Monday, April 26, 2010


Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter (4.25.10)
Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, you who are both Shepherd and Lamb, both our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

From the book of Revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This fourth Sunday of Easter is loaded with special significances. It’s called Good Shepherd Sunday, Heritage Sunday, Earth Day Sunday, because of Earth Day last week, and now Faith in Action. The image of the good shepherd comes from Psalm 23 and from the praise of Christ the Lamb that we just heard read from Revelation. Heritage Sunday commemorates the creation of our church, The United Methodist Church, from the joining of The Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church on April 23, 1968. It also celebrates the courageous people whose witness we are continuing by being here this morning. The convergence of the two churches that formed our present church points to the kind of unity promised in the passage from Revelation: a multitude, from every nation and tribe.

The subject of Earth Day—the third possible name for this Sunday—and our relationship to creation will require a whole service in the near future. But today we must look at Faith in Action because we have been asked today by our District to declare our Faith through Action. That is certainly a continuing commitment of this congregation, even if we are not out on the streets at this moment. It is also the theme of our central story for this morning about Tabitha, a widow. What Acts really wants us to know is that she was a disciple. The word, in its feminine form, is used right away to describe her: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

That is an exciting introduction, especially in a culture that devalued women unless they had wealth or wealthy connection. The early Christian community, on the other hand, was committed to mutual sharing and support. The community took responsibility for its widows. Tabitha is therefore neither invisible nor seen as useless. In fact, these first Christian communities were greatly empowered by the labor of such women. Tabitha is one of them. When Peter arrives, summoned in haste by two men—don’t you love it!—all the widows show him “the tunics and other clothing” that she had made. She is not a person they want to lose.

Peter brings her back to life. His raising her from the dead is an awesome and powerful action that is meant to remind us of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter and of his own resurrection. Peter’s action produces many converts. But the story is probably more about Tabitha and the kind of community that she is helping shape than about this action of Peter.

What church doesn’t have a Tabitha? I’m looking right at many of you—and there’s always room for more. You are those who demonstrate your wealth and power by compassion. I felt surrounded by Tabithas as I chatted with our Wednesday morning Crafts Group this week. Or as I spoke with Food Pantry people. Or as I prepare to meet with Church School teachers or the Vacation Bible School Planning Committee. The list goes on and on. And for the men here, I’m not forgetting Peter, a disciple of boundless energy.

There are several basic ideas embedded in this small but important story about a woman whose example was too important to let die. First: What is central to this new reign of Christ is God’s value system based on mutual compassion, not gender or membership in a particular family or social group. At the end of our reading, to underscore the point, we are told that Peter goes off to stay with a tanner, of all people! Tanners by definition would be unclean—Gentiles—since they carried the smells and blood of dead animals.

Second is the interconnection of faith and good works. Since Tabitha is a disciple, she must also have been a believer. But her life of faith isn’t being examined. What is stressed here is that faith and acts of service or charity or compassion go together. One may even be evidence of the other. The point is made in our Gospel reading from John today, when Jesus tells his adversaries: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

Third is the glimpse into this early community that has developed beyond Jerusalem, on the coastline, in Joppa. I’d love to know more about this life of disciplined sharing. What other forms might their compassion have taken? What simple kindnesses were extended and what small cruelties or careless talk avoided? We know from many of the letters written by Paul that problems developed in the young churches, but the snapshot this morning from Acts gives us a healthy glimpse of a good woman who was loved, mourned, and wonderfully restored to life.

Loved and mourned. Note that she does not seem to have been ignored in her illness or her dying. This simple detail in the story is important for us today: No one should have to face disease or sorrow or death alone. Prayer partners and pastoral concern through cards, emails, calls, and visits are crucial for complementing medical diagnoses and treatments. They too are Faith in Action, our Prayer Life in Action. Our Joys and Concerns, lifted up before the community here on Sundays, are an essential beginning of that process. Coming to church as we do suggests that, to some degree at least, we wish a common life together. Living in community invites us to resist the intense protectiveness and habits of privacy and proud individualism that much in our culture fosters. When harm strikes, we pull into ourselves so no one will know that we or our bodies have failed us, so no one will know how vulnerable we really are.

Here is a quotation from The Sacred Journey by the Frederick Buechner:

To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from (p. 46).

What we are meant to remember from Tabitha’s story is a community that suddenly finds itself in distress and therefore vulnerable. And so together they weep, together they care for the deceased, and together they dare to hope that Peter will be able to help them. By doing these things, they are actually putting all of their spiritual strength and energy into life and service. The story that restores Tabitha to the community that is her family is a wonderful one for the Easter season.

