Monday, November 25, 2013

He took our hand and walked into the dark room with us.

Christ the King C.  24 November 2013.[1]


            As I read the Gospel lesson, just now, it may have seemed a bit abrupt that we would find ourselves at the Cross.  In the Episcopal Church we are not accustomed to reading the story of the crucifixion of Jesus outside of the full story of his trial and the events leading up to the Cross. 


            So often we have encountered it as one long "Passion reading" on Palm Sunday or Good Friday—with so much for the listener to hear that it feels like drinking from a fire hydrant.  Any little bits of the story that intrigue you, or move you, as you listen become lost as the narrative carries you ceaselessly to the Cross.  You think, "what was that about?"  But before you can reflect, we're on to the next.


            One such part of the narrative is the part we read today, the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals who were hanged beside Jesus.  When we see the image of the Cross—like on the Altar, or around someone's neck—it is usually a solitary cross.  If the Cross also bears a likeness of Jesus on it, it's called a crucifix.  Either way, we remember Jesus being crucified, but rarely does that image encompass the two criminals.  Even more rarely do we remember that there was a discussion between them. 


            It is likely that we don't remember it that way because this discussion is only recorded in Luke's gospel.  Matthew mentions that two bandits were also hanged with Jesus—but no dialog.  John records Jesus' conversation with the disciples and Mary, and simply writes that "two others" were crucified with him.  Mark doesn't mention anyone at all. 


            I want to try to talk about this interaction between Jesus and the two criminals, but there is an over-arching context to this text that gives it a power we could easily overlook. 


            The power of these sentences can be eclipsed by reading ahead too quickly to the Resurrection.  And we do that.  We do that quite naturally, because the Gospel of Christ is the Resurrection.  It is our "Alleluia" that Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and sickness and hell, and rose again from the dead, giving life to all who want it.  That is our story, but you cannot have the Resurrection without the Cross.  He has to die.  He has to be utterly and completely dead, or the story isn't the story. 


            The pathos of the part we read is that these three men—Jesus and the two criminals—are dying.  They are dying a very painful and embarrassing death in front of who knows how many people.  It was painful.  The word we use to describe pain of this magnitude is what?  Excruciating. 


            The word excruciating is derived from the Latin word ex-cruciare, which means to crucify.  The word carries in its full meaning the total horror of crucifixion.  That it is embarrassing, torturous, and agonizing—all three of those words combined.  Humiliating emotionally.  Mentally torturous—meaning, not knowing when it will end or how bad it is going to get.  And agonizing—painful to the body. 


            When people say they felt "excruciating pain," God bless them, but typically they are describing agony.  Excruciating is a complete assault on every faculty of one's being for who knows how long before death.  You and I cannot imagine it, unless we live it.  And if we lived it, we could not live to explain it.  Do you see what I'm trying to say?


            Here are three men who are being excruciated.  If they were only dying it would still be horrific, but do you understand that they are not only dying? 


            It is one thing to know you are dying, and another thing entirely to know when.  We all know that we are dying.  I remember very clearly when I was a little boy finding out that in time we all die.  I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I was probably about Peter's age, and I was sitting on the front steps of our house.  The girl who lived across the street was also sitting on the front steps of her house and we were talking across the street at each other.  She was a little older, and I don't remember how it came up or exactly what she said, but I remember her saying, "Everyone dies.  You will die one day."

            It was like Eve giving me the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.  And I ate the apple.  And I looked down and realized that we were both naked.  Not really, of course, but that's what it feels like when you realize that you are not as safe as you thought you were. 

            It happens in little bits over the course of your early years.  And when you are a child you can't always accommodate new information.  You go to your room and play with your toys, but your mind creates these little tangled thoughts and questions that lie around on the floor.  Sometimes they can actually form coherent thoughts, like "Grandma got sick and died.  If I catch a cold, will I also die?"  "My mother takes medicine.  If she stops taking it, will she die?" 


