Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection, by Invitation Only

Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

I want to go right back to that Gospel reading while it’s still fresh in our minds.  The reading begins “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).  John’s gospel does a lot with light and dark – it begins by telling us Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness (1:5); and when Judas goes out to betray Jesus, that story concludes with the ominous words, “And it was night” (13:30).  And as today’s reading begins, early in the morning three days after Jesus was killed, it’s still dark from that spiritual nightfall.  Of course, we know what’s ahead for Mary Magdalene as she sets out that morning; most of us have heard this story before.  But we may forget that Mary isn’t going to the tomb expecting a miracle.  She’s going to the tomb in deep sorrow, struggling to make sense of the death of her leader and the death of their movement.  She’s a ghost of who she’d been in Jesus’ presence.  The best she can do that morning is simply take each next step.  Sometimes, that’s as good as faithfulness gets.  Sometimes, all we can do is just take the next step.
My hunch is that Mary Magdalene isn’t the only one here who’s walking in the darkness this morning.  On Easter Day, it’s easy for the Church to be so triumphant that we leave behind the people who are struggling.  For many of us, we’ve been walking through a pretty rough patch recently.  Just watch the news.  The conflict in Syria keeps intensifying.  A terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Sweden, killing four and injuring a dozen more.  Last week, 44 Christians in Egypt were killed by terrorists simply because they went to church on Palm Sunday, tragically dying as they marked they mystery that Jesus died to save them.  And here in our own family, many of our younger people are reeling from the death of one of their good friends just a few days ago, a tragedy literally beyond our comprehension.  We sing “Hallelujah” this morning as we celebrate resurrection, and rightly so; but we have to remember that the path to “Hallelujah” is the way of the cross – and not all of us are feeling the joy just yet. 
Sometimes, when God breaks into our worlds and transforms them, we hurt too much to see it.  In the half-light of that early morning, Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away from the tomb, and in her devastation she presumes grave robbers are desecrating the body she’s come to honor.  She runs off to get help from her friends, and the disciples Peter and John rush to the scene of the crime.  Mind you, they too are blinded by their sorrow and their pain.  They look into the tomb and believe Mary’s report that the body’s been taken – they can’t yet see God’s hand at work here.  They hurt too much to feel anything but salt rubbed in their wounds, and all Peter and John can do is go back home again to mourn and hide, still afraid the authorities might come after them, too.  So Mary just stands there in the half-light, alone and weeping.
But then, something happens.  When she looks into the tomb, she sees something that doesn’t jibe with grave robbery.  As she gazes into the tomb, looking tragedy in the eye, she sees two men dressed in white.  We’re told they’re angels, but Mary doesn’t necessarily know that.  She still hurts too much to see the miracle, and she sobs to these strangers why she’s so upset.  Then she hears a voice behind her, asking her why she’s weeping and whom she’s looking for; and all she can think is, “Here’s one more guy who isn’t going to be of any help.”  She gets mad, I think, supposing that she’s now found the idiot who took the body and put it somewhere it wasn’t meant to be.  But then, Jesus stops her short.  It is Jesus, after all, not the gardener; and he stops her short simply by calling her by name, reminding her of the person she’s been in his presence.  And when he does, she comes to herself.  As the half-light turns to morning, and the long, dark night finally ends, Mary hears Jesus call her name, and she sees God face to face.  In that face, she sees the one thing she lacked most, which is hope – hope that death does not get the last word. 
In fact, it’s a hope powerful enough to heal her, transforming her from a mourner into an ambassador.  She knows she has to take that hope that life conquers death and bring it to the guys hiding out back home.  She finds Peter and John and the rest of Jesus’ friends, still blinded by their long night of despair, and she opens the door onto the sunrise, proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).  Resurrection happens, Mary says.  Come, and live it.
 Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to all of us.  But here’s the mystery about that:  The offer is open to all; as Peter says later, in the Book of Acts, “[E]veryone who believes in [Jesus Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).  So the offer is open to all – and yet, it comes by invitation only.  By that, I don’t mean some doctrine of divine election.  I mean the offer is open to all – but it comes only when one person invites another person into it. 
