Sunday, April 23, 2017

Second Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 1
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Sometimes it’s good to inherit, and other times it’s not.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. There is a point in the story—usually the mid-point—when the will is read. An in the course of listening to the ‘reading of the will’ the chief suspect is usually revealed, the person to inherit.

It’s an odd thing, really. Everyone in the room a suspect, a name is revealed, and all eyes fall upon the potentially guilty party. Wouldn’t it be better to be on a train out of town? Or why commit such a ghastly crime in the first place, knowing that some solicitor is going to read your name out loud? Of course, the writer is only trying to throw us off the scent, knowing full well that the person to inherit is usually clever enough to not commit the crime.

It could, of course, just be part of the polite world of the murder mystery. In the same way everyone helpfully gathers for the reading of the will, everyone returns for moment that our intrepid detective reveals the identity of the murderer. They listen carefully as the detective summarizes the entire story—and they seldom interrupt as potential blame is cast. Then, when the final evidence falls into place and the guilty party revealed—they immediately concede. Yes, the gallows await, but let nothing stand in the way of British politeness or the desire to never make a fuss.

But this is not the kind of inheritance Carol described as she shared from 1 Peter. Instead we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” It cannot be taken away because Poirot reveals your guilt, it cannot spoil like shares in Nortel or fade like a house that’s falling down. This is a very different kind of inheritance, one that resides with God.

So what is the inheritance like, precisely? Let’s look at the full summary again: “In an act of great mercy, God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” New birth into a living hope in the resurrection. New birth into a living hope.

And all of this, of course, is only a week old. As hard as it is to believe, Easter was only a week ago. And in that week, we tend to dwell on the simple message of new life, and the experience of joy that comes with spring and the end of Lent. They are meant to be conflated—new season and new life—and it is comfortable to simply dwell here a little while.

Soon, however, we look for meaning, and the implications of all this new life around us. What does it mean to experience ‘new birth into a living hope’ and how do we apply this to the world around us? Or more simply, what is it, and what is it not?

To begin, the commentators* remind us that the selection of this passage on the second Sunday of Easter is prompted by the story of doubting Thomas. You may recall that every year the reading for the Sunday to follow Easter is that fearful gathering, when the disciples are hold up in a locked room and Jesus appears to them.

Thomas is missing, and after uttering the famous words “unless I see the wounds I will not believe” he is rewarded with just such a visit. He gets his visit, but he also gets a rebuke from the Risen Lord ‘you have seen me and believe—how blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe?’ Those last words are for us—as every good preacher will tell you—both as an assurance and as a challenge to continue to believe even when we fail to see.

“And though you have not seen him,” the author of 1 Peter says, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” That’s the connection between our reading and the Thomas story, keeping us grounded in the unfolding narrative, but also highlighting another problem in the realm of belief.

The problem is this: If you add a contemporary lens to the end of the reading, you might be tempted to imagine it’s about you alone. Of course it’s about you—”for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls”—but it’s not about you. Maybe I should explain.

Over time, over a very long time, we became a collection of individuals. We weren’t always a collection of individuals, this happened over time. There are endless debates about how and why this transition took place, but agreement that before we were you and me, we were simply us. So when we read ”for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” we have to resist the idea that you or me (or you and not me) are going to get some individual reward, like going to heaven.

Yes, there is a heaven, and yes heaven is a goal, but not in the sense that heaven is prize that some will get and others will not. That’s a distortion of the Christian goal. The Christian goal—which is first God’s goal—is this: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” That’s not my summary, that belongs to Bishop N.T. Wright, and it’s only partly his summary, since he found it when he prayed “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus isn’t a conduit to somehow escape this world into a better world, Jesus is the bridge that brings this world and that better world together. Of course it’s not here yet, recalling that it’s “thy will BE done on earth as it is in heaven” as in future tense. So it is our future hope that this coming together will occur, that this coming together at the last will be reality for all people, not just a few, and not just as individuals, but for everyone.

So heaven and earth have yet to be drawn together, but we have experienced a “new birth into a living hope in the resurrection.” Easter is the first and best sign that this consummation has begun (Wright), that this living hope is real and possible, and that an end to death means that the line between heaven and earth is beginning to blur. It is a hopeful time, but it’s not the full story.

The middle of the passage Carol shared also says this: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith” may be revealed. In other words, this is never linear. The joy of Easter will give way to all sorts of setbacks, suffering and sorrow, some imposed and some self-inflicted.

