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John 20:19-31 "Locked Away in Fear"

TreeoflifeebayIt is too easy to pick on Thomas who forever has the word “doubting” attached to his name.  I prefer to think of him as a skeptic, and there are many moments in church history the church could have used his questions and skepticism.  I wish there had been a doubting Thomas around to say to the Spanish Inquisition, “I don’t think torturing people into doctrinal conformity is a good idea.”  Lest we forget, Thomas was handpicked by Jesus to be one of the 12 for good reason, and it is not like the rest of the disciples were ultra-faithful through Holy Week.  


What most draws my attention in this week’s Gospel lesson is precisely what the other disciples are doing.  In response to seeing an empty tomb, and hearing from Mary Magdalene that she had encountered the Risen Christ and spoken with him, they had gathered together and locked the doors of their meeting room in fear.  Who can blame them?  They had been through a horrific trauma, and they were living with a reality they could not comprehend and it frightened them.  In the face of harsh reality, locking the door and hiding in fear makes sense. 


Living in fear is a reality for today’s church. Across the country churches are locking doors.    Every year over 4000 churches in America shut their doors for good.  The greatest spiritual shift in the past decade has been a great movement to “none-of the above.”  Each year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity.  They leave feeling disillusioned, hurt and neglected. Christians are living in fear that they are aging, irrelevant and dying out. This is perplexing to us who are inside the doors.  Church still works for us.  We find love, hope and belonging in church.  Why don’t more people want to be with us?  How will we get young people involved?  (By young we mean anyone under 50.  I have been the new young pastor now for 25 years of my career.) 


This morning I want to make the case that church and the Gospel is more relevant than we imagine, and if we can figure out how to get past our fear of the great changes in the world, we might just be able to live into the resurrection and have new life.  We can get stuck in being grieving churches mourning our very real losses.  Like Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb of Jesus, her eyes are so filled with tears she cannot see Jesus when he appears to her.   Our challenge is much like the disciples faced.  How do we see the Risen Christ to stand among us, so he can breath the Holy Spirit on us?  How can the breath of God fill us with new life so we can face the world with courage and hope, so that others may feel locked out from God can experience the love and community we treasure?


The big challenge we face today is change itself.  The speed of change overwhelms us, we don’t understand it, so we feel locked into the past and irrelevant.  It is a natural response to pull in and try to create a comfort zone.  For example, grocery store chains do market research on how to stock their shelves to get people to buy more stuff.  One chain found that jam and jelly sales were down, and discovered the problem was too many choices.  On camera, they saw people look at the 17 kinds of jelly-grape, blueberry, strawberry, apricot, orange marmalade, plus varieties that are sugar free, organic, glutton free, or combinations like strawberry kiwi-and after a moment people just moved on without buying any jam.  It was too much.  They cut the choices down to 6 and people started buying jam again.  We can’t handle all the choices change brings. This is why rapid change is linked to the great rise in depression. 


We are not immune from this in church.  The blueprint of what it meant to be church in the 20 th century is losing relevance.  It was a clear map that worked well, detailing how to do worship, what music to sing, how committees are organized, the Stewardship campaigns done, The problem is the world this map served is changing quickly and it is hard to keep up.  This map was based on a world where people felt a duty to be in church, the greatest generation that lived through the Depression and World War II had a common experience of that unified most of the nation, they had more volunteer time to give, the middle class was rising and more prosperous, the two parent heterosexual family was the norm and there were three TV networks everyone watched for information.  It was a great map in some ways, but now we live in a GPS world.  Many people don’t know how to read a map and won’t look at it.  Instead they are finding their destination on Google.


The GPS world has not yet figured itself out, the paradigm is in process.  It you enter my address, 124 Moser Street, into Google maps, it will tell you that no such place exists.  If you drive to my house, the screen will show you that you are driving cross-country where no roads exist, but if you look up you will see there are streets, a neighborhood and I live at 124 Moser Street, even though it is not yet on Google maps.  (Somehow the Northampton Tax Assessor had no problems finding where I live without using Google maps.)  Don’t be hard on yourselves if change is hard, because even Google, one of the world’s largest and innovative companies, cannot keep up with the world they are creating.  Did you hear that Amazon wants to start delivering products by drone within an hour or two of your order.  Google and Facebook recently bought research companies that design solar powered drone freighters to move mass goods in a carbon free future.  Grocery stores thought they had trouble with jam; soon ice fisherman in Minnesota will order beer from Amazon, or just have the Taco Copter stop by.  Will babies born in the next generation ask, “What’s a grocery store?”  This may sound like progress, but I won’t believe it until 124 Moser Street is on Google maps.  My tacos will end up in the dog park.


