Sunday, April 26, 2009

show and tell

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "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; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

I’d like to begin by telling a story that, to be honest, is kind of fuzzy – but it’s a story that a woman named Caroline tells me every time that I see her. And when I think of growing up, I think of Caroline. Caroline was my babysitter from like 1985 – 2004. And when I hear the word witness, I think of Caroline. Because Caroline loved to tell people about Jesus. To use an evangelical term, she’d “witness” to everyone she met – including John Newton at the age of five. And so one night Caroline sat me down and she told me that God loved me and that Jesus died for my sins. I think had just spilled my juice box onto the carpet, I was feeling really guilty, and so Caroline seized what she saw as a missional opportunity. And so Caroline explained that it didn’t matter how many “juice boxes that I spilled” because Jesus died for my sins. Well, after hearing the news, I became concerned. And so looking at Caroline with all the intensity that I could muster, I asked her – “does Suzie know this?” Suzie, by the way, was my best friend and kindergarten compatriot. And to make a long story short, Suzie had not yet heard the good news of the Christian gospel, because I cornered Suzie the next day by the monkey bars, and tried to explain to her that Jesus died for her sins. Anyway, that’s the short version of how I became the playground missionary in kindergarten.

Sadly, this was by no means my last effort to convert my kindergarten. “Show and tell” provided a marquee opportunity to witness to my peers – back in the day, 30 seconds and a weekly audience was all I needed. I brought a cross necklace to one of them, a prayer book to another. And so while some kids brought their pet frog to “show and tell”; I brought news of the resurrected Christ.

In today’s Gospel, two disciples bring the good news of the resurrected Christ to the eleven apostles. Now remember – in the context of Luke’s Gospel – it’s still Easter day. And so far only two people have seen Jesus alive, and in today’s Gospel, they’re the ones telling the others that Jesus has risen from the dead. But before they can even finish, Jesus appears directly in their midst and does a little “show and tell” of his own – Jesus shows them his scars, and he tells them to be at peace. And then after eating some leftover snapper, Jesus gives them a commission: “you are witnesses.” In other words, Jesus tells them “you’ve seen something spectacular. You’ve spoken to me. You’ve touched my scars. For God’s sake, I just ate a piece of fish. There can be no doubt that I am really alive. And you – you are witnesses.”

And so the question we need to consider is, what does it mean for us to be a witness? After all, is that not the question our Gospel leaves us with? You see, being a witness is something the early church took quite seriously. In fact, in today’s reading from Acts, Peter shows the people something amazing – a lame man is completely healed. And after showing, Peter tells them about the power God, about the same creative power that brought Jesus back to life. And in his own version of “show and tell,” Peter repeats the exact words of Jesus – “to this we are witnesses.” Thirteen times Luke uses this one phrase to describe the entire mission of the early church. For Luke, to be a disciple is to be a witness. And so it might be worth considering, what does it mean for us to be a witness?

At least in our world, the word witness is all about telling. We see something, or we experience something, and then we tell others what happened. For example, if we see a car crash, we’ll have to stick around and tell the police officer what we saw. And if for some reason it goes to court, we’ll be called in as a witness. In other words, we’ll have to tell the court what happened. And so the act of “telling” is, if nothing else, part of what it means to be a witness. After all, that’s where today’s Gospel begins – with two disciples telling the others what they saw. But notice, Luke doesn’t say that they were “witnessing,” and like I mentioned before, that’s a word Luke uses a lot. In other words, witnessing may involve telling – but in and of itself, the act of telling just isn’t enough. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to do more.

I have to say, I find it interesting that the Greek word we translate “witness” is martus. If that word sounds familiar, it’s where we get the English word martyr. Now, I’m well aware that words evolve – and the word martyr doesn’t always have a good connotation in our culture. But for the first Christians, being a martyr was first and foremost about being committed to showing – to showing the world the Gospel in action.

“You are witnesses of these things” Jesus told his first apostles. One can’t help but see the irony of his words. According to legend, Peter was crucified upside down. James was stoned. Bartholomew was beheaded. Of the eleven, only John died a natural death. The other ten were martyred. Could they have avoided such a death? Probably – but how else could they show – what better witness could they have given to our world – that death had forever been defeated – that Jesus was really alive?

And so the question I leave us with this week is, what do our lives show? If it’s true that our lives speak, what story are we telling? You see, the question isn’t whether or not we are a witness. The question is – what are we witnessing to?

You see, at the end of the day, this life God’s gifted each of us with – it’s all “show and tell.” And so as disciples of Jesus, be committed to showing our world the Gospel in action. Because whether we like it or not, our life speaks – and so let yours tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Show people a sacrificial love so extravagant that they never could have imagined it possible, and tell them about the sacrifice Jesus made for them. Show people a kindness, a patience, a trust, a forgiveness so extravagant that they never could have imagined it possible, and then tell them about the awesome character of God. Show people your own wounds – the scars on your hands and the holes in your feet – and then tell them to be at peace because Jesus has risen from the dead.

