Saturday, April 26, 2014

For Fear of the Other (Sermon ~ John 20:19-31)

Last week, we shared a beautiful Maundy Thursday service together, a Tenebrae service.  For those of you who were unable to come, or who have perhaps not participated in such a service, it’s an evening in which we read gospel passages which tell the Scriptural story from the end of the Last Supper, when Jesus and his disciples head out to the Garden of Gethsemane, through the arrest and questionings and condemnation of Jesus, to his death and burial.  After each passage is read, another light in the sanctuary is extinguished, until Jesus lies in the tomb and we are in darkness, a darkness that lasts until Easter Sunday. 
I’ve been to, and participated in, all sorts of Maundy Thursday services.  I would say that the Tenebrae is my favorite.  But . . . I don’t think I’ve ever been charged with such a large portion of the readings before . . . or perhaps the readings in the past weren’t all from one gospel, the Gospel of John in particular.  And I have to tell you that I was shocked and horrified at what I heard myself reading.
Over and over again, John blames “the Jews” for the death of Jesus.  If I have counted correctly, in the passages we read last Thursday night, combined with some short portions we did not read, there are twelve references to the “Jews.”  Some of those references are mingled with cries of “Crucify him!” and one of them refers to Joseph of Arimathea, one of those who helped to bury Jesus, as a “secret disciple because of his fear of the Jews.”
I cannot begin to tell you how disturbed I was as I read those words, over and over again, as if the Jewish people were in some way to be singled out as having caused the death of Jesus.  I tried to change some of them as I read, to phrases like “the Judeans” or “the leaders” or “the people” – but that was no doubt a confusing distraction, as many of you were following along on the Powerpoint.  And it didn’t solve the problem, the problem of an entire ethnic and religious group of people being charged with a crime as if it were a consequence of their very being, and something for which they were and remain culpable as a group.
Today gives us an opportunity to address that challenge, as that offensive language is echoed in this morning’ reading, in which we find the disciples huddled in a room in a house after the crucifixion with the doors “locked for fear of the Jews.”
What is this all about, “the Jews”?
Yes, some Jews were involved in the execution of Jesus.  Yes, some of the leaders of Jesus’s own people were frustrated by and even fearful of his teachings and gift for healing, and wary of his claims and yes, Judas betrayed him and some of the Jewish leaders urged the Romans on.  But those realities do not make an entire people culpable.  Jesus was arrested was arrested by soldiers – Roman soldiers – and ultimately condemned and killed by Roman authorities.  Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, a method the  Jews were not permitted to employ.  It was a common enough occurrence – thousands of people were executed by crucifixion by the Romans, most of them for sedition – for rebellion against the government.
So why in the gospel of John is there so much hatred and fear of “the Jews” expressed? Why not the Romans, who executed Jesus and less than 40 years later crushed a Jewish rebellion and destroyed themir temple?  Why this “fear of the Jews”?
To understand John’s attitude, we need a bit of Bible background.
Scholars tell us that the Gospel of John was probably written in the 90s, sometime between the years 90 and 100.  (Remember, Jesus died around the year 30.)  John may have been written even later. And the Gospel of John was probably not written by one person named John, but was the product of the writings of a particular community of faith, writings ultimately compiled and edited by a gifted literary artist in the community.
And what of this community?  The early church, the earliest church in the years immediately following the resurrection of Jesus, was really a handful of small Jewish Christian house churches, of Jewish people still deeply connected to their Jewish faith and traditions and synagogues, but who had come to understand Jesus as the risen messiah.  Over the decades, the relationship between those Jews who did not believe in Jesus as the messiah and those who did began to erode, and by the end of the first century, Jewish Christians were leaving the synagogues to form their own distinct communities of faith, and the synagogues were at the same time evicting those who professed Jesus as Lord. 
And what happens when people begin to separate over a conviction of belief?  What kinds of things do they say in their anger? Extreme things.  People stop using words of conciliation, words like, “You might be right” or “I might be wrong.”  They use words like “This is the way it is.”  And they begin to accuse and condemn one another for their differences. 
That was the sort of community in which the Gospel of John was written.  On the one hand, it was a community of tremendous hope and joy in the promise of Christ.  On the other, it was a community of fear and anger toward “the other” – even though “the others” were the Jews, their own people of origin. On the one hand, the Gospel of John contains some of the most beautiful writing and some of the most profound stories of expectation in the entire Bible. On the other hand, it contains some of the ugliest and most accusatory language in the Bible.  The Gospel of John is the only place in which we find the stories of Nicodemus in the night, of the woman at the well, of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord.  It is the gospel in which Jesus says “I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the way and the truth and the life.”  It is also the gospel containing the references to “the Jews” as those to be feared.
To what have those words, “the Jews” led?  To what does any identification of people as “the other” lead?  What happens when we insist upon singling out a person, or a group, as “other”?
