Monday, May 18, 2020

Easter VI

John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

James Bond is one.
Harry Potter is one.
Anakin Skywalker is one (sort of).
Batman is one.
Dorothy (of Oz) is one.
Frodo Baggins is one.
Almost everyone in the Marvel Universe is one.
Anne (with an e) is one, and Little Orphan Annie too.

If you guessed orphans, well done. If you guessed orphans after hearing Little Annie’s middle name, don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. Curious, isn’t it, that all these fictional characters—mostly aimed at children—are orphans. This is worth exploring, wouldn’t you say?

Whenever I have a question that relates to comic books, or comic book characters, I call my friend Ted. He knows comic books. He may be the only minister who signed up after learning that “to seek justice and resist evil” is at the heart of our call as a church, a bit of comic book hiding in plain sight.

“Ted,” I say, “I’m calling about all those orphans in the Marvel Universe.”
“Sure, he says, “it’s all about abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal.”

Now, with any trip to the mountaintop to consult with your comic book guru, there will need to be some pondering, unpacking, maybe some reframing. But before we do that, Ted also gave me a quick illustration of the opposite. Seems that in the golden age of comic books, DC introduced a character called Mister Terrific, who was, well, terrific. Athlete, scholar, self-made millionaire, Mister Terrific had it all, then turned to helping others mostly out of boredom. Needless to say, audiences didn’t respond to the character, and he was soon retired. Superheroes need to suffer on the road to becoming superheroes, so it would seem.

Before we draw a link between John 14 and some mountaintop wisdom, let's look at the choice of the word “orphans.” One of the pivotal (and often ignored) passages in scripture is found in Mark 3 (and Mat 12, Luke 8) where Jesus’ family comes knocking, and someone in the group says ‘your mother and brothers are here, looking for you.’ He looks around the room and asks ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ A pause, and then ‘you are my mother and my brothers, along with anyone who does what God intends.’

Clearly, the church has found this awkward through the ages. For most of our history, we have billed ourselves as ‘family-friendly,’ where we honour mothers and fathers, and seek to love our siblings, literal and metaphorical. But here, Jesus seems to reject his mother and brothers, making himself an orphan. In fact, he is redefining family, and adding to the concept rather than replacing it. Still, it is dramatic, stepping out of kin and clan and naming friends and fellow-travellers as his family as well.

Back to John 14, Jesus is busy explaining this new universe they have entered, a universe where family is redefined, where the Spirit is promised, and where the faithful are Jesus’ kin and clan. And he describes it like this: “If you love me, keep my commands.” It’s pretty simple, and it opens that other instruction, to love God and neighbour—the heart of the law. In other words, Jesus is saying “if you love me, keep the command to love God and love your neighbour.” Or in other, other words, ‘when you love me, you are loving God, and cannot help but do what God intends.’ That’s a lot packed into seven words.

He then promises an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who we know will arrive in just two weeks' time (Pentecost). He calls the Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” something the world cannot accept, and something that will live within us. Then the same promise, restated: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” And finally, some poetry, a new psalm that expresses the heart of the gospel:

Before long,
the world will not see me no more,
but you will see me.
Because I live,
you also will live.
On that day you will realize
that I am in my Father,
and you are in me,
and I am in you.

We cannot be orphans, since death is no more. We are alive in Christ, and he is one with God. “You in me, and I in you,” the re-formed family of God.

So what about suffering, or “abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal”? All of the characters listed a moment ago began with suffering and loss, and applied that same suffering and loss to the service of others, to prevent them from being defined by the same experience. And isn’t that just another way of saying Jesus died on the cross to save us? The way it works is a mystery, but the outcome is the same: suffering redeemed for the salvation of others. “Because I live, you also will live.”

That’s the cosmic answer, the “meta-narrative” that animates the universe of Christianity. Closer to home—today—there is another answer: our sense of abandonment (in this time of COVID-19) redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal. The higher ideal is being the body of Christ, even when we’re separated by disease and the threat of death. Jesus said “you are in me, and I am in you.” Our suffering is his suffering, and his suffering is our suffering. In any part of the body, suffering is added to the great well of suffering that God keeps—as God tends to it, and holds it in our stead. We surrender it to God, trusting that we never suffer alone, nor will we ever be orphans. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Easter V

1 Peter 2
2 Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, 3 now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.
4 You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour.
5 And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.