Because in my experience, there aren’t a lot of Suzie’s out there who haven’t yet heard the good news of the Christian gospel. But there are tons of people who haven’t seen it. And as disciples of Jesus, we are his witnesses. And this life that God’s gifted each of us with – it’s all “show and tell.” Bring news of the resurrected Christ.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

omega talk: being gifted


Who was the first tennis player in the bible?
Joseph. He served in Pharaoh's court.

My senior year of high school wasn’t what I’d call “academically rigorous,” though I did come incredibly close to failing what was hands down my hardest class – “chorus.” And by chorus I don’t mean choir class – at least at my high school, choir was only for people with talent. And by chorus I don’t mean singing class – singing class was for the people that didn’t make the choir. I mean chorus – a class designed for vocally challenged high school freshmen that my best friend and I took when we were seniors in high school. And on the surface, chorus class is easy – there are only two requirements: class attendance is one, and the other is performing at our school’s annual Christmas pageant.

I’m not going to lie – I was super-pumped about the pageant. I hadn’t performed at a Christmas pageant since I was six. But that excitement quickly waned when I learned my part. The song was “Little Drummer Boy,” and my part was to support the song’s rhythm by humming the following words over and over again – prum, prum, prum. I’m not going to sugar coat it – I was pissed. I was hoping for a better part. And of course my friend got the best part – he was supposed to sing a solo. And I say “supposed to” because when it came time for his big moment, I felt the Spirit and decided to improvise. Instead of humming “prum, prum, prum” I kicked up the speed and cranked up the volume and threw a little “rum pum-pum-pum” “rum pum-pum-pum” in the mix. The only problem was, I sang right into my best friend’s ear. And because I apparently messed up the harmony, he started to laugh – like hard. And literally within seconds the entire gymnasium erupted in laughter. Of the seven hundred people present, there were only two people not laughing that night. My teacher – which is why I almost failed. And me – I kept “prumming” along right into my friend’s ear.

Obviously, our song ended early and my friend stopped laughing and immediately proceeded to tell me that I ruined the song, the pageant, and his life – and so it made me do some thinking. And what I’ve come to see is that A – it wasn’t my fault. To this day I maintain that my performance was brilliant. And B – the real problem was that a “class distinction” existed in my mind. In other words, I thought I had a crappy part – that the part I was given to play was less important than my friend’s. That’s what I mean by a class distinction.

I had a friend in seminary that graduated from music school and he used to tell me about the “class distinctions” that were part of his college experience. The flutes and the oboes, he told me, looked down on the brass, but within the brass, the trumpets all thought that they were better than the trombones. And apparently the only form of animal life lower than the trombone is the triangle and the timpani. And he was being serious. Everyone seemed to think that their instrument was better, more important, than everyone else’s.

And in a nutshell, this is the problem Paul’s facing in Corinth. Within the Christian “chorus class” (so to speak) there are apparently some people that consider themselves superior to others, which Paul sees as a real problem. In our last Omega we talked about “being tested” – well, the Corinthians are on the verge of failing. There seem to be class distinctions between those who possess and practice different spiritual gifts. And so with that in mind, listen to what Paul tells the Corinthians.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. But they are all activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.

And so the question is – what exactly is Paul saying? To keep our musical analogy, he’s saying that in the Body of Christ, there are different instruments, but that all require the same skill; that there are different musical styles, but that we’re all following the same conductor; that there are different tones and volumes of playing, but that we’re all following this one complex musical masterpiece, which of course is written by the same composer. In other words, the Corinthians are taking themselves and their gifts way too seriously. And what Paul wants them to do is to learn to take God seriously – to see what an awesome thing it is that God is even inviting them to play a part. In other words, what Paul wants the Corinthians to see is that a spiritual gift is just that – a gift. They’re not spiritual achievements. They’re not spiritual status symbols. They’re not spiritual indicators. They’re spiritual gifts.

And so in the time we have left, I’d like to address five important questions.

1. Who gets spiritual gifts?
2. Why are spiritual gifts given?
3. What are some examples of spiritual gifts?
4. Are some gifts better than others?
5. And if so, what’s the greatest gift?

To answer our first two questions, let me re-read a verse from tonight’s reading. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” For Paul, all of God’s people are given spiritual gifts. Let me say that again – all members of the Body of Christ are given spiritual gifts – there are no exceptions. And so notice, a spiritual gift isn’t the same thing as a talent. For example, Henry Nouwen, after having a crisis of faith, decided to spend the final years of his life working among the severely handicapped, and his primary assignment was to take care of Adam – a young man that couldn’t dress himself or go to the bathroom by himself. In fact, Adam could barely talk. And so needless to say, Adam had no talents. But Henry Nouwen’s faith was restored because day after day after day he saw the amazing gifts that God gave to Adam. He writes about how Adam had this uncanny capacity to bring joy to others. To be in Adam’s presence was to smile – it evoked prayer, it restored people’s faith. Now, in the eyes of the world, Adam was useless. It took a lot of time and money and man-power to take care of him. But in the eyes of God, Adam was given a big part to play. And so all people, without exception, are given spiritual gifts.

