Thursday, March 31, 2005

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-21; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:37

What is truth?

Pilate’s question sounds profound. But truth is, it was probably a throw away remark, tossed out not as a means of entering into deeper understanding, but, rather, as a means of escaping from what he couldn’t understand.

Jesus had said, For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

But Pilate wasn’t listening. The only truth he knew that day was that if he didn’t do something with Jesus, he would have a riot on his hands, and he would be fired for failing to keep the peace. Pilate would either have to talk some sense into Jesus, who seemed to think he was a king, or wash his hands of the whole thing, give in to the angry crowd that wanted to see their “king” dead. But Jesus wouldn’t give him any straight answers, and Pilate must have thought it ironic that Jesus would bring up the word “truth” when the truth was exactly what Pilate was trying to get out of him. Pilate wasn’t listening, he didn’t understand, he didn’t know how ironic it was that Truth itself was standing right in front of him the whole time.

What is truth?

Truth is, on this day, about 2000 years ago, Jesus died. A rough wooden cross, reserved for criminals and, apparently, kings…this cross bore his broken body until there was no life left in him, and he died. It is finished.

Today is Good Friday, a day when the truth is hard to pin down, even when it is nailed to a cross. Jesus tells his accusers they can learn about him from his followers, at the same time that Peter is telling his accusers he does not know Jesus. What is truth? Jesus is called a king, but no one really means it, and he’s given a crown, but it’s made of thorns. What is truth? Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, dies at the hands of his creation. It is a day of death, of defeat, of hopelessness, and yet we call it Good.

What is truth?

Truth is, on this day, a little more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was conceived. It is nine months to the day before Christmas. On this day, a young girl’s womb, reserved for children and, apparently, kings…this young girl bore his tiny pink body until he was full of life, and he was born. It is begun.

Today is Good Friday, the day Jesus died, but by rare chance, today is also the Feast of the Annunciation, the day an angel visited Mary with astonishing news, the day Jesus was conceived. It, too, is a day when the truth is difficult to hold, even when it is contained in its mother’s womb. The one through whom all things were made enters his creation as a tiny, helpless baby boy.

On this unusually Good Friday, death and life, fast and feast, earth and heaven mingle to reveal the profound truth of God’s love for us. What is truth? Truth is, as St. Paul has written, God’s love never ends. God’s love is not made weaker in that tiny, helpless baby, nor is it defeated in the broken man on the cross. Jesus, in his living and in his dying, showed us that God’s love remains love, even when we aren’t listening, even when we don’t understand, even when we don’t return it, even when we hang it on a cross. The beauty, the goodness, of Good Friday is that nothing could keep Jesus from loving us. The ugliness, the brutality, of this day is of our own making.

We know these stories so well – the angel’s visit to Mary, Jesus’ visit to Pilate. We know the characters, we know their lines, we know what happens in the end. We believe these stories are about things that really happened to real people in a real time and place. But truth is, these stories are as much about now as they are about then. As Christians, as members of the body of Christ, it is now we who bear him in this world. Will we nurture the truth of his love and give it space to grow....or will we deny it, betray it, and condemn it to death? We know we are capable of both.

Today we kneel at the foot of the cross to acknowledge how we, like Pilate, have washed our hands of responsibility for love…how we, too, so often give in to a world that asks us to put ourselves before others, even before God. But at the foot of this cross we also acknowledge how we, like Mary, can embrace and enfold and nurture love…how we, as Christ’s body, are called to love and pray for all people…how we, too, have been given a cross to bear, for that is where true love leads in a world that doesn’t always listen.

Truth is, despite the somber mood this day with it is finished still echoing off the bare walls, we know that come Sunday, about 2000 years ago, Jesus rose again. A cold, stone tomb, reserved for dead people, both kings and criminals…this tomb would not bear Jesus any longer, and he rose. It is begun anew.

What is truth?

Truth is, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Amen.

5 Lent A

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:1-44

Do you remember those nights under a tent of blankets draped over dining room chairs, or around a fading campfire in the middle of the woods, or inside a dark cabin at summer camp, way past lights out, whispers and giggles giving way to an even louder round of shhhhh when you thought you heard the counselor coming to check? Do you remember being buried up to your nose in your sleeping bag, the first line of defense against things that go bump in the night, watching and listening in fear and delight as someone held a flashlight under their chin and said in a low and mysterious voice, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

We might have done well to hand out sleeping bags and flashlights at the door this morning, along with your service bulletins. We’re two weeks away from Easter, but it sure sounds more like Halloween. I can imagine Ezekiel sitting there with his flashlight and saying in a low and mysterious voice, Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone….Or John around a low fire with a new batch of disciples, So they took away the stone, and….the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. It’s pretty scary stuff!

