“Hello, Goodbye” and Ritual Communal Living after Jesus has Exited Stage Right

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Dosso Dossi’s depiction has a pale white Jesus “Walking on Sunshine” (Katrina and the Waves reference)

The Saints of Liverpool (Paul, John, George, and the unfortunately named Ringo) have a song tailor made for the readings that accompany Jesus’ final miracle in his post-resurrection body: the Ascension.  More on that in a second…

Sounding more like something out of sci-fi rather than scripture, the accounts of Jesus leaving this reality and entering another (the other?) are curious and varied.  Matthew’s depiction is lax on details: on a mountain Jesus provides his final instructions, the “Great Commission” as it has come to be called. But there’s no floating Jesus here; no formal exit.

The original ending of the Gospel of Mark is even more sparse, deciding to forgo this part of the story altogether, encouraging the disciples (and thus the reader of the Gospel) to “go back to where it started, in Galilee”  Mark’s longer ending amends the supposed shortcomings of the shorter (though more original) work, providing a view of Jesus entering heaven to hang out on God’s “right hand.”

John’s depiction of Jesus is like that of a happy ghost who just keeps showing up on the scene at unexpected moments.  John doesn’t have an ascension story; Jesus can appear at any time, anywhere, bodily.

The Gospel of Luke…well, Luke and Acts...provides us with a most detailed depiction of what happens to Jesus’ earthly presence post-resurrection.  And for good reason.  With the start of the church in the book of Acts, everyone had to come to grips with the fact that Jesus just wasn’t showing up the same way anymore.

(That Luke account linked above is the one for this week, by the way)

So, let me rephrase the statement above in the form of a question: What do we do when we experience that Jesus, God, the feeling of safety and security and wantedness and love that we previously knew in our spiritual lives, isn’t coming the same way it used to?

See, lots of people focus on the details of The Ascension as an act because it is fascinating and fantastical.  But it’s really clear from the multiple depictions (and non-depictions when the Gospel of John is included) that the church was perfectly comfortable with multiple ways of looking at how Jesus made his post-resurrection exit (I’m convinced he went stage right).

So instead of focusing on the details, let’s focus on the over-arching question The Ascension brings up: what do we do, say, feel, lean on, rely on, when we feel God isn’t showing up in the same way anymore, at least not how God used to show up?

I mean, Jesus promises in Luke and Acts, and elsewhere in Matthew and John, an “Advocate” who will come alongside, come upon, work with and in the disciples.  In Matthew Jesus promises to “be with the disciples to the end of the age.”

But sometimes I don’t feel an Advocate as much as a feel an Accuser, or a tester of sorts.  Like the Divine and I are on different pages of reality.  It’s like I’m saying to God, as The Beatles sing, “You say goodbye; I say hello.  Hello, hello! I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.”

Like God and I are parting ways or going different directions.

And that’s assuming God is even singing at all…because sometimes it feels like God isn’t even active…

I absolutely think this is one of the reasons that the ancient church leaned heavily on ritual when they formed their communal life together.  It wasn’t so much that ritual made God, or made Jesus even, show up in their midst.  But ritual, repeated acts, reminded them that God was present: in meals, in songs, in bodies, in washing, in hearing and speaking the scriptures.  Nothing like ritual brings the mind back to things it knows but has forgotten.  If you doubt that is true, think of how many times you’ve daydreamed while driving home and suddenly you find yourself in your driveway.

The ritual path led you to where you needed to go, even if your presence and the destination were far apart.

And I also think it is why Christians continue to gather in community.  When God is not showing up like God used to, when Jesus seems far away, there is nothing like community who will remind you of God’s presence.  Christians might sometimes get lonely, but there is no such thing as a lone Christian.

This is especially true when it feels like you’re searching after God, but are coming up dry, as if God is saying goodbye and all you’re longing for is a hello.

Thomas Merton, the bald and beautiful mystic from coal-mining country once wrote, “The highest adoration we offer to God ‘in spirit and in truth’ is in this sharing of the breath of the Divine Spirit with one another in pardon and in love…that is why we exchange the kiss of peace before communion.  The kiss of peace is in some way part of our Eucharistic communion; it symbolizes the spiritual share of the Holy Spirit.  With a holy kiss we give the Holy Spirit to our brother, as if the flame of one candle were transferred to enlighten the other.” (in Seasons of Celebration, 1965)

And perhaps that is the greatest gift of The Ascension: the gift of community agency. Our salvation is not reliant on it, but our sanity and stability is (and in many ways, those are mini-salvations that happen at any moment).  We need one another, especially in times when it feels like God is far way, has said goodbye to us while we long for a hello.  We need others to “share the breath of the Divine Spirit” with us in love, to speak the “hello” we seek.

Which, by the by, is exactly why we should gather together for worship even when we don’t feel like it: the community needs you just as much, if not more, than you need the community.

The gift of each of us caring for one another in times of parched spirituality, and times of bursting spiritual joy is the gift of The Ascension. We console, share, proclaim, and embolden now as Christ once did before chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke.

After all, if Jesus isn’t bodily going to do it, then we must.

And, in fact, that’s how Jesus does most anything anymore…

 

On Being Christian in a Cupid World

<You, too, can listen along at Good Shepherd’s website by clicking here.  Sermons are better heard than read, kind of like “I love you’s” are better heard than read…>

John 13:31-35

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Piero della Francesca, Blindfolded Cupid

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On Being Christian in a Cupid World

You are known best as Love

And many days we don’t know what

We’re best known as.

But you say we should be known for our love

For our reflection of you.

We need help with that

Aid and guide us today.

Amen.