            Children ponder these sorts of things long before parents know, and sometimes there is a breakdown in their ability to express the anxiety that those early thoughts produce.  They don't know what to do with their thoughts.  No one can get inside their heads with them to see what they are thinking and to gauge the limits of their mind's ability to put things together.


            When we are very very young and we first encounter the concept of death, it is like opening a door to a room with no windows and no light switch.  The light from the hallway only goes so far.  We can see the floor leading in, and we're able to put our head inside just to see what we can see, but it isn't much. 


            We spend most of our days walking past that room.  We know it is there, but we don't really like to think about it.  Occasionally someone opens that door and walks through it into the room, and they don't walk out.  And we gather around the door frame in our "Sunday best" and the priest tells the story about a man named Jesus who once walked into that room and came out again. 


            That's our story, you see?  That's God's answer to the many little tangled questions we started asking when we were kids—and continue to ask, even now.  (Pause.)


            Three men were up there, excruciating.  Slowly, painfully, dying.  Two of them were criminals, being executed for crimes they committed.  One of them offered no defense at his trial, and did nothing worthy of execution.  What was passing through their minds?  We have no real idea.  Trying to look into their minds is like trying to look into the dark room, and only being able see but so far.


            As they hung there, they were mocked and derided by the crowds, especially Jesus.  As the criminals heard the epithets being flung at him, one of them joined in.  I want you to look at him with great compassion.  He's desperate.  He doesn't know what else to do.  He's in pain that we cannot imagine.  He said, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save us and save yourself."


            Luke writes that the other criminal fired back at him, "We deserve this.  We were condemned for what we did, but this man did nothing at all."  And then he said, "Jesus.." 


            Did you catch that?  Not Rabbi.  Not Teacher. Do you remember the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary?  He said, "You shall call him Jesus."  The name Jesus is the common form of the name Joshua.  The name Joshua… Can anyone tell me what the name Joshua means?   It means, Salvation…Deliverer. 


            The other criminal is not showing any disrespect by using Jesus's name.  Quite the contrary.  The criminal is saying, "You are the One who delivers.  You are the One who brings salvation."  And he says,  "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."


            Now, don't fast forward to the end, or you will miss this!  They are dying.  This is it.  They are walking into the dark room together.  And from the cross of a desperate, dying man comes this prayer of faith.  "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The second criminal does not believe that this is the end.  More than that.  The second criminal believes that the man beside him is a king.  And in death, this king will be bringing in a whole new kingdom.


            This is the Coronation of Jesus—the climax of his ministry.  Offering himself to be excruciated: tortured, humiliated, agonized for as long as it takes to kill him.  He does nothing to bring himself down.  As he dies, humanity, hanging there dying beside him—in the form of a convict—finally recognizes who he is


            Humanity, facing death finally sees Jesus for who he is.  He's a King.  He is the One.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  He is the Lamb that has been slain.  He is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end. 


            The criminal and the Savior join hands and walk through the door of the dark room together.  But before they do, Jesus says to him—and by extension to all of us: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."


            At the point of death—the final words from Jesus are not a reproach, a criticism, a parable, a thought, a meditation, or even a verse of Scripture.  They are a reassurance.  We will see him there, and there will be no cross, and no excruciating.  The dark room that has scared us since we were children will be bright, and we will never have to peer into the darkness again.


            That's our story, you see?  That's what makes us Christians. 


            When time takes our hand, and the shadows lengthen, and the unbearable is borne, we are not alone.  From the Cross, humanity had the grace to see the King and his coming kingdom.  And as we finally tried to give him the robe and crown, he meekly, but beautifully, took our hands and walked into the darkness with us. 


            Our gospel, our joy, our song is that he will also take our hands and walk us out.




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[1] Adapted from Christ the King C. 21 November 2010.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Love never ends; but that's not really what they're asking about.

To listen, click here.

Proper 27C.  10 November 2013.