Which brings us to our second question -- why? Well like Paul says, for “the common good” – a Greek phrase that’s more accurately translated “to bring together.” And so on the one hand, spiritual gifts are given to bring God’s people together. But on the other hand, Paul says in chapter 14 – which we didn’t hear read – that spiritual gifts are given to build up the church. In other words, Paul taught that the church was in a process of growing into something, or perhaps to be more accurate, growing into Someone. For example, consider what Paul says in Ephesians: “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers, for the building up of the body of Christ, until all of us grow into the full stature of Christ.” And so the purpose of a spiritual gift is to build up, to bring together, to help each other grow. Once again, God used Adam’s gift of joy to restore Henry Nouwen’s faith. And God used Henry Nouwen’s gift of compassion to help Adam live, to help him experience love. Adam and Henry’s different gifts brought them together – and in the process the church was built up – it grew just a little closer to the full stature of Christ.

Moving to questions three and four, what are some examples of spiritual gifts and are some gifts better than others? The New Testament lists a bunch of spiritual gifts: prophecy, evangelism, teaching, administration, leadership, faith, service, knowledge, wisdom, exhortation, encouragement, ministering, giving, the gift of tongues, the gift of interpreting tongues, miracles, healings, mercy, and the gift of hospitality. Now obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Anything that God gives us to build up His church, and one another, is a spiritual gift. And so the question is – are some gifts better than others?

What I’ve learned from my twelfth grade Christmas pageant is that the answer is no. If the Spirit of God singles you out and calls you to exercise one gift and not the other – that gift is no better, and no worst, than whatever gift you didn’t receive. And that’s what Paul’s been trying to tell the Corinthians.

You see, historically speaking the Corinthians were obsessed with the gift of speaking in tongues. And the Christians who spoke in tongues looked down on the people that didn’t because they thought it made them more spiritual. And so the ones who spoke in tongues separated themselves from the ones that didn’t. Do you see the irony? The purpose of a spiritual gift is to bring the church together – and this one gift was tearing their church apart. The purpose of a spiritual gift is to build up – and this one gift threatened to tear their church down. And not one of the Corinthians seemed to get it. The Christians with the more “ordinary gifts” were pissed – instead of using their gifts to bless one another, they griped and moaned because they weren’t given a better part. And the Christians with the more “charismatic gifts” – well, they thought that they were in a different class altogether. I imagine Corinth was like my friend’s music school – the people speaking in tongues looked down on the prophets, but the prophets all thought they were better than the teachers. And apparently the only form of animal life lower than being a teacher in 1st century Corinth was being a servant or an administrator. And they were being serious. People seemed to think that their gift was better, more important, than everyone else’s. And the Corinthians were competitive – they just had to know what the greatest gift was – they just had to know what the most important gift was. And so Paul tells them.

And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we’ll see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I’ll know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

I want you to imagine that you’re a musician and that you’ve just discovered a new symphony by Beethoven – Beethoven’s “tenth.” And what you’ve found is authentic – but the only problem is that it’s incomplete. There are places where the writing is faded and a few pages are missing here and there. And so you’re hoping that what’s missing will one day turn up, because until it does, you’ll never be able to play the full symphony.

In essence, what Paul’s trying to tell the Corinthians is that the Body of Christ is like that authentic manuscript – that the Body of Christ is like a masterpiece that God is at work putting together. And in the mind of the composer, the masterpiece already exists. The only problem is, we only know a part of it – it’s like we’re reading the music through a dimly lit mirror. And because of that, the players aren’t quite ready to perform it yet and the instruments haven’t properly been tuned. In other words, there are just some things that still need to be brought together. And so the question is, what do we do in the meantime?

We know what the Corinthians did. Do you remember what our very first talk was on? Divisions in the church – Paul heard a rumor from Chloe’s people that there was serious drama at Corinth. And Chloe’s people were right. But what Paul wants to do is to show them, in his own words, “a still more excellent way.”

And that still more excellent way – the summation of all spiritual gifts – is love. To quote Paul from his letter to the Colossians, “love binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The answer is love. And so on the surface, the Christian life is easy – there are only two requirements: love God and love people. But the truth is, the love God calls us to can be hard, hard work. It’s hard to take God seriously. And I think the reason love is hard is because we take ourselves way too seriously – we take our part way too seriously – but in the process, we forget what an awesome thing it is that God invites us to play a part in the first place.

But let us never forget, God does invite us to play a part. And for that reason he gives all of us spiritual gifts. No spiritual achievements, not spiritual status symbols, no spiritual indicators – spiritual gifts. We all have a part.

And so the question I leave us with is – what’s yours?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

covered in oil

Psalm 133
Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
*when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
*that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
*and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon
*that falls upon the hills of Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing:
*life for evermore.