I’ve noted this before in sermons, but it bears repeating: we need some standards, folks.

I’m talking about standards in how we use our words.

For instance, I once heard someone tell me that the burrito they had for lunch was “awesome.”

If a burrito inspires awe in you, you need to reevaluate your standards.  I’ve had good burritos, delicious burritos, even surprisingly delicious burritos.  But none of them have brought my mind or my pallet to a new and as-of-yet attained awareness of the Transcendent which might be described as awe-inspiring.

The same is true for the word “epic.”  A friend of mine used to talk about his Friday nights as being “epic,” and his continual use of the word betrayed the fact that he didn’t know what the word literally means.  Moments and times that are “epic” defy the regular and ordinary.  And so when every Friday become “epic” it literally stops being epic by the second time.

You know what I mean, Beloved?

I fear we use love kind of like we use epic and awesome in this world.  And part of this we can blame on the English language.  We’re at a deficit, having only one word for multiple realities here.  Indeed, C.S. Lewis identified 4 kinds of love using Greek as his source; and Gary Chapman identified five “love languages,” and The Saints of Liverpool, better known as The Beatles, liked the word so much they built a song entirely out of repeating the English version ad infinitum. Love, love, love. Love, love, love. Love, love, love. It’s easy…All you need is love. All you need is love. All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.

We are surrounded by love, and yet we have no idea what it means, or at least we’re confused about it.  I think this is especially true for Christians who, as Jesus says today, should be *known* for their love.  It will be their reputation, the proof in the pudding, their calling card, insert your favorite idiom here…

And yet Christianity has historically heard that idea, that they should be known for love, and qualified it to death.

For instance, many times Christians hear that we should be known by love and imagine it to be *tough love*, that kind of love that we’ve developed to teach one another lessons and curb behavior.  While it is true that I love my child too much to let him play in the street, which causes me to tell him no all.the.time.  My children willfully continue to thwart my best-laid plans to keep them safe…

But unfortunately, we get no such “tough love” understanding from Jesus’ commandment here.  In fact, Jesus is using that strange agape word for love here that we don’t really have a great translation for in English.  And he doesn’t use it in a suggestive way, but in what’s known as the “forceful” way in the Greek.

In other words, this love is not one of option, and it certainly isn’t qualified.

And let’s be brutally honest here: we love to fall in love.

But by that I mean, we love to have really opinionated preferences.  And they become so preferential, by the way, that we start to say that we love them and we even start to give our hearts to them.

This is benign in many instances: you love your TV, your computer, the particular camera on your particular phone (looking at you Pr. Dave).  If Clifford were here, I’d certainly mention F-150s.  And Buck is in love with flannel, both as a fabric and as a pattern.  And I…I am in love with coffee, which became quite clear this past Wednesday as I lugged 7 (7!) unwashed coffee mugs to the sink to wash before Lois could do it because every time she washes my mugs for me I feel quite guilty…

It is benign in many ways, but we give our hearts to all sorts of things.  What do you give your heart to?

Where it becomes malignant, though, is when we give our hearts to things that compete for the affection reserved only for the Divine.

Like when you give your heart to the mirror, or at least give all your attention to the mirror, and that little voice that tells you that it likes or doesn’t like what is reflected there.  Or like when you give your heart to being in everyone else’s business.  Or like when you give your heart so much to a political ideology, you’ll actually say things or post things to social media that demonize those who disagree, or disparage those who have another view.  Like when you give your heart so fully to your own ego that you can’t get over yourself.

The list can go on: addictions, racism, sexism, homophobism, prejudice, elitism, fear…we give our hearts away to malignant forces all the time.

All of these ways that we give our heart away are ways that blind us to the reality of the people suffering around us, the reality of sin invading our own lives, the reality that we love to talk about love as long as it’s Hallmark or fairytale or feel-good, but we’d actually not rather do it, at least not the way Jesus wants us to be known for, because the kind of love that Jesus wants us to be known for is not the warm and fuzzy kind, but the kind that breaks your heart open.

If I’m honest with you, and perhaps if you’re honest with yourself, I’d probably say that I’m ill-equipped to use my heart in an agape way, because I too regularly just give it to all sorts of other things that prove to be fleeting or vacuous or just plain destructive.  If I’m honest with myself, and with you, I kind of like giving my heart away to the easy things, the fleeting things, the vacuous things, the quick fix things.

Because I like my strongly held opinions, the illusion that I’m always right, and I like not having to leave my comfort-zone when it comes to giving my heart away.  I like Cupid more than Jesus, when I’m honest.  Cupid’s love has low standards, a trite definition.

I used that phrase “blind love” above, because we often say that “love is blind” as a romantic way of idealizing how we think love should “overlook” things in other people that we don’t like.  But that’s not true for the Jesus-follower.

The Cupid you have in your garden, that chubby cherub in a diaper who is blindfolded that adorns those tacky cards we give to one another once a year, that love lacks insight. Cupid is blindfolded in most depictions. But God’s love is not blind, dear people.

God’s love, as the sainted Reverend William Sloane Coffin would say, “is visionary.”  Cupid’s love is blind; God’s love is visionary.  And we are often Christians living in a Cupid world, and too often we give our hearts to a Cupid conception of love, blind to the realities of what’s going on.

But a visionary love…a visionary love is not one where we ignore, turn away, or qualify.  A visionary love looks at the stark naked reality of a situation and decides to give its heart away anyway.  As one of you commented on my blog this week, the sainted Dorothy Day once said that, “Love, in reality, is a harsh and dreadful thing.”  Harsh because agape love doesn’t turn a blind eye to the wounds before it, but with a keen eye begins to attend those wounds whole-heartedly.