Luke 20.27-38


            An elderly man is driving on the Interstate.  It's a beautiful Autumn day.  The leaves on the trees beside the road and on the medians are glorious reds and gold.  The sun shines amidst fluffy white clouds, displaying the full splendor of the deep blue sky.  The man revels in his thoughts.


            Without warning, blue lights appear in his rearview mirror.  He checks his speedometer.  All is well, but the state trooper comes right behind him, and the man pulls over.  He lowers his window, and the state trooper says, "Sir, are you Adam Corry?"  "Yes, officer.  What seems to be the problem?"  "Well, sir, you left your wife at the rest area about twenty miles back."  To which the man responded, "Oh, thank goodness!  I thought I went deaf!"


            Now, please forgive me if that joke offends you, but I'm talking about the lesson from Luke's Gospel this morning, and it's about marriage.  I wanted to start out playfully. 


            Marriage has so many contours and complexities, and can be very dangerous to talk about from the pulpit.  It's so much easier to joke about.  In fact, I didn't want to preach on this lesson at all when I first started my research.  Part of why was that I focused my attention on the conflict between Jesus at the Sadducees. 


            As the lesson reads, the Sadducees, which were the priestly class in Judaism during the first century, did not believe there could be resurrection from the dead.  The Pharisees did, you see.  And the reason for that difference is that the Sadducees limited their scriptures to those written by Moses.  The Pharisees allowed layers of tradition and writings beyond the texts of Moses to inform their understanding of life and God.  And Jesus was likely from a Pharisee background.


            Now please don't let that alarm you.  The Pharisees were not bad people at all.  They were very devout.  The only thing that Jesus didn't like—which is not specific to them at all—is that they had allowed their religious observance to shrink down to stale little rituals and habits.  Jesus preached a faith of the heart and mind—not a rote recitation of prayers and mindless acts of charity. 


When I say it was likely that Jesus was from a Pharisee background, it stands to reason that Mary and Joseph were of that class.   These were the people who went to the synagogue and knew the sacred texts.  You can't expect Jesus to emerge from outside the common people of his day and be the Messiah. 


            So, this challenge to Jesus is not really, fundamentally, about marriage at all.  It's about the theological differences between two groups of Jews—those who do not believe that resurrection from the dead is possible, and those who do.


            Jesus answers that Moses implied that he believed in resurrection because he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And his argument is that for God to acknowledge Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it implies that those men are resurrected, and in the near presence of God. 


Now, if you think that that argument is a little weak; you are right.  Moses could still reference God as having been the God of those men, even though they are now dead and may or may not be resurrected some day. 


But the Sadducees heighten the emotional element of this question by tying it to marriage.  In this culture, the scenario the Sadducees spell out was not utterly impossible.  Remember that women were very vulnerable in this culture.   Being married was what kept them protected and fed.  A widow could not defend herself.  Women could not inherit.  Money and possessions could only be inherited by men. 


See when we think of married, our minds naturally snap to falling in love.  And we find it amusing and…well, unthinkably incestuous, that a series of brothers could fall in love with the same woman.  Back then, marriage could be, but wasn't necessarily, predicated on love.  It may have just been about survival.


So, Jesus, let's say that a woman gets married to a man who has six brothers.  It's an exaggerated scenario, but what do you think?  Let's say all seven brothers marry her, each in turn, and as one dies, and the other steps up to care for his brother's widow.  So she's married to all of them at one point, and let's say that none of the marriages leads to the birth of children, which would then anchor the woman, by relationship with the child, to one of the men.  So if there is resurrection, whose wife is she?


And Jesus responds… And I'd like to read from the New Alexander Paraphrase, "Resurrected people aren't tied to one specific relationship."  And I want to put more words in Jesus' mouth here, but I shouldn't.  But, let me just tell you what I think. 


I think Jesus' implication is that resurrection allows us to enjoy a perfectly wonderful and fulfilling relationship with everyone.  That the qualities of knowing and being known that we have with just one person in this life prefigure a much happier life to come where we are able to have a deep measure of connection with everyone.


