Monday, September 12, 2016

Finding Jesus, Part 2

Feast of Holy Cross, transferred, and the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks
Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a

Last week, I told you that today I’d give you Part 2 of my contribution to this sermon series on Finding Jesus.  I will do that, but this day has a very different tone from last Sunday.  Last week was Labor Day weekend, our final taste of summer relaxation.  Today, we’re remembering the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 
There is no official feast of 9/11 on the Church calendar, so we’re moving the feast of Holy Cross from Sept. 14 to today.  9/11 and the feast of Holy Cross share some resonances, particularly about the place of suffering in this world God loves, as well as where and how we find God in that suffering.  So on this day, as we honor the anniversary of 9/11 and honor the mystery of the Cross, we remember a theological truth so deep that it defies logic, one you have to experience to know.  That truth is this:  Jesus redeems our suffering, healing the brokenness of human life and rolling away the stone from our tombs, by entering into our suffering directly.  Jesus comes to us in our most grievous moments, takes flesh, and dwells in the midst of pain and sorrow we thought we could never bear.  And through his stunning compassion, contrary to all human logic, Jesus conquers our pain and sorrow and the brokenness from which it comes, leading us out of the grave and into new life.  I don’t expect that to make perfect sense, laying it out there that way.  It’s like trying to explain love.  In fact, it is trying to explain love.  With content like this, logical explanations can only go so far.  At some point, we have to enter into the deep truth that only story and memory can hold. 
First, about 9/11:  I imagine every one of us in this room over a certain age can remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago this morning, when airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.  I was in seminary.  We were beginning the first week of classes for that semester, the senior year for Ann and me.  That morning, I was excited about the semester but worried about Ann.  Her health hadn’t been good for a few weeks; she was having pain in her lungs, and shortness of breath, and general exhaustion.  And we didn’t know what was wrong. 
That morning, the whole seminary community was gathering in the auditorium for orientation to the first week of classes.  Before we got there, some of us had heard that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center; the initial reporting said the pilot of a private plane must have made a tragic mistake.  As the academic dean was speaking, a voice came from the back of the room, the ethics professor shouting out, “Oh, my God, a plane has hit the second tower, too!”  Class was over.  We turned on the TV news coverage and sat there, the whole seminary community, paralyzed.
After a couple of hours of shock and fear, one of the professors realized we should be praying.  So we filed out of the auditorium and into the chapel to offer the Supplication, a rarely used rite in the Book of Common Prayer intended for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster” (154).
From that brief time of prayer in the chapel, the image that comes to mind for me is the seminary cross.  When you enter the chapel at Seminary of the Southwest, the first thing you notice is that there is no cross inside.  There’s an altar, and a pulpit, and a pipe organ, and rows of chairs – but no cross.  Looking for it, your eye goes to the wall behind the altar, a wall of clear, leaded glass revealing the grounds outside.  And among the huge Texas live oaks in the yard stands a bronze cross, probably 15 feet high, weathered green over the years.  That is the chapel cross – but significantly, it’s not in the chapel.  It’s in the world.  That cross shows where Jesus was, and where Jesus is – in the world that he gave himself to redeem.  One could argue that’s where the cross most belongs.
It is perhaps an accident of physics that, on that day, the ruins of the World Trade Center also left a bare metal cross, standing in the dust – amid the sacrifice of the first responders, amid the joy of the rescuers, amid the broken hearts of families left alone.  It’s pictured on the cover of today’s bulletin.  Like Good Friday, like the crucifixion itself, that cross is a stunningly powerful proclamation of the horror of humanity’s sinfulness – our willingness to turn our backs on the peace and love God intends.  But it also proclaims the power of God to redeem that sinfulness by being lifted up in an act of deadly healing that sets the world to rights.  The cross represents Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his being raised up “to draw all people” to himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:32).  God has highly exalted him, as Paul writes in Philippians, so that at the name of the crucified Jesus, “every knee should bend … and every tongue confess” that he is the true emperor, the true king, replacing all human pretenders to the throne.  (Philippians 2:10-11).  That’s the message of this feast of Holy Cross we’re marking today. 