A Christian missionary once asked Ghandi what he thought about Jesus. Ghandi’s response was, “I’m fond of your Christ. It’s just his followers I have trouble with.” That reminded me of something I heard last week – someone told me that they loved God but hated the church. “I’m cool with Jesus,” said the person making my sandwich at Thundercloud as she snickered at my clergy collar, “but his followers – well, they’re just weird.” And from time to time, I’m sure we all feel the same way. I mean, have you ever noticed at how often we define ourselves by how we’re different? “We’re Episcopalians,” we’ll say, “we’re not like them.” But my question is – as Easter people – is it okay to define ourselves by how we’re different from others that bear his name? Or, does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection compel us to live “at one” – “at one” with God, “at one” with each other?

You see, whether we like it or not, to proclaim “Christ is risen” is to join the family of God. And what Easter compels us to see is that God’s desire for his people is community. Our God never makes secret salvation-deals with random individuals. But like we see in tonight’s reading from Acts, God wants his people to be of one heart and one soul. And so our relationship with Jesus may be personal. But it’s anything but private. For our God is at work forming a family. And I hate to break it to you, but in the Kingdom of God, no one’s an only child.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that families can be messy. Just think about the first story the Bible tells about siblings – it’s a religiously motivated murder mystery. Cain and Abel fight, not over land or even over a woman – but over who God loves more. And then there’s poor Joseph – he’s a much better dresser than his eleven brothers, and out of jealously, they rough him up and sell him into slavery. And Esau – his brother Jacob cons him out of his inheritance and steals his father’s blessing. And let’s not forget Miriam and Aaron because well, they’re just racist. They plot a coup to remove their brother Moses from leadership because he marries an Ethiopian. In other words, the Bible tells the story of siblings “at odds” with each other – and in doing so, the Bible tells the story of our fallen world. But as Easter people, is it okay for us to live out the story of our fallen world? Because if Jesus has risen from the dead – if the universe has really been changed – then mustn’t it be true that our God is writing a new story – a story where we’re “at one” with God and “at one” with each another. And if that’s the case, what does “at-one-ment” even look like?

Tonight’s psalm paints a pretty good picture. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is,” the psalmist writes, “when brethren live together in unity.” So far, so good – but if we keep reading things get weird. “It’s like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe.” At least on the surface, this has to be the creepiest psalm in the entire Bible. But, in the context of ancient Israel, it’s a picture of grace, a picture of unity, a picture of at-one-ment.

The image we’re given is that of “oil-covered Aaron,” which is taken from Exodus 29, a chapter that lays out specific instructions on how to ordain Aaron as the priest of Israel. And in ancient Israel, ordination meant covering the new priest in oil, which symbolizes being set apart for the service of God. And so to look at a person and to see them covered in oil is, in essence, to see a priest.

Now, we may have a hard time seeing ourselves as priests – that is as people set apart for the service of God. After all, we can be so sinful, so weak, so ordinary, so faithless. Or maybe it’s other Christians we have a hard time seeing as set apart. Maybe they’re too judgmental, or maybe they’re too wishy-washy. Maybe it bothers you that some Christians just have to pray before every meal, or maybe it bothers you that some never do. In other words, the family of God is very diverse and some of Jesus’ followers – well, they’re just weird. It’s like they’re part of a different family.

But what the reality of Easter compels us to see is that they’re not. Listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about the family of God: “What determines our brotherhood is who we are by virtue of Christ. Our community with one another is based solely on what Christ has done for each of us.” In other words, to be “at one” with God and “at one” with each other is to look at our brothers and sisters and to see not the differences – but the reality of their anointing. Unity is about looking at every disciple of Jesus and seeing a person set apart for the service of God. And it’s not enough to see just a little oil on our brothers and sisters, for our God gives in abundance. The grace of God flows over their head, down their face, through their beard, and onto the collar of their robe. And so if we’re going to be “at one,” we have to see the reality of our anointing. Without exception, each and every disciple of Jesus is covered in oil.

And so here’s the question I’d like to leave us with: what story are we living in? Because we all know the old story far too well – the story of Cain and Abel that is. Theirs is a story of murder, of jealousy, of being driven by difference. And so whenever we’re okay with unresolved conflict, whenever we gossip or attack our brothers and sisters, we’re reliving the story of Cain and Abel. And so, what areas of our lives still reflect their story?

Because the good news of the Christian Gospel is that our God is writing a new one – and God’s is a story of “atonement,” a word that, when broken down, literally means “at-one-ment.” Because when our lives are rooted in Jesus’ resurrection we’re “at one” with God, and we’re “at one” with each other. And at the end of the day, that’s what the new story of God is all about. But the question remains – what story are we living in?

Because in a million different ways we are always answering this question. Our lives are always moving a little closer, or a little farther away, from the new story of God. But what that also means is that we have a million different opportunities – to forgive someone that hurts us, to encourage the depressed, to confront someone we love, to heal someone who’s sick. If our eyes are open, we’ll see a million different ways to live out the new story of God.

