Archive for April, 2007

“Whose Resurrection?”

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

John 20: 1-14

Easter Sunday

Whose?

It is not so long ago that Jesus came to us wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We murmured with the Shepherds and knelt with the Kings. We sang: “Christ the Savior is born.” We were innocent and young and happy at birth.

True: some noticed the straw in his hair and the stench of the manger.

True: a few wondered at the humble birth of God.

True: some worried about Rachel weeping for her children.

Mostly, though, we happily received and reported glad tidings of great joy to all people. It is not so long ago that the trees and the greens, beautiful they were, came down.

It is not so long ago that Jesus stripped himself before us and knelt in the Jordan to be baptized. Granted, we have been busy carving our hearts and arrows into the trees of life. Granted, we have been finding jobs and homes and churches and relaxation. We prayed and watched TV.

True: some of us noticed the mud on Jesus’ face after his baptism.

True: a few wondered at the humility of such an act, God stooping to be covered in the icy, rolling, filthy waters of this world.

Mostly, though, we were happy to greet Jesus at his baptism, and day by day like us he grew. We went on to another month of paychecks and forechecks and last respects. It is not so long ago that Jesus and John bathed together.

It is not so long ago that Satan tempted our Lord. Jesus stood tempted and we with Him: tempted to make of life a scramble to the top, no matter who gets hurt; tempted to make of religion a closed shop, no matter who is closed out; tempted to take up a government without a government of the heart. You saw him last month, just up the hill from Jericho, stalking in the wilderness.

True: some blanched at the forty days.

True: some pondered the choice of God to lavish love on a twilight world.

Mostly, though, we thanked Jesus for his troubles and succumbed to the temptations he defeated. It was not so long ago.

It was not so long ago that Jesus healed and taught. Among us there was healing of the sick, though not all of the sick, and teaching of the sinful, though not all were docile, and announcement to all of the Mystery of Love.

True: some noticed the somber tone in the verses about hardship to come.

True: some wondered at divine life lived on the periphery.

True: some rued the unexplained tragedy and individual loss of the time, and the teaching frightened us at times.

Mostly, though, we tilled our gardens. And not so long ago.

Is it only a few days ago that Jesus washed our feet in holy hands? Is it only a few days more that Jesus completed a life of servant love? Is it more than hours ago that Patience and Humility and Wide Mercy were nailed up to make way for the ‘god of this world’, whose violence has not yet been vanquished in fact as we trust it is in principle (Geoffrey Wainwright). Is it only a few hours since the cross covered our past like a baby put to sleep and opened our future like a window flung wide?

True: some noticed the back ache, and the calloused knees and the worn hands of the worker Messiah. A few—was it you?—spotted the hidden glory in such care.

Mostly though we went to the market and to the bank, preparing for an earthly future we thought might be without end. We lived, not just the young, but all, as if ‘temporarily immortal’. No, it is not so long ago that the Lamb of God met us in poverty, humility, temptation, healing and sacrifice.

We have been prepared to answer the question. Whose Resurrection? Whom did God raise? On Whom did God set God’s seal? Whom did God choose as first fruit? On what kind of life, what kind of future, did God rain glory?

Cruciform life. Easter the resurrection of Jesus, the worker Messiah, Servant Love. Love crucified is love raised. It is the same worn Jesus whom God calls ‘the future’. No wonder the disciples did not at first believe, and no wonder we have our doubts as wel
l. The preacher leans against the cross on Friday, and leans against the resurrection on Sunday. For the cross is still with us, followed by but not replaced by the resurrection.

Christ the Lord is risen today: ours the cross, the grave, the skies. If Jesus is God’s future, then his resurrection is our future, and we are well advised to seize the day. Easter is in the first place the resurrection of Servant Love.

