Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mission: The Mystery of the Trinity

June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday

Somewhere chugging along in outer space right now is the Cassini orbiter, a probe that NASA sent up into space in 1997 to get a closer look at Saturn, a planet had previously been virtually unknowable.  
Saturn is so ridiculously far away - more than 746 million miles - that it took the Cassini 7 years to get there.  Since it arrived, it has been orbiting Saturn and its moons, taking pictures and samples and giving a steady and amazing trove of insights that have been surprising and delighting scientists.  I love reading all about the various discoveries.  About how it tracked a monster storm that stretched around the planet and then consumed itself.  
And how it landed a probe on Saturn’s largest moon — the first-ever landing on any world in the outer solar system.  
About how it discovered two previously unknown moons and a few new rings around Saturn.  It detected atmosphere around one of Saturn’s moons — the first time molecules of an oxygen atmosphere have been captured at a world other than earth.  And it found evidence of an underground ocean on another moon.
Exciting stuff with implication I can only pretend to begin to understand.  And of course, every time something new is discovered, every time some clue appears to some long-standing scientific mystery, it leads to entirely new questions, new possibilities of discovery.  By the time the probe’s work is done, it will have been orbiting Saturn for 13 years.  And we still only know the tip of the iceberg about Saturn and its surroundings.  If anything, we just realize now how infinite are the questions we have yet to ask, we’ve just uncovered more unknowns worth exploring.  And yet somehow, despite its distance from Earth, Saturn seems closer than ever before.
Which seems a fitting topic for this Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate a doctrine that no one understands and that tends to lead to more questions than answers.
But at it’s heart, at it’s best, the Trinity isn’t really about doctrine, but about falling in love with mystery.
At the beginning, there were people who experienced God as beyond them, as the transcendent creator of all things, beyond knowledge and understanding.  But then Jesus came along, and these people realized that they were experiencing God with them, in and through Jesus.  And they could see that somehow Jesus had an intimacy with God that was unlike anything they’d known was possible.  And so they began to understand Jesus as The Christ, the Son of God.  And then Jesus died, but these people realized that they felt a dynamic and divine presence within them.  And so they began to understand that power as Holy Spirit.  They didn’t know why or how all of this worked; it was a mystery — a beautiful, awe-inspiring, experiential mystery — that moved and changed and challenged them.
These people fell in love with mystery.  And they wanted a way to talk about all that, a way to speak about their trifold experience of God more fully, and a way to be able to invite other people into it.  So they began using the kinds of words we hear in our New Testament readings today:
From Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers gathered in Corinth written about 20 years after Jesus’ death: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 
And from Matthew’s Gospel, written about 30 years after that, explaining how to fully immerse believers into this new Way by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But it wasn’t too terribly long before it became less a description of a mysterious relationship and more something to fight about.  Over the course of a few centuries, the Doctrine of the Trinity became a line in the sand that separated people into ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  It became a Doctrine that got codified into Creeds.  A Doctrine that involved impressive words with Latin and Greek roots, like ‘homoousios’ and ‘consubstantial’ and ‘hypostases’.
And ever since, people have been trying to pin down this doctrine.  Writing more and more scholarly articles about it.  Using more words to describe it.  Words that just lead to more questions….  How does the Trinity work within itself?  How are the three persons of the Godhead related?  How are they alike and how are they different?  How do each of them relate to us?  And which one came first?   
For almost 2000 years, we’ve been doing our best to conquer the mystery that this doctrine was meant to describe, rather than embrace it.
This is how we humans work.  We want to understand things.  Get to the bottom of things.  We want to know why.  And so we work to find answers, we use words to explain, we keep unearthing things hoping that someday they’ll make sense.  
The problem is that, as satisfying as it is to figure everything out, that doesn’t seem to work when it comes to God.  God isn’t so easily solved.  Whenever we try to cement some explanation, we end up raising more questions.  And sometimes we get so focused on the solving of questions that we forget about the mystery, the experience that made us ask the question to begin with.
That’s why I love the second sentence in our Gospel reading for today.  It says that when the disciples “saw [the risen Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  But some commentators I read disagreed with this translation from the Greek, arguing that a better reading might be: “When they saw him, they worshiped but they doubted.”  Or even: “When they saw him, despite their doubt, they worshiped him.”  I love the idea of worship and doubt coexisting in this verse, just like they do in us.  Our experience of God can go hand-in-hand with our frustrating inability to have all our questions answered to our satisfaction.  The mystery of God, and our experience of that mystery, doesn’t depend on our not having doubt.  It doesn’t depend on our being able to wrap it all up into neat doctrines that we can all agree on.  In fact, the mystery of God almost certainly makes all of that impossible, because experiencing God usually ends up challenging our assumptions about God.  But that doubt, that challenge, is what makes us wonder and think and probe and search.  And ultimately draws us deeper into the kind of holy relationship that the early church was trying to express when they used their flailing human words to talk about the mystery and paradox of the Trinity in the first place.
Back to Saturn for just a minute.  Hearing about all the discoveries of the Cassini orbiter was very cool, though often over my head.  Seeing the photos taken from new angles and distances was incredible.  But what really grabbed me was the enthusiasm of the scientists.  
These were discoveries of a lifetime for them, and getting to be involved in this historic mission is clearly life-giving for them.  They are learning a lot, to be sure, but what seems to be really energizing them is the experience of it all.  It is their excitement that made me want to learn more, to see what they saw.  That was what made me start reading the updates about the mission and looking at the photos from the orbiter.  Their enthusiasm about their experience is what makes Saturn feel realer and closer than ever.
And that’s the heart of the Trinity.  Not didactic explanations full of fancy words, but experiences that made God feel closer and more meaningful and so moved people in the early church that they wanted to share it so that we could explore it for ourselves and have our own experiences of awe and wonder.  So that God could feel realer and closer than ever.  The Trinity is how we tell the story of God and find our place in that story.  The Trinity is an invitation to fall in love with the mystery of God.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lectio Divina in the World

