Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday

John 20
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

As my children get older, I worry I may forget all the clever verbal tricks I used to get them to behave.

One of the classics is the three-part progression of compliance: not quite a trap, more the route to the logical conclusion that the big person will win.

Have I made myself clear?
What did I say?
Do you agree?

It really is flawless, like a binding contract you can’t escape. “There will be no more chocolate today, have I made myself clear?” Yes. “What did I say?” No more chocolate. “Do you agree?” It’s the last part that seals the deal, but it’s never a satisfying outcome. Better that the sugar-high might lead them to say something like, “you know, I really had enough sugary-goodness for one day. Can you take them? Oh, and help yourself, those are just empty calories anyway.”

Back in reality-land, even the best ironclad approach usually leads to “we talked about this already” and “yes, but you agreed.” And the negotiation begins again. Then they finish high school and then they leave home.


Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18)

This would be the moment to ask ‘have I made myself clear?’ Everything was predicted, and predicted more than once, as the little subtitles in the your Bible make it clear: “Jesus predicts his death” for the second time, then the third time, and so on.

You almost get the sense that this is one of those Charlie Brown parental moments. (parental sound) Were the diciples really listening? It’s a bit like going to the customer service counter (“I’m listening, I’m listening, I’m not really listening.”)

And he never seems to get to ‘what did I say,’ part, because maybe he knew that they simply could not take it in. Everything he said about the arrest, and the violence, and the cross made it impossible to take in, let alone accept. And that’s just the horrible stuff they couldn’t hear: with the rising on the third day stuff didn’t have a chance.

Meeting Mary in the tomb, then, was not a moment of instant recognition and and a chance for her to say ‘so this was what you were on about—you’re here but you’re not here.’ Instead there were tears, he was mistaken for the gardener, and only in the intimate calling of her name did Mary recognize her risen Lord. Even then, we know that more disbelief will follow, and more effort will be required to help them understand.

This question of how we receive bad news has been studied, and questions have been developed that people in the bad news business may use to ensure the message is received. And much like the parental approach, there is a progression:

Is this the right time and place? What do they know already? Can they understand this information? Can I ease them in? How will I show them I care? What can I give them for next steps?

Jesus, of course, didn’t have the benefit of medical studies on the topic of bad news, and really had no means to communicate the good news without sharing the bad news first. Like my invitation this week to visit the whole of the story, there was no way for Jesus to announce the glory of the resurrection without first describing the cross.

So they couldn’t hear, and they couldn’t comprehend. And I guess I might make the argument that we’re not much further ahead. We retreat to metaphor, symbol and story precisely because resurrection is incomprehensible, something to believe rather than understand, and this makes our modern minds rather uncomfortable.

We like the literal, the factual, and the certain, and we’re never so big on the symbolic, the metaphorical and the lively story that somehow reveals the truth. Those things are okay for Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, but we live in the real world of ‘trust but verify,’ the world of fact-checkers and non-fiction.

So how do we develop a ‘mind for mystery,’ a mind that prefers the verdant realm of imperfect knowledge over the clinical world of precise knowledge? Is it even a worldview we are willing to embrace, this shroud that covers the literal and the factual?

More than once I have quoted the aboriginal elder who said, ‘I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.’ And so we can begin by setting our minds to the things we know but we don’t know why we know. Why does a particular friend mean so much to us? Why does a conclusion seem the right one? How do you come to believe it was a good day?

All these things are intangibles, things known yet unknown. So too is the presence of the Risen Christ, guiding our way, blessing our fellowship, helping us remain near him. Listen again to the exchange that first morning of our faith:

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out “Teacher!”

Was it his voice she knew? Perhaps it was. But they had been speaking already, and the recognition comes only when he names her, reclaims her as one of his own. This is an intimate moment, with an intimate God, a God in Jesus that names us and calls us his own.

And she’s convinced. She becomes the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the good news of our risen Lord, the single-source of our faith. And soon the others will learn of it too, but they will need convincing: wounded hands and feet, a meal shared, and words of comfort. But Mary just knows.

So I guess I’m back to the specialists, sharing the news in a way that it might best be received:

Is this the right time and place? She came to the garden alone, open to news, any news.
What do she know already? Promises were made, and even if all the other information crowded out the resurrection, on some level she knew.
Can she understand this information? It would all begin to make sense. The temple destroyed in three days, only to be rebuilt: the stone that the builders rejected becomes the chief cornerstone
Can I ease them in? Yes, and he will do this in conversation, and not a sudden declaration.
How will I show them I care? Twice he asks her ‘why are you crying,’ not to trouble her, but to acknowledge her pain.
What can I give them for next steps? The next steps are obvious, this is a faith shared in the telling. But it’s not just the telling that Mary will do in the hours and days that follow, it is the telling that we hear, in the way the story is shared.

