Sunday, April 19, 2020

2nd Easter, 2020: Touch the divine

Lectionary: Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y sactificador. Amen.

Whenever I read that text from our first reading from Acts, where Peter is preaching, I get a knot in my stomach. I’m not sure I’ll ever preach as bravely as Peter did. I mean, he basically said to them: you killed the Messiah of God. He followed that, of course with the Good News that God raised him up and that it was impossible for death to hold Jesus in its power… but my experience as a preacher tells me folks would probably stop listening if I accused them of killing a ministry, much less the Lord!

In his epistle, Peter takes a gentler, pastoral approach, blessing God by whose mercy we are given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What a beautiful turn of phrase that is: new birth into a living hope.

What’s different about this hope is that it isn’t a memory or even a promise. This hope is a living reality. It is part of us, as alive as the cells of our bodies and the blood in our veins. The living hope we have through the resurrection of Jesus transforms our individual and communal suffering into the outcome of our faith: oneness in God.

This hope acts on us and through us into the world where redemption is in process. You see, we live in the era of the-already-but-not-yet, that is, the time after Jesus inaugurated the reconciliation of the whole world to God by his resurrection, and before it’s completion when he comes again. This already-but-not-yet time is characterized by continuing transformation - of ourselves, our communities, and in fact, of the whole creation.

We see this kind of individual and community transformation in our gospel story today which tells us of the earliest Christian community hiding out together in that upper room in fear. We can only imagine the hopelessness they must have felt having just witnessed the execution of their Messiah. Suddenly, that very Messiah, Jesus, is present among them, despite the locked doors.

The resurrected Jesus breathes his Spirit on the disciples calling to mind God breathing life into Adam in Genesis; but in that case, God breathed life into one. In this case, God in Christ breathes new life into the whole community. As we hear in Eucharistic Prayer D: “And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” (BCP, 375)

The sanctification of all.

Receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, infusing them with the power to forgive as he forgave. This is important because Jesus brought about salvation by the forgiveness of sin. Now he was equipping his followers to continue his work.

Jesus taught them about the responsibility that comes with receiving the power of forgiveness: what you do on earth will be done in heaven. If you forgive what separates and divides, it will be reconciled. If you don’t, it won’t.

This isn’t about ecclesial power they could wield in the world, it’s about the disciples’ responsibility to keep the new covenant of reconciliation by serving the way Jesus had done, and this is how Jesus did it: as he was dying on the cross, the embodiment of human-divine love forgave, reconciling even those who killed him into the community of divine love.

We, the present-day followers of Jesus, who have the Spirit of Christ in us, must also practice forgiveness, the radical forgiveness Jesus practiced as he died on his cross, the kind of forgiveness that advances and expands the community of divine love on earth.

Then the Gospel story takes a different turn, informing us that the disciple Thomas, poor Thomas, missed the whole thing. He missed Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on them. He missed Jesus’ teaching about what that meant; and when the others told him of their experience, it must have sounded like a collaborative fantasy or a shared hallucination. I won’t believe the things you say, Thomas insisted, unless I see it for myself.

That’s the set-up, anyway. I think Jesus intentionally picked that precise moment to appear to his disciples knowing that Thomas wouldn’t be there; and I think he did that for us who would have to come to believe without being able to see.

Like Thomas, so many of us just aren’t there at first. Our friends seem to know and experience something about God we don’t and it leaves us feeling different or alone in the midst of our community.

The Good News in this gospel story, however, is that Jesus will come again, just as he did for Thomas. Jesus will meet us at the place of our doubt and invite us to touch the divine.

We don’t know if Thomas actually touched Jesus or if he was transformed simply by seeing Jesus and hearing Jesus’ invitation to him; but Thomas’ response gives voice to a universal sigh that echoes through the generations each time someone is finally penetrated by a true experience of unity with God in Jesus: My Lord and my God!

Such powerful words.

The Season of Easter reminds us that we have been transformed as individuals and as a community through the resurrection of Jesus. We have been given the gift of living hope and we are called to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith - that through the resurrection of Jesus, our present suffering can be transformed into the outcome of our faith: oneness in God.

Just think on what that could mean for us today. The whole world is suffering a shared trauma: the coronavirus. This shared suffering has made us a global family in a way nothing ever has before. All national, religious, and class boundaries mean nothing. This virus strikes people in all countries, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, believers and unbelievers.

The living hope we possess opens up the possibility that our present suffering can be transformed into the outcome of our faith: oneness in God. Global oneness. What a grace! What a hope!

Still, I am hearing of people beginning to wear out as the length of time in isolation continues on with no apparent end in sight. Sadness, loneliness, and depression are beginning to creep in, but that’s to be expected.

If isolation has taught us anything it’s that we need community. We need one another and God is already showing us how to be community even as we isolate.

Using the gifts of technology, we can gather together. If someone doesn’t know how, someone else can teach them. If someone doesn’t have the equipment, there are ways to get it. The church makes charitable purchases all the time. All we need is someone paying attention so the needs of the one can be known and met by the community.

The gospel assures us that whenever we fall into doubt or gloom, Jesus will come to us. It may be that he comes to us in the person of a friend who reaches out, or maybe in a quiet moment of prayer, or in a dream while we sleep.

In whatever way it happens, our living hope assures us that Jesus will meet us where we are, invite us to touch the divine, and restore us to wholeness. He will do this continually for us as individuals and in our communities until the whole world is living as one in God.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Great Vigil of Easter, 2020: Subversive hope

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]; then Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Matthew 28:1-10

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

The night before he was murdered in Memphis, TN, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. It turned out to be a prophetic speech as he was assassinated the next day.

Here is the last paragraph of that speech: “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to with (sic) me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (Source)

Like most prophets, Dr. King was a subversive. He challenged the established system and its practices which held African Americans in the bondage of racism. Dr. King’s message was subversive because it was a message of hope, of inclusion, of God’s unfailing love for all and as theologian Walter Bruggeman says, “Hope is subversive.”

As a prophet, Dr. King gave hope not only to African-Americans but to all Americans. He assured us that despite all appearances and the entrenched practices of the established system, we could live together as one people, in freedom and in unity. He knew this because he had “seen the Promised Land.”

Our current moment is uncertain. We don’t know what will happen and how many of us will die from this virus. So, as we continue this journey together, it is up to us to embody the hope we know in Jesus Christ by going and telling, by continuing our work discovering where the established system is oppressive and working to set those captives free.

If this moment in time offers us anything, it’s this, isn’t it? Who has health care and who doesn’t? Why? Who gets the tests and ventilators, both in short supply? Freedom takes sacrifice; and if it is to be achieved, both the oppressed and the oppressor must work together to break the bonds that deny freedom.

Each age has a Promised Land to reach, a place where the oppressed and the oppressor are reconciled and live together in unity and harmony. In the beginning, Moses led the oppressed people of God out of Egypt into freedom in Canaan. In the 1960s Dr. King led us all toward racial freedom. Today, we embody hope in Christ in the uncertainty and fear caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a pattern that’s part of our spiritual DNA and one our Savior made eternally true for us. On the day Jesus stood up in the grave, shook loose his burial linens, and left that tomb empty, he made marching to the Promised Land a continual journey for us until his coming again because resurrection isn’t about bodies or breathing. It’s about presence. God is present before, during, and after our understanding of anything.

We proclaim our hope in the eternal, living presence of God - and that hope, as Bruggeman said, is subversive. God, whose mercy endures forever, who is our strength and salvation, is always with us, IN us, redeeming all things sometimes before we even recognize the need for it. In fact, that’s how we often recognize the need for it.

God is sending us on another march to another Promised Land. As we go, it helps to remember that God shows no partiality. God didn’t pick Peter because he was so astute. Right? Yet look at Peter’s legacy. God created Peter, gifted him, and sent him to live out his purpose. And Peter did that – in all his imperfection.

God chooses each of us too. We were created for a purpose and that purpose is simple: to do God’s will. And what is God’s will? According to our catechism, Episcopalians believe that it is the will of God that the whole world be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ by the forgiveness of sins.

Reconciled people live in harmony and unity with one another and with God. The final destination of every march to every Promised Land is always reconciliation.

Sin is what separates us from God and one another. New life in Christ restores us to right relationship with God and one another, and all we have to do is remember - and by remember, I mean “re-member.”

To re-member is to reattach, the way a surgeon reattaches a severed body part. The re-attachment has to be whole – from the inside out or it won’t work. All the tissues, all the nerves, all the blood vessels have to be connected so that the blood of life can flow into that new part.

