Sunday, April 26, 2009

God owns heaven, but craves the earth

Easter 3-B
April 26, 2009

Acts 3:12-19;
Psalm 4

1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Easter changes everything.

We are transformed. God is transformed. We usually think of Easter as about, well, us: Jesus has come to us, if Jesus is raised from the dead, so will we be. Any of those death-dealing forces that we face in our lives – running out of money, people bossing us around, worry about the future, about losing our homes or our livelihood – all of us have a list of fears that overwhelm us – Easter means that none of those things can threaten us now. Jesus is risen from the dead – death has done its worst and still Jesus rises, AND SO WILL WE. Death can try to do its worst to us, and still we will live – still we will love; still people will love us; still life will be worth living.

But think about what Easter has done to God. Listen to this bit from a poem by Anne Sexton:

God owns heaven

but He craves the earth,

the earth with its little sleepy caves,

its bird resting at the kitchen window,
even its murders lined up like broken chairs,

even its writers digging into their souls
with jackhammers,
even its hucksters selling their animals for gold,

even its babies sniffing for their music,

the farm house, white as a bone,

sitting in the lap of its corn,

even the statue holding up its widowed life,
even the ocean with its cupful of students,
but most of all He envies the bodies,

He who has no body.

After Easter, God will never be the same. What it means to be human has now become part of what it means to be God. And if the poet Anne Sexton is right, and I think she is, God had long yearned to know what it meant to be human. God had long yearned to be so close to us that God, in all of God’s utter all-knowing and all-powerful self, actually bec
ame one of us. “God owns heaven,” the poet writes, “but God craves the earth.”

Easter changes everything.

God has ushered us in to a new reality – a new reality so rooted in this world that the whole world itself is changed.

Look at this gospel story again: Jesus appears. Dead, and yet alive. Fully alive. The disciples knew that he had been killed, that there was no hope, and yet here is the proof: he walks, he talks, and in the most mundane, most ordinary and most wonderful of things, Jesus says, “Have you anything here to eat?”

I have a friend who once served in a parish in a poor neighborhood. He was up in his study, preparing a sermon on this text, where Jesus walks into the midst of his friends and says, “Have you anything here to eat?” and as he was writing his sermon, under his window, in a poor, city neighborhood, a man cried out, “I am hungry!”

Can you imagine: God, walking in here, among us, crying out, “I am hungry! Have you anything here to eat?”

Easter changes everything.

We are transformed, God is transformed. And here, in this place, where we offer food and drink, bread and wine, where people walk in off the street and say, “Have you got anything here to eat?” Here in this place, where we and God meet, this very place is the beginning of the transformation of the world.

This world, this very neighborhood, cries out to us, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Practice Resurrection

April 12, 2009

Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18

It’s kind of thrilling to see the bulbs I planted last fall peeking out of the soil. The perennials I received from Joanne’s stepmother’s beautiful garden are also beginning to show a little life. I was amazed that the vinca vine in the pot outside the chapel door is still green and alive. And the daffodils, kind of haphazardly growing out of the edge of the foundation, kind of hidden away in the front of the church, are showing their bright, yellow faces.

It’s spring. Alleluia! After such a long, dreary winter, it’s very surprising that spring comes around again – well, we say that. But really, we are expecting it. Spring is natural. It is built into the very DNA of all plants to stretch their limbs and get their sap moving in the spring.

Easter is the only Christian holiday based on nature – or rather, the date of Easter is based on nature. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. And did you see that moon the other night? Huge, and full, and early in the evening, rich and yellow. The full moon is always a surprise, a remarkable exciting event. But really, we are expecting it. The full moon is natural. The earth and the moon, held in place by the sun, travel their orderly courses day after day, year after year. It is part of the nature of the universe.

What is NOT part of the nature of the universe is resurrection. On this day, we are asked to suspend disbelief. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb. The body is gone. Angels appear with strange messages, and gardeners are mistaken for Jesus.

No, this is not natural. A man who suffered a terrible death should not come back to life.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples do not know quite what to do with this good news, either. There is some confusion, running back and forth from the burial ground with conflicting stories. Mary is frightened half out of her mind, by this mysterious stranger that familiar Jesus has turned into. The natural order of things has been reversed.

These stories of the resurrection never seem like the “and they all lived happily ever after” stories we sometimes think they should be. We all know that life after Easter is not perfect – no more perfect for the disciples 2000 years ago than it is for us. We are Christians – we live in the light of the resurrection, so how come, sometimes, life is so hard?

What it means to be a Christian, a lot of people say, is practicing discipleship. Like the disciples long ago, like Mary Magadalene and the rest of them, we follow Jesus. We listen carefully. We are disciplined, we pray, we study, we think, we care for people in need, we love our enemies. Following Jesus, being a disciple, takes a lot of practice.

It’s the same way with life after Easter. We have to practice – but now we have to practice resurrection. Practice the improbable. Live as though we knew what it meant: resurrection. Life after death. Life in spite of death. Life that spits in the face of death. Life that cannot be contained in a tomb, that cannot be held back by a stone door. It’s a promise: no matter how hard life gets, there’s more to it than this – there is more to it than suffering and death. Practice resurrection.