Mary comes to realize that this is her risen Lord, but John tells it in such a way that we are the insiders. He builds us up in an effort to increase our confidence, to lead us through the story and into a life of faith. It is not the details of the story that hold us fast, it is our participation in the story: we are so important to the unfolding of resurrection that John mades us part of the story. Even before Mary knows, we know, making us the first believers too.

May we simply come to know resurrection, not as a belief, but as a part of the unfolding story of our faith. May the risen Christ call us by name once more, and may we recognize him at every moment, now and ever, amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Mark 15
22 Then they brought Jesus[d] to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.[e] 29 Those who passed by derided[f] him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah,[g] the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

It’s one of those jokes that never gets old:

“Sire, the peasants are revolting!”
“You got that right.”

And while Mel Brooks may have been the first to capture the joke on film, he’s certainly not the first to enjoy this little bit of wordplay.

If we were able to travel back in time and have a quick chat with any one of several Roman governors of Judea, the conclusion might well be that the peasants are revolting.

Three times in less than a century the Jewish population revolted on a scale that can be described as war, and three times they suffered defeat at the hands of the Romans. Some are famous even now: the siege of Masada, their dramatic alternative to surrender, and—of course—the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

All of these events, in the years after 66, beg the question ‘why no revolt during or after the events we mark today?’ How could we go from feeding the masses, famous miracles, a triumphant entry, and the execution of the one regarded by many as the Messiah, and no popular uprising?

The answer it seems, lies in neo-fascist Europe. Social scientists have been puzzling for some time over the rise of far-right parties in Europe led by woman. Author Naomi Wolf took up this question recently and concludes that everyone—women and men—share a desire to never occupy the bottom rung of society.

She looks at recent studies of German women in the Second World War, who led the effort to ‘colonize’ eastern Europe, bringing the values of the Third Reich to those deemed inferior. The assumption here is that women—who were at the bottom of German society before the war—grabbed the opportunity to step up a rung during the war.

Called ‘last-place aversion,’ this desire to get ahead of someone or anyone for the sake of our fragile sense of self, seems to explain everything from schoolyard bullies to colonialism to the overt racism of those far-right parties. People near the bottom are likely to pick some other group to shun, simply for the sake of avoiding last place. Think rural francophones, already feeling left behind, all bent out of shape about the Muslims they will never meet, and you begin to see how last-place aversion works.

So let’s go back to first century Judea, and the night of Jesus’ arrest. Suddenly it’s decision time: follow the man from Galilee or take the safe route and acquiesce to the Roman overlords? It doesn’t seem like much of a choice, figuring the power of Rome, until you consider those various revolts, both big and small.

No, something else is operating here, and the answer seems to lie in those who followed Jesus. It was Dom Crossan who described them as a ‘kingdom of nuisances and nobodies’: the fishermen, freed slaves, ex-lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, drunkards, and other ne’er-do-wells who found new life in Jesus. When crunch time came, and it was time to pick sides, last-place aversion kicked in and Jesus and his crew got thrown under the bus.

Thrown under the bus, kicked to the curb, nailed to a tree: it’s all the same, it would seem, until it isn’t. On the surface this might look like some itinerant preacher followed by a bunch of hippies in a VW bus, but this was God being kicked to the curb, thrown under the bus, nailed to a tree. And this is the only way any of this makes sense. Stay with me.

All of life is suffering and loss. Even the happiest life ends in suffering and loss. And we humans are appropriately mad about it. ‘Why God,’ we might ask, ‘would you give us love and beauty and and the joy of each new day and then tack on a mortality clause?’ It just seems cruel.

So we grab our chance. God-with-us appears in our midst, and at first we are transfixed, and who wouldn’t be, it’s God in our midst! But then we remember our anger, and we have some second thoughts. Next we look at the company God keeps, and we have more second thoughts. Then add a dash of Roman hegemony, and a pinch of fear, and it seems obvious that we ought to kill God.

But what happens next is the true surprize in the story, perhaps even more surprizing than an empty tomb. It is God on the cross, kicked to the curb, under the bus, saying ‘forgive them, they just don’t understand what they’re doing.’

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 11
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

From the frequently misquoted file, I give you Uncle Ben.

Perhaps this is more of a confession, since I have quoted Uncle Ben more than once from the pulpit: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It turns out that Ben didn’t say it—it only appears as a caption within the comic book. But just before you storm out for being misled on all things related to Spiderman, I should say that the 2002 film version makes the same mistake as me, so it’s really not my fault.

