Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cross Purposes

This is the first weekend in over a month that I haven’t been off doing something else - leading a retreat, teaching a class, engaging in a workshop or seminar of some sort. It has been tiring, to be honest, but also exciting. Because most of what I teach when I step outside of the local church is preaching. Something I love doing - well both doing and teaching, to be honest. Partly because of what I understand preaching to be.

Preaching is an intensely personal activity. We are invested in what we do as preachers. There is a piece of ourselves in each sermon. There is a vulnerability in the act of preaching. So, when I go and teach and when we in a class setting preach to one another we become a little closer, we become a little more like the community that we could be.

That isn't the purpose of our preaching when I teach. The purpose was an academic exercise, they are there to learn about preaching, to test their skills and to grow as individual preachers. I'm there to teach, to suggest areas for growth, and to encourage them in their journey to become the preachers that God has called them to be. But this other thing, this other purpose happens anyway. The bonus is that this unintended purpose helps the main goal -- we learn more, we learn more effectively because of the community we become. So, perhaps the unintended purpose is intentional after all. Or it would have been intentional had we thought of it ourselves.

Which is what might be happening in our gospel lesson for this week. Let's read:

John 19:26-29 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

First of all, you'll notice that there are two Words from the Cross in this passage. When designing this series I realized that the only way that I could get a separate Sunday for each Word would be to start two weeks early or to go over Palm Sunday and Easter. And as an Easter Message, "Into Thy Hands, I Commend My Spirit" might not carry the same jubilant experience as "Christ is Risen" does. So, I had to do some combining. This week we get Word Three and Word Five. OK, I'm also jumping around. But it made sense as they were both in this same passage.

Anyway, the truth is giving equal weight to both Words is difficult and the supporting passage from Isaiah talks about being thirsty - so the sermon tomorrow will be weighted toward the "I Thirst" Word. Which means I need to balance by paying attention to the other Word in this space. With me so far?

Word Three then is this: He said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." We began with a Word to God -- Father Forgive -- on behalf of all of us guilty ones. Then came a Word of welcome to a sinner. Now a Word to a Mother and a Son. But before that word they were not Mother and Son. Well, she was a Mother and he was a Son, but they were not Mother and Son. If you follow.

For most of his ministry, Jesus seemed unconcerned about family as traditionally understood. It began when he was twelve years old and got Left Behind (Ooh, another best-seller Left Behind: Adolescents in the Temple. Never mind.) When mom and dad found him, Mary's comment to Jesus was "Your father and I were worried." Jesus' response was "I was with my father." Uh oh, that must have hurt. Don't you think?

Later on when Mary and the boys showed up to take Jesus home because people thought he was mad, word was sent to Jesus: "Your mother and your brothers are here!" Jesus responded with "Who is my mother, who are my brothers?" That must have hurt.

Jesus told that guy to leave the dead to bury the dead when he said he wanted to stay with his father. Jesus said he came to set mother against daughter and father against son. I wonder sometimes if those guys who are always preaching "family values" ever read the New Testament. It almost seems as though Jesus were anti-family.

Bishop William Willimon tells of how he would get phone calls from angry parents when he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He said that he never got complaints or requests for help from parents who would say help, my child has gotten into alcohol and it is ruining his life. Or help, my child is embarking on a life of casual sex and it is ruining her life. No, he said, the calls came from parents who said, “help, my children have become religious fanatics and want to spend their lives helping the poor, and it is ruining their lives!” Or, what they really meant, is that it is ruining the plan I had in mind for his or her life! Darn that Jesus, messing with families again.

It is like Jesus had a different purpose for families in mind, different from what most of assume when we talk about our family. We are of the opinion that blood is thicker than water. But Jesus wants us to understand that water is thicker than blood. Only when the water is the water of baptism, however. Willimon says that in baptism we are rescued from our families. Now this is a pretty contentious statement, and many of us would argue that our families are really pretty good folks all around. Sure we bump heads now and then, and sometimes we disappoint one another from time to time, but overall they are pretty good folks and we love them.

After each baptism, I take a few moments to carry the infant into the new family. Which includes the one that brought him or her into the church, but now is much larger, much more inclusive. I introduce the child to a new family. Child, here are your mothers, your fathers, your brothers and sisters, here is your family.

