I know what to expect

A sermon for Easter Day

Acts 10:3443, or Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:12, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

Mary, Mary and Salome know what to expect. In the 1st century death was much closer to home. It was not unusual for what we call graves to be at home or in homes. It was also customary for family members to prepare bodies for burial. This is still customary today in some parts of the world; it’s a traditional and religious rite that complicated stopping the spread of Ebola. So it is not unusual for Jesus’ family and friends to tend to his body. They will have spices, and a linen shroud. They know that after three days well there may not be a stench, but the tomb is likely to be unpleasant. These ladies are witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion, they know how their beloved’s body looks ~ they know it will be unpleasant. Death is common, a family experience. Burial is common a ~ family responsibility. Mary, Mary and Salome know what to expect.

I know what to expect. My dad’s a retired doctor. In high school I worked weekends and two summers in the local hospital, primarily in the Emergency Room. I was on teams that drilled holes in skulls to relieve pressure on the brain, that worked at a vigorous pace to save young lives smashed in traffic accidents. I was present when kids my age died. I was present when children died. In seminary my CPE time was at the Veterans Hospital in Atlanta. I’ve served as a volunteer chaplain in every hospital in every city I’ve served. I know hospitals. I know ICU units. I know what to expect. Part of a lung has been removed, the incision will not be three little laparoscopic spots, there are chest tubes, oxygen tubes and multiple IV’s. I know what to expect.

Mary, Mary and Salome don’t talk about how they are going to go about their responsibilities. They are concerned about the stone that traditionally seals a tomb’s entrance. In another Gospel Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener they know or should know someone will be there, why else the mistaken identity?

To get to G’s room, you go down the hall, and turn left. For three days, at every left hand turn, my first physical motion was to the right.

Mary, Mary and Salome know the stone can be moved, their concern is a distraction. I know my left from my right, right is a distraction.

The human brain is remarkable. It has developed ways to protect us from all kinds of danger, physical and emotion, actual, and possible. It’s why we reflexively react so quickly to quick shadows or flashes at the very edge of our peripheral vision, or jump at sudden noises. Neuroscience is learning that our experiences actually build brain structures. Danger and risk create structures rapidly, contributing to our survival as a species. Happy and joy create structure, far more slowly. And all these structures can be passed on from generation to generation. That’s why children are afraid of lions and tigers and bears, without being taught. A stone, and mistaken direction are brains trying to protect us.

Mary, Mary and Salome don’t see what they expect, what they fear. The stone is moved away, the tomb is open. And Jesus isn’t there; who is there, seems to be an angelic being with the astounding message that Jesus, once dead, is raised, and that he expects the disciples to meet him in Galilee. And yes, fear is an element of their response, but so is amazement. They came expecting death, what they experience is life, and hope beyond expression.

After correcting myself, I made my way around the nurses’ station and looked the short distance across the ICU to far corner to the open door, of a darkened room. With every step the soft light reflecting off the back wall the combine light of LED’s and displays of numerous devices add a gentle muted illumination. With every step her face grows clearer and clearer. Quietly I exhale. Slowly, softly one considered step at a time I allow myself to move into her presence. What I see is her sweet face, relaxed, her hair loving brushed, and soft breaths.

Even knowing what I know, I ‘m not sure what I expected; what I see, is my daughter precious, full of life. What I see is a smile break across her face as her eyes open and she recognizes me. There is no fear like amazement. There is relief, there is life, there is hope.

And that is why we are here today.  We all know life is full of dark, dismal abysses. Death, in all its many guises is ever present. It’s why we turn right, or flee the unexpected. We here today to have written in our hearts the light that is not over whelmed by the dark, the dazzling which triumphs over the dismal, the divine relation  that bridges the abyss. And like our Eucharistic sacrament, it is far more than a celebratory memorial. This is a reliving, this is a divine rewriting on our hearts and in our minds that the love of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is always present. Sometimes it is manifest as a displaced stone and a mysterious young man, sometimes it is manifest in a softly illumined smile, and sometimes, who knows, save its always there, the prevailing joy the triumphal hope for all forever and that sings Alleluia.