But what happens to spiritual strength and energy when the healing does not come or does not come in the way we hope? When we have drawn up our own personal maps for a particular cure rather than for God’s plan for our healing? Our Easter readings recognize those many moments within the life of our community that continue to try us and test us. This is why the passage from Revelation is included this morning.

John of Patmos reminds us that the Lord who is always our Shepherd was also the helpless lamb that was slain and who first knew despair and pain. That too is the message of Easter. When John writes so powerfully in this chapter from Revelation of those “robed in white” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” he is most obviously describing those who have been martyred for their faith. But who is to say that those who have suffered horribly from cancer or Parkinson’s or discrimination or domestic violence will not also have their robes of pain and humiliation washed white through the redeeming love of Christ, either here or hereafter? John is celebrating Christ’s transforming, healing love that renews spiritual strength and energy. And so this morning’s text from Revelation can proclaim that the lamb who is our shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us rejoice in the strength that we can find in our church community and that we can offer to it. Let us know that we each can be Tabithas, disciples blessed by God and dearly beloved, whatever our contribution. Let us also be humble enough and brave enough—either in our times of success or of sorrow—to let go of our own carefully drawn roadmaps for you. Rather may you work within us through the grace of those around us in this holy fellowship and through your own great love and mercy. Amen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Rescued from Ourselves

Sermon for 4.18.10, 3rd Sunday of Easter
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s New Testament reading: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This week I was introduced to two families. The first consists of an elderly brother and sister. The sister has Alzheimer’s. One of her grown nephews lives with them. They are known to be very poor and if the condition of their modest house is any indication, this is probably the case. They have been reported for the outside appearance of their property and have made some attempts to neaten it, but they long for a railing on the porch that extends from the second story, so that they can go out on it without fear of falling. I learned that some members of the family had attended Trinity Methodist Church before it closed and then had come here briefly.

I also learned that the brother, now 83, works at the Esopus Dog Shelter where he is known for his extreme kindness to the strays who must make that their home. People give him cans and bottles to redeem, perhaps for his own needs. He spends every penny from them for the dogs, buying them extra food or toys or blankets. The hot dogs he brings may not be good for them and he may be misguided in thinking that they need more protein, but he is loved for his generosity and love for his poor kennel friends.

The other family consists of a mother and son. The son has a dog who is his best buddy. The house in which they have always lived has just been condemned. The mother, who has a number of serious health issues, has been sent to live with a daughter in another town and the son with his dog has been placed in The Capri. Their plight was uncovered in January when it was discovered that they had neither heat nor running water. The mother has asked to be allowed to reenter the house to save some little objects that are precious to her; when I asked whether anyone else could help, I was told the building was too unstable to enter.

I am describing residents of Esopus, people who have lived here all their lives. They have not drifted here from Kingston or elsewhere. I had heard something of these people, but learned more as I searched for work for Faith in Action, the project that had been suggested by our District for next Sunday.

Once I learned—only this week—that the Clean Sweep was going to take place on Saturday, I felt momentary panic, wondering what on earth we’d do to fulfill our obligation to the District! As I called the Town Hall yet once more, I began looking for something personal, more one-on-one. The Faith in Action proposal has gotten me thinking deeply about how our faith might take action, beyond the many ways in which it already does in this church. I’m not a believer in quick fixes, and I suspect that right now we could start planning an action for a “Faith in Action” next April.

One of the people I’ve described has been coming to our Food Pantry and so that is good. But perhaps there will be other ways in which we’ll be able at least to touch families or people in need in a meaningful way and in a way that they will perceive as caring and God-sent. I am not dreaming that we can fix everything or even very much of what is broken. That would be foolish as well as arrogant. But this week we have been given a much fuller vision of the possibilities. No matter what we do—or chose not to do or realize we are unable to do—we have, in fact, been given a larger view. We’ve been invited to see some of the neighbors we hadn’t seen. There are concerns and joys to be awakened and they lie all around us.

Is this so unlike what happened both to Saul (alias Paul) and to Peter? The wonderful thing about comparing our lives to Scripture is that Scripture does not mince words about God’s role. Scripture makes it clear that God intervenes. Saul, an earnest and educated man, had clearly been on the wrong path, thinking that sweeping up dirty Christians was the best service he could offer his faith. He had just been present at the stoning of Stephen, the first to die in the name of Christ, and now Saul is breathing murder against other disciples as well. But Stephen had begged God not to hold the sin of killing him against those who were throwing stones, and what shortly afterwards happens to Saul is clearly God’s doing. God’s perspective was that Saul was a forgiven man—and, moreover, a useful man, too good to waste. And so God works to change his life. When God tells Ananias to heal Saul, the poor man is afraid that maybe even God is confused. “Surely not Saul,” he says. But Saul is precisely the one.