But the story that we choose – the life that we live – it all depends on how we see people. As Easter people, we can’t love God and hate the church. Because Christ died for the church – even the weirdoes. And like the book of Revelation tells us, the church is a kingdom of priests. We’ve all been set apart for the service of God.

And so do me a favor and look around. Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of that, grace abounds. It’s on your head, it’s running down your face; it’s all over your clothes. You’re all very different, but you’re still a family. Can you see it? Every single one of you is covered in oil.

Monday, April 13, 2009

jesus has moved the stone

Mark 16:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Easter I, Year B
April 12, 2009

This is a tad embarrassing, but I’m a recovering hypochondriac. And just so there’s no misunderstanding, hypochondria is the phobia that makes you think you’re always terminally ill. It has nothing to do an unhealthy attraction towards trees or corpses. Sorry – that misunderstanding’s just cost me friends in the past. Anyway, I went through a two-year stretch of paranoia in seminary where I thought that every mole, spot, bump, headache, toothache, and dizzy spell was God’s way of telling me that I had two months to live. Now, this is obviously ridiculous, and I think we all know who’s at fault here – the “Web M.D.” Whatever you do, never go to the internet doctor, because in the last three years I’ve been diagnosed with scoliosis, A-DD, schizophrenia, polio, and four different types of cancer. Now, rationally, I know it’s not 100% accurate. For example, a while back I was moody and having hot flashes and the Web M.D. assured me there was no need to worry – it was just the early stages of menopause. And so I’m not a big fan of the Web M.D – it’s really good at making you think you’re going to die, not so good when it comes to offering hope.

Because let’s be honest – death is a hard thing to think about. It makes us feel scared, lonely, and powerless. We often speak of death as a natural and normal part of life, and I thank God that many deaths seem that way, but let’s be honest: when we lose someone we love – or when we think about our own death – we don’t feel natural and we don’t feel normal. Death just seems so irreversible, and so no matter how much we speak about death as a natural event, our hearts will not get on board.

And to be quite frank, the Bible won’t either. From a biblical standpoint, death is seen as the enemy, as the Great Intruder to God’s good creation. In other words, death is a bleak reality that must be overcome and defeated – a giant millstone hanging around the neck of humanity. And it’s a stone that weighs us down – it’s a stone of fear; a stone of loneliness; a stone of powerlessness– a stone too heavy for any one man to move. And so we wonder – is death all that there is? Or is there someone that can move the stone?

According to today’s Gospel, three women – on the first Easter morning – were asking the exact same question. They wanted to anoint Jesus’ body – the first of two steps required to give Jesus a proper Jewish burial. And practically speaking, they were powerless to move the stone that guarded Jesus’ tomb. According to Mark, the stone was “very large” and far too heavy for the three women to move. And so on their way to Jesus’ tomb they ask one another: “can anyone move the stone?”

But can you hear their deeper question? You see, these women had spent years in Jesus’ presence. Time and time again, Jesus spoke to them the words of eternal life. With their own eyes they saw him heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, and restore the sinful to a right relationship with God. Jesus was their teacher, their friend, their hope. And to spend time in Jesus’ presence was to know the absence of stones – for his yoke was easy and his burden was light. And only two days prior to tonight’s Gospel, he was crucified. You see, for these women, it wasn’t just Jesus that died. Because on that first Good Friday, hope was nailed to a cross. The enemy had seemingly won. The Great Intruder could not be stopped, and the millstone of death hung heavier than ever before. And so once again, can you hear their deeper question? Can you hear our world’s deeper question? Can anyone move the stone?

Tonight we’ve gathered to celebrate the absence of that stone. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and because of that, our universe has forever been changed. That giant millstone hanging from humanity’s neck has forever been cast into the sea. The enemy has been defeated. The Intruder has been stopped. The stone has been moved.

And in essence, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is what Christianity is all about. To steal Paul’s phrase from tonight’s reading, the resurrection is of “first importance,” and frankly, it’s the only explanation for the church’s existence at all. Paul lays it out tonight as clearly as he can – Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the twelve, then to five hundred people at once, then to James, then to some unnamed apostles, and finally, to Paul himself. In other words, what Paul’s trying to tell the Corinthians, and what he’s trying to tell us, is that the resurrection really happened. And in that happening, our universe has forever been changed. The enemy has been defeated. The Intruder has been stopped. The stone has been moved.

Now, there’s a lot of confusion about what resurrection actually is – about what it meant for Paul, about what it means for us. And for the early church, resurrection meant that people who die in Christ would one day return to a new, glorious, and embodied life – not at all disconnected from the one they had before – and that in the meantime, if they happened to die, that their spirit would be safe with God. But not only that, for in Jesus’ resurrection we find the hope and the belief that God will one day renew not just us – but all things – that the entire earth will one day be filled with his love, grace, power, and glory. Ultimately, resurrection’s about God’s conspiracy to reverse the irreversible. And if you think about it, that is a scary and amazing thing. It’s like Mark tells – when the women realized what had happened, they were afraid. Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and because of that, the universe had forever been changed.

