Sunday, April 22, 2018

Gracious and Extravagant

Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Did you notice a theme this morning, in the Psalm and the Gospel, the prayer and the music?

Yes - it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday”. This is not an official holiday of the church, but three weeks after Easter every year, we pause to think about Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd.

It’s one of the most popular images of Jesus, from the earliest years of Christian faith through today, when the world is drenched in stained glass windows, postcards, paintings, statues, mugs and candles of Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders or a herd of sheep around his feet. It’s an identity that resonates with the 23rd psalm, probably the psalm most familiar to many Christians

Knowing Jesus as the Good Shepherd promises protection and guidance to the flock - to you and me - God’s care for our every need, a shield against darkness or fear or hunger or scarcity. And the images are beautiful and comforting, bright and tender and gentle.

But every year around this time, I find a raft of biblical commentators ready to point out to me that – for all the times our scripture compares God or Jesus to a shepherd – first century Palestinian shepherds were not generally seen as bright, gentle, happy and comforting. Quite the opposite, in fact. Depending on the commentator, you can read that shepherds were regarded merely as outsiders, as terrible dirty thieves. People you would definitely move away from (though you still shouldn’t call the cops) if they settled in at your neighborhood Starbucks.

After all, the actual work of a shepherd – like most farm work – requires some very close contact with a herd of animals who don’t bathe regularly, and probably a fair amount of cleaning up after them. Doing this day and night in the hills of Judea would, well, not make you very popular in what used to be called “polite company.”
There are certainly jobs like that in our world, too. Jobs that make lots of us wrinkle our noses, though we know how necessary they are.

One commentator on today’s readings tells of an amusement park that dressed their grounds crew – their garbage collectors and street sweepers – in formal wear. Imagine men in tuxes and women in evening dress, picking up the litter, wiping down benches, constantly cleaning away the debris of thousands of people passing through the park.

It doesn’t feel quite “right”, does it, according to the habits of our world, for a lady in a long satin skirt to be picking up the sticky napkin that didn’t quite make it into the garbage bin, or a gentleman in a tux sweeping up the popcorn that fell carelessly out of the bag?  A little embarrassing to think about, actually.

All of a sudden, I suspect, at that park the almost invisible, messy and thankless work of cleaning up after the rest of us becomes visible. Gracious, extravagant, even, by the cultural assumptions and codes that follow tuxes and evening gowns in our world.

It feels gracious, extravagant, or a little embarrassing, to have someone who appears so elegant and important taking care of the little messes we leave, just as many of us feel embarrassed by the extravagance of asking God’s help for the mundane details of our daily lives, or embarrassed to share with God the burden of our dirty laundry, literal or metaphorical, or shy of trusting God’s interest in our dreams to be as strong as God’s protection in crisis.

But that’s what those pictures of Jesus holding lambs, and the poetry of the Shepherd Psalm are all about: God’s extravagant, gracious, all-encompassing willingness to get mucky or tired or cold or stinky with us. Pursuing us with goodness and mercy when we’re careless, when we fail, or make a mess; even – at the extreme of gracious extravagance – laying down God’s life for us.

In the years since I’ve been ordained, and put this collar on, I’ve often been told by church folks and strangers alike that I have more important things to do than listen to them, staple worship booklets, or help clean up the parish hall.
Sometimes, I believe it myself.
And sometimes it’s perfectly true.
But very often, the most important thing I can do in that moment is in fact to wash a pile of dishes or wipe down tables. To listen to the story or the worry you don’t yet know how to tell. To share in the small or yucky or boring tasks because they matter; to be interested in the “small” or messy griefs and hopes and angers and joys that mean more to our spiritual lives than we often want to think they do.

So sometimes, I sweat under this collar, or get cleaning fluid or baby spit on my clergy shirt.  Sometimes, I lay down precious free time I’ll never get back.
But so do you.

Because that’s how we lay down our lives for one another, as the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. This interest in the little things, this investment in helping clean up messes and carry the burdens, isn’t just the life of a priest or a divine shepherd. The image of the Good Shepherd is a model for every Christian. 