Exegetical Interlude

Yet listen again, for just a moment, to John 20. One of the delights of preaching over many years is how startling yet another reading of a familiar passage can nonetheless be. You too have spent some time with John, and with this chapter. It holds no fewer than four, complementary, even competing resurrection accounts. Two of these we heard this morning, the tomb and the garden. Two others, the Spirit and Thomas, come later. Together they present a pastiche of resurrection as presence, on the one hand, and absence, on the other, fearless of the contradiction in that combination. On this reading, for your current preacher, one startling discovery emerged. In scene one, the tomb, Mary refers to Jesus as ‘the Lord’, a formal, accurate, and courteous nametag. In scene two, the garden, Mary refers to Jesus as ‘my Lord’. You can hear the difference in the original. (If the choir can sing in German I can preach in Greek!) John 20:2, heran ton kurion . John 20: 13: heran ton kurion mou. Here in the heart of violence is a move, slight but clear, a move toward intimacy. Violence usually crushes intimacy, but not so here.

Resurrection?

So here is a second response to the question of Easter’s possessor. It is this preached question which makes of Easter a change of heart—a saving change of heart—rather than just a remarkable weekend in first century Palestine. On the cross walk, resurrection is yours. On the way of the cross, you walk in newness of life. You receive resurrection eyes, resurrection ears, and a resurrection smile.

For this change of heart John Donne longs:

I have a bed of sin; delight is a bed:

I have a grave of sin; senselessness of sin is a grave:

And where Lazarus had been four days

I have been for fifty years in this putrefaction;

Why doest thou not call me,

As thou didst him, with a loud voice,

Since my soul is as dead as his body was?

I need thy thunder, o my God;

Thy music will not serve me. (Devotions xxi)

I need thy THUNDER o my God…We might speak of a new epistemology at the turn of the ages, a new eschatology at the turn of the ages, and a new psychology at the turn of the ages. But let’s stick with eyes, ears and smile.

The resurrection of Servant Love helps us see that the resurrection is meant for us, to open us to a new way of engaging in the world, being at home in the world, being confident in the world. Your struggle you can see in a new way, with resurrection eyes–if you will. What is most fragile in the world, which is grace, when seen aright, is the toughest of entities.

If you were to ask at what point I truly felt at home in Boston, the response would be last Tuesday at 11:30am. I saw the world differently. After morning ‘administrivia’, I walked to the dentist. Theology helps us choose, dentistry helps us chew. Predictably, my gaze was footward on route to the chair of judgment. My mind brooded about the fierce cultural wind about us, as fierce for common life as is the winter wind off the Charles River for the lone pedestrian. There is an authoritarianism, even sometimes a pseudo-sacramental authoritarianism, blowing from above, I feared, and a determinism, even sometimes a pseudo-biblical determinism, blowing from behind. Shall freedom and grace die of pneumonia? Such were the pre-paschal ruminations of the forenoon on Tuesday of Holy Week.

So when I crossed University Road, in front of the BU Academy, and heard a car honk, I forged ahead. After all, one hears nothing but horns at that corner. There is not an unhonked moment there. I asserted my pedestrian rights. But the car honked again, and then again. In a fit of pique I turned, ready to exchange icy glares, snarls, perhaps a word of invective, possibly a gesture or two. Not a very clerical pose. Behold: there, driving by, with a knowing gleam in the eye, chuckling, and giving a salutation, friend to friend, was a Boston University leader I have come to enjoy. See: the car was not honking AT me, but honking at ME. Not AT me. But at ME! One sees now a greeting my name, in person, eye to eye, I and Thou.

Resurrection eyes see connections, possibilities, welcomes, openings, and spiritual friendships in the offing. We tend to see the world not as it is but as we are, and the resurrection gives us new eyes. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. Much appears gracious to the Easter eye. Life is not honking AT you, but at YOU. Across the crowded traffic of a congested world, we shall need every possible resurrection vision, to have hope for the future.

The resurrection of Servant Love grants res
urrection ears, too. On the cross walk, one hears rumblings of justice. It takes resurrection ears to hear it, but the trumpet sound, though far off, is ringing. Wrote Luther, “here in this life our heart is in too great straits to lay hold of it, but after death, when the heart becomes larger and broader, we experience what we have heard through the Word”. He is sounding forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat. One defeated leader said recently, “For all the grandness that is so apparent in our time, something is missing. There is a hunger for something to believe in and to hold onto, something grander that can lift our aspirations instead of lowering them. Something that appeals to the highest in us: our generosity, our optimism, our courage”.