May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31

Paul, the main character in our reading from Acts today, is often not my favorite.  I have trouble getting past his judgy moralizing and his ridiculous run-on sentences.  And yet, as someone engaged in this profession, I have to admit that Paul was a bold preacher.  He knew how to argue, and he turned heads.  When he entered a new city, he’d make his way to the synagogue, set up camp, and immediately begin to hold forth on the scriptures with anyone who happened to be there.  Now, sometimes - and to be honest, I am glad that I have never had this happen to me -  sometimes his preaching was so fiery, so uncompromising, so bold, that he offended people to the point of mob rampage.  And in such instances, it was helpful for him to be ready to escape quickly.  That is where we find him in our reading today.  Paul had to rush quickly away from Thessalonica, where he’d been preaching until the crowd started to look a little too menacing.  And so he came to Athens as a place to hide out for a while and wait for his companions to join him.
Now, Paul’s first impression of the place wasn’t great.  Athens was full of idols.  There were revered statues to the gods of wisdom and beauty, the gods of war and fire.  This provoked Paul and sent him marching indignant and self-righteous to the synagogue and the marketplace to argue and preach at the Athenians.  They weren’t interested, unsurprisingly.  Judgy people yelling at you usually aren’t very effective.  And maybe Paul realized that if he didn’t change his arguments, maybe lower his voice a bit, become a little less judgmental, his message would go nowhere.  And so, for a time, he stopped talking and started looking around.  He started paying attention, looking at and listening to the place and the people.
And kudos to Paul for that.  Because it can be hard for us to let go of our first impressions, to admit that maybe people are more complicated and well-intentioned than we give them credit for.  To admit that there is more nuance to a situation than we might first realize.  It can be hard to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be surprised.
But Paul managed it, if only briefly.  And when he paused and looked around him, what he saw looked less like mindless, heretical idol-worship, and more like a kind of heart-felt searching by the Athenians.  He saw that along with the monuments dedicated to the gods of wisdom and beauty and war and fire there was also an altar dedicated to an unknown god.  It was a hint of the longing of the people of Athens, a whisper of their search for deeper meaning.  An indication that the sophisticated, educated people of that great city might still be open to something more.  If Paul hadn’t stopped to look and to listen, he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
And then Paul wouldn’t have been able to share this beautiful invitation for the people of Athens, an invitation to search along with him for the God “who made the world and everything in it” and who “gives to all mortals life and breath” and “who is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
Paul preaches, as he has realized in his time of looking and noticing, that God is there to be found in our human experience.  Our context matters.
He might not have put it this way, but it looks like Paul was doing lectio divina in the world.
Lectio divina, which means “divine reading,” is a kind of prayer, usually with scripture.  This kind of prayer assumes that God speaks through scripture to each of us in different and ever-changing ways.  In lectio, you slowly read a passage and see what jumps out — what shimmers or grabs or intrigues you.  Then you sit with that word or phrase for a while.  What do you hear God saying to you through that little piece that captured your attention?
Less well-known than lectio divina with scripture is the idea of using lectio as prayer out in the world.  Since, as Paul preaches to the Athenians, God is the maker of all things and is in all things, we can find God by looking closely at God’s creation.  So just as we can read scripture and sit with a word or phrase that calls to us and listen for God in that piece, we can also live in the world and look for something that calls to us - maybe something in nature, maybe a detail from our own experience - and anticipate that God has something to say to us in that moment as well when we stop and pay attention.
For sermon illustration purposes, I made lectio in the world my prayer method this week, and here’s what happened.
Day 1:  One of the pre-bed semi-routines with my son has become listening to a short meditation together.  So I was lying next to him listening to a meditation on the app Calm.  
The particular meditation led us through lots of silence and concentration on our breath.  The woman leading it instructed us (in her very zen-like voice) to concentrate on our breath.  To notice our breathing in and breathing out and maybe even hear our voice in our head as we did it, saying: “Breathe in.  Breathe out.”  Then there was more silence.  As I was breathing in and out, I tacked on my own little Christian add-on, asking the Holy Spirit to come and be with us.  And just then, I heard a door open and the hall lights went on and there was the pitter patter of little feet, and the sweet voice of my youngest daughter Maya (who had been tucked into bed a while ago) telling my husband that she desperately needed her toenails cut.  At first I was annoyed by the noise and the light and the absurd interruption coming in the midst of this very quiet and prayerful time, but then it made me giggle a little.  Because it felt like a gentle reminder from God not to take myself (or God) so seriously but to remember that the Holy Spirit is with us in all of the ordinary moments just as surely as She is with us in the intentionally holy ones.  
Day 2:  I was taking a walk on the trail along the parkway and listening to a podcast.  It was a brisk exercise walk until a breath in brought the sweet small of honeysuckle.  
I stopped in my tracks, enchanted back to the vague memories of happy freedom and endless time to explore from summer adventures of my childhood.  I spent the rest of my walk sniffing the air with deep breaths wondering what it is that brings me such tangible peace and joy right now.
Day 3:  Another walk, but this one through the backwoods of Fort Hunt Park.  I was crossing a patch of grass to reach one of the dirt trails and it was nothing but beautiful glossy buttercups.  
I felt terrible trodding on their lovely golden faces and so I found myself gently tiptoeing, trying to avoid smashing them as much as possible.  And I began to wonder why I was feeling guilty about walking on the buttercups, when I don’t feel that way about grass or any other natural ground cover or even the bugs scuttling around that are equally part of God’s creation.  Did I respect those buttercups more just because they were beautiful?  Which started me wondering whether I do that with people too, appreciating and treating with more respect the people that are more beautiful, or more powerful, or more wealthy, or more healthy.
Day 4:  I went out to get the mail and noticed my next door neighbor had just finished mowing his lawn.  There isn’t anything physical that separates our front lawns but now there was a line demarcating our two spaces, his grass now shorter and more manicured than ours, making clear whose was whose. 
It suddenly struck me as odd how we claim our pieces of God’s creation, putting up fences, visible and invisible, to separate and protect us and our stuff.
Day 5:  I was reading an article in my Christian Century magazine about a monastery that has been seeing a surge in visitors lately.  The friar was explaining that the visitors’ time in the monastery wasn’t “about escaping ordinary life” but “about coming back to ordinary life and realizing God was in this place, too, and I just didn’t see it before.”  And I spent some time thinking about some of the places in my ordinary life where I’d been feeling like I needed some escape and wondering how I could begin to feel a new sense of God’s presence in them.
Day 6:  My daughters had a piano recital yesterday.  
They’d worked hard learning songs and were a little jittery to play in front of the gathered families of the other 17 piano students.  As other children were playing I smiled and held my breath a little, inwardly cheering for them to do well and feel good about their performance, and clapping with gusto after each relieved kiddo stepped away from the piano and back to their seat.  And then, in the midst of my oldest daughter’s turn near the end of the recital, I looked around and saw those same feelings reflected on the faces of each person in that room — they were all smiling at my child, all wishing the best for her, all hoping for her playing to be as good as possible.  And I thought, “Why can’t we always be like this for each other?”

