I have been involved in many conversations of deep hurt the last week. I have felt overwhelmed.
I have been in many conversations about ministries (church and non-church) experiencing formlessness and void, crisis about the future. I have felt overwhelmed.
The world is experiencing much violence and fear from every side. I have felt overwhelmed.
Today, in the dark sanctuary of my congregation, light was shining through the stained glass windows and they are wonderfully designed such that the window for “I am the Resurrection” is 10x brighter than any other window. Dazzlingly bright. (I cannot do it justice here but I have tried with a couple of phone pictures.)
The window spoke to me. Is speaking to me.
Do not fear.
I have come to give you life.
You are not alone.
You are my beloved.
I am the Resurrection.
Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
June 29th, 2014
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
After this reading, do we say: thanks be to God?
Don’t mind me while I tear this text right out of my Bible (sound of tearing paper). Haven’t you wanted to do that before? Not just this text but lots of texts, haven’t you wanted to rip them right out and never read them again? The Bible is not a comfortable book to read. And don’t worry that was just last week’s bulletin I ripped so we’re okay.
One of the things that really scares me is that someone might preach this text nonchalantly. You know that somewhere out there at this very moment this text is being preached straight up and literally while being unassaulted by the horror of it all – as if God tests us this way, and that isn’t something we should question. That scares me. I don’t know what we do with texts like these that paint a less than stellar picture of God. A horrible picture of God. And us.
I do think that I am amazed this story, and those like it, are still in the Bible. I mean think about it, they have to be able to fix this one. The editing room floor is a good place to start. This story was passed on for centuries in oral tradition and written in scrapes and fragments and pieced together and translated and re-translated. Surely in all that re-scribing of the text we have had ample opportunity to smooth out the edges. As much as I dislike this text I have to say I am amazed by the forerunners in faith who continued to keep stories like these in the Bible, after which we do say: this is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. There has been plenty of time to alter scripture to be more palatable, more marketable, a better story to get people on board.
Several years back – probably about 6 years now – I was watching a Chicago Bears game. I am a Chicago sports fan and no matter where I live I always will be. I’m a diehard fan of the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears. So I was watching a game and Nate Vasher – who was a cornerback for the Bears and one of my favorite players at the time – intercepted a pass. I’m sure we were losing at the time; we have done that a lot. And he intercepted the pass and we all got excited and then he fumbled and lost the ball back to the other team and in my frustration I pounded my fist against the ground. What I would come to learn soon was in that moment I fractured my wrist. Now two things about such injuries when you are a preacher… first, shaking the hands of everyone after worship with a fractured wrist is really painful. It is particularly so when you have a lot of ex-Navy folk who want to make sure to give you a good firm handshake. Secondly, when you get that wristed casted you get asked A LOT what happened. And I would tell people – because I have this honest streak – that I was in this alleyway and saw a little old grandmother being mugged and I stepped in…. ok, I would tell them what really happened and – now I’m sure you’ve done this and so have I –they’d respond, “really???” And I’d want to say, “No, I just made that up because it makes me look so good.”
It occurred to me back then that I should make up a better story because people would like it better, and so would I. And I remember that every time I read a scripture story that is hard to understand, or particularly one that is violent and oppressive like this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. I think of that because I realize that they could have written a better story, if this was just about what they had wanted to write. There is something deeply faithful about the sacredness with which we have held to stories of God and God’s people and in which we have been unwilling to make God or ourselves look better in the telling. As we go through Genesis this summer you will notice that the first families of faith aren’t really reputable people. Abraham’s winning and faithful characteristic is that he says yes to everything and questions nothing. In other times and places this would have made him complicit with evil (and one can and should argue that here in this particular story). Abraham, the yes-sir / yes-ma’am, is considered a hero of faith because he is on the side of God and we presume the side of God is good. Jacob lies, steals and cheats his way into the story – and does those to his own family. But we will tell his stories as our stories of faith and it is from his lineage that we get Israel and our own forerunners in faith. These aren’t lifetime movies or hallmark specials. The Bible is not a family friendly book. Do you remember last year when the History channel did the Bible miniseries? One of the early critiques I saw was that it wasn’t fit for children to watch. I remember thinking, “well duh!!” The bible has rape, murder, genocide, anger and petty jealous – this from God’s side of the story. One should not engage scripture unless you are ready to get real. Surely we are clever enough that we could have come up with a better story. But somewhere in these texts we have sensed a holy wrestling with God. Somewhere in these texts there is an unfolding story of who we are in relationship to God and who God is to us. And if we have learned nothing from these texts we ought to learn to cut ourselves a break when we get it wrong. Because the people have always gotten it wrong.