You don’t need to find a good metaphor—it finds you.

In part, a good metaphor lines up with our experience, confirming something we already know. If a scientist or a politician talks about “the battle against COVID-19,” it lines up with our present experience, and it speaks to our deepest hope that the virus will be “defeated” in our collective “war” against it.

A good metaphor will also test our experience, and pose questions about the nature of our relationship to the topic. In this case, my examples are the various metaphors present in our reading from 1 Peter. I’ll share a quick list—which may not catch all of them—and suggest that one or more of them will light up for you.

Pure spiritual milk
Taste that the Lord is good
Christ the living Stone
And you, like living stones
Built into a spiritual house
You are a holy priesthood
A chosen and precious cornerstone
A chosen people
A royal priesthood
A holy nation
God’s special possession
The people of God

Maybe we should step back for a minute and hear the textbook definition of metaphor. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”* In other words, seeing things we didn’t see before because we never saw them side-by-side. I’ve read this passage many times, but the metaphor of being ‘living stones built into a spiritual house’ speaks to me in this moment. We can’t meet in our regular spiritual house, but together we are the spiritual house, as living stones—each of us.

Likewise, on Mother’s Day, this passage leaps of the page:

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.

The metaphor tells us a number of things at once. All of us, even the most seasoned believer, need the pure spiritual milk that only God can give. Our continued growth depends on it, to fully understand our salvation. And we should cry out for it, and never imagine that we can somehow wean ourselves from this heavenly kindness.

The other thing this passage tells us is the importance of God the Mother, overshadowed in our metaphorical approach to God, but never diminished. Even at the beginning of creation, we find God brooding over the waters of creation, waiting to bring us to life (Gen 1.2). Then God lifts us to her cheek, and bends down to feed us (Hos 11.4). And “as a mother comforts her child,” God said, “so I will comfort you” (Isa 66.13). Time and again, we are being nurtured, sought, and sheltered, “gathered as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mat 23.37).

As I said, a good metaphor finds us. It finds us in a time of deep need, it finds us in the midst of longing, it finds us when answers seem remote or absent. One of my mother’s enduring phrases was “be careful,” something she would offer as response to most situations, but mostly as a farewell. I would tease her about it from time-to-time, wondering what hidden dangers she saw lurking in my immediate future—since it remained her blanket advice to every situation.

In many ways, her perennial advice is tailor-made for the present age, with hidden danger all around us. You might even say that in the present age, all that childhood advice has finally come into its own: wash your hands, cover your mouth, don’t stay out, and usually a question about doing something foolish just because my friends were doing something foolish. All good advice, and all rooted in the brooding, sheltering, and comforting love that we need.

Back to 1 Peter, there is another message hiding in plain sight, and that is the message of adoption. The context of 1 Peter is advice to new believers, those who have found the “wonderful light” of God. Here is his summary: “Once you were no people, but now you’re God’s people.” We are God’s “special possession,” chosen by God, chosen based on our need for God and God’s love. Anyone with the same need can be adopted into the household of God: nurtured, sought and sheltered by the Mother and Father of us all.

In a time of longing, or separation, or sadness, we turn to each other—our spiritual housemates—and minister to each other. We remind each other of the taste of God’s kindness, and embody the comfort that God gives, now and always, Amen.

*Lakoff & Johnson, p. 5

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Easter IV

John 10
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Few slogans sum up a people like “keep calm and carry on.”

If you didn’t know that the slogan originated in Britain as a wartime motivational poster, you would likely guess that it did. Ironically, of the millions of posters first printed, most were never used. And it was only in 2000 that a bookshop owner found a copy and made it public. The rest, as they say, is history.

The advice, to keep calm and carry on, is part of the genesis of what is now called “emergency risk communication.” It pairs what we know about effective communication and twins it with human psychology, all in an effort to reduce risk to the general population. It is the social science behind the message, and it all feels rather familiar.

