Monday, April 21, 2014

Live Hope Out Loud

[Sermon from Easter, April 20, 2014]
This year, our journey with Jesus through Holy Week took a turn we’d have never expected.  Seven days ago, we had just marked Palm Sunday and the deep mystery of God’s self-sacrifice for us, despite our propensity to choose death over life.  And in the beauty of that quiet springtime afternoon, a longtime hatemonger turned his vitriol into violence, traveling hours to Kansas City for the sole purpose of killing Jews.  Ironically failing in his task, he still murdered three people at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom.
This act is something we can neither understand nor undo.  But, as we’ve witnessed throughout this week, people of hope can do something:  We can respond in love.  We gathered here on Wednesday to lift up our Jewish sisters and brothers in prayer as they celebrated Passover – the story of the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God’s victory over the forces of sin and death.  Their Exodus is our Exodus; their freedom is our freedom; our stories are one.  And so is our common blessedness as children of the one God.
These murders – particularly with their horrifying motivation – they make us recoil.  But they also challenge us to speak our faith in the conversations that follow.  A reasonable person might well look at this week and wonder how in the world we can claim what we claim.  We say Jesus has defeated sin and death … and yet, look at the world we live in.  Where is Jesus’ victory?  Where is God’s deliverance through the Red Sea?  Evil and death are clearly still there; Pharaoh’s forces still bear down on us. 
The mysterious truth is this:  God paints new life on the canvas of death.  Yes, death is present, but it is never the end of the story.  Yes, evil still raises its head from the swamp of our brokenness; we still have an enemy against which we contend.  But those battles are merely mopping-up actions in a conflict Jesus has already won.  So even in a week like this one, our call is to live hope out loud.
And you know – God assigns that mission to those who seem least likely to carry it out.  Go back to the Gospel reading we just heard.  Mary Magdalene has come to Jesus’ tomb to take care of the final details of burial.  Because he died just before the Sabbath began, she couldn’t finish her work on Friday.  Her world has come to an end – and now she has to deal with the body.  So in her grief, she comes to the tomb, where she finds insult added to injury:  The body is gone.  She runs to find Peter and John, either to help her find it or just to share the pain.  They look around and find the body’s wrappings neatly set aside.  But the men just go back home, leaving Mary alone in her grief.  As she sobs, she sees angels in the tomb; but even they don’t offer any help.  She turns and sees someone she thinks is the gardener, and she looks for help from him.  But that man standing there is Jesus himself, having come to Mary in her pain.  Once he speaks her name, she can see him for who he is – and his new life becomes her new life.  This person whose words were choked by tears now finds a new voice.  She runs to the disciples, who are hiding out at home; and she boldly says to them, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).  God has transformed her pain into proclamation as she lives hope out loud. 
In our own experiences, we’ve each had our places of pain.  If we have very many years behind us at all, we’ve each known Good Friday, one way or another.  Whether it’s abuse or addiction, limitation or loss, self-doubt or self-destruction – we’ve all come a little too close to the tomb.  And yet, here we are.  God has empowered us to keep on walking.  In a faith that thrives on paradox, this is perhaps the most surprising truth we come to know in our relationship with Christ:  That precisely through our deepest wounds, we’re called to help God heal the world.  The pain that we’ve confronted, the evil we’ve resisted, the tombs from which we’ve walked away – all of it prepares us to serve those still broken and bound.  Through our words and through our deeds, our call is to live hope out loud.