Let me tell you a story to shine some light on that mystery.  There is a man in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth named Gerald.  He’s in his early 40s, and he’s spent more than half his life in prison – drugs and weapons charges.  He never knew his father.  His mother is addicted to drugs.  Gerald would have every reason to be living in the long night of despair.  But Gerald decided to turn his life around, so he did what he needed to do at Leavenworth to qualify for the Life Connections program, which offers spiritually based mentoring to help prisoners prepare for new life after release.  Four men here at St. Andrew’s have served or are serving as mentors there – Ron Spradley, John Norton, George Kroh, and Deacon Bruce Bower.  It’s Bruce who’s serving as Gerald’s mentor.
So one day recently, Gerald happened to say to Bruce that, back in the day when he was still on the outside, he would never walk or drive in the rain.  It seemed an odd thing to share, so Bruce asked him why he wouldn’t walk or drive in the rain.  Gerald said that when he was a kid in St. Louis, he noticed that every time someone was shot and killed in his neighborhood, it rained the next day.  So he asked his grandmother why that was, and his grandmother told him God sent the rain to wash the evil off the streets.  OK, that’s a lovely word of comfort.  But why wouldn’t Gerald walk or drive in the rain?  Because, he said, he’d been told he was evil – and he was afraid God would wash him away, too.
If the story stayed there, we might join Gerald in despair.  But here’s the thing:  Gerald now sees God very differently because Gerald now knows how God sees him.  In an earlier day, Gerald thought God judged him as nothing more than evil, wanting to wash him off the streets and wipe him away.  No doubt, Gerald had done some pretty sinful things, and he himself would say so.  But all Gerald knew of God was distance and judgment and wrath.
Then something changed:  The risen Christ called Gerald by name.  But it came in the voice of Bruce Bower.  Bruce showed up and kept showing up.  Bruce honored Gerald’s humanity.  Bruce respected Gerald’s dignity.  Bruce helped Gerald see that he is a beloved child, not an evil stain to be washed away.  In his mentor, Gerald sees Jesus’ face and hears him calling him by name.  In fact, after that visit to Leavenworth, Bruce received this email from Gerald:  “Thanks be to God for sending you my way to help me when I feel weak and worthless and down.  I won’t be afraid of the rain anymore.”
Resurrection happens.  It’s not a one-time thing; it’s a way of life.  And it’s offered to all – but remember the mystery:  It’s offered to all, but it comes by invitation only.  Gerald found new life precisely because Bruce invited Gerald to live the truth that God makes all things new.
But you know, the invitation goes back farther than that.  Gerald found new life because, seven years earlier, someone invited Bruce Bower to consider getting involved in a new ministry.  Ron Spradley had been a mentor at Leavenworth for a few years, and he knew Bruce, and he could see Bruce as a good fit for this work.  So Ron did one of the most powerful, most holy things there is:  Ron invited Bruce to take part.  Now, think about the difference that single invitation has made.  Because of that invitation, Gerald will leave prison able to walk in God’s love, he and all the others Bruce has mentored and will mentor.  And you know, that holy power of invitation goes back even farther than that because, of course, 50-some-odd years ago, someone invited Ron Spradley to get involved here at his new church, St. Andrew’s…..
This church family, the body of Christ in this place – we are Mary Magdalene.  We are a family of wounded healers and tongue-tied ambassadors sometimes.  We’re each haunted by our fears and by the shadow of despair, just like anyone else.  But the difference is, deep in our bones, we know that death is not the end.  We know resurrection happens.  In the midst of war and terrorism and untimely loss, we know that Christ has defeated the power of sin and death, making all things new, now and always. 
If you’ve come here this morning haunted by your fears and the shadow of despair, know that you are not alone.  And know that you can find healing in this place – that in the voices of this family, you can hear Jesus calling you by name.
And if you’ve come here this morning as part of this good family, remember and claim the healing power you hold.  It was a word from one person to another person here that has saved Gerald’s life.  So remember the gracious mystery of life made new:  Resurrection happens, and it’s not a one-time thing.  It’s a way of life God offers to us all.  But it comes by invitation only.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

God's Last Word

Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 27:11-54

Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get those words out of my head when I hear the Passion Gospel.  Amid the tragedy of the excruciating death of God’s innocent servant, I can’t stop hearing that cry:  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The reason that line haunts me is because it begs the question, the central question Palm Sunday invites us to struggle with:  Who is this man who’s calling out to God?  Our readings today point us toward an answer, but they’re stops along a journey – a journey we know as the way of the cross. 