In part, the author of 1 Peter is talking about persecution, but he is also talking about the challenges of being a new community. On the first, we know that this is really low-grade persecution, the initial tension that comes as church and synagogue begin to part ways. 1 Peter is most likely written in the 80’s, and the era that we call persecution has yet be begin. On the second—trying to live together—we know that the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts give us ample evidence of the kind of conflict that follows when people try to create something new. Being ‘in the world but not of the world’ means we are still human, in spite of the best advice.

In other words, we have experienced a “new birth into a living hope in the resurrection” but we are still our old sinful selves. God entered the world in Jesus to reveal that ways of heaven, Jesus gave us the way to follow and taught us to pray for heaven and earth to come together, but the world is still as it is. We do our best, in this collective we call church, but we can’t bring heaven and earth together ourselves—this is God’s work. We can help, but it always remains the work of heaven.

Our primary task, as inheritors, is to share the message of “new birth into a living hope.” This is the true message that follows the reading of the will: that we have witnessed the beginning of that final consummation, that time when heaven and earth will come together, and we a living hope in Christ Jesus. That the way of heaven, as revealed in Jesus, will someday come once and for all—quite literally once and for all—and that Easter is just the beginning. Thanks be to God, Amen.

*Texts for Preaching, Year A

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday

Acts 10
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Sure she’s small, but that doesn’t make her any less powerful as a witness.

Baby Elliot, of course, is not a witness in the worldly sense of the word. They do make provision for children to testify, to function as witnesses in a court of law. They even have a modified vow, less ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ and more in the realm of a simple promise to be truthful. But Elliot can’t talk—through no fault of her own—she seven-and-a-half weeks old. Nevertheless, she’s a powerful witness.

For you see, having so recently been baptized, having become the newest member of the Christian Church (for a moment at least, until she was superseded by some other Easter baby), having her slightly modified immersion into the waters of new life—we can say she “put on Christ.” Again, a powerful witness.

St. Paul makes this compelling argument, when he’s busy rebuking the church in Galacia. In the same chapter that he famously begins “You foolish Galatians!” (3.1) he ends with this:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (26-27)

Now, there is an Easter Sunday rule that I shouldn’t trouble you with Greek verbs (except Anesti and Alithos!). It is important to note, however, that the verb “to put on” is the same verse that says “you have put on a new self” (Col 3.10) and you stand “having put on the breastplate of righteousness.” (Eph 6.14)

So consider all we have done in the seemingly simple act of Christian baptism. We have helped Elliot put on an entirely new self, we have helped her put on Christ, someone that she now wears like a tiny suit of baby armour, the breastplate of righteousness. The Spirit of God, moving through this congregation, has made her a powerful witness to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

And she is not alone. All of us who ‘put on Christ,’ as armour-clad babies or youth or adults carry the same testimony within us. We are clothed with the Gospel of Christ Jesus, something that was established in the earliest days of the church. Let’s hear Peter preach once more:

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Now, we could be accused of jumping ahead—here on Easter morning—when really all we’ve had so far is the empty tomb. Easter Sunday begins with some confusion, and an encounter between Mary and the Risen Jesus. He begins by saying “Woman, why are you crying?” And mistaking him for the gardener, she says “if you have carried him away, can you tell me where you have put him?” He calls her by name, and she understands. She rushes to tell the other, the very first witness to the resurrection.

Back to Peter’s sermon, it’s on that very first evening that Jesus appears to a chosen few, those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And we could simply mark how fortuitous it was to be counted amid that number, and continue on, except that there is more going on.

First, we have to collapse time itself. In the same manner that Elliot (baptized 20 minutes ago) and I (35 years ago this week) are fully equal in God’s eyes, we can extend this all the way back to the early church. When you put on Christ, time no longer has meaning, and wherever it says “the disciples” or “the followers” or “witnesses” the text is talking about us too. We are witnesses to all he did in country of his people and in Jerusalem, and we are part of that great ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12) that can testify to Jesus, “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Next, we have to travel back 500 years to Wittenberg, on this, the anniversary of the Lutheran revolution, and remember that in addition to being witnesses and disciples, we are all priests. Martin Luther read and reread his Bible until he became convinced (through the power of the Spirit) that we are all members of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2), and that as many the number of believers there also priests.

So we’re all witnesses, and disciples, and priests, and with Elliot we’ve put in Christ, but there is one more element to this story, hiding in plain sight in Peter’s sermon and self-description: [we] who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. Having shared the body and blood of Jesus twice this week, we are part of this meal too, we also ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

So having established who we are, and to whom we belong, and further having collapsed any sense of time or place, and still further having assumed the weight of all this history, where do we go from here? Clad in our ever expanding armour (it wasn’t going to remain baby size, was it?) we must have something to do. We’ve heard from Peter, Paul and Martin, so what about Marshall McLuhan?