But we can’t jump to the triumphal end of the story just yet.  Jesus’ victory, the victory in which we share – it comes at a cost.  For the reason why Jesus can defeat sin and death is because he has been there.  He has faced down Satan and endured the worst that humanity could dish out.  He has suffered along with the powerless, along with political prisoners, along with those who have no country, along with those who can’t fight back.  He has suffered with the sick, with the hungry, with the naked, with the abandoned.  Jesus has hung on that cross in the world; and from that cross, he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We know that story from 2,000 years ago.  What makes it true is that it’s still our story, too.  As the first responders rushed into the ashes 15 years ago, Jesus rushed in with them.  As thousands bled and died in the rubble, Jesus waited with them.  As family members tearfully posted photos of the missing, Jesus cried with them.  As passengers on a plane over Pennsylvania decided to sacrifice themselves to save people below, Jesus crashed along with them.  And as innocent people now endure discrimination born of fear and hate, Jesus stands with them.  What makes the story of the cross our truth is this:  that Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he empties himself; and being found in human form, he humbles himself in the ultimate act of love: compassion, which literally means “suffering with” someone.  And what Jesus bears, Jesus heals – no matter what life dishes out, no matter how fearsome the world becomes, no matter how clearly death appears to be the victor.  Jesus heals us by entering into our suffering, taking it on himself, and reminding us how the story truly ends.
So I told you last week that today I’d finish my story of finding Jesus.  It’s this compassionate Jesus I had in mind, and I met him in a hospital.  It was about a month and a half after 9/11.  I mentioned earlier that Ann had been having health challenges, though we didn’t know the cause.  She entered the hospital just after 9/11, and it wasn’t long before we had our answer.  She had lupus.  Now, lupus presents in lots of different ways – sometimes being mildly disruptive, sometimes threatening your life.  It was the latter kind that attacked Ann.  Her lung capacity began vanishing, and her heart rate rose to a consistent 160 beats per minute.  The doctors tried all kinds of things, but nothing made much difference.  She just kept losing lung capacity, and her heart kept up its killing pace. 
Then, one afternoon – on Halloween, actually – her heart started slowing, but not in a good way.  Suddenly, her blood pressure was down to 80/40.  The nurses tried to seem calm as they whisked her off to surgery, as her heart rate kept dropping.  There wasn’t time for much conversation before surgery began, and Ann didn’t know what was happening anyway.
The nurse led me to the surgery waiting area and into one of those little rooms they reserve for “private consultations.”  Now, I had done my chaplaincy training in this same hospital several months earlier, and I knew what those little rooms were for.  I’d used them with patients.  That’s where the chaplain takes you when the news isn’t likely to be good.  Ironically, though, there was no chaplain, and I didn’t really want to talk with a stranger anyway.  So I called Ann’s parents and mine, to let them know what was happening. 
And then I called my friends.  There were six of us in my seminary class who’d become especially close over the previous two years: Amy and Kathy and Faith and Wes and Cal and me.  We called ourselves the Six Pack.  So I talked with one of them – Faith, I think – and she rallied the other four.  Within minutes, they were walking into the waiting room.
Of course, nothing they could say would change the fact that Ann was having emergency surgery to drain a quart of fluid from around her heart.  There were no explanations or rationalizations they could offer.  But the presence of my friends was the presence of Jesus Christ, the one who calls us “friends” (John 15:15).  In my fear, Jesus was there.  In my suffering, Jesus was there.  Now, if you’d asked me, I might have been able to make that connection intellectually.  But here’s how I felt it: When they arrived in that scary little waiting room, one by one they each hugged me.  Hugs are always good, but it’s the last hug I remember particularly.  It was Cal.  Cal was an athlete, a swimmer; and even in seminary he had kept up his regimen.  So Cal came to me, and put his arms out like a cross.  And he wrapped me in the strongest hug I’ve ever known. 
It wasn’t Cal.  It was Jesus.  In the worst moment, as life literally seemed to be draining away, Jesus came and stood before me and wrapped me in his love.  He knew what I was experiencing.  He’d been there before, after all.  He’d been through the worst that human life dishes out. 