Our purpose as Christians is to ‘re-member.’ To find the one who is oppressed or exiled or lost, and reattach them to the body of Christ, reminding them and everyone who would exclude them that God shows no partiality, which means, neither can we.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of all – no exceptions. It isn’t, Jesus Christ is Lord of all, except for the atheists… or the gays… or the women, or the unchurched. Jesus is Lord of all. Paul says he died once for all – and that includes you, and it includes me, and it includes everyone we meet. (Ro 6:10)

We re-member when we love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, even our enemies. Dr. King was good at that and gave us a wonderful modern example in modern life of how that looks.

I had a discussion recently with my daughter who told me about an online argument she’d been having with some of her Christian friends who kept bringing up Bible verses to support their position. (It doesn’t even matter what the topic was). Here was my daughter’s response (and I can’t make a better point on Easter Eve than this):

She said, “All those words [in the Bible] are different ways of illustrating one message: lovelovelovelovelove. God is love. Period. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to agree with it. You can try to collect all the rules you want, and I'm sure that's a comfort. It's just not the point. I will say it until I die: God is love.”

We gather at this Great Vigil to re-member the power of the truth that God is love. Love that never dies. Love that dwells in us and calls us to be partners in the continuing work of redemption.

We may have some difficult days ahead, but it doesn't matter because our faith assures us that God is love, Christ is risen, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us.

As Dr. King said, …We, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So we are happy tonight and we are not worried about anything. Amen. Alleluia!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday, 2020: It's taking too long

Lectionary: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

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It’s taking too long. The restrictions on our freedom from sheltering-in-place, the lack of personal contact with friends and loved ones, the constant hand-washing and not touching our faces… How long until this is over? It’s taking too long.

Even beyond the Coronavirus, when we look around us, the church seems to be fracturing more not less. The world is no closer now to living in harmony than it has ever been.

It’s all taking too long.

But that’s the nature of life as a believer - being willing to wait on God and trusting that no matter how things look right now, God’s plan for us is perfect and perfectly loving.

As Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sadness), he was an exemplar of faithful obedience – and we are called to follow his example, for as long as it takes.

Jesus walked carrying a heavy burden that wasn’t even his own - it was ours - yet on he went. He fell from the weight of this burden – not once, but three times. He needed help carrying the burden. He sought the loving face of his mother to sustain him as he walked this terrible path. And he never stopped loving us, even as his flesh was torn and when the nails pierced him, even as he struggled to breathe.

It took too long. The reason the Romans used crucifixion as their chosen corporal punishment is because it was slow and painful. It took very long.

When I was 16 years old, Life Magazine did a story on Mother Theresa of Calcutta that changed my life. It showed pictures of Mother Theresa bending over people covered with oozing sores and skin diseases. She bent close and tended to their wound and whispered comfort to them. The interviewer asked Mother Theresa why she wasn’t worried about catching what these people had. Her response changed my life. Mother Theresa responded: “In the face of each of these I see the face of my Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The risk we face as modern Christians is making this all a movie that plays in our minds and not in our lives. We can share real emotion watching this movie in our minds, but we remain safely distant from the reality of it. Mother Theresa showed us how to make it real – how to find the face of Jesus all around us, not distant from us.

The truth is suffering always takes too long - especially when we’re the ones suffering. When someone cries out to us from their suffering and we respond, we expect to do our good deed and be done with it. If that person continues to need or suffer, we may give one or two more times, but then we get impatient. We begin to blame them – or use the very convenient (and over-used) excuse of not wanting to “enable” them. The truth is, what we really want is freedom from their suffering. It’s beginning to take too long.

In his book “Love Wins,” author Rob Bell says this: "What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God's version of our story." And in God’s version of our story, redemption comes by the death of the Messiah on a Roman cross. Innocent of any crime, Jesus willingly gave everything - so that the will of God would prosper.

And what is the will of God? Salvation for the whole world – the WHOLE world. That could take a long time.

In the meantime, we are called to gather together to worship God,” not neglecting to meet together, even in our new online formats,” because we can’t do this alone. We need God and each other as we walk the way that has been set before us, remembering that it won’t be quick or easy.

When we find ourselves impatient with problems that just won’t go away or when we hear ourselves saying, “this is taking too long;” we need only look up and see the broken body of Jesus on the cross to remember, God is at work redeeming all things even when we can’t see how. Who could have imagined the resurrection at the moment of the crucifixion?

God is already acting to redeem, everything and everyone. God’s plan for us is perfect and perfectly loving, and it takes time.