On Being Cut Off and Gaining Vision

<To listen to the sermon, click here. It’s better with the singing and the laughs…>

John 14:15-21

Kimberly-Napier-Personal-Life-Coach-An-invitation-to-an-open-heart[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

On Being Cut Off and Gaining Vision

There are very few times when I will ditch a sermon and write a completely different one on Saturday of the week, but this is one of those times.  So that sermon title in your bulletin isn’t the sermon title for today anymore because, well, I had a very interesting weekend.

As many of you know, I was accepted into a program offered by Wake Forest Divinity for early career clergy…of which I’m the only Lutheran…where, over theses two years, we spend a few days together every other month listening to and talking with civic, business, and political leaders about the challenges facing North Carolina.

This weekend we talked specifically about racial prejudice in the voting booth, the history of the separation of Church and State, and I found myself sitting across from State Representative Graig Meyer talking to him about how he sees his own faith life impacting his work as a state congressman.

He then invited us back to his office where we threw some Bruce Springsteen onto his record player and rocked out a bit singing,

Born in the USA

I was

Born in the USA

I was…

It was a challenging weekend in many ways because I saw clearly how, sometimes, people are indeed left orphaned in this world: left orphaned by our own choices, by systems that are set up to keep the powerful in power and keep the weak from changing that.  How we are left orphaned in our own cocoons and echo chambers as we only listen to and pay attention to people who already agree with us.

In the ancient world, to be left orphaned was not simply to be left without parental guardians, though there is that.  The problem with having no parental guardian in the ancient world was that you had no one to advocate for you in the public sphere.  Children were the most vulnerable people in that world, and I would contend that they still are, and to be left without a guardian meant that you were at the mercy of a system in which you had no voice, no advocate, to care for you.

Think on that for a moment, and then think on our work with Mnene Parish in Zimbabwe.

And so when Jesus says that he will not leave the disciples orphaned, he’s talking about leaving them cut off.

And it got me to thinking about all the ways we’re cut off in this world.

Need cuts us off.  The Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches, Bishop Michael Curry and our own Bishop Eaton, have called Lutherans and Episcopalians to fast on the 21st of each month starting this month…and does anyone know what day today is?  Great job planning a church picnic on this day…

But the day of fasting is intended to bring awareness to the greater world, and to our own bodies, about the reality of hunger in this world because by the 21st of each month most SNAP benefits in most families using them have been used up, making the last week of the month the hardest week of the month for low income families.

Hunger affects children first in this world, leaving them orphaned.  And, I think this is true: my belly has never known real hunger, which has left me orphaned to the real pain of my brothers and sisters.  If I only feel compassion for them but not concern for the systems set up to keep the hungry starving, I’m really only being sentimental and not being loving.

This world can make us feel cut off, orphaned. I see it happening all over the place, to children and adults, as loneliness is rampant in a world where we always feel totally connected.  I mean, think on that: we are the most globally connected we have ever been in the history of humankind, and yet so many of us feel all alone in this life, orphaned from others and even from ourselves.  Our kids feel it.  The fascination with this new Netflix series _13 Reasons Why_, which I admittedly have not seen, that focuses on a teen’s suicide should be an indicator to us adults that children are certainly still a very vulnerable population in this world, often feeling orphaned in ways we don’t realize.

And, to be honest, sometimes that doesn’t leave you.  Some of us adults still feel that way often, alone and disconnected in this world, as the death of singer Chris Cornell this last week hammers home.

Religion can do it, too, though.  As the Reverend William Sloane Coffin rightly says, “Too many religious people make faith their aim.  They think ‘the greatest of these ‘ is faith, and faith defined as all but infallible doctrine.  These are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, more concerned with freezing the doctrine than warming the heart.  If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.”

Such faith led to the killing of Mennonites in the 16th Century.  Such faith leads to the abuse of Christians today in many countries not friendly to Christians.  Such faith leads to the abuse of many Muslims and minorities today in this country.

You know, in this cohort I’m meeting with 14 other pastors from across the state.  One of them is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite in the Mordecai neighborhood here, and about halfway through the conference she brought up the fact that it was only 10 years ago that the Lutheran Church apologized the Mennonites for abusing and massacring them in the 16th Century.  And it occurred to me that, 500 years ago, we would have never sat at the same table…and would be worse for it.

There are so many ways we’re cut off in this world, so many ways to orphan others and to be orphaned.

You know, in this gospel lesson when Jesus encourages the disciples to “follow his commandments” and the Holy Spirit will come upon them, he’s not talking about the 10 Commandments, or a list of behavioral moralisms, or anything like that.  You need only look one chapter previous in the Bible to see his reference point.  Because just a few verses previous to this one he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The follower of Christ, then, is the one who loves.  And love has this wonderful way of never leaving anyone orphaned in the world because it compels you to be with them and for them.  Which is why God has sent us the Spirit, and why the Spirit sends us out in love.