The first thing to note about the psychology of a crisis is our inability to process complex information. We have trouble hearing, understanding, and remembering. So messages have to be simple and to the point. “Stay at home” and “wash your hands” are good examples of this approach. Next, we tend to hold on to current beliefs. Early misinformation comparing the virus to a seasonal flu meant that some had a harder time adapting to the crisis.

Going a bit deeper, we tend to seek second and third opinions in a crisis, partly because we can’t take it in, and partly because we are looking for an opinion that fits our existing beliefs. The key here is listening to experts and avoiding Fox News. The final point in emergency risk management ties all these threads together: we tend to believe the first message we receive. In other words, we need to hear an accurate message from multiple sources in a timely manner.* And it needs to be memorable too, so keep calm and carry on.

It is no accident that we turn to the psalms in a time of crisis. They constitute the spiritual side of emergency risk communication, the simple and direct messages we need when we are being tested in some way. Walter Brueggemann tells us that the psalms fed the “liturgical imagination” of Israel, allowing the people to order their lives under the “the rule, guidance, and protection of Yahweh.” So whether recited in worship, or prayed at home, the psalms voice our need for God in the midst of whatever life sends our way.**

And the twenty-third psalm, perhaps most of all, captures the mood of this moment. The Divine Shepherd will lead us to a better place, a peaceful and refreshing place. The Divine Shepherd will restore us there, and keep us in the right path. Even at the height of crisis, the Divine Shepherd will protect us and comfort us. We will be anointed and fed, and even our adversaries will see. Goodness and mercy will follow us all our days, and we will dwell in God's house forever.

Again, if we are looking for the rule, guidance, and protection of God, the Divine Shepherd is the model we need. The message is simple and consistent, the path is clear, and the protection never ends. The gift of liturgical imagination is then personified, and we meet the Good Shepherd, the Word made flesh. Jesus expands the scope of the psalm, becoming shepherd and gate, the means and the destination in one.

Part of the context of John 10 is the ongoing risk posed by false-prophets. Jesus compares them to thieves and robbers, those who do not care for the sheep but only themselves. Notice the link back to messaging: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Not so with the stranger. The stranger speaks with an alternate voice, urging us to reject the shepherd, to make our own way in the wilderness, and to neglect the needs of the rest of the flock in favour of our own needs. But Jesus calls out the stranger, exposing their lies, and points instead to the abundance that comes within the sheepfold, where our cup overflows.

As I noted in the blast on Thursday, this feels like the end of the beginning of this crisis. We are moving into the next phase, with changes coming as early as tomorrow. As expected, these changes will have little bearing on the churches, with our mature demographic and our common life based largely on gathering together. And so we wait, but we do not lose hope.

We give thanks that our church continues to be a venue for love in action, feeding the hungry in a time of need. We give thanks that God has given us the means to worship remotely, and hear the voice of the Spirit through a number of voices. And we give thanks that we can reach out to each other, and speak words of comfort.

May we shelter with the Shepherd of the Sheep, and find pasture in his presence, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Easter III

Luke 24
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

We’re seeing things we never thought we’d see.

Take the Thursday night “At Issue” panel. For avid CBC watchers, Chantal, Althea, and Andrew usually appear in the studio, around a fancy glass table. Now, we see a rec room or a loft, a rather nice exposed brick wall and what appears to be a guest bedroom in the Coyne household. I don’t watch late night television, but I understand all the hosts are showing us a glimpse of their homes too.

Of course, this glimpse of the private from public figures is heavily curated, since we are only shown what they choose to show. It’s not like a spot inspection, or a random glimpse—there is still a private life behind this (strangely intimate) public face. Some would say this is nothing new, and that the rise of social media has prepared us for this moment. Facebook and Instagram are gateways to this new world, photos and “moments” that gave us a glimpse into the private, usually augmented by some sort of filter—a form of enhanced reality or even a distortion of the truth.