Negativity, distrust, suspicion – that’s what happens.  Exclusion, persecution, violence – that’s what happens.  An insistence that we are right and that “the others” are wrong – an insistence that fosters division and disharmony, that breaks the human family apart, and that leads to our destruction of one another.  Think about it: who are “the others” today?  People of color or ethnicity different from our own?  People of religion different from our own?  People whose sexual orientation differs from our own?  Perhaps in your own life, perhaps in this church, perhaps in general – are there those we think of as “the other”?
In the case of the Jewish people, their castigation as “other” led to centuries of exclusion and persecution, and violence.  In Europe and Russia, Jews were forced into their own communities and then often expelled completely  - perhaps most famously from Spain and England, but in reality from over 100 locations.  In the Middle  Ages, the Jews were often blamed for outbreaks of plague – their isolation from the major centers of other community life and their religious rituals of cleanliness kept them relatively free of disease at a time when no one understood how disease was transmitted. By the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were subject to the extreme violence of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, to vicious attacks upon their homes and businesses and persons. And then – the Holocaust, a period of slaughter so calculated and so vast that it stuns us with the magnitude of evil human beings can perpetrate on one another.
Today, sadly, the persecution of “the other” remains prevalent, all around us.  During the week before Passover and Easter this year, just three weeks ago, our Jewish brothers and sisters were the targets of hatred in Ukraine, in which an unknown group passed out pamphlets stating that Jews were required to register with the government – a hoax, but an unsettling and evil one, given that such registration was a precursor to murder during the Holocaust – and here in our own country a man went out looking for Jews to shoot at a Kansas Jewish Community Center and assisted living facility.  Ironically, none of the three people he killed were Jewish – because we have made real progress in our understanding of one another and in our participation in one another’s lives, and we tend to congregate together rather than separately – but the outcome does not change the man’s intent.
So: What is the good news in all this? You can understand now, I think, why I was reluctant to continue reading last Thursday night.  And why I have been mulling over the contradictions inherent in the Gospel of John ever since. Where is the good news when we proclaim hope in Christ while at the same time we steal hope from brothers and sisters whom we call “the other”?  Where is the good news when we come to church and proclaim a risen Christ in the beauty and seclusion of our sanctuary when outside our doors people, perhaps even we ourselves at times, enact the opposite of Christian hope through words and deeds which are racist, or homophobic, or anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim?
Where is the good news?  The good news is that we live in an era of new creation.  The good news is that God is not yet finished with us.  The good news is that God is continually re-creating, re-shaping, and re-molding us into people called to reflect the love of God.
Thomas, the disciple at the center of today’s gospel reading, was not there yet.  He needed to see and to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ for himself before he could confess Jesus as his Lord and his God – but Jesus did not give up on him or abandon him. 
The people of the early church were not there yet.  They thought they needed to distinguish themselves from “the other,” from “the Jews,” in order to establish the distinctiveness of their community.  But God did not abandon them to their fears and instinctive isolationism. 
We are not there yet.  We have our own fears, our own areas of ignorance and insensitivity, our own unwillingness to break down the barriers which separate us from the other.  But God continues to labor with us, to lavish love on us, to invite us into new life, new understandings, and new hopes for our shared humanity with all peoples.
Tomorrow is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which, as is the Jewish custom, actually begins tonight.  It’s a day on which we commemorate the lives lost and the heroism shown by the Jewish people during the Holocaust years of 1933-1945.  That means that tonight and tomorrow, we can do our small part in carrying light into the world by becoming aware of the cost of accusing “the other,” of fearing “the other,” of hating “the other.” 
I urge you, tonight and tomorrow, to pay attention to Yom HaShoah.  Read the paper, watch the news, google “Holocaust Remembrance” on the internet.  Learn the stories.  Become aware of your neighbor, who is not “the other.”
Most of you know that for several years I taught in an Orthodox Jewish middle school and high school.  One day some of my beautiful young students, having just seen the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, which relies heavily on the Gospel of John, asked me, “Why do Christians hate us?”
Let’s not be people who hate “the other.”  Let’s not be followers of Christ who hide out in a locked room, or in a church sanctuary, “for fear of the Jews” or for fear of anyone else.  Let’s be people who watch and listen and learn, people who throw the doors of our lives wide open, people who proclaim light by being light.  Let’s be the people of a God of abundant love, a God who breaks down barriers, and a God for whom human beings are not “the other” -- but are, every one of us, God’s precious people.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Our End Is Our Beginning (Easter Sermon)