Because our obsession over anything: money, religion, criticism, depression, being right, being in control…well…to quote that good reverend again, “(Obsession) is blinding.  Love, by contrast, is visionary.”

Visionary: because it sees those the world overlooks and advocates on their behalf.

Visionary: because it sees in you what God sees in you…even when you can’t see it, and you are worth loving, by God.

Visionary: because though religion has been used to hurt it has, at its core, the potential to heal, too.  The word “religion” literally broken down, “re-ligio” where we get the word “ligament” which connects our bodies and keeps us together, religion can indeed reconnect us to God and to one another and to ourselves when the Divine love of God comes through.

Visionary: because although the world cannot see Jesus, as this Gospel lesson says, we can.  We have the vision for Jesus in the stranger, in the abused, in the outcast, in the corporate fat cat, in the one contemplating suicide, in the bread and wine.  We see Jesus in every place where love can be found, infused, encouraged, enlivened in the Spirit.

God in Christ has given us a vision for love in a world full of systems who cannot see and are intent at cutting people off, Beloved.  What will you do with that vision?

 

 

On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing Is and Not Letting it Get Stolen

<Want to listen along? Click here. Listening is better than reading when it comes to sermons. It’s like the difference between hearing a piece music and reading a piece music>

John 10:1-10

images

This, literally, was the CD that was stolen.

[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing is and Not Letting It Get Stolen

Gracious One,

You are the good shepherd

And we are grateful, because so often

We are poor shepherds

And even poorer sheep

Listening to a number of voices

In a world of voices.

Bring our attention to you today

That we might know your voice

As you know ours.

Amen.

So, living in Chicago for twelve years, you get used to some things, many of which are good: public transportation, eating Thai food after 11pm, and in Rhonda’s first apartment we could open the windows and hear the cheer of the Cubs game even before it came through the TV screen.

Those are things we enjoyed getting used to.

But some of the things you got used to were not so good: 11% taxes on items bought in the city, paying 10$ an hour to park downtown, and, of course, having your car broken into.

Oh yes, all Chicagoans have their cars broken into.  It’s a right of passage.

My first year living in the city, I was teaching middle school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, and overnight my car was broken into, window smashed, glass everywhere.  They rifled through the floor boards, the glove compartment, and this was back in the day where tape decks were standard in cars, and so I had a portable CD player that plugged into my tape deck, remember those things?

And so, of course my CD player took flight, and for a teacher only making 12K a year, that was a rough reality.  But while they took my CD player, I found the CD laying on the passenger seat.  Which means the burglar looked at the CD player, opened it, spied my taste in music, and decided it wasn’t worth stealing…

And, to be honest, I was a little embarrassed that they thought so poorly of my taste in music.  When you’re filling out the report and the officer said, “What’s missing?” and you mention your CD player and they say, “And the CD’s” and you’re like, “No…they left those…” and the officer smirks, well…

That was the first time my car was broken into. It would happen three more times in Chicago.  Until we learned the ultimate trick, of course, to keep your car from being broken into.

What do you hold to be most valuable?

This is a question at the heart of many discussions going on in many arenas today, including the public arena of our shared governance. How do our policies and laws give voice to our common values?

What do we hold to be most valuable?  What is holy to you?

If we can get personal for a moment, judging by the way we act sometimes, you’d think we hold our mistakes and our faults and our flaws and those guilty regrets that we have in the timeline of our past to be the most valuable things in our lives.

Think on it, how we nurture the memory of our mistakes and our flaws or our various shames.  We tend them like shepherds tend their flocks, looking after their every need to be acknowledged again and again.  We invite our mistakes and our shame, often things we should feel no shame about, to lie down in the green pastures of our thoughts, there to graze peacefully at 4am.  We bring them to the cool waters of obsession, giving them life-giving sources of power to continue long past their expiration date.

We spread the table of our consciousness before them, even in the presence of those things that could probably kill them if we let it: like forgiveness that we don’t truly believe works, or forgetfulness that we secretly don’t want to take place because, well, if we forget our bad memories, what will we use to beat ourselves up with again when we get too happy?

The spiritual sickness of overblown pride is not balanced with self-hating guilt, Beloved.

The bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, Richard Rohr says that sometimes we must “forgive reality for being what it is.”  We have a hard time doing that, keeping the reality of our mistakes behind the locked doors of our hearts, never letting them escape into the wide expanse of love and forgiveness that Christ, the Good Shepherd, offers us.

Instead we nurture them, guarding them through the valley of the shadow of death when really we should just let them die, by God.