From the cross, Jesus was creating a family, because he would argue, we need one. We need to be connected to one another. We need to belong to one another. We need to care for and be cared for by one another. We need community, and so with his dying words he creates, or continues to create community. In that culture, family was everything. Your place in society came from family, your purpose came from family, your inherent worth came from family. Jesus knew we needed family, he just argued that there was another way to create a family. That locus of meaning, that sense of place was to be found not from an accident of birth or a legal transaction, but from an act of will in a covenant community. We are who we are because of the family that He puts us in. Woman, here is your Son. Here is your mother. And a new family is created.

At the first and the second Word we discovered that the purpose of the cross was to put us back into right relationship with God. Now at the third Word we hear that the purpose of the Cross is to put us into a right relationship with one another. To build community.

It isn't an accident. It is by design. Welcome to the family.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cross Over

"Life is hard, and then you die." What a cheery beginning to this bible study on a lovely Spring-like weekend! I'm sure you've heard that cliche before, maybe even said it yourself. If you did then you probably remember the context. It is usually said by a smart mouth kid attempting to capture something of the futility of life. It is usually said by someone who doesn't want to sympathize with someone's struggles. And, I believe, is usually said by someone who doesn't really understand the reality of death, by someone who believes in some unspoken corner of the mind that they are immortal.

At least when I said it, that is where I was. It was just a funny thing to say. It was just a conversation killer. A way of saying, quit complaining, get over yourself, or something like that. Life is hard and then you die. So there. Death is the ultimate conversation killer, the ultimate last word. You can't top this, you can't go anywhere from this, there is nothing else to say. Then you die, full stop.

Of course, we Christians know that there is something more to say. We live our lives, we base our faith on the something more. That something more is eternity. Life IS hard, but then you die doesn't sum it all up after all. There is something called eternity that changes our perspective on death, and on life.

And that is the key to our Word from the Cross this week. That changed perspective on life, as well as death. The first Word last week was a word to God, a prayer on our behalf, of course, but not addressed to us. The second Word is similarly not addressed to us. But to someone we might not expect in the normal course of things. Read our gospel for March 20:

Luke 23:39-43 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Today. That is the word that has always jumped out at me in this Word. Today. I have wrestled with that word for years, I have jumped from meaning to meaning, from assumption to assumption, from one glimpse of understanding to another, trying to figure out what was being said in that moment. And I still don't know. That is my confession here in this space. I don't really know what was being said. And I suspect that the only one who really knew, or really discovered was the thief, the criminal hanging there with Jesus on a cross that dark Friday afternoon.

One commentator wrote that this just might be the first Christian sermon. Not the Word from Jesus, but the confession of the criminal. "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Not a long sermon, but a sermon nonetheless. The argument is that here is the first one who realized that Jesus, the man dying on a cross, was the Messiah because he was dying in innocence. His death was sacrificial, whereas the thief's death was selfish - he died for his own deeds. And then having realized this, and having made the proclamation, to his fellow criminal if no one else, he then asked for something from the one he identified as his Lord.

What is amazing is what he didn't ask for. He didn't ask for rescue. Get me down, get us down! That is what was expected, and what the other asked. But this one asked to be remembered. Remember me. When you get where you are going, remember me. That's all. Maybe what he meant was come and get me, but that isn't what he said. So, maybe all he really meant was remember me. Don't let my life be summed up by this death. Remember me as the one who recognized you. Remember me as someone who was more than the sum of his sins. Remember me. That's what he asked for.

What he got was a whole lot more. Today you shall be with me in paradise. Most folks hang their attention on the word paradise. The promise of joy unending, of completion, of wholeness. The green fields of heaven stretching out into forever waiting for the final breath of the one who claimed faith in a man he met while dying. It is a wonderful vision and certainly one worth clinging to.

Yet there seems like there should be more. There's that word "today." I know that given the fact that death was mere breaths away, at least for Jesus, he could have been referring to the fact that shortly Jesus and his new friend would be gamboling through those green fields. It was a sort of "hang on until we get through the messy bit right now and then we'll find our way to the garden -- which is the literal translation of paradise.

