Sunday, April 29, 2018

4-29-18 “Unfold: Claiming New Possibilities”




   We know this story. We’ve heard this story before. We know how it ties to the story of Jesus’ birth; we know how the interaction between Elizabeth and Mary plays out; we know who this baby, John, goes on to be in adulthood. So how do we explore the idea of claiming new possibilities, as our sermon title suggests, through a familiar story that has been part of our faith history for nearly two thousand years? What could be new in this story for us, or what could we possibly hear in a new way from this familiar passage?
   Well, to begin with, these are new people. This is the first and only place in Scripture where we hear the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. And as the story tells us, John is a new name. It’s not, as we discussed in dealing with naming a couple of weeks ago, a name in this couples’ family history, which breaks with tradition. But even more, for us, this is the first time that we hear the name John in all of Scripture. While there are several men named John in the New Testament, there is nobody by that name mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. New as well is our timing for hearing this story. We usually hear this passage read during the season of Advent leading up to Christmas, not post-Easter. So this different timing invites us to hear this story in a new way, amidst a new context.
   What’s not so new in this story?
   Well, the idea of a childless or barren couple having a child through the blessing of God is not new. We’ve heard this saga before with Abraham and Sarah, whose story we explored a couple of weeks ago, and also in the story of Elkanah and Hannah from 1 Samuel. So, this is not uncharted territory for us.
   The appearance of an angel who tells someone, “Be not afraid…” is also not a new thing. It happens throughout Scripture, almost as though “Be not afraid,” or “Fear not,” could be written on their angelic calling cards - “Hi! I’m Gabriel from “Fear Not” Ministries!” So, while this angelic visitation is the first of its kind for Zechariah, for those of us reading or hearing this story, there’s nothing really new here. In fact, having a character rendered “speechless, mute, or unable to speak” is also not something out of the ordinary. This happens at various times throughout Scripture, particularly to prophets. 
So while there are some new things presented here, there is also much that is “tried and true” in biblical storytelling present in today’s reading. 
So how do we mine this familiar passage for new possibilities?

   One way would be to play a familiar game with this passage - the “What If” game. You’re familiar with the “What If” game - you think about something that has happened, in history or even in your own life, and simply imagine, “what if” this had happened instead of that, or “what if” someone had done that instead of this? How would things be different if a different choice had been made?

   In fact, this is a very popular genre in both literature and entertainment. Stephen King wrote a book a few years ago titled “11.22.63” that has been adapted into a series on Hulu about a man who finds a portal back in time and is tasked with trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And, being a Stephen King creation, it imagines that history itself fights back against the man trying to change it. 
   The current television series, “Timeless,” on NBC is about a secret government agency chasing bad guys through history in time machines, seeking to prevent the bad guys from changing history in such a way that brings their organization into a place of world domination. 
And along the way they encounter “Bonnie and Clyde,” the “Hindenburg Disaster,” the beginnings of NASCAR and other seminal events or periods of history.
   Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick penned a short story years ago, “The Man in the High Castle,” that has been adapted into a series on Amazon Video, that imagines a post World War II America in which the Allied forces lost and Germany and Japan were victorious. Imagining alternative history stories is, and has been popular in literature and entertainment for many, many years. 
   But we don’t have to limit the “What If” game to popular culture. We can imagine, on both a large historical scale as well as on a personal scale, the ramifications of alternative developments.
   What if Hitler had never risen to power? 
How would things be different?
   What if the Union had lost the Civil War, or if Lincoln had not been assassinated? What would be different today?
   Or more personally, what if you had chosen a different career? 
   What if you had chosen a different college?
   What if you had met and married a different person?
   What would be different? And in all of these circumstances, what difference would it have made.

   And what about in Scripture,    
   What if…Zechariah (or Abraham before him) had, instead of just doubting the angelic proclamations that they would bear children, had refused, deciding that they were too old and no longer desired children?
   What if…the virgin Mary, had told the angel, “thanks, but no thanks?”
   What if…Jesus had given in to one or more of the temptations he faced in the wilderness after his baptism?

   Or, more profoundly, what if…Jesus had decided not to continue the teaching and preaching that would eventually lead to his crucifixion and had instead returned to his life as a carpenter and started a family?
   Considering the “what ifs” in a backward looking way can result in some very interesting ideas and conversations, all of which are fairly safe for us because, unlike the characters in TV or movies, we do not have time machines and we cannot go back in history and change things in these ways. 
Our history, like it or leave it, is safe. 

