Sunday, April 30, 2006

3 Easter B

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 98:1-5; 1 John 1:1-2:2; Luke 24:36b-48

Normal kids are star-struck by amazing athletes, sleek supermodels, rock stars and movie stars, presidents and princesses. Normal kids. Me? When I was a kid, I was star-struck by David Copperfield.

Master magician. Incredible illusionist. Dashing good looks. In my book, he was a superstar! I was still in elementary school when my parents took us to see his show at the city auditorium, where I sat for two hours, awestruck, that this man could make so many things disappear and then reappear right before my eyes. Do you remember when he made an airplane disappear on live television? I stayed up late to watch it, hardly blinking. I also watched when he walked right through the Great Wall of China. And when he made the Statue of Liberty disappear.

We saw another show a few years later, and this time we stayed after to get his autograph. I was so excited, and it seemed to take forever to get to the front of the line. When the line rounded the corner, there he was, right there, his pen flying across the glossy photographs handed to each star-struck fan as they moved past. My mom was ahead of me, and I watched David Copperfield give her an autographed picture without so much as looking up. And then….time itself disappeared as I stood in front of him. I couldn’t believe it. There he was. Right there. In a daze, I saw the picture move toward my hand, but I guess I didn’t move, because he looked up at me – at me! He met my goofy grin with a dashing “don’t-you-see-the-line-behind-you” smile and said “thank you for coming” as my mom pulled me away….what a joy-filled, unbelievable moment for this kid!

In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, Luke writes of the disciples as they stared at Jesus. There he was. Right there. Not even David Copperfield could have done it. Jesus had practically appeared out of nowhere in the Upper Room, where the doors had been locked for three days. Not to mention he had apparently moved, by himself, an enormous stone to leave the tomb in which he had been buried. Buried. Most unbelievably of all, Jesus, whom they had seen die, was alive.

Well, they weren’t sure at first. Luke tells us the disciples first thought Jesus was a ghost. Even starstruck kids know people can’t really walk through walls. The disciples were terrified. But Jesus met their startled faces with his steady gaze and said, Peace be with you. Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.

As the disciples looked at him, as they touched him, as they placed a meal of broiled fish in his hands, as they listened to him teach….how many times before had they heard that voice, touched those hands, watched them do amazing things….As they looked and touched and listened, the disciples saw that Jesus was not a ghost, not an illusion. He was there. Right there. Jesus, whom they had seen die, was alive.

This is our third Sunday in Easter, but time seems to have disappeared because we are still hearing about events that occurred on the day of resurrection. For three Sundays we have heard how the sometimes joyful, often terrified, always disbelieving and wondering followers of Jesus try to understand what has happened. For three Sundays the only proof of resurrection they (and we) have been offered has been the invitation to experience by sight and touch and sound the presence of the living Christ.

No other proof is possible. Resurrection was a historical event, yes, but how do you measure a new heaven and a new earth? How do you date everlasting life? How do you communicate unbelievable, disbelieving joy? Resurrection was an event….but we know not how, except by the experience of a handful of women and men at the tomb, on the road, in the Upper Room – the experience of the presence of the living Christ, the same Jesus Christ whose life and ministry had been filled with remarkable sights and sounds, with fish and fishermen. The same Jesus Christ whom they had seen opening the eyes of the blind, unstopping the ears of the deaf, healing the hurts of so many with his touch. The same Jesus Christ whose life had taken him to the cross. The same Jesus Christ whose life ended in death. They had witnessed it all.

This is our third Sunday in Easter, and three times we have heard how the disciples locked themselves in the Upper Room after Jesus died, in fear, in disbelief, in grief. Everything they had believed about their friend, their rabbi – their superstar – had crashed down around them. And three times we have heard how, in the midst of their despair, guilt, anger, fear and self-imposed locked up isolation, Jesus came and stood among them. He was there. Right there. Look at my hands and my feet, he said….Touch me and see….These are my words that I spoke to you about all of God’s redeeming work, about death and resurrection – listen and hear. You are witnesses of these things.

You are witnesses. What you have seen, show. What you have heard, tell. Resurrection and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from right here
, Jesus told them that first Easter day. You are witnesses of these things.

