Sunday, April 28, 2019

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Sermon for Sunday, April 28, 2019
John 20:19-31

So, let me ask: Do you believe in miracles?
We usually use that word “miracle” to describe fairly non-miraculous things, honestly – fourth-quarter comebacks or walk-off home runs.  But I think today’s Gospel reading might make us stop short and ask whether we believe in the more amazing kind of miracle, when God empowers a change in the created order and makes a new reality possible in the here and now.
To me, miracles are theologically messy.  We’d like for them to work in ways we can control or at least understand.  We like certainty or, failing that, at least predictability.  If I believe deeply enough or say the right prayers, it would be great if I could know God was going to do something miraculous in response.  We’d like miracles to follow the rules of physics: for every spiritual action, there should be an equal and opposite spiritual reaction.
Of course, miracles don’t work that way.  Sometimes healing comes, and sometimes it doesn’t – at least not in ways we see.  Sometimes God’s power changes lives; sometimes those lives remain the same.  And like the disciple Thomas, we’d find it much easier to believe in God’s astonishing power if we could see it and touch it for ourselves.
Now, Thomas gets a bad rap, being called “Doubting Thomas” because he demands evidence of resurrection.  In fairness, he wasn’t asking for anything the other disciples hadn’t already received.  The rest of them were together on Easter night, hiding out after hearing Mary Magdalene say that morning that she had “seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).  If they’d believed her news, they wouldn’t have been hiding out from the authorities; they would have been out in the streets, telling everyone Jesus was alive.  Instead, they were hedging their bets behind a locked door until Jesus himself passed through it and stood among them, showing his friends the nail wounds in his feet and his wrists.  Thomas just wanted the same proof the other doubters got to see.
So, I think we might be forgiven, too, for wanting to see some evidence that resurrection happens.  Even though Jesus explicitly blesses “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), it doesn’t hurt if you get to see a miracle every now and then.  So, let me share a couple with you.
One involves someone we see here at St. Andrew’s pretty much every week.  First, a little background: One of our outreach partners is Welcome House, a place here in Kansas City where men struggling with addiction can begin a solid recovery.  It’s a refuge of last resort for most of the 80 men living there at any given time.  Guys come to Welcome House when they have no other option, once their disease has cost them homes and livelihoods and spouses and kids – and they go there seeking nothing less than a miracle, the gift of a new life. 
So, Welcome House had its annual fundraising breakfast last Tuesday.  I was there, along with other St. Andrew’s people.  Each year at this breakfast, the organization honors someone who’s made a huge difference for the men Welcome House serves, someone whose story of enabling transformation for others qualifies him or her for what they call the “Miracle Award.”  This year, the miracle story they highlighted belongs to our own Harold House.
As I said, we see Harold just about every Sunday, but St. Andrew’s is not his first stop.  That’s because every Sunday, Harold begins his morning at a meeting at Welcome House, providing presence, support, and two dozen donuts for the men there.  He’s done that for 25 years now, after graduating from Welcome House himself.  And Harold is the one responsible for connecting St. Andrew’s with Welcome House, the one who brought our partnership into being. 
Harold does this holy work in the world because he is a witness of the miracle of resurrection.  He found new life through Welcome House, and he’s committed himself to sharing that hope with others on the same journey.  If a miracle is, indeed, God empowering a change in the created order and making a new reality possible in the here and now, then I would say Harold’s story is nothing short of miraculous.  And 25 years later, he lives that miracle by serving the guys God gives him to serve, week after week.
Here’s a second miracle story for you, one more distant geographically but close to our hearts.  For more than 25 years, St. Andrew’s has had a partnership with St. Augustin’s Episcopal Church and School in Maniche, Haiti.  The Diocese of Haiti started the school to serve families living on the other side of the river from the main population of Maniche, a community with no bridge across that river.  For many years, St. Andrew’s provided financial support for the school’s operation, teaching maybe 100 kids a year in preschool through sixth grade.  When we would go to visit, on mission trips, we’d see red-tinged hair among the kids there, a sign of protein deficiency.  But you didn’t have to be a physician to notice many of the kids were listless and struggling to learn, simply because they were hungry. 