Three times in a few sentences Jesus defines the good shepherd as the one who lays down his life – putting aside all the vestiges of divine elegance to take on the messy, mucky holiness of human life and death so that you and I get to live with cleaner hearts and spirits day by day. And then John the letter writer reminds us to follow the model Shepherd and do the same.

Very few of us, fortunately, are called upon to be crucified for the transformation of the world. But all of us are called to lay down our lives for one another; to get our formal wear messy in the actions of caring for the careless, loving the unlovable; or making a messed up world welcoming again. Exactly what we give up to do that – what we lay down –is often different from person to person, but we’re all called to risk what is nice or precious in our lives with gracious extravagance for the sake of someone else’s everyday need.

We’re called to do that, but also to receive that gift from one another: to receive each other’s service, and God’s, with the same extravagant graciousness with which God offers it. Because that extravagant, abundant grace is God’s dream and promise for us, and for every one of God’s people, following the Good Shepherd into the paradise pictured in that beautiful familiar psalm.

Following the Good Shepherd to where we are surrounded by abundance for every need, guided in all that is right, protected from evil and fear, and pursued by mercy, accepting the extravagant graciousness of God’s messy care for us, and passing that gift on to one another, until all are at home and at peace with God, now and always.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Bearing Witness

Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48

Did they know that they were fulfilling prophecy, I wonder?
When Peter and John – disciples of Jesus, leaders of the newborn Christian community in Jerusalem – went up to the Temple to pray, and come across a lame beggar, and heal him.
Peter just tells him to stand up and walk, in the name of Jesus the Messiah, of Nazareth, and he leaps up healed, just as if Jesus himself had stood there and said that to him, full of the power of God.

Peter and John and the healed man quickly attract a crowd of astonishment, and Peter has to say something. “Why are you staring at us?” he says. “Why are you acting as if we made this man walk by our own power or holiness? What you’re seeing – what you should be noticing – is the power of God, accomplished through faith in the name of Jesus.”

He goes on preaching, now that he’s got an audience. You killed Jesus, he says. We know you didn’t know what you were doing, but when you killed him, God raised him. We are witnesses. And faith in his name has given this man strength and perfect health, as you see, so repent and return to God to receive forgiveness.

Did Peter or John remember, in that moment, that this is exactly what Jesus told them would happen, when they saw him on that first uncertain and confusing night of resurrection, when everything changed as they watched the risen Jesus eat a piece of fish.
The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Jesus said then. You are witnesses.

So did Peter and John set out on this healing and preaching because they’d thought about their assignment and worked out a strategy? Or did it seem to just happen to them? Did they just find themselves in the right place at the right time, following their gut and their faith as an everyday thing?

I don’t know. Luke doesn’t tell us.
But I do know that this is supposed to happen to us, too.
To you and me, disciples of Jesus, given the Holy Spirit in baptism, and empowered in our very daily lives, through faith in Jesus’ name. Just like the disciples were commissioned as witnesses on the night of the resurrection, and empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost.

So what would you do, if you knew you were supposed to do miracles of faith? To open eyes and hearts to repentance and forgiveness in a stunning wash of awe and hope?

Would you set about it strategically, identifying the person who needs a miracle, the crowds who need your preaching, and declaring healing in the Name of Jesus with full confidence in the results?
Or would if have to happen more by accident, letting your faith lead you, step-by-step, into the right place at the right time to speak in God’s name and see miracles happen?

Think about it. Because you and I, like Peter and John, are witnesses of Jesus, empowered and charged to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in all nations, charged with healing for the world.

It’s easier for Peter and John, I sometimes think. I mean, they were THERE. They knew Jesus, personally, before he died. They saw all those miracles. They were THERE when he appeared in that room, and invited them to touch him, and ate fish, living and resurrected and changing everything. They had that experience of transformation, of living the before and after of resurrection, of being set afire with the Spirit.
That had to give them confidence in their proclamation and power, right?
I just grew up in the church, where this was all good news but old news, and we’ve gotten used to expecting dramatic, unexplainable miracles to stay inside the pages of the Bible.

And yet the church insists that we too were there. We too, you know, experience resurrection, when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. We too are subject to impossible miracles, no matter how we rationalize them. We too, are changed forever in baptism, given the gift of the Holy Spirit, conveniently conveyed these days by water instead of fire on our heads.

It might not feel the same. But while we might not feel like eyewitnesses of the resurrection, every one of us is a witness to the power and presence of God.

Last Tuesday night, in our Vestry meeting, we did an exercise which included this meditation:
Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk, details something he experienced as a boy. He was walking in the evening when he was suddenly dazzled by the beautiful song of a flock of birds. The beauty of their singing seemed to awaken senses he’d never used before. In an instant the world seemed magically transformed, and everything in it seemed to burst with what he calls a “kind of sacramental character. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me,” he wrote, “I felt inclined to kneel on the ground… and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.”

When have you experienced something like this? we were asked. Take time to re-imagine that time in your mind, re-creating the sensory experience.

We took a minute or so of silence to really put ourselves in that moment of God’s presence from our own lives. From that place of presence, different people reported feeling loved, awed, revived, peaceful, and free. And now you could feel God’s presence in the room, because we’d taken time to notice it in our lives.

We were witnesses, in those moments, to the immediate, life-giving presence of God.
Just like Peter and John and a dozen or so others, watching the newly risen Jesus eat fish, and explain scripture.

We don’t all witness the resurrection firsthand. 
But I am a witness to the all-encompassing love of God, wrapped around me by my friend in some of my darkest hours. I am a witness to the transformative compassion of God, giving life through the quiet action and open hearts of many of you in this congregation. I am a witness to the way the vividness of God’s presence in a freezing, cloudless winter sky freed my soul from the dragging anxieties of grief. 

I am a witness to much more.
And so are you.

And both of us – all of us – are “sent into the world in witness to God’s love” (as we pray for Sloane and Reed to be baptized today); charged, like Peter and John, with proclaiming resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness to all nations.

It’s a big job, but we don’t do it alone. We don’t have to plan miracles, and create them from our own power. Instead, the miracles and revelation and repentance and forgiveness that we are charged with in baptism are actually Jesus’ job. Just like Peter said. “Don’t look at me like I healed this man. God did this. I’m just the witness.”

All the proclamation, the healing, the miracles, the forgiveness and transformation you and I are charged with in baptism are God’s mission, and Jesus is doing it already.
We are witnesses. 
Because our witnessing helps Jesus use us in this mission. We help Jesus, like Peter and John, Continually putting ourselves in that place in which you know you’re experiencing the presence and power of God - doing over and over what we did in Vestry last Tuesday. By continually noticing how God’s presence brings revival, or profound peace, or magnificent awe.

Because when we are in that place, bearing witness by paying attention to the presence of God, God can pour presence and power through us to touch others, to heal, revive, love and free, and transform the world.
And we too are transformed, by bearing witness.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Charged with Resurrection

Mark 16:1-8

We shouldn’t be here this morning, you and I, dressed in our best, in a bright church full of lilies and trumpets and alleluias and joyful anticipation. Shouldn’t be like this, because if we took Mark’s story literally, Easter would be a scene of uncertainty and stunned silence, less a celebration than a step off the cliff into the unknown.

In the tentative light of early morning Mary and Mary and Salome go grieving to the place where they saw Jesus’ broken body buried, and find themselves confronted by an avalanche of miracle that tears down everything they knew:
The heavy rock the three of them could not have moved is gone.
There’s a young man sitting there – living among the dead – a stranger, who seems to know an awful lot about their business.
And Jesus is gone. His body is absent, and he himself – if the strange young man is to be believed – has gone back to Galilee. Gone back to meet his friends, RISEN, LIVING, after he died and was buried.

Amazing! Wonderful! Terrifying!

I’d hate it if this happened to me, at the grave of someone I loved and grieved; if the fragile balance of my acceptance of death were smashed, and I was left staring at my beloved friend’s grave open and empty. Even the message that I’d see them again would be at least as disturbing as it might be welcome, because you’re not supposed to see dead people, and now it all starts again, and I don’t know what to think, or hope, or do.

It’s no wonder Mary and Mary and Salome are stunned to speechlessness. 
They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

And that’s where Mark stops writing, in the silence of astonishment and dismay.

Yes, when you open your Bible, there’s an epilogue after this. Mark’s editors didn’t think much of the terror and amazement ending, and wanted to fix it for him so the readers didn’t worry. But Mark stops here.He stops where the beauty and the challenge of resurrection confront us, all at once.