How do you communicate unbelievable, disbelieving joy? Those women and men would come down from the Upper Room, and would offer the only proof they had, as we heard in the first letter of John: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life….

We, of course, are far removed from that day in the Upper Room, from the historical event of resurrection. We don’t have the experience those women and men had, of seeing and touching and hearing Jesus. Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe, right? But because of their witness, and the witness of those who followed them, and those who followed them….now all these years later, we are here as a community of faith, celebrating Easter in the presence of the Body of Christ. Do you see that living body? Look to your right and your left. Have you touched it? Reach for a hand beside you. Have you heard it? Speak a word to someone near you – it’s in your voice as well as theirs.

And so Jesus comes to us over and over again, if we have eyes to see. We prayed earlier that God would open the eyes of our faith to see Jesus in all his redeeming work, work that has continued in the witness of those who have come to believe. We see him in times and places and people we would never expect. We see him in the hands and feet of others, and hear him in their words. We see him in those with whom we share a meal of broiled fish, or fried catfish, or sushi, or tuna fish sandwiches, or bread and wine. He meets us where we are, in our daily lives, our everyday routines, in our despair and our joy, in our fear, in our questioning and wondering and even in our disbelieving. Jesus comes to us, if we have eyes to see. How have each of us seen or heard or touched the presence of Jesus in our lives? In our common life? We are witnesses of these things.

Look at my hands and my feet, Jesus said to his disciples, showing them he was indeed living and not dead or a ghost or an illusion. But he was also showing them how others, not present with them in the Upper Room, would come to believe in the resurrection. Before there were creeds or doctrines or even gospels to read, there would be only people with hands and feet and voices and hearts filled with joy and disbelief and wonder all bearing witness to Jesus’ living presence in the world.

[ (at 10:30 service only) On this third Sunday of Easter, we will witness the baptism of Michael Angus Michaels, and the blessing of his parents’ civil marriage. We will promise to support them in their new lives together, to be the Body of Christ for them, to see the Body of Christ in them. By our word and example – by our witness – little Michael will experience the presence of the risen Jesus, and in the sight and sound and touch of the waters of his baptism, we too will experience that dying and rising to new life all over again. How will we communicate to him that unbelievable and disbelieving joy? The only way we have. Michael, we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…. ]

May God open the eyes of our joyful, disbelieving, wondering hearts to see Jesus in all his redeeming work. We are witnesses of all these things. We are the Body of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday B

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:14-17, 22-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Mark 16:1-8

Jesus Christ is risen today! Our beautiful church is filled with light and lilies and alleluias on this day of celebration, this day of resurrection. Our beautiful Easter liturgy is filled with songs and stories about new life. We are filled with joy, and maybe a few jellybeans! We’ve come here to celebrate because of the story we heard just a moment ago, the story that started it all. The women went early to the tomb but found it empty. A dazzling stranger appeared and told them Jesus Christ has risen today, and that they were to go and tell all the others. So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid….

….If you’re waiting for more, there’s not any. That’s the end of Mark’s gospel. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Alleluia?!? What kind of Easter story is this? Where are the happy, enthusiastic, confident disciples, fired up with their new mission and a clear, strategic vision, ready to win the world over for Jesus Christ? Where is Jesus Christ?

The women thought he would be in the tomb. They had followed Jesus and nurtured him in his life, Mark tells us, and now they had brought spices to anoint him in his death. But when they arrive, instead of Jesus they find a stranger who tells them He has been raised; he is not here. He tells them not to worry - everything is okay.

Mark speaks of the women with words like alarmed, terror, amazement, afraid….of course the women were all those things, and probably confused and angry, too. Everything is okay? How does the stranger think they will respond? “Oh, oh, thank goodness. You know, for just a minute there, we were starting to get worried….No, it’s not okay! It’s terrifying and mysterious and distressing! Don’t try to tell us it’s okay when it manifestly isn’t!” And they went out and fled to who knows where, to say absolutely nothing to anyone.

Mark ends in the middle of the story, at least the story we know. The women, of course, did not yet know there would be so much more. In fact, Mark ends in the middle of a sentence. We don’t hear it in this translation, but if we translate the Greek literally, the end of the gospel reads, They said nothing to anyone. They were afraid because….And that’s it.