   But what about our future? Yours? Mine? The church’s? 
What if we apply the “What If” question to our future and consider how we might claim new possibilities in that way? I refer to this kind of futuristic wondering as exploring the “What-If-Itudes.” So, for example, one What-if-itude, on a personal level might be: What if we spent just 10 minutes each day stretching? What difference could that make to our flexibility?
   Or, what if I reduced my morning coffee consumption by one cup each day? What difference would that make to my health?
   So, taken to the next level, and I’ll give you a moment after each of these to silently consider the question, what if we thought about church differently? 
What difference could it make?
(PAUSE)

   Or to take that one step further, what if we thought of church, not as a noun - as someplace we go, but as a verb - something we do? What difference could THAT make to our congregation and to our community?
(PAUSE)

   What if, either as the church or as individuals, we stopped focusing on our limitations, those things we think we can’t do, and began focusing on the things we can do, on our possibilities? What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if our idea of the “Sunday Service” was not about us being “served” in some way, or of being consumers of religion, but was about our going out and serving? What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if we celebrated who God is leading us and calling us to become as much or more than we celebrate who we have been in the past? What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if we focused the majority of our time and energy on making a difference in the world outside these four walls instead of primarily inside them? 
What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if each of us, every single person here, devoted just 10-15 minutes each day to praying, not just for our own needs or desires, but for the people around us, both in our church family and in our community? 
What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if each of us, every single person here, devoted just 10-15 minutes each day, studying scripture, not to confirm what we think we already know, but to open ourselves to what new possibilities God is inviting us to claim through the Word? What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if we looked at that person who looks different than us - who thinks, votes, speaks, or loves different from us - as a new friend instead of as a person we need to separate from, judge, or injure in some way? What if we looked at them as God looks at them, as we would want to be viewed, as beloved children of God? What difference could that make in our hearts, our lives, and our world?
(PAUSE)

   What if, as we said in our baptism and membership vows, we really “renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, and rejected the evil powers of this world,” in all their forms, even when they come from people and places we like? What difference could that make?

(PAUSE)
   What if we really trusted God with our lives, instead of just saying that we do? What difference could that make?
(PAUSE)

   What if we supported the ministry of the church with our prayers, and our presence, and our gifts, and our service, and our witness - all of them and not just some of them - as we vowed we would do? What difference could that make?  That is, what new possibilities could God open up to us if God knew we meant what we said?
(PAUSE)

   You see, God wants to provide us with new possibilities, and God wants us to claim those possibilities for ourselves and for the world. God wants us to live in joy and peace with one another, not in conflict with one another. 
God wants to do great things in us and through us, but God wants to know that we can be trusted partners with this Good News. 
   What if, when we sang the song, “Change My Heart, O God,” we actually meant it, really wanted it, instead of just singing along with the crowd because that’s what we’re supposed to do? What difference could THAT make? 
   Without really saying it, the writer of Luke tells us that in the midst of this story, Zechariah and Elizabeth played the “What If” game. What if what the angel told us is true and we will have a child in our old age?
What if he will bring joy and delight to us, and that many people will rejoice at his birth? What if he really will be great in the Lord’s eyes? What if he will be great like Elijah, filled with the Holy Spirit, and will bring many people to the Lord? What difference could all of that make?
   Through the angel Gabriel, God presented new possibilities that seemed unthinkable, unimaginable to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old way of thinking. But whenever God presents new things to us, it always requires a change on our part - a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in our doing. In scripture the word used to signify that is the Greek metanoia, which is usually translated into English as repent. But it means much, much more than simply repenting or asking forgiveness for our sins. No, it actually means turning in a new direction, changing the track of our lives or our thinking to go in a different way. 
   Jesus presented that new way when he spoke of the Kingdom or Reign of God being present, being within us, and that if we embraced the new possibilities of THAT we would find salvation. What if…what Jesus said was true? What difference would that make…for you? What new possibilities might unfold in your life? Amen


Sunday, April 15, 2018

4-15-18 “Open: Into the Light”




4-15-18   “Open: Into the Light”