I think that what Paul discovered and what he wanted to invite the Athenians into was a different way of seeing and being in the world.  God was in that place, even though the Athenians couldn’t name God.  And God is in this place, and every place in which we find ourselves, ours for the noticing.  Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Easter Rudely Interrupted

May 14, 2017
Acts 7:55-60

Pretty great Easter reading from Acts this morning, right?  Nothing like a stoning to start off the morning!
What happened?  Just last week, everything was going swimmingly for the early church.  It was experiencing explosive growth, people were praying and eating together, sharing everything in common.  And now this!  The bow breaks, the cradle falls, and the persecution of the early church begins in God-awful earnestness.
What happened to “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”  What happened to the joyful celebration?  What happened to Jesus defeating death, the light vanquishing the darkness, and all that?
The shock of finding this reading from Acts in our lectionary this 5th Sunday of Easter reminded me of something that happened a couple months ago at our 8:30 service.  At that service, we have lots of young kids, so we gather everyone together around the altar for the entire Eucharistic prayer and stay up there to pass out musical instruments and sing a final song together.  We started doing that so the kids could be more involved in the service, to see up close the bread and the wine.  They watch as we remember the Last Supper and how Jesus took the bread, and gave thanks for it, and blessed and broke it.  We make the sign of the cross over the bread and wine, say the Lord’s prayer together, and then hold up the bread to break it.
One Sunday during Lent after we’d said the Lord’s Prayer together, I held up the bread and prepared to break it.  And one of the kids shouted out, “No, don’t break it!”  And everyone laughed, because that’s what we do when kids say strange things, but to my ears there was real anguish in her voice.  And her trying to stop the breaking of the bread made perfect sense.  That breaking represents Jesus’ broken body on the cross.  It foreshadows our own brokenness, something we know all too well and wish we didn’t.  And if we’re honest, we’d rather skip over that part.  Jump over Good Friday - all of the too-frequent Good Fridays - and go straight to Easter.  Avoid the pain and the hurting and go straight to the healing.  
But maybe we can’t.  
Jesus certainly couldn’t.  His freely giving himself to all of us, his speaking uncomfortable truths, his loving all people as much as God loves us, was a scandal and an offense to many.  His interceding for the lost and lonely and hurting, his deep empathy for all of humanity, his determination not to avoid the pain and heartbreak and consequences of human life led surely to his death.  That’s the part of Jesus’ story that we’d rather avoid.  And we’d rather avoid those dark, hurting, painful places in our own stories too.
But maybe we can’t.
I wish that part could be explained away, but unfortunately I don’t think it can be.  It doesn’t make sense.  And yet there’s something that has been helping me to think about it differently lately.  I recently heard an interview with Franciscan priest and prolific writer Richard Rohr, where he talked about the progression of the spiritual life as falling into three boxes: Order, Disorder, and Reorder.
Order is where most of us begin.  Order is all about law, tradition, structure, certainty, clarity, and authority.  Order helps us to feel safe, helps us to feel like things make sense.  Order “doesn’t really know the full picture, but it thinks it does.”  Rohr explains that this Order box is a necessary first “containment.”  It isn’t a bad thing in itself.  But this structure is dangerous if we stay there too long. It becomes too small and self-serving.  And it can be a place where we get stuck, until something happens that forces us into the box of Disorder.
Disorder comes when Order starts to fall apart, usually because of the happenstances of our lives.  Maybe an unwanted transition or some crisis or suffering, maybe the loss of a loved one.  Suddenly we find ourselves in darkness.  What we thought we knew and understood to be true is challenged; the things that we relied on fall away.  Our world gets shaken.  Suddenly we are thrust into doubt and confusion; we are forced to face our shadows.  And in the midst of that, as chaotic and uncomfortable as it feels, comes an opportunity.  As we are confronted by beliefs that don’t hold up, by ways of living that now feel hollow, by self-definition that is no longer meaningful, we begin to question.  We start to push back on the expectations that ordered our lives, to dismantle old beliefs, and to make new meaning even in the middle of that darkness. 
And so, through this painful growth, comes the opportunity to enter into Reorder.  In this box, we look at our former reality with a whole new perspective, we become more open to what is and to what might be.  We begin to realize our powerlessness over much of life and start to hold things more loosely.  Reorder doesn’t deny suffering or pain but sees them for what they are – a necessary part of the human experience that often can teach us things we cannot learn any other way.  Reorder is a place where, as Rohr puts it, “darkness and light coexist, paradox is okay… Here death is a part of life, failure is a part of victory, and imperfection is included in perfection. Opposites collide and unite; everything belongs.”  As we reorder, we become more comfortable with mystery, with unknowing, with surprise.
After hearing Rohr talk about these three boxes, I’ve been finding them everywhere.  Not just with Jesus and the early church, not just in the spiritual life, but everywhere.  
I just finished reading Brave New World where the powers ruling society go to outrageous lengths to create a world without any conflict, and quickly dispose of people that threaten Order, so determined are they to stay in that box.  
And I have a friend who just discovered that her kid has been struggling with dyslexia and suddenly her child’s past hurts and frustrations make perfect sense and she is able to begin helping her child into Reorder, as she adapts to seeing and learning differently.  
And I think back to the talk in here a few weeks ago about the spirituality of recovery and I realize that the 12 steps are a way to help someone find their way through Disorder into Reorder.
And I know from my experience and from some of yours, that after we lose someone we love, sometimes the grief surrounds us in a fog for years before we can begin to imagine a new way of living without that person, a new way to reorder our lives.
As painful as it is, as much as we wish it weren’t necessary, sometimes we just have to wade into the muddy waters of Disorder, or even, finding ourselves in the roiling waters, to take a deep breath and try to swim.  Just like in a literal way our community can’t share the bread unless it is first broken, maybe we also can’t get to new life without death, or healing without pain, or grace without struggle.
So maybe the Church was wise to throw this awful story about Stephen’s stoning into the midst of our Easter celebration.  It forces us to pause, shocked and surprised, in our celebration of Jesus’ victory over death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  Not to give us a shortcut past darkness and pain and disorder, but instead to go before us, leading us through it and lighting our way.  Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