In The Book of Common Prayer, it reads that "marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church."  I want to say that we are eventually unified with Christ, and through his auspices—I know not how—he gives us the joy of his union with everyone. 


But I want to say that that doesn't render our marriages as meaningless or purely tied to just this life.


We joke about marriage.  It's something we care about so deeply that we almost have to.  We make light of how much we care about our spouses.  We complain about foibles.  Everyone knows that if the marriage is foundationally secure, we'd sooner fall on our swords than see anything bad happen to our wives or husbands. 


And if you are reading this lesson as widow or widower, you may want to throw the Bible across the room, because it's unthinkable to not be reunited—in some way—with your spouse in the resurrection.  Mark Twain said, "If there are no cigars in heaven, I shall not go."  I don't know about that, but it just seems unthinkable that if you love someone all your life….


I don't think that Jesus is saying that marriage just vanishes.  It doesn't fit with the character of God that we would spend most of our lives caring and loving, and desiring another person and that he or she would simply be like everyone else in heaven.  But, again, we're reading this text from the perspective of romantic love, as people who now see marriage as union of mutual respect and affection.


Jesus is talking about marriage as the ownership that a first century man had over a first century woman, which is at the heart of this scenario.  In that light, the text really should not read, "Whose wife is she?"  But "Who owns her?"  Jesus is saying, There's no ownership of people in heaven—except that we belong to God.


That may be some genuine comfort to those who perhaps have found themselves in marriages that are based not on love, but on duty.  And sad as it is, some men still marry women, and some women still marry men based on little more than what you are going to for me.  That's not a marriage as we have come to understand it; it's a contract.  And I think the Lord is saying here that those sorts of entanglements that men impose onto women, or women perhaps impose onto men, will not endure in the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.


 Marriage is a lifelong dance of teamwork and helping each other along.


I recently preached at my high school, and I told the student body something that made them laugh.  I said, "You know, marriage is mostly just talking and eating together."  It looks like that on the surface, and it sometimes feels that way, but it's impossible to convey how sacramental those dinners and conversations are.  


I have heard many widows and widowers say that they still talk to their spouses, and that they still feel their presence from time to time.  If you cannot be moved by that, you must be made of stone. 


I don't have a complete theology of that.  I have no idea what is going on there, really, but I choose to believe that it's a gift and grace from God. 



Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and on earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy."   There are words to that effect in Holy Scripture.  St. Paul wrote, "For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."


Marriage is one of the sacramental rites of the Church precisely because it mediates to us a deeper spiritual understanding of our connection to God, and through God to everyone.  If a widow or widower experiences the presence of their spouse, I can only think that God is using that experience to reassure us all that, as St. Paul also wrote, "love never ends."


We're coming into a time of the year that is very much about family and memories.  Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas.  The joy of gathering around the table can be somewhat muted when we remember to pull out one less plate, or several fewer plates. 


I don't need to tempt you any further down the misty path of nostalgia, but I would suggest that you open your heart to those gifts God may wish to give you, and to not shy away from those feelings of belonging.  I am not suggesting some sort of spooky spiritualism here, but if in the process of drawing near to God in prayer you feel some impartation that perhaps reminds you of your spouse, or your father, grandfather or mother, or whomever, receive that as a gift from God.  After all, our spouses and family were a gift from God to begin with.





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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

With God, nothing is impossible.

All Saints' Sunday.  3 November 2013.


Daniel 7.1-3,15-18


            Karin and I were recently speaking with an old seminary friend who is now a priest in the Diocese of Washington.  It was good to catch up, and I'm always interested in hearing about my friends' experiences of ministry, and what keeps them going.  I asked him what he liked to do with his time off, and he said that he liked going to movies because, he said, whether we know it or not, the themes in movies tend to be about what we are going through as a country. 