Saul’s story is as dramatic as his crimes. Maybe we think God is only present when there are flashing lights and a provocative question from on high. But we’ve all been on the wrong path and God doesn’t have favorite sinners to convert. God turns me around too, even at my most normal and boring. Since God is the primary agent of change, God can transform even the most ordinary. The fact is that God isn’t done with any of us yet, nor does God consider any of our actions as merely a private affair. In our collective foolishness, rottenness, or brokenness, we are never too damaged for God to use. Or for God to combine together for the common good.

And so Christ appears to Peter and to the others on the seashore, after they have gone back to their former livelihood of fishing. This is the Resurrected Christ but remember the powerful description in Revelation this morning. This one is also the Lamb, the totally weak creature who was slaughtered, but who then is praised by the united singing of every single creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. There are no divisions, no rejections, no shunnings here. This lamb in his weakness revealed the power of God that moves and unites the world—and so certainly God will move us and those around us.

And so to the total amazement of Peter and to the others on the seashore, Christ appears, cooking them a sacred meal, showing that he will continue to bless and feed them. For Peter, who had let Christ down so badly, there is the additional blessing of forgiveness and self-forgiveness, followed by an invitation to start doing. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Christ leads Peter in affirming his love for him three times, followed by the command that will shape the rest of Peter’s life: “‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’…And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

In both these Scriptural accounts—as well as in our own story here this week—we are reminded that it is in God’s light that we see light and that it is by God’s love that we discern our path. Remembering this will allow hope and trust to arise when we feel we have gone down into the Pit. When things go well, we love to say “I know what I’m doing, I’ve got it all figured out,” but when we crash, we need not burn. We do need to confess that it is God who will save us because we certainly cannot do it alone. In trusting and waiting, in praying and praising, we are allowing God to direct our lives.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, take our brokenness and that of others and make it into your victory. Let us know that we are too good to waste. May our steps be guided by you and may our sight be opened by your Holy Spirit. May our hearts and lives be a worthy witness to your goodness and glory and may we remember to give you our unending thanks and praise. Amen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Now What?

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter (4.11.10)
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s New Testament reading: But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

In the Children’s Time, I encouraged us all to whoop it up. Meanwhile, in the Gospel passage, the disciples are hiding. In Acts, Peter and the other apostles are in deep trouble with the Sanhedrin, the central religious council in Jerusalem. And in Revelation, seven churches are under attack. There are big mood shifts here. As we begin our post-Easter life this morning, what are we meant to take away as gifts and responsibilities or challenge?

For us, Easter evening may mean cleaning up the kitchen. In the Gospel on this night, no matter what Mary may have told them earlier, the disciples are behind locked doors. Suddenly Jesus appears among them. Although he greets them traditionally, “Peace be with you,” these words should remind the faithful of his promise at their last meal together, when he urged them not to be troubled or frightened because he is leaving his peace with them and that this is the peace of God. He then shows them the evidence of his crucifixion.

As they rejoice, he moves quickly and, with his action, this day takes on a new meaning. The peace that he immediately offers them this time begins a commissioning: They are to do God’s work in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit that he breathes upon them. It is an investiture that carries its own power. The seminary term for this is “epiclesis” and I speak it every time we celebrate Holy Community: After the affirmation of our faith—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” the Service of Word and Table directs me to pray, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”

The ones to whom Jesus speaks on this evening are now his apostles, literally “his sent ones,” with the power not only to forgive but to judge the broken, flawed humanity of which he has clearly himself been a part. Forgiving and judging—it doesn’t get much tougher than this. But, for us, rather than thinking of all those others in Christian history who have used such authority to excommunicate or deprive or shun, perhaps we should link them, as Jesus does, to the authority of the peacemaker who brings comfort to the afflicted and shows affliction to the comfortable.

So maybe this is what we—ordained or not—are being given for Easter: the challenge of bearing Christ’s life-breath to the world, the holy responsibility of speaking words of peace, of saying what God wants to hear spoken so that humankind and the creation of which it is a part do not perish. If any of you are puzzled here, you should be. According to John, the Holy Spirit is being given on Easter, rather than on Pentecost as in the Book of Acts. Pentecost is a wonderful moment in the history of the church—and I’ll get all excited about it when the time comes, but I love the way John ties the breath of Resurrection as the particular Eastertide gift to us. Surely each of us can embody some part of the new breath, the new life that comes with Christ’s Resurrection.

And we’re only getting started: Thomas was not in the room that Sunday evening and when his friends told him that Jesus had been with them, his response is basically “No way, unless I see for myself.” And so the scene repeats itself a week later—this evening, in fact. This time Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Interesting when we remember that Jesus asked Mary not to touch him, not to reduce him to the human being she had cherished. Thomas, on the other hand, must be given permission to touch so that he can know that Jesus is not simply an apparition. We will never know whether Thomas really accessed that proof; instead we are given Thomas’s powerful affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” (These were the words that, years ago during Confirmation, I was taught to say during the consecration.)

I think that we get sidetracked by making a big fuss over Doubting Thomas. Thomas simply hadn’t seen Jesus yet. The others, including Mary, had. Perhaps only the Beloved Disciple deserves special credit, since John (who was writing for the Beloved Disciple of course) says that after seeing the linen wrappings in the tomb he believed, though as yet even he didn’t understand the Scripture. The point is that up to this moment, belief depended on physical evidence of some kind directly connected to the person of Jesus. Jesus is now preparing his disciples and all who follow them to this very day to believe based on hearing. I am not discounting visions or gifts of pure grace received through the most ordinary event or the most profound moment of sacramental worship. But right here, still well within the Easter moment, Jesus is birthing a church’s ongoing life as a community of faith that sustains itself by comparing testimony and witness: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is what we do in church or when we learn our prayers at our parents’ knees.

Loving and understanding Thomas’ stubbornness, which surely we also share, and then his complete and immediate capitulation, of which we are also capable, we might only wish that Thomas had been willing to believe the friends with whom he had lived and worked during their time with Jesus. At least for ourselves in our own worshipping communities, it is probably important to believe in the goodness and the witness of one another, without receiving a direct tap on the shoulder from on high. How much we have to learn from one another’s spiritual journeys and derailments. At least, we can check our tendency to discard opinions or dedications or motives that differ from our own.

And so my question: Now what? In our short passage from Acts, we see the immediate and inevitable response of some who were in that locked room. Summoned before the Sanhedrin, Peter and the other apostles get a taste of the hostility that will shortly lead to the martyrdom of Stephen by stoning. But Peter’s answer is clear: Because of what he has witnessed and because of the power of the Holy Spirit, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Easier said than done. Peter is asserting that his membership in the newly emerging church requires that he follow the life of Christ and in so doing become a part of the body of Christ in this world. Peter is not defying the authorities, he is simply faithful to his witness. Christ and Christ’s body in this world will always suffer the same fate. But to be a witness is to take an active stance. Not aggressive but not passive either. It is to act on principle, to seize the opportunity to make known—in ways that prayer and the strength of community must reveal—the truth of God’s Word and God’s Word made Flesh. So here is another Easter gift—maybe not so much the gift of gumption (although a lot of us are good at that) as the desire for discernment, for fuller faithfulness and more faithful choices, for the energy of witness.

Such choices were being demanded of the seven churches to whom another John was writing in the letter that we call the Book of Revelation. We’re not sure which of two different and horrible persecutions they were enduring, but it’s clear that for them, as for us now, times were hard and full of fear. Once again, peace is offered from the faithful witness, Jesus Christ, who is here clearly empowering them to “be a kingdom,” a community of “priests serving” God. John wants to inspire his readers, fill them with hope that God controls human destiny, and that Christ will come again. John doesn’t know when, but he writes boldly since for him all times are held in the hand of the Lord God who is the first and the last, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

We can bask in Easter resurrection and victory over death, but we are absolutely right in feeling that much remains to be done. There is sometimes a flatness to Easter. We inwardly ask why there is so much joy when so much suffering remains. Our Easter celebration must not discount the pain around us. The point, I think—and this is surely another Easter gift—is the knowledge that God’s triumph is not finished.

The promise of Easter is waiting to be embodied by each of us. Easter challenges us to consider what relationships look like for Easter people. What our own behavior looks like. What issues, locally and globally, can begin to usher in the Kingdom. Being faithful as Easter people means remembering the God who is and who is to come.
Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us the grace and the will to inwardly digest the gifts of Easter so that we may be even more faithful witnesses and so that we and the creation of which we are a part may be transformed by your life-giving spirit and filled with the joy of Resurrection. Amen.