While I’m fascinated with the possibilities, here is what annoys me.  Can’t we figure out better things to do with our technology than delivering crappy food to our front door or taking pictures our ourselves to share on Facebook, telling the world, “Hey, I’m eating a hamburger?”  Gail Collins wrote a great article about this in the NY Times on Thursday:


The way people see the future can define their present. A century or so ago, when Americans were trying to imagine the year 2000, the talk was about ending social ills. The best-selling novel “Looking Backward” told the story of a man who fell asleep and woke up in a world where crime, unemployment and mental illness had virtually vanished, where college was free, and laundry was cheap and people ate their stupendously delicious meals in communal dining rooms. It sold millions of copies and spawned both progressive movements and a long line of novels with heroes who fell asleep and woke up at the next millennium.

And what about our visions of the future now? Imagining things 50 years in the future, our novelists and scriptwriters generally see things getting worse — civilizations crash, zombies arrive, the environment implodes.


This is where the church needs to step in.  How can we step into the gap between the fear of Apocalypse and the hope for Taco Copters, and proclaim a hopeful vision for humanity?  How will we share the joy we experienced last week at Easter with the world?  I conclude with what theologian Brian McLaren has to say about Easter:

What might happen if every Easter we celebrated the resurrection not merely as the resuscitation of a single corpse nearly two millennia ago, but more - as the ongoing resurrection of all humanity through Christ? Easter could be the annual affirmation of our ongoing resurrection from violence to peace, from fear to faith, from hostility to love, from a culture of consumption to a culture of stewardship and generosity . . . and in all these ways and more, from death to life. What if our celebration of Easter was so radical in its meaning that it tempted tyrants and dictators everywhere to make it illegal, because it represents the ultimate scandal: an annual call for creative and peaceful insurrection against all status quos based on fear, hostility, exclusion, and violence? …. What if Easter was about our ongoing resurrection "in Christ" - in a new humanity marked by a strong-benevolent identity as Christ-embodying peacemakers, enemy lovers, offense forgivers, boundary crossers, and movement builders? ….How might the world be changed because of it?


John 20:1-18 "The Great Resurrection"

Anastasis (1)This is my 17th Easter Sermon, and I still find it tricky.  We come to this moment each year with a crescendo of hope and excitement, but also with a great theological burden.  What happened?  Was the tomb of Jesus really empty?  Was the resurrection a physical resuscitation of the body, or an apparition seen by his followers, perhaps even completely made up mythology?  If we were there at the resurrection moment, would it have been a video recordable event?  Stone rolls away, Jesus suddenly blinks, reaches for his Iphone and captures the moment with a selfie? 


Jesus, the man of Nazereth, died on a cross like thousands of dissidents in the Roman Empire.  Executions throughout history are part moral lesson and part entertainment.  Jesus execution is complete with gambling, taunting, a little vaudeville to see if he will call down helping angels.  I wonder if a few jugglers and fire breathers were at the edges of the crowd.  After a full weekend, Passover pilgrims went home with stories to tell and life returned to normal.  For the majority of people in Jerusalem and Palestine, Jesus made no lasting impact on their lives.  None saw this as a defining moment in history, just one more small victory for Rome.  It might have made the top 10 stories for the year 33 AD if Time Magazine had been around, but who would have said that this was the defining moment in history.  Wolf Blitzer might have been able to pump up the search for the body of Jesus for a couple of weeks, but they would have been much more fascinated with the story of whether Jesus was married or not. 


With all the Easter resurrection build-up as the defining event of Christianity, the writers of the four gospels didn’t leave us a unified story.  Mark’s Gospel says the disciples came to the tomb, found the stone already rolled away, all the action is off camera, and they hear the news that Jesus is raised from the dead, and they run away in fear and tell no one.  Another great moment in the history of the disciples, right?  In Matthew’s Gospel, the two Mary’s are walking to the tomb when there is an earthquake, and angel rolls away the stone, Jesus emerges with an appearance like lightning, the Roman guards tremble and an angel announces the news to the two women.  In our reading in John today, which is written a generation after Matthew, everyone runs to the tomb, they look all around see the rolled up grave clothes, but they can’t comprehend what is happening, so in verse 10 it says, “The disciples returned to their homes.”  They went home?  Was there a Red Sox game on?  Wasn’t home in Galilee?  Weren’t the Gospel writers aware that 20 centuries later preachers like me would have to make sense of all this?  