This week, we’ve heard an incredible example of this kind of proclamation – Mary Magdalene among us, in the flesh.  She is Mindy Corporon, the mother and daughter of two of Sunday’s victims, who was there when her loved ones were gunned down.  I imagine most of you have seen Mindy Corporan on TV at some point this week.  She’s appeared on local and national newscasts; she spoke at the funeral of her father and son on Good Friday.  And she’s done all this with astounding composure.  She embodies such peace that, as she describes her experience and her feelings about the shootings, you almost forget that this woman is living through hell:  the brutal killing of her father and her son, perpetrated by the worst person you can imagine.  Out of such sorrow, most of us would speak horror or bitterness or vengeance or despair.  Mindy Corporon spoke peace – even the very day of the shootings.  Only hours after losing her father and her son, at a hastily arranged vigil, this is the proclamation God gave her to share with the world.  She said:
 “I came upon the scene very, very quickly … before the police and before the ambulance … and I knew immediately that [my father and my son] were in heaven.  And I know that they are in heaven together.…  My dad got elected to take [my son to the audition] because my mom was busy with other cousins, and I was with my other son at a lacrosse game.  We were in life; we were having life.  And I want you all to know that we’re going to have more life, and I want you all to have more life.”1  
Deep in her bones, Mindy Corporon gets Easter.  Faced with seemingly unbearable loss, she chooses to bear it by proclaiming life and peace, fearlessly.  In doing so, she is nothing less than an apostle.  As God did 2,000 years ago for Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning, God has brought life out of death, giving Mindy Corporan an unbelievable assignment and equipping her for her task.
That is our Lord’s pattern:  God takes the person in the deepest pain and chooses her as the proclaimer of new life – resurrected life – eternal life – in the here and now, and continuing forever.  Like Mary Magdalene, clearly Mindy Corporan has seen the Lord.  And in her witness, so have we.  In this terrible and beautiful and holy week, she has shown us the best way to join in Christ’s victory and stand against evil when it surfaces.  She has shown us that the wounded make the very best healers.  She has shown us how to take up the cross, bedeck it with flowers, and boldly bear it to a world that loves to hate.  Mindy Corporon has shown us how to live hope out loud.
And now, that call is ours.  We, too, have been to the cross.  We, too, have come to the tomb and found it empty.  Unlikely witnesses though we are, we, too, have peace to proclaim.  Use the wounds you bear to help God heal the world.  Live hope out loud.
1.        KansasCityStarVideo.  “Daughter and mother of victims speaks at prayer vigil after Overland Park shootings.”  April 13, 2014.  Available at:  Accessed April 18, 2014.


Who Is This Man, and Why Is He Dying on a Cross?

[Sermon from Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014]
Palm Sunday is one of those times when the liturgy preaches far more eloquently than I can.  If we truly see and hear what today’s worship proclaims, we will walk away astonished, slack-jawed at what we’ve witnessed.  So rather than trying to explain a theology of the atonement; rather than examining Roman imperialism and the religious power structure in Second-Temple Judaism; rather than trying in any other way to make rational sense of the events we’re bringing into living memory this morning – instead, I’d like us to consider two simple questions:  Who is this man, and why is he dying on a cross? 
And I’d like us to put a face on the person who might be asking those questions.  I’d like you to imagine her now.  Her name is Chelsea, and she isn’t anyone you know … or she’s many people you know.  And this anecdote about Chelsea is a true story.  As Emmanuel Cleaver likes to say, it’s a true story, and it may have actually happened, too.
Chelsea walks into Macy’s, shopping for Easter.  She’s looking for an outfit for her little girl because the family is getting together for Easter brunch, and it’s a longstanding tradition in her family to get something new and springy to wear that day.  But Chelsea also wants to find something for herself; after all, moms deserve a little something special for a holiday, too.  So she comes to the jewelry counter.  Since they’re getting together for Easter, she thinks it might be nice to get a new cross necklace.
So Chelsea starts looking at the crosses … dozens of them, it seems.  Every possible style you could imagine – gold and silver, ornate and plain, traditional and contemporary, fine and rough.  Who knew you could find so many different crosses?  The sales associate comes over, offering to help – “Do you know what kind of cross you’re looking for?”  Chelsea examines the options and sees that, even with all the variety, they fall into two basic categories.  “Well,” Chelsea says, “let’s start by narrowing it down this way.  I’d like one with the little man on it.”
I’ve heard this story told to bemoan the religious ignorance of our culture today.  But there is no shame in not knowing something.  The only shame would be if we had nothing to offer Chelsea in reply.