Monday, April 5, 2010

This Unexpected Day

Easter Day 4.4.10
Psalm 118:14-24; Isaiah 65:17-25; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Please pray with me: On this Resurrection morning, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

We have had a wonderful Holy Week, a week that I will not soon forget. Even though not all of you were able to attend all of our events, I believe that the spirit of our church has been strengthened in the last few days as we have reflected upon Jesus’ great love for each of us—my own spirit has been renewed—and I know that each of us will be blessed in unexpected ways. And then there was yesterday. Often we don’t know what to do with Holy Saturday, but it has been described as a time of holding our breath, waiting in faith and hope for what will surely happen.

And now we have reached Easter! Easter stands for everything life-affirming, for everything that fills us with joy. Christians call themselves Resurrection People. And that is true. This week I have loved rereading John’s story of the very first Easter morning. Each book of the Gospel records a somewhat different experience, but we are always allowed to preach John’s account on Easter morning. Maybe it never contains precisely these things. It does not start with joy and celebration. Instead it mirrors what can be our faith journey. It is initially a story of shock and disappointment, grief, confusion, and then mistaken identity. But it ends with such a powerful affirmation of the Easter promise that it thrills me. This is our story as Christians, this is Easter, and we can’t remember the first Easter too often.

First of all there is Mary, coming by herself to the tomb in the dark and discovering that the heavy stone has been rolled away. Grave robbers, some evil-minded authorities who are not yet satisfied with their cruelty? By simply calling them “they,” Mary registers her despair. There was at least one occasion when, as a chaplain intern, I rushed to say a final prayer over a patient, only to find that the body has already been removed and the bed was empty. In Mary’s case, she wanted a chance to say a final, private goodbye—a hopeless memorial really—but she needed to make sure that the mortal remains of Jesus’ tortured body had been treated with respect. She had one fixed idea, fueled by her loving obligation as an observant Jewish woman to tend the deceased. She expected to find that dead body, surely not a grave that had been tampered with. There had to be something, for one last time, to which she could connect her memories. She probably did not remember Jesus saying on several occasions that “where I am, you cannot come.” If she did remember, she could hardly have understood.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple, whom we know as John, responded immediately. There is that amazing race to know! Peter is the first into the tomb. The way in which the head cloth has been rolled up by itself is puzzling and the two do not know what to think. Probably not grave robbers. John writes that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed, but did not yet understand that Jesus was risen. He believes the Empty Tomb and maybe that Jesus himself has had something to do with that. He may remember that Lazarus had to be freed from his graveclothes. But as yet there is no evidence for Resurrection. And so the disciples return home. The Empty Tomb is not Resurrection. Non-believers will grant us the Empty Tomb. This is not yet the Easter we know and love.

For reasons we can understand, Mary simply remains. But when she actually peers into the tomb, she sees two angels. Not that she’s impressed or even acknowledges them as significant. In fact, she turns her back so that she can look hopelessly around outside. There has been no God-talk from Mary. This impersonal “They” she is blaming is not God. And so when a figure appears, she supposes that he is the gardener. She is totally incapable of recognizing him. Think about it: a gardener makes sense; it’s what one would expect. Not a “God-related being” (David Kelsey, Imagining Redemption, Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), not the risen Christ.

But then the unexpected happens! Christ does what he promised he would do for each of us. He calls Mary by name, and faith and hope rush in! How often does this happen! We think we have totally lost Jesus’ voice and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the grace of His love finds us and we are aware of His presence.

In Mary’s story, he calls her by name, but he does not want her to touch him. This is not intended as a reunion story with hugs and eager conversation. That makes it merely sentimental, not Gospel-worthy.

It is also not a complete story. It will be complete only with Jesus’ ascension. That is the news Jesus wants her to spread. It includes us as well, and here comes the good news of Easter: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary is not complicated when she delivers Jesus’ first Resurrection message. That is why I quoted it at the beginning of the homily. What is important to her is that she has seen the Lord. After Jesus’ death, she has actually seen him. She now knows that the love of God embodied in him did not last only as long as the Incarnation. It is not temporary. Cross/resurrection/ascension, those three, forever change the way God can be experienced in this world and by us.

This is the day when we know, because of the witness of Mary and others, that Christ is risen, that Christ is risen indeed, that Christ is a living presence among us. We can still turn our backs on him. We can fail to recognize the Risen Christ in our midst—to say nothing of angels. We think we know the Easter story. I dare say, we may think ourselves superior to Mary and the male disciples. We know what is coming. Or do we? By its very nature, Easter must overthrow every expectation that the world and nature give us.