The terrible and tragic events in Nova Scotia take us down a rabbit hole once more: why didn’t people see this coming? How do ordinary and seemingly upstanding people turn out to be the opposite—a monster in our midst? This is the shadow side of unseen lives. In the weeks and months that follow, our society will need to untangle the threads of this terrible event and ponder. What should we know about each other, and what should we reveal? How do we address the pattern of male violence and massive loss of life? What control can we apply to random acts? There are many other questions.

And then, of course, we add this to the pile of things we are already trying to grapple with. Isolation, grief, uncertainty—just to name three—and the abiding sense that the world has changed. It’s all too much, and so we look for solace: in each other, in the God we worship, and the scriptures that animate our life together. I say trust the Bible to reveal what we need, to give voice to our hopes and fears, and to illuminate some truth for our time.

The first thing to note about the Road to Emmaus is that the story takes us back to the first evening of the resurrection, as two members of the fellowship are leaving Jerusalem. So we have to adjust our look to recognize that this is an early moment—with confusion and uncertainty still part of the telling. Next, we should note that Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not part of the eleven that remain. We are being introduced to more of the extended circle, the extended circle that symbolizes future believers like you and me.

Mostly, though, we need to remember that this takes place under the shadow of the cross: barely 72 hours earlier. The meaning of resurrection remains unclear—while the experience of Calvary and the cross is still very real. The first thing Luke tells is ‘their faces were downcast,’ and their conversation with the anonymous stranger begins with a pain-filled question: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

I want to step back for a moment and admire Luke the storyteller. At least two things are happening in this question, so filled with heartache. First, we know the answer—we know about the things that have happened during these days. And in asking the question, Luke has made us insiders, made us part of the group. Next, we know this is Jesus (Luke just told us) and we know what kind of story this is—a story of the hidden visitor. So let’s step out of the story for a moment to meet the hidden visitor.

The first and most familiar example of the hidden visitor is the Lord’s appearance in the form of three strangers. Abram (Abraham) welcomes them, feeds them, and leans in as they ask “pray, where is your wife, Sarah?”

“There, in the tent,” he says.

“Did you know,” one of the strangers says, “that when we return next year, Sarah will have a son?”

Sarah, listening from inside the tent, laughs and says to herself, “I’m worn out, and he’s old, so how’s that gonna work?” But nothing is too hard for the Lord, as the Lord reminds them in the guise of a stranger, then departs. You could argue that this moment is the beginning of three of the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam— three religions, one covenant.

The trend of the hidden visitor continues. Jacob wrestles with God throughout the night to secure a blessing, Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the commander of the army of the Lord appears to Joshua near Jericho—in each case, God is hidden then disclosed, unknown then revealed.

At Emmaus, Jesus is revealed in two ways, and I want to look at each in turn. The first is a partial revealing, or perhap the key to revealing, as Luke describes the dialogue: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Jesus uses the words and the stories of the Bible-he-loved to help them see, to help them understand the continuing covenant of love and mercy. The Old Testament is the story of God and God’s people, and Jesus asks us to locate him and locate ourselves in its pages. This does not supersede the covenant with our sister religions: it simply helps us in our walk with God—through all the ages.

The other way Jesus is revealed is in the breaking of bread. Why bread? Well, Jesus is the Bread of Life, so it follows. But bread is also the most common of foods, often broken each day. From the humble to the grand—kitchen table to well-appointed dining room table—bread is broken. “Each time you do this, remember me,” Jesus said, seeking a place in our every day. He is our daily bread, and he seeks a place at our table. Jesus is revealed when bread is broken, whether the table is crowded or we eat alone.

In truth, we’re seeing things we never thought we’d see. I have seen more baked goods in the last six weeks (at our house and online) than I’ve ever seen before. But I also see a continuity, a desire to show the positive and the creative, to show some normality in the abnormal times we inhabit. And I see signs of people reaching out, creating symbols of solidarity and comfort in a difficult time. Hope that feels hidden is being revealed, and many are doing their best to find hope in others. At the top of this page (online) is an effort to summarize this work: “seeing Christ in others” and seeing Christ revealed is the same work, from that table at Emmaus to the table in your home.