So:  Who is this little man, and why is he dying on a cross?  I can see why Chelsea might look for those answers.  She’d be in good company.  Everybody in today’s Passion Gospel is asking those questions, too.  The Roman governor, the religious authorities, the soldiers, the passersby – everyone’s trying to get a handle on those questions:  Who is this man, and why is he dying on a cross?
What would we say?  Well, if I know anything about theology, I know there is no single way to answer those questions.  But here’s my answer, at least.
In one sense, this man is Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish peasant and itinerant preacher who’s been alienating himself from his own religious leaders by questioning their authority and undermining their credibility with the people they’re supposed to lead.  He keeps pointing out how they’re missing the mark by worshipping their religious system more than following God – a God who’s much more interested in seeing people fed, clothed, healed, and forgiven than in seeing people follow religious rules. 
Not surprisingly, Jesus has gained quite a following.  And that’s brought him to the attention of the Roman authorities – especially when he marches into the capital city with the crowd calling him king and calling out to him to “save us,” which is what that cry “Hosanna!” actually means (Matthew 21:9).  Jesus is a threat to everyone in power, religious and civic rulers alike; and starting a riot in the Temple only seals his fate.  He’s whipped within an inch of his life and then crucified – a ghastly way to be executed, reserved for the lowest of the low, intended to terrorize anybody else who might think about challenging imperial authority.  So he hangs on a cross, along with two lowlifes, until he suffocates.
That’s one way to see who this man is and why he’s dying on a cross.  But Jesus is so much more than that.  This man dying on the cross is there to rule and heal the very people who are killing him. 
All through the story we heard this morning, he’s named as “king.”  The chief priests and religious elders accuse him of it.  The governor interrogates him about it and even presents him to the crowd as “the messiah” (Matthew 27:17), which means the one anointed by God to rule God’s people.  The soldiers dress him up as the emperor, complete with a fake imperial scepter and a wreath of thorns instead of laurel on his head.  Even the official charge nailed to the cross ironically proclaims the God’s-honest truth – this is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. 
And that’s only scratching the surface.  The religious authorities also speak the truth they can’t abide.  As Jesus hangs on the cross, gasping for air, they mock him by calling him “Son of God” (Matthew 27:40), the historic title for the divinely chosen kings of Israel.  They challenge him to save himself, this man whose very name, Jesus, means “he saves.”  They say they’ll believe in him, if God actually bothers to show up.
And here’s the greatest irony:  As is so often the case in our own hearts, the reality they most reject is the deepest truth there is.  Everybody’s working so hard to deny that Jesus is king and deny that Jesus is divine because, deep down, they’re all terrified it’s true.  Only the emperor could be called kyrios, or Lord – the incarnation of divine power on earth.  Only the religious hierarchy could command the people how to live.  Imperial power and religious power must be unquestioned … unless, of course, God actually shows up in the flesh. 
But the journalist on the scene tells the truth.  As the Lord and king takes his final breath, the earth shakes, and rocks split, and the Temple’s barrier between people and God is torn in two.  And the Centurion, the reporter doing the live shot, names what he sees, with no filters:  “Truly, this man was God’s son!” (Matthew 27:54).
So who is this little man on the cross?  Jesus, the insurrectionist?  No, Jesus the kyrios, the Lord – the true emperor and the true embodiment of God among us.  We know it precisely because he doesn’t claim it.  He doesn’t need to.  This is the One – the one who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself … [and] humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).  And in God’s inverted economy, where power is weakness and weakness is power, God reverses humiliation into exaltation, giving him the “name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), so that we all might see and know the truth:  that this little man on the cross, this Jesus, is the Lord – the ruler anointed to follow the great Jewish king David, the emperor who trumps whichever clown sits on the imperial throne in Rome.  This little man on the cross is God in the flesh – torn and bleeding flesh – come to bind up and heal every wound we bear.  This little man on the cross breathes the Holy Spirit as he gasps for his final breath.  This little man on the cross holds his arms out wide to speak this astonishing truth to the world that wants God dead:  “See how much I love you?” he says.  “I love you this much.”  [Arms extended in cruciform shape]