I ask one more thing of you Abraham, who I have drug all over the ancient near east. Who I have kept waiting for my promises to come true, who I have watched have his family split in two at odds with each other, who has done everything I have asked. Now I ask you to take this child, whom you love and you longed for, this child who you went through so much for, take this child and kill him as an offering to me.
I want nothing to do with that God.
I will not stand up here and tell you to believe in that kind of God. I will not stand up here and play mental gymnastics to explain how this story is okay, because it’s not. What I will do is ask a hard question of us: Is there good news in this kind of story? Is there any redeeming quality to this story?
After seminary and before I pastored my first church I felt a calling – an Abrahamic kind of journey calling – to spend an extra year as a hospital chaplain doing a chaplain residency in downtown Atlanta in a program that could have you working as many as 100 hours a week when you were the weekend chaplain. 1,000 bed hospital with 2 level one trauma centers and a children’s hospital across the street as the only chaplain on overnight shifts. It was a hard year – an emotionally difficult year. There were nights where all you did was death. I recall one weekend shift that from start to finish I walked with nine different families through the death of a loved one. Nine deaths without sleep… when you do that you begin to feel more than a little ashy.
In the midst of that journey you are doing residency work to look at yourself and your interpersonal baggage and how you work with your 6 colleagues and their baggage and that is draining as well. And in the midst of that my wife and I were in year three of trying to have our first child. Now it’s hard to feel the sting of that now because… well now we have four kids. But at that time we were doing the 28 day rollercoaster of did it happen, did it happen, no it did not. And we were in year three of this rollercoaster and like so many who have fertility challenges we had to watch other people be excited about new kids and then news stories about people who had so many kids they didn’t want and on and on and in the midst of that you wonder, “why on God’s green earth can we not have a child?” This journeying took us to doctors and eventually me to what became radically successful reproductive surgery. But I wasn’t there yet…
All three of these streams came together in Holy Week – itself an emotional time. And I remember being in the conference room with the other resident chaplains and our supervisor and we are talking about stuff and it all just broke inside me.
I started sobbing. I was experience the very real death of God for me. And I was experiencing the dilemma of what it means to be the spiritual care for people when God was dead to me. What, and how, can you mediate death with people when you yourself are feeling that God is dead? How can you provide spiritual care when you have no spirit and feel dried up inside?
And all this comes pouring out and these wonderful people who I work with who were friends and comrades in a hard journey began to utter – sorry I can’t sugar coat it – all kinds of crap. Theological platitudes. Nice sounding hallmark cards. How it was going to be okay, how it would all work out according to God’s plan… all the stuff we had been trained to never say, because there is nothing you can say in that kind of moment. And as my colleagues – who I love to this day because we went through a kind of formative hell together – because my colleagues were saying all this I was now feeling worse… its like heaping up ash on someone who is already burned up inside. And then they left…
And I said to my supervisor who was still there – and I’ll never forget this part – “Robin, they’re so unhelpful. And I’m learning how to be a better chaplain right now. And I don’t want to learn from this. I don’t want to learn like this…”
And she didn’t say a word.
I could imagine. (If I’m doing any theological gymnastics I’m warning you it’s about to happen.) I could imagine a well-meaning writer trying to get someone into the angst of that moment saying I was being tested by God.
