Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Wounded Hands and Forgiveness: Sermon on John 20:19-31

This passage comes up in the lectionary on the Sunday after Easter, but I saved it for today...

I was remembering this week the very first time I preached at a church I served as a director of Christian Education and youth ministry. L., the pastor, was so kind to give me the opportunity. I was so eager to “get it right,” and I worked so hard on that sermon. I researched, I wrote, I researched some more; I probably spent about forty hours on it. And then I preached it. And then, a few days later, L. and I sat down to talk about it.

She was so kind. I was so eager. And that is a great combination, because I was able to hear the heart of her critique and remember it:

Too much. Too many. Think, “everything but the kitchen sink.”

Too much “stuff” was in my sermon. Too many points were in my sermon. L. said, kindly, “There were maybe six or seven sermons in there. You only need to preach one at a time.” It’s a classic new preacher move: you’re not sure when you’re going to get to preach again, so you put everything imaginable in there. All Jesus’ words! All your ideas! All the commentators’ commentary! But all that results in is a kind of overwhelming seven-course sermon that leaves everyone in need of some Gaviscon and a nap.

And so, ever since that conversation 15 or so years ago, I have been very diligent about trying to write just one sermon at a time, with just one main point.

Sometimes, it is really hard to do that. Today, for instance. Our passage from the gospel of John, one that is normally presented on the Sunday after Easter, contains so many important themes and ideas. Here, in rapid succession, I will share with you some rabbit holes I’ve chosen not to go down in the pursuit of this sermon:

What, exactly, were the disciples afraid of?

What is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, that he both has the wounds of his crucifixion and can walk through closed and locked doors?

If Jesus is giving the Holy Spirit, does that mean that Pentecost and Easter are happening simultaneously here?

Whose twin is Thomas, anyway?

All, fascinating and potentially important points. All worthy of exploration! But I am going to be disciplined. I am going to be the “not-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” preacher today. I am going to talk about one thing. Well, two. But they’re related.

I am going to talk about wounds, and forgiveness.

Jesus comes to be among his friends, his frightened and hiding friends, after a week we can only begin to imagine. The word “whiplash” comes to mind—the arc of this week beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which he is welcomed as a hero, on the verge of a great victory. He is hailed and feted and festooned with palms. And five days later, after a meal with his friends in which he lets them know pretty clearly that the end is near, he is hauled off as a criminal, tried before civil and religious authorities, including a governor, and, finally, taken to be executed, to be crucified. And then, wham, the roller coaster takes another whiplash-inducing turn and Jesus is not dead in the tomb but alive in the garden and talking to Mary Magdalene. And then, hours later, that same night, he is here.

Here, in this room with his terrified and perhaps now utterly confused friends. He is showing them his wounds. And he is telling them about forgiveness.

So, let me state the obvious. There are lots of people in this room who have been hurt, and there are lots of people in this room who have done the hurting. Jesus, of all gathered here, would be the one with the most compelling case against forgiveness, and it’s not surprising that, 2000 years later, someone has written a series of books in which Jesus does things like make people explode by just looking at them.[i] I understand the impulse. Jesus has been betrayed by one of his closest friends. He has been abandoned or denied by the rest of them. He has been tried, convicted and punished for crimes he never committed, and his punishment has been the most severe and painful imaginable. If anyone in this room has the “right” not to forgive, if we want to put it in terms of “rights,” the winner would be Jesus.

And yet. Here he comes, mysteriously appearing right in the midst of the fear and the hiding out.

First, Jesus shows them his wounds.

Next, Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 

Then, Jesus breathes into them, in the exact same way God breathes into the man in the Garden of Eden, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

And then, Jesus talks to them about forgiveness.

Let’s take these things one at a time. First, the wounds. I have always assumed that Jesus shows his wounds to his friends as a kind of proof of his identity, sort of an ancient Near Eastern equivalent of dental records. But I think the wounds serve another function as well. If you don’t have wounds, you don’t have a need to forgive anyone. Forgiveness, by definition, has to be given by those who have been harmed. Perhaps Jesus is indeed doing a “See, it’s really me!” kind of thing here. But he is also, I believe, presenting his credentials for his teaching on forgiveness.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, I am about to give you the very same task given to me by God. And to help you with that task, here: I give you the Holy Spirit. I breathe into you, life.

Here is what Jesus says next:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:23, New Revised Standard Version)

Here, in this darkened and fear-filled room, on the evening of the day of resurrection, Jesus tells his friends that the task before them, THE task for Christians ever after, is forgiveness. If you forgive those who harm you, they will be forgiven. If you don’t, well, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “what are you going to do with them?”