Good grief people, the examples of this kind of love in a Cupid world that prefers Hallmark over heavenly grace are few but feisty.  But I’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it.

I see it in a colleague of mine who will bury his granddaughter today.  She was only 8 weeks old when she died of a very rare skin disease, a disease that prevented her family from having much physical contact with her, and the Cupid of the world would say “You must love her despite this disease,” but the agape love of God says, “By God, you will love her even in this disease.”  It’s about giving your heart away even though you know it will break in the process.

This is the kind of love we’re practicing here, people, as we raise money for our orphans in Mnene.  We’re hoping for tens of thousands of dollars to be raised to support these orphans when we ourselves as a church are behind in our budget by almost 50,000 for the year…which, by the way, we need your help on.  But we are not ignoring that difference, but boldly proclaiming that, by God, we can do both: we can pay our bills and give of ourselves.  Is this not what Rhonda and I do when we sit to write our gift to the church? What you do? Cupid’s love would be blind here, either blind to the need, blind to the debt, or blind to it all and spend every last cent on coffee.

But instead, with eyes wide open, we are proclaiming that we will be known not primarily by frugality nor wontonness, but primarily by love, a love that compels us to believe that we can do both faithfully as our hard hearts break open in generosity in Christ’s name.

Visionary love is the kind of love that can allow Jesus to stand in a room with a group of disciples, as he does in the text…remember, this all happens at The Last Supper, knowing full well that they will all abandon him when he needs them most, knowing full well that one of them will literally hand him over to death, and looks around and says, “You need to be known for self-giving love, guys.”  And then goes and shows them what it looks like with his body.

If you want to call something awesome, that fits the bill.

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Pelican in her Piety

In our Tuesday morning study group here at GSLC we’ve been looking at different ideas about how God saves us through Jesus.  One of the ideas that is most beautiful, I think, is expressed in a symbol known as “The Pelican in her Piety”.  It’s the symbol of a bird, a pelican, plucking at her own flesh to feed her babies.  The meaning is plain: she will die but her babies will live.  This, more than any other, is a great working definition of agape.

I want that pelican to be my spirit animal.  My patronus. Kudos if you get those references, by the way…

And this, according to Jesus, is how God’s glory is most shown: not by power and might and riches and wisdom and strength by Cupid’s blind definitions, definitions that pay no attention to collateral damage or economic disparity or the oppression of the have nots under the haves.

God’s glory is most clearly seen in that God becomes the collateral damage, the oppressed one, the disadvantaged one, as Saint Paul says, “Christ became sin for us…” that we might have the ability to truly live through the vision of a God who would give so that we might have, compelling us to do the same for others.

Beloved, it’s what Jesus says we should be known for, that kind of self-sacrificing, heart-breaking, difficult-but-needed love.  And I wonder, if we were to poll non-Christians, lapsed Christians, folks who used to be Christian but left the church, maybe even this church, I wonder what they would say we’re primarily known for, I wonder what they would say we’ve given our hearts to.  Would they call it a visionary love, or love that is blind to the realities of humanity, insular, hard-hearted rather than broken-hearted?

That’s some tough love for all of us…

Good thing God gives a different sort of love for us who give our hearts away to all the wrong things.  Today I pray that God will, once again, just come and steal my heart. I’m largely not capable of handling it responsibly.

So, come Lord and just take it.  Or better yet, pluck at your Divine heart in that awesome way you do and impart it within me, that I might better know how to do this life well, that I might be known for your way of loving more than my own, that I might understand what you mean by love more than my own way.

I guess, what I’m saying is this: I want to be known for this, by God. As Christians in a Cupid world, I want us to be known for this.  Because that kind of love is actually awesome.

 

Your Conception of Love is Underwhelming

51Our conceptions of love are largely underwhelming.  We live in a time when you can vie for affection on reality TV, and people will follow with fervor to see who gets the rose (or, more rightly, who gets dumped).

Is that love?

Love is on my heart today (pun intended) because this week’s Gospel is on love, a little redux of Maundy Thursday but without the podiatry. If you don’t remember the texts (and even if you do!), read them here.

But instead of railing on the ways I don’t see love in the things we label as “love” these days, let me lay out some ways I do/have seen love:

-Back when I was a middle school teacher, one of my students, Omar, was shot in February of his 8th grade year.  He was in a gang, because that’s what you did when you loved your family.  It kept them safe. He was running drugs between the buyer and a distributor and was shot in the leg.  He was my star basketball player. He has a permanent limp.  When I went to see him…odd, I’m sure, to have his 8th grade teacher visit his hospital bed…he asked me to get him a Big Mac because he couldn’t stomach the hospital food, because his mother (who had no papers) couldn’t hang around the hospital long because she was too afraid she’d be asked questions, and because he didn’t know what else to do.

That day love looked like a trip to McDonald’s. I think Omar made me a pastor, by the way.

-I remember eating at a diner in the Edgebrook neighborhood of Chicago, and kitty-corner to me sat a man and his elderly father.  The father was now in a permanent chair, and didn’t have the use of his hands.  So his son fed him his entire meal, wiping his face, talking to him the whole time in-between bites of his own food, slowly putting a straw to his lips.  The moment was an absolute reversal of what I imagined to be exactly the same scene some 40 years earlier of that father and son, as all of us fathers know what it’s like to slowly feed a youngster by spoon, to wipe their mouth, to hold a bottle to their lips. And I just sat there and marveled at the beauty and difficulty of the moment.

Love that day looked like a son practicing what his father had taught him decades earlier, before he even knew he was learning anything.