Even so, I think we are missing something if that is the interpretation we glean. That word "today" seems even more immediate. It carries the sense of right now, this very moment, not just within a 24 hour time span. But how can that be? How can Jesus be inviting the thief, the criminal - and actually the word thief is never used. Mark calls them bandits, which is a term used for those who stir up trouble, often attacking foreigners. So maybe thief isn't accurate, and criminal is too vague. Perhaps terrorist would fit better in this context. So, how can Jesus be inviting this terrorist into paradise even while they hang, dying on a cross?

Maybe the answer is in the other phrase of our second Word: "with me." There is a singer named Sara Groves who has become one of my favorites. She has a song titled "What Do I Know" on her Conversations CD. In the song she reveals that she has a friend who has just turned 88 and is afraid of dying. Her faith is still strong, she "grew up singing about the glory land, and she would testify how Jesus changed her life. It was easy to have faith when she was thirty-four, but now her friends are dying, and death is at her door." A not uncommon experience, we might say. And the singer, Sara, wonders how to comfort her, how to strengthen her for what is to come. And what strikes her first is what she doesn't know. Here is the refrain of "what do I know": I don't know that there are harps in heaven, / Or the process for earning your wings. / I don't know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels, / Or any of those things. What we don't know about eternity is profound. And when we look at what Jesus told us, there isn't that much that we can add to our lack of knowledge. Jesus didn't seem that interested in resolving our need to know exactly what was going to happen to us when we die.

In fact, we might argue that he wasn't that interested in resolving our need to know what was going to happen to us while we live, except in the most general of ways. We aren't told what works and what doesn't. Jesus doesn't give us the 12 steps to a better life or anything like that. What he offered us is a relationship. Follow me, he said. Today you shall be with me in paradise, he said. Where two or three are gathered I will be there. And lo I will be with you until the end of the age. Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden.

Sara Groves resolves her dilemma this way: “But I know to be absent from this body / is to be present with the Lord, / and from what I know of him, / that must be pretty good.” Today you shall be with me in paradise. Eternity is not about a place, it is about a person. It is about a relationship. And when Jesus spoke those words to that terrorist dying on a cross he meant right now, right then. Paradise for that man was nothing like a green field or garden of delights, it was a cross that was robbing him of life. And yet in that moment he found life, abundant and full life. Paradise begins when we enter into a relationship with Jesus. Eternity starts now, not just when we die, but right now when we reach out for the nail scarred hand and realize that we are not alone.

Life is often hard, and death is a part of the life we know. But eternity breaks through the hardness and transcends the death today and every day that we claim Christ as Lord.

That must be pretty good.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Cross Stitch

No, I am not turning this bible study into a crafters' blog, there is another reason for the title this week. Hang on and I'll get to it. This Lenten Season Aldersgate is reflecting on the Cross. Our gospel readings will encompass the seven last words that Jesus spoke from the cross as recorded in all four gospels. Plus, since there are seven last words and 5 Sundays in Lent we have to combine a couple of them so I've changed the order a little bit.

Week 1 Father Forgive March 13, 2011 Luke 23:32-38
Week 2 Today March 20, 2011 Luke 23:39-43
Week 3 Behold, thy Son / I Thirst March 27, 2011 John 19:26-29
Week 4 My God, My God April 3, 2011 Matthew 27:45-49
Week 5 Finished / Into Thy Hands April 10, 2011 John 19:30 & Luke 23:46-49

Then, of course will be Palm/Passion Sunday with a presentation of the whole passion story from the Gospel of Luke.

OK, so, here we go. And if you want another source for some of the ideas that I will express here, please pick up Bishop William Willimon's book "Thank God It's Friday." That book is what convinced me that I needed to follow this plan for our Lenten examination this year. It is a wonderful and inspiring look at the words from the cross.

Now, we are ready. I hope.

Luke 23:32-38 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah1 of God, his chosen one!" 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" 38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the first observations to make about these words is that there has been considerable debate as to whether Jesus actually prayed this prayer from the cross at all. Some of the oldest manuscripts do not have these words recorded, which lead many to believe that it was a later addition. Some even go so far as to argue that the purpose of addition was to ease the blame off of Rome so that the Christians wouldn't seem to be a threat to the empire. Others argue that the addition was an attempt to avoid the centuries of anti-Semitism that grew up in the church.