He’s alive!

He’s alive?  Is that possible?  He’s alive?

He is!

Have you ever believed – no, KNOWN, known for sure, that you have reached the end?  Something -- or maybe a series of somethings – has happened in your life that has finished you off.  You’ve lost your home or your job, you’ve received a devastating diagnosis from your doctor, or, worst of all, someone upon whom you’ve centered your entire life has died.  That’s it, you say.  I’m done.  I can’t go on.  I have nothing left, and I’m finished.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples believe that they have come to the end.  Their friend, their teacher, their Lord – gone.  Brutally, publicly, humiliatingly executed on a cross.  His body removed and laid in a tomb.  Their hopes and dreams for a new life, a better world, a different future – extinguished. The journey that started with such promise back in Galilee – here in the holy city of Jerusalem, it’s over. 

In the darkness, Mary Magdalene is still mired in what she believes to have been the ending.  When she returns to the tomb, to the site she believes to be Jesus’s final resting place, she does so as we all do after someone has died.  It’s SO hard to get up in the morning after a most beloved person is gone.  You feel as if your chest is being crushed by the weight of grief, and as if your legs will crumble if you try to stand. We can easily imagine her in those moments before sunrise, can’t we? Blinking to see in the darkness, her body bent, literally weighed down by sorrow, wiping the tears from her face and yet, trying to get herself back to the tomb.  We, too, go to those places in which we can grieve, remember, and remain connected to what came before.  We, too, sink to our knees into what we understand to be the end, wailing our losses and our sorrow. And we, too, when we encounter others at such times, remain wrapped in our own grief, unwilling and even unable to peer into the future.

Mary Magdalene’s first attempts at conversation at the tomb reflect her unwavering attachment to the past.  She sees angels – angels! – but she seems not in the least to find their presence remarkable.  Remember the young Mary, the mother of Jesus, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her?  Curious, astonished, hopeful? This Mary, Mary Magdalene, is none of those things.  She is heartbroken and desperate, and not at all interested in the presence of angels.   She’s not surprised or astonished by their presence; she is grief-stricken and bewildered: Jesus has been taken from the tomb, and she has no idea where to look for him. 

Then she sees Jesus himself, and she presumes him to be the gardener.  She has no context for thinking otherwise.  Whom would you find in a cemetery in the wee hours of the morning, other than a caretaker?  Certainly not a person who has just died and been resurrected!  The living Jesus is the last person she expects to see. And so again, when she speaks, she persists in her original line of thinking: Where have you taken him?  Where is he?  I will handle this matter; just tell me where he is.  You have to admire her determination and resourcefulness. She is going to get this job done.

It’s only when Jesus calls her name that her transformation begins.  I always find that moment to be one of the most moving in the gospels: that gentle greeting on his part, that moment of naming, that moment on her part of being recognized with compassion and called into the future. 