-I remember soccer camp when I was 11.  I was am a TERRIBLE soccer player.  Horrible. Part of the reason I was at camp was to improve…and I did.  While I was there I met Abdar. He was standing alone, fixing his cleats.  I was standing alone fixing mine.  We stood alone because no one wanted to stand with us, mostly because I was horrible at the game and didn’t know anyone.  I didn’t think of it at the time, but I imagine no one stood with Abdar because he was Muslim and had a thick accent and brown skin.  But he and I became friends because, well, if you’re going to stand alone you might as well do it together.  He, by the way, was great at soccer. I learned a lot from him as we kicked the ball back and forth.

On the last day of practice he gave me coins from his homeland, the United Arab Emirates. I still have them.  That day love looked like coins of strange shapes and sizes, coins I wouldn’t realize were so significant until many many years later.

-I remember as a camp counselor watching Timmy and Sam.  They came to camp together, and Timmy had a seizure disorder.  His doctor had recently switched his medicines, and so out on a long hike that day he had a seizure.  A few of them, actually.  As a counselor I was trained in helping and holding him, but I couldn’t comfort him very well.  Only Sam could do that.  And I watched this young boy of about 9 hold his friend’s hand…which you just didn’t do as a 9 year old boy…and pour water in his mouth in between seizes and comb back his hair and whisper to him, “It will pass. It’s the new meds. It will pass” even as the rest of the campers stood around and watched.

That day love looked like not caring one bit what anyone else thought about you as you did what you had to do for your best friend.

Christ commands us to love one another.  It’s not an option; it’s a commandment.  It’s a hard one.  Because we’re confused about it.  Because many of our modern-day examples of “love” are so cheap.  Because God’s kind of love is less romance and more God-help-me-because-this-is-uncomfortable.

My examples above may look romantic or rose-colored, but believe-you-me they’re anything but.  I don’t know where Omar is today, and I don’t think that Big Mac changed his life.  That father and son probably fought, that son probably felt burdened, that father probably felt like a burden.  Abdar and I didn’t keep up, and Timmy and Sam…well, I don’t know what happened to them.

Romanticizing things also makes them cheap.  We can’t fall into that trap. We imagine romance and saccharine to be part of the glorious beauty of the world.  I think it’s largely a distraction.  And I think that not because I’m a cynic (I’m far from it!), but because I think we have a propensity for falling in love with an underwhelming love, a shallow love, a Hallmark love.  We give our hearts to it in this world, when in fact Jesus is asking our hearts to be reserved for those things that truly might break them open because that’s when we see God most.

The love that Jesus says his followers will be known for is anything but cheap. It’s not heartwarming, either.  It’s heartbreaking. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was fond of saying that “Cupid’s love is blind.  God’s love is visionary.”  Visionary love means looking at life with eyes wide-open.  It’s not the blind love that fails to see or doesn’t see the faults, the difficulties, the risks of the matter.

It’s the love that sees it all and still takes the jump.  It is costly, as the sainted Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say.  He would pay for that insight, by the way, on the gallows at Flossenburg.

Nothing romantic about that.

And yet the costly love of the Jesus follower is how God is glorified most.  In the costly love of the cross we find glorification.

That makes no sense in a saccharine world.  Which, I assume, is part of the visionary nature of this love, helping us to see past the distractions of underwhelming love toward the absolutely overwhelming, immense, heartbreaking, and difficult-to-the-core love that God invites us to practice, to accept, to swim in.

 

 

On How ‘The Last Time’ is Never the Last Time with Jesus, and We Should Probably Just Forgive Ourselves Already

John 21:1-19

check-yes-no-maybe1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”

11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “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. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

On How ‘The Last Time’ is Never the Last Time with Jesus, and We Should Probably Forgive Already

Lord God, most days we know we love you

There’s no need to ask so many times.

But maybe we’ve forgotten today

And maybe you asking will remind us.

So ask us again today, God,

And we shall be your people.

Amen.

I have to think that sometimes getting a group of Biblical Scholars in the room to talk about an issue is like getting a bunch of podiatrists in a room: the conversation generally stinks.

Like, for instance, Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John is thought by many Biblical scholars to be a late addition, mostly because the Gospel reads as if it ends in chapter 20.  But there was no such thing as an “Afterword” in ancient literature, so maybe chapter 21 is the first afterword ever published. A long post-script.  Who knows, and I really don’t care, because getting hung up on something like that stinks when you’re trying to listen for God’s word.  As Martin Luther would say, God’s love is preached which makes it the Word, so whether it appeared in the first writing or was added by someone, as long as it preaches the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it works.

What I do know is that it does look like a late addition, and it looks a lot like a late addition that cleans up some problems earlier in the Gospel, specifically with the disciple Peter who, as you know, would go on to found the church.   And nobody wants a church leader who isn’t perfect, right?

But this section does seem to intend to make up for one of Peter’s more cringe-worthy moments.  Not the time Jesus called him Satan because he didn’t really get what Jesus was doing, and not the time Peter cut off the right ear of that guy in the garden, trying to start a one-man revolution.  And not even the time when he embarrassingly invited Jesus to wash his whole body when Jesus was only going to have time to do everyone’s feet.  Remember that?

No.  I’m talking about that night in the courtyard.  If you’ll all remember your Jesus stories for a second, Peter ends up denying Jesus how many times before the rooster crows on that dark-but-holy night?  Right. 3.