The next big thing

A sermon for Epiphany Last

2 Kings 2:112, Psalm 50:16, 2 Corinthians 4:36, Mark 9:29

Friday morning, as is my daily custom, I was reading the New York Times, the Technology section. An article about Google’s future caught my attention. The author posits, that like Digital Equipment and Wang of years past; and like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft today Google’s dominance is fading. Googles current finances are fine, $14 billion in profits, up 19 percent over last year, are enviable. However, a look behind the numbers reveals concerns. Farhad Manjoo builds an articulate case that Google’s future is less clear than its present; however, that is another discussion for another context. What caught my attention is that like Digital Equipment, Wang, Hewett Packard and Microsoft, Google’s “dominance precludes it from dominating the next thing.”  (Manjoo)

I immediately wondered how the theorem that current dominance precludes dominating the big thing might explain:  the muddle:  in the Middle East for the US; or in the Ukraine for the US and Europe; or the financial commotion for the Euro; or Russia’s behavior in general.

Then I got to thinking about Israel, who was not a big thing in the first century, if ever. And then that within Judaism’s messianic movement, nothing short of a Davidic successor could possibly be the next big thing. It seems the theorem holds on the large stage.

And then I got to thinking about Jesus’ transformation; which, to be honest, makes little sense in the midst of Mark’s messianic secrete. But here it is. So how can the theorem of dominance and next big thing help us to glean what is going on.

You know the story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, where Jesus is transformed. Elijah and Moses appear with him. Peter interrupts their casual conversation, he wants to make three dwelling, or tents, or booths, for them, because the whole thing ~ well it’s just inconceivable and he is trying to put it within the dominate vision’s boundaries. It doesn’t fit. We know this because suddenly the whole mountain top is enshrouded in a cloud, from which God’s voice proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him!”

Observations of the scene from the theorem’s perspective. 1. Moses, manifesting the law, is a dominate thing. 2. Elijah, manifesting the prophets, is a dominate thing. Peter, in spite of his recent confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8:29) can only see Jesus in the dominate vision of Law and Prophets, and the attendant understanding of the messiah. At this point God shows up, and we have a theophany, think and Cecil B DeMille or Ridley Scott. The first theophany, Mark records, is Jesus’ baptism. It was an intimate private affair in the midst of a very public gathering around John the Baptist. Here, we have a public affair, at least its public to Peter, James and John, in the midst of a reasonably private gathering, after all they are on a mountain top. This contrast clues us in that something different is happening. This time, when God speaks the intended audience is: Peter, James and John. They now know, directly from God, Jesus is God’s beloved son. They also now know they are to listen to him. Two more observations: 1.being God’s son is tantamount to being God’s messiah; and 2.the dictate to “listen to him.” is not about authority, rather it firmly establishes Jesus identity.

What our theorem suggests is that this story is not about establishing dominance. The transfiguration established Jesus identity. The messianic secrete creates time in which the fullness of Jesus as the next messiah, the next big thing, can grow to its surprising fullness. It’s only as something different than the dominate Romanesque Davidic Imperial messiah that Jesus can bring salvation to all creation.

History teaches us the Jesus movement, Christianity, became a dominate force in the Mediterranean basin. After the church split in to Western Church, centered in Rome, and Eastern Orthodox Church and became dominate from the British Isles to Italian – Greek border, and from the Italian – Greek border to Persia, and at least powerfully present from Persia to China. We also know Western Christianity after the Reformation became dominate throughout the colonialized new world. Centuries have past. Christianity is not dominate in Europe, and less dominate in the US, and barely hanging on in the more eastern realms. We also know Christianity is on the ascendancy in Africa and Asia.

So, here we go:

  • Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all derivatives of the God of Abraham, all have a part in whatever new thing God is bringing to life.
  • Jesus was never about Christianity, a close reading of Gospels reveals that Jesus was always bringing people to God’s presence; Jesus always was, and is all about God.
  • The dominate position of Islam in the Middle east and its growth in Europe, and Christianity ascendency in Africa and Asia is not a predictor, one way or another, about what new thing God is bringing to life.
  • According to our theorem Christianity’s fall from dominance in Europe and rapidly falling dominance in the US will create space for whatever new thing God is bringing to life to be seeded, root, sprout and grow; and I cannot imagine who, what, how, when or where, beyond my sound belief, and absolute trust that God continues to be actively present here and now albeit in a wholly new way.

My prayer for this last Sunday of Epiphany, the season of light, is that we allow the brilliance of Jesus’ transfiguration to envelop us, envelope our imaginations, and allow our vision to be swaddled by the enshrouding cloud; so all we see is the new light of Christ, which is actually, according to John’s Gospel, the original cosmic light, illumine the next big thing illumine our path to the next big thing.


References

Manjoo, Farhad. “Google, Might Now, ut Not Forever.” New York Times 11 2 2015. web. <http://nyti.ms/1uFqOI9&gt;.

Seddon, Rev. Matt. “6 Pentecost, Proper 11 (A) – 2014; Groaning: The soundtrack of creation.” 20 7 2014. Sermons that Work.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Mark 9:2-9. 15 2 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344&gt;.

Why are we here?

A sermon for Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:112, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

We pick up this morning right where we left off last week. Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue go to Peter’s house, where they discover his mother in law is ill. Jesus heals her and she begins to serve them. By sun set the whole city was outside the front door seeking Jesus’ help; with all these new friends you think he’d won the lottery. Jesus heals the sick, and silences the demons. At some point he goes to sleep, because the story tells us he gets up early in the morning to go pray. We’d all be better off praying after a long’s night work and/or before starting a long day’s work. The disciples find him, perhaps interrupt him, ‘cause the people are already lining up. Jesus tells them:

Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

There are two points I’d like to explore. The first is Peter’s mother in law immediately getting up and begin serving people. Many find this offensive, among the defenses is seeing her serving as a sign of her complete healing. Others point out Lazarus doesn’t go about serving  after he is raised from the dead, he sits down, well lays down, as they did in the day, for dinner. Another defense is her serving shows she has been fully restored to her family, tribe and Israel, like we explored last week. But still, it rubs raw a woman serves it’s the same ole same ole subjection of women. However, Mark Skinner looks all the way to the end of Mark, at Golgotha, positing that among the women who witness Jesus’ crucifixion and death, who had served him while he was in Galilee; (Mark 15:41) is Peter’s mother in law. Thus, early on Mark is identifying her as one of Jesus disciples. (Skinner)

The second bit is “that is what I came to do.” This story is broadly understood as a healing story, and lots of people are healed. However, Jesus himself tells us, that is not why he is there. Jesus is there to proclaim the message. But, what message? Marks references it in the first verse “The beginning of the good news….” so perhaps it’s the whole story. Isaiah 61 includes ideals like: liberty, release, comfort, provision, and gladness. (Isaiah 61:1) Jesus continually silencing demons, who know who he is, points us to the message as the reveling of the presence of God’s messiah, the anointed one, Jesus self, as the way of redemption for all creation. The message is good news is the Gospel.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses his preaching the Gospel. His saying “I become all things to all people” is more nuanced than most think. Its best understood as Paul pointing out he doesn’t call people to come over here and be like me. Rather he goes to them, lives with them, respecting their ways, within limits, to be a glimpse of the presence of Christ to them. All for the purpose of sharing the Gospel, so that he may share in its blessings, that he may experience the unity of God’s people. (Mast)

We know Jesus knows why he was in Galilee. We know Paul knows why he was in Corinth. I wonder; do we know why we are here? I know you know I’m going to give you two reasons: to proclaim the message, and for the sake of the Gospel. Well three answers: to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here, right now. And you won’t be surprised when I recall last week’s gleanings this is much more a how than what task. But this week’s readings invite us to continue to seek understanding proclaiming the Kingdom as we seek the depths of our own belief, as we seek the behavioral imperatives of our own faith. And as Jonah taught us it’s our attention to the everyday stuff not the grand cosmic schemes to which we are most likely called.

Let me share some examples. On my trip to Atlanta I left the cross given to me at my graduation from seminary, which I have worn nearly every day since then, in the security bin. When I got back to Memphis, I asked about lost and found. At every step along the way the TSA people listened carefully, answered respectfully and were very helpful. I sensed they shared in my joy when I picked it up last Wednesday.

Recently Angie took a phone call from a stranger, referred by a known individual, and shared her experiences with Nuggett as a service dog, including the places where she struggles.

Recently some colleagues and I listened to another share challenges of changing life and church status which included hopes, concerns and fears. Once again I’ve witnessed the staff at Great River Medical Center offer loving care to a patient and to the patient’s family and loved ones. My favorite Super Bowl commercial is Nationwide’s controversial ad that shows a child lamenting he will never ride a bike, or have a first kiss, or fly, or know a best friend, or get married “because I died in an accident. The ad closes with scenes of an over flowing tub, open kitchen sink cabinet doors a flat screen TV pulled off a dresser shattered on the floor, and then invites us in: “We can make safe happen.” (Nationwide)

Other examples are those standing with the marginalized. Many Episcopal clergy stood with protesters in Missouri, New York, Ohio and elsewhere and by their physical presence forcing us to look at our culpability behind inappropriate lethal police responses.