Certain that Mark had simply run out of ink, scribes scrambled to give the gospel a more proper ending. In fact, they added twelve more verses to bring it in line with the other gospel accounts, so that Jesus himself appears, and gives the disciples a new mission with a clear, strategic vision for winning the world over, and then he ascends into heaven….Alleluia!! Now that’s an ending! That’s Easter!

The oldest texts, though, just end at verse eight, and most scholars now think Mark intended to end in the middle. They were afraid because….They were afraid because all they had left of Jesus was his body, and now it was gone. They were afraid because there was no category called life after death in their experience. They had no compass to navigate the reality the stranger was telling them about. The women – all his followers – had probably wished a thousand times already that they could go back to a day when Jesus was alive. It would never have occurred to them to wish they could go forward to a day when Jesus would be alive again.

They were afraid because, as painful as life sometimes was and as it certainly was those last two unspeakable days, pain and suffering and despair and death were at least familiar. The women knew where to find spices, and they knew the prayers to say as they anointed the body. They could cope with the way of cross. But the way of resurrection would prove to be their Gethsemane, when they would be faced with a life-altering decision: would they drink from the cup being given them? Would they choose God’s will for them, though it seemed impossible, incomprehensible? Or would they silently, fearfully, let it pass?

Mark doesn’t have to answer that question, of course – that he had a story to tell at all is evidence that the women eventually chose to tell theirs. And it turned out there was, though it seemed impossible, much more to their story than alarm, amazement, terror, flight, and fear – there was also grace and forgiveness and hope. Did you hear it? The women didn’t, not at first. The stranger had said to them, Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. Tell his disciples, those who had abandoned Jesus, who had fled, who were afraid because….And Peter, who had failed Jesus perhaps most spectacularly, who had denied even knowing who Jesus was, who was afraid because….

But on this impossible, incomprehensible day, they were being called back to Jesus’ side, to follow him once more. They were being called back to Galilee, where it had all begun, where Jesus had first called them to follow, where they had first heard him proclaim, The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. What grace. What forgiveness. What hope.

Mark ends in the middle of the story, because the next verse belongs to the women, to the disciples, to us, and to all who would follow the risen Christ. Verse nine should read: Insert your story here. Part of Peter’s story would be the speech we heard today from Acts, in which he no longer denies Jesus but boldly proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all. What grace. What forgiveness. What hope.

In the gospel of Mark, resurrection is God’s impossible, incomprehensible, wonderful invitation to begin our faith journeys all over again. There is a new category – life after death – and we have a new compass pointing us toward the One who offers grace and forgiveness and hope no matter how far off course we have fled. At what seems like the end, we are invited back to the beginning, to hear the story again now that we know just what is possible. And here’s what we get if we go back in Mark’s story: In the first verse of the first chapter, he writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

There’s our alleluia, there’s the hint at a happy ending! Right back at the start of the whole thing. Mark knew the story – he knew that alarm and terror and amazement and fear and silence were not the end. The whole gospel then would be the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and in the middle of his last sentence, Mark leaves space for us to write.

On Easter day – on every day – we are faced with a life-altering decision, like the women, like Peter and the rest of the disciples. How will the next verse read? Jesus has offered us a new beginning, a new category, a new compass, a new life. He has invited us to go back with him to Galilee, to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come, to tell the impossible, incomprehensible, strange, wonderful, good news. How will the next verse read? We are afraid because….

Of course we are afraid. But the risen Christ goes ahead of us, and promises we will see him as our stories move forward together. Easter Day is happy, but not as a happy ending – the good news of Jesus Christ is that there is no ending, but life everlasting. Thanks be to God! Alleluia, alleluia!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 33-35

Some stories never get old. Some stories do – I love storytime with my son, but right now, I have no real need to ever read Elmo Flies a Kite again!