I could imagine, because I heard and watched and participated in my colleagues who are good and faithful and caring people heap all kinds of theology onto the hell I was living on my Mt. Moriah moment, so I could imagine afterwards saying something like this is the word of the Lord… thanks be to God… and attributing all kinds of motives and causes and results from this story. I could imagine trying to tell it faithfully and mucking it all up. Because there isn’t a good way to tell those kind of stories. It is so easy to try to domesticate those kinds of stories. But we all have these kinds of stories. That’s my point here.. the point is not my story. But our stories. Because if we learn nothing from Abraham we have learned that on the 10th time and the 11th time, and I’m sure on the 12th time when it seems like we have it all together (finally) something else happens that we find ourselves tested and tried and strung out as we stumble into a Mt. Moriah hellish kind of moment. And I look back on it – on my version – and I ask, “Did God put me (do that to me) there to learn something?” And the answer, I believe, is no and the answer is yes.
Because God IS a god who unsettles us, God is a god who tries to break us out of unhealthy patterns and idolatrous myths and practices and God puts us in places to try to understand the deep resources of life in a world that has a lot of death, a lot of hurt, and a lot of harm. And sometimes that feels cruel… is cruel. And sometimes we aren’t really sure how much God is involved in all of that but we do know – on some visceral level – that God is in it all somewhere. And in this midst of that hard challenging news… I also think there is a thread of good news to this story.
The thread of good news is that when we end up in those moments – God is right there with us. You hear that in the end… and then Abraham saw a ram. The Hebrew words for saw and provide have the same root. God/Abraham saw a ram, and God has provided it. God provides a way of life. “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
We will end up in Mt. Moriah moments. We will end up in hellish places that it feels to us that God has led us to dead ends. We will end up in moments where we aren’t sure if God is worthy of our belief, and we will end up in moments where our life or the life of one that means more to us than our life is at risk, and in those moments you cannot get rid of the existential angst, the anguish, and the feeling of death. But you can hear a word that you are not alone. That God is with you working in that hell to provide a way out… a way to life.
On the mountain of the Lord, in the midst of hell, in the challenge that will come in each and every one of our lives – the Lord will provide. Amen.
–Charge and Benediction (call it addendum 1)
The Supervisor of my chaplaincy, her name was Robin, is a beautiful soul. And she would always say we have to live in the tension. Life pulls us into difficult places; we get caught between different truths, between challenge and adversity, a rock and hard place. And as chaplains, as Christians, we are called to live in the tension of those moments. We are not called to resolves the tension but in the midst of that tension to be a presence of love and care. I cannot resolve Abraham’s story. I am not called to. But we are called to enter these stories free of our go-to theological platitudes and full of love to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and the world that even in the midst of hell God is with us and that you are – we all are – the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and ever will be. So go into the world with whatever peace you can muster. Amen.
“Restless for Peace” (an approximation of the sermon preached at First Pres, Boise, ID on the third Sunday of Easter)
16And to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave the territory from Gilead as far as the Wadi Arnon, with the middle of the wadi as a boundary, and up to the Jabbok, the wadi being boundary of the Ammonites; 17the Arabah also, with the Jordan and its banks, from Chinnereth down to the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, with the lower slopes of Pisgah on the east.
18At that time, I charged you as follows: “Although the Lord your God has given you this land to occupy, all your troops shall cross over armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin.19Only your wives, your children, and your livestock—I know that you have much livestock—shall stay behind in the towns that I have given to you. 20When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you.”
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Today’s text continues us on a theme – how do we know Jesus? How will we recognize the risen Christ?
We asked that on Easter because no-one seems to know Jesus when they see him after his resurrection. Here in this text today we get some explanation given: their eyes were kept from recognizing him. What does that mean?