And so here we have this cute little fishing story with a naked Peter who puts his clothes on to jump in the water (an odd choice, I say) and he and Jesus have this conversation where Jesus asks him this question three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter, with increasing offense, answers “You know I do, Jesus.”  Three affirmations to cancel out three denials. Was he more irritated that Jesus didn’t seem to know he loved him, that Jesus kept asking him as if he didn’t believe him, or because it kept bringing up inside him that one night where he was asked not if he loved Jesus, but if he even knew him, and he said no…

When I was in third grade, Molly White passed me a series of love notes, each with three little boxes on it: “Yes” “Not Sure” and “No”.  The question was some variation of “Do you love me?” except as opposed to St. Peter, I checked the “not sure” box for the first baker’s dozen of those notes that never seemed to stop coming, written in sparkly pen ink. I relented to the “yes” box after about fourteen had crossed my desk, all during music class.  Not that it really mattered.  We were only in 3rd grade, and so dating looked like holding hands at lunch and being socially obligated to picking her first for kickball.

Molly and I ended our short relationship a few months later after it was revealed that she had sent a similar note to another boy in school, and he picked “yes” quite quickly and so her heart gravitated toward his.  It appeared that no matter how firm my “yes” was, it couldn’t cancel out the 13 “not sure” boxes I’d racked up.

And I wonder if maybe Peter was in the same predicament.  Having chosen the “no” box three times on that fateful night, that night when it all felt like it really mattered, could he really move on with that kind of racked-up record?

I wonder if those denials plagued him, like sometimes my own denials plague me.  I’m a master at replaying the test, at replaying interactions over and over again in my head as if somehow if I re-watch an episode of my life enough times the outcome will be different, which is ridiculous, I know, but I still do it.

Maybe you’re that way.  I’ve gotten better at not being that way, but I’ve only really gotten better at it as I’ve practiced forgiving myself for my imperfections.

I guess another way of saying that is that I’ve gotten better at it since I’ve started trusting that Easter is real. Since I’ve started to internalize the deep truth that, as Ann Lamott once wrote, “hope is a conversation” and nothing is forever and even though you can’t turn back time, nothing is ever the last time when it comes to Jesus.  And if you wonder if that’s true, just look at Easter when the dead guy reappears and the disciple who doubted trusts and the disciple who denied is forgiven.

So all those mistakes I’ve made in life, all those times I wish I could go back and rewrite, even the small times like this one that continues to make my stomach turn when I remember a joke that I made when I was a smart-mouthed 11 year old to someone’s face at someone’s expense while they sat there and looked at me and cried, all of that can’t be rewritten but it can be forgiven, and I bet that person has forgiven me, and God has forgiven me, and the only one holding on to it anymore is me…

Hope is a conversation.  Hope is ongoing.  It’s not something you lose after one mistake.  We fear that everything is “the last time” and so everything must be perfect…but with Jesus, nothing is ever the last time.

But I wonder if Peter desired the chance to make up for his denials.  Three denials, and three affirmations.  I wonder if he needed it, or if the people reading the Gospel needed it and so they added on this last story.

But one thing I don’t wonder, since I trust Easter is for real, I don’t wonder if Jesus needed it. Because he didn’t.  He didn’t need Peter to make up for past sins, he just needed Peter to live as if his present wasn’t dictated by his past.  That’s why he tells Peter “feed my sheep” after each “do you love me?” question.  Because if Peter loved him he needed to just go ahead and live like it more than try to figure out a way to make up for the times he didn’t live like it…

Peter needed to just go ahead and forgive himself.

“Spiritual maturity is the ability to live with unresolved problems,” another gem from Ann Lamott.  It’s the ability to forgive yourself without having a neat bow wrapped around it all…because those bows rarely materialize. And it’s the ability to see hope as a conversation, largely a conversation you have with yourself.  A conversation where you remind yourself that you have forgiven yourself, that God has forgiven you, and you can let those things go that you keep dragging along with you from house to house, relationship to relationship, birthday to birthday.

And not in some sort of “tomorrow is a new day” sort of self-help guru nonsense.  But in a real resurrection way that says tomorrow will have enough worries of its own (as Jesus notes), and I am loved and forgiven today.  And it is for today that I need that Easter assurance that nothing is ever ended in a world where Jesus is resurrected.  That no foul word of mine, no mistake, no anything, not even death, can stop God giving me new life.  And not another chance to make things better, but a chance to live forgiven and redeemed knowing that it will never be made up for by me, but that God doesn’t need it and I don’t either.  I need to know today that forgiveness means I can take another step forward without dragging that stuff into right now, and though I can’t make up for past sins I can live in such a way that my life shines forth forgiveness right this moment and if God has forgiven me I should probably go ahead and forgive myself already.

You know what I mean?  Are you listening, Peter? Because if Easter is real we should probably go ahead and release everything we haven’t forgiven in ourselves yet that God has already released…

John O’Donohue, Irish poet and author, has a blessing for moments like this, moments when Jesus invites us to come home to ourselves again and release those things we still haven’t forgiven ourselves for.  I’m going to leave you with it:

May all that is unforgiven in you

Be released.

 

May your fears yield

Their deepest tranquilities.

 

May all that is unlived in you

Blossom into a future

Graced with love.

<Ann Lamott quotes from _Stitches_, and O’Donohue poem from _Bless the Space Between Us_>

Some Body

<You can listen to this Easter sermon here. If you do, you will find that my impersonation of my grandmother to come to life…>

Luke 24:1-12

Jesus_is_So_CoolBut on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.  Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Some Body

We are too often held in the tombs of fear

The tombs of doubt

The tombs of our prejudice

The tombs of our addictions.

But you raise us out of those death traps

And into this new life we celebrate today.

Raise us, Lord, like you raised Jesus.

Both today and at the end of our days.

Amen.