It is also true that Easter will affect each of us differently, as it does in our Gospel this morning. Sometimes, as on that morning for Peter and John, the process is incomplete—even though they raced with one another to find out what had happened to Jesus. Sometimes, as for Thomas, there must be proof. But we mustn’t trash Thomas; he is the first to call Jesus “My Lord and my God!” Sometimes the emotional love for our Christ, our Jesus, is so absorbing, as it was for Mary, that we miss Christ’s new word to us. Mary almost does, and yet Christ’s word of Grace reaches her. She is blessed enough to hear him call her by name and to respond.

She had loved Jesus. She had been faithful. Still, on the first Easter morning, she needed conversion. Turning her head and her heart to believe something that she had not anticipated, had not thought possible, she begins to experience a fullness in a Christ whom she must know in a new way. She is immediately given a task by Jesus and she goes to witness.

Mary announces, proclaims what she has seen. But this Lord is our Lord, this God our God. At Easter—on Easter morning—Jesus tells us that our conversion is still unfolding. And, like Mary, after conversion, comes commissioning. We are being commissioned this morning. The news of the ongoing Resurrection is bursting to be shared. Like Mary, we are invited to find our own voices by speaking this news! We know it is true. Resurrection is here! We can start by saying it again: The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let us pray: Dearest Lord Christ, this day of Resurrection is a day of new beginnings. Help us to turn around and recognize you wherever you choose to be. You have loved us to the end. You have spoken to us in many ways. Give us grace to love you in return, to be messengers of your love and doers of your word in ways as unexpected as your own. Help us to fill all of creation with your hope. We pray in your name. Amen.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Third Last Word

Fair Street Reformed Church, Good Friday Service, 4.2.10

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing behind her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

These words are heart-wrenching. Here is Jesus, in the fullness of his agony, acknowledging his imminent death by entrusting his dearest friend, the beloved disciple, to his mother and his mother to this friend. Every piece of physical evidence points to his approaching death: his mother will lose her son and John will lose his teacher. Ever the dutiful son, ever the Good Shepherd who cares for his own, Jesus provides for each, giving Mary a protector and John one who can nurture. There are two other Marys as well near the foot of the cross, but it is to these two special ones in the crowd that Jesus speaks. These two who might be most devastated by what is happening are right there, where each of their senses is assailed by the gasping of breath, the sweat, the blood, and the immediate presence of unbearable pain. They didn’t choose “to remember him as he was.” They are there with him. Every ounce of their love and loyalty keep them close to watch and to witness. After that, the time moves with merciful quickness. Jesus asks for wine, and then it is finished.

But if Mary and John are devastated by the crucifixion, they must also be devastated by what this means for the ministry of the one they call Lord and the ministry to which they have committed their lives and the safety of their lives. Jesus has promised them joy and a comforter, but at the moment the future must seem pretty dark, a time in which new mother and new son must cling together, doing the best they can with teachings and memories.

John, the witness to these things, will neither forget them nor allow us to. He will realize and urge us to realize the deeper importance of what Jesus is entrusting to him and to Mary. Even at the moment of his physical death, Jesus’ love embodies the depths of his teaching, a new teaching that must affect every one of us, even here, even now. The disciple honors this by the formal way he records Jesus’ words: Here is your son, here is your mother.

The community that Jesus has gathered around him might seem to be in disarray, but in Jesus’ simple, profound statements directed to these two, he is connecting—for them and for us—even this terrible moment on the cross to all of his previous teachings. In this Gospel we see Mary only one other time, at the first miracle at the wedding in Cana. And John was last seen asking about the betrayer of his Lord and will be the first to look into the empty tomb.

Furthermore, Jesus is preparing John and Mary for a new community, the community we heard about from John last night, at the Maundy Thursday service. Family is no longer a matter of blood kin. Family is a community of serving and of love. As one kind of son and teacher seems to be dying, Jesus creates a life that connects each of us in comfort and hope, even when grief seems to be the victor.

We are heirs to this family, this family that is totally inclusive, totally forgiving, and filled with miraculous connections waiting for discovery. As we come today to the cross, with our own heavinesses and our fully legitimate fears for tomorrow, may we embrace this double gift: nurturing and protection within an ever widening community. In fact the gift is a directive and it is fourfold: In his third last word, our Lord empowers us to nurture and protect all those whom we meet, as well as to seek those blessings from him.

Dear Lord, may we be worthy. Amen.