#Mannequin Challenge with Jesus

Easter 4, Year A (2017)
Acts 2:42-47

Apparently I am not as hip as I think I am, because last week I heard for the first time about an internet video phenomena that I completely missed while it was going on last year - the MannequinChallenge.  A group of people pose stock-still as if frozen in time while someone with a video camera pans around to see them from different angles.  These Mannequin Challenge videos have been made by school groups, sports teams, politicians and actors.
On Easter and the two following Sundays, our Gospel readings presented us with a Mannequin Challenge, of sorts.  They were 3 different stories that all happened to different people on that first Easter day, giving us different angles on the same Easter tableau.  For three weeks, it was as if that first Easter day froze in time and we had extended chance to investigate it in detail.
Our first angle was the view from the story we heard here on Easter morning.  When we saw Mary Magdalene at the tomb, kneeling with tears carving lines in her face, frozen with a surprised look while her head turned to glance behind her at Jesus standing there in the act of calling her by name.
The next week, we rotated around the Easter tableau a bit and discovered the disciples (only 10 of them, with Judas gone and Thomas missing).  They were in various states of shock and joy and disbelief and wonder as they stared open-mouthed at Jesus just making an appearance inside the door of their locked room.
And then last week, we rotated further around the tableau to see two less familiar men resting from their walk down the long dusty road to Emmaus.  They were frozen with their mouths full of food and eyes wide as we caught them in the moment of realizing that the man breaking the loaf of bread next to them was Jesus, their beloved teacher.
What would your reaction have been if you were part of the tableau, frozen inside one of these angles on the Easter story?  Imagine, like Mary, that you are feeling abandoned and lonely, mourning the greatest loss you’d ever encountered, and suddenly Jesus calls your name with a voice so loving that it moves your soul.  Or imagine, like those disciples, that you are paralyzed with fear, hiding away somewhere away from everyone, and Jesus suddenly appears and says “Peace be with you.”  Or imagine, like those men on the road to Emmaus, that you are spending time with an unfamiliar stranger and suddenly you realize that person right next to you is in some way Jesus.  
Or maybe there is some other angle on the Easter tableau that isn’t written - maybe you have been part of, or can imagine, some other encounter that feels like resurrection.
Take a few seconds to think of a resurrection moment and then think of a pose that goes with it and then we’ll create our own tableau that tries to capture what we imagine our reactions might be to the resurrected Jesus coming close to us.
 (Videos from our own Mannequin Challenge experiments at our three services at St. Aidan's: 8:30 am service , 10:30 am service, 5:30 pm Celtic service.)
The most interesting Mannequin Challenge video I found in my late discovery of this fad was filmed in Grand Central Station in New York City.  (See video here. ) 207 people suddenly froze at exactly the same time all around the main terminal.  One person was frozen with a spoonful of yogurt halfway to his mouth.  A couple was frozen holding hands mid-stride.  Another person was frozen reaching to pick up papers he had just dropped on the ground.  Another was crouched down tying his shoes.  It was amazingly cool to see the freezing begin, especially because it happened so suddenly without any apparent signal.  But in some way, it was even more interesting to watch and hear the reactions of the hundreds of ordinary passersby who weren’t in on the plan and were just walking around when this suddenly happened and were so confused and so amazed.  And then, at the appointed moment, again, with no apparent signal, all of the frozen people unfroze and began to move along their way.
I think that moment is where we are today with our reading from Acts.  The disciples have unfrozen from their various Easter experiences and are beginning to move.  And every move they make is through the lens of Easter.  They had been scared, weeping, surprised, questioning.  But now they are trying to figure out how to live in their world as Easter people.  And it is a beautiful thing.  We see them moving as the living, breathing Easter tableau as they devote themselves to study and prayer, as they spend time in fellowship and meals, as they take care of each others’ needs.  This sounds like community at its most authentic and formational.  
Easter was a gift for each one of these early believers, but they were clear-eyed enough at that moment to see that it wasn’t a gift for any one of them alone.  Easter was more than an individual affirmation — it was an invitation to pray, and care for, and sit down at the table with all the other broken, hungry, imperfect people in their circle and beyond.  And so the early followers of Jesus slowly moved out of their small, dark, confining places of their lives and began living into their new roles as Easter people.
And of course, that’s where we come in to the story today ourselves. We get this season of Easter to hear the stories and reflect again on what that Easter experience meant to the people that have been in some way frozen in time through our gospel stories.  But the story doesn’t stay frozen there for us any more than it did those early disciples.  We take what we learn, we let ourselves be changed by it, and then we move out into the world living through the lens of Easter just like the early church.  We are part of the living, breathing, moving Easter tableau now, figuring out how to walk in love in community with other broken, hungry, imperfect people.  And it is a beautiful thing we are doing, even when we struggle and fail and start over again and again.  How is God stirring and leading us right now?  How is God causing life and love to overflow in and through and from us right now?
Our sort of Easter motto that we repeat through this season isn’t “Alleluia, Christ WAS risen” or “Alleluia, Christ HAS risen.”  It’s “Alleluia, Christ IS risen.”