   I don’t know about you, but when I’m ready to go to sleep I like it to be dark - really dark. I don’t want any kind of night light anywhere. I don’t want the glow from a phone, a tablet, a computer, or the TV. I resent the red light on the phone beside the bed that indicates that the handset is charged. I snarl at the ambient light that comes in through the window on even the darkest night, because I want it pitch black. I recently got rid of the digital clock radio on my bedside stand because of its irritating blue LED numbers. When it’s time to sleep, I crave darkness. In fact, I have a sleep mask close at hand so that on the nights Lynn wants to read before going to sleep, or when the moonlight reflects like Times Square off the snow that just keeps on coming this spring, I can immerse myself in darkness.
   And we all do that in one way or another, immersing ourselves in darkness. As if there isn’t enough darkness in the world for us already, we seek out more, personal darkness. We do that by way of choices we make, what we watch on TV, what we read, how we think about what’s going on in our country or the world, how we think about other people - often times those things lead us into a dark place, literally or metaphorically.
   Sometimes though, darkness is foisted upon us when the events of life take their course in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways. And while we know that darkness, in and of itself, is not a thing - it is the absence of light - when we are mired in it it often feels very real, as though it has tentacles that grasp at us and hold us in its grip even as we struggle to escape into the light. Sometimes darkness takes the form of tragedy, a death, a diagnosis, a disaster. Other times darkness assumes the role of an outlook, a point of view, or a mindset. 
That’s where we find Abram and Sarai in the beginning of our story today.
   The darkness that encompasses them, not in an incapacitating way but in a humbling or even diminishing way nonetheless, is their childlessness, their barrenness. Abram is one hundred years old, Sarai is ninety. Years before they had received a promise from God that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, yet here they were, growing older with each passing day with no children of their own. Oh, there was Ishmael, conceived out of desperation and manipulation through Sarai’s handmaiden, but they suspected that their attempts to control God’s plan would come to no good end. No, they were in a darkness from which they could see no light. 
   There is an obstacle to the promise—barrenness; not simply the inability to conceive, but the inability to hope. That’s the kind of barrenness Genesis describes. Barrenness is not simply the absence of children but the absence of hope, the absence of a future, the absence of promise. Abraham and Sarah are barren, without hope. The die was cast as far as they were concerned. Being without heirs, if their future followed the trajectory of the present, Abram and Sarai could only brace themselves for a childless future and no lasting legacy. Their wealth would be divided among household servants, and there their story would end. 
   But God changes all that. God comes to Abram and declares God’s name as El Shaddai, God Almighty. And God gives to Abram, and to Sarai, a renewed promise, a renewed covenant. “Walk with me,” God says, “and be trustworthy, and I will give you many, many descendants.” 
At this Abram fell on his face before God. And God continued, “my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. 
I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.”
   Abram could hardly believe what he was hearing, this was all too good to be true! But then, like a late-night informercial for the Popeil Pocket Descendent Maker, God suggests “But wait, there’s more!” 
“As for your wife, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. 
I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
   And at that, Abraham fell on his face laughing. Surely, God realized how ridiculous this entire notion was. Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child? We can imagine him doing the math in his head - “By the time this kid is old enough to drive a camel I’ll be 116, when he graduates college I’ll be 122. Oy!” 
Abraham pleads to God,  “If only you would accept Ishmael,” but to no avail. 
   “No, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son for you, and you will name him Isaac. I will set up my covenant with him and with his descendants after him as an enduring covenant.” I’m not sure Abraham saw this turn of events as an emergence from the darkness so much as he saw it as going from the frying pan into the fire. But that’s where things stood as God ascended and the newly renamed Abraham and Sarah waited in anticipation.

   Naming, if you haven’t noticed, is an important thing in Scripture. God endows Adam in the Garden with the power to name all of the animals of creation. After Jacob, who had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and whose name means “supplanter,” wrestles with God all night he is given a new name, Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” When Moses is told by God in a burning bush to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the people, the descendants of the aforementioned Israel, Moses asks for God’s name and is told “I Am Who I Am,” or in Ancient Hebrew, YHWH.
   And as writer Jill Johnson suggests, “while, when we are asked to identify ourselves, after our name we usually provide a noun or adjective of some kind, parent, caregiver, son, daughter, etc., God does not respond with a noun, but rather a verb, a form of “to be.” Writer Thomas Cahill says we can interpret God’s response in three different ways: (1) “I am the One who causes (things) to be”; (2) “None of your business”; or (3) “I will be-there with you . . . which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in God’s creation.” 
This YHWH is an ongoing powerful presence and a creative force, refusing to be limited by a simple, or single name.

   In John’s gospel the writer suggests that Jesus knew his absolute identity, even in the first half of his life. He knew his purpose and who sent him. 
The writer records a number of “I am” statements that Jesus makes during his ministry: “I am the bread of life... the light of the world... the gate... the good shepherd... the resurrection and the life... the way, the truth, and the life... the vine.” And in John 8:58, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am.”

  The power of naming is not something to be trifled with. When we choose a name for a child many different things go into consideration. For example, family history. Is this a name that has historically been used in the family? Remember this was the question raised when Zechariah and Elizabeth named their son John. How does the given name fit with the surname? 
Do the initials create an issue?  If I had had a son I wanted to name him after my father, Ralph. Ralph was a popular name in my father’s era but not so much in mine, so we thought we’d make that his middle name, his first name being Benjamin, a name we both liked. But Benjamin Ralph Anderson resulted in initials - B.R.A. -  that would have set the kid up for years of teasing. 
God gave us girls instead. Whether or not you like your name, understand that things could be worse.