“Were not our hearts burning within us,” they ask, “while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Our hearts burn with the desire to walk with the Risen One, to see him in psalms and prophets, and to see him in each other. May God bless us, and hold us, today and every day. Amen.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Easter II

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

To be human is to judge.

Mostly we judge ourselves, but when we set that aside we are generally expert at judging others. It is in our nature. Moments after we left the primordial ooze we started comparing ourselves to others, and along came judgment. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with comparison, because in comparison we improve ourselves, or we improve the elements of the life we share. Innovation, progress, renewed application—all these come when we imagine a better way.

On the shadow side, we judge to make ourselves feel better. Again, comparisons are inevitable, because most people want to do the right thing. When someone is being foolish, we should name it—at the same time acknowledge that we’re far from perfect ourselves.

So I see two problems: The first is that every time a news item says “do this” or “don’t do that,” we lapse into comparisons, yet we fail to remember that ‘this and that’ are constantly changing. The second problem is never knowing the full context, and making comparisons without all the information. My quick example is seeing a couple at the Dollarama wearing N95 masks. For days, we were told that these were for frontline health workers only—but there they were, amid the Easter chocolate, wearing their priceless masks. My internal reaction surprised me, but then I remembered I have no context to judge—I don’t know what struggles they face that would lead them to wear these masks. So I have to try to reserve judgment.

So what about the reading Olivia shared? The first and obvious thing to note is all the judgement implied in the passage. Where was Thomas when Jesus first appeared to the others? Something more important going on? And why does he need all that proof? Can’t he just take their word for it? They are his best friends, after all. And why does he get special treatment? Surely everyone in the group had doubts, or some unique need in the face of these events?

And then there is a whole other layer in the passage. Why were they so fearful of the religious leaders? As far as the Romans and their allies were concerned, the threat had been neutralized. And why does Jesus need to share this homily on forgiveness? What’s that about? You can bet we’ll come back to that question. Then, a week later, the doors are locked again! Jesus was both clear and generous in week one: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” If you have the gift of the Holy Spirit, and you have been commissioned by the Risen Christ to reenter the world, what on earth are you doing behind locked doors?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all these questions. But they will be here, resting online, for you to ponder all week. Since this week belongs to Thomas, we should begin there. In preaching class, they taught us to never psychologize Jesus, but the rest of the people in the story are fair game. So Thomas. He is the guy who needs that extra layer of proof, that extra bit of convincing before he can accept the truth. But we don’t know his background. We don’t know what losses he suffered, or his experience of death before this moment. How can we know? And it is for this reason we step back.

Thomas, like the rest of his companions, understood that death was final. “You are dust,” God said, “and to the dust you shall return.” Formed of dust, we are animated by the breath of God. But when that breath leaves us, we die. Thomas and the others understood that the dead were ‘gathered to their people’ (Gen 49) or ‘descend into Sheol’ (Ps 139)—somewhat vague descriptions that do not undermine the static nature of the death. Yes, there were equally vague references to the resurrection of the dead, and there were metaphorical resurrections in the Valley of Dry Bones, but these did not erase the finality of death.*

So this left three options for Thomas: either his friends were wrong, or Jesus was temporarily resuscitated like Lazarus, or resurrection was possible. Taken together, the last option seemed the least likely, since Thomas knew the first two options were very possible, and the last was just a vague hope. So we forgive him his doubt, and we applaud the fact that he immediately stopped his doubting and believed.

The other reason Thomas gets a pass in this story is the general misunderstanding that comes with resurrection. The other disciples were likely feeling all smug and judgy, when it’s obvious that they didn’t believe in resurrection either. The first clue is the locked door, but there is more to it than that. When they describe resurrection to Thomas they do so in the most prosaic way they can: “We have seen the Lord.” And what they do say only highlights their lack of understanding, a lack of understanding based on what they could have said: ‘We have been resurrected by the Lord.”