Actually, before I share the McLuhan quote, i give you a glimpse inside the sausage factory I like to call sermon-writing. From the moment I have a general sense of where these things are going, I try to open myself to where the Spirit might be leading, ideas, concepts, quotes and such. On cue the Spirit sent me this from Toronto’s most famous public intellectual: “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” Wonderful quote.

Then I got this: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Okay, where’s that quote from? Anyone? Anyone? (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Strange thing, the Spirit.

Here’s what I think it means: The church, like Spaceship Earth, is made up entirely of crew members, and there are no passengers here. Quite fitting, really, since from earliest days one of the symbols of the church was a ship. Everyone on board the ship has a job to do, some large, some quite small, but a task nonetheless. Even seven-and-a-half week old believers have a job to do, even of that job is quiet (and not so quiet) testimony to the ways of God.

The Bueller quote fits too, since the busy crew of any vessel need to be reminded to look up from time to time, to look beyond the task you are busy doing and see the water, or what’s in the water, or the horizon at the edge of the sky. And beyond that, look at each other, fellow crew members, and give God thanks for them and what they’re doing. It’s a miracle this ship we’re on, all together.

Now McLuhan might say “I heard what you were saying, and you know nothing of my work” (Annie Hall) and I would apologize and say ‘of course, you were addressing the plight of our little blue dot in space, that we have to look beyond borders to safeguard the future our common home.’ And just a few moments ago we pledged to “to live with respect in Creation,” part of the so-what of being the church of Christ. I think the professor would be pleased.

So our final task and believers and priests is also the last part of Peter’s sermon, instruction for an ever expanding crew:

42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

We need to preach. We need to share this message of belief and forgiveness in Christ’s name, and enlist others in the unfolding story of the church. We have to give thanks for Elliot and all the other priestly crew-members that testify to Jesus and his way. And most of all, we give thanks, for the Spirit and for each other, now and always, Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

Matthew 27
45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land[p] until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

We’ve come to what seems the end of the story, but soon we’ll know the truth. But for today, we dwell in what seems the end of the story, and it feels hardly removed from the beginning.

Barely four months from Bethlehem to Calvary, from the star-lit-angel-narrated-festival to the humiliation of the cross. We meet Jesus—ever briefly—at age twelve, and next he’s wading in the water of the River Jordan. Three years of public ministry unfold in a few short chapters, and we arrive at today.

If it seems unsatisfying, this lack of knowing, this narrative with a beginning, a fleeting middle and an elaborate end—you are not alone in this feeling. As early as the end of the first century, people were busy filling in the details.

One famous example is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, thankfully omitted from our Bibles but instructive nonetheless. It describes what Jesus’ childhood might be like—bringing clay birds to life, resurrecting the neighbour’s boy who fell off the roof—all the things we imagine a boy-God might get into. Early on it was labelled fiction.

I share this to illustrate the path from human boy to dying God. This mysterious and unfathomable event—God in Jesus dying on the cross—is part of Paul calls ‘seeing through a glass, darkly.’ What we now see in part we will someday see plainly—as face to face.

Suffice it to say, the sacrifice, the end of death, the end of the separation between God and humanity only works if God is dying on the cross—only works if God enters the well of human suffering and says ‘no more.‘ All of our sin, all of our separation, ends in a single moment.

Eli, eli, lema, sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

C.K. Chesterton famously said we share the “one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” God seems to lose faith in God—which is oddly a comfort for anyone who experiences doubt. If God can lose faith in God, even for a moment, how much permission does this extend to those who ask ‘God, where are you now?’

I would argue that this is the moment that Jesus becomes fully human and fully divine—the moment when self-doubt becomes divine self-doubt, and when the Lord has provided something truly unexpected: through dying, an end to death. First Jesus knew in part, but then he knew, even as he was fully known.

And the love that abides continues to this day, this moment. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

This song was recorded by numerous artists, including Rosemary Clooney, The Caravans, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Deep River Boys, The Four Lads, The Kingsmen, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Waller, and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.

They just don’t name bands like the used to. And this is not a complete list of the artists who have covered the African-American spiritual “Dem Bones.” You know it:

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Now, we could have a bit of a debate whether “Dem Bones” is truly an African-American spiritual since it was written in the early 20th century in the style of other spirituals, but did not come out of the same period.