And so here’s our homework – not for the week – but for the entire season of Easter. Practice Resurrection. Resurrection isn’t just about something that happened to Jesus, nor is it just about something that will happen to us. Even now our God is alive, and because of that, resurrection happens. Make no mistake. “Alleluia, Christ is risen” isn’t a slogan for the religious – it’s the cry of revolutionaries. The universe has changed, a revolution is afoot – practicing resurrection is about joining that revolution.

You see, at the end of the day, Christianity isn’t a set of moral teachings. It’s not a mere path among many to a deeper spirituality. It’s not a system of belief. It isn’t a rule of life. And it’s not a political agenda. It may include all these things, but none of these are of “first importance.” Christianity is about a real event that happened in real time in our real world that we really inhabit. And because the resurrection happened, our world has forever been changed.

And so when tonight’s service ends, go out into the world celebrating! Perhaps more people would believe in the resurrection if Jesus’ disciples ran around doing cartwheels. If Lent was about giving things up, maybe Easter should be about taking things on – champagne for breakfast and chocolate cake for lunch. But whatever you do, be in the world as one who celebrates. Love, bless, heal, forgive, restore, cleanse, feed, give, celebrate.

After all, you can hear the world’s deeper question, can’t you? Can anyone move the stone? Practice resurrection and you’ll show the world that the same God that moved the stone that first Easter morning still moves stones – stones of fear, stones of loneliness, stones of powerlessness. And then tell them that the millstone we call death – that stone has forever been rolled away. For the enemy has been defeated. The Intruder has been stopped. Jesus has moved the stone.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

the shepherd's sacrifice

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The underlying assumption behind Jesus’ words is that the sheep have gone astray. We are those sheep. While Good Friday is about the work that God accomplished through the death and suffering of Jesus Christ on the hard wood of a Roman cross, a proper understanding of Jesus’ death does not begin with God, but with us. We cannot speak of healing until we understand that we are sick. We cannot speak of salvation until we understand that we are lost. We cannot speak of resurrection until we understand that, left to ourselves, we are dead. We all are like sheep that have gone astray.

Jesus teaches that the first and great commandment is to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our mind, and that the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. God’s command to love means that we put God first, others next, and ourselves last. Somehow, we have managed to reverse God’s life-giving order. We put ourselves first, our neighbors next, and God somewhere in the background. The very act of putting ourselves first makes us estranged sheep. We are self-centered sheep inclined to talk, but not to listen; inclined to argue, but not to submit; inclined to criticize, but not to love.

“We all like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” To acknowledge that we have gone astray is the first step out of denial and into truth; out of darkness and into light; out of death and into life. As 1 John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Perhaps even more poignant are John’s words that “if we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar.” In other words, the beginning of all truth, of all wisdom, and of all sanity begins with a clear acknowledgment that we have turned away from God. Our natural inclination is not to worship God, but ourselves, and because of this we find that we are wayward people in the midst of a wayward world. The evidence of our wayward ways surrounds us. Some of this evidence is quite obvious – war, global hunger, and the abuse of creation. Most of the evidence is more subtle. For example, since promises are inadequate, we need contracts. Since doors are inadequate, we need locks. Since laws are inadequate, we need police. Such is our world of estranged sheep.

To say that we have gone astray is to confess that we are sinners, and in doing so we condemn not our society but ourselves. Even more, to speak of ourselves as sinners is not to merely say that we sin; although that is certainly true. To speak of ourselves as sinners is to speak about our character. In other words, our very nature is prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, prone to go astray; our insides have become corrupted. Our hearts, that central place within us that governs our lives, have become defiled. This message naturally angers us for such a claim insults our pride. Yet, the reality of our defiled hearts stems from the teachings of Jesus himself and is in fact aimed at shattering the very pride offended by this truth. “For from within,” Jesus says, “out of the heart of a person, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things,” Jesus continues, “come from within, and they defile a person.” In other words, we don’t sin in spite of who we are. We sin because of who we are. We are sheep who have gone astray.

If we are to understand the meaning of the cross, we must first acknowledge that that we have gone astray. If we are to understand why the Good Shepherd chose to die, we must first acknowledge that we are estranged sheep. If we are to understand Jesus’ words, “it is finished,” we must first acknowledge where we all begin. In the history of humanity no person deserved to die on that cross and experience the penalty of humanity’s sin less than Jesus of Nazareth; and yet, no one but him could offer a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Jesus’ death was no accident, a mere tragedy that befell him; no, Jesus died for us. Jesus’ death was the work of God on our behalf – an intentional mission undertaken for people in need by the only person competent to meet that need. Jesus’ competence lies in the fullness of his divinity and love. Our need lies in our sin. “We all like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.”