Very few people actually saw the risen Jesus. But their witness has been enough to go on. From one frightened woman, to a small group of disciples. People who on the day after the resurrection still got up, still had their problems to face, but people who knew that everything had changed. They knew the natural order of things had been turned upside down. They began to practice resurrection.

This sentence is the beginning of the church:

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

And then they went out, and the practice of the resurrected life began.

“I have seen the Lord,” Mary Magdalene tells us, too, calling us, too, to practice resurrection.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

God matters

Maundy Thursday Apr. 9, 2009
Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25
1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Jews all over the world tonight are sitting down to seder dinners, to recall how God acted mightily in history, how God saved the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, how God intervened against an oppressive human leader and set the people he loved free.

Jews all over the world tonight are reminding us that God matters.
And it is definitely a time to remember that God matters.

The news reports are full of stories of people beginning to crack under the strain of this economic depression. I heard today of a young woman, straight, and off drugs for 10 years, who fell into a relapse. Oh, it was the stress of worrying about finances, oh, it was an old back injury acting up, oh, just a little percoset, oh, just a little heroin.

There is a sense that people everywhere feel like we have been hit by a truck. Everything we had counted on seems to have slipped away – retirement accounts, housing values, steady paychecks. My brother works for Chrysler Corporation, and my mother is the widow of a retiree: will the assets they built over a lifetime be there for them when they need them?
Nonetheless, Jews all over the world tonight are sitting down to seder dinners, to recall how God acts mightily in history – thousands of years ago, and even today. This very day, God is acting.

On Maundy Thursday, it is hard to see how God is acting. Is tonight a beginning, or the end? It is the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, of his teaching, his miraculous healings, his easy friendships, his confrontations with the people who didn’t get it.

If tonight is an ending, then we indeed have been hit by a truck. Why not despair, give up, hunker down, turn on, drop out? If tonight is an ending, then everything we had hoped and planned for is coming crashing down on top of us.

But if tonight is a beginning, and the Jews are right, then God does act in history, in our history, mightily in our history. God is here, among us, and the world around us is about to be made new.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What can it mean to follow such a Jesus?

Palm Sunday, Year B April 5, 2009

If Christ is where God and the world meet, if indeed if Christ is the point where the encounter between God and the World is the most intimate, then the story we have just read is a tale of a relationship fraught with as much violence as love, as much terror as compassion, as much selfishness as generosity.

Mark tells us the story of a world we know very well. It’s a world of t
error where thugs come in the night: the death squads in Central America, the Tonton Macoute in Haiti, the Nazis rounding up Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s a world of the banal, the numb, death and conflict are commonplace, swirling around us, as they swirled around the disciples during that long, dark night. A friend of mine, near despair, once remarked on “how battered and stressed and desperate people like you and me tend to be these days It has something to do with the fact that everything’s up for grabs, politically, economically, morally, and religiously in our world.”

The J
esus we meet in Mark seems to be giving up. “Are you the king of the Jews,” his accusers ask him. “You say so,” he almost shrugs. Surely he feels all the dread and fear that we would feel; he longs for God to change the divine mind; he sweats tears of blood, and at the end cries out lonely and abandoned. Mark never lets us think that the Romans are to blame for Jesus’ death. It’s the Jews who got out of control. Pilate appears to want to let Jesus go; it is the crowd who demands the release of the criminal Barabbas rather than Jesus.

What can it mean to us to follow such a Jesus? Will we meet an end of such loneliness and abandonment? Is this the cost of discipleship?
In the 1930s a young German theologian wrote a book called, The Cost of Discipleship. Many of the Lutherans in the Germany of the day were willing followers of Hitler, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his community resisted: they wrestled with what it meant to be a Christian in a society of monstrous and growing militarism and oppression. In the 1930s, he thought, it could work out, step by step. “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life,” Bonhoeffer wrote, much later, when he began to question his attempt to learn faith, as though by following a manual.

It is very tempting to read the passion story hoping that it will all “blow over.” I very much want to make sense of the
Passion, to make it into a tidy story with an ending, a lesson which I can learn and then come out the other side a good disciple, full of the fruits of the spirit and the joy of the resurrection.

Sixty-four years ago Thursday Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a G
erman prison, for the crime of plotting to kill Hitler. His resistance to the slaughter of the Jews began by preaching against anti-Semitism, fueled by accusations against "the Jews" like that found in today's Passion Gospel. Then he banded with other Christians against the German churches which collaborated with the Nazis, and then joined a conspiracy to fight the powers of death. It was during his years in prison that he began to question some of what he had written earlier about faith as learned (and controlled) and began to embrace an understanding of faith as “profound this-worldliness:

"... it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself ... By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world ..."

This is a different way of looking at the “battered and stressed” aspects of life: not to tidy them up, give them meaning, as I would like to do, but to embrace them, to throw ourselves into the arms of God -- yet the arms of a God on a cross cannot embrace, nurture or offer us much comfort.

We are Christians, so we know this: the day of resurrection will come, but we cannot leave the here and now to get to it. To be a Christian is to hold both together, all of the time, to live a faith of profound this-worldliness; as Bonhoeffer wrote, “Characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.” It means to live that ordinary life facing death, not expecting the triumphant outcome but knowing it just the same.