So, 14 years ago, we took a risk.  We decided to increase our support for the kids at St. Augustin’s by providing a hot lunch every day: nutritious beans and rice, a complete protein.  Honestly, we didn’t know whether this effort would work.  Would the supplies get there consistently?  The road up the mountains to the village was demanding, and our partner priest had five other congregations and schools to oversee, too.  Would the money be enough?  Haiti is a place where food prices sometimes skyrocket unpredictably.  Would the effort be sustainable?  I mean, a single fundraiser for hot lunches is one thing; asking people to give over and over again is something else.
So, here’s the miracle.  Over the past few years, the quality of the education at St. Augustin’s has earned it a strong reputation among the families there, and parents want to get their kids into it.  So, enrollment has risen to 470 students in preschool through ninth grade.  That’s almost five times more mouths to feed – 85,400 lunches each year.  85,400 lunches.  But you all have come through, every year, with the Haiti Benefit Dinner, which happens tonight.  Through ticket sales and your contributions, we’ll fund the hot-lunch program for another year, bringing hundreds of kids the opportunity for a life beyond subsistence agriculture.
If a miracle is God empowering a change in the created order and making a new reality possible in the here and now, then I would say the school’s story is nothing short of miraculous.  And the participants in that miracle are sitting right here, right now; and we’ll gather again tonight for a fantastic celebration of life made new.  As the years of this partnership go on, we’ll keep living out this miracle by serving the families God gives us to serve.
Now, I do not doubt God’s power to intervene in the created order and change things suddenly, with no rational explanation.  After all, God is God, and we are not.  But still, I think most often in our world, new life is a collaborative enterprise, with us blessed to take part in God’s miraculous work.  That's not exactly the most efficient approach.  So, why would God choose to do it like that?  I think it must be because God likes it that way.  Sure, God has the power to flip a switch and change hearts and lives at will.  But how much more fun must it be for the One who creates us and redeems us and sustains us to draw us children of God into the miracle-working?  As every parent knows, it’s much more rewarding, and much more formational, to let your kids do the work on their science-fair projects, rather than doing it for them. 
In theological language, we might put it this way:  Resurrected life is the mission of God in the post-Easter world.  And amazingly enough, God invites us to carry out that mission, asking us to be agents of new life ourselves.  The lives of the guys at Welcome House don’t change without the people who fund its operation, as well as people like Harold House who live the story of resurrection day to day.  The future for the kids at St. Augustin’s doesn’t change without that school, and its teachers, and you providing the wherewithal for almost 500 kids to learn and eat well at least once each school day.  Resurrection happens most often not by singlehanded divine magic but by divine collaboration.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his friends, and he gives them his peace, and commissions them as his apostles, the force of new life in the world.  “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells his friends, “so I send you” (John 20:21). 
And, so God sends us on this mission – making life new by creating and redeeming and sustaining our world.  Remarkably enough, it’s you and I whom God asks to do the work, blessing us richly, too, in the process.
So, do you believe in miracles?  Do you believe in God’s power to make life new?  I do.  We may not see the marks of the nails today, but I see the Body of Christ here before me, living and active in the world.  Just look around.  Just come tonight.  And just like Thomas, you’ll see Jesus’ hands and feet in the flesh.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Resurrection in the Dark

Sermon for Easter, April 21, 2019
John 20:1-18

Here’s something crazy for you this Easter morning:  Did you ever think about the fact that Jesus rises from the dead in the dark? 
At least as John’s Gospel tells this story, the resurrection happens quietly, imperceptibly, while the world still thinks it’s night, while darkness still thinks it’s won the battle.  Now, movies like to show Jesus breaking free in the brilliance of the sunrise.  The stone rolls away, shafts of light penetrate the tomb, the orchestral score swells, and Jesus steps boldly into the morning.  That’s great for Hollywood, but Scripture tells the story differently – that God preferred to defeat darkness in the dark, when nobody was looking.
Apparently, nobody even knew it had happened until Mary Magdalene came on the scene.  In John’s telling, we don’t know why she’s there; the story doesn’t say anything about her finishing the work of preparing the body for burial.  All we know is that she’s there, and she sees the stone over the tomb’s entrance has been rolled away. 