It probably easiest and most comfortable to presume that God kept them from knowing they were talking to Jesus. That is the conspiracy theorist way of explaining it – that God is play a game with us – whatever the endgame of that game would be I cannot guess. I think it’s far more on target to imagine that what keeps them from recognizing Jesus was themselves. I’m reminded of early in Jesus’ ministry when he arrived in his home town. Where he grew up, where he was a snot nosed child, where his baseball crashed through someone’s window. Where he ran wildly, and dug up worms in the bushes, and tried to find his moral compass. Where his neighbors heard his mom complain about how he ditched out on his family that time in Jerusalem like some juvenile delinquent. Because – you know, the Temple is exactly where all the pre-teen runaways go when they ditch out on their parents.
When he came to his home town they couldn’t imagine that Jesus would be wise, they couldn’t imagine that he was a learned and insightful teacher – this son of a carpenter – and the last thing they could imagine was he would be a miracle worker and healer, a prophet of the Most High and so the text tells us he was able to do no works of power there because they couldn’t imagine it. Our imagination is able to limit what is possible – we can keep the awesome power of God at bay with our fear, and doubt and skepticism.
So what do we think is the more plausible scenario : that God doesn’t want them to know Christ until the rabbit is pulled out from the hat at the dinner table or that their own fear and skepticism – like Jesus neighbors in his home town – causes them to close their eyes to the miraculous presence of God at work in their lives. The story isn’t about God’s artistic timing, but God’s desire to make us aware of God’s transformative presence in our lives. Like we said last week we can imagine that nothing is miraculous in the world or that everything is. These disciples are coming from a place of just such skepticism; just listen to their account of the women’s experience of the risen Jesus. There is no sense that they believe the women’s account to be authoritative. “They claim to have had some encounter with angels or something… yah – you heard me right… angels. Sure.”
It is not surprise they do not know that they are talking to Jesus.
And I’m not trying to beat them up. Because it’s no surprise that we don’t know we are talking to Jesus either. We live with clouded imaginations; we live as skeptics at best and cynics at worst. We cannot imagine God is actually walking with us on the road. We limit what is possible – we limit even God’s imagination and work in the world through our close minded and hard heartedness.
So what do you think? How do you imagine Jesus at work in the world – because oh my! Jesus is at work.
This is the phrase that jumps out at me in this text today – this is the phrase I cannot get rid of, “And he vanished.” What is up with that? This was just getting good and then Jesus is gone! Why couldn’t Jesus stay a little longer, have a couple of drinks at the table and talk about what it’s like to die… to rise. What is the plan now? What comes next? So many things to sip wine and discuss at length… except Jesus is gone, in that moment of recognition he is gone, vanished, right before our now open eyes.
Several things about this vanishing intrigue me and play at my own imagination.
First it doesn’t bother the disciples at all. These two who were journeying to Emmaus, who wanted to pause and have a leisurely evening meal and rest before continuing on their way. They aren’t bothered by Jesus disappearance. There is no talk about the inconvenience or even weighting what to do next. They immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem. In the story Jesus was walking as if to continue on and then they wanted to stop. Now that Jesus is gone, presumably to wherever he was headed when they asked him to stop, now that he is gone they turn around and go immediately back to their community in Jerusalem to tell them the news.
This gets me to two more observations.
Jesus presence is catalytic. Jesus causes things to happen. Jesus causes them to turn around and turn around immediately. Jesus transforms what you see and the Jesus type of transformation requires action – immediate action. They don’t sit around and talk about it.
Jesus catalytic presence wants to be shared. Where do they go? On their way? No – back to their community, their neighbors, and their friends- to share what they have learned. Jesus catalytic transformation is also contagious and it requires being spread and shared.
And then one last observation. The moment Jesus gives us that catalytic spark – Jesus is gone. Because Jesus has things to do. When these two disciples get back to Jerusalem did you notice what has happened? That community is already ablaze because Jesus has appeared to Simon – presumably at the same time Jesus is appearing to them or maybe that’s where Scotty beamed him up and sent him to after he vanished from the two on the Emmaus road. But that community is ablaze with this fire. Some other day we can talk about why they believed Simon but not the women but for today it’s enough to note that Jesus is lighting sparks all over the place. He appeared t the women, he appeared to these two, and to Simon, and who knows who else we don’t know.