   In light of names we encounter, being renamed from Abram to Abraham, or from Sarai to Sarah, seems inconsequential. But that is not the case at all. 
Because not only do they have new names, they have new identities. 
God names them Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”) and Sarah (“Princess”)—names that signify their God-determined destiny, beyond all merely human calculation or possibility. As Johnson puts it,  “An encounter with the living God always results in an identity shift, a change that brings us closer to our true selves.”
   In our society, though, circumstances change our identities, sometimes rather quickly: the person who self-identifies by their job is suddenly unemployed, “busy parents become empty nesters, the healthy person becomes chronically ill, the confident woman becomes a divorcee, and the happily married man becomes a widower. In his book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains the difference between relative and absolute identity. In the first half of our lives, we need a strong “container,” or relative identity, that includes relationships, community, success, and security. But our task in the second half of our lives is to find the identity that this container is meant to hold, our true selves. This absolute identity is defined by God, and it ‘can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality or formula whatsoever,’ Rohr states. He further explains that our absolute identity, while possibly hidden, is actually ‘the pearl of great price’ that we are to find, and sometimes that involves suffering.
   This is a very full weekend for our family, in more ways than might clearly be seen. On Saturday morning we hosted a wedding shower for our nephew Brian’s fiancĂ© Katie, whose wedding I am honored to perform next month. Brian is the oldest son of Lynn’s brother Bob, who along with his wife Louann, you’ll remember, died in an automobile accident nearly four years ago. And in that wedding, Katie will take on a new name that carries with it meaning and tradition, history and memories.
   On Saturday afternoon we attended a baby shower for our daughter Kelsey and her husband Tony, whose baby who is due in June. They don’t know the gender of the baby yet, so a name has not yet been given to this child, but whatever name is chosen will be done with love and a vision and hope for the baby’s future.
   Today in this service I am blessed to be asked to baptize Alan Darius Hassanzadeh, our great nephew, whom we know and love affectionately as “Ace.” Ace is the first grandchild for Lynn’s sister Lori and her husband John, by their oldest daughter Kelly and her husband Arash, whose marriage I performed nearly three years ago. I mentioned earlier that this is a full weekend in more ways than one, and here is what I meant by that. On Friday, our family, in various ways, remembered both the birthday and the passing of Ace’s namesake, Alan, Kelly and Amy’s older brother, Lori and John’s son, who died on his 21st birthday 15 years ago, on April 13th. Alan was the firstborn of all the cousins on that side of the family. So Ace’s given name of Alan honors his late uncle. His middle name, Darius, reflects the Persian heritage of Arash’s family, who are from Iran. Darius was the Great King of Persia five centuries before Christ, the father of Xerxes, so to be named after such a great figure in one’s family’s heritage carries both great honor and pride. So, when we baptize Alan Darius Hassanzadeh in a little while, publicly naming and proclaiming his identity as a beloved child of God, we do so understanding that naming is not something we take lightly. And we do so noting that the events we remembered as a family on Friday, together with those we celebrate today - not unlike our understanding of the emergence that took place between Holy Friday and Easter Sunday - frame the hopefulness that the events of Saturday represent for all our family. 

   Claiming a new identity or a new name, is a way of emerging from whatever kind of darkness might be present in our lives into the light of a new way of 
being and proclaiming that emergence. It’s a kind of transformation, not unlike repentance, turning our lives in a new direction as we lay claim to our new identity in the light of God’s love in Christ. As children of God, we too can be assured that our true identity is beyond what this world has to offer and is, as Paul wrote in Colossians, “hidden with Christ in God.”By claiming our identity, not through the norms of this world, but through the hope that is offered in the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we shed the skins of our old lives. Or in keeping with the butterfly-from-the-cocoon symbolism of our worship series, we begin to emerge from the cocoon into the light, creating a fissure in the cocoon that, like the open tomb on Easter morning, can never be resealed and through which God invites us out of the darkness and into the light of new life and new hope.
   Earlier, we invited you to write your name or how you identify, on the top half of the name tag you were given. But perhaps there is another name, another state of being, another identity that, upon closer consideration, more closely reflects who you are in the eyes of God. Take a moment, think about who you are, or how you are, to God, and write that name on the bottom half of your name tag and put it back on.  
(PAUSE WHILE WE DO THIS)

   Our hope as Christians is not some kind of whistling in the dark to scare away whatever threatens us. At the same time, it is not a blustering, “Pollyanna-ish” overconfidence that God will grant us every wish, that we will be exempt from tragedy, or that we are immune to loss or frustration. Christian hope is the assurance that when we claim our identity, our true selves, and live our lives as people of God’s kingdom, dedicated to God’s work, then nothing is wasted. God endows our lives with direction and lasting value. As Paul put it, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God…”
   Hope is not fleeting, and hope does not disappoint. In fact, to live in hope means to live with the assurance of God’s presence in our lives, knowing that, as Paul wrote, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
 And he continues,  “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
   One of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life, then, is not so much the call to sacrifice as to hope—to continue to hope through the authentic trials of life—to hope against hope. By its very texture we realize that hope is a gift of God. It is the gift of God’s covenant love with Israel and the church, the gift of God’s grace when Jesus dies on the cross and when despair seems to have the upper hand. That’s the paradox of hope: It is the power God gives of eternal life in the face of sin and death.