The Lord IS risen indeed.  And moving among us.  May we move into the world along with him.  Alleluia! 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Encountering Jesus, Absurdities and All

Easter 2017
John 20:1-18

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! 
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

A few years ago, my oldest daughter went to sleep away camp for the first time.  The drop-off was so much harder than I’d expected.  I was completely comfortable with the place.  She was going to Shrine Mont, the Episcopal retreat center and camp for this Diocese, a place where this parish goes for a weekend every summer and where I’ve been for countless clergy events.  I even knew the camp director fairly well.  But I was nervous.  I was worried that she’d miss us, or get scared, or have a mean girl in her cabin, or feel claustrophobic with the lack of privacy.  And so my stomach was clenched as we awkwardly and fairly silently gathered under the open air pavilion with the hundred or so other families waiting in line to check in their children in.  Waiting to leave them in cabins with perfect strangers and kiss them goodbye and get back in our cars alone.
And just then, there was a commotion behind us.  All hundred families turned to look as a big Toyota Camry with music blaring pulled up.  A young man got out of the back seat of the car and started dancing.  He was followed by a young woman.  And another.  And another.  And as we watched 14 people (I kid you not) got out of that car, each sillier than the one before.  These, it turned out, were our children’s camp counselors.  In just moments, they’d turned a nervous, uncomfortable horde of waiting parents and children into a laughing community in on a joke.  We could see that the people in charge of our children were fun, relatable young adults who cared about each other and would care about our kids (though perhaps lacking in motor vehicle safety).  Through this encounter, we all felt included in the Shrine Mont family.
I think our story this morning invites us into an experience like that.
This group has gathered here at St. Aidan’s this morning for all kinds of reasons.  Some because you are regulars and this is where you’ve found community.  Some because you know yourselves to be on a spiritual journey and have found support for that journey here.  Some because you have questions, or your kids have questions, that you’re having trouble answering.  Some because you were invited by family or friends, and some because you were dragged by family or friends.  Some because it’s Easter and coming to church is a part of what you’ve always done on Easter.  And some are just dipping your toe in the water.  No matter what our reasons, I’m betting that for most of us, they have very little to do with Certainty.  I’m betting that many of us find the Easter story is a hard one to swallow or make sense of.  This is the day when we claim the hardest things to believe: The miracle of life after the horror of crucifixion.  The vanquishing of sin and death. Resurrection.
And then we hear that story from John’s Gospel.  There is so much absurdity in the story we just heard.  A missing body, people racing on and off stage, mistaken identities, bizarre details, needless weeping, and confusion everywhere.  It barely touches any of that big theological, hard-to-believe stuff.  Instead, it lets us laugh at the absurd plot line, and raise our eyebrows at the strange details, and find ourselves in the all-too-human, relatable characters.  This story invites us to encounter Easter through its characters.  
There’s Mary Magdalene, who gets an unfairly bad rap in Christian lore, branded as a prostitute by the patriarchal church who couldn’t stand her importance to Jesus.  Mary of Magdala is the one who is always there, through thick and thin.  She accompanies Jesus during his ministry.  She holds vigil with him at the cross after most of the disciples have run away.  After encountering Jesus, she wrapped her life around his and now she can’t imagine a future without him.  So here she is at the tomb, mourning her teacher and friend, the only one who has ever accepted and welcomed her so fully. 
And there’s Peter, called the Rock by Jesus, though less because of his strength or reliability than because of his hard-headed stubborness.  He is brash and bold and full of shallow certainty.  Waving his arm wildly in the air to be called on by Jesus, wanting to be affirmed, wanting to be right, wanting to join Jesus in walking on water.  But more often than not his boldness becomes blundering.  His desire to be first turns into cowardice.  Just two nights ago, Peter rushed to defend Jesus from arrest by cutting off the ear of a soldier.  But then a few hours later, he denied knowing Jesus three times at Jesus’ time of greatest need and ran away from the cross.  And here he is, racing to the tomb to be the first inside.   