You may or may not have heard of Elizabeth Cook, suffragan bishop of Maryland. She was driving under the influence and struck and killed a bicyclist. There has been lots of press. I’m most impressed by an open letter blogged by Anna Howell, who, while not excusing Bp. Cook’s behavior, distinguishes between her behavior and her person.  Howell reminds us all Bp. Cook, as do we, continues to be baptized, and beloved of God. She quotes Julian of Norwich

[who] saw no wrath in God, even in response to human sin. … Because God is so much bigger than us. (Howell)

There are those who stand with Muslims seeking to peacefully live into their faith, so related to Judaism and Christianity all of whom share origins in Abraham and though very differently, place our faith in the same God.

There are those who stand with people of different sexual orientation who continue to be the object of virulent exclusion. As the legal battle for the right to marriage works its way through the courts Sons have been denied burial, and partners have been denied presence with dying partners. I know of pastors denied churches and or access to pulpits because of their sexual orientation or their stance on issues of sexual orientation. I’ll also mention that women ministers are routinely denied access to the pulpit because of their straight gender. And I know those who stand in solidarity with them.

To stand with those on society’s margins is risky. There is the risk of losing social standings, and exclusion. It’s also difficult to do because of our tendency to strike back. David Brooks posits the key to taking such a stance is to get our self-worth out of the way, To step out of the nihilistic taunting terrorist, misogynist, anarchist, bullies, exclusionist seek to draw us in to.  (Brooks, Conflict and Ego) It’s difficult for us to live into our Christian faith because it’s not a position of power, nor influence it’s a position of trusting others to make a good decision.  (Brooks, Being Who We Are) It’s difficult for us because we can come right up against our belief our faith our trust that God is with us.

Why are we here? We are here, I pray, so we may be a healing presence, so we can speak from within ourselves of the presence of God; so we can be present to another as God is present to us; so we can stand with the those belligerently denied their birthright as a child of God, so we can trust that God stands with us as we stand for the Gospel amongst the marginalized, as we stand with Peter’s mother in law as a disciple of Christ.


References

Brooks, David. “Being Who We Are.” New York Times 30 1 2015. nytimes.com. <http://nyti.ms/1BxJy9I&gt;.

—. “Conflict and Ego.” New York Times 6 2 2015. nytimes.com. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/opinion/davidbrooksconflictandego.&gt;.

Howell, Anna Marion. An Open Letter to the Right Reverend Heather Elizabeth Cook. 4 2 2015. <https://sulfurfreejesus.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/dear-bishop-heather/&gt;.

Lose, David. Epiphany 5 B: Freedom For. 08 2 2015. <davidlose.net>.

Mast, Stan. 1 Corinthians 9:1623. 8 2 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Nationwide. Super Bowl Commercials 2015. 1 2 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKUy-tfrIHY&list=PL7_vzLILpPXjApytIgRJGKo2__BiPGenS&gt;.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Mark 1:2939. 8 2 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344&gt;.

Jesus Ball

A sermon for Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

This morning I want to start with baseball. And yes I know its February, and yes, I know its Super Bowl Sunday, nonetheless, I want to talk about baseball. Everybody knows how to play baseball. Everybody plays the same way, including General Manager’s, coaches, and owners, who do their best to accumulate a core of super stars who are to propel the team through the season through the playoffs all the way to a World Series victory. It’s always been that way. Except when it wasn’t Way back in 1980 and 81 the Oakland A’s were managed by Billy Martin, who managed the team by emphasizing speed, hits and run, steals, double steals, even a triple steal. Writer Kit Stier described the A’s

as a “bunch of disorganized misfits” [who] had transformed into a group of legitimate contenders. (Markusen)

Martin et.al. set the precedence for Billy Bean and Peter Brand, who began to build another A’s team, this time around statistics to find players with the highest on base percentage. They were met with fierce resistance, from the coaches and scouts. They were hampered by a poor start. However, things began to improve; at one point they won 20 consecutive games, and finished the season with 94 wins. Bean and Brand transformed baseball. Now almost everyone is making greater and greater use of statistics in all aspects of the managing a team. They also inspired the movie Moneyball. (IMBD)

Billy shows us, you don’t have to do it that way, just because it’s always been done that way. Billy and Peter, show us you don’t have to plan that way just because it’s always been planned that way. Both are examples of how taking a different approach, can bring about unexpected dramatic results. Jesus does things different, and the results are unexpected and dramatic.

Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum, way up north in Samaria. Not a place you would expect a good Jew to be. They go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as you would expect good Jews to do. Remember synagogue is much more like Sunday School than our Eucharist centered worship. Typically scribes the professional legal scholars (Harrelson) read from Torah, or the Law, from one of the prophets or from one of the histories, and then recanted some official interpretation. Remember the Law, based in Holy Writ, is what Jews use to make all their decisions; the big ones and all the everyday ones. It is not unusual for any male to read from and comment on Jewish Holy Writ. On this particular day, Jesus does so. And does so particularly well, so well everyone is astounded, that he teaches with authority. When you trace the etymology, of origins of the Greek word, you eventually get to the roots ‘with’ and ‘I am’ or ‘existence.’ (Strong’s) Jesus is teaching from himself, the people in the synagogue can tell the difference. And I don’t believe the difference was how correct Jesus was verse the Scribes, we aren’t even told what his says, so it must be how he speaks and how that changes people’s relationships with him. And here I need to be sure we all understand, I’m thinking of Jesus as fully human. Jesus relates to the people there in a completely different, authentic way, and it changes everything.

The second bit of Mark’s story, is about the man possessed by an unclean spirit, (a demon). The demon causes him to stand up and shout at Jesus, expressing fear that Jesus is there to destroy “us.” It would be interesting to know who the others in the synagogue think ‘us’ is; but that’s another story. Jesus rebukes him; it’s the same word Jesus uses to stop Peter, when he objects to Jesus first mention of his death and resurrection. The demon, after one last hurrah, obeys and flees.

I suspect all of us understand this as a manifestation of Jesus’ divine persona, and the use of Godly power. But this morning I want to stay with Jesus’ fully human persona and explore how we might understand everything here just a bit differently, and what it says to us.

If we go all the way back to the beginning, Genesis 1, we read:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:27 (NRSV))

God created humans in community, our relationship to each other is central to our humanity. Remember the Samaritans are considered to be lesser Jews because they are descendants of those left behind in the great exile to Babylon. They intermarried with the invaders and other bordering tribes and therefore are unclean, and are therefore rejected by the true Jews descended from those who returned from Babylon. Also remember all Israel is occupied by the Romans; an anathema for all Jews who believe a foreigner’s presence in God’s land is just wrong, and therefore sense some degree of divine rejection. We are not told anything about the possessed man other than he is possessed. However, we know possession would be considered a sign of divine retribution. Truth is it’s a bit of a surprise he would be in the synagogue, raising the specter he surreptitiously made his way there. So what we have is a people occupied by a foreign power, there by rejected, rejected by their own for reasons of historical accident, and a man, likely further rejected by his own twice rejected people. There is a lot of rejection here.

In a few chapters Jesus heals a woman suffering from menstrual hemorrhages saying

Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 (NRSV))

The key word here is daughter, because by using it Jesus restores her to relationship with her family, tribe and Israel, ~ the people of God. It’s conceivable the restoration of her relationship is causal to her healing. Her symptoms are gone, but doesn’t Jesus say “…be healed…” until her relationships are restored.

In a similar manner, in this morning’s story, Jesus first restores the relationship between everyone in the synagogue and by extension everyone in Capernaum and everyone in Samaria with God, and then he restores the possessed man’s relationship to his family, tribe and the people of God. Just as the restored relationships of the hemorrhaging woman will heal her, restoring the man’s relationships allows, empowers him to reject the demonic power that has usurped his being. The fully human Jesus, by how he speaks, restores relationships and allows another to rebuke that which would control him.

To proclaim the Kingdom of God right here, right now we need do no more than to speak to others in a way not in words, but in a way that reveals our relationship with God, and affirms their relationship with God. Yea, it’s a different way of understanding evangelism, but this time, it’s been done before.


References

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. “The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Mark 1:2128.” 01 2 2015. Center for Excellence in Preaching.

Markusen, Bruce. “Cooperstown Confidential: the original Billy Ball.” Hardball Times. 14 9 2012. <http://www.hardballtimes.com/cooperstown-confidential-the-original-billy-ball/&gt;.

“Moneyball.” 23 9 2011. IMDB.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Mark 1:2128. 1 2 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.