Well, Mary presumes foul play a second time, the insult of grave robbery added to the injury of crucifixion.  So, she goes to find Peter and John, two leaders of the disciple community.  Peter and John run to the tomb and eventually step inside to investigate.  But they find a tidy crime scene, with the cloth that had been on Jesus’ battered head neatly rolled up and set aside.  Then, unbelievably, the two men just go back home.  With all the compassion of the rock that gave Peter his name, the two guys abandon Mary, leaving her standing there, weeping alone.
So, Mary also looks into the tomb.  There, she sees more than the evidence; she sees angelic beings, and they ask her the question of the day:  “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).  Now, you can hear this as a rhetorical question, which is where the theologizing goes:  Why weep in the face of new life?  But you can also hear this question as divine compassion for a grieving child of God. 
Well, Mary can’t really hear the question at all or contemplate why the angels are asking it.  In her grief, Mary’s in problem-solving mode; she’s got a body to find.  So, she turns away from the tomb and sees a stranger, who continues the angels’ compassionate questioning: “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15).  
Let’s hit the “pause” button on this story for a second.  This moment is a fulcrum in time, a hinge point between old and new, past and future.  Mary figures this stranger is the gardener, and she confronts him about whether he might have had a role in the grave robbery.  In this last minute of the old order, Mary is living in the world of death.  She’s looking for a body, managing the details of human demise.  She can’t hear the deeper point in the stranger’s question about what she’s looking for, because she isn’t looking for Jesus.  She’s looking for Jesus’ body, which is not the same thing.  She’s looking to do the best she can to manage the consequences of our mortality. 
But there in the dim of daybreak, with light just painting the edges of the scene, she hears that gardener say, “Mary!” – and she knows she’s stumbled into new territory.  In the compassion of his question and the heart that calls her by name, Mary sees the truth: that death is not the end, that love can’t be held prisoner, and that light shines in the darkest night.
A month and a half ago, I found myself in a peculiar, even surreal, darkness – one I’d never quite experienced, though I’d been in it many times before.  My father was dying – actively dying.  We’d found out just a few days earlier that he had esophageal cancer, and his decline had been blessedly quick.  Now, it was just a matter of waiting for it.  In this odd and beautiful line of work, you find yourself at the bedsides of dying people sometimes.  But it’s not the same when it’s your father. 
And honestly, he was struggling as that long night wore on.  He would try to speak, which made him cough, which I imagine made the pain intensify, which made him move around to try to get away from it.  As many dying people do, he kept reaching out into the air, seemingly trying to connect with something just that too far away to grasp.  But eventually, in the dark hours just before dawn, he calmed and seemed ready to rest.  And soon – with no drama, no fanfare, no angelic presence – he stopped breathing.
After a few minutes, I went out to the nurses’ station and talked with the woman who’d been caring for my father through that night.  She went and found a colleague.  They did the obligatory assessment and assigned a time of death.  She put the steps in motion for others to tend to the body and prepare it for transport.  As she had all though that long night, the nurse did her job carefully, respectfully, lovingly.  Finally, she turned to me and asked, “How about you?  What is it that you need?” 
I hadn’t thought about that.  And I didn’t have a good answer.  So, I stammered out the stupidest and most inaccurate thing I could have said.  I told her, “I don’t need anything, thanks.  I’m fine.”  And she looked at me, and smiled, and said, “No, you’re not.  But he is.  And you will be, because God will raise him, and you’ll be together again.”
What is it that you need?  Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for? 
In our world, on any given day, death can seem to hold such power over us, bringing us the darknesses we grieve:  Broken relationships.  Broken choices that hurt others.  Long-term illness and slow demise.  The end of life for those we love.  Evil that we seem powerless even to influence, much less defeat – families caught in poverty and violence; people trafficked for sex; children treated as if they were disposable; a political culture of echo chambers and self-aggrandizement, where leaders seem more eager to strut and to taunt than to serve.  Even on Easter morning, for some of us – maybe many of us – pain or bitterness can make these beautiful flowers fade and make the grandest music ring hollow. 
Into that pain, or illness, or loneliness, or sin – into the mess steps someone we probably don’t even recognize at first.  Maybe he’s the gardener.  Maybe she’s a coworker.  Maybe he’s a guy at a coffee shop.  Maybe she’s a nurse, just doing her job.  But what strikes you is that this person, meeting you at the edges of your pain, becomes an unexpected bearer of the light.  She takes you seriously enough to look you in the eye and ask, “Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?  What is it that you need?” 