I think the Gospel writers language of vanished, and the seeming teleporting Jesus is not about Jesus having some magic resurrection powers but it’s to remind us that Jesus is at work – God is at work everywhere whether we are able to see it or not, whether we can imagine it or not. The on-the-move-Jesus is passionately driven to spark life.
Movie convention would have us believe that when we die we write on our tombs, “Rest In Peace.” But the Risen Christ’s tomb has very different words on it – Jesus is restless for peace. Not his peace, he has nothing but peace. But he is passionately driven by a desire to share that peace with the world. Jesus is, and will be restless, until the world knows the peace he has. The Risen Christ – it would seem to me – has every reason to be able to rest on his laurels, that he has done what he needed to do and now he can rest. Instead he is appearing all over opening minds and imaginations and giving peace and he’s a catalyst for transformation in the world… off to light that spark somewhere else leaving the work of spark sharing in our more than capable hands.
I’m reminded of the passage we started with in Deuteronomy. Because in my head it is possible to imagine that an “it is finished” minded Jesus could consider his work done on the cross. That Jesus dying sinless for the world had done his job. That in resurrection and conquering sin and death the victorious Christ could proclaim his mission fulfilled and his victory won. But none of this is what happens. There is nothing in the behavior of Jesus that he has completed anything. So I’m reminded of Moses talking to the tribes of Israel as he leads them to promised land, to what will becomes their ancestral home and having procured some initial promise and apportioning that lot to one and half of the tribes he tells them however that their job isn’t done. You cannot rest in this land… none of you can rest until everyone has land. You are responsible for making sure all of your brothers and sisters have land, have inheritance… have peace and place.
You may not rest just because you have what is coming to you – you may not rest until everyone in the community is cared for. God is a communal God, not my God or your God – God is our God. I believe that Jesus in that Luke 9 passage picks up this thread. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. I’m restless for everyone to have a place to lay their head, I have a mission to bring good news to all people – healing and teaching; transforming and opening – until all people can know peace, and until all people can have somewhere to lay their head than I will have nowhere to lay mine.
It was true of Jesus then, and it is true now. Jesus doesn’t rest on his laurels: he doesn’t say, ‘I’ve done my job and I’m going to sit on my throne now. When you have done your work, you will have earned the right to join me in rest.’ That is not what Jesus says. What Jesus says in his actions is, “I’m restless to share peace with all people. Life is stronger and death And my life is lived with great imagination that we can indeed secure life for all people and place for all people and peace for all people, I imagine / God with us imagine that all people can have a place to lay their head in peace and wholeness. And I will go wherever I need to go – even hell itself – to spark that fire in my people.
Jesus is risen, he is on the move, and it is good!
How are you catalytic for Christ?
How are you on the move on behalf of your neighbors in Christ?
How are you restless for peace?
Text: John 20:1-18
Note: this was a write up of a practice version of the sermon, somewhat different words but the same word.
Last week we were gathered here for Palm Sunday – triumphant procession – cheering for the one who came in the name of the Lord, cheering for the coronation of Messiah, Lord, and King. Surely this was the moment he would take his throne, boot Rome to the curb, and take Israel to heights previously unknown on the world stage. Only… they did not know what it meant to be Messiah in the way of Jesus Christ. How often we do not know what it means to be people of the way of Jesus Christ? We too celebrate triumph at times when we do not know what we are doing.
The week progressed and the unexpected kept happening, Jesus didn’t cater to the people of power, he didn’t play the military game to secure a kingdom but instead he befriended – at the expense of those people – the poor, the outcast, the widow. These are not what strong kingdoms are made of, what is he doing? Never mind he was simply doing what he’d been doing all along. There was nothing new… why did we expect something different than the same ol’ Jesus who from the beginning had announced that he came that the lame should walk, the blind shall see, and the poor shall have good news preached to them. This Jesus, this messiah, doesn’t play politics in earthly kingdoms… he is playing a different game and no coronation celebration was going to change to that.