Outside, in the day’s first Gospel proclamation, we hear the crowd hailing Jesus as the king.  If we’d been in occupied Palestine 2,000 years ago, we would have seen this amazing man as the sign of our hope – hope for release from Roman captivity by God’s anointed king, which is what “messiah” means.  We would have been cheering for him as he entered the holy city in triumph, riding on a donkey like one of Israel’s ancient kings, because we would have hoped he’d be the one to bring us freedom.
But now that we’ve taken our places here in the church, symbolically entering the holy city, things go south for this man we hoped was king.  He challenges the authorities, both religious and civil, by starting a riot in the Temple, railing against its leaders whose taxes and sacrifices cost poor peasants money they don’t have.  In the process, he strikes fear into the hearts of the political rulers, who see the crowd about to become an angry mob.  As any smart oppressor knows, when the people get angry, you distract them with someone else to be angry about.  So the religious and political leaders collude to turn the crowd against Jesus instead of against them.  Soon, we’re shouting “Crucify!” rather than “Hosanna!”  And the bloody drama unfolds, leading to that haunting line – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
Why would Jesus say that?  What’s he thinking about himself at that point?  And what’s he thinking about the God to whom he cries out?
The reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a clue about how Jesus might have understood himself and his role.  This is one of four “servant songs” from Isaiah, in which the prophet describes different roles that God’s appointed servant plays in bringing salvation to the world.  For Isaiah, the servant was Israel; but I think Jesus saw himself fulfilling that role, both in his day and for all time.  In the first servant song, the servant is described as “a light to the nations,” the one who models God’s justice to all the world (42:6).  In the second servant song, God says it’s not enough just to bring God’s servant, the people of Israel, back from their exile in Babylon; God says, “I will give [my servant] as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6).  The Old Testament reading this morning is the third servant song, sung in the voice of the servant himself.  Although Israel failed to follow God’s desires, the servant remained steadfast and endured persecution for his faithfulness.  In his own day, Jesus could look around and see the chief priests and the Pharisees fulfilling Isaiah’s words about unfaithful Israel – and he could see himself as the suffering servant, persecuted for threatening those leaders’ grip on religious power.  This suffering servant, knows what’s coming, but he also trusts God’s presence in the outcome:  “Who are my adversaries?  Let them confront me.  It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:-8-9).
But before long, that confidence seems to give way to desolation.  Of course it does.  After interrogations, and beatings, and dragging the cross on his own broken back, of course the suffering servant’s confidence gives way to anguish.  It’s the anguish of torturous pain, of course – but is it also the anguish of failure?  The anguish of rejection by those the servant has come to serve?  The anguish of offering love and having people spit in your face?  Is it the anguish of abandonment?
In that awful moment, as Jesus hangs on the cross, a song comes into his head – a song from the Temple’s hymnal, what we call the Book of Psalms.  We know this song as Psalm 22, and we’ll pray it when we gather here again on Good Friday evening.  It’s a song of despair, or at least it starts off sounding that way.  But like most good songs, there’s more to it than what you hear right off the bat.  So, here’s the first line of that song Jesus starts to quote, Psalm 22.  It goes like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1 BCP).
Here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing about Psalm 22: It doesn’t stop with despair.  The first half of its 31 verses give voice to the deepest suffering you can imagine. 
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer….  [A]s for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people….  Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help….  [T]hey pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones….  They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing. (22:2,6,11,16,17, BCP) 
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see the connection.  That song in Jesus’ broken heart is playing out all around him as he hangs on that cross.
But, as I said, Psalm 22 doesn’t stop there.  Yes, this is a song of the servant’s suffering, but it’s also, just as much, a song of God’s deliverance.  For as much as it laments, the song also remembers: 
Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them….  I will declare your Name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you….  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.  For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations. (22;4,21,26-27, BCP).
The Lord rules over the nations, says the song that Jesus gasps out from the cross.  The Lord – not the frightened religious authorities; not the governor, Pilate; not even Caesar in all his imperial grandeur back in Rome.  The Lord rules over the nations, Jesus’ song proclaims – even when the Lord hangs on a cross.
So, back to the question of the day: Who is this man who’s calling out to God? 
This is where the mystery goes deep.  This man hanging on the cross is not just the suffering servant fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  This man hanging on the cross is not just a wise and holy teacher, renewing the Jewish tradition in his own day.  This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed king of Israel, the messiah for a people trapped in political oppression and religious stagnation.  This man hanging on the cross is the one to whom the Roman army officer pledges his converted allegiance when he says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54). 