It fascinates me that even though Matthew and Luke clearly read Mark’s account, and yet they chose to write three different versions of the resurrection story, and then John comes along and writes a fourth account a generation later.  Clearly a unified story that tangibly proves the resurrection was not important to them.  If that was the point, they had every opportunity to do so.  So many of our questions are related to our experience of time place and history.  Our questions have to do with physics, scientific burdens of proof, scholarly and journalistic standards, that did not exist for the Gospel writers.  They were trying to tell a story to awaken faith and hope.


Before we are too hard on the Gospel writers, let’s admit that our modern histories leave much to be desired.  Have we ever gotten to the bottom of the assassination of JFK?  There was a defining moment in history, where we even have the famous Zapruder footage of the shots that killed him.  For the next generation of Baby Boomers, the assassination of JFK and later MLK and RFK were defining.   People remember where they were when the heard the news that JFK was assassinated.  Schools closed and children went home, the gas stations stopped pumping, the office buildings emptied out, churches opened for prayer and people turned on their black and white TVs and tried to make sense of the assassination.  In the decade to follow, boys grew their hair long and some fled to Canada while others kept flat-tops and went to Vietnam.  Hippies went to the country side, the Jesus Movement formed communes, protests accelerated on college campuses, and groups ranging from the Black Panthers, Feminists, civil rights groups and the sexual revolution and drug experimentation all convulsed at once. 

We are still fighting the so-called culture wars launched by these events.  The great artists of the 1960s tell a convoluted story as well.  Who tells the story best for this decade – Stanley Kubrick’s movie JFK, Martin Luther King’s  “I Have a Dream” Speech, Timothy Leary’s experiments, The Beatles White Album (“Say You Want a Revolution”) or Betty Friedan and the Feminist Mystique, also written in that fateful year of 1963.  What is the meaning of the 60s? It is rich and complicated, and depends on where you look.  So don’t be too hard on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for a few perceived inconsistencies in their great narratives.

How shall we understand the meaning of the resurrection today, amidst our own challenges and questions?  Today let’s take a journey to the place where tradition holds that Jesus was buried and resurrected.  The Eastern Orthodox Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been there since 325 CE.  Theologian John Dominic Cross recently described his pilgrimage there in 2008.  While waiting in line with other pilgrims to go down to the tiny chapel of the tomb of Jesus, he noticed an Easter banner hanging there, and he was immediately struck by how different the Eastern Orthodox portrayal of the resurrection was compared to the Western Catholic and Protestant traditions:

 He holds a small cross in his left hand and stands on the bi-fold gates of Sheol, Hades, or Hell which are shattered into a cross-shaped structure beneath his feet. Jesus is bending forward -- gently, tenderly, graciously -- and, stretching out his right hand, he grasps and pulls on the rather limp wrist of Adam. Beside Adam stands Eve. Behind the two of them stand a youthful Abel, with shepherd's staff, and an older John the Baptist, with beard and long hair. They are the first martyr of the Christianity's Old Testament and the first martyr of its New Testament. At the top of that diamond-shaped image, lest there be any mistake about meaning, is the word Anastasis, Greek for "resurrection".

But is not Easter about the absolutely unique resurrection of Jesus alone, so why are any others involved and, if others, why precisely these others? The answer reveals a major difference between Easter Sunday as imagined and celebrated in Eastern Christianity as opposed to Western Christianity. It also reveals for me the latter's greatest theological loss from that fatal split in the middle of the eleventh century….The great exception is how Eastern Christianity portrays the "Resurrection," that is, in Greek, the "Anastasis," of Jesus. Across vast stretches of time, place, art, and tradition, icons and illustrations, frescoes and mosaics show always a communal and not an individual resurrection for Jesus. 