And the week continues and Jesus speaks of uprooting establishment, tearing down a temple, a dying messiah. Jesus overturns far more than the money tables but all our expectations – and they should have seen it coming, for God’s sake we should have seen it coming… but we didn’t, and we don’t. And Jesus scattered us once again out from our safety like recklessly sown seed on the highways and byways of Jerusalem and beyond.
And even his disciples don’t know why this happening, even the disciples are confused. So plans are made about betrayal. And the signs are shown of denial. On Thursday when Jesus commands us to love one another and serve one another in love, Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. He thinks the Lord shouldn’t be a servant – he just doesn’t understand, Jesus is who Jesus is, in birth, in live, pre-death, death… and after death. Jesus has – in fact – come to serve. And then Peter, once he thinks getting his feet washed gets him some kind of secured place in Christ’s kingdom, wants to have all of him washed… because Peter still doesn’t understand that following Christ isn’t about being made clean for the kingdom but about participating in the very dirty kingdom work of bathing the world in love.
The kingdom work is about coming to those who are damaged goods and naming that we too are damaged goods and then together participating in the life of the messiah who becomes damaged goods but made those broken places, those scarred memories, and those shattered dreams sacred. Bathing the wounds in gracious love – making us all, damaged goods that we are, infused with the Holy and whole in the Spirit.
This is my body – broken for you… (no, not you Lord!) This is my blood poured out for you.
This act wasn’t meant to be some spiritualized ritual of pretending at brokenness because the very next day after he said it we gathered again and we witnessed – maybe not through our eyes but through trusted eyes – as Jesus marched again the streets of Jerusalem, not in triumph this time but as a mocked and failed savior at the hands of an uncaring empire and control-minded religious structures – and he was killed. Broken, shattered, and poured out. And the disciples watched from afar because they did not know what they were watching and they did not know what to make of it…. So they watched from afar and then they scattered and hid.
This has been our week, and then we wake up – as early as is our want (or maybe in some cases way early than we’d want) – and when we wake up, we proclaim that He is risen. We email it, facebook it, tweet it, shout it, cheer it, hallmark it, liturgically proclaim and sing it, trumpet and play it on any and all instrument we can find. He is risen indeed… …but do we believe it? Do we understand it? What, if anything, is different because of it?
Are our Easter proclamations any more informed than the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday when the crowds thought they were proclaiming the victory of their king? Does our cries of ‘He is Risen’ have any more substance behind it than the crowds proclamation that ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – Hosanna! Hosanna!?!?!’
We say that there is an empty tomb, like that is good news. But it wasn’t for the disciples. It was just what it always was – another act to be questioned. Another thing that wasn’t supposed to be. They don’t see an empty tomb and think resurrection – they think grave robbers. The empty tomb is not demonstrative of death having no sting… its demonstrative of their empty hearts and dreams. It is a further descent, not the beginning of ascendant hope. And perhaps all good news starts this way – its starts before we even know it – or know what we are seeing and participating in.
And so we find Mary lamenting, ‘Where is the body, that I may pay it the proper respect and bury him as he is due. Please not more mockery, not more shame, just let me do this one thing as it should be.’ And Mary turns and encounters Jesus but she doesn’t recognize him (would we?, we might presumptuously assume so, but we wouldn’t have) so she thinks he’s a gardener. And he is, he is THE Gardner. He is the planter and nurturer of seeds, he prunes and waters, he weeds and braces, he is the THE Gardner of all life but she she thinks he is just “a” gardener. “Just tell me where his body has been taken.” And he looks at her and calls her by name, “Mary” and that’s all it took, he names her, and she knows him – Teacher.
But when she goes to tell the disciples they don’t believe her of course… they will have to encounter him for themselves and when they do – you know what happens? They do what they have always done – they get scared, they don’t understand and they lock themselves back into the upper room. He is Risen – but what in the world does that mean?
