Friday, April 18, 2014

What's Good?

Good Friday - Lombard Community Worship Service

There is an entire “how-to” course on bullying in the story we hear tonight. Verbal abuse, physical abuse, deliberate humiliation; ringleaders egging others on to gang up on one victim. Even his best buddy is pressured into joining the bullies, denying their friendship, giving in to the power of the crowd.
It’s all there.

Some things just don’t change that much, from generation to generation, or millennium to millennium. We talk about bullies most at school, but we have bullies in offices, neighborhoods, and families now. And we have bullies in the story of our salvation.

That’s not good news.  It’s horrifying.
But Good Friday is, precisely, horrifying.
What’s “good” today is not the pain and abuse, the isolation and the betrayal.
What’s “good” about today is the reality of God in the midst of that horror.

What’s good is that today we stop and listen, so that we can truly hear and see God in this story of violence and humiliation. 
Today we listen to rejection, insult, and cruelty, we grieve for Jesus’ pain, because we live among that violence too. We keep it at arm’s length when we can, but some of us live with it in our homes, at work, at schools, and all of us live with it in the news. And so often God seems to be missing from those stories in the news, the school, the workplace, even the family in pain.

Tonight is “good” because in this story, we know that God has been the one neither you nor I would want to be, and so when we hurt, when we are lost, we know that God is there, too, and you are not alone.

Tonight is “good,” too, if we listen to this story and learn to see God in the face of the victim; in the painful stories of the news. And it’s good if that changes us, teaches us to love and admire the people in our own lives who are isolated, despised, and abused.

Tonight is “good” because God is here, one flesh with every victim of violence,
one heart with each of us who has been insulted or humiliated,
one with us as we grieve that pain, for Jesus,
and for isolated neighbors and lost children.

Tonight is “good” in the story of our salvation
not because Jesus suffered,
but because we remember that even God suffers,
and that only love can overturn that pain.
Only love can disarm the bullies,
only love can transform isolation, humiliation, and insult,
so that life can be set free.

In the end, that’s what’s good,
the painful, hopeful truth that only love can set life free,
your life, my life; 
the life of an abused child, of a lonely neighbor,
or the life of God, waiting among us, to burst free in love,
tonight at the foot of the cross, tomorrow at the tomb,
any day in resurrection.

Only love can set life free.
And it will.
So for this good and painful night: listen, hear, see,
and above all, love.

Mark the Spot

Every Good Friday, every Holy Saturday, as Jesus is placed in the tomb, and life seems suspended for a time, I read to myself this passage from Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking.

I want a mess made in the snow so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant. Forego the tent. Stand openly to the weather. Get the larger equipment out of sight. It's a distraction. But have the sexton, all dirt and indifference, remain at hand. He and the hearse driver can talk of poker or trade jokes in whispers and straight-face while the clergy tender final commendations. Those who lean on shovels and fill holes, like those who lean on custom and old prayers, are, each of them, experts in the one field.

And you should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemete. ry chapel, at the foot of the altar. None of that. Don't dodge it because of the weather. We've fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won't take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it's over. Until it is done.

On the subject of pallbearers - my darling sons, my fierce daughter, my grandsons and granddaughters, if I've any. The larger muscles should be involved. The ones we use for the real burdens. If men and their muscles are better at lifting, women and theirs are better at bearing. This is a job for which both may be needed. So work together. It will lighten the load.

Look to my beloved for the best example. She has a mighty heart, a rich internal life, and powerful medicines.

After the words are finished, lower it. Leave the ropes. Toss the gray gloves in on top. Push the dirt in and be done. Watch each other's ankles, stamp your feet in the cold, let your heads sink between your shoulders, keep looking down. That's where what is happening is happening. And when you're done, look up and leave. But not until you're done.

So, if you opt for burning, stand and watch. If you cannot watch it, perhaps you should reconsider. Stand in earshot of the sizzle and the pop. Try to get a whiff of the goings on. Warm your hands to the fire. This might be a good time for a song. Bury the ashes, cinders, and bones. The bits of the box that did not burn.
Put them in something.
Mark the spot.

Feed the hungry. It's good form. Feed them well. This business works up an appetite, like going to the seaside, walking the cliff road. After that, be sober.

Lynch, Thomas. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1997. pp 197-198.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stay Thirsty

John 4:5-42 (Exodus 17:1-7)

Anybody thirsty?
It would be a natural reaction after listening to the long, complex discussion of water in today’s gospel story, and that story about Moses having to break water out of solid rock for a bunch of cranky, thirsty refugees. So I’ll understand if you’re sipping coffee now, or slip out to grab a drink of water this morning.

After all, today even Jesus is thirsty.
So when he meets a woman with a jar, come to draw cool water out of the well in the hot, dusty sun,
Jesus starts the conversation with, “Give me a drink.” 
(I’m sure it’s very polite in the original language.)