You know, one of the dangers of not forgiving ourselves is that it prevents us from truly forgiving others.  If we cannot forgive our biggest faults, how are we to forgive the faults of others?  Theologian and author Karen Armstrong provocatively posits in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life that when we fail to accept the forgiveness of God and fail to forgive ourselves, we will also fail to forgive others, compounding sin upon sin.  She writes, “If we are unable to accept our shadow (those realities about ourselves that we’d rather weren’t true), we are likely to hold a harsh view of the (more difficult) side of others.”

And I find this to be largely true.  People who are unduly hard on themselves are often unduly hard on others.

What do you hold most valuable, anyway?  What is holy to you?

I’ve told the story before of finding my grandmother’s checkbook after she died, going through it and seeing an accounting of her morals. Our checkbooks truly are moral documents. She was not perfect by any means. Let’s just say, I would not have wanted to be her pastor…she rarely had a good thing to say about any of them (except my father).  But she certainly put her pocketbook where her values were, giving to her church, her charities, her families first.

Sometimes we hold things as being the most valuable, and so we collect our things in our homes, our attics, our basements, our bellies, and yes, our cars, storing them up, secretly believing that perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says that he gives us “abundant life.”

Abundance of things.

But, as the poet Wendell Berry rightly notes, “Abundance (when it comes to the Gospel of John) cannot refer to material possessions, because life itself does not require material abundance, but rather material sufficiency…life itself, membership in the material world, is already an abundance.”

When Jesus says, “I have come to bring life abundant,” he can’t mean more stuff, he must mean more of life itself. Truly living.

And that is one of the things we see most clearly post-Easter: God believes life is the holiest thing: us. You. Me. Humanity. Health. Truly living.

This section of John has Jesus calling himself two large metaphors, both the Shepherd and the Gate through which the sheep enter the fold.  In reality, it’s just one metaphor because in the ancient herding practices of shepherds, they’d often lie down between the fence posts of the pen, literally becoming the gate for the sheep.

I have to think Jesus’ hearers understood that.

Which means that in lying there the shepherd also became the first line of defense against the thieves and animals that would be prone to steal and harm the sheep, giving himself for the life of the sheep if need be.  After all, if the lion eats the shepherd, it’ll be full and won’t eat the sheep.

I mean, look, the reality is that God in Jesus has proclaimed you and me the thing that God cares the most about. Not our right dogma; not our correct doctrine.  Not even our correct behavior, if you believe the scriptures.  Think about it: nobody on that fateful holy weekend behaved with dignity. Everyone ran away, everyone scattered like…well…like sheep without a shepherd, even as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was hung on the rod and the staff of the cross.

And in that we are invited to take some comfort, by God.

If you can’t figure out what the holiest thing is to God, look at Easter.

Because the Good Shepherd, the gate, won’t let death and sin, our mistakes or our failures, or any material thing have the final say in our life.  We hear the voice of our Shepherd call alleluia from the tomb we threw him in, and even from our tombs, and we’re invited to know that voice, hear it, and follow out through that gate into new life.

So why, Beloved, do we treat our mistakes and our failures as the holiest things around, refusing them the right to die even as they keep us in the tombs of guilt and regret, when God in Christ treats us as the holiest thing around inviting us into a new life unencumbered by those failings?  Likewise, why do we treat material things as more important than life?

Look here: God has prepared a table before you in the presence of our mistakes and failings, and even in the presence of our accumulating material possessions, those enemies that try to steal away our lives and our attention, inviting us to eat and drink from a cup the overflows with mercy and hope and abundant life.  Surely goodness and mercy follow us from this table, so leave all that other stuff behind here.

All of that, like terrible soundtracks that replay over and over about things that we feel hurt or shame or regret over, they play and it sometimes feels like they can’t go away and we’re embarrassed.  Like the voices of thieves and bandits, they come before God in our hearts and minds, calling us to pay attention to them rather than to the voice of our Good Shepherd who repeats over and over again, “I love you. You are mine. I love you. You are mine. I’ll go to hell and back for you that you might live without that soundtrack…”

I mean, if you want to talk about the practical reality of Easter, it is that these voices no longer define us in the face of a God who will go through hell and back to be with us.

We must be worth it, even with all that baggage, or else why would God go to such lengths?  So we’re invited in light of Easter to unlock that door, to unbar that gate, to roll the stone away from wherever we’re holding that stuff, and let it be stolen away by the God who, like a Good Shepherd, like a good gate, calls to us and protects us from it and gets rid of it like the thief and the foe it is to our lives.

Because to God, we are the holiest thing, and God will do anything, even die, to make sure we’re never stolen away. Life itself is already an abundance.

Hey, you know how you prevent your car from getting broken into?

You leave the doors unlocked and just let it all go.  It’s not holy, anyway.