The truth is, we wanted Uncle Ben to say it, as advice, as he’s about to breath his last, since it makes for a better story. And here is where our desire and the facts on the ground come into conflict. Now last June, I looked at other misattributed quotes, particularly quotes that seem to come from the Bible, and I think the impulse is the same: we wish it was said there, or we wish it was said that way, or we wish some he or she said it.

The most famous is perhaps the 1994 inauguration quote from Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate...” It is variously reported that he either said it or quoted it and neither is true. The words actually belong to Marianne Williamson—an Oprah favourite—who is seemingly touched that so many want to put her quote on his lips.

Here are a few others, just so you can be extra annoying at your next dinner party: Voltaire did not say “I will defend to my death your right to say it,” and P.T. Barnum did not say “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and Machiavelli did not say “the end justifies the means.”

Another famous one, more of a misquote than a misattribution, is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, and he did make comments about change, including at least one long quote that contains a similar sentiment, but he never said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

So why does this matter? Isn’t ‘close enough’ good enough? Sometimes, yes—but not when we are begin led in a particular direction by a misquote or creative reformulation. Saying ‘Gandhi said this’ gives the words instant credibility based on the greatness of the man himself. But if he didn’t actually say it that way, I can’t help but feel manipulated.

The original, extended quote is about not waiting for others to act, and not the new meaning we tend to give it, which is ‘individual acts contribute to overall change.’ This new meaning, that I can make change by changing myself, may be true on some level, but it also drifts too close to the new-age idea that if my desire for something is strong enough, it will happen.

And this is the moment we can segue over to the extended reading Carol shared, concerning the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Reading the entire story would leave no time for lunch, so better that we find the heart of the story: the heart’s desire of Mary and Martha, two women we’ve met before.

It’s really a passage about wishes:
‘Lord, we wish you to come quickly, because Lazarus—whom you love—has taken ill.’
‘Lord, we wish you have come sooner,’ Martha said, ‘because my brother has died.’
‘Lord, we wish you have come when we first called,’ Mary said, ‘because he would not have died.’
Even the crowd gets into it: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

For much of the extended passage, we’re not really sure what to make of Jesus’ response to this deep need. He seems in no hurry to help his friend, and we are left wondering why he would dilly-dally when he could save these sisters so much pain. In the end, it seems like Lazarus is little more than a demonstration of God’s power. And that might make everything okay in the end, but it still casts Jesus in the worst possible light, willing to let Lazarus die to make a point.

So, unsatisfied that this is simply a demonstration piece, and assuming that something else is happening here, we look for clues. Is there something else in the passage that might help us understand why Jesus acts the way he acts?

The key to the passage, I would argue, is actually an echo of something else familiar to us. Take first the heart of the passage, the question posed by the crowd: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Not only does the question provide a good summary of the whole story of the death of Lazarus, but it points to another summary question, this one near the cross: ‘Then the crown began to mock him, saying “he saved others, why can’t he save himself?”’

If we imagine that this echo is intentional, that this is more about the death of Jesus than the death of Lazarus, then suddenly it all starts to make sense. In other words, simply wishing that death not come—the death of Lazarus, the death of Jesus, our own death—will not prevent it. Yes, Jesus could perform miracles and save some from death, but on this occasion, with Lazarus, it had more to do with cross and tomb than Lazarus and tomb.

And, of course, there is one other clue, perhaps even more obvious, that this is about Jesus’ death more than Lazarus’ death, and that’s the exchange with poor Martha:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

In other words, Jesus will not provide the answer, Jesus is the answer. He is not giving the comforting words that will help Martha deal with here sense of loss, he is the comfort, the resurrection and the life.

And we see this again and again in John’s Gospel, human need met in Jesus the Christ:

Are you hungry? Jesus said ‘I am the bread of heaven.’
Are you in the dark? Jesus said ‘I am the light world.’
Are you directionless and lost? Jesus said ‘I am the good shepherd.’
Do you feel even more lost than that? Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’
Are you dead? Are you dying? Are you afraid of what’s to come? Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

We want the world to give us comfort, and we get cliché.
We want the world to give us the words we need, and we get an approximation.
We want the world to provide an end to death, and we get products that will make you look younger longer.

Jesus is the change we want to see in the world, the bread, the light, the resurrection and the life. He works in us and others by the Spirit to reconcile and make new, to transform the world in his image, and put an end to death.

‘Peace I leave with you’ he said ‘my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.‘ Amen.