“Mary,” he says.  And what does she do?  She turns.  And we all know what it is to turn: To change direction. To repent of the old brokenness and to move toward new healing.  It is, at bottom, what our whole Christian journey is about.

Back at the beginning of Lent, we reflected together on the words of the prophet Joel: “Turn to me with your whole heart.”  Your whole broken heart, we said. Turn to the living God.  And then we embarked upon a long journey, a journey through a dry and dark wilderness, a journey through thirst and blindness, in order to reach this morning of possibility.  Mary Magdalene has done the same.  She has journeyed over the past three days from the dark horror of the cross to the dawning light of morning, and now she turns at the sound of the voice calling her name.  In turning toward Jesus, she is turning toward an entirely new life.

In this moment of transition, caught for an instant between past and future, she responds with his name, with the name by which he is known to her:  Rabbi.  Teacher.  He sees it, sees that she is poised to go either way, hurling herself back into the arms of the teacher she loves, or running forward into the future to proclaim his resurrection.  And so he continues to teach her, telling her: Don’t hold onto me, but go and tell my brothers about me.

Don’t hold onto me.  Don’t cling to the past.  Don’t clutch at what once was.  You will not find life there.  You will not find me there.

Instead, you must go, and say.  Go and tell what you have seen. 

This is always the story with Jesus: He is alive!  He came to make all things new, and he is doing just that.  And this is always the story with us: to turn toward him, but not so that we can cling to the past.  To turn toward him so that our broken hearts can be mended.  To turn toward him so that we can walk into new life.  To turn toward him so that he can send us into the world.

Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Don’t we all want to hold onto the past?  Don’t we want to hold on to our homes, our neighborhoods, our churches, our traditions and, most of all, to our loved ones? How many times do we say, “I don’t like change” or “But we always used to . . .”?

Mary Magdalene – from what Jesus says to her, she must look like someone who just wants to go back to the way things used to be.  I imagine that the look on her face says it all: You’re here?  You’re alive?  Then let’s go back!  Let’s go back to Galilee, and take long walks and have long conversations over the evening campfires.  Let’s go back to teaching and healing.  Let’s go back to reclaim our lives in the world as we knew it.  It’s only been three days – how hard can it be?

But as the sun rises and warms Mary Magdalene’s face, as she glances back to confirm that the tomb is really empty, as she gazes into the eyes of love, she hears that there will be no going back.  She hears that those three days have changed the world – have changed the universe, have changed all of creation. And she hears herself commissioned to carry this great good news into the world.

Proclaim resurrection!  That’s what Mary Magdalene, and each one of us, is called to do. Proclaim the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth!

What about you? How are you being called to new life?  How are you being called to resurrection life? How are you being called to proclaim the risen Christ?

Let me share three stories of resurrection life with you:

The first is the new story of my dear friend Rosa.  Rosa has served for four years as the founding priest to a fledgling Latino church, a companion church to a long-established Episcopal church in her Florida community.  The juxtaposition of the two congregations has been both joyous and tense.  The new congregation has been a haven for opportunity, especially for children, for opportunity centered in a growing immigrant community.  The older congregation, much wealthier and more traditional, has been challenged and stretched by the needs and the new approaches to ministry fostered by its young partner.  In the past several weeks, it has become apparent that my friend’s ministry could not be sustained there, and that she is called to move on.

At the same time, Rosa’s husband is retiring, and they have decided to create a new life for themselves in his home state of Alabama. Rosa herself has been invited to continue to work with her denomination on a national level, developing new models of being church.   Her new call will require a great deal of travel but, from an office standpoint, she be located anywhere.  Her husband has long desired to return to his quite literal roots, to the earth of the Alabama countryside, and so they have bought a small farm, a piece of earth on which they can grow food and care for a donkey and some goats. A completely new life. 

Mourning the old and anticipating the new, Rosa writes that “I am in an in between place,” in which, as the poet T.S. Eliot says, “in my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning.”

Endings and beginnings.  Good Fridays and Easter Sundays. Deaths and Resurrections.  They fill our lives, if we but look for them and name them. 