The effectiveness of the former could be debated, I suppose, but the perhaps laudable goal of the latter was in no way even approached. It could even be argued that in the early days of Christendom that it was the depiction of the passion story as a whole the brought forth the shameful excesses of anti-Semitism that still persist even today.

Which brings us back to these words, this first word from the cross. It is interesting to me that this first word is not a word to us, it is a word to God. Jesus still has much to tell us, much to pass on to us even with his dying breaths. But he uses this first word to intercede for us yet again. "Father, Forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."
It is not an easy word to hear, or to overhear in this case. Not easy because knowledge is so important to us. "Know thyself" said one of humanity's greatest philosophers. We strive after knowledge. We live in an information age. We grow to the age of understanding. We confer degrees of knowledge upon one another. We pride ourselves with our intelligence quotient.

Yet when push comes to shove, when life bumps up against death, when meaning stands before us, salvation is offered us, love reaches to embrace us, we need to be forgiven because we don't know what we are doing.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us that the wanton behavior or the prodigal, the loose living, the slap against parental authority, the self-centered, self-seeking sinfulness is not really
who we are. It is a madness of sorts, an unknowing. The turn about phrase in the midst of the story is "when he came to himself." If he only knew from the beginning who he really was; if he only knew his own soul and his own mind, then his life would have been different. If he only knew.

Father forgive them, they don't know. Jesus came, some argue, to show us God. And in showing us God he showed us ourselves. In other words, Jesus came so that we would know what we were doing. And yet as he died he prayed to God to forgive us because we didn't get it. We didn't know.

He could have washed his hands of us at that moment. In an odd way that is what the taunters were asking for. Walk away from us Jesus, show us your power by taking care of your own skin. That selfishness we know, we understand that. Because we live it every day. It is this sacrifice that we don't know. It is this dying that we don't understand. Give up on us and then we would know that you were right, that you did have the power, that you were who you said you were. But then it would have been too late. And we would have been lost.

Jesus didn't give up on us. He began his dying by trying to help us live. Father, forgive them. From the cross Jesus was trying to get us back or keep us in right relationship with God. Forgive them. Heal them. Hold them. Gather them up. Stitch them back together.

That was the function of this word from the cross, to stitch us back into relationship with God. Even though our actions seemed to say that we didn't want to be there. Even though our words implied that we wanted nothing to do with God or with salvation or with hope for living. The thing is, we didn't know what we were doing.

I can't argue for the historical accuracy of these words from the cross. What I can argue for is the theological veracity of them. I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus died as he lived trying to stitch us back together. Even as he was unraveling, even as the world was unraveling on that dark day on Calvary, his intent, his desire was to put us back together with God. To heal the breach, by stretching his own broken body across the gap. To stop the hemorrhage by pouring his own blood into wounds we inflict on ourselves. Cross stitching.

Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing.



Friday, March 4, 2011

Get Happy

“Forget your troubles, come on get happy.” Remember that one? “Forget your troubles c'mon get happy,/ you better chase all your cares away. / Shout hallelujah c'mon get happy / get ready for the judgment day.” You can almost hear Judy Garland, can’t you. With the jacket and fedora, singing and dancing a jazzy version of “Get Happy.” It was in the movie “Summer Stock.” Which turned out to be her last movie. And given the general tenor of her life - it seems somewhat ironic.

“The sun is shinin c'mon get happy, / the lord is waitin to take your hand. / shout hallelujah, c'mon get happy, / we're going to the promised land.” It wasn’t written for her or for that movie, though. The song was written in 1930 and first sung by Ruth Etting, who also first sang “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” and “Ten Cents a Dance.” Etting’s life wasn’t a bed of roses either. Her second husband to be was shot and injured by her ex-husband, but she married him anyway, but since he was a decade younger than her in those days it was a bit of a scandal and ended her career. They even made a movie of it with Doris Day and James Cagney.