My grandmother on my father’s side, of blessed memory, was affectionately known as Grandma Ladye, L-a-d-y-e, because that was her name: Ladye Bess.  Which, she was quick to remind you, is no great honor because both of those names are the names of most milk cows in the world.  She was an interesting woman.  A smoker from the age of 16 to her death bed, known to curse with the best of them.  Her favorite drink was a Manhattan which she would order as a double in the later years of her life because, she claimed, she could no longer taste the bourbon in a regular pour…a tragedy she blamed on her doctor for he had, in his infinite wisdom, put her on Claritin for a while and it ruined her taste buds, or so she claimed.

It certainly wasn’t because she had smoked since she was 16.  She was certain it was the Claritin, and would not hear otherwise. The tobacco industry may have killed her lungs, but her taste buds were destroyed by “big pharm”…

She had a personality the size of Texas, and a heart just as big.

I came home from college one summer after getting my first tattoo and I came into the kitchen to find my grandmother sitting there with a cigarette in her right hand and a Manhattan in her left, double bourbon of course, so she could taste it.  And I came in and I said, “Grandma! I got a tattoo!  Want to see?”

And she took a drag, exhaled slowly, shook the ice in her glass and said, “Why would anyone do that to a body?”

Bodies are on my mind.  We have a love/hate relationship with our bodies.  Not the topic for polite conversation, and please tell me if you’re going to take a pic of me so I can suck in my gut.

But bodies are on my mind, because we live in a world where bombs explode bodies in Brussels and Turkey, where bodies are ravaged by AIDs and cancer and diseases and all sorts of things that make them imperfect but still important, where our children scrape their knees on the playground, where our parents wait for prescriptions to keep their bodies running.

Bodies were on the women’s minds as they came to the tomb that Easter morning and didn’t find one.  Why would someone steal a body? Why would someone do that to a body?

Bodies are on God’s mind, I dare say.  God could have surely made his love known in other ways, but God chose a body.  And this is something that the church has lost sight of in some eras, what with our penchant for singing old favorites like, “I’ll fly away, old glory, I’ll fly away…” a song I love.  I love to sing it. But it totally neglects the fact that our bodies, however they’re configured and formed, are important. It’s not just about flying away, it’s about here and now, too…I’ve lost my taste for theology that only points to heaven. We need some heaven on Earth right now, people.  As Emily Dickinson once penned, “Eternity is composed of nows.”

Why would God do that to a body?  Why did God choose a body?

As William Sloane Coffin, that sainted and sagely pastor of Riverside Church in New York City was fond of saying, “Easter shows us that while we can kill God’s love, we cannot keep it buried.”

And God knows something that we take for granted and often forget, and it is this: love is primarily known through our bodies.  And if you doubt that is true, remember that letters don’t kiss back and emails don’t hug and phone calls might tickle your ear, but they won’t massage your feet.

That is an important thing to remember in these days where fear of bodies is real.  On the heels of Paris, Turkey, and Belgium, not to mention mass shootings that seem to increase in number every year, the temptation not to engage with other bodies, or at least not with bodies that don’t look like your own body, is strong.

But that’s not the Easter story, Beloved.  That is a different story, a story where death is not defeated but idolized; where fear is not trampled underfoot, but does the trampling. That is a story that sees the dead among the living; that sees everyone as in the process of dying, so you better take what you can while you can.  That is the story of fear, emblazoned on the headlines these days.

We hear that story all the time as people are shuffled through systems, assigned case numbers, or shuffled around jails assigned cell numbers, or shuffled around schools as districts change without thought to family cohesion, or as we blame this people or that people for societal ills. In those stories the only body that is important is the body telling the story.

But the Easter story, is the one where Jesus, who was hung on cross on the hinge between heaven and earth, pulled the two together so that we might have the assurance of God’s heaven in our earthly bodies.  Easter is about bodies. Easter is about love, dear ones.  The love of a God who loves you so much that he’ll make the grave his home, though he won’t stay dead, not for long, just to show you the lengths God will go to, as St. Bob of the Dylans once sang, “to make you feel his love.”

The resurrection story of Jesus showing up again in his body is one that sees the Living One as possibly being anywhere, in every body. Hope embodied, showing up on the scene of the world. Love embodied, showing up on the scene of the world.  God shows up bodily on Easter for people who need to know the resurrection promise in their bones, in their bodies, for this life and the next.

It is, as The Reverend Coffin would also often say, the story of powerless love winning over loveless power. And that story, Beloved, is worth telling with our whole bodies today as we wave banners, shout Alleluia’s, and parade our bodies with our shiny best.

This last week many of us were attentive to bodies.  As our dear sister in Christ Alene was entering her final hours, I saw the body of Christ continue its care for this body.  Servants clipped her hair back, rubbed her back, put lotion on her hands and feet, lifted a cup to her lips, held her hand, kissed her head.  We cared for that body, because that body was the body of Christ just as much as we were the body of Christ in our care.

In that failing body I saw Christ as I sat by her bed and she grabbed my hand with her hand, now full of wires and tubes, and we promised each other we’d do this last leg together, all of us bodies together.  See, Christ doesn’t just show up in the perfect bodies, but in the places you wouldn’t expect.  In the resurrection we learn that there’s nowhere Christ can’t be…

As someone who critiques organized religion pretty heavily, I’m always reminded of why we do this church thing together in moments like that: if Christ is known bodily, we need other bodies to know Christ’s presence.  We need something, something real and physical, to lean on. Bread. Wine. Water. Bodies.  There is no such thing as a solitary Christians. Christians need other bodies to see Jesus, people of God. It’s just true.  It’s part of the Easter story, that story that those two angelic bodies in dazzling clothes first told to Mary when the women came looking for the dead body.