 

Sentimentality Chokes the Truth

02362_shepherdinromania_1024x1024I have a love-hate relationship with the image of “shepherd” when referring to God and/or Jesus.

Christians, myself included, love to do it.  But I kind of hate that we do it because, well, we often do it for the wrong reasons.  We often do it out of a sentimental idea of what a shepherd is, was, or does.

I’m meditating on the shepherd image this week because this coming Sunday is both Good Shepherd Sunday (where we’ll hear John 10:1-10 as well as Psalm 23), and also the Sunday when we’ll meet and vote on a new candidate to be one of our shepherds here at GSLC.

Uhm, it would do you good to read at least John 10:1-10 before continuing, ok?  Good. Onward.

On the one hand, we love to throw this image around liberally, honoring the fact that the image of God/Jesus as shepherd is very comforting and used through at least eight books in the New Testament, not to mention a number of places in the Hebrew Scriptures.

On the other hand, we have to wrestle with the fact that in the ancient, first-century world of Judaism and early Christianity, shepherds had become part of the category of people that you couldn’t associate with and be considered “clean.”  A shepherd’s testimony wouldn’t hold water in court (and neither would a woman’s testimony). They were seen as unreliable.  And while the Hebrew writings did analogize a good king to being a good shepherd, it did so mostly as an appeal to an idyllic past that never really existed.  In short: they did it out of sentimentality, not esteem.

The shepherd, in that first century, was suspect. Scandalous.

[As a bit of an aside: It’s a wonder, then, that in the Gospel of Luke the shepherds are the first to hear of Jesus birth and “tell everyone,” even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. And, likewise, it is women who first witness the resurrection and go and tell everyone, even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. It’s almost as if Luke is telling you that the kind of scandalous people Jesus would associate with is the kind of scandalous person you should get used to both trusting and becoming!]

The idea of God, and particularly Jesus, as the Good Shepherd is, like all good metaphors, beautifully broken.  Yes, it can be comforting, but it should also be a bit scandalous.

This one you follow will keep you safe, but may not always take you places where you feel safe.

Early Christians used the 23rd Psalm as a model for the Christian life: you grazed on the green pages of the scriptures, were dunked in the cool waters of baptism, and anointed with healing oil.  You had a meal spread before you in the presence of everyone, including your enemies, and your cup ran over: obvious Eucharistic imagery for the early church. This was all catechism and discipleship imagery for the first Christians.

And, of course, you walked through the valley of the shadow of death, where the Shepherd’s rod and staff (perhaps the two pieces of wood that form a cross?), reassure you that you will be OK.

While that sounds comforting, it doesn’t sound like it’s entirely comfortable. And that’s the point.  The Christian life is not about being comfortable, it’s about going where the Shepherd leads.

In John 10:1-10 we have Jesus assuming a two-fold image, as both the shepherd and the gate through which the sheep enter the pasture.  It’s only really two-fold until you understand that the ancient, untrustworthy, unreliable-in-the-eyes-of-the-world shepherd would sleep in the gap between the fence posts at night, thereby becoming the gate not primarily to keep the sheep in (though there is that), but primarily to keep the thief out.

The shepherd as gate will even, if need be, become food for the hungry lion-thief.  The sheep are primarily safe because the shepherd will be with them, care for them, and die for them.  We miss this if we only think of Jesus as the gentle one who tenderly watches out for us.

Jesus is also the scandalous one who eats with the sinner, forgives us because we don’t know what we do, and gives of his life for us who so often listen to other siren voices.

The Good Shepherd is not about sentimentality. Sentimentality chokes the truth, the deeper truth that God/Jesus as shepherd is less about comfort and more about self-giving love.

If we see the Good Shepherd as some sort of strongman who, by their rightness of thought and correctness of doctrine, lead the sheep into the security and comfort of being the righteous ones “all the days of their lives,” we miss the bigger point.

The Good Shepherd is the one who, by their rightly-focused attention on the others, by their self-giving love and correctness of spirit, lead the sheep into those communal places where they can learn to be more like the shepherd, giving of their lives for the sake of the world, dwelling in that spirit, that “house of the Lord, forever.”

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep from the living death of “being comfortable” to the death-defying life of faith.  In the court of the world, the idea of giving of yourself for others doesn’t really hold water, at least not in the win-consume-achieve culture we’ve created for ourselves.  Sure, we sentimentalize it some with philanthropy awards, but if we’re really honest, we look after ourselves and our own first and foremost, and we kind of secretly want the good shepherd to protect that world.

And yet, that’s not where the shepherd is leading us.

The shepherd leads us to look past ourselves, across the cool-water river of baptism, into the valley of shadows.  And so we go there, following the Shepherd’s lead, knowing that, even if we end up losing our lives on this journey of giving of ourselves for the sake of others, the rod and the staff of the cross will never let death have the final say.

So, fellow flock-ers at Good Shepherd, how are we going to give of ourselves for the sake of Raleigh for the balance of 2017?  How are you, personally, going to give of yourself to ensure that we can support our orphans in Africa, call and welcome a new pastor to serve in our midst, and continue to feed the bodies and souls of those we see around us?

Church is not a place for sentimentality.  If we have too much of it, we miss the point of having a Good Shepherd at all.

See you in church.

Nothing Was Ever So Great

<Listen along by clicking here, and then you can experience the Jackson 5 in stereo sound>

Matthew 28:1-10

its-a-slideshow-about-nothing-1-638After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Nothing Was Ever So Great

I, for one, am glad that giraffe was born. Now we can all get back to life.  If it hadn’t been born, none of you would be here, we’d all still be glued to our phones. Can you imagine what the history books will say about this period?  “And then, during the months of March and April, nothing happened as everyone waited for the giraffe to be born…”

I may not be old, but I am also not-so-young anymore.  For instance, I’m old enough to remember when the show Seinfeld wasn’t in reruns.  I tuned in every Thursday night with my father and brothers to watch that show; it was our little family religion.  My mother opted not to watch, claiming the show made her (and us) dumber.

She may have been right.  After all it was a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.”

But, I would contend in Seinfeld’s defense, that nothing has its merits.

In fact, I would contend that Easter is actually “all about nothing,” a commonality that I perhaps share with my atheist friends, though for different reasons.

Here’s the thing: the great miracle about Easter is the nothingness that was found at the tomb that morning.  The emptiness. The vacuousness of it all.

If we’re quite honest with ourselves, we don’t really like this Easter story, at least not on the face of it. We don’t like it because it makes absolutely no sense.  The logical sequence that our minds enjoy operating under is thrown off with this story because, here’s how it is supposed to go.

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And there they found Jesus’ body just as it had been left there three days ago.”

We live in a world of logical sequence.  We make meaning out of everything, and point A must lead to point B.  In fact, we sing about this, you sing about this.  I know you do.  I know you do because you cannot hear the songs of St. Michael, St. Jermain, St. Jackie, St. Tito, and St. Marlon without singing it.

Oh, Beloved, it wouldn’t be an Easter sermon if we didn’t do some singing, and you know this one…because we take great joy in singing,

A B C

Easy as

1 2 3

Simple as

Do re me

A B C

1 2 3

Baby you and me girl…

This is how our lives operate: logically, in order, A leads to B leads to C.   I like to be able to count on a few things in life: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Warm coffee will cure most any bad mood. And dead people stay dead.

We lead logical lives.  Logic makes sense. Logic is wisdom.

At least, that’s what we’d like to believe.  But it’s just not true with God.  For as much as we pretend our lives are logical, this weird and strange, illogical phenomenon has entered each of our lives in one way or another, and disrupts the whole thing: love. And if the apostle is right, God is love embodied.

Love defies logic.  Love defies straight lines and the rules of physics.  And love, Beloved, is what led that tomb to lay empty that early morning.  God loves us so much, God won’t stay out of our lives, even when we try to bury God.

Love does not belong to the phylum of logic, but rather to the phylum of “alternative wisdom”…which is not like “alternative facts.”

Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that defies logic, bends the conventional, and speaks a truth deeper than A leads to B leads to C.  Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that flows from the places of our lives that have been emptied by life: the battle with cancer, the empty side of the bed after a loved one has gone, the empty syringe that used to fill with drugs but which you don’t need anymore, the cracks in a heart broken open again and again so that it is now nimble and still beating and not that rigid stone it used to be.

Alternative wisdom that comes from thinking you’re going to die, and you find yourself still breathing.  And it’s a wisdom that, hidden deep in its, promise, assures that even in death there is more to come.  If Jesus’ tomb is empty, then so is yours, Beloved.

Alternative wisdom is that wisdom that flows out of a deep truth that dares to suggest in a world addicted to violence and mind-bogglingly big bombs and terrorist attacks and school shootings that in-spite-of-it all, life cannot be stopped by death.

It is a wisdom that stumbles upon the nothingness of the empty tomb and takes great joy because if even death does not have the final say than, indeed, we have nothing to fear in life.

Jesus embodies such wisdom, and we who gather around the story week after week here at Good Shepherd long to embody it, too, and sometimes do when we’re at our best.  When we’re at our worst, well, then we just need to hear it again and again because this love has a history of turning lives around, emptying graves, and even doing that rare miracle of turning the cynical heart into a hopeful one.

The church has often messed this story up.  We’ve often passed God off as this angry loan-shark who has loaned us life and we better do something good and pay back the times we mess up because, well, it’s all on loan.  The church has often peddled the idea that our sin and God’s mercy come in equal parts.  That is: our badness is only balanced by God’s mercy.

But that’s not the story of Easter, friends.  If Easter tells us anything it is that God has infinitely more mercy than we have sin, and so when we show up at the tombs of our mistakes and our griefs like these poor disciples showing up at Jesus’ tomb probably sad and regretful that they stood by and watched him die, afraid those mistakes will define us in the end, that we’re messed up for good, that we’ll only be known by the worst parts of us, we find that God has already moved on with a love that cannot be stopped, dragging us away from that tomb along with him because he loves us too much to let us stay dead.

Let me say it another way: when you visit those tombs of your lives, the mistakes that you can’t let go of, the hurts and pains and scars others have left on you that don’t lead to wisdom but only lead to fear, Easter is here to tell you that God is in the business of dragging you away from that place, resurrecting you along with Jesus because those things won’t define you in this life.

Part of the reason we’ve lost the alternative wisdom of love is because we’re so full of the residue that comes from our insanely logical living that there’s no room left for love.  The residue that has filled our lives with cynicism and busyness and anger and hurt and resentment.

All of those things bind us, Beloved, like burial clothes, and keep us dead.

But if St. Irenaeus is correct, and “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” then Easter indeed invites us into a different way of being and living and moving in the world.  A way that gives testimony to what that pervasive peddler of alternative wisdom William Sloane Coffin says, “powerless love winning over loveless power.”

So, what story does your life give testimony to?

One of the best peddlers of alternative wisdom are children.  And I don’t mean that in any romantic or sentimentalized way.  Trust me, as a Dad, I know that children are as much pain as they are pleasant.  But if you wonder why I’m so open to having them serve up here in worship it is because they teach me, us, about God and God’s wisdom all the time.

For instance, my son Finn, who is 4, on Good Friday as he was going down for a nap said to my wife Rhonda, “Mommy, I’m going to talk to God for a bit.”  To which she said, “Ok…” and then he followed up with, “But you can’t see God because God is camouflaged.”

And indeed God is, in that moment camouflaged as a sleep 4 year old boy, spouting alternative wisdom in the face of a world that claims that the only real thing is the thing you can touch, taste, see, hear, and feel.  But in that moment he spoke to something that can’t be sensed in that way, something that can’t be held as much as it holds you; something that can’t be seen as much as you know that you are deeply and truly seen; something that can only be tasted in bread and wine; something that can only be heard with the ears of the heart.

Something that points to the nothingness of an empty tomb and says, “That is good news for you and me!  God is camouflaged in this nothingness found here!”

Good news because it means that God’s love cannot be killed, and because of that we are free to truly live.

In your bulletins you’ll find at the end a poem by Mary Oliver, it’s the last part of her poem “When Death Comes,” and today I’m going to encourage all of us to choose St. Irenaeus over the Jackson 5 and embrace an alternative wisdom that encourages to truly live in a world addicted to tombs being filled.

Today, we are Easter people, brothers and sisters addicted to the love of a God who encourages us to be married to amazement, to take the world into our arms, not visiting life like a scared tourist, but living because God in Christ lives and nothing was found in that tomb.

Because, on Easter, nothing was ever so great.

Things Are the Way They Seem

Palm-Sunday-2013

<To listen to the sermon, just click here. Have your palm branches ready!>

1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Things Are the Way They Seem

Our cry of hosanna today

Will be crucify tomorrow

God of peace.

It always goes this way with us.

We love and we hate in erratic measure.

Help us to be honest in these coming days

About ourselves

And about the lengths you will go in love

To show us a different cry in the world.

Amen.

Sometimes things are not what they seem.

I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot this past week as different people have come into my office, uneasily spying a pair of pantyhose on the floor behind my desk.

I guess a prudent pastor would have hidden them in a desk drawer or something, but I’d rather leave my dirty laundry out to dry for all to see…

It’s not what it seems, though. I’ve been carving the Paschal Candle that we’ll use at the Easter Vigil, filling the design back in with wax, and then you buff it, you smooth it out, with pantyhose.

So, a staff person who shall remain nameless brought me a discarded pair, and there it lay, on the ground in my office, like the scene of some lascivious incident when, in fact, it’s been used for a wholly holy purpose.

“Sure…” the skeptic will say (I’m looking at you Pr. Royall).  Pr. Royall, who commented that he didn’t imagine I’d wear that color…

Sometimes things are not what they seem, and I bet that’s what these people crying out to Jesus in this strange scene were hoping.  They were used to processions like this. Nobility often entered on stallions, the Emperor on a white stallion with full infantry, a parade to show power and might.

And here Jesus is, riding on an ass, with no infantry but some ragtag crowd who are a little nervous about the whole affair.

I bet these people, shouting, “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save us now!” were hoping that this guy riding an ass wouldn’t be the weakling he appeared to be.