But there are those stories with such a life in them that they stir the life in us and we can read or listen to them over and over and over again. These stories connect us to the characters within, the people who first told them to us, and the people to whom we will tell them one day. These stories take us places; places we’ve been before and places we still have not imagined. In the words of Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite storytellers, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

For the people of Israel, the story of the Passover would never get old. There was a life about it that stirred the life in them, no matter how many times they heard the story of the night when their ancestors gathered with their families and friends to eat the Passover lamb with their loins girded, sandals on their feet, and staffs in their hands. Oh, the places they would go when God freed them and led them out! As Seuss says, “It’s opener there, in the wide open air.” That night, though, was intimate, terribly and wonderfully personal, and in the telling of the story of that night, the people of Israel were intimately connected with their ancestors and with one another as people whom God had saved and strengthened and sent. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you, God had said, but ever since, the story would be more than a memory of salvation, and the meal more than a re-enactment of a once sacred night. The story and the people who told it came together in the telling, all those lives stirred by God’s wide open love.

For Christians, the story of Jesus’ last Passover will never get old. On the night before he died for us, the story goes, the one we’ve heard over and over and over again, On the night before he died for us, our Lord, Jesus Christ took bread. That night was intimate, terribly and wonderfully personal, when Jesus gathered at the table with his dearest friends and followers to break open the story of salvation. It started out as the story they had heard before, the meal they had eaten countless times, but Jesus would take them to a new place by becoming their Passover lamb. This is my body, this is my blood, do this for the remembrance of me. Oh, the places they would go, that very night and in the days, weeks, and years to come. Ever since, the story has been more than a memory, and the meal more than a re-enactment of a once sacred night, that last Passover, that first Eucharist. In the telling and the eating and drinking, our lives are stirred by grace and love as God continues to save and strengthen and send us out.

The gospel of John tells a different story of the night before Jesus died for us. The setting is an intimate meal among friends, but it is not the Passover, and food and drink are not the central elements. In this story, on the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ washed feet. It is a stunningly personal story: Jesus Christ, the One Through Whom All Things Were Made, stooping low to wash the feet of his friends.

Oh, the places they had been. Their feet were dirty, covered with the grime and dust of the roads they traveled. They were scarred from scuffles with those who constantly crowded Jesus. They were callused and worn from miles of walking, following Jesus as sheep to a shepherd, never quite understanding they were following the Lamb of God.

How Jesus loved those dirty, scarred, callused feet. How tenderly he held them, washed, and dried them, preparing them for the roads and scuffles and crowds yet to come. Oh, the places they would go, proclaiming the good news, preaching and teaching, convicting and challenging, healing and offering hope out there in the wide open air….

On the night before he died for us, Jesus taught us how to tell the story of his love for us, how to stir up and live in that story that never gets old, although it is ancient. By this shall the world know that you are my disciples, Jesus said to his friends that night, by this: that you have love for one another. Love one another as I have loved you. I have set you an example.

We are, Dr. Seuss says, “brainy and footsy” people, capable of great things, able to move mountains. We know in those brains, and in our hearts and souls, that we are part of a sweeping story of salvation brought about by a powerful and protecting God. And yet, although we are “footsy,” we stumble as the disciples did over the simplicity and humility of Jesus Christ, who tells the story with bread and wine and water and a towel. The Good Shepherd turned Passover Lamb, the Master turned Servant, the Host turned Feast. Love one another as I have loved you. I have set you an example.

For those first disciples and for us, the footwashing is really no more about needing clean feet than the Eucharist is about needing a little snack. Both stories are about being loved by Jesus, intimately, personally. Both stories are about being the Body of Christ in the world, loving one another as he has loved us. We are not just remembering or re-enacting the night before he died for us but, rather, entering into a living story, a story that stirs our lives, a story that is still being told whenever we are able to empty ourselves as servants and to fill ourselves with him.

Jesus calls us into intimate, terribly and wonderfully and stunningly personal relationships with him and with one another and with the world. Will we let him wash our feet through the hands of another? Will we eat at his table as friends and followers? Will we watch with him tonight in the darkness of Gethsemane? Will we show the world that we are his disciples? Will we love one another as he loved us? Oh, the places he calls us to go….

“Out there,” Seuss says, “Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening, too.”

As we love, as we serve, as we stumble into humility, we start happening, we become like Jesus, and the world sees. By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: that you have love for one another, just as I have loved you. So now let us return to our story…. (from here we began the footwashing)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 45:21-25; Psalm 22:1-21; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:32-15:47

Not even the red cushions keep us from shifting uncomfortably in our seats today. We have been in court all morning, beginning with our reading from Isaiah.