What ARE you going to do with them?

Have you ever fantasized about what you would do to those people you don’t want to forgive? Oh, I have. And, I’d just like to say, my particular pathology in this area, as has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion, is my need to demonstrate that though I am the one who has been wronged, but I will rise above it. Nobly.

And that, dear ones, is absolutely no one’s definition of “forgiveness.” That is all about ego. That is all about pride. That is all about wanting to win.

Forgiveness is a letting go—of the need to rewrite the past, of the need to be right, of the need to be the injured party.

Forgiveness is a letting go— of pride, of ego, of self.

At the same time, forgiveness is an embracing—of a new future, a new freedom, a new life. It is often said, but I think underappreciated, that the greatest benefit truly goes to the one doing the forgiving. Gary Renard, in “The Disappearance of the Universe,” writes, “There will always be only two choices: your true home with God, and separation, or individuality.” Guess which of these choices is the one arrived at through forgiveness? Forgiveness is the choice to be in our true home, with God, and not just in the world to come, not just as a ticket to paradise, but right here, right now. Our true home is with God, every minute of every day. And that is why Jesus has unleashed the Spirit: to give us the power and the ability to do the forgiving. Receive the Spirit, says Jesus, and forgive one another.

Christians are not the only ones who know this, by the way.  I Googled the phrase, “breathing forgiveness,” and when the results appeared, there were links from Christians, but also from the Hindu tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Native American tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Islamic tradition—and more still. We Christians don’t have a corner on the forgiveness market. Every great system of attempting to understand God and be in communion with God recognizes the essential nature of forgiveness for all of us, for all our healing.

It is morning, on the first day of the week, and we are still breathing in the fragrance of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. There are lots of people in this room who have been hurt, and there are lots of people in this room who have done the hurting. Jesus, of all gathered here, would be the one with the most compelling case against forgiveness, if he cared to make it. But Jesus abides in the heart of God, at all times, and Jesus invites us to be there, too. But first he shows us his wounds, and he lets us dig all around in them, like Thomas. And when we do that, when we look at those wounds, and see them, and even probe them and touch them, we know ourselves. We, the wounded. We, the wounders. We, the hurt ones. We, who do the hurting. We, who need to forgive. We, who need to be forgiven.

Life. Forgiveness is all about life. New life. Better life. Real life. As hard as it is. As painful as it is. As liberating as it is. As exhilarating as it is. Forgiveness is new, and real, and better life, in the heart of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ “Left Behind” series.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

ROFL: A Sermon in (Ten) Limericks

Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And (the LORD) said, Nay, but thou didst laugh.
                                                                                          ~Genesis 18:15

There once was an old man named Abe,
Who sat for a spell in the shade.
Though God seemed to spurn,
He’d been hoping to learn
How he and his wife might have a babe.

Now Abe understood the birds and the bees,
And he still thought Sarah was the bees knees,
But so far they had not
Been blessed with a tot
Sarah had borne no “he’s” and no “she’s”.

Well, one hot and bright day in June,
And who’s coming over the dune
But three traveling dudes,
And so, not to be rude,
Abe invites them to spend the afternoon.

So Abe hustles off to the tent
And he explains to Sarah his intent
That these men shall dine
On fine veal, bread and wine—
Well, not wine, but fresh milk’s what I meant.

So Sarah and Abe start to cook,
For so it is writ in God’s book,
And the three men do eat
In their three shady seats
And then say to Abraham, “Look:

“We’ll come by this way in a year,
And if our angelic spidey-sense is clear,
Your Sarah will enjoy
A sweet baby boy,
Rejoice, Abe! God’s promise is near!”

Now Sarah and Abraham were old.
They were ninety and a hundred, and it’s bold
To suggest that they might
Have a baby in sight
Their own, to have and to hold.

So Sarah, she started to laugh
At the thought of that baby she’d have,
And she laughed so long
And so hard and so strong,
Those men nearly choked on their calf.

Now, God had a word, then, with Abe,
“Does Sarah doubt the promise I gave?”
And Sarah, caught, tried—
Her laughter, denied—
“Oh yes you did laugh,” God said, “about the babe.”

Well, thank God for Sarah, Abe and us,
Our God does not make a fuss,
If we ROFL
While God’s wonders we tell:
In God’s love and God’s promises we can trust.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Whom Are You Looking For? Sermon on John 20:1-18

April 8, 2012 Round Top Park, Endicott, NY

Whom are you looking for?