Easter demands a sturdier hope:

Hope is a dimension of the soul, and it is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…It’s deepest roots are transcendental, just as are the roots of human responsibility…It is an inner experience…The most convinced materialist and atheist may have more of this genuine transcendentally rooted inner hope than 10 metaphysicians altogether…Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as the joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance to succeed. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere’. (V. Havel, DPT, 23).

Take out the ‘as it were’ and you have Easter, in the words of Vaclev Havel.

The Resurrection of Servant Love brings happiness, too, a resurrection smile. So Isaiah can sing out: ‘everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.’ As part of the alliance of servant love, one really has cause to smile. A resurrection smile—I have no interest at all in how much you actually smile—is a sign that you can risk. You can risk change, transition, a cross road.

When the circus came to our little town, growing up, we watched the trapeze artists enthralled. These aerial acrobats touch something deep in life.

You can swing from one bar to another on the existential trapeze. Back and forth the bars swing, and at least half a dozen times in life you will be changing bars. It’s scary. Waiting for the bar to come, you know you will have to jump. That is the thing about faith. There is always a bit of a leap in it. From home to college. Jump! From college to…whatever. Jump! From single to married or married to single. Jump! From calling to second calling. Jump! From work to retirement. Jump! From chief household executive to the nursing home. Jump! Easter gives a radiance to life that loosens us, smiling, for the changes in life. You are a part of the alliance of suffering love. Go ahead and jump. Some of us will spot you, and be there to catch if you slip a little. Smile. The risks of change make sense in the service of Servant Love. And every one of these jumps, courageously made, gives you further confidence in the Everlasting Arms of the last jump, the final horizon. Easter is the promise of eternal life!

From this pulpit, at Easter, we may remember, as we did with C T Vivian on Tuesday, the voice of Martin Luther King:

No matter who you are today, somebody helped you to get there. It may have been an ordinary person, doing an ordinary job in an extraordinary way.

There is a magnificent lady, with all the beauty of blackness and black culture, by the name of Marion Anderson that you’ve heard about and read about and some of you have seen. She started out as a little girl singing in the choir of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And then came that glad day when she made it. And she stood in Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the background in New York, singing with the beauty that is matchless. Then she came to the end of the concert, singing Ave Maria as nobody else can sing it. And they called her back and back and back, and she finally ended by singing, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. And her mother was sitting out in the audience, and she started crying; tears were flowing down her cheeks. And the person next to her said, “Mrs Anderson, Why are you crying? Your daughter is scoring tonight. The critics tomorrow will be lavishing their praise on her. Why are you crying?

And Mrs. Anderson looked over with tears still flowing and said, “I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m crying for joy.” She went on to say, “You may not remember, you wouldn’t know. But I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded. I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education. And I remember Marian came to see me and said, “Mother, I don’t want to see you having to work like this.” And I looked down and said, “Honey, I don’t mind it. I’m doing it for you and I expect great things of you.”

And finally one day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, “Miss Anderson, what has the been the happiest moment of your life? Was it that moment in Carnegie Hall in New York?” She said, “No, that wasn’t it/” “Was it that moment you stood before the Kings and Queens of Europe?” “No that wasn’t it”. “ Well, Miss Anderson, was it the moment Sibelius of Finland declared that his roof was too low for such a voice?” “No, that wasn’t it.” “Miss Anderson, was it the moment that Toscanini said that a voice like your comes only once in a century?” “No, that wasn’t it.” “What was it then, Miss Anderson.” And she looked up and said (smiling) quietly, “The happiest moment in my life was the moment I could say, “Mother, you can stop working now.”

Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there. (MLKing, “A Knock at Midnight”). That’s power.

Whose resurrection? Jesus’ resurrection giving you new eyes, ears and smile. The resurrection of Servant Love, granting new sight, new sound, new soul.

One ancient writer, not an earthly success, not an ecclesiastical victor, nonetheless wrote in the year 160ad: “the resurrection is the revelation of what is, the transformation of things, and a transition into newness (Treatise on the Resurrection).

Eyes, Ears, Smile.

Today we are set free to wonder at life, to work for justice, to weather change. And to do so with grace.

Deliver Us From Evil

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

Joan Humphrey grew up on a farm in Kansas. She was born, the third of four children, to Donna and Jake Humphrey. The Humphrey farm of 480 acres, near Woodlawn Kansas, raised cattle and crops. Joan attended a one room school there until the eighth grade. She was a cheerleader at Sabetha High School. She also was an officer in her school’s chapter of ‘Future Homemakers of America’. She graduated second in her class. A class of 48. Here is the caption under her yearbook picture: “keen sense, common sense, no room for nonsense”. *

Joan then attended Wheaton College, because her pastor was a graduate. Later on, she entered law school at Northwestern University. Her classmates there teased her about her slow prairie speech. They also envied her lack of stress over exams. In law school she met a boy named Michael. They worked summer jobs on behalf of the poor: disability benefits, evictions, food stamps.

Joan and Michael were married in 1975. He wore a white suit. She wore daisies in her hair, and a white Moroccan caftan.

Joan and Michael then began to raise their own family of four daughters. Every morning, he brewed coffee. He pre-heated her cup with boiling water, filled it with coffee, and carried it to the bed where together they could talk about the day to come.

Joan’s life had two paradigms, professional woman and devoted mother. She cooked dinner every night. She established a daycare center in the courthouse where she worked. She packed lunches for four daughters, making sure to use Tropicana orange juice to limit the girls’ sugar intake. The newspaper quoted Joan as saying, “I wanted my family to be a family that shared their food and the mom could cook like my mom could cook.”

Joan’s temperament and industry brought her, in the year 2000, to the federal bench. She became a judge in the US District Court in Chicago. It was the culmination of a fine career, a position that had eluded her on other occasions. But… In 2002, one of her rulings angered white supremacists. One of these was convicted of plotting to have her killed. They did not succeed. Yet on February 28, 2005, two years ago, Joan’s husband Michael and her mother, both on crutches, were murdered. They were both shot in the head and chest with .22 caliber bullets.

Holy Week, every year, brings us to the precipice of a most disturbing question. At some point, we grow up or wake up enough to ask the question that Joan’s daughter Meg asked her that week. “Mom, why is the world so evil?” Holy Week—with its fleeting laud and honor, its temple conflict, its night of betrayal, its day of trial, its hour of tragedy, and its subsequent, lasting silence—brings us right to this matter of evil. Why? Why Mom? Why is the world so shot through with evil—sin, death, the threat of meaninglessness?

After 300 of his students died in a plane crash near Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Chancellor Melvin Eggers of Syracuse University brought the question, via a newspaper interview, to his religious leadership at Hendrick’s Chapel. I will never forget his interview, the pain of it, the grief in it, the troubled angst of it, which never left him over the few remaining years of his life.

After 3000 died on 9/11, 2001, that next Friday, hundreds of people filled our sanctuaries, without invitation or liturgical preparation. Here they were, truly hunting for the language and heart with which to assess the same question. What in the world is wrong with this world?

After 300,000 were lost in December on the day after Christmas, 2004, out of a numbed and fogged stupor, there has gradually emerged a serious question, a question about bearing, perspective, and, ultimately, about faith. What kind of world is this? Who is the God who has breathed life into such a place? “Mom, why is the world so evil?”

The same reckoning can arrive in a far more quotidian fashion. One middle aged morning in the winter you may wake up to list the smaller showers of estrangement that meet us every day, long before we ever are drenched in the great thunderstorm of evil:

Premature resignation

Partial self-awareness

Indirect criticism

Cold honesty

Inflated responsibility

Excessive enjoyment

Needless worry

Wasted time

Careless haste

Misguided loyalty

Postponed grief

Avoided maturation

Partial planning

Unconscious entitlement

Pointless earning

Self-serving posture

Thankless reception

You meet them every day…

A contentious person is like a continual dripping of water…

In our time, people of conscience are truly alive, suddenly and earnestly alive, to this question, which is, again, the whole content of Holy Week. It is a question that, in the main, is a matter of grief, trouble, and loss. Which is, of course, the whole content of the church’s experience and memory of Holy Week. It is a matter of deep, abiding grief to face the gone-wrongness in life. And, while we have tried, in our churches, to feed the hunger in this question, to slake the thirst in this question, to provide compelling responses to this question, to a great degree, across the land, we have failed. And failure is the whole content of Holy Week. It is a grief to this preacher that our pulpits, nation wide, have thus far failed to meet the grief and loss and especially fear that pervade our time like a mist in London along Aldersgate Street, like an invisible unholy ghost, just on the edge of our awareness. Like a dawn that just will not come.

