Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Experience of the Risen Jesus: Solidarity, Forgiveness and Community

Sermon preached on Easter Day, April 24, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: John 20:1-18

I began Lent by asking the question, “What is your relationship to Jesus?” Along the way since then I’ve put the question a couple of different ways. “What does it mean to have a relationship with Jesus?” “How can you have a relationship with Jesus?”

I’m going to summarize what I had to say each week in a sentence:

Baptism has already put us into a relationship with Jesus, whether we are conscious of it or not, a relationship that Jesus wants to have with us.

In reading the story of Nicodemus and Jesus from John 3, we learned that it is OK to come to Jesus “by night,” that is, it is OK to come to Jesus in our anxiety, fear, or doubt.

The story of the man born blind and Jesus in John 9 showed us that we are worthy of relationship with Jesus, and the greatest sin may actually be excluding people from God’s fellowship.

The story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in John 11, taught us a difficult, but ultimately hopeful, truth: we have to die in order to be in relationship with Jesus. We have to let go of our control over everything in our lives and let Jesus give it back to us as a resurrected gift.

Finally, last Sunday, in having to come to terms with Jesus’ passion and death, we found Jesus showing us a God who is in absolute solidarity with us.

Now this morning, this glorious morning. Perhaps it dawned on some of you who have heard that sermon series, “Oh, the Jesus to whom I have to relate is the risen Jesus.” What does that mean? Lots of things, but I’ll stick with three.

The Gospel writer John’s Easter story was only half read this morning. We’ll read the second half next Sunday. In the second half of the story one reality of the risen Jesus comes to the fore: he remains wounded, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet and the gaping wound in his side. Why is this important and what does it have to do with our relationship with Jesus?

It means that the risen Jesus is still one of us and still in absolute solidarity with our woundedness. Humanity was not a disguise that God took on for thirty-three years and then shed as soon as he died. God and humanity are one eternally. Jesus and we are one, period. And it’s not just our woundedness with which Jesus is in solidarity. He is also in solidarity with our joy. As St. Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Second, Jesus is in relationship with us as the embodiment of forgiveness. He greets Mary Magdalene with compassion, but also asks her to tell “my brothers.” He means the disciples, of course, at this point eleven of them, all who had turned tail and run. What the Jewish and Roman authorities did to him was bad enough, but he had also been betrayed, denied and deserted by those he loved.

And next week in the second half of John’s Easter story we will see that when Jesus comes among them his first words are not “where were you?” or “How could you betray me?” but “Peace be with you. God wants to send you just as he sent me. I give you a share of God, the Holy Spirit, to do this work. And your greatest power is forgiveness.” (John 20:19-23, my translation)

Oh, ho! You say. Here is finally the bait and switch. The risen Jesus comes to us as forgiveness and that means we’re going to have to be given a list of our sins.

I think the word “forgiveness” had a much bigger meaning to Jesus than we normally attach to it. We think of sins as breaking the law, either the state’s law or God’s law. Forgiveness for Jesus is about relationship, it is a step toward reconciliation and liberation. I’m going to say something now that may be heretical, so cover your ears if you don’t want to hear it.

I do not think that Jesus much cares about our sins. What he cares about is whether or not we’re ready to leave behind whatever keeps us from relationship with him, and accept his forgiveness, which is to accept his acceptance.

Third, Jesus knows our name. That doesn’t seem like much, but it is a big, big deal. Everyone of you knows the feeling of walking into a group of people who know you, but no one can remember your name. Intended or not, it is an act of radical inhospitality.

I had a bishop once, James Montgomery of Chicago, who was legendary about remembering people’s names. As someone in the ordination process, I traveled with him to a few parish visitations. Everywhere we went he knew almost everyone’s name, and in some cases their children’s names and where they now lived. “Fran, how is Susie doing at Penn State?” It was amazing. And his successor, Frank Griswold, had a bad time of it at first, because he simply could not do that, which meant that many people experienced him as “cold.”

Jesus is like Bishop Montgomery (he would be embarrassed to hear me say that). He knows your name and he is interested in your life. He is sometimes portrayed as the cold, aloof judge, certainly not someone you would have a drink with. But in fact he is someone you would have a drink with, and probably many. You can talk to him easily and conversationally (even if cannot see him, by the way).

So the risen Jesus is in absolute solidarity with our humanity, including our woundedness. The risen Jesus is the very embodiment of forgiveness. The risen Jesus knows our names.