But then perhaps it is appropriate to read these stories so close to Easter, for before that morning dawns bright and fair we must walk through the darkness of Holy Week, walk with Jesus the road to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where he will be hung on a cross until he dies, then wrapped in cloth and placed in his own tomb. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Isn’t it interesting that so many scary stories are about dead things, or at least things that appear to be dead, that come back to life. We aren’t at all surprised when trees that have been bare all winter suddenly sprout green or when flowers poke their way up through the dirt and reach for the sky. Of course, they haven’t been dead – they’ve been sleeping, resting, for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness.

But a pile of dry bones clearly isn’t just sleeping, and Jesus makes it plain to his disciples that Lazarus is not sleeping but dead. Life has gone out of these people and will not return as spring returns after a long winter. Death may sometimes come too soon or too violently or too suddenly, but death in and of itself is natural – it is, at some point, expected. It is unnatural, unexpected, scary for something or someone that has died to live again.

But what if you’re the one being brought back to life? What if you’re the pile of bones at Ezekiel’s feet, or what if you’re Lazarus lying in the damp darkness? What if, in the midst of your death, God’s breath wafts over you and God’s words sound around you, and you are brought back to life? Is it scary then?

Author and poet Richard McCann writes powerfully of his experience of being brought back to life by way of a liver transplant. He was near death when a donor finally became available, and recalls being unprepared for the new life that would follow his surgery. His body slowly but surely recovered, although he takes medication and monitors his vital signs every day to keep his body from rejecting the liver that saved it. His body recovered, but his heart suffered – he was afraid. Afraid of people not understanding what had happened. Afraid of not being all of who he used to be. Afraid of the pain the liver donor’s family must have suffered when they lost their loved one. Afraid of his body rejecting the liver. He was afraid of living, and afraid of dying all over again.

When his body did begin to deteriorate, almost a year after the transplant, his doctor suggested they explore re-transplantation. McCann writes, “No, I thought, I can’t hear that word, not ever again….Where was the miracle now? I was supposed to have been restored. I was supposed to have been made whole. I wanted to unloose the graveclothes; I wanted to unbind the napkin from my face; I wanted to be through with death forever.”

Through with death forever. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe that, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe that, Jesus asks us.

Beginning around the time Ezekiel wrote down his story about dry bones, and still by the time John wrote down his story about Lazarus, many Jews believed in a general resurrection of all the faithful dead, that at a point some time in the unknown future those who had believed in God and kept God’s law would finally enter eternal life. In the days following that first Easter morning, Jesus, who was supposed to be dead, suddenly stood before the disciples full of life, and they were filled with delight and fear. And slowly, they began to believe what he had been telling them all along – he is the resurrection that they had been waiting for and he is eternal life.

Through Jesus, God once and for all removed the power of death by refusing to let death have the final word. God’s word would be final, the word that spoke life into the world at the very beginning, the word made living flesh in Jesus Christ, the word echoed in Jesus’ words to those watching in delight and fear as Lazarus stumbled out of his tomb: Unbind him and let him go. Death can no longer bind our lives and seal them shut forever – God’s Word let us go, handed us over, from the power of death into the power of life. We are through with death, in a sense, because death is something we move through….and beyond….

But Lazarus wasn’t, in another sense, really through with death that day. Richard McCann wasn’t really through with death when they wheeled him into recovery. Were they resurrected? Or were they resuscitated? Were they granted just enough breath, just enough life, to last them until the next time they died?

We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. Not just our bodies, but also our hearts and souls and minds. Sometimes the “big D” Death stares us in the face, but so very often – almost every day – we face “little d” deaths: losses, failures, disappointments, disillusionments, letdowns. “Little d” deaths can seem to have nearly as much power as the big one. They can make us feel like a pile of bones, dry, used up, spent. They can make us want to crawl down a dark hole and hide forever from life.