Declare and present your case, God said to those from many nations, including Israel, who had somehow survived years of invasion and exile at the hands of the Babylonian empire. A courtroom artist would have drawn them as bruised in spirit, battered and bitter. And yet it is they, not the Babylonians, whom God has summoned. Declare and present your case – in what have you put your faith all these difficult years, in what have you found your strength? Why have you looked to your selves, and to other gods? Explain yourselves, give an account.

Declare and present your case, the high priest said to Jesus. Explain yourself. Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? Already bruised and battered, Jesus answered, I am, and the bitter crowds would call for his crucifixion. Case closed.

And yet, what if it was not Jesus but rather the rest of the cast of the passion story who were summoned that day? Summoned to give an account of themselves, how they survived and Jesus did not, in what they put their faith, in what they found their strength….Declare and present your case.

The courtroom artist would draw Peter, leaves still in his hair from sleeping in the garden, his face blotchy and his eyes red from crying, his lips parted as if he could take back the words that saved his life, I do not know this man. We might almost see through the drawings of James and John, who simply disappear from the story, although they had once argued over who would sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he came into his kingdom. The artist would have to be discreet in drawing one young follower, pale from exertion, with such a fearful expression on his face that he appears certain to jump up and flee at any moment, despite his nakedness. And we would have to look closely at the page to see the women, drawn small so as to appear distant, their nurturing presence withdrawn.

Declare and present your case. Could not one of you keep awake? Could not one of you drink the cup? Could not one of you bear the cross? Explain yourselves, give an account. Or was Peter’s denial a confession unawares - did not one of you truly know this man? Would you have done it all the same way if you had really understood that Jesus, your friend and teacher, was the One through whom all things were made?

It is a difficult case. And today, we are summoned to the stand. We, who came into this place shouting, Hosanna! We, who then stood here and shouted, Crucify him!

Declare and present your case. We played the part of the crowd this morning, as we have done every Palm Sunday and Good Friday, but if the courtroom artist were to draw our assembly, I suspect that we would find we resemble each one of the characters in the story. Our daily lives resemble a passion play – we want to follow, but can barely muster the strength to survive. We betray trust, we claim fatigue, we relish power, we set the trap, we deny relationships. We abandon ship when the going gets tough, or we stand paralyzed, unable to do anything but watch. We mock what we do not understand. It is not that Thursday night in Gethsemane that we are called to account for but rather our every Thursday night (or any time) right here in Meridian. Do I love God with my whole heart and mind and strength? Do I love my neighbor as myself? Do I seek and serve Christ in all persons? Maybe….probably not….sometimes….

And then sometimes, like Simon, we are compelled to carry a cross we never knew we had the strength to bear. Sometimes, like the centurion, we see the face of God on a person we were once determined to hate….

It is a difficult case. When all the evidence is weighed. for and against, is there enough with which to defend ourselves? We do not have to. Love intercedes. God, who for love said to those many nations, Turn to me and be saved, by the same love sent Jesus Christ, not to condemn the world but that through him we might be saved. Turn to me, trust me, watch with me, walk with me, Jesus says, and be saved.

Understand the invitation. It is not about Easter light and comfort – not yet. We are invited during Holy Week to walk with Jesus into darkness, to confront the darkness within ourselves, to lay down our own fearful lives and take up the life and cross of Christ. In our remarkable Holy Week liturgies, we will wrestle with the call to servanthood, we will pray for the world that God loves, and we will soberly embrace the cross. 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 raised with him to new life. We will promise once again to love God with all our heart and mind and strength, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons….As the lights come up and the bells ring out and we hear that word we’ve waited all of Lent to hear, we will realize that we were saved all along. We just had to turn to see it.

The verdict is in. The case is closed. We are pardoned before we ask, and loved more than we can measure. Let us turn, knowing ourselves to be saved. Let us keep Jesus company this week and stay awake with him, and forsaking our own comfort, walk with him as far as we can. In the darkness, we will have the Light of the world by our side. Amen.