“The sun is shinin c'mon get happy, / the lord is waitin to take your hand. / shout hallelujah c'mon get happy, / we're gunna be goin to the promised land.” The most recent appearance of the song was in the TV show Glee in this its second season. Kurt and Rachel, two of the most outcast of outcast characters in the show, sing Get Happy mixed with Happy Days Are Here Again. Which has also been done before - by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland no less (There’s nothing new under the sun).

The problem is, if you saw the episode (or You Tubed it - is that a word?) then you can’t help but have the sense that the irony I referenced in the first paragraph is inherent in the song itself. Kurt and Rachel seem anything but happy as they sing. Almost as if the troubles they want to forget are overwhelming them. And the song seems a little like whistling in the dark.

Whether it was Ruth Etting singing in face of relationship troubles, or Judy singing in spite of personal issues that would send her life spiraling out of control, or Kurt and Rachel singing through the pain of a high school world that wouldn’t find a place for them - none of them seemed able to really forget their troubles. It is beyond our human capacity, it seems, to let go of what hurts us, of what threatens us. It seems almost insensitive to tell someone who has much to worry about that they shouldn’t worry. Doesn’t it?

Matthew 6:24-34 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you -- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Has he done it again? Has he gone and given us an impossible task? Being poor is hard enough, meekness doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Reconciliation, tearing out eyes and cutting off hands, not getting angry, not looking with lust, saying only what we mean and meaning what we say, being perfect, God-like perfect – well, its all just too much. We feel burdened by the responsibilities of our faith. And we have thought it through enough to know that it isn’t these works that gain us a place in God’s kingdom. We know that - in our heads at least. But we are to let these attitudes and actions, these modes of being just fall from us like ripe fruit off our tree of righteousness. And it still feels like a burden. Like our limbs can’t bear the weight of all this fruit, and we are bent over by the encumbrance of our good works.

And then he has the nerve to tell us to not worry. Great. Why didn’t he start with this? We might have had a completely different attitude to all the stuff he’s been piling on. But here it feels like a cruel joke. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. But don’t worry about it. Right.

I know, we could say, just do it, don’t worry about it. But that doesn’t really work in the real world, does it. Anything we strive to do, we worry about. To a degree at least. We worry about what is important. We worry about what we want to spend time and energy on. Maybe all he really means is don’t worry excessively. Don’t worry in such a way that it cripples us. Jesus as Dr. Phil. Let it go, he says, take it easy he says. Do what you can do and be satisfied with that.

Well, that’s certainly good advice and something we should pay attention to more than we do. But is it gospel? Is it really good news? If we just pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, if we just push away the dark clouds on our own horizons through sheer force of will, then when our energy wanes or our attention wavers, all those worries come rushing back in upon us, stronger and more desperate than before.

We aren’t birds, as beautiful as they are. We aren’t flowers, though they are lovely. And I don’t think Jesus us is really asking us to sit like baby birds in a nest mouths open, bodies quivering, waiting for the worms to fall from heaven. He isn’t really asking us to sit like potted plants waiting for the water to fall and the fertilizer to drop. So, why the little nature interlude? What exactly are we to consider when we do our birdwatching and flower contemplating?

Maybe we should listen again, to the third verse of Judy’s song - well, and Ruth’s and Kurt and Rachel’s (and I’m excited to see according to the previews - Dr. Gregory House’s song too!): “The sun is shinin c'mon get happy, / the lord is waitin to take your hand.” Look at the birds and know, in the sheer wonder of them, that God cares for them. Consider the lilies and understand, through the incomparable beauty of them, that God loves God’s creation. Of which we are a part.

The passage begins with a choice. But it is our choice. God has already chosen. And God has chosen us. Worries and all. Failings and all. God has chosen us. To love us, to be with us, to include us in the plans for the Kingdom, to place within us a longing for home. We choose in the context of being chosen. We love – God and neighbor both – in the context of being loved.

I don’t think Jesus really expects us to never worry again. If he did, why did he include a note that says “Today’s own trouble is enough for today”? He knows we will worry, we can’t help it. He just doesn’t want us to let worry be the definer of our lives. He would much rather that He be the definer, that God be the definer, that love be what shapes and orders our lives. The love we give and the love that surrounds us, like the beauty of flowers and the effervescent joy of the birds.

With all that around us, we might even find time to forget our troubles, c’mon be happy!