And there’s the so-called Beloved Disciple, unnamed and so the subject of all kinds of interesting theories and conspiracies.  He sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard after his arrest, stood below the cross to be chosen to take care of the Mother Mary.  And here he is, racing to the tomb, silent and observant, an ever-present witness. 
And then there are all of those offstage friends and followers who haven’t come to the tomb.  The ones that stayed back, waiting and worrying, too fearful to be seen in public, too lost to move at all.  But they’re here too, because that’s how this story spread and grew and lived to surround us.
And here are we.  I wonder where you are in this story?  Are you in the racing or the waiting?  The weeping or the fear?  The searching or the silence?  The blindness or the blunder?
Because while this story may leave us with more questions than answers, one thing it makes abundantly clear is that there is no one right way to encounter Easter.
When Mary arrives at the tomb, she’s still in the darkness.  For Mary, Easter doesn’t arrive with the empty tomb - to her, that just seems like evidence of more tragedy.  But she is determined.  She stubbornly stays at the tomb, asking questions of everyone she meets.  Even when Jesus is right in front of her, Mary doesn’t recognize him at first.  It’s only when he calls her by name that Easter arrives for Mary.  Though even then, she misinterprets him, understanding him to be a resuscitated version of his old self.  She thinks Jesus has somehow cancelled the cross, turned the clock back, and that she can return to the way it was before, when she accompanied him in his ministry.  She is ready to wrap her life around him once again.  But Jesus tells her that she can’t hold on to that version of him, or to that version of herself.  It won’t be as it was before.  Everything has changed.  God doesn’t remain inside the boundaries we set.  So Mary has to let go of what she thinks she knows, let go of the way it used to be, let go of her dreams of how it could have been, in order to move forward.
Maybe, like Mary, we encounter Jesus in the midst of our despair.  Or by stubbornly asking questions.  Or by hearing the echo of a familiar voice calling us by name.  Or maybe we encounter Jesus only as we let go of some old understanding of Jesus or faith or ourselves or our future in order to enter into the possibility of what God can do.
Or maybe we’ll be more like Peter.  I don’t think Easter arrives for Peter until after this story.  A week or so later when he is out fishing and the Risen Jesus gives him three chances to profess his love, redemption for Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus before his death.  Peter encounters Jesus when he experiences the forgiveness that he needs to recover from all the ways he hasn’t lived up to his own impossible standards. 
Maybe, like Peter, we encounter Jesus in an experience of forgiveness.  When we have a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us - beloved and accepted, foibles and all.
Or, maybe we’ll be more like the Beloved Disciple, for whom the empty tomb and cast-off burial cloths are enough for Easter to arrive.  In that moment, we are told, the Beloved Disciple believed even though he did not yet understand.  His belief wasn’t one of following a Creed or subscribing to some approved litany of theological statements.  His belief was all about giving his heart, entrusting himself to Jesus, and being comfortable with sorting out what it all meant as he went.  I’m sure he still had plenty of questions, plenty of uncertainty, plenty of doubt along the way.  The God we encounter, the Easter stories that matter most, are “too big and mighty to be encompassed by certainty.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)  
Maybe, like the Beloved Disciple, we will encounter God in a belief of heart made possible even before we understand, in some moment of trust that goes against rationality, in some quiet confidence that makes sense only to us.
For me, the greatest promise of Easter is that Jesus shows up in the absurdities of our stories, in the bizarre details of our lives, in the ridiculous characters that are US.  God meets us where and as we are.  It isn’t guaranteed that we will understand, or that it will all make sense, or that it will go a certain, comfortable way.  We are just promised that encounter is all around us.  However and whenever we arrive at the empty tomb.  Early or late, breathless or plodding, excited or weary, joyful or weeping, eager or cynical, certain or dubious.  Right here is where we start.  Easter isn’t the end of the story for Mary Magdalene, for Peter, or for the Beloved Disciple.  And it isn’t the end of the story for any of us.  Easter is only the beginning.
When it was time to pick my daughter up from Shrine Mont camp that summer, I went to the camp’s closing ceremonies.  After great music and prayers and a Eucharist, we all turned and faced the mountain and a few of the kids led us in the Shrine Mont shouting prayer, which is a pretty good Easter message in itself, so we’ll end that way too.  You just shout back what I say:
Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  