The God who suffered on the cross suffers with us still – and eventually walks with us, out of that scary little waiting room, out of the tomb, and into the victory of life made new.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Finding Jesus, part 1

Sept. 4, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33

Here we are, three weeks into this sermon series on Finding Jesus.  So far, we’ve heard from Mtr. Anne and Dr. Tom Vozzella, sharing their stories of God coming and taking flesh and changing their lives.  It may seem miraculous – and it is miraculous – but it’s also part of the deal for followers of Jesus.  Much of the point of this sermon series is to encourage us to expand our sense of where and how Jesus might show up in our lives.  Sometimes, it’s dramatic.  Sometimes, it’s everyday.  And sometimes, it’s both.  But whenever and however we find him, he comes with an offer – an offer of relationship.  The question is, what do we do with the offer?
So, what’s your relationship with Jesus like?  One way to assess it might be to picture who’s there at the other end of your prayers.  Who are you praying to – and maybe more to the point, who are you comfortable praying to?  Are you connecting with the creator of the universe, a cosmic parent who wants the best for you, who fervently hopes you’ll to make the right choices, and who sometimes intervenes (inexplicably) to show you the way?  Or maybe you’re connecting with a Spirit you can’t quite identify or picture but who calms you, or comforts you, or empowers you to do what you could never do on your own?  Or maybe you’re connecting with the One who calls you “friend” (John 15:15) – someone who has walked the path you’re walking, and who guides you along it, and who stunningly sacrificed himself to give you the gift of life that never ends?
It’s that last One I’ve had trouble with.  Even early on, I could identify with God as the cosmic parent.  I could even identify with God as a spirit I couldn’t picture but knew was there – everywhere, in everything.  But who exactly was this Jesus everybody talked about?  The hero, the superstar of our faith; I get that.  But also the one who “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” as we proclaim in the Creed every Sunday.  Talk about a long-distance relationship.
It didn’t help that I grew up as an Episcopalian in Springfield, Missouri, the buckle on the Bible Belt.  In Springfield, it seemed, everybody knew Jesus.  On every corner was a Baptist church or an Assemblies of God church.  In those traditions, not only did they know Jesus, they could even talk about him.  A lot.  And they could talk about him in those wise and mysterious ways that said they knew things I didn’t.  A great example was a billboard for a Baptist church on the north side of town.  “Jesus is the answer,” it proclaimed.  OK, fair enough.  But what was the question?  If I don’t know enough to ask the right question, I’m probably not going to be able to understand your answer.
Although I went to church every week growing up, I actually heard very little about Jesus – at least very little about the risen Jesus present in the here and now.  That was just as true at church as at home.  Most of what I knew about Jesus came from sacred music because I sang in church choirs from the second grade on.  And the church music we sang wasn’t praise songs or old Protestant classics.  Other Christians I knew sang those songs, about having a relationship with Jesus.  Think about the titles:  “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”  “I’m Gonna Have a Little Talk With Jesus.”  “I Come to the Garden Alone,” where “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  We tended to make fun of music like that, as I was growing up.  What we sang in the Episcopal Church was instructive and poetic but much less personal or experiential.  Think about these Hymnal classics: “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.”  “There is a green hill far away.”  “O Word of God incarnate, O wisdom from on high.”  “In Christ, there is no east or west.”  “Lift high the cross.”   Even the old militaristic hymns, like “Onward, Christian soldiers.”  The songs we offered all proclaimed Jesus with power or beauty or theological depth.  But few of them had me singing about someone I love and who loves me back.
Actually, I envied my Baptist and Assemblies friends, the people who sang the other kinds of Jesus songs.  I envied the folks who had an authentic answer when the proselytizers came knocking on their doors.  In my family, we came up with smart responses we could use when they stopped by.  “Have you been born again?”  Why, yes, when I was baptized at 1 month of age.  “Have you ever come up for an altar call and given your life to Jesus?”  Why, yes, every Sunday when I receive Communion.  The answers were right, of course; and I’ve offered them myself to people struggling to understand how Episcopalians see those beliefs and practices.  But those answers don’t describe a relationship.  If you don’t know what it means to say, “I love Jesus” or “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior,” then you think your way into the same truth.