            This thinking was not new to me.  I remember growing up watching a lot of old movies, and being dazzled by the old musicals.  Fred Astaire in a top hat and tails, dancing effortlessly.  Bing Crosby singing in that slightly mournful, but also wonderfully upbeat baritone voice.  These are iconic actors of their time.  And if you were to watch some of the really old black and white movies, you would see the men are in formal wear, the women in either flapper dresses and bob haircuts, or slightly more elegant, long, flowing gowns… Everyone is drinking champagne or martinis, and dialog is snappy—slightly edgy.  The Marx Brothers are going nuts. 


If you were to watch these movies without any context at all, you would think that it would have been so great to be a young man or woman in the 1930s.  It's all depicted as an endless party.  But you know that it really wasn't.  The roaring 20s gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s.       


The movies were intended to give a little richness and humor to a very bleak period in the life of our country.  We didn't want to think about the Depression and poverty; we wanted a party with beautiful people talking happily, dancing, and laughing.


My friend was talking about movies now.  "Have you noticed how many of them are about the end of life as we know it, and an uncertainty about what the future may hold?"  I nodded my head, but I also know, and so do you, that it has always been that way. 


The movies of yesteryear deny the poverty and uncertainty, because no one needed a reminder.  The world is in flux in different ways now, but it is still very much a place of uncertainty.  Many movies that speak of calamity are really written in an ancient genre that time has almost forgotten.  The Church has never forgotten it because we have it in our sacred scripture.  It's called apocalyptic.


            Today we read from the book of the prophet Daniel.  Daniel is an apocalyptic text.  We don't know who wrote it.  And the time that the author gives for his writing did not exist.  "In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon…"  There never was a King Belshazzar, but that's not really important. 


What's important is that Daniel has a vision.  He writes, "I saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea and the four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another."


This is symbolic language.  The sea was understood in the ancient world to be a place of great mystery and danger.  The depths of the sea were the depths of uncertainty and chaos.  No one can know what's down there.  There are beings who live there that people have caught sight of that we know now as whales or sharks, or eels, but they were monsters then.  Frightening beyond imagination.


Shipwrecks were catastrophic.  In a time when boats and ships had no electric motors, setting off to sea called for the utmost courage. 


So from the depths…  From the birth place of uncertainty and chaos, these four beasts arise.  The four beasts are probably symbolic of the four kingdoms that were a threat to the people of Israel.  Babylonia, Persian, Median, and Greek empires, all with a political interest in Palestine because it was and is a fertile land.  Remember this is before the Roman Empire of Jesus' day.  Palestine felt itself threatened constantly by the political instability of these larger empires.


Parenthetically, we might just say, "The more things change the more they stay the same."  We continue to pray for the people of the Middle East because conflict is so deeply rooted in the culture.


            So Daniel is likely speaking symbolically to the constant and uncertain threat, and profound experience of national vulnerability.  "We love our way of life.  We don't want it taken from us.  What's next for us?  What's next?"  Sound familiar?


            Daniel writes, "My spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me."  He envisions an attendant, and goes to ask him for clarity.  This serves a narrative purpose, of course, of helping the writer explain what's going on.  You will remember the same sort of thing from the Revelation to John, when John asks an angel  for clarity.  For instance, John writes, "Who are these who have come out the great ordeal."  And the angel responds with an interpretation.  It's just the same here.  The attendant is a wisdom figure—a guide, who can help Daniel understand what the symbolism means. 


            So the attendant says, "As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth.  But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever."


            This confirms the vision of uncertainty, chaos, and political turmoil.  The rising of kings also means ensuing conflict and struggle; however, the attendant says that Israel's future remains bright, despite all of that.  And for emphasis—because the author knows that this prophecy is very promising but very threatening at the same time—he writes that the holy ones of the Most High—the people of God—we receive the kingdom and possess it for ever.  For ever and ever.  The Church carries these writings in her bosom as timeless consolations.  In fact, the pattern of all apocalyptic writing, all prophetic writing is a pattern of desolation and consolation. 


You will find it often in the Psalms, for instance in Psalm 3.  Verse 2 reads, "How many there are who say of me, `There is no help for him in his God.' And then immediately after, verse 3 reads, "But you, O Lord, are a shield about me; you are my glory, the one who lifts up my head."