But sometimes things are as they seem, Beloved.

And this donkey-stealing, donkey riding Jesus will turn out to be just as weak as these people fear he might be, which makes it all the easier to shout “crucify” at the man they, just days previous, had put all their chips on.

This is why I’m always confused by self-help Christianity.  Our example of God is not one who wields power, and who has everything under control, but the God who wields love as his weapon of choice and willingly gives up control because that’s what love calls out of us.

Or, as the bald and beautiful Richard Rohr says, “We Christians are such a strange religion! We worship this naked, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, but we always want to be winners, powerful, and on top ourselves . . . ”

If you think Jesus is going to make you wealthy, healthy, happy, and safe, you’re reading a different Bible.  The Jesus who never holds down a job, at least not in his 30’s, and who hangs out with prostitutes, sick people, and dead people, invites his disciples to follow him into what will certainly be his death-parade today.  Nothing safe about that.

That’s the Jesus we get.  And the fact that we continually wish we had a different type of Jesus says much more about us than it does about God.

Because, if we think that God can’t save through self-giving love, then we haven’t really believed this whole story anyway.  The fact that our shouts of “Save us!” so quickly turn to “Crucify” when the saving doesn’t happen exactly as we think it should just shows our propensity to kill off those gods in our lives that don’t deliver like we want them to, always searching for that next thing to do what the previous one didn’t: make us feel better about ourselves, make us skinnier, make us stronger, make us wealthier, make our church more successful, make our business more profitable.

Humans, we, constantly lay our chips on who we think will be the winner, and just as constantly move those chips the minute it doesn’t deliver.

But God does just the opposite.  God puts the chips on the loser, not just on this humble Jesus who makes this very political statement today by refusing to ride in on a horse, choosing instead a donkey, the symbol for stubborn peace, but Beloved, if you don’t get it now I don’t know that you ever will, God puts the chips on you, too.

You, who so easily flits between affinities, who so easily doubts, who so easily pats yourself on your back for all your religious pieties that mean nothing in a reality where you can’t buy your way into the Kingdom of God.  God puts the chips on me, who has a tendency to be full of wanderlust and dreams and eloquent words but is still sometimes afraid to speak conviction because, in my heart, I hate disappointing you.

Only a God who doesn’t choose the route of power will have the will and the gumption to place that kind of bet.  And that, Beloved, is the kind of God we get, and we all get saved because of it.

Because the only way to break the games of power and prestige in this world is to lose at that game and start playing a new one.

And that’s what God in Jesus does: God’s new game is one of self-giving love, of self-giving service, of stubborn peace.

And that’s a game no one can win at, because it’s a game of always putting the other person first.  But, that’s ok, because as this loser Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Oh, and he also said, “those who give up their lives will gain it.”  I mean, it’s almost like Jesus has been preparing us for this scene the whole time!

But we didn’t believe it.  It couldn’t be like that, right?  It couldn’t be that God will lose and that we will win because of it…but that’s the way it seems to have happened.

And sometimes things are exactly as they seem, Beloved.  Show up on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this week…you’ll see it.

Amen.

Which Parade are You In?

2012 Tournament of Roses Parade in PasadenaThere are two parades coming into the city.

This parade on the right side of town is full of pomp and prancing, white stallions, banners, and calls for peace through intimidation and (mostly) good intentions.

This parade has a rider on noble steed, demanding fealty and promising safety, security, and riches beyond compare for you and your family; for your nation and tribe.

He has the power of law behind him.  He can condemn and can save. He can compel and coerce, but he chooses not to (or so he says).

You marvel at his phalanx of soldiers, parading their weapons of choice: spears and swords, bombs and tanks, fancy words and delightful spectacle. With him, you are assured to have victory in the eyes of the world.

The other parade, from the other side of town, has no noble steed.  He makes no promises other than that those who lose their life will gain it, that there is no greater love than giving up yourself for your friend, that if you follow him you will see God’s work in the world but probably also see humanity’s most difficult side.

The other parade has no impressive phalanx of soldiers, but a motley crew of people you mostly look past. The only banners they wave are the coats on their backs. The only weapons they have can’t be held in their hands, but are their hands: open, reaching out in love and service and hope, eagerly inviting you to join hands with them in this alternative parade.

He gives no promise of security. In fact, you’re likely to be hurt in this parade.  There are no promises of success; in fact, if you listen to the one leading the assembly, you’ll learn quite quickly that failure and success aren’t even the right terms for what is happening.

He cannot save in the way you want him to, and he has no force of the law behind him (though the Law still exists). He can’t compel, he can only woo (according to C.S. Lewis). He can condemn, but he chooses not to.

With him you are assured to not care about victory in the least anymore.