   Sound unthinkable? Given the evidence, yes, it is unthinkable, even laughable. Who can imagine such hope? But given the one who makes the promise, no, it is not unimaginable. Given the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is not unthinkable. It is the power of God in salvation, the gift that doesn’t disappoint—and never will. 
Thanks be to God! Amen.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

4-8-18 - “Coming Out: Leaving Comfortable Places," 2nd in the "Emerge!" Series




4-8-18  - “Coming Out: Leaving Comfortable Places”


   I suppose one of the first “comfortable places” we need to come out of or emerge from today is the idea that this passage of scripture is exclusively an Advent reading. After all, that’s when we typically read this this story, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming at Christmas. So hearing it in the season of Easter might move our thinking into a difficult space. But let’s set aside our usual thinking on Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and approach it from a different angle.

   We often hear and understand this story as being about Mary’s faithful response to God. Mary is nearly deified in some corners as a result of her response. Songs, poems, and prayers lift her up in myriad ways. And that is not an inaccurate reading, it’s just not the only way to consider what’s going on here. 
   So I want you to notice this one thing as you think about this passage: before Mary says “yes,” she is blessed. “Rejoice, favored one,” the angel says, “The Lord is with you.” And then just a moment later Gabriel adds, “God is honoring you!” In three different ways, the angel of God imparts to Mary the fact that she is blessed by God. Why is this important, you might ask? Because it not only reveals Mary’s important role in this Gospel story, but it also reveals a central dynamic of the Christian faith that is often lost or overlooked.

   So let’s first consider Mary. As David Lose reminds us, “Mary is hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. And for good reason. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the willingness to trust the promises of God is the mark of discipleship. And so Elizabeth believes that in her old age she will nevertheless bear John, and the disciples believe they will fish for people, and the repentant thief believes Jesus is innocent and asks his blessing and so on. Similarly, Mary also believes God’s promises.”

   But here’s the key to understanding what’s happening here by way of a different lens than that through which we’re used to looking at this passage. 
What is it that Mary believes? Well, she clearly believes, or comes to believe, what the angel says will happen - that she will bear a child even though she has never slept with a man. 
But even before she arrives at that point, she believes that God noticed her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great plans for her. She not only hears it, but she believes it. 
   And this is what I think leads us to the central dynamic of not only the Gospel, but of the Christian life itself: the first, and in some ways most important, thing we are called to believe is that, in much the same way, God notices, favors, and blesses us. 
And once we believe that, we can do incredible things.

   Blessing, you see, is a powerful thing, in both the biblical literature and in contemporary life. But, unfortunately, it’s also a rare thing. We live in a world that seems geared toward rewards and punishments, and this is even more pronounced in the church where our ideas of right and wrong, of sin and righteousness, are shaped by the concept of “original sin,” that suggests we’re all born sinners, that sin is our natural state of being, and that the only way to overcome that state is to repent and be saved. But in giving “original sin” so much sway over our lives, we abdicate the role of blessing, we forget that before sin is introduced into the Adam and Eve storyline, for that matter, before Adam and Eve are introduced into the story line, there is “original blessing.” As God spoke into existence each component of creation, God declared them “good.” When Creation was completed God pronounced it all “very good.” God imparted blessing on all of creation; blessedness was that state of existence well before sin was introduced. The state of God’s blessing precedes and transcends any identification with sinfulness. Nothing, not even sin, can separate us from the love, the blessing, of God.

   But because our culture has, for centuries, put so much emphasis on reward and punishment based on behavior deemed either good or bad, worthy or unworthy, whether at work, school, church, or even home, we’ve been conditioned to expect people to give us only what we deserve. That kind of “stinking thinking” has become a “comfortable place” in our lives, whether we like it or not. In fact, we engage in that same kind of dualistic judgment of others ourselves. 
But that’s not how blessing works. Blessing is never deserved, it’s always a gift. Blessings intrude, interrupt, and ultimately disrupt our comfortable quid pro quo world to announce that someone sees us as worthy and special apart from anything we’ve done.

   And perhaps because it’s so rare, we also find it hard to believe. We’re skeptical of this notion of blessedness, bordering even on being cynical. 
Mary is certainly skeptical - she has her doubts about this whole idea of being favored by God. "What have I done,” Mary may wonder, “to merit God’s notice and favor.” But that’s just what blessing is – unmerited and undeserved regard and favor.
 And as the blessing sinks in, Mary is able to open herself to the work of the Holy Spirit to use her to bless the whole world through her willingness to carry Jesus. Which is why it’s important that we notice that before Mary says “yes,” she is blessed.
   And here’s why that is important: I think most people have a hard time believing that God favors, or even notices them, too. Now, that’s not the case with Sundays - most of us figure God notices us on Sundays, if only to see if we’ll make it to church. But we wonder if God even notices us, let alone favors us, the rest of the week. Work, school, our home life – these can seem like such mundane things and hardly worth God’s attention. And yet in this story we hear about God noticing and blessing someone, an unwed teenage girl, who by all accounts is a nobody in the ancient world. 
And when this nobody young girl believes God’s blessing and accepts God’s favor, the world begins to turn.