The Lord is Risen indeed!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blindness and Sight: A Co-Preaching Conversation

March 26, 2017
John 9:1-42

Another sermon conversation between John Baker and I.  We split the long Gospel reading into parts and took turns preaching about those parts.

v. 1-7
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Before we go any farther, I have to say a word or two about that line that probably just stopped many of us from hearing what came next.  Did Jesus really say that the man was born blind so God’s works might be revealed?  Did he really suggest that bad things happen so God can make a show of fixing them?  Well that’s the way John wrote it, and yes, hearing that line is like stubbing the same sore toe again when we hear it while conscious of a loss, or while living with hard news.  The line raises for us the consuming question of why bad things happen in a world created by a good God.  But I don’t think that is where John wanted to take us.  I think his homiletics professor would call him on that line.  Nothing else in this long passage suggests he wants to talk about why bad things happen.  It is, rather, a treatise on light and darkness, seeing and blindness. And if any side point is intended by John it is the one we may have just missed where he says that tragedy and troubles are not caused by sin.  I think he is telling us that every trouble we face is an opportunity for God to become present in some new,  creative, and life-giving way.  I hope that message wasn’t lost in that clumsy bit of wording.  I hope that you hear how big the scope of this story is.  It is the story of one man being healed, yes, but being healed not be the light of one man, but by the light of the world.  The gift of restored sight made possible by John’s Jesus is for every one of us.

v. 8-12
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

First, it was the blindness of this man that made his neighbors uncomfortable.  They were afraid of the sin and judgment they thought might be attached to him.  And I'm guessing he was also a reminder of how tenuous and fragile life can be.  Beyond that, he was a reminder of their own selfishness.

And so rather than including him as part of their community, they relegated him to begging on the outskirts.  That way they could keep him safely at a distance; feel sorry for him rather than having their theology, optimism or morality challenged by him.