            This is how the scripture faithfully engages the uncertainty and chaos of life.  On the one hand it owns up to it—yes, the desolation is real and painful; and then soon thereafter comes the consolation—God is faithful to his people. 


            I am sure you can think of several matters of desolation in your personal life—perhaps periods of darkness and distress.  And surely there are troubling occurrences in our life as a country, or even our local communities.  Many of them can be easy to identify.  It is often more difficult to identify and hold up the faith that God remains engaged with us in the struggle.  We are hard pressed at times to know how God could make a given situation better.


            I remember some time ago going through a very dark period, and genuinely believing that the situation and people were so intractable that even God couldn't fix it.  Talk about the height of arrogance!  As if I could know the limits of God's ability.  It reminds me of Job railing against God, and  God answering him out of the whirlwind, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"


            And I kept saying my prayers, and I kept going through that situation.  I said, "God I don't know how you can make it better, but my faith tells me—even when I don't understand—that you are sit on the border of possible and impossible.  You can change the heart of a hard-headed Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus, and make him into the Apostle Paul—the single most influential Christian who ever lived."


"You can create the worlds; and number the stars.  You sit enthroned above all—above even the fabric of time and space.  You are more than I can imagine.  You are more than even Christianity and Judaism can fathom.  You are beyond religion.  You are who you are.  It's your name.  So, God…you can change it.  You can make it better, but I don't know how."


And one day, the situation that had stacked itself up over many conflicts and conversations.  Meetings official and unofficial.  Lots of anxious calls and emails.  It all came to an end one day when the tiniest little thing shifted.  One person saying to another person, "I'm not upset about this anymore.  Life is too short.  It's okay.  Let's move on."


Yesterday it had been impossible, and today it was possible.  I say what happened was tiny, and it was.  But the situation that seemed like a brick building of obstinate emotions became a house of cards, "and great was the fall thereof."


We talk about faith in this place.  We stand before God as humanity has always stood—uncertain about the future.  We look to the weather map, and the news reports, and we hope to get some consolation.  At least we'll see it coming, we think.  And the day that was supposed to be cloudy shines.  The stubborn person changes his mind.  Maybe God should get more credit for that.


The Church, which carries in her bosom the apocalyptic writings of the prophets says, "No, no…God stands on the border between possible and impossible, and God knows what to allow and what to hold back.  Where were you when he laid the foundations of the earth?"


Today we commemorate the lives of the Saints'.  Somewhere along the line, the Church decided to take this feast from being a kind of red carpet event for the celebrities of the Church, and make it more about the genuine obedience of authentically devout Christians.  I don't mean that to be disrespectful or irreverent; but the Church of the not-too-distant past held to a kind of veneration of the Saints, as if to remove them from the pews, and say, "Oh, no…you couldn't possibly…you couldn't possibly…"


But the purpose of the commemoration of the Saints at its heart is to recall how these individuals modeled faith in the midst of a very vulnerable uncertainty.  St. Francis of Assisi courageously gave up material wealth during the Medieval era, which was rife with poverty, disease, and political uncertainty. 


St. Mary the Virgin gave up her reputation and courageously faced the possibility of being stoned to death for being a mother before she was married.  If you look at them all, the Saints of God, both famous and solitary, held to a believe that consolation always follows desolation.  Because God always acts for the redemption of humanity. 


He did it once and for all in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead.  He said, "Here is the ultimate consolation of eternal life to the desolation we all fear of eternal death." 


We rehearse it every day, you know?  Did you catch the pattern?  Go to sleep at night, rise in the morning.  Go to sleep at night, rise in the morning.  Again and again and again.  What does God have to do to convince you that the final going to bed will end in rising one—more—time?


Yes, the uncertainty is there.  We don't know what next year is going to bring.  We don't know for sure whether it's going to rain or shine tomorrow until it happens.  But God stands on the border between possible and impossible, and nothing is really impossible. 



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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel