Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Perhaps you know this experience: Somewhere, someone says something to you, and a vast verbal chasm opens up, and for the life of you, you cannot respond. Words flee, and you are, as the Spanish say, mudo.

Lacking a good comeback, you go home, home being the place where all good comebacks come to life. Yes, you, like everyone else, find the best possible response at the moment when it is the most useless. Delayed Response Syndrome, or DRS is a serious condition that most suffer with some regularity. There is no cure.

Related to DRS, in the same family of phenomena, is that last bit of advice you wish you had remembered to give. The car pulls away and you think to yourself “Ah, why didn’t I tell then about the speed trap in Church Street, or why didn’t I tell them that all the road work in the city is happening in front of Terry’s house.”

How could you forget to tell them? Don’t worry, they will find out soon enough when they get a ticket no more than a block from the hospital and the officer says “didn’t you see the posted limit is 30 along here?” And I was tempted to say “but officer, I did’t think my car did as little as 30.” I don’t want to talk about it.

So the sister to Delayed Response Syndrome is You Didn’t Say Syndrome [YDSS]. It is also common, and also found in today’s lesson. It seems that even Jesus has moments of YDSS, and I think I can show you.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

He shares a greeting, he breathes on them and pronounces the “little Pentecost” gift of the Holy Spirit, and then says the thing he wished he had said as the car pulled from the driveway. How do I know this? Because a greeting and a blessing would be more than enough for these frightened disciples, a greeting and a blessing more than they could possible take in at this moment.

But there was more to be said. Jesus has this one chance to underline something, to teach the one thing that will go down in scripture as the thing he said when he reappeared, the thing he said when the greeting and the blessing were through, the thing he said because it just needed to be said. And what did he say?

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Lord’s Prayer
The Prodigal Son
The Unforgiving Servant
Forgiving seven times seventy

Jesus practiced and taught forgiveness throughout his earthly ministry, he wove forgiveness into parable and story, and he even spoke forgiveness from the cross, saying “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” And yet, and yet, he took the very moment to say the thing he wished he had said, to say the thing he said all along. He made forgiveness the message at the moment the eleven were listening most carefully, and he said it before he picked up any other topic.

I think what I’m trying to say is, it’s important. Placement and sequence are a vital part of understanding the scriptural record, because words and stories were placed for a reason. And the reason, in this instance, is human need.

William Countryman wrote these words: “What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived.”

Countryman goes on to explain that God may have said it more simply, may have said “you are loved,” and it would still have been true, but it would have been ambiguous. And this is why: If God says ‘you are loved,’ we naturally read in ‘you are loved if you are good,’ or ‘you are loved for the most part, except those parts of you that I cannot love.’

Instead, Countryman insists, God says something quite unambiguous:

“You are forgiven.” What this means is, “I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I’m trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.*

What he’s getting at here is what we might call The Problem With Love. The problem with love is that most often, it is practiced by humans. Yes, we experience God’s love everyday, the sun rises and sets, the seasons unfold, the earth’s bounty is ours, but at the end of the day, the most direct experience of love we have, is the love we experience from those around us.

And as a practitioner of love, I, like you, am imperfect. I’m a little more loving when things are going my way, I’m a little more open when the world seems a friendly place, I’m a little more generous when I’m convinced everyone has the right intentions. In other words, I’m human. And I know that you are human too, not for any reason in particular, except I know.

So forgiveness is the message that Jesus spoke and lived, and there is a problem with love. We could end there, but I think there is one more idea to consider, and that is The Problem With Forgiveness.

Now, Michael, you might say, you just spent a full five minutes convincing us that there is no problem with forgiveness, that the problem is with love, and now we’re ready for cookies. No cookies yet. There is a problem with forgiveness, another reason Jesus made it the first important thing he said, and here is the problem: There is always an argument against it, there is power involved, and too many refuse to practice. Actually, that are three problems, so I will take them in turn.

The first problem is can be summarized thus: There is a problem with forgiveness because there is always some extreme example that cannot be forgiven. Insert the name of any historical bad person here, and say ‘surely [they] don’t deserve forgiveness,’ or ‘we know that [what they did] cannot be forgiven.’ This may be true enough. We cannot know God’s capacity to forgive, and so we cannot really make a response to the first problem with forgiveness. We see through a glass dimly, and like the older brother, we puzzle at God’s capacity to forgive.

The second problem with forgiveness was one that Jesus addressed that day. After his resurrection, among his friends once more, he said, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In other words, forgiving someone gives you a measure of power, insofar as forgiving someone releases them from something that they might otherwise remain in bondage to. If you cannot forgive, something remains outstanding, something is incomplete. And while incompleteness and ambiguity are also human themes, Jesus felt compelled to make sure the remaining disciples understood that withholding forgiveness has implications for everyone involved.

The third problem with forgiveness is the same reason there are so few Wayne Gretzsky’s and so few Glen Gould’s: we usually forget to practice. Forgiveness is not a life skill that comes preloaded like Windows Explorer, it is something that we practice all life long. Forgiveness is not part of the original design parameters, it is quite the opposite. The human way is hold grudges and nurse hurts and remember slights, not automatically forgiving the same. We continually fall short of God’s intention for our lives, we are forgiven, and we can, in turn, return this forgiveness to everyone around us. It may seem like a logical, multi-step progression, but it is hard, and it requires endless practice.

I’ve spoke too long. I’ve made a case for forgiveness, then described three perfect counter-arguments. The problem with forgiveness is that it remains too high on God’s priority list for us ordinary humans to cope. We fall short, we try harder, and we fall again. Fortunately for us, we have hope: “What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived. This is the message that the Risen Christ whispers in our ear every moment of every day: You are forgiven.

*Good News of Jesus, p. 5.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Sunday 2010

Luke 24
1On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen!
Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " 8Then they remembered his words.
9When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

The quote de jour comes from a gentleman waiting in line yesterday at the Apple store in Atlanta, Georgia. Waiting patiently to buy the new iPad, he said, "I don't know what it is -- I just think it's going to be something that's really cool.” Back in my day, when you dropped five hundred bucks on a shiny new gizmo, you generally had a sense of what you were getting. Call me old-fashioned.

Maybe it’s odd that the pivotal moment in the history of the Christian faith involves rolling away a large stone to reveal –
nothing. No iPad, no Rolex, not even gold, frankincense or myrrh. Even Tim Hortons, famous for their annual answer to Lenten abstinence, puts something under the rim, even if it’s a polite “please try again.”

So the key to understanding Easter is the absence of something. Could we get any farther from the zeitgeist of the present age? Isn’t the key to modern economics a willingness to spend? Didn’t President Bush advise a frightened nation to go out and shop? Can you really defeat terror at the mall? Are all these questions rhetorical?

Mostly, yes. We arrive at Easter morning with a surplus of questions, beginning with the one posed to a group of frightened woman in the tomb. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asks, ‘wasn’t the promise of this day the seeming absence of Jesus: didn’t he tell you about a three-day pattern where death would become life?’ Then they remembered his words.

They remembered all that he shared with them in Galilee. They remembered the long table and all the laughter as friends gathered to share a meal in his presence. They remembered the long hours of conversation, long after the wine was gone, when he would describe a life given to the Most High, when he would sketch out an unfolding story, when he would speak of resistance, and the unseen world of God.

Even as some in the group began to fade into the evening darkness, a core would remain, steadfast in the hope than Jesus would say more about this Kingdom he loved, about the great themes of compassion and forgiveness, and about the ways of God. And he didn’t disappoint, telling more stories and reciting the aphorisms they had come to love.

But then, leaning forward, and in a low voice, he said ‘a day will come, you know, when the crowds we teach and feed will flee away. Some will conspire against us, and repeat the words that can be most easily misunderstood. I will be arrested, Caesar’s justice will prevail, and I will be no more. But listen now, my friends, because the Ruler of Heaven and Earth is doing a new thing: on the third day I will rise again.

Standing in the empty tomb, these words came back, as clearly as their memory of the fading light and the soft breeze they felt each evening on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But could they remember their response? Maybe this was the moment that they too retreated into the darkness, with a collective sigh and saying ‘no, Lord, this will never happen. You enjoy the favour of the Most High. And besides, who would fill our evenings with stories of prodigals and foolish virgins?’

Standing in the empty tomb, they remembered his prediction and it suddenly made sense. How could the one who made the leper clean, the one who cast out demons, and the one who raised Lazarus meet the end like an ordinary human? How could Jesus, with his otherworldly wisdom and unique relationship to the physical world simply die and remain in this place? No, in the light on this morning, his whispered words suddenly make sense. He is not here; he has risen!

Christ is Risen! [He is Risen indeed!]

But now the hard part. Now it fell to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them to tell the story and share the message that his three-day journey is complete and the tomb is empty. They become evangelicals, literally “messengers” of the Good News that Jesus cannot be found among the dead but is alive once and forevermore.

But they could not hear it. St. Luke records that ‘they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ And here we see that place where the emptiness of the tomb met the emptiness they felt, emptiness in the absence of the great connection the women made. And they would remain in their emptiness, we know, until the events that followed and the resurrection appearances come.

For now, though, they will remain in some confusion, a liminal place between knowing and understanding. They will live between hearing and internalizing the word. And they will have more emptiness to face and this may be precisely the place where we can return to our time:

Victor Franckl, psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor, best known for writing Man’s Search for Meaning, coined the term "Sunday neurosis.” He used the term Sunday neurosis to describe the feeling that comes when the busy week is over:

[An] existential vacuum…is a common phenomenon and is characterised by the subjective state of boredom, apathy, and emptiness. One feels cynical, lacks direction and questions the point of most of life's activities.*

If we moderns face ‘Sunday neurosis,’ then many of the disciples faced “Easter Sunday neurosis,” a cynical lack of direction and a sense of emptiness born of grief and despair. Maybe it was the result of collective guilt, following a week of retreats and denials, or maybe it was simply a lack of imagination in the face of this new thing. Whatever the root of this emptiness, it becomes the bridge between ancient and modern, between long ago days and the world we now know.

We suffer, you see, from an absence of hope. We fail to see the things that are truly larger than ourselves and see instead the shiny things that are sent to distract us and fill a void. Sunday is the busiest day at the mall precisely because we seem to have lost the ability to see the unseen world: to imagine something far beyond the ordinary and to live in hope.

We are constantly tempted to see the empty tomb in the context of our own emptiness, and not the empty space filled with promise that God intended. We are tempted to apprehension rather than adoration. We are tempted to equate the absence of a body with the absence of hope, while the empty tomb shouts the opposite.

So the key to understanding Easter is the absence of something. Call it God’s great irony that the empty tomb is filled to capacity with the potential to transform hearts and remake a weary world. It is God’s great irony that the empty tomb is filled with the message that death is never the last word and the Lord of Life walks with us each day. It is God’s great irony that the empty tomb is both absence and presence at the same moment, and the message of his presence has been shared every Sunday down to today.

Christ is Risen! [He is Risen indeed!]

*Yalom, Irvin D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: BasicBooks, p. 449.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday 2010

Genesis 22
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.’

Everything was carefully planned. The height of rush hour, two stations on the same line, located beneath symbolic places in the city, including the offices of what we used to call the KGB. The bombers, described by some as “black widows,” were trained to detonate the moment the doors of the train opened.

A woman who witnessed the carnage was quoted to say “In Moscow, you live everyday like it’s your last.”

You live everyday like it’s your last.

A diarist, writing on the darkest night of the Blitz, recorded her thoughts as the evening of 29 December 1940 unfolded:

10.35 My God! This is hellish! Over went a plane just now & dropped about six bombs…I just crouch terror-stricken…
11.50 Well – we’re still alive anyway & honestly I don’t find it so alarming except when the bombs fall…
1.50 Fancy that. I think I now consider myself quite case-hardened. A bomb came whooshing down then…and I didn’t bother covering my ears for it.
5.50 The All-clear has gone & I’m going to bed…I feel myself that having survived last night I can survive anything. Also I shan’t find tonight half so alarming as I shall know just what to expect. (p. 182)

In London, you live everyday like it’s your last.

For the boy, it might have seemed like a camping trip with his father. Little did the boy know that he was the object of this trip, and that the Lord had commanded his father to end his life in a demonstration of faithfulness.

Human sacrifice was not uncommon, something the boy may have understood, but I can’t imagine it was something you signed up for, something you undertook willingly. No, for Isaac it was likely no more than time with dad: selecting the best site, gathering wood, sharpening the knife that usually hung from his father’s belt.

It seems, in the land of Moriah, you live everyday like it’s you last.

Where does this story begin? Moments after Peter described him as the Messiah, the son of the Living God, Jesus revealed that this moment would come. He welcomed children, he told a rich man to sell the things he loved most, he described a society where everyone earned a living wage. Maybe that was what sealed his fate.

He entered the Holy City, he led his disciples to the holiest site of all, and reminded them that not one stone would stand upon another. He allowed himself to be anointed for this moment, to enjoy a final meal, to suffer betrayal and denial, and find himself in the Praetorium, the very first prisoner of conscience. The path to this place has been long, and it seems undeniable that in Jerusalem, you live everyday like it’s your last.

What is this wondrous love that allows the most weary to carry on, that allows a son to trust his father even to the edge of death, that allows Jesus to trust his Father even to the cross?

When you live everyday like it’s your last, maybe trust is all you have: trust, and a willingness to surrender all you have to God.