And even that may not capture this deep mystery in its fullness.  Because human language stumbles to express the nature and life of God, we’re immediately limited in what we say even when we proclaim Jesus to be God’s Son – because being someone’s child might imply more difference than the Trinity actually holds.  After all, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are “one God … in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being” (BCP 380).  So the fact that they are one takes us to the edge of the deepest mystery of them all: This man hanging on the cross is not just the anointed offspring of God.  This man hanging on the cross is God.  He is the kyrios, the “Lord,” which was a title claimed by Caesar himself.  This man hanging on the cross is the true Lord whom Caesar can’t unseat, the “highly exalted” one, whose name “is above every name, so that at [his] name … every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – not Caesar. (Philippians 2:9-11)
As we begin our journey though Holy Week, “may the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).  May we walk alongside him each step of the way, as present to his pain as he is to ours.  And all along that holy way, may we, too, sing Psalm 22 – and remember that the cry of desolation, the cry from the cross, is never God’s last word. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 5: What's Next After Death?

Sermon for April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

So here’s something that might sound creepy, but it’s true: I like funerals.  I don’t think that implies a morbid fascination with death (at least I like to tell myself that).  Instead, I think it implies a hopeful fascination with resurrection.  That’s a handy thing to have, in my line of work.
Here’s why I like funerals:  Like the sacraments, they give us a rare opportunity to look beyond the stress and pain of day-to-day life and see a reality that is, at once, both much more mysterious and much more real.  It’s a chance to see divine love and divine glory up close and personal – a chance to pull up the window shade and glimpse the face of God.
But once we’ve commended someone to God’s care, proclaiming that his or her life is “changed, not ended” (BCP 382), then what?  As we come to the end of this Lenten sermon series on Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, I get to explore the darkest question of them all: What’s next after death?  All three of our readings this morning take us there – each of them opening a window onto this deep mystery. 
The first is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  We may get distracted by the holy ghost story here because it’s one of the most vivid, stirring accounts in all of Scripture – the prophet witnessing bones rattling and coming together, sinew and flesh stretching over them, lifeless bodies rising from the dust, and the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, blowing into them and standing them up on their feet, “a vast multitude” (37:10).  But while we’re reveling in the Hollywood scene, we may miss God’s point.  By restoring the people from exile to their Promised Land, God’s actually making a point about … God.  “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live … then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” (37:13-14)  As the old spiritual says, “Hear the word of the Lord,” you dry bones.  Don’t just rise.  Listen.
I think it’s also easy to miss the point in today’s Gospel – another in our Lenten hit parade of incredibly long readings from the Gospel of John.  It’s easy to focus on what’s happening with Lazarus because that would seem to be the story’s point.  It’s what the disciples focus on – whether the sick man is sleeping or really dead; and, by the way, whether death awaits them if they follow Jesus into hostile territory.  The death of Lazarus is what the mourners focus on, too, one of them even having the bad manners to ask out loud, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37).  The question isn’t lost on Jesus.  Being fully human, he enters fully into the grief of the people around him, weeping and hurting right alongside them.  But the point is greater than whether Lazarus lives or dies.  Jesus names it at the beginning of the story:  This illness “is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).  And Martha, the dead man’s sister, gets a glimpse of glory, too, even before this holy ghost story reaches its climax.  Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died – but even now, God will give you whatever you ask” (11:21-22).  She knows about Jesus’ other signs – water being turned into wine, five loaves becoming bread from heaven, a man born blind receiving his sight.  Nothing’s too much to ask – even coming back from the dead.  But Jesus manages to give Martha a glimpse beyond the miraculous.  Just resuscitating a dead, stinking body isn’t enough, Jesus says.  Even the general resurrection of the dead “on the last day” isn’t enough, Jesus says (11:24).  “I am the resurrection and the life” right now, Jesus says.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).  Don’t bother trying to work the equation or diagram that sentence; you won’t find human logic there.  Jesus is raising the blinds on the kingdom of heaven.  And when he finally completes this holy ghost story and brings the dead man out of the tomb, trailing strips of cloth like The Mummy from Hollywood – even then Jesus points the crowd away from the miracle and toward the miracle’s source instead:  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
So – now that we’ve been blessed to glimpse God’s glory … now what?