When I think on that scene, I imagine those two angelic bodies leaning up against the tomb, kind of nonchalantly. Maybe one picking at her cuticles, the other with hands in his pockets. “Oh, Jesus?” they say, “yeah, he’s not here.  He’s gone.  He told you he’d do this, remember?”

Leaning on the empty tomb, just like those women had leaned on one another as they stared at the cross leaning against Jesus’ back.  Leaning on the resurrection story just like those disciples leaned on Jesus in those days where he walked the earth.

And then I looked at that scene on the 6th floor of Duke Medical Center, big Duke, where these women, and men but mostly women there, leaned on one another to walk this other one into eternal life, attending to her, cuticles and all, and people of God, and we all leaned on the hope of Christ’s death and resurrection that week…a moment that dripped with Easter hope and love.

Don’t believe it?  I’ve seen it, people of God.  Just this last week.  Alene saw it. Jayne saw it. Larry saw it. George saw it. Nancy, Gail, and Cheryl saw it. Sarah saw it.  We saw it just as plainly as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and even Peter himself.  God does give life in the shadow of death; thanks to Christ’s resurrection all is redeemable.

Because we all need a body to lean on in this life as we walk these roads, and so God shows up in the body of Jesus, and dare I say God still shows up in the bodies around us here so that it can happen yet today.  And I think back to that Bill Wither’s classic where he croons, “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. But, if we are wise, we know that there’s, always tomorrow. Lean on me…”

And so if you wonder why it is we do what we do here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on the north side of Raleigh, if you wonder why we show up in our bodies week after week to gather around not just any story, not just any God, but this witness of God’s work in the body of Jesus, the Easter story, to serve bodies and advocate for bodies, why we partner with orphan bodies in Zimbabwe, and build homes for bodies here in Raleigh; why we walk with new bodies like little Lauren’s just born last week and failing bodies like little Alene’s, it is because we know that God chose a body to be made known, to give us something to lean on, and by God, we have a sneaky suspicion that Christ shows up again and again in us and in the people we encounter.

Tattooed. Smokers. Thin and overweight. Addicted and in recovery. Wracked with disease or in the prime of health.  With personalities the size of Texas and personalities the size of Delaware. As the Apostle Peter says in our first reading today, “Surely God shows no partiality…”

The Jesus who walked out of a tomb testifies to the fact that God in the body of Christ can show up anywhere…and that, Beloved, is why God would do that to a body. Happy Easter. Amen.

Swimming with Your Clothes On

Old_Time_Swimming_Photograph_cropAfter Easter Day the church feasts on story after story of Jesus appearing to people in strange places.  Either that or it recalls stories about Jesus where he speaks about death and resurrection.  This Sunday we get to hear a story of the former kind, with a scandalizing little tidbit about Peter’s habit of fishing in the buff.

Oh, by the by, if you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and click here to do so, otherwise you might be (more) confused by what follows.

So, to appease all you Biblical scholars out there, let me get this out of the way so that we can all move on: this last chapter of John might be a later addition to the original writing.  Mark has a late addition as well, and there are certain parts of other books in the Bible that appear or don’t appear in certain historical manuscripts.

That’s all to say, it’s not terribly unusual to find a piece of scripture that may be a redaction or an addition.  We haven’t found a manuscript of this Gospel without this section, but it does smell a little fishy (pun intended) what with the disciples fishing after the resurrection as if nothing had happened, and not to mention the author of the Gospel kind of clearly ends the story at the end of Chapter 20.

Regardless, we should chew on this text like we’re chewing on barbecued fish (see, if you don’t get that joke it’s because you didn’t read it…go read it at the link above!) because I think it’s got God’s promises woven all through it.

Hey, did you notice that Peter was fishing naked?  In verse 7 it’s a little aside that the author throws in, and Peter actually puts clothes on to swim to shore after catching this miraculous haul of fish.

I think it’s interesting that he puts clothes on to swim to Jesus, because elsewhere in the scriptures people only put clothes on in front of God because they are ashamed (go back to that first book of the Torah, Chapter 3, to see an example of what I mean).  Moses takes his shoes off to enter holy ground around the firey shrub, but Peter puts on his tunic to swim to Jesus.

Perhaps he was still ashamed…

Remember what he did, all that denying stuff that night in that courtyard by the fire pit?  Three times he denied Jesus.  I wonder if that still weighed on him, and so he put his tunic on because, well, though he was entering holy ground he wasn’t worthy to be there in his mind.

Maybe.

Ancient Christians, those first of our spiritual mothers and fathers, were baptized naked.  I’m a big proponent of naked baby baptisms.  All that nakedness is not for show, but rather for making a statement about who we are in God’s presence: vulnerable and real.

And all the while we try to cover ourselves up, dress ourselves up with piety and talk of morality and right living, which is all a bunch of swimming with your clothes on. You’ll drown yourself in your delusions if you think that you are anything but naked in front of God.

When Peter gets to shore, Jesus asks him three times if he loves him.  Perhaps those three affirmations canceled out his three denials in some eyes, maybe even Peter’s.  Maybe even to those people who felt like this story needed to be added to the Gospel to make up for Peter’s denials.

But what if Jesus was just stripping away Peter’s defenses with each question, slowly getting to his heart?  What if Jesus, with each question, wasn’t really looking for affirmation, but helping Peter hear himself again?  Maybe Peter was still letting that night of denial beat him up, leaving him as sad and empty as those nights of fishing where he caught nothing.  Maybe Peter was questioning his ability to follow Jesus just like hours of empty nets made him question his skill on the water.

Maybe Peter just needed to be reminded that he didn’t have to wear that night of denial like a cloak anymore, that he could live freely in Jesus’ forgiveness and love because, despite that night, he truly was one who loved Jesus and could live in Jesus’ resurrection love that pulls us up from those nights of denial and shame.

Maybe Jesus’ questions were not for Jesus…who is pretty good at that forgiveness and moving on thing…and was for Peter who needed to remove that night from his heart to fully live in the love of a God who invites us to forget the former things (Isaiah 43), and live new and vulnerable in an Easter world.

Maybe.

Hanging Out in Gardens

March 27th, 2016

John 20:1-18

Boy_Angel_Statue_La_Recoleta_CemeteryEarly on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their home.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. “ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 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.

Hanging Out in Gardens

My Lord, what a morning.

Today we greet you with Easter in our hearts.

Help us to always have Easter in our hearts.

Until there very last heartbeat, and then beyond.

Amen.

Rhonda’s grandmother, whose name is Inez, lives in a town that is 1 mile by 1 mile.  Little Woden, Iowa, placed just center-west, and just south of the Minnesota border, is the town set up for retiring farmers, which there are fewer and fewer of each year. It’s the kind of town that Garrison Keillor talks about when he says that “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  American pie kind of town, shrinking away.

On our last visit when we were still living in the big city of Chicago, Inez was eager to tell us of a new resident in town from that same great city…who happened to have an outstanding warrant.  And so into this American Pie town where the grain silo towers over it as a looming idol to agriculture, even as all of the businesses are now boarded up except for the little post office and the family diner, now only open on weekends, came the man from the city of sin.

And so one day, in sweep all of the Sheriff cruisers little northwest Iowa can find, screeching in to town, landing in the front yard of this man’s now home, guns drawn, bullhorn out, reds and blues flashing.

And then the Sheriff says into the bullhorn, “Alright!  Come on out with your hands up.”  And at this point Inez starts laughing uncontrollably.  In between tears she says, “And don’t ya know, little Doris who was in her garage next door piddling around walks out with her hands held high.  And the Sheriff says, ‘Not you, Doris!  Get inside and lock your door!’”

My second favorite story of mistaken identity.  The one we just read this morning at this ungodly hour, pun intended, is my first favorite.

Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus, even when looking straight at him.  A case of mistaken identity.  She had trouble seeing him, even though Jesus had a habit of hanging out in gardens, not unlike this one.  Gardens and tombs were often found together in the ancient world, much like this time.  Some of the most beautiful gardens are dotted with tombs, right?

Jesus had a habit of hanging out in gardens.  And he had a habit of calling people by name in gardens.  Perhaps he learned it from his father.  If we go back to the very beginning of the scriptures, we find God in a garden, too, at the beginning of all life, calling Adam and Eve by name.  And so we often find Jesus in Scripture hanging out in gardens: calling out Peter to put away his sword, calling his disciples by name, asking them to stay awake with him, calling out the name of the demons inhabiting a man, throwing them into some pigs.  And this morning, calling out the name of Mary, even in her confusion, even when she can’t see him. In doing so, he clears up any confusion she might have of what God is about: God is about cutting through the confusion of the world to promise new life, even in the midst of danger, even despite the tombs.

And talk about a bit of confusion, we’re here celebrating new life in a graveyard.  Think about that.  Talk about a bit of confusion, we’re here celebrating the resurrection just days after lives were taken in terrorist attacks in Brussels.  Talk about confusion, we can’t make heads or tails of a shooting on the south side of Raleigh just a few weeks ago that impacted members of our own congregation.  Talk about confusion, just a week and a half ago Alene was here in the congregation, and now we await next Saturday where we’ll gather here again to lay her to rest in this garden with Dale.

We join Mary in our confusion of what to make in this world where things don’t happen in ways that make sense.

But, Beloved, today, like Mary, you are going hear that the resurrected body of Christ is for you.  For you, personally.  That Easter life, new life is yours, despite the confusion of the world, despite the fear we might see in the headlines.  And is for all of us as we all, now, are the body of Christ.  Called by God.  Known by God. Confused and mixed up as you are, as we all are.

As the bald and beautiful mystic Thomas Merton once said, “To be unknown to God is entirely too much privacy.”  Jesus will be the one who arrives with his arms up, outstretched on a cross, and then emerging from a garden with those marks on those same hands, promising a new life for those of us confused by the dealings of life and death in this world.  And so today, especially on Easter, live without fear and cling to hope; cling to it so tightly that even in a graveyard we can speak of new life. Just like Jesus.

After all, we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses who, in their life and in their death, testify to God’s promises kept.

Come forward not with your hands up, but with your hands outstretched this morning to receive that meal of grace, given for you Sarah, and you Barbara, and you Karl. Come forward not just to proclaim that Christ is risen today, but to touch, taste, and see that it is true in and hear personally that it is for you.

And perhaps, like Inez telling the story of Doris, that will make you cry a bit, releasing that which is entombed within you.  Jesus came to unlock that tomb; don’t be surprised if the Easter story stirs something that looks like tears in you. Tears of laughter like Inez at this story that is too good to be true, but somehow is.  Or tears of birth, as this morning you might actually start to believe that God loves you too much to leave you just as you are now.  Tears of bittersweetness, as you remember those who have gone before you in this life into the next, who have heard Jesus call their name for the final time into the blessed saints of life, even as we cling to resurrection hope.

Whatever the tears this Easter morning, they’ll join Mary’s from that first Easter morning, and you’ll hear just like she did that all this goodness, all this grace, all this love is for you.

Because Jesus is here hanging out in this garden like he has been known to do, whispering resurrection stories, calling your name…

You just may not recognize him. Amen.