Consider: like the Valley of Dry Bones, God (in Jesus) has breathed life into them, said “receive the Holy Spirit,” and resurrected them to new life in Christ. They were no longer witnesses to the resurrection, they were resurrected themselves! St. Paul understood, having been resurrected on the Road to Damascus: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14) Paul had the benefit of high drama, but the disciples would need more convincing. Nevertheless, that day, and for all time, both the living and the dead are resurrected, alive forevermore!

And just when we’re tired out from thinking about those that need proof, and the slow to comprehend, and those who remain behind locked doors, Jesus has a word for us: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

We shelter in place, but the doors of our hearts are not locked. We struggle to understand God’s grace, but it’s still freely given. And we practice forgiveness: for the proof-seekers, the quick-to-judgers, and even ourselves. We are resurrection people, and the resurrection is our own, alive with Christ, now and always, Amen.

*Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations, p. 47.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

Matthew 28
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Unnatural but not unprecedented.

It seems quite unnatural that we are apart on Easter Sunday. Giving up church for the end of Lent—if that’s what we did—was strange enough, but missing the Queen of Sundays is hard to bear. But bear we must, remembering that we have done this before.

From September to November 1918, the Spanish Flu ravaged our city. Boards of Health across Canada took the same stringent measures we are experiencing today: churches were closed, along with schools, entertainment venues, public meetings and the like. And there was push-back. When one downtown pastor complained about the order to close, he got a rebuke from Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, who suggested that the minister needed “a truer conception of God’s relationship to man and of man’s humanity to man.”

Mostly, though, churches and fraternal organizations got on with the business of serving others. An example: at what is now Central Tech, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire set up a kitchen, sending out 675 quarts of custard, 899 quarts of broth, 147 quarts of lemonade, and 689 quarts of gruel over the course of the outbreak. If you’re tired of pasta, imagine a diet of custard, broth, lemonade and gruel.

So this is not the first time we’ve closed for an extended period. And while this may be the first Easter we have missed, we are challenged by a chorus of theologians to remember that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” All the Sundays that preceded this time, and all the Sundays that follow this time will be Easters, and we will celebrate the resurrection with the same fervour as we would if we were together today. Christ is Risen!

Today we read Matthew’s account of the empty tomb. It isn’t the shortest (Luke) but isn’t the longest either (John). Angels appear, as they do in the others, but Jesus doesn’t appear in Matthew as he does in John. The basic outline is the same: the women discover that Jesus has risen, and they become the first messengers to the resurrection. They receive the essential message (“He is risen!”) and they pass it on.

Yet Matthew gives us an additional gift, by recording part of the emotion of the day. In the midst of his telling, he shares this: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Afraid yet filled with joy. Ponder that for a moment. It’s hard to hold these two emotions at once, but this is the power of resurrection. The birth of belief is exciting but fearful. It inspires awe—not sunset awe—but fear and trembling awe, like standing on holy ground.

So let’s stay here for a moment: the resurrection is the birth of belief. First, Jesus is the touchstone of righteous living. Then, Jesus’ death on the cross defeats the power of death over our lives. But the resurrection—the empty tomb—is the beginning of belief. The meaning is not fully-formed (that will come in time) but the women who leave this moment with fear and joy were the first believers, the first to understand that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Therefore, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.38-39)

This love, manifest in Jesus, and completed at the empty tomb, means that every one of us is a messenger of the resurrection. To have belief, to embrace the fear and joy of this event, transforms us into Easter people. It defines us, it animates our fellowship, and connects us to a cloud of witnesses—from those first women down to today. He is risen!

It is bittersweet, of course, to talk about fellowship and connection in the time of COVID-19. It’s hard to feel like a community when we can’t meet. And to this bittersweet sense, I want to add another layer to our resurrection story: “the church invisible.” Remember that chorus of theologians who called every Sunday a little Easter? They also want us to think about the nature of the church in the world.