Two parades come through the city. This week, and every week. These parades continually march.

Which one are you in?

See you Sunday!

See If It Doesn’t Happen: A Holy Week Challenge

holy-week-20132Greetings Church,

Holy Week is almost upon us, and I find myself being really reflective these days.  This time of the church year, and even this time of year…a time of transitions…always feels very holy and unpredictable.

Holy Week is the time in the church year where we pack a lifetime into the span of three (OK, maybe four) days. Growth, heartache, love, death, birth and re-birth, tears of all kinds…they make an entrance Holy Week.

It all begins like much of life begins: around food.  Most every gathering that has meaning in our human lives happens around food, from birthdays to funerals.  

Maundy Thursday is just like every other meal in many ways, but also becomes unlike any meal because the food we share becomes directly connected to the love we are to share.  Jesus will give us his body for our body, and then commands (where the Latinized “Maundy” comes from…do some homework, look it up) us to give our lives to and for others.

We’ll eat together and wonder what he means. We’ll wonder, “Is it I?” when he says that someone in the room will betray him.  We’ll wash, and clear the table, and end the night in an eerie silence that will invite us to keep watch.

Watch and wait.

On Good Friday we’ll gather in the leftover darkness from the night before, except now the space around us, and within us, will feel stark. Cold. Like those nights when you feel most alone. We’ll gather together for warmth and find little as we hear a story of heartache, betrayal, and death.  We’ll look at the tools of torture, the cross and angry words, and we’ll touch them, finding a connection between their use and our own use of angry words and hurtful acts of violence in the world.  

The candles will be snuffed out for good, leaving us in complete darkness except for the sound of unseen bells ringing a song of soft hope…but it feels far away. Still full from the previous night, we’ll choose to stay empty, embracing the shadows because, well…sometimes you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and we need to know how to survive on grace and hope alone in those times.

This is good practice.

And then on Saturday we’ll gather again, just as the sun is going down, and we’ll create a brand new fire from candles never held before, having left the candles extinguished from the night before where they rest.  And we’ll sing about a new light breaking, even as the sun is setting, and we’ll sit around this fire and tell stories.

Not just any stories, but salvation stories.  Stories that will make the hair on your neck rise and the goose flesh take shape on your arms.  Stories about Adam and Eve, about Mariam and Ezekiel, about Peter and this tomb that just won’t stay shut or full.

And we’ll take that fire, and move from the place of darkness into a garden of light with fresh flowers and banners and Alleluias and trumpets.  We’ll process everyone in and up to the front where we’ll find new water in a font that had been bone dry.  We’ll baptize young ones and not-so-young ones, we’ll welcome new members, and we’ll sing resurrection songs as we gather around a feast that looks an awful lot like the meal that started all of this, except the feast on this night is had in full, new, bright clothes with bright candles.

And then we’ll continue the feast with some sparkling grape juice, fresh fruit, and sparkling wine.

We will, in the span of three days, move from death to life; from meal to full cross to empty tomb.  We will cry tears of sadness and tears of joy within a few hours of each other, and we will learn about life, death, and new life while doing it.

This is the most important time of the church year, and you need to go through it all to see it all and to feel it all.

Yes, the kids will get fidgety, and trust me, I empathize there.  But it’s worth it.

Yes, you’ll be at church three nights in a row, and probably that Sunday morning too.  But it’s worth the sacrifice of time.

No, it won’t be the same sermon. No, it won’t be the same hymns. And no, the Easter Vigil is not the same as Easter Sunday services.  The Vigil is a grand feat and feast of its own, with its own surprises and fun.

And, yes, you have heard this story before…

But you need to hear it again, Beloved, because it may not have taken last time, and you need a refresher.  Because in the previous years, in many and various ways, you’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  You’ve eaten with friends and eaten alone. You’ve died, and you’ve been reborn.

And perhaps you’re still waiting for that last piece.

This story, this same story, is repeated again and again, every single year, because if there is one story in our Christian family that needs telling and retelling, it is this one.

In a world full or moralisms and rules, trite sound bites and oppressive social norms, the church chooses a bodily journey over empty words in Holy Week, and we end up really rising because of it.

And we will do it all in fine fashion.

So, come to Confession on Wednesday evening at 7pm and clear your spirit. Come to Maundy Thursday at 12:15 or 7pm to eat with your friends and wonder aloud, “Is it I, Lord?” when Jesus talks of his being betrayed.

Come and sit in silence at 12:15 or 7pm as we retell the Passion of our Lord (with a special children’s version at the 12:15 service).

And then come to the Great Vigil at 7pm on Saturday to hear salvation stories, to witness new Christians baptized and longtime Christians welcomed into our faith community.

And then, be resurrected yourself, Beloved.

See if it doesn’t happen.

See you in Chruch.