Sometimes we do not realize how near to “little d” death we are. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in ourselves – what we have, what we need, what we deserve….We don’t realize that we are wrapped up, bound head to toe and then we wonder why we always seem to stumble as we’re seeking our way, and we don’t see Jesus standing right in front of us, pointing us toward life his way.

Standing right in front of us, as he always is, to breathe new life into our tired bones, to say come out of your hiding place, be unbound, and live. Live. Live right now the kind of life only God gives, the kind of life I have given to you, the kind of life I have shown to you.

And so we are resuscitated, as though in our barely-living, “little d” death we had just been sleeping, resting for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness. What brought you back the last time you were overcome by the changes and chances of life? What unbound you the last time you realized you were immobilized? Was it a word spoken by a friend or perhaps a stranger? A hand extended when you thought no one could reach? A prayer raised up in our worship here, or whispered by your bed side, or written in a letter from someone miles away?

Just as God gave Ezekiel the words that would restore life and breath in a valley full of dry bones, so are we all called to speak God’s words of life in a world full of dark and stormy nights, full of scary stories, full of deaths, big and little. We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. But when we begin to believe, even just for a heartbeat, that we could live as God’s Word lived, that we could love as he loved, that we could forgive as he forgave, that we could embrace as he embraced….When our lives are not just restored, but transformed, then we are being resuscitated with resurrection air.

It is the air we will breathe deeply one week from now in our walk with Jesus to Golgatha. For in our remarkable Holy Week liturgies, the closer we get to the cross, the more we lay down our own fearful lives and take up the life of Christ. On Palm Sunday we will act as the crowd, condemning Jesus to death. On Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus dies, we will become servants and wash each other’s feet, as he washed the feet of his disciples, and we will break bread together in remembrance of him, as they did for the first time on that night. On Good Friday, the day Jesus hangs on the cross until every breath has left his body, we will not curse the cross but somberly embrace it, as he did, as the means by which the extent of God’s love for the world would be shown. Finally, at the Easter Vigil, we will sit in darkness for a time and recall God’s saving deeds in history, right up to the time we were saved, buried with Christ in the waters of baptism and then with him raised up to new life. And then we will speak, promising once again to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being….With those words, our transformation will be complete, and the lights will come up and we will hear the words we’ve waited all of Lent to hear. The air will be thick with resurrection.

We are not yet through with death, the big one or the little ones. But through Christ, even in death, we are not yet through with life. I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe this, Jesus asks us. Amen.

2 Lent A

Genesis 12:1-8; Psalm 13:12-22; Romans 4:1-17; John 3:1-17

“In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction….lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Perhaps Nicodemus’ Pharisee friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for coming to see Jesus. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, without a penny to his name, friend of tax collectors and prostitutes and smelly, sun-baked fishermen. Jesus, of whom John the Baptist had said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” How absurd. Jesus, who had somehow turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. How strange. Jesus, who had made the extraordinary claim, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” How odd. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter might have seemed quite sane by comparison.

But Nicodemus, sharing something of Alice’s spirit, felt curiously drawn to this strange and remarkable man. Like Alice running after her White Rabbit, he set out to find Jesus, only I don’t think Nicodemus ever saw the rabbit hole coming until he had already stumbled in.

Once he was inside, things just got madder, crazier, even more strange. Jesus’ words made so little sense that he seemed not even to have heard Nicodemus. Nicodemus tried to follow along, but got lost somewhere around you must be born from above and he finally had to throw up his hands and cry out, How can these things be?

How can these things be? Perhaps Abraham’s relatives and friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for packing things up and heading out of town because someone named God told him to. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. How absurd. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. How strange. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. How odd. But Abraham and Sarah set out, leaving behind their family, their land, their livelihood – everything on which their lives literally depended. God promised them a new family, a new land, and a new livelihood, and so off they went. Years later, perhaps thinking she was crazy to have ever believed, Sarah laughed when she heard three strangers announce she would soon have a child. After I have grown old, and my husband is old? she wondered. How can these things be?

How can we make sense of a world in which none of the usual rules or categories apply? This was Alice’s problem, and it was Nicodemus and Sarah’s problem. How can we be born again? How can that which has so long been barren produce life? It is also our problem. How can we make sense of a world in which God might break in at any moment and tell us to leave behind everything we know and venture into the unknown?

It is madness. Our lives are so carefully planned, down to the last minute. Whether we want to be busy or not, it seems the world demands business of us, and so we spend our days rushing from one meeting to another, one event to another, one deadline to another, one soccer game to another….we know exactly where we need to be and when and for how long, and which way we need to go to get to the next place…..

Well, that’s how I tend to work, anyway. I like to be organized in my business, or at least to think I’m being organized, to such an extent that sometimes, I’ll admit, if I do things that aren’t on my to-do list, I’ll add them just so I can cross them off. I know I’m not the only one!

When I arrived here last summer, I sat down at my computer and typed into Outlook Express all the recurring meetings and church services I would need to be at. Morning prayer, bible study, vestry meeting, healing service….Each day I would add in the various meetings and appointments and other obligations, complete with the color-coding for “in the office” or “away from the office” and occasionally the little alarm that can warn you a few minutes early that you’re about to miss something you’re supposed to not miss….There was something deeply satisfying, comforting, about knowing I could scroll to any day of the week and see right there, on my computer screen, what the day was going to hold.

Yeah, right. I quickly learned that there’s no color-coding for the phone call from your son’s daycare that he’s just gotten sick and needs to go home. There’s no alarm to warn you that someone’s been admitted to the emergency room and you need to go. There’s no timetable for folks who walk in off the street cold or hungry or hurting and hoping that the church can help. I don’t use Outlook Express anymore.

Can you imagine what Nicodemus’ Outlook Express calendar might have looked like? Daily prayer, worship at the temple, meetings with other religious authorities….and then Jesus pencils in, late one evening, Be born from above….Yeah, right. And when Jesus retraced it in ink, Be born from above, born of water and spirit….Nicodemus couldn’t figure out how to fit that into his categories, the color-coded options and alarms, and the momentum of his life was ground to a halt. Jesus, how can these things be?

Despite our best efforts at managing our never-enough time, we all get interrupted in our daily rushing about. But today’s readings aren’t about just getting interrupted – they are about completely changing the course of our lives just because someone named God told us to. It is madness.

Or is it faith? Or a little of both?

I’m not surprised that Paul was drawn to the example of Abraham, who answered without hesitation the call of God to become something entirely different in one moment than he was the moment before. Perhaps Paul’s friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy when he announced that Jesus had spoken to him through a blinding light and told him to stop murdering Christians and start making them instead. Someone named God told Abraham and Paul to start over and so they did – it looked, and probably felt, like madness. It was reckoned as faith.

Most of us, I suspect, are more like Sarah or Nicodemus. Even like Mary, who, when she was told she will bear the Son of the Most High, said, how can this be? We are so locked into the rules and categories by which we define and organize our world, our lives, and even our faith, that we forget God is not so bound. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who is doing them in us and around us and through us.

In the season of Lent, I believe, we are called not just to interrupt but to change the course of our lives. We tend to turn Lent into sort of a time outside time, when we are especially intentional about remembering our dependence on God, with whom things are possible that for us are impossible. We are especially penitent for the things we do that separate us from God. Many of us give something up or take something on as a Lenten discipline, to help us be especially aware of the presence of God in our daily rushing around lives.

Sure, it’s important during Lent to interrupt our routine, our rushing about, to make ourselves take a long hard look at how far we’ve drifted off course. But if we look at where we’re headed – at the events of Holy Week and beyond….a master washing the feet of his disciples, a cross for God to die on, an empty tomb….It’s madness. How can these things be?

They can be because it is God who does them, God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. During Lent we are called to change our routine, our rushing about, not just for a time but for all time. We, like Nicodemus before us, are invited to be born into a new life.

Nicodemus was so confident in his rules and categories of what was possible that, in the presence of the light of the world, he stood in darkness, unable to see. Unable to see Incarnation, God with us – how absurd, anyway. Unable to see perfect sacrificial love – how strange. Unable to see life after death – how odd. When you think about it, what about Jesus makes sense?

It is madness, surely, to give up everything the world has taught us to be, to do, and to believe, and to follow Jesus instead. But then, we’re all a little mad, right, a little crazy? A little mad and a lot faithful? We must be, or we wouldn’t have come here.

In this season of Lent, may we, like Nicodemus, make what is at first a strange and disconcerting interruption in our way of life become a life change. For the next time we see Nicodemus in John’s gospel, he speaks briefly on Jesus’ behalf before the religious authorities. And the last time we see him, he is gently placing in a tomb the dead body of one who once spoke to him of new life. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who does them in us and around us and through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.