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.