   But what happens often times, at least in our heads, is that in looking backwards 2,000 years through a lens of historic Christianity, we ascribe to Mary a kind of “specialness” that diminishes what this story is telling us - thinking “she’s not REALLY, a normal, everyday teen. There’s something special about her, that why God chose her…or Abraham, or Moses, or Elijah, or whoever. If we deny what I would call their “pre-emergent nothingness,” if you will, then the story, all of the stories, lose their meaning. If Mary is somehow more “special” than others before the angel addresses her, then what’s the big deal? 
Scripture makes the point throughout that God uses every day, normal, nobodies to do God’s work. When we refuse to accept their “nobody-ness” in order to excuse ourselves, we deny the Gospel. And that is one reason this passage is so important to be understood in a new way, not because it lifts up Mary as some kind of exception, but rather because it identifies her as an example of what can happen when you believe that God notices, favors, and blesses you, regardless of who you are: because God, through you, may just change the world!

   So there are two things I invite you to do, and both are very easy. First, just look around the congregation. Take a moment, look from row to row, face to face, and see the people who are gathered here today. Each of these are persons who, like you, are favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things. Perhaps not conceive and bear the Son of God, but so what -- that one's been done already anyway! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us, so many that you and I couldn't begin to count them all. 
And yet each person here is in all kinds of places and positions to do those wonderful things.That is, if we are willing to come out of the comfortable place that we and our culture have built for us that tell us that God doesn’t notice us, that God doesn’t care about us, that we don’t deserve God’s blessing, that we’re not worthy of God’s love. 

   And the second thing I want you do is simply this. Close your eyes for a moment and just think about the week that lies ahead for you. Starting from when you leave here today, think about what you will be doing this afternoon, this evening. Think about who you will be with. Think about what Monday holds for you, and Tuesday, and so on. Consider the things you will be doing, the places you’ll go, what people you will encounter. And think about how in each of these circumstances God is noticing you and blessing you so that you might be a blessing to the world. It might take a while for you to see this, to believe this. After all, so many of the voices in our lives and culture conspire to make us feel worthless and alone. But in time, if we can say it again and again, it may just sink in that God has noticed, favored, and blessed us so that we might in turn bless and change the world.

   You know, it has been suggested to me that I preach love too much, that I don’t talk about rewards and punishment enough. And that’s an accusation I can live with. But I have never denied that there are consequences to the choices we make - there certainly are. I just don’t think living in fear is what God desires for us. The world will tell us over and over again that we mean nothing, that we’re all garbage or sinners or that we’re rotten to the core but that they, whoever “they” are can fix us. But the gospel tells us otherwise. The gospel tells us that God loves us, and blesses us. The gospel tells us that first and foremost, before we are anything else, we are beloved children of God. In the hour or so I have on Sunday mornings to relay to you the gospel, you don’t need me to repeat the world’s condemning mantra that we are all slugs - you need to hear, and I believe God wants you to hear, that you are loved by the God who created you and blessed you to be a blessing to others, and that there is nothing you can do about that. And if that makes you squirm, then I invite you to come out of that comfortable but destructive place, to emerge and embrace the blessing that is yours through the God who loves you more than you will ever know, not because of who or what you are or have done, but because that’s who God is.

   So in closing today, I invite you to join me in Mary’s litany of blessing:

Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you. 
How can this be?
Whether at work or school, whether at home or in the world, the Holy Spirit is with you and will guide you in all you do and say so that you may be a blessing to the world.
Let it be according to your word.


Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

4-1-18 “Tombs & Cocoons,” First in the series, "Emerge!"




4-1-18   “Tombs & Cocoons,” First in the series, "Emerge!" 

   The image for our new series, Emerge, is that of a butterfly, its metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly long a symbol of resurrection in Christianity. The cocoon in which the caterpillar encloses itself like the tomb in which Jesus of Nazareth was laid; the emergence from the cocoon of a brilliantly beautiful creature with colors, characteristics, and abilities unknown to the caterpillar reflecting the Risen Christ of the resurrection, so much more to the world than the prophetic preacher, teacher, and healer who entered three days before. Resurrection is an act of God that, like metamorphosis, results in a totally new life on the other side. And there were two resurrections on that first Easter Sunday. But before we get into that, let’s watch this:
                           
   “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”  John writes. Still dark. The sun has not yet risen above the horizon but Mary has gone to the tomb. Darkness and light are key themes within John’s Gospel: Nicodemus goes to Jesus in the dark of night; Jesus’ claim to be “the light of the world.” The world is still dark when Mary comes. She didn’t come to anoint his body with the women as in the other gospels, she comes to mourn. She comes alone. 

   The world was without light, as was Mary. Everything Jesus’ followers thought would happen, everything they hoped for, died for them on the cross. She was lost and grieving, perhaps sleeplessness had her up in the pre-dawn hours. Only a week ago everything was so good! People praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, wanting to make him king, palm branches and cloaks spread on the ground to honor him; how had it spiraled so quickly out of control? 
   As she approached the tomb, shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” still echoing in her disbelieving ears, she sees that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She doesn’t enter the burial space. She doesn’t shout “He is Risen!” She doesn’t assume resurrection - she assumes the worst - his body has been taken! So she runs. She runs, we’re told, to Peter and John, and breathlessly tells them what she has seen.

   The disciples race to the tomb to see for themselves. Arriving at the tomb, John bends down to look into the open tomb and sees the linen burial cloths lying there. Peter enters and sees the same thing, noticing that the cloth used to cover the face was rolled up separately and placed apart from the other pieces. 
   Why this detail about the placement of grave clothes? John Chrysostom, an early church father, says the reason is clear: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the [face cloth] and put it in a place by itself.”  No, John is telling us that more is going on than a mere invasion of the body snatchers. 
   And the story continues and says that “the other disciple,” meaning John, “also went inside,” and that “He saw and believed.” But believed what? Don’t be too quick to assume that he believed Jesus had risen, because the very next sentence says, “They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.”
   So, even as now both the celestial sun and the Son of God have risen, those in our story remain immersed in a deep darkness. And we know this darkness don’t we? Mary’s darkness is our darkness: the death of a spouse or a loved one, the end of a relationship, a tragic or traumatic event in our lives or in our world, leaves us, like Mary, disoriented, surrounded by gloom, uncertain of what happened to the joy and happiness that was just there, so close that we can almost touch it…almost.
   As the other disciples return to where they were staying, Mary returns to the tomb, crying as she steps into the dank emptiness. Where once lay folded grave clothes are now seated two angels, one at the head and one at the foot - a detail only John provides that points to something he wants us to understand. 
   In the first Jewish temple, the lid of the ark of the covenant, which held the tablets of the Law, was the mercy seat of God, the symbolic throne of God. 
It was there that the priests would go once a year to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed lamb to atone for the sin of the people. And carved at each end of that seat were angels, one at the head and one at the foot. 
John is saying that the place where Jesus was laid has become the mercy seat of God, that Jesus’ death now atones for the sin of the people. It’s a powerful message and image easily missed without context.
   The angels ask Mary, “Woman, why are you crying?” Too shaken even to be frightened by the sight of angels, who at every other appearance in scripture have felt compelled to tell those they encounter “fear not,” she simply answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
   This exchange is shaped by more than grief though. 
As Paul Simpson Duke tells us, she understands that “the absence of his body is catastrophic. There is nothing even residual of him, no touchstone of remembrance… The powers of darkness have not only killed him, they have wiped out all trace of him. His tomb is gutted. Its horribly open mouth taunts Mary with news not just of death but of nothingness. The evidence is that the claims and promises of Jesus were, like his tomb, empty.”
   But no sooner does this realization occur, than she’s confronted with the very same question. “Woman, why are you crying?” And then, “Who are you looking for?”   
   She turns and sees Jesus standing there, but doesn’t recognize him as Jesus, assuming he’s the gardener. John, which begins with “In the beginning,” recalling the Creation stories of Genesis, is the only Gospel that places the tomb in a garden; another powerful image. The Creation myths begin in a garden and it’s there that paradise was lost. In Revelation, the story ends in a garden with paradise restored. Now in John, the most significant redemption event in the New Testament occurs in a garden. What once was lost, now is found, in a garden. The damage unleashed in Eden is undone here. Jesus, the new Adam, imagined as a gardener, has come to restore Creation. Powerful imagery.
   But Mary pleads to this gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus had taught a gardening lesson of sorts only a week before, remember? 
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) A teaching comes to life, which she doesn’t yet see.

   “Mary,” he says to her. Only her name, nothing more. Remember Jesus’ earlier words: “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name…they know his voice.” (Jn 10:3,4). She didn’t recognize his voice before, but in hearing him call her name, suddenly, amazingly, resurrection becomes real to her. In an instant Mary is transformed. “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light!” Mary suddenly sees, like Paul with scales falling from his eyes, she sees who it is who stands before her, who calls her by name.  
Transformation can be both disorienting as well as reorienting. 