Implicit in that stranger’s questions is stalwart trust, despite the evidence, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1:5).  In fact, in that moment – in the garden, or in the office, or in the coffee shop, or in the nursing center – in that moment, Jesus Christ himself steps out of the tomb and into your darkness.  Even before the sunrise, he brings you light, not with some empty “everything will be OK” but with a costly victory that comes by defeating evil and sin, and rising from the grave, and making all creation new.  Even the earth itself witnesses to the story, redbuds and daffodils and tulips and forsythias declaring in living color that winter will not have the last word.
And that’s the irony, isn’t it? – the irony of resurrection in the darkness.  Flowers blossom brightest just at the edge of winter’s chill.  Hope lifts us up when despair nips closest at our heels.  The deepest darkness shows us God’s light.  And there we find an unlikely champion, a surprising voice of Good News, who enters into the darkness with us, and leads us out into life.
So:  In this Easter season, I invite you to look deep into your darkness, and refuse to look away, and seek the unlikely face of Jesus Christ.  I invite you to listen hard to the silence of the night, and open your ears to his unlikely voice.  How will you know you’ve found him?  Not because you’ll hear trumpets.  Not because you’ll hear all the answers to what keeps you up at night.  But because you’ll see eyes looking back deeply into your pain, and you’ll hear a voice asking you to share your heart:  Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?  What do you need?  And then, when that voice speaks your name, you’ll know it’s Jesus, and into your darkness will come the greatest light of all.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Taking You to Paradise

Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019
Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49

Just in case you were wondering, you’re not the only one who thinks our worship this morning feels like spiritual whiplash.  I know we’ve just walked through it, literally; but I’d like to take a moment to think about the crazy path Scripture has given us in these past 20 minutes.
We started in the Jewell Room, hearing the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  He asks the disciples to go find him a colt and bring it to the Mount of Olives.  Now, that may not sound provocative, but we have to realize, what Jesus is doing would have been like a leader today asking his supporters to get a bulletproof limo with a security detail, and bring it to him at the Capitol in Washington, and drive him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.  This was not an accidental parade.  Palm Sunday was a provocation, because everything Jesus did was to remind people of a bigger story his actions were telling – a story about power and authority that reaches beyond secular government. 
In ancient days, the kings of Israel came riding on a donkey or a colt (1 Kings 1:33-35), with people spreading their cloaks on the path along the king’s way (2 Kings 9:13).  And the people of Jesus’ time were desperately seeking a new king to save them from their Roman oppressors.  And here’s the coup de gras, maybe even the coup d’etat:  At the last day, the Day of the Lord, when God would come to be “king over all the earth” and set the world to rights, that final reckoning was expected to begin when the Lord came and stood on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4-9).
So, when Jesus begins his procession down the road from the Mount of Olives, the people begin shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).  That’s because the people knew what all this symbolism meant – that this was nothing less than the King.  His servant humility notwithstanding, Jesus was making it clear that he was the divine monarch, and that the rival of the day, Caesar Augustus, was just a pretender to the throne.  But Jesus wasn’t claiming any earthly throne, which is the only thing the authorities could understand.  He was asserting his authority as the cosmic King, a king whose reign even the rocks and stones themselves would shout about. 
In our New Testament reading this morning, St. Paul recognizes the same truth that Jesus was claiming there on the Mount of Olives.  Even though Jesus was God, in human form, he didn’t regard equality with God as something for him to exploit.  Instead, he set his cosmic kingship aside, at least for a time, exchanging his divinity and his royal prerogatives for death on a cross.  Now, we say that – “death on a cross” – like we can understand it, but we can’t even come close.  This isn’t an execution; it’s a lynching.  This is death that sucks life from its victim with the torture of slow drowning as your lungs fill with fluid – to say nothing of the pain from the nails in your feet and your wrists.  Yet still, Paul says, that dying man was the one they were waiting for after all – the one to whom every knee shall bend and whom everyone shall confess as the true Caesar, the true Lord. 
But why did Jesus do it?  Why did he need to do it?  This isn’t something a sane person would choose.  In fact, on Maundy Thursday night, Jesus sweat blood asking God to open some other way for him instead.  But in the end, the Lord of the universe chose this.  Why?