I had a powerful experience of this once; it was my introduction to the Risen Jesus who is solidarity, forgiveness and community. I hope none of you will be put off by it. But it’s time I told it because it was a fundamental part of my faith journey. I don’t think I’ve ever told this story to my family, or parts of it even to John!

Six weeks into my first year of seminary, a long, long time ago, I accepted an invitation to have dinner with the seminary musician. He had a house down a little from the student housing. He was young, but wise beyond his years. By the time I left the house to walk home, my life had changed irrevocably. I knew I was gay. I knew I had always been gay. For the first time my life made sense. It was thrilling, and I was terrified.

I walked up the hill to the student housing with a sense of presence beside me. Could I dare believe it was Jesus? I went not to my room, but to a friend’s. I began to tell him my story. “Wait,” he said, “I’ll be right back.” After about 15-20 minutes he came back, but he wasn’t alone. He had brought with him five other gay students, some of whom I was surprised to see.

Then I told my story, not just what happened at the musician’s house, but at least the previous ten years of struggling with this thing. And Jesus was there in solidarity with my humanity as it was in that moment Jesus was there to reach out to me in forgiveness and unconditional love. Jesus was there in healing community. I have rarely felt the presence of Jesus more strongly than I did that night.

There would be rough days ahead, but I left that room with a fundamental peace in my heart about who I was. I left resurrected.

Now that was a “coming out” story but that was not why I told it. I told it because it was a Jesus story from my life. And I bet you have one too. I bet you have a resurrection story. A story about a time when you knew God was with you in a time of trial. A story about how you were sure you could never forgive someone, but you did, or you did something that you thought you would never be forgiven for, and you were. A story about how you accepted something about yourself. A story about how a community of mutual respect and dignity in some way saved your life.

Give thanks for those stories, and the people who are in them who were a gift from God, and don’t be afraid to tell that story to someone else who needs encouragement to look for their own resurrection story.

And don’t forget the real message of today:

The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Let us be fully alive together.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Night of Liberation

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church at the Great Vigil of Easter: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Matthew 28:1-10

Back in chapter five of Exodus, after having been convinced by God that this is what he was called to do, Moses, with Aaron at his side, met Pharaoh, and said, “Yahweh, the God of Israel, has a message for you. He says, ‘Let my people go.’”

And Pharaoh replied, as Pharaohs do, “Who is this Yahweh, that I should pay any attention to him? I do not know this Yahweh and I will not let Israel go.”

For nine chapters of the Book of Exodus this struggle goes on. Yahweh vs. Pharaoh. Yahweh shows his power in plagues, extraordinary displays of divine power. The Nile and all Egypt’s water with it turned to blood. Frogs that cover the land. Gnats as thick as the dust of the earth, then flies. A deadly pestilence among Egypt’s livestock. Festering boils on humans and animals. Hail heavy enough to kill. Locusts. A “darkness that could be felt” (probably a dust storm). And finally, the death of all the firstborn of Egypt, that “passes over” the homes of the Israelites because of blood spread on the doorposts and the lintel.

Finally Pharaoh relents. He summons Moses and Aaron and says, “Get up and go, go far away from me and my people. Take your flocks, whatever you want, but just go! Go be with Yahweh, and ask him to send a blessing on me.” It seems as if freedom has been won.

But once they had gone Pharaoh and his officials changed their mind, and Yahweh, it is said, “hardened their hearts.” And so we come to this confrontation at the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites panic and do what panicked people do—they find someone to blame and attack their leader. They say the kinds of things people say in the stupidity that grows out of the midst of their anxiety. “We would rather be slaves again!” This was never our idea in the first place. You made us do this, Barack (I mean, Moses).

Speaking of stupidity, you would think that a pillar of cloud and a divided sea would be enough for the Egyptians to decide that perhaps this pursuit was not such a good idea. But people who are consumed by anger and think they are superior and right never think clearly. And the Egyptians are drowned.

In some ways it is not a very nice story. It doesn’t portray a very nice God, however, who uses plagues, indiscriminate murder and mass drowning to get his way. But if we spend too much time dwelling on these unpleasant things, we can get caught up in a kind of fundamentalism, obsessing about the literal details of the story. Something far bigger is going on here, something very powerful, and we should not miss it.

Yahweh, the God of Israel, who we know also as the God of Jesus Christ, is on the side of freedom. Liberation is the name of Yahweh’s game. In Yahweh’s world there is no place for oppression.

It is sad if we hear that announcement and do not think much of it. In the ancient world a God who was on the side of the oppressed was unheard of. Gods were oppressors by their very nature. To relate to them meant to try to find ways to please them so that they would oppress somebody else and not you.

The whole rest of what we call the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s wrestling with this radical reality of their God. They got it wrong a lot. They themselves slipped into being oppressors from time to time. They had particular trouble with the rich oppressing the poor. Attempting to follow the Liberating God was confusing at best.

Into that confusion came Jesus. And Jesus revealed this Liberating God anew, and his revelation was so clear that we came to understand that he was the Liberating God incarnate, in the flesh. Brian McLaren quotes the Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It means that God is like Jesus.”[1]

You may be wondering by now what all this has to do with Easter. Easter is the Christian Passover. In some ways it is unfortunate that in English we call this holy day “Easter,” which comes from the name of an old Germanic goddess whose month of celebration fell at this time of the year. Most of the rest of the world calls today some form of the word pascha, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew word pesach or “Passover.” See we call this celebration by the same name that Jews call their celebration of the Exodus.

“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we frequently say or sing at the breaking of the bread, quoting St. Paul. What is this “Passover?”

It is first and foremost the Passover from death to life proclaimed in the story of the resurrection. But that Passover is not just about Jesus. It is about us. It is the pattern for our living and the pattern of our hope, a pattern that we cannot effect by ourselves, but which we trust God to effect in us.

It is the pattern of liberation, of justice and reconciliation. Brokenness, injustice, violence, division, sin, despair, and, yes, death do not have the last word. We are stubborn in this belief. When everything is lost we still trust God, as we say in the Burial Office, “Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Tonight we celebrate the fact that you and I know this Liberating God. And we more than know him. He is liberating us even as we speak. We have been united with Jesus in a death like his. That’s the bad news. God didn’t make death go away. But the good news is that he used it to do what he does best: to liberate us. For if we are united to Jesus in a death like his, then surely we are also united to him in a resurrection like his.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it is the night of our liberation.

[1] Quoted in Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (2010), p. 114. There is no citation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thinking about Rochester Schools

I've been puzzling ever since I heard the news yesterday that our City Schools' Superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizzard, is leaving to head the Chicago school system. There cannot possibly be a person in this city who is surprised, and there are a whole lot of us who have been assuming that this was going to happen sooner rather than later for the last couple of years (Dr. Brizzard started in November 2007).

There are, of course, those who think the best possible thing has happened with his departure and others who are horrified that he has left in the middle of a reform process. I tend to be toward the latter, but I have many friends in the former camp for whom I have a great deal of respect. Life will, of course, go on. He wasn't the Messiah. Nor will his successor be, no matter how hard we look.

Not knowing what to think overall, I do have four thoughts:

1. We need to look for a new superintendent who is as committed to Rochester as he or she is to city school statistics. We need someone who loves or learns to love this city as much as we do. We do not need yet another someone who is going to start a process and not finish it just because a bigger carrot got dangled in front of them.

2. Our School Board is dysfunctional. Those folks need to do some good old fashioned team building. Respect needs to be the first word people think of when they thing of the school board members' relationship with one another and with the superintendent (and vica versa).

3. We need to ask ourselves if large school districts like this can really work anymore, at least the way they are currently configured. Institutions are changing rapidly in this world of ours. There has to be a better way to do this that puts more power to teach and administer to teachers, principals and parents.

4. Adversarial routes to change are neither helpful nor effective. Yes, sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe, but as soon as you have done that you have to put out your hand and be ready to work together, even with people with whom you disagree. I am a die-hard union supporter, but the teacher's union here needs to take a good, long, hard look at its leadership. Now would be a good time for a change.

The other thing I would say is that I hope this spurs further community involvement, although I am not entirely sure what that would like and would love to be part of a group of people who seriously thought about it. A lot of us are involved in putting band-aids on the system--a very necessary and important thing right now. But what about changing the system?

Just some thoughts. Oh, and by the way, I know Chicago pretty well having lived there for three years. Good luck, Dr. Brizzard. You're going to need it. You thought Rochester was tough?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week and Anti-semitism

Something that hangs over our observance of Holy Week as Christians is the Anti-semitism that has been associated with ever since the writing of the Gospels. Through the centuries Holy Week, particularly God Friday, was a prime time for violence directed at Jews. It was though to be perfectly acceptable for Christians to continue to punish the "Christ killers." Matthew's Gospel supported this by the people responding to Pilate, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Those of you who were in church yesterday know that we skipped over that verse.

John's Gospel is the worst offender, however, and we read it every Good Friday. At Two Saints and St. Stephen's we use an edited version recommended by a Roman Catholic website (which, unfortunately I can no longer find). I do not think anything is lost by the editing.

I think it is important for us Christians to remember some things: First and foremost, Jesus was a Jew, an observant one. All the disciples were Jews. St. Paul was a Jew. And for all of them, Jesus included, their religious sensibilities were thoroughly Jewish. Jesus, it is fairly clear, had no intention other than a reformed Judaism. He certainly did not intend to start a new religion. Neither did St. Paul, even though he would break open Judaism through the acceptance of the Gentiles. Our sacramental rites all have Jewish roots, as does our way of daily communal prayer. Judaism is at the heart of Christianity, even if Christianity has developed in some very distinct ways.

Passover begins at sundown today. It doesn't always coincide with Holy Week. Perhaps we should take this advantage and reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters, wish them a happy Passover and, if it feels right, an expression of regret or even repentance of the horrible Christian past of hatred directed at them. It may not seem an urgent thing to do, but remember, the Holocaust happened only 75 years ago. It is still within the lifetime of many and so its memory is still fresh, freshly painful.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The God We Need

Sermon preached on Palm/Passion Sunday at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14--27:66

Jesus: You will all become deserters because of me this night…But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee. Peter: I will never desert you. Jesus: Tonight you will deny me three times. Peter: I will not deny you. And so said all the disciples. (Matthew 26:31-35)

I’ve been talking during Lent about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. Last week, in answer to the specific question, “How can we be in relationship with Jesus,” I said, simply, that we have to die. Not die at the end of our days on earth, but die to all those things in our life that keep us from relationship with God, with Jesus.

It ends up that the chief thing we have to die to is our need for God, or for Jesus, not to die. But we have to die to the God we want so that God can be the God he wants to be for us.

That is what is going on with the disciples—Peter and the others—in the story of Jesus’ passion and death. Three times they have been told that Jesus will suffer, be murdered, but then be raised on the third day. But that is not the Messiah they want, so they refuse to listen. And here Jesus, I think in a grand act of compassion, lets them know that they will all desert him. But listen, he says, it will be all right. It will not be your fault. It will happen because of me. Don’t worry, I will be raised and I will meet you back home in Galilee.

They don’t hear him. Their denial is deep. I will never desert you. I will never deny you. And Mathew tells us not just the leader Peter says this, but so say they all. I believe this denial of theirs was not just about miscalculating their own reaction to Jesus’ death. It was a denial of that death altogether. I’m not going to deny you because we are going to get through this like we have gotten through everything else, because you, after all, are the Messiah. And the Messiah is strong. How could the Messiah be vulnerable and still be the Messiah?

This has remained a stumbling block for followers of Jesus ever since. It messes up our idea of who God is for Jesus to suffer, to refuse to defend himself, and to passively accept death. We do not want this kind of vulnerability from our God. Our God is a mighty God!

Mighty in weakness, is, however, the God we get. Mighty in vulnerability and suffering. Mighty in death.

The God that God wants to be for us is the God of utter solidarity with us. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself,” Paul says to the Philippians, “and became obedient even to death—death on a cross.” Only then could he be highly exalted and become one to worship and confess for the glory of God.

Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, it has been said from the beginning served to take away our sins. I believe that is true, but I also believe it was far, far bigger than that. In Jesus’ passion and death God took upon himself the passion and death of the world. There is no situation so bleak, so horrible, so wrong, so seemingly hopeless, or so mundane where God cannot be found. God is not above it all, above all the world’s suffering and pain and, yes, sin. Jesus showed us God in the midst of all of it, ready to reconcile, ready to love, and ready to be our resurrection.

When I first came into the church, I really had no idea what the cross meant. I knew it was a symbol of Christianity and a popular piece of jewelry. I was taught that the cross was the great symbol of human sin and the lengths to which God has gone to overcome it. As I have been a priest who attempts by the grace of God to minister to those in pain, and as I have been a believer who has found himself flat on his back in the valley of the shadow of death, again, I think it is about so much more. The cross is about so much more.

The cross for me is a symbol of God’s absolute solidarity with us, a solidarity driven by a love I can barely understand and barely accept because it turns my whole world upside down every day. Nothing is as it seems—even the most horrific suffering and death, and even our most infinite capacity to desert and deny--because faith, hope and love have been proven to be incapable of defeat.

The cross is a constant reminder that our God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, is not the God we want, but is the God we need.