As with any great event of history, there is what happened and then there is how it defines us as we seek to understand.  What if Easter is about more than us, as individuals getting to heaven as a reward for a good life?  If the resurrection is communal, new meanings emerge.  The Anastasis icon is not mere history, it is proclamation.  It proclaims that violence and death is not what defines us, that John the Baptist who was beheaded for his politics, and Abel who was killed in a jealous brotherly fit, are defined by a God who loves them, not by the misfortunes of how they were killed.  If Adam and Eve are there, those tragic first humans who supposedly spoiled paradise with the first disobedience to God, then we are all there.  Then we are all defined not by our mistakes and inadequacies, but by the grace of God who renews and transforms us.  Christ is risen as we join hands across time with unlikely fishermen, and grieving women at the tomb, with those who were torn apart by lions in the arena for their faith, with the gentle Francis of Assisi and the bold Joan of Arc, with Desmond Tutu, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The resurrection is the great joining of hands of those who love, those who do justice, those who participate in the Beloved Community.


If you want to understand the meaning of the resurrection, then join hands right now with your neighbor, stand and join hands across the rows of the sanctuary…if you want to know the meaning of the resurrection, and how Christ is raised from the dead, hear it is…listen believers, questioners and questioning believers…Christ is risen as we join hands and obey his commands, that we love one another, that we love our neighbor as ourselves, that we seek even to love our enemies.  So raise your hands together with me and lets say it together...He is Risen!  Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!  Alleluia! Amen.


John 13:34-35 "Maundy Thursday Meditation

Christ_washing_peters_feet_fordmadoxbrownTonight we undertake the most universal act of being a Christian Church-we re-enact the Last Supper.  We eat bread and drink from the cup, and we hear and remember the final moments Jesus had with his disciples.  What happened on this night is at the heart of being Christian.  We do not have to get too complicated about the meaning, because Jesus simply sums the moment, “A new command I give you, that you love one another….This is how they will know you are my disciples.”  Love one another.  I am surprised Jesus calls this a new command.  He has said this before in the Gospels, and it is a quote from centuries before in Leviticus 19:18:


18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.


We know these words so well they may pass us by.  I was walking down Main Street recently, and my mind was so full of things I walked by Dan, who plays his guitar in front of Thorne’s Market daily.  We always give a nod to each other or talk for a moment, but that day I was distratacted-pulled away surely by important things-but what can be so important to miss the one thing Jesus commanded, always love one another.  The next time I passed him I had to apologize, and though Dan didn’t remember the incident, it was important to me because it was a moment where God worked on my heart-reminding me that there were other ways I was not living the commandment, and that none of my distractions or worries are more important than Jesus words on this night-love one another.  Let us not pass these words because they are so simple.


This is a minor infraction to contemplate on a night when we remember the betrayal of Judas, the failure to stay awake and support Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, swearing he did not know Jesus, the miscarriage of justice by Caiaphus and Herod, crowds enjoying a spectacle and the brutality of an execution.  Everything that is wrong with the world is on display this night.  This makes Jesus’s command to his disciples all the more precious, love in the face of all.  What a fragile thread of hope, the first stitch to mend the great tear in the heart of world. 


Like me, the disciples were distracted by so many other things on this last night.  Who was the greatest?  What was the plan?  Fear, envy, tiredness, and anxiety were probably all greater in their minds.  Jesus keeps them focused on what is most important.  He tied a towel around his waist and knelt before them to wash their feet.  His final gift was to be their servant.  Peter is repulsed.  “You will never wash my feet.”  We can understand his embarrassment.  I’ll wash my own dirty feet.  Don’t be quite so humble Jesus.  Ride a donkey if you wish, but don’t touch my dirty feet.  Don’t touch my vulnerability.  Don’t remind me how very human I am on this night. 


But Jesus insists on serving in this lowly manner.  Servant leadership is a nice phrase, but don’t we really want to be elevated to a place where we don’t have to do the dirty work anymore, to a position where we can supervise and give advice to others working their way up in the nature of loving one another.  Ah, Holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?  Don’t love me on your knees, reminding me of how human and needy I really am-for I might be called to love others in this manner.  Love me from on high, love me in your glory, so I don’t have to think about hardship and messiness that goes with your command to love one another.  Let me love from the pulpit, or from the choir loft, let me love from a committee, or with my protest sign, or by giving my home-cooked meal to someone who is hungry, but please don’t wash my feet, please don’t call me to my knees with my own towel. 


Yes, we have heard these ancient words so many times, but they are new every day.  Nothing is more new than the command to love one another.  This is what truly changes the world, what captures hearts and minds.  Remember our own humanness, with all our frailty and flaws, and let Jesus touch your feet, touch your heart; so you may live anew; and share his passion in common human bond.  This is the simple command that will make the world newly alive.