Jesus will say to them – my peace I give to you – Jesus will tell them not to be afraid –Jesus will tell them to go into the world to preach and act on the receiving and giving of peace. Jesus will tell them to feed and tend the sheep, Jesus will tell them to teach and baptism to bless and build up… that is to say Jesus will tell them that what resurrection means is exactly what he has always meant. Jesus is what he always was… nothing has changed… and yet everything has changed. Jesus laid it all on the line in the greatest demonstration of practicing what he preached – but what he preaches it doesn’t change, its just more of what it always was.
C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia contrasts old Narnia with new Narnia by likening it to the difference between seeing something in a mirror and then beholding the real thing. They are the same – but the second is more the same than the first image ever was, the same… and yet more so. This is like the experience of the risen Christ.
Jesus is the same Jesus and yet more Jesus than ever before. Jesus came to reveal to us the nature and character of God. God loves the world so much that God would engage death – so much that God would die, on our behalf. And we know now, empty tomb and all / Risen Christ encountered, that life cannot be contained by death, God who is love – God who is life, cannot be held in death. That the tomb and the stone, and no number of stones, could hold God down. Death cannot hold sway over life. God the gardener has planted seeds and those seeds will sprout – will burst up, will grow and flourish and proclaim life and life abundant. Because they cannot – will not – be held down. And so Jesus went to all the places where life was least likely… as Jew he went to Samaria, he sent his followers to Gentiles, he touched lepers, he healed women who were unnamable and allowed the most impure of people to touch and clean him. Because God is not about pushing down, adding guilt, causing shame, or walling off and claiming in and casting out. God is about life. We play a justice game, a world of retribution and punishment. And we get caught up in unending cycles of violence and hurt. You hurt me so I’ll hurt you. You did wrong so I’ll punish you … And to that whole game Jesus says – do that to me and then I’ll let it go, I will show that we can just stop the cycle… and promote life. Eye for an eye is killing us – literally. And I am the God of life, not death….
So for those who denied him – Jesus loved them and entrusted them again with the kingdom. Those who killed him – Jesus offered peace. To those who take him for granted Jesus returns them nothing but love. Its about redemption not retribution.
The Easter story is the same story that Jesus has preached at every turn. That God wants life to win over death. That God is gardener of all life and wishes all life to prosper – all people – all animals – and manner of life… to prosper and grow.
I got the song “He’ll be coming around the mountain when he comes” stuck in my head with regards to this sermon almost a month ago. I found out that the song really is about Jesus. It was sung about Jesus and the second coming… or more exactly about the chariot he’ll be riding. And its about how will we know him, how will we recognize him. And it’s a great question because no-one, not one person, not Mary or the twelve, or the those on the Emmaus road or Paul on the Damascas road… no one recognizes Jesus when he comes. So how will we?
And it may just be that the answer is easier than we imagine – because Jesus is who he has always been. A gardener bringing life from death. A lover who makes wounds sacred and gives peace in exchange for hate, and redemption in exchange for violence, love in exchange for fear, service in exchange for jealously, and life in exchange for death.
How will we know him? Because we will find him sewing life in places of death. He will in the back alley, at an AA meeting, in the women’s shelter, or the morgue. We will find him on the battle field – not with a gun in hand – but with the children of yet another generation slain in the name of retribution and hate. We will find him among those enslaved in sex trades around the world and in our neighbor’s basement. We will find him in the line for a bowl of soul, or incarcerated, or hanging out on Sunday morning with hipster “nones” who want nothing to do with church. How will we know him? It won’t because he’ll be sitting in a pew next to you. He won’t look our part – he will look least like what we expect but exactly like he always has. We will know him because he will be the one creating peace and mercy in the harshest and driest landscapes of our world. We will know him by his love.
He is Risen, are we? He does not rise for his sake but for ours. We need not ask who he is, but who we are in response. Will we be people of retribution, exclusion, and hate? Or will we too play the gardener. Go to places that reek of death, get our hands dirty and through your damaged selves bleeding into the world and sew love and life. Nurture redemption and healing. And live and love in such a way that we all might rise with the one who is risen.
Christ IS risen, he is risen inDEED.
Thanks be to God.