Now this breaks all kinds of barriers and taboos – religious, moral, cultural, etc. 
So she’s shocked, and he’s still thirsty – and in the gospel, it turns out this is the perfect set up for a profound, holy theological discussion. 
(That always happens to you when you’re running errands, right?) 
It’s a conversation that reveals Jesus as the Messiah and turns an outcast woman into an evangelist.

And it’s all because they’re thirsty.
Jesus – hot and dusty – needs a cool drink of water.
She – lonely, ignored, probably victimized – needs living water, the flowing of God’s grace that fills up all the dry and painful cracks in our throats and souls, the water that never runs out.
She’s probably thirsty, too, for community. 
For love, connection, security, hope.
Have you ever been thirsty for those things?
I have.

We get hurt sometimes.  Get excluded in one way or another, become vulnerable, feel alone, get anxious….
Sometimes it’s because of a tragedy, a great loss.  Sometimes it’s the dusty grind of everyday living.  Either can make you so thirsty for love, assurance, community, or hope that you can go to the well – spiritually or physically – every day, and still be thirsty.

So if you know what that’s like, you can imagine what it’s like for this woman when the stranger at the well offers her “living water.”  Running water, bubbling up and flowing continuously – unending abundance for a woman who has probably never in her life had “enough.”

It’s not his own water he’s offering, either.  She can plainly see that he has no bucket, nor even a drop to drink.  She can see he’s not drawing on his own resources for her, he’s offering God’s.

Jesus does that all the time, and he’s always trying to teach us to do it.  And on that particular hot, dry day at the well, it works beyond imagining.
That lonely, vulnerable woman who hasn’t got friendship or regular water to spare barely even hears about that “living” water of God’s abundance and off she goes to pour out hope and wonder over her whole village of indifferent neighbors.

She herself – poor, dry, and despised – becomes a well of living water, the free-flowing evidence of God’s abundant grace.
And her neighbors do take notice.  They want what she’s got, and they invite Jesus to stay until they’re confident they’ve absorbed that living water for themselves.

It’s absolutely delightful to me, this image of bubbling water flowing through that woman, transforming her from outcast to apostle, full of grace.
But I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t all that easy for her.
Quick, maybe.  Compelling, certainly. 
But to confront all the fear and resistance she must have felt in trying to break down a lifetime of barriers with her neighbors had to be a challenge.

Last weekend, our vestry spent time discussing welcome and hospitality, here at Calvary.  And I heard several people say things I’ve said myself, more than once:
“I just don’t know if someone is new, and I’d hate to embarrass anyone.”
“Don’t people just want to be left alone to worship?”
“I went to coffee hour, but I just didn’t know who to talk to.”

That’s what happens when we think that welcoming guests and greeting regulars – or even meeting people in a new church as you visit – means you have to befriend everyone out of your own resources. Means you have to neglect your own needs to tend to others.
It’s the way many of us feel, because we’ve been taught for most of our lives to depend primarily on our own resources.  So to offer so to offer love, joy, peace, welcome, whatever, when you don’t feel like you have enough can feel like jumping off a cliff (or trying to climb that cliff with your fingernails).

It doesn’t just happen at church, either.  School, work, volunteer groups, clubs can trigger the same reactions, the same uncertainty and stress, when the time comes for changes, new people, new efforts, or anything else you don’t feel ready for.

The difference here at church – I hope – is that here we’re reminded that we don’t have to do it alone. 
It’s God’s welcome, not yours or mine, that we’re supposed to offer.  God’s friendship, God’s peace, and God’s healing – all of it God’s spring of living, flowing, water, not just your own jug that you, too, are longing to fill at this well.

That’s a darn good thing, because the truth is that many people come to a church when they’re thirsty.  Regulars come to get filled up for the work of the world.  We come as guests when we’re thirsty for healing, community, love and hope.
Thank God it’s not my bottle, or yours, that has to quench that thirst – we’d run out fast.  But as Jesus pointed out in the midst of his own thirst, God’s got a stream of living water flowing through this place, and we get to offer it to all.

Try it for yourself.
Ask someone if they could use a helping hand, even if you’re not sure you can help.
Sit down for coffee in the fellowship hall with someone you’re not sure you know, or know how to talk to.
Embrace a change at work, or at school, even if you’re worried it might embarrass or inconvenience you.
Sing with joy and gusto, even if you don’t think your voice is good.

Every one of us needs to take the plunge into the stream of living water so we are ready to welcome others into God’s abundance, here at our Calvary well, and in other thirsty places, waiting to be filled.

It all starts with being thirsty, because that’s what brings us to this well in the first place.

Stay thirsty, my friends.
It’s what leads you to living water; God’s abundance.
More than enough to share, even before you’ve drunk your fill.