Traditional African-American spirituals are folk songs written anonymously during the long period that Africans were enslaved in the US. Oddly, where Africans were enslaved in other parts of the Americas, under the Spanish or the English, no such musical tradition developed.

Scholars argue, of course, about this difference, whether it was the extended duration of US slavery, or the greater embrace of Christianity among American slaves, or other theories—like songs were used as coded messages for escape. Indeed, a song like “Wade in the Water” was very likely a coded reminder to wade near the shore of rivers and lakes as a means to throw off tracking dogs—crucial advice for escaped slaves.

And other spirituals, like “Over my head” have sparked even greater debate. The lyric is “Over my head, I hear music in the air” three times, and the concluding like “there must be a God somewhere.” The first time I heard this song discussed, it was escaped slaves hidden in the basements on the Underground Railroad, ready to taste freedom in Canada. Other interpreters have taken a grimmer angle, arguing that prior to departing from Africa, slaves were held in the fortified basement of a church, and the lyric is a cry of despair. It seems to only underline the complexity and sadness of this history.

Back to Dem Bones, the song follows the familiar pattern whereby the fourth and final line of the refrain contains the heart of the message. The poet builds toward the message over three lines and gives the point of the song, in this case “Now hear the word of the Lord.” Dem Bones even takes this a step further, concluding the intro with the same line, and also each of the twelve line verses, verses that famously give an overview of human anatomy.

And “hear the word of the Lord” is one of those markers in scripture that functions as an early form of highlighter. Whenever we see this formulation (most often in the prophets) we know that the instruction that follows is particularly important to the story. In the same way, whenever Jesus says “You have heard it said, but I say unto you...” we need to pay close attention. Of course, Jesus uses ‘word of the Lord’ too, in perhaps the most creative example of heckling in the Bible:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and blessed are the breasts that nursed You.” 28But He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of the Lord and obey it.” (Luke 11)

I think these are all fine blessings, and someone should tell Hallmark.

Listen again for the key line in our passage, this time from the NRSV:

God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, [only] you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And perhaps we should note too the rhetorical question that prompts this dialogue: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Notice the irony in the question, calling the prophet by the name “mortal,” the one who will some day be bones himself. “Mortal, can these bones live?” is a question for the valley of dry bones, but it is a question for Ezekiel, and for everyone who hears this passage.

And the prophet acknowledges, correctly, that only God knows. Only God knows if this valley of bones can be transformed into flesh and breath because only God has the power to bring about this transformation. Only God can take what is dry and broken and dead and gone and make it into a new people, a people resuscitated for God alone. Ezekiel admits this and follows God’s command to share the transforming word of God.

This might be the moment to back up, way back, and look at the context. Ezekiel and his class are exiles, carried off by the Babylonians as a punishment for Israel’s disobedience. God has second thoughts about the exile, but not in the tender way it is described in Isaiah. There is not “comfort ye my people” in Ezekiel, only a God worried about God’s reputation:

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone...Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel! (Ez 36.22, 32)

Imagine the parent who says “I’m going to clean up your mess, but you’re still in trouble.” The mess was continued disobedience, even in exile, and God’s desire to stop it. The solution is a return, and God’s hope that by ending the exile people will return to God and God’s way. And this isn’t just the disobedient exiles, it also includes those left behind, the non-elites who were never carried off in the first place. In chapter 37, God says “these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

And it’s to these poor folks I want to turn our attention. We don’t know much about that majority group, those left behind when the elites were carried off. We only have the elite perspective in exile, and stories like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, stories about living in the court of a foreign king. What were they doing in the forgotten homeland, when the elites were no longer there to provide leadership? What happens in such situations?

We know that when leaders are absent or preoccupied, the people become restless and open to the loudest voices. When leaders are absent or preoccupied, people who peddle fear and mistrust find an opening. When leaders are absent or preoccupied, it becomes easier to question the integrity of the whole system. When leaders are absent or preoccupied supposed “strongman” figures appear, offering themselves as the only one to solve the problems of the age.

I think you see the problem, both ancient and modern. We live in an age where the first question is still relevant: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can the tired bones of the body politic be brought to life, where integrity and honesty are leading themes once more? Can the tired bones of a consumerist society be brought to life, where there is more to life than a trip to the mall? Can the tired bones of a society with ‘compassion fatigue’ find a way to be open and generous once more?

“O Lord God, [only] you know.” But just a chapter earlier, God has given the answer, the word of the Lord:

26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.