Another story: Last week I caught a bit of Dancing with the Stars as I was flipping channels, and discovered that one of the contestants this season is a young woman who lost both of her legs below the knees after a massive illness.  She learned to compete in snowboarding AFTER she lost her legs, and last week she appeared in a pink Cinderella ballgown, gliding across the stage to Disney music.  She has said that her father began dancing with her as part of her recovery, as part of her process of learning to walk again.  Now there is a resurrection story!  Did she and her father, both of them, see in her life journey a terrible ending?  I’m sure they had moments when that’s all they saw.  But they also saw beginning, saw new possibilities for creation.  They saw the hope of resurrection.

And a third story, which I needn’t belabor, because it is all over the news: Tomorrow the Boston Marathon will be run, one year after the bombings which took lives, mangled bodies, and disrupted a city.  If you’ve heard any of the reports or interviews, you know that the phrase “Boston Strong” describes a resurrection city.  A city whose photographs from last year show what look like endings: violent, bloody endings.  And today? A city in which God is making all things new. 

Three stories from contemporary life, plus the original story, in which Mary Magdalene is the first, according to the Gospel of John, to encounter the risen Lord, and the first to be sent into the world to proclaim resurrection.  The story that tells us that when the Lenten journey ends, the Easter journey begins.

And then, of course . . .  there’s one more story.  Your story, and our story.  How are you, how are we, called to proclaim resurrection?  How are we called to turn toward Jesus?  How are we called to walk into new lives? 

There are as many ways of living resurrection lives as there are people to live them.  There are churches to recreate and farms to plant.  There are bodies to heal and cities to rebuild.  There are words to proclaim and people to serve. There is music to sing and prayer to offer.  Resurrection is about thinking that we have come to the end of the journey and discovering that we are just embarking upon a new one.

There is an entire world, an entire universe, to which we are called to attend because Jesus Christ, alive and among us, has inaugurated the new creation of which the prophet Isaiah spoke:  I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.  We are not by any means finished!  We are not at the end!  We are invited to the beginning!

As the theologian N.T. Wright reminds us, "The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that [we’re] now invited to belong to it.

This morning, this glorious Easter morning: Accept the invitation to become an Easter people.  A people of the resurrection.  A people who see new beginnings in the ending of the old.  A people embarking upon a new road, a new journey, to a new future – an Easter future into which we are called as God’s beloved community. Because:

He is risen!  And he calls your name!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ten Years?

Yep, I've been blogging for ten years.

And I think I've about exhausted what I have to say, at least for the time being.

During those ten years, one of my three children finished high school, they all finished college, one died, and two earned graduate degrees.

I've been to Iona and Paris, the Pacific Northwest (multiple times, thanks to a college student), canoeing in Canada, lobbying in Columbus and Washington, D.C., and up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer and broke my ankle.

I completed seminary and a certificate in spiritual direction, was ordained to ministry, taught some college classes, and have served two churches as pastor.

I'm, just back from a much needed week of silence and spiritual direction at Georgetown University, where I stayed in the Jesuit Community's residence, did a disappointingly small bit of exploration (that ankle!), dealt with a car breakdown, and read a lot of Brian Doyle.  (How have I not read all of his books before ???)

Mostly I stretched luxuriously into prayer as my cat stretches across the bed, sinking into a fleece blanket, retracting her claws, and closing her eyes.
At least twice on my retreat, deep into the contemplation of passages of scripture, I related to my spiritual director what seemed to me to be striking insights, and he told me to look into what the early church fathers had to say about them when I got home.
I have nothing original whatever to offer! ~ be it on the church, bereavement, ministry, parenting, suicide, prayer, or any of the other topics which have absorbed me this past decade.
I have concluded that I am in need of much more silence in my life, much more time for listening and reading and absorbing. 
So . . .  if you've been reading, thank you.  If you've been commenting, thank you even more.  I might return, someday ~ but for now, I think that my online presence will be a small and quiet one.


Image: Holy Trinity Church near the Georgetown University Campus.