I think there are two answers to that question – the answer now and the answer later.  When we glimpse the glory of God now, I think what comes next is a choice.  There’s a reason why this story of Lazarus ends with a beginning.  Lazarus rises from the dead, and the story comes to a screeching halt.  We never get to hear Lazarus speak.  Don’t you wish the Gospel writer had finished his assignment and done his interview with Lazarus?  What a scoop that would have been.  What was it like to be dead, Lazarus?  What did you see?  Did you go to sheol, to the Jewish realm of the dead?  Did you have a conversation with Adam and Eve?  Did they have any hope of getting out?  Or, were you in heaven, Lazarus?  And how freaky must it have been to be summoned back from wherever you were, back to the land of the living?  We’ll never get to read that interview, and here’s why:  Because Lazarus’ death isn’t the point of this holy ghost story.  The point is Lazarus’ choice as he stands there, resuscitated, bound in strips of cloth.  “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands.  Unbind him, and let him choose.  Jesus hasn’t just resuscitated a dead body.  Jesus has given everyone standing there, and everyone sitting here, the opportunity to glimpse eternity and make his or her own choice.  “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says (11:25).  Present tense.  Yes, the outcome is cast in terms of the future, but the question is for the here and now:  “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (11:26).  The real question isn’t whether Lazarus was raised from the dead.  The real question is, what will Lazarus do once they unbind him and let him go?
And what will we do, because we’re given the same choice.  As the apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. …  If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (8:6,11).  Where you set your mind determines what you will see.  To set the mind on that divine Spirit means life and peace here in this first chapter of eternal life.  But God loves us too much to force anything on us, even eternity.  Love can’t be given by force.  We have to stumble out of the grave, with Lazarus unbound, and take it.
And if we say yes … if we choose to join Lazarus at the table with Jesus, where John’s Gospel story picks up six days later; if we, too, choose to join Jesus at the table knowing that sacrifice and death are just a week away; if we choose the rich and rocky path of discipleship, following Jesus’ way of eternal life in the here and now – then what?  What’s next after death, for death will surely come to us, the ultimate opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed?  What’s next for us after death?
I’d be lying if I told you I knew.  But I will tell you what I believe.
I have no idea where we go when we die, though I have a hunch it’s much more familiar than we think.  After all, paradise initially looked like a garden, and I have a pretty good sense of what a garden’s like.  By the same token, I believe “heaven” ultimately is life much like we presently know it, only freed and redeemed from all that corrupts and holds it back – life that’s something like what we know now in our most blessed moments, when Christ comes among us, and within us, and shows us God’s love.  The book of Revelation, in its very best scene, tells of the end, when heaven and earth are reunited, the goodness and love that God intended for creation finally restored, with heaven and earth rejoined; when the “home of God [will be] among mortals … [and] God will dwell with them … and wipe every tear from their eyes” (21:3-4).  I believe that’s what we have waiting for us, eventually – embodied life as embodied life was meant to be, living in relationship with God as relationship is meant to be, living among the company of saints across time and space, with absolutely never a moment of despair. 
But does that happen immediately when we die? If we look at our tradition, we find the answer is, probably not.  The Anglican theologian and bishop N.T. Wright describes life after death as being a matter of a couple of stages.  Scripture’s images of heaven sometimes take the shape of heavenly rest and peaceful refreshment – the kind of imagery we see in that amazing angel window over here in the columbarium.  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” the angel in that window says.  Sounds pretty heavenly to me.  But Scripture’s images of heaven also include what we attest every time we say the Apostles’ Creed – “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” – like that beautiful description of the new heaven and new earth from Revelation.  So, N.T. Wright would say, we’re actually looking forward in hope not just to life after death, but to “life after life after death.”1  The first phase of that heavenly life is the window in the columbarium – as Jesus promised to the thief who repented, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  But that paradise of rest is a waystation, N.T. Wright would say – the life we know while we wait for Christ to come again, restoring the unity of heaven and earth and bringing us “life after life after death.”  Despite all the language we use about “going to heaven,” that final stage, Chapter Three of eternal life, is not about us going to heaven.  It’s about heaven coming to us – God’s purposes fully realized in a renewed earth filled with renewed, embodied children of God – where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
That’s resurrection – when the God “who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11).  Resurrection is also the choice we get to make, along with Lazarus, as we stand at the doors of our day-to-day tombs and hear Jesus calling, “Unbind him, and let him go.  Unbind her, and let her go.”  Unwrap our eyes and our hands and our feet, Lord, that we might see your glory, and take your hand, and stumble our way into eternal life.
1.       Wright, N.T.  Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  New York: HarperOne, 2008.  151.