   “Mary,” Jesus says, penetrating the grief that enshrouded her, grasping hold of her and drawing her into a whole new world, a new reality, a new life. 
It’s hard to imagine all the emotions that must have coursed through her in that moment; and yet, we can imagine that after just a heartbeat she responded at first with a shy smile, wiping away the tears that flooded her eyes and choked off her voice, and then broke into a grin of recognition and delight, breathing “my teacher.”
   Mary’s reaction, understandably, is to reach out to embrace her Teacher and Friend. Jesus’ response to her is not a rebuff though; her embrace cannot deter or disturb whatever lies ahead for Jesus. No, it’s more an invitation to experience him in a new way, to see him with new eyes – here and everywhere!
 “Do not hold onto me, I’ve not ascended to my Father.” The resurrected Jesus is known by his wounds - remember Thomas won’t believe until he touches them -  and it’s Jesus’ woundedness that joins him in solidarity with a suffering humankind everywhere - freed from the limitations of space and culture. 
   “Do not hold onto me” might be understood as “don’t hold onto your ideas of me.” We try to hold onto Jesus with our creeds and confessions, our dogmas, doctrines, and denominations. But Jesus won’t allow any group to possess him - he is universal - his declaration is that in his emergence he now belongs to everyone. The Jewish teacher and healer is now global in impact and scope, known in many ways in many cultural and ethnic contexts, becoming as diverse as the colors of the rainbow, creating a Rainbow Resurrection. Resurrection liberates our imaginations to experience God in the most surprising ways and places – in our enemies as well as ourselves!

   Resurrection disorients and then re-orients, and is about experiencing miracles when we least expect them. Resurrection emerges from within our own deepest needs when, unpredictably, a burst of divine energy changes everything, making a way where there is no way, and triumphing, as Paul proclaims, over the forces of sin and death. When we least expect it, resurrection happens to us – just as it unexpectedly happened to Mary, then to Jesus’ skeptical first followers, and later, to the apostle Paul. The good news is that resurrection is not an anomaly: a one time event from long ago that has nothing to do with us. Jesus is risen and that is a glorious thing! 
Christ is risen and we are transformed! But there’s more!

   Bruce Epperley puts it this way, “We live in a world in which resurrections occur and are offered, often subtly in the midst of hopelessness and fear, each moment of our lives. Jesus’ resurrection is part of a deeper energetic…divine presence,” he says, and that we miss it because it is literally everywhere around us - the forest we don’t see while looking at the trees.
    Epperley says, “God resurrects each dying moment and moves to heal each past trauma in a world where pain, tragedy, conflict, and death are all too real. 
Jesus’ resurrection revealed a ‘deeper law of nature,’ a greater influx of energy, [consistent] with the energies of the universe that brought forth the births of galaxies and planets. Surely, this energy of life and love… [resided] in Jesus’ healing touch and words. Could it have been a burst of the [divine] energy that flowed from Jesus to the woman with the hemorrhage, [or that] that enabled Jesus to bring forth food for a multitude from a few loaves and fish? Could [this energy] have been a precursor to the dazzling light Paul felt on the way to Damascus? Still, even if resurrections are “natural” and [regular occurrences], they are never tame, predictable, controllable, or fully understandable. 
Resurrections deconstruct in order to transform.”

   The Kingdom of God, the promised eternal life, this suggests, is a life where resurrection happens every day in ways so common that we mostly overlook, misunderstand and misinterpret them. Resurrection as new life; emergence; conversion; healing; forgiveness; renewal; resurgence; metamorphosis; revitalization - every day occurrences of dying to our old way and being born anew, transformed to a new way of living, of hoping, of dreaming, of seeing.

   But Jesus’ resurrection isn’t the end of our story. He tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them…” A disciple is a follower. An apostle, on the other hand, is one who is sent. Mary Magdalene, only minutes before so engulfed in grief and loss that she couldn’t see clearly, is transformed. She emerges from the darkness of death, resurrected into the light of new life as the first apostle - the apostle to the apostles - going as John writes, and announcing to them, “I have seen the Lord!” Were it not for the resurrection of Mary, there would be no other apostles, no Christian faith. Without going and telling, our faith remains entombed. 

   So on this day of resurrections, let us be disoriented and deconstructed so that resurrection might break through whatever has us paralyzed, traumatized, confused, or bewildered. Whatever pain or sorrow we bring, whatever disillusion or depression we bear, let us open our eyes to God’s bursts of resurrection energy here and around the world, both personally and universally.
   The good news of the Gospel is that the resurrected Christ calls you by name and reaches out to draw you to himself, pulling you out of whatever tomb you find yourself in and placing you into the cocoon of God’s love, that you might experience transformation, resurrection, and eternal life in him, and then go and tell. In Jesus’ resurrection, the forces of sin, death, disease, despair and evil no longer have the last word. Trust in him brings eternal life to us that we too, might overcome these things in how we live.
   The risen Christ, at work in our world, calls each of us by name as Easter people to practice resurrection living, awakening to God’s energy deep within yet present everywhere, and opening our eyes to the wonders of new life offered to us in God’s love. 

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.