We have not been able robustly and preparedly and piercingly to remember, to call to mind our biblical, Christian, tragic sense of life, when most we have needed it. To hear Job on the ash heap: “What is my crime?”; and Second Isaiah: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief”; and Jeremiah’s lamentations; “all the rivers run to the sea”; and the tears of the David, “all flesh is grass”; to evoke Ecclesiastes, speaking of 9:11, “the race is not always….but time and chance happen to them all”; and the affliction of Paul, “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed”; and best of all Jesus himself, “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me”. You cannot read all of Barbara Brown Taylor on Job the night of 9/11. It has to be read ahead. You cannot do all of a seminary course on Jeremiah the night after Tsunami. It has to be read ahead. You cannot absorb all that Paul says in Galatians, the afternoon of Lockerbie. It has to be read earlier. In wrestling we used to make weight, trying to lose 5 pounds in two hours by jogging in sweat suits through the school showers. Bodily life, Christian life, does not easily allow such last minute maneuvers.

This morning, we try again, as we enter Holy Week:

Jesus meets us today along this very road of tragedy in life: of evil, grief, loss, estrangement, and failure. His church lives still as a community that knows in its bones how to face evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. H R Niebuhr warned his generation to suspect the false sense that somehow a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. Oddly, it is the starkness of the cross, the coarseness of Jesus’ death, the tremendous sense of loss and failure and grief of Holy Week that is your best gift to a frightened world. His cross truly names the tragedy of evil. His cross permanently enfolds that tragedy in the larger goodness of life and the lasting goodness of God. His cross radiates a thin measure of hope, that there is life beyond brokenness.

Remember your baptism and confirmation.

The world is good, the good handiwork of a divine goodness that passes all understanding and endures forever.

Yet, the world is just not right, but somehow off track, wrongheaded, with something ‘loose’ rattling around in side it—the shadow of sin, the specter of evil, the sorrow of death.

We have to face both and to pray for deliverance from the latter to the former. So we teach our children to say: Deliver us from evil.

Robert McAfee Brown said so memorably (how I miss his voice): “Friends, this is God’s world, but it is a crummy world, and we have to live with both realities”.

To Meg’s question “Why?” I have no answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief.

You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. Oh, we want to be clear, now: the resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the
cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.

When we pray, deliver us from evil, there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: Deliver us from evil…

Maybe that is why Joan Howard—her married name is Joan Howard Lefkow—she like Dorothy Gale of the Kansas farm, she like Billy Graham of Wheaton College, she like Ernest Fremont Tittle of Northwestern University, she like your own mother in kitchen and coffee and packed lunch, answered her daughter’s question (sursum corda!) in faithful witness (hear the Gospel!) to tragedy and goodness and hope.

I confess that I read her statement some months ago, weeping, in the middle of an utterly boring Board meeting, and was for several moments unsure of where I was, or whether these few sentences were read from the printed page as human comments, or were resounding in the mind and heart as divine utterance. Which is this voice? Human or Divine? You be the judge.

Joan says to her daughter, as the Gospel says to us:

I am so sad…It is a human tragedy…Honey, most people are good, most people would not think of doing this…Remember the sermon years ago at the Episcopal Church in Evanston, where the girls sang in the choir and I made sandwiches for the homeless once a month…The priest said, ‘Some things are just broken…they’re broken…just broken…They’re broken and you go on from there…Don’t think you can repair them but get up and go on from there…But whoever did this, I want to look them in the eye and say…How could you?…How could you do that to me and my family?”

*New York Times, 3/10/05