But then, he was healed.  And they found that he still made them just as uncomfortable.  They had seen this man all of their lives as incomplete and disabled and sinful.  That was who he had become to them; they couldn’t imagine him any other way than as the Man-Born-Blind.  To these neighbors, his disability defined him.
And so it was easier for them to deny or explain around his healing than it was to change their way of thinking.

I wonder who makes us uncomfortable?  Maybe because of skin color, or country of origin, or physical ability, or education level, or political persuasion... or something else completely.  Whatever it is, whoever those people are, I wonder how might our imaginations need to expand to see people as fully as God sees them?

v. 13-17 
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Jesus is not easily pinned down.  He doesn’t observe the sabbath…..and he performs amazing signs.  He doesn’t follow the rules….and he is good.  He can’t possibly be from God…and he can’t not be from God.   We love to draw boundaries, we can not easily imagine a God who works outside the expectations we have established based on some earlier understanding of God. I sing a song with the day school children called God is Surprise.  That’s the chorus.  One of the verses says, “the people of Israel were looking for a king, God would save that way and freedom bells would ring, along came Jesus a man who’s poor and meek, that couldn’t be our God they said, he’s nothing but a freak….well surprise, surprise….  I learned that song when I was a teenager in a time when long haired, flower carrying, herb imbibing kids like me who scoffed at the rules were called freaks.  I like the idea of a Jesus who challenged the old ways of understanding things.  Of course I have now lived long enough that I often discover how crusted over my understanding of God has become. I sometimes find a Jesus I don’t expect challenging my views and operating outside my comfort zone…in my life!

Prophets are commissioned by God to carry God’s message to the people, to be God’s agents in the world.  Prophets get a lot of grief because the message is seldom what was expected.  

v. 18-23 
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

There are so many people in this story reacting to the healing of the man born blind.  His neighbors, the pharisees, and now his own parents.  You’d think at least some of these people would be cheered by his healing, be thrilled for him!  But in one fell swoop, we see that what should be this man’s entire support system fails.  And maybe his parents fail the most egregiously.  

I can only imagine what it must have felt like for those parents when they realized that their newborn baby was blind.  The hopes and dreams for him that must have slipped away.  The worries for his future that must have weighed so heavily.  And so it’s particularly hard to hear their utter lack of enthusiasm for his healing.  All we hear from them is fear for their own safety.  They know that to be identified with this healing is to be identified with Jesus.  And to be identified in any way with Jesus was to risk being rejected themselves.  And they’d seen up close and personal with their son the isolation and loneliness that entailed.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus provokes crises.  Once someone meets Jesus, they have a decision to make.  And playing-it-safe, middle-ground, not making waves decisions don't come out looking very good.  One of the reasons I love John's Gospel is because of these stories that are so easy to imagine ourselves into.  Stories with plenty of characters that we can identify with.  Which gives us the opportunity (and the challenge) to make these decisions right along with the folks in the stories.  Because these decisions aren't just in this story or back then.  These decisions are for us, right now.  God is on the move — he's got mud and spit on his hands and he's reaching out to us.  Will we plunge into the pool of Siloam -- the pool of the Sent -- or not?

v. 24-34 
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

The hard truth is that too often we don’t want the very good we claim to be seeking.  We reject some good thing that has come our way because we don’t recognize the package in which it arrives.  We prefer our old brand of faith, of church, of the story.  We cling to our addictions, our old hurts, our assumptions about whom we can trust.    And a sure sign of our being stuck in some bit of life that isn’t good for us is how quickly we condemn those who try to show us another way, like Jesus.  There is a reason this story is told in Lent.  Jesus is presented here as the “light of the world” and light sounds good, surely it is better than darkness, but we hear that we can be ambivalent even about the good that comes our way.  John always challenges us to think about whether we really can welcome the light.  Do we really want it?  It is funny how even pain can become so comfortable that we attack those who suggest that we might not have to live with it anymore.  Because he said, “I see,” they drove him out.

v. 35- 42
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Even as his persecutors entrench themselves more deeply in their blindness, the man-born-blind grows continually in his sight.  And not just his physical sight.  That was just the beginning.  His vision keeps improving:
from calling Jesus “the man” 
to thinking he must be a “prophet” 
to realizing Jesus is “from God" 
to giving him the Messiah’s title “Son of Man” 
to worshipping him as “Lord.”  

This man is help up as a model of faith, a model of discipleship.  In his openness to new ways of seeing God.  In his openness to God acting in his life and in the world.  And in his openness to seeing himself as a sign of God's transformation in the world.  

But what I really love about this story is how this man tells his story.  He doesn’t really understand what happened.  It isn’t something he can rationally explain.  He can't suddenly espouse a creed or explain a system of theology.  He only knows that he is changed.  “I was blind, but now I see,” said this man, simply.  His healing has become part of his self-definition:  He is no longer the Man Born Blind; he is now the Man Who Can See.  

I wonder if we are as open to seeing God in new ways?  To seeing God at work - in us and in the world around us?

And I wonder if we know ourselves to have the potential to be signs of God’s transforming work?