Resurrection absolutely shatters the certainties of death. Not just that old chestnut about the certainty of death and taxes, but all the ways our mortality limits us and comforts us.

Mortality means we can’t do it all, that we have limits, and we can stop. The certainty of death means that our lives have some kind of closure, even if it’s not the closure we want or would have chosen; and there is in some way, at some time, an end to effort, or to waiting, or to pain, or the hard work of sustaining hope.

Resurrection means the story doesn’t actually end.
That’s good news. Really good news. But it’s shocking when you confront it truly.

Resurrection – the breaking of the power of death – makes not just Jesus, but all of us both more powerful and less certain than we were. Because now if the impossible is possible, then everything impossible is possible, and we can’t live within limits any more. We have to live more life, and more, and more, and more.

For the last month, the news and the internet have been full of the faces and voices of young people who, in shock and tragedy, have discovered that they are suddenly more powerful than they ever dreamed, even while the certainties and limits that are supposed to belong to their lives have been ripped away.

Students from Parkland, and survivors of gun violence of every kind, at far too young an age, even in the middle of grief and uncertainty, have discovered their power to live beyond the limits that belong to adolescence, and they are leading their friends and their families and their nation to more life, to seeing and upholding the holiness of life abundant, here and now, and challenging the certainties of death.

And they are not the only ones to have gone to the tomb, confronted the certainty of death, and found themselves charged with resurrection: with the unexpected power to do the impossible, to go beyond the certainty of death and carry the gospel of more life for all.

In the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, in June of 2015, a group of mothers pulled out their lawn chairs and began sitting day after day on the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue, the exact site of a recent gun murder.
In a neighborhood where every weekend was rife with the probability of shooting and death, where the world had largely accepted and ignored the death of black men and women and children for years, they sat on that dangerous corner, in bright pink t-shirts, doing the impossible. Without any weapon at all, protecting their neighborhood from violence.

In a city and a neighborhood that had become famous for the level of gun violence and death, that had become a tomb, these women, and others like them, who had buried too many loved ones, faced resurrection. They found themselves on the far side of the limits of death, more powerful than they had ever expected to be, a shield against violence and pain and evil for neighbors and strangers alike.

They aren’t alone. 
In other neighborhoods, in other cities and towns, people - maybe you - have gone to the place where you buried identity or hope or love, and found that grave open empty, and yourself confronted with the responsibility of resurrection. People have accepted God’s unexpected power to do the impossible; going beyond the certainty of death and carrying the gospel of more life for all.

At that empty tomb in Jerusalem, so many years ago and miles away, Jesus’ messenger calls not just those three women, but every friend of Jesus, all of us, to receive and accept God’s power to do the impossible.
And that can be terrifying.

Because knowing what’s impossible keeps us safe as much as it as limits us. And when we accept that resurrection means we can’t live within those limits any more, we do do the impossible. Not all by ourselves, but as God’s hands and feet and heart.

Those terrified, silent, wondering women did not transform the world by themselves. God did it with them, with their terror and their silence and their running, as much as with whatever words they eventually said, and whatever they eventually did.

So you and I are here this morning, dressed in our best, in a bright church full of lilies and trumpets and alleluias and joyful anticipation, because of all the people since those women who have accepted the shocking challenge of resurrection, and have done the impossible, not by themselves, but in the power of God.

Mark was right to leave us in suspense, in the cliffhanger shock of resurrection, not quite sure how the impossible will be accomplished.
But Mark’s editors were right, too, to add in that epilogue, to assure us that the impossible did in fact happen: that the disciples knew the risen Jesus face to face, and that in the power of resurrection they could lay their hands on deadly things – serpents, murderous intersections, political third rails – and heal the poisons and bring forth life.

And so it is right to be here this morning, with fanfare and finery and flowers and Easter chocolate, because with those things we assure the world that uncertainty and upset and even silent awe can indeed bring joy and grace. 
And we assure ourselves that we stand on the far side of death already, here and now, free to do the impossible, not by ourselves, but by God, until life and joy and healing pour forth from every grave in this world as we proclaim:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!