OK, fast-forward to when I was 24.  I’d returned to college to earn teaching certifications, and I was back in Springfield, living with my parents and going to Christ Episcopal Church once again.  I was grateful for the place to live while I took classes for a year, but I have to say that identifying with my parents wasn’t really what I wanted at that point in my life.  After all, I was a little older than most of the other students in the program; I’d had a couple years’ experience in the real world, writing for the governor of Missouri; I was teaching a freshman composition class.  I had delusions of coolness.  Looking back at myself a quarter century later, I recognize that I’ve never had any hope of being cool, whether or not I was living with my parents.  But at that point, the last thing I wanted was to see myself as being part of my nuclear family at 24 years old.
Among other things, it’s hard to find a girl when you’re in that situation.  Now, Ann and I knew each other at that point, from having a class together; but we weren’t dating.  Part of the reason why was because it’s not exactly the height of “cool” to take a girl back to your parents’ living room after a date and sit there while they watch TV.  I wanted to be cool, but instead I was stuck being a family guy.  And I kind of resented it.
One Sunday morning, the Old Testament reading was the one we heard this morning, from Deuteronomy.  I don’t remember exactly where the priest went with the sermon, but I can still hear him, in his high, reedy voice, repeating those words over and over again:  Choose life, choose life, choose life that you may live (30:19).  Even without a strong personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, I could take a hint.  It was time to recognize that being my parents’ son was a pretty good gig.  It was time to embrace the life God was giving me rather than wishing I had a different one.  And it was time to stop worrying about how I measured up in other people’s eyes.
Well, long story short, it turned out that Ann was looking for a family guy rather than a cool dude.  Praise God for that – and not just because I got the pretty girl but because that pretty girl helped me find Jesus.  I don’t know that she knew that before this week, but it’s true.
I’d love to be able to say that I found Jesus in some lightning-bolt moment.  Many of us with clerical collars think we’re supposed to have stories like that, some moment when the scales fell from our eyes.  Tom Vozzella shared a moment kind of like that last Sunday, about hearing a church organ for the first time and knowing he was called to serve God through music.  Must be nice.  In my case, a miraculous vision during Eucharist would have been great, given how things worked out professionally.  But I didn’t get any of that.
Instead, I got a wife.  And what does that have to do with finding Jesus?  It’s about God offering me life, the life of God’s love in the flesh, and me being aware enough of the blessing to choose it. 
As we heard in that reading from Deuteronomy, God holds out to us the offer of astonishing blessings, the chance to live in the Promised Land that God prepares for us.  For me, that Promised Land has been the land of relationship.  In the love I’ve found in our marriage, I have experienced the love of God incarnate, which is precisely who Jesus is.  That kind of love is not abstraction or explanation.  It’s not an agreement in principle between two parties to tender and accept the offer of eternal life.  The love of God is Jesus – love with the abstractions removed.  It’s love that takes flesh, and commits to you, and stands by you, and affirms your inherent value even when your actions don’t merit it.  I came to know that love, divine love, from Ann.  
It may be odd to hear that on a Sunday when Jesus tells us, in the Gospel reading, that we have to “hate” our families to follow him (Luke 14:26).  I think that hyperbole is his way of saying we can’t put anything in the place of God.  But I would say the love we know in relationships doesn’t have to compete with God’s love.  Instead, the love we know in relationships can point us toward God’s love, helping us believe it’s true.
That worked for me.  I chose to believe God’s love was true even though my own wiring would have left me skeptical of it forever.  I used to be the guy waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him, waiting for Lucy to yank the football away just as Charlie Brown runs up to kick it.  In the love of my wife, I came to know a different definition of me.  I came to know that, in God’s eyes, I was worthy of the Promised Land.  I came to see that I was worthy of being saved.  I came to know the love of Jesus – the love of someone who hangs in there with you, and gives himself for you, despite the fact you’ll never be good enough to earn it.  So I decided to say, “Yes” – to choose life, to enter the Promised Land, to accept God’s love with flesh and bones on it, and to accept the fact that, yes, I could, actually have a little talk with Jesus.  Because God loves me – flesh and bones, warts and all.
So, there’s part 1. You’ll have to come back next week to hear how the story goes in part 2.