This is the question at the heart of this morning’s gospel passage, a passage that recounts the central mystery at the heart of Christian faith. We have already proclaimed it in song: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” We have already proclaimed it by the action of making a rugged wooden cross bloom with flowers. We proclaim it by what we’re wearing, even what we’ll eat later on. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia! For us, the outcome is known, it’s a given. But for the people whose stories we will follow for what may amount to no more than an hour in a day almost two thousand years ago, it is an event veiled in mystery.   A man, whom Mary Magdalene supposes to be the gardener, asks the weeping woman, “Whom are you looking for?”

But really, the more appropriate question for Mary might have been, “What are you looking for?” because, in truth, she is looking, not for a person, or even for her Lord. She is looking for a body. She is looking for a tomb.

It is the third day since Jesus was crucified, executed in an act so horrible that a fairly mild description of it caused a young girl to cry in this sanctuary last Sunday. Jesus died a painful death, hated and feared by both the religious and political authorities of his day. We can look through the gospels and wonder why he was so feared and so hated. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus performed signs that revealed that God was at work in him: he changed water into wine. He healed a man born blind. He fed more than five thousand hungry people with just five barley loaves and two fish. He raised his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead. The gospel also tells us that Jesus broke through barriers that were considered unbreakable: he spoke to women and foreigners as though they were equals. He healed on the Sabbath, when such actions were considered work, and therefore forbidden. Because he described his relationship with God with such intimacy, he broke the ultimate religious taboos. And because he broke down cultural and social barriers, he broke the ultimate political taboos. And so he was killed.

Then his body was prepared in the customary way for burial, and was placed in a borrowed tomb. A stone roughly the weight of a mid-sized car was placed in front of it. At sundown Sabbath began, and so the tomb lay quietly undisturbed because the Sabbath prohibited unnecessary travel and work. And that, as they say, was that. Or, was supposed to be.

But we know that “that” was not “that.” We read the whole story through the lens of resurrection, and so we’re ready for what happens next. Early on the first day of the week, Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. There are lots of Marys in the stories of Jesus’ life, so it’s good to do a little clarification as to who this particular Mary is. She is not Jesus’ mother, and she is not a prostitute. She is not the woman “taken in adultery.” She is not one of the women who anointed Jesus with perfume. She is, however, one of the women who stood near the cross, along with Jesus’ mother and yet another Mary. And she is here, at the tomb, early Sunday morning, the first day of the week. Now, we are not given any particular reason for Mary to be at the tomb. Jesus’ body has already been properly prepared for burial, so that’s not it. We can only wonder, we can only guess. Here is my guess: Mary wants to be near him. She is mourning.

Whom are you looking for? What are you looking for? Mary Magdalene comes, looking for a tomb, behind whose impossibly large entrance-blocking stone lies the dead body of Jesus.

But Mary, to her shock, finds that the stone has been removed, and the tomb is open. And her reaction is to run away. She runs to find two of Jesus’ disciples, which is another word for “learners.” Mary seeks the other disciples because all she can do in the face of not finding what she expected to find is to run.

These other disciples are Peter and the unnamed “one whom Jesus loved.” The gospels describe Peter to us as someone who was sort of a slow starter when it came to learning but who eventually made up for that by becoming one of the most important leaders of the early church. He gets it, and he doesn’t get it. The beloved disciple, the beloved learner, is much more of a mystery. His identity has been the subject of intense speculation, pretty much since the evangelist put down his reed-pen and rolled up his papyrus. The classic theory is that he is John, for whom the gospel is named. Others have more recently proposed that Mary Magdalene is, herself, the beloved disciple, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since this chapter portrays her as running to get that person. Still others believe it may have been Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead—Lazarus, about whom a disciple says to Jesus, “The one whom you love is ill.”

Who is the beloved disciple? Whom are you looking for?

Once they hear Mary’s summary of the situation—“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”—they run to the tomb. And it is quite a footrace. Those of you who come to our Monday 5 PM bible study: I got this one wrong, didn’t I? It is not Peter, the man of action who wins the race, but the beloved disciple. Of course. It makes perfect sense, in the highly symbolic world of John’s gospel: his speed is a measure of his devotion.

What follows is an indictment of the old saw, “Seeing is believing.” Mary sees that the stone is rolled away from the tomb; she believes that Jesus’ body has been stolen. The beloved disciple and Peter both see the grave clothes lying inside the tomb; Peter believes it’s time to go back home, while the beloved one simply “believes.” We don’t know exactly what, but we are told that they don’t yet understand what is really going on.

And then Mary is left alone, and she is weeping. I know that this is not the first time in history, nor will it be the last, in which a woman who has endured the death of someone she loves at the hands of a brutal regime has been left without even a body. Mary is weeping over this final heartbreaking indignity, that not only is he dead, but she has lost her best hope to be near him, leaning on the far side of that enormous car-sized stone.

And maybe that is why, at last, she bends over to look inside the tomb. If she can’t have the body, or the closeness, at the very least, she would like her questions to be answered. And so she looks into the tomb, where she finds a pair of angels, sitting.

And we’re ready for this—we’re wearing our resurrection lenses, after all! They say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And mustering up all the dignity she can at dawn, looking into a burial vault at a couple of angels, she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She sees angels, and still she believes that Jesus’ corpse has been stolen.

For some reason, she turns around.

Whom are you looking for?

Mary is still looking for a body. She sees, but she still does not believe or even recognize.

Whom are you looking for?

I have a hunch that, on Easter Sunday morning, when we come to church to experience the beauty and the pageantry, the flowers and the lilies and the bells ringing and the voices soaring, we are looking for someone, and something, very specific. I believe that we are looking for ourselves.

I believe we come to hear the resurrection proclamation in the hopes that, somewhere in the story, we will see someone who reminds us of ourselves. Because, if I can find myself in that story somewhere, if someone like me found their faith on an Easter day so long ago, maybe I can find a way of stepping into the stream of faith as well.

So, let’s take off our resurrection lenses for a moment, and look again at our story.

Whom are you looking for? Are you looking for Mary? The disciple whose tears lead her to an encounter with Jesus, the one whom he calls by name?

There is something powerful about hearing your name called. We are given names at birth, and from the very first hours of our lives we hear those names, over and over, in the voices of those, we hope, love us best. A preaching colleague told the story this week about how his mother started singing a song to his newborn daughter, “Katy! Beautiful Katy! You’re the only girl that I adore!”  And soon, any time she heard her song, Katy would turn toward the singer. It was her song. It was her name.

Jesus says just one word to the weeping woman. “Mary.” He calls her by name. And she turns, and in that turning, she finally recognizes Jesus. Have your tears led you to Jesus? Have you heard Jesus call your name? Are you looking for Mary?

Or are you looking for Peter, the one who tries, and tries hard, but doesn’t always get it. My mother confessed to me when she was at the end of her life that she longed for faith, but found it incredibly hard to believe. How I wish she had been able to read the memoirs of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom the entire world looked up to for her brilliant witness to the gospel, for her devotion to God’s most vulnerable, poorest, most despised people. Mother Teresa, who inspired the world, described her own spiritual life as dry, dark, and lonely. She tried so hard, just like Peter. Do you find faith more an effort than a joy? Are you looking for Peter?

Or are you looking for the beloved disciple? The one whose devotion to Jesus carries him swiftly to the tomb? Is believing, for you, almost beside the point, because your heart carries you past believing into intimacy, relationship? The idea of “belief” has changed throughout the centuries. Ever since the enlightenment, the dawning of the scientific method, “belief” has come to mean adherence to propositions, almost a check-off list. For Christians, this list would include things like: Jesus is the Son of God, check. Jesus was born of a virgin, check. Jesus rose bodily from the dead, check, check and double-check! But in Jesus’ day, belief was more about relationship, and trust, and love. What mattered wasn’t belief about; what matter was belief in. The beloved disciple believed in Jesus because he loved and was loved by Jesus, and that love lifted him past the need for the check-offs.  Is relationship the foundation of your faith? Is love? Are you looking for the beloved disciple?

I believe we are all looking for ourselves in the Easter story, and once we locate ourselves there, we can at last begin to look for Jesus—not some shell of the man, but the real, living, breathing Jesus, the one who calls us each by name, the one who we may not entirely get or understand, the one who would far prefer our love to our intellectual assent.

Whom are you looking for? Let’s stop for a minute, before putting back on those resurrection lenses, and simply inhale the crisp air of the unexpected, the startled moment before the recognition. Resurrection comes when we are most and least filled with love, when we get it and we don’t get it, when we are stooped with sorrow and laughing our heads off. Resurrection comes, not at our bidding, but at God’s pleasure, not because we have earned it but because God wants it, not because we are perfect but because God loves us perfectly. Resurrection comes because Jesus’ project of healing and welcoming and loving us isn’t finished and will not be stopped. Christ is risen indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Last Night: Maundy Thursday Meditation on Mark 14:3-9, 22-25

You can find the scripture here

Suppose you knew, without a doubt, that someone you cared for, someone you loved, was at the end of their life. What would you do? What would you say? How would you say it?

Or, suppose you knew, without a doubt, that you were at the end of your own life, down to the last week, or even the last night. Where would you want to be? And who would you want to be with? And what would you want to do?

It is the last week of Jesus’ life, and it is filled with moments both public and private, things he wants to do and things he must do. And in that last week, Jesus finds himself sitting at table, on at least two different occasions. 

In the first, he is in the home of someone called “Simon the Leper.” We only know about Simon from this one story. And we only know about him this one fact: that he is or was afflicted with a skin condition that meant, that just about the last thing you might imagine him doing would be giving a dinner party. Who would come? No respectable person, no person who had any hopes of being welcomed into any non-leprous homes, or into the temple to pray. Leprosy was something that set you apart, set you aside, cast you out into the no-man’s land of invisibility and aversion. Now, maybe he has been healed. Maybe it is Jesus who healed him. Whatever the case, here it is, the last week of Jesus’ life, and Jesus chooses to be here.

And then it happens, like a film suddenly in slow motion; in walks a woman. She is carrying an alabaster jar of very expensive perfumed ointment. She breaks open the jar and pours its precious contents over Jesus’ head. We know nothing, or next to nothing about this woman. We don’t know if she is the woman Jesus cured of a bleeding disorder, or if she is the mother of the little girl whom Jesus raised from the dead, or if she is the mother of that other little girl out of whom Jesus cast a demon that was tormenting her. Perhaps she is one of the women who used to follow along with Jesus and his company, providing for them, feeding them, sheltering them. We just don’t know. She is a nameless woman, a woman about whom we know just this one fact: she is in possession of a jar of extremely expensive perfume which she is willing to pour all over Jesus.

It is the last week of Jesus’ life. In fact, it is very likely that the word is already out, moving about the streets like a cat winding its way through the alleys: the angry authorities are looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Brutality is on the books; death is in the air. But in the midst of the scheming and planning, in the midst of the calls for blood, a woman gives a gift, performs what Jesus calls “a good work” for him: she shows him that, in her eyes, he is precious, at least as precious as all that expensive perfume, now no longer confined to a jar, but filling the whole house with its fragrance. Suppose you knew, without a doubt, that someone you cared for, someone you loved was at the end of their life. What would you do? What would you say? How would you say it? The action of the woman with the alabaster jar speaks more loudly than any words. It is startling. It is unexpected, and unprecedented. It is an act of love.

In the middle of “The Hunger Games,” a story about young people who are supposed to kill or be killed, the heroine Kat choose to stay with and try to protect a young girl, Rue. When Rue is killed, Kat makes her a bower of Queen Anne’s lace and wildflowers, and kisses her tenderly before going off to try to save her other friend. It is an act of beauty and honor in the face of brutality and death. It is an act of love.

Finally, we arrive at the last night of Jesus’ life. Suppose you knew, without a doubt, that you were at the end of your life, down to the last night. Where would you want to be? And who would you want to be with? And what would you want to do? Jesus chooses to be with his closest friends. He gathers with the disciples to celebrate the Passover, the great meal of freedom, of liberation, even as he is about to be bound away in shackles.

And as the meal comes to an end, he takes ordinary bread: he gives thanks for it, he breaks it, and he gives it to his friends. Again, we are in slow motion, as Jesus says something most curious about the bread: take, eat, this is my body. And about the cup of wine: take, drink, this is my blood. It is the new promise of God. It is poured out for many.

Body and blood blessed, given thanks for—perhaps still bearing some of the scent of that perfumed ointment.

Body and blood broken, and shared—poured out, given out, given away.

Call it the real presence of Jesus in the bread and the cup. Call it the circle of life. A life given and shared, life giving more life.

Perhaps this is Jesus saying, I’ve done all I can. I’ve taught and healed and cast out demons, this is what I have left: my own body, my own blood. I’ve given everything else; now I give this.

And it is therefore a meal of freedom and liberation. Like the unnamed woman with the jar of ointment, Jesus chooses on this last night to give. In the context of cruelty and betrayal, Jesus’ impulse is to give extravagantly, his one wild and precious life, without reserve.  It is startling. It is unexpected, and unprecedented. It is an act of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.