“And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

the gospel according to lazarus' bff

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

I had never met him until tonight. Of course I’d heard about him. Everyone had. But I didn’t know exactly what to think of him. And to be honest, there really wasn’t much of a consensus. My best friends, of course, had staked their entire lives on following him. And I guess that’s why they invited me to dinner. They wanted me to meet him. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary had staked their entire lives on following him, and I assume they wanted me to do the same.

But I didn’t know what to think, because like I said, there isn’t really much of a consensus. Some are claiming that he’s the Messiah – the Son of the Living God. But some people think he’s John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. His own leaders for God’s sake are telling people he’s got a demon. And apparently, his own family thinks he’s crazy.
And so when my friends told me that they’ve come to believe that he’s the Anointed One the prophets had written about, and that he just “happened” to be coming over for dinner tonight, I didn’t know what to say. For all I knew, my friends were the crazy ones.

You see, tonight isn’t just any other night. It’s the first night of Passover week, which is why I’m in town by the way. And Passover in Jerusalem – it’s kind of a weighty week. The Temple is loud and busy, and by the end of the week, the city reeks of death. You see, we sacrifice goats and lambs, one after the other, a ritual that for us is all about freedom. It’s about remembering that God set us free in the past. It’s about remembering God’s promise to send the Anointed One – someone to set us free once and for all. Passover in Jerusalem is a festival of freedom. And so when you live under Roman rule, it’s kind of a weighty week.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel that free. And that’s why I wanted to meet him. After all, my friends’ devotion to this man may have struck me as extreme, but they weren’t alone. I had spoken to others who had met him, and the vast majority claimed to see in this one man something they’d never seen before. “Beauty, truth, compassion, holiness, power, humility, service, love, life, freedom, and God” – over and over again people spoke these words to me through tear stained eyes as they struggled to explain what their encounter with this man was like.

You see, it’s not that my life is bad or tragic, and God knows that a lot of people have it a lot worse than I do. But at the same time, there’s something missing – because I’m starving for more. I yearn for beauty and truth and compassion. I hunger for holiness. I long for love. And Lazarus and Mary and Martha – and I don’t know the reason – have come to believe that they’ve found all of these things in and through this one man.

OK, I do know the reason. It’s just weird. My friend Lazarus used to be dead – or so he claims. Lazarus doesn’t say a whole lot, but I’ve heard the story from Mary, from Martha, from the entire village of Bethany. In fact, the chief priests can’t even deny that it happened – they’re just telling everyone it was the Devil’s work. But I’m not so sure. You should hear Martha tell the story. In fact, she’s been telling it all day. She says the stench was awful because Lazarus had already been dead four days when they took away the stone; and that this man – whether he be a misfit or the Messiah – commanded Lazarus to come out of his grave. She says her brother looked like a mummy before they finally took off his burial clothes. And then she gets this goofy grin and makes another crack about how bad the house smelled.

Anyway, that’s the same house that I ate dinner at tonight – in the presence of the One who people are saying gives life to the dead. Mary introduced me right before dinner. And she told him my name, but when I looked into his eyes – I knew, and Mary knew, that he knew. Before I knew him, I can tell you for certain, this man knew me.

I tried not to stare at him during dinner, but I couldn’t help it. And I don’t think he seemed to mind too much. In fact, it’s almost like he welcomed it, because when I’d stare, he’d look right back at me – not in an awkward way or in an anxious way – but in way that no one had ever looked at me before. Because when he looks at you, he looks through you. And when this man looks through you – just for that moment – you’re free.

Anyway, towards the end of the meal Mary did something strange. She took this jug of expensive perfume, anointed his feet, and then used her own hair as a towel – right there in front of us all. For minutes we watched transfixed in silence, each contemplating the significance of this act. This house once full of my dead friend’s stench was now filled with the fragrance of the perfume. This house that once reeked of death now smelled of life. The smell was beautiful. The moment was beautiful. The silence was beautiful.

Until one of his best friends finally broke the silence – scolding Mary for what he saw as an empty and wasteful gesture. And I have to admit, what Mary did for him was extravagant. But this anointed one seemed to welcome Mary’s extravagance – as if he was being anointed for a purpose. And he told us why, but I’m not sure I understand. He said it was for his burial. His words will forever be etched in my soul. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Like I said, I had never met him until tonight. But it’s the first night of Passover week, and the weight of the week looms large. And to be honest, I still don’t know what to think of him. But I know he’s not crazy. And if he is the Devil, then I’ll be damned. Because I saw in this one man something I’d never seen before – something I yearn for, something I hunger for, something I long for, something I’m starving for. In the presence of this man, I felt free. Because when this man enters your house, the reek of death becomes the fragrance of life.

Tonight definitely wasn’t just any other night, and by the end of the week, the city’s going to reek of death. This man that called my friend out of the grave – he’s now talking about his own. My friends – they’ve staked their entire lives on following him. And I’m still pretty sure they’re hoping that I’m going to do the same.

the glory of god

“The Glory of God”
John 12: 20-33
Lent V, Year B
March 29, 2009

“Jesus answered them, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be gloried. It is for this reason that I have come to this hour. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Definition #1 – a satisfying source of beauty and grace; and # 2, when used as a verb – to rejoice in triumph. These are both definitions of the word glory. The question I’d like us to consider this morning is – what’s glorious to us? What do we glory in?

The reason I ask is because I’ve come to believe that the human heart, above all else, wants to see glory. We long to see a satisfying source of beauty and grace. We want, above all else, to rejoice in a triumph that doesn’t fade away.

I think that’s why I loved Superman so much as a kid. Superman never failed. He’d always triumph in the end and, let’s be honest, we’d be offended if he ever failed. I mean, sure, he’d pretend to be weak and helpless, but as we all know – the vulnerability, the weakness, and the suffering of Clark Kent – that was just an act. Because underneath was a man of steel with a mission to help the week and the needy. And so I’d pretend to be Superman and yes, I wore tights and a cape under my clothes. Now fortunately, this behavior ended when I was seventeen years old – but my longing for glory did not. Because whether we’re seventeen or seventy-one, our heart longs to see a satisfying source of beauty and grace. We want to rejoice in a triumph that doesn’t fade away. Above all else, want to see glory.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is about seeing the glory of God. And so to help us understand today’s Gospel lesson, we have to go all the way back to the first chapter where John writes the following: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). In a very real sense, John’s Gospel is about the full revelation of the glory of God. And for John, the glory of God is about a specific moment in Jesus’ life. In fact, seven times Jesus has spoken about his “hour” that is yet to come – about a specific moment when the glory of God will be fully revealed – about a specific time when the one thing we wish to see will be visible to all and available to all.

Now traditionally, the glory of God – even in its limited and partial form – was only available to the people of Israel. But in today’s Gospel, some “Greeks” – a codeword for outsiders – get word that Jesus is the full revelation of the glory of God and they want to see it. And so they go to Phillip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Now, you’d think Jesus would be excited. But this isn’t the case at all, and I can’t help but think that these Greeks were offended at Jesus’ response. Because instead of saying “How exciting, bring them to me!” Jesus starts talking about his death on the cross. But Jesus does this, not because he wants to hide the glory of God, but because he wants to reveal it. In other words, Jesus tells Andrew and Phillip that the time has finally come for all people to see the glory of God – that the glory of God would soon be visible to all and available to all, even to the Greek outsiders. To quote Jesus one last time, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I’m going to draw all people to myself” – and of course Jesus is talking about the cross.

And so once again – what’s glorious to us? What do we glory in? After all, we all want to see glory, the human heart hungers for it – and so where are we looking? Because I know where we’re tempted to look – money, physical appeal, our intellect. After all, if we’re rich enough and attractive enough and smart enough we’ll be seen as people of beauty and grace, we’ll prove triumphant in the world’s competitive race to finish #1. And the truth is, a lot of us never grow up. We keep on pretending to be Superman – to look stronger and smarter and more spiritual and more successful than we really are. But if that’s the case, we’re looking for glory in the wrong place. So where’s the right place?

The cross. In Jesus’ death, we see the full revelation of the glory of God. In Jesus’ death, that which was hidden from the foundation of the world is now visible to all and available to all. Does the cross offend us? Or do we see the cross and rejoice in the strange triumph of God?

I have to say I really sympathize with one of the earliest Christian heresies – docetism – which taught that Jesus only pretended to be human. Apparently, a lot of people were offended by the notion that God himself would really experience vulnerability, weakness, and suffering. In other words, they thought it was an act – kind of like Clark Kent. But the scandal of the Christian Gospel is that for Jesus it wasn’t and that in the midst of Jesus’ vulnerability, weakness, and suffering we see the fullest revelation of the glory of God.

Jesus’ mission was to help the weak and the needy, but let us not mistake him for Superman. He didn’t triumph over his enemies as bullets bounced harmlessly off his chest. No – he triumphed by finishing dead last in our world’s competitive race. The whip of the soldiers drew real blood, the thorns pressed real flesh, the nails caused excruciating pain, and he died an actual death. Like a seed buried in the ground, the cross, on the surface, looked like tragedy. But as our journey to Good Friday continues, we’re reminded once again that Jesus’ cross is the triumph of God, the beauty of God, the grace of God, and the glory of god.

And so what’s glorious to us? What do we glory in? Our hearts cry out – our world cries out – with the Greeks in today’s Gospel: “We wish to see Jesus.” And a day is coming when we will. Jesus will draw all people to himself. With our own eyes we will look and see the full revelation of the glory of God. But the scars – they’re still going to be visible, and crown of glory – it’s still going to be made of thorns.

Each of us will see the beauty of God, the grace of God, and the triumph of God as we behold our Crucified God. The only question left to ask is – will we be offended?