St. Augustine had a first look at the question of the ‘church invisible,’ complaining that when the Roman empire became Christian it became harder to spot the Christians. Later, Luther and others made a distinction between the church that needed reforming and the believers that wanted reform: the church invisible. Last century, Karl Barth took up the topic and said “we do not believe in the Church; but we do believe that in this congregation the work of the Holy Spirit becomes an event.”**

In other words, the ‘church visible’ is the one that is not meeting at this moment, but the ‘church invisible’ is very much alive. The Holy Spirit holds us together: united in belief, sustained by love, afraid yet filled with joy. Like the time immediately following the resurrection, we experience longing, separation, fear, and joy. We feel these emotions all at once, and we take solace in the knowledge that nothing can truly separate us—from each other—or the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

**Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in A North American Context, p. 106

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The 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!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

In my mind’s eye, the palms are waving, having shared the keyword “Hosanna!” (there, did it again). I hope you have some sort of rudimentary palm branch nearby—window blind maybe, or unravel a toilet paper roll. And thanks again to our younger members, who have been busy improvising since midweek. “Hosanna!”

One of the curious aspects of the Palm Sunday story is the ever-growing nature of the audience. Like the “one that got away,” the size of the crowd grows with each retelling. In Mark, written first, “many people” gather to greet Jesus. In Luke and Matthew we go from “a whole crowd of disciples” to a “very large crowd.” And finally, in John’s Gospel, a “great crowd” forms to welcome the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Based on the evidence presented then, we can assume it was a small crowd—not socially-isolated small—but small nonetheless. And this assumption, rather than diminish the story, makes it more dramatic. In any form of protest there is safety in numbers—and in this case there was not. These brave few took a big risk that day, something that seems to get lost in the excitement of the day.

The primary clue will come a week from now, when the disciples will lock themselves away for fear of the authorities. And this tells us that danger was present in this earlier episode, but more of an implied danger than the overt danger that followed the events of Good Friday. So, excitement and fear, in equal measure, as Jesus enters Jerusalem that day.

It’s hard to make a direct comparison to what we are collectively experiencing, but I’m going to try. These days we are trying to walk each day, usually down to the lake, through a fairly quiet residential neighbourhood. Even still, there are a few people around, with everyone trying to do the polite thing and make space. So, there is the excitement of time out of the house, and the fear which is now implied in every encounter on the street. And it’s a complex fear: fear that we’re scaring others, fear that we’re offending others when we scramble across the street, and fear—of course—that someone we meet may be ill. It’s a mix of the rational and the irrational, and it’s a way of living that I pray is short lived. But here we are.

Having shared all that, I think you can see the parallel I’m beginning to draw. Imagine the mixture of excitement and fear as Jesus does this new thing. Even his initial instructions (“If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them”) suggests confrontation. By the end of the story the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The extra character in the story is the anonymous other: the one who might demand an explanation, or the one who might bristle at this overt act of defiance. The whole city becomes a character, and the description “was in turmoil,” which actually tells us very little.

Why turmoil? Well, the answer is in the text, because soon after dismounting the animal he has been riding, Jesus heads straight for the Temple. You know the story— he’s turning over tables, he’s making an improvised whip of cords, and he’s explaining as he goes: “This house of prayer,” he says, “has become a den of robbers.” He pauses to heal some people—he always pauses to heal some people—and then the fight comes. As the words “Hosanna to the Son of David,” still surround him, the so-called religious ones protest: “Do you hear what we hear,” they ask, but Jesus has a verse. He always has a psalm in his back pocket, this time from Psalm 8:

From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise.

Again, it’s praise but it’s also protest. By blessing the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” they are also blessing his program, the program where “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7.22) In other words, the existing order is coming to an end and a new creation is dawning. Friday may be a bump on the road, but the road still leads to a new heaven and a new earth.

And change on this scale is always threatening. One of the unknowns in this current crisis is what happens next. There are questions about underfunding in healthcare and public health, but larger questions about income inequality, mounting personal debt, and the cost of housing. Do we rush back to “the way things were” or do we take time to reflect on how our current structures have made this crisis even worse?

The end of our passage is also a good place to end. “Who is this?” an anxious city asks. And answer comes back: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Remember this name, and hold a place in your heart. He comes in the name of the Lord, and his name is blessed. Hosanna (“save us”) the people say, and the wonders begin. Amen.