Here’s the short answer:  atonement.  That’s one of those theological words people throw around as if everyone knows what it means.  It’s a complicated idea, but the word itself is beautifully simple.  It means exactly what the pieces of the word say:  at-one-ment.  Atonement is at-one-ment.  Our story this morning goes the way it does, with the Lord choosing the worst death ever, in order that you and I might be made at one with God. 
OK.  But what how does that work?
Well, you can answer that question several ways.  You might go toward what the theologians call substitutionary atonement, the idea that God had to subject God’s own child, a part of God’s own self, to the suffering that all humanity deserved for the ungracious ways we turn against God.  According to this line of thinking, we humans could never make amends adequately for the offense of sin, of choosing against God’s direction, so God has to take the punishment for us, sending the Son to the cross.  It’s a medieval idea, actually, coming from the model of courtly justice in medieval Europe.  If a powerless servant were to insult the lord of the manor, the lord of the manor would have to demand satisfaction for the servant’s insult.  But even the servant’s life wouldn’t be enough to provide satisfaction because of the difference in their stations in life.  Maybe multiple servants would have to die for justice to be achieved.  And how could justice ever come if all the servants insulted the lord?  So, medieval theologians looked at this logic and saw God the Father atoning for the insult of human sin not by demanding the lives of countless humans but by giving one life, the life of the divine Son.  They saw it as the only loving way God could balance the scales so thrown off by human sin.  That model does a nice job of accounting for the scandal of grace, the fact that God loves us despite the fact that we can never make up for sin on our own.  But it also raises at least as many questions as it answers about a divine parent who sends a child to die. 
Here’s another way to think about how atonement works:  that Jesus was the ultimate example of a God-shaped life.  The way this thinking goes, Jesus the exemplar came to show us what a life lived for others truly looks like.  He bore punishment he didn’t deserve.  He emptied himself of power and glory in order to take our nature and go through everything we go through.  He showed us how to deal with the ugliness life can dish out – not with retribution or exclusion, but with a heart that bore unbearable pain so others wouldn’t have to.  According to this line of thinking, Jesus dies on the cross to lead us there ourselves – to take up our own crosses; to live for others; to value love at all costs, even at the ultimate cost.  There’s truth in that, definitely.  But if Jesus is just a righteous example, why does this sacrifice have to come from the Son of God?  We know many stories of selfless sacrifice, of people emptying themselves and dying so others might live.  There must be more to the story if the one doing the sacrificing is also God in the flesh.
So, here’s a third way to think about how atonement works.  It highlights Jesus’ powerful divinity just as much as his suffering humanity by telling a cosmic story with a surprise ending.  The way this thinking goes, Jesus, the Son of God, came to vanquish the power of sin and death and open the gate to eternal life for all who trust in him.  He emptied himself of divine power, submitting himself to death in order to trick the power of sin and evil into complacency.  Now, for this to make sense, you have to see sin and evil not as the temporary failure of good human hearts but as a power unto itself.  So, if you can accept that, then Jesus comes as the unlikely conqueror of that enemy, the one who brings God’s power directly into human life, fighting the cosmic struggle of God versus evil on the battlefield of human existence – and apparently losing.  But what evil doesn’t know was what C.S. Lewis calls the “deep magic,” the truth that the power of the Creator cannot be contained by the creation any more than the clay can tell the potter what to make.  And so, this thinking goes, God in Christ lets evil win – at least long enough to prove God’s ultimate power, crushing evil by reversing its victory, which is death itself, and giving the same power over death to all of us who trust in him.  To me, at least, that model of Christ as the victor holds a lot of truth.  I have seen enough of the power of sin and evil to know it’s real.  And I have seen enough of the power of Christ’s resurrection to know death doesn’t get the last word.
At the end of the day, especially at the end of this Palm Sunday, the point isn’t knowing the right model of the atonement.  The point is the truth of at-one-ment between God and us.  For as we heard in that Passion Gospel reading from Luke, death is not the end for those who trust in God’s power, even if the evidence says God’s power is absent.  Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross is the promise to each and every one of us who fails along life’s journey.  Eternal life is not a function of scoring the most points or getting the answers right.  Eternal life comes from turning to Jesus as he hangs there on the cross with us, and trusting him when he makes that most unlikely of all promises:  that you – no matter who you are, and no matter how slim the odds may seem – if you turn to me, even “you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).