps the first apostle of the resurrection, meets the risen living Christ who has died, she isn’t too sure who he is: she thinks he’s the gardener: and of course he is! Go back to the Gospel for today. In all his dancing with life, death and resurrection Jesus joins us to turn around our ideas, our expectations, our fears, and our hope; turning over the dirt and the ground of our lives with all the weeds and wonder, so that new hope may come to bloom. 

We only get hints and guesses from here: but, both in the Lord’s Prayer and in the prophet Isaiah, we dance with that desire, we are called to stretch out with the hope that the Kingdom is coming, the feast is on the Way, that, with our consent, God’s will will be done. For our Father has given us a garden, Christ joins us in the deepest and closest ground of